Carved high in the towering rock of Naqsh-e Rostam, gazing out across the desert, are the tombs of the great Persian emperors from two and a half millennia ago: Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes. Lower down the cliff face of this imperial Mount Rushmore you see a dramatic stone relief, shimmering in the heat. It shows a later Shah of all the Shahs, Shapur I, accepting the surrender of the Roman emperor Valerian, in the year 260 AD according to the Christian calendar. The conqueror, on horseback and gloriously accoutred, towers over the unmounted, swordless, vanquished Caesar.
“What happened to Valerian?” I asked my Iranian companion.
“Oh, he was killed, of course.”
Early this autumn, as today’s Iranian rulers defied the new Rome by pressing ahead with their nuclear program, I traveled for two weeks through what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the year of their Lord 1384, I talked to mullahs armed with laptops, regime supporters in the religious hotbed of Qom, and Islamic philosophers highly critical of the regime. I met intellectuals of all stripes, artists, farmers, politicians, and businesspeople. Most memorably, I had long, intense conversations with some of the young Iranians who make up the majority of the country’s population. I see their earnest faces before me as I write, especially those of the women, framed in the compulsory Islamic head scarf, the hijab, which they somehow manage to convert into an accessory of grace and quiet allure.
At a rooftop restaurant in the wondrous city of Esfahan, I witnessed the continuity of Persian culture, with a singer chanting verses from the fourteenth-century poet Hafez while local diners peered up at the blue, cream, and turquoise dome of the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque, illuminated against the night sky. (You do not often hear verses from Chaucer being sung in an English pub.) More typically, I was plunging through the heat, dust, eye-stinging pollution, and kamikaze traffic of Tehran, that anarchic city of 12 million people, whose drivers treat every traffic circle as an invitation to play the American game of chicken, only swerving to avoid one another’s fenders with millimeters to spare. Or sometimes not swerving.
I also got a taste of life behind the high garden walls of the houses of the middle and upper class, where the hijab immediately comes off and opinions are scathingly contemptuous of the aging revolutionary Islamic zeal of the country’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Within minutes of my arrival at one such house, bikini-clad women were teasingly inviting me to come naked into the swimming pool, while the men offered me a drink from a bottle marked “Ethanol 98% proof.”
These encounters illustrated a trait, apparently of long pedigree, to which my Iranian interlocutors constantly drew my attention: the contrast between what Iranians say outside and what they say inside those high walls. Double-talk as a way of life. I have never been in a country where so many people told me I should not …