Iran

Posted on January 29, 2009 by Alexandra Avakian

Traveling in the Islamic Republic of Iran was one of my most personal journeys and is in the second chapter of my book. You probably want to know: why would an American woman with all the freedom in the world want to subject herself to so much time in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that has shared mutual official enmity with the United States for thirty years? Why would she go to a place where it is illegal to go outside without wearing Islamic dress and where a U.S. journalist must work with a government approved minder and have permission for every story point she wants to cover?

Deep reasons.

My grandfather Mesrop Avakian was born in Iran. He came to the United States in 1923. But my family roots there stretch back to the distant past when northwestern Iran was part of the vast land of ancient Urartu. I strongly believe in crossing cultural boundaries to visually describe the lives of others, even when politics divide our countries. Indeed I have lived my life that way.

An engaged couple spends time together on Khajou Bridge

Long before I had the opportunity to go there myself, my father Aram Avakian, the film director and editor, went to scout locations in Iran for a movie he was slated to make with Sean Connery. That was in the Shah's time, the summer of 1978. He came back after a month and told me: "That was a great trip but I'll never be able to make this movie." But why? I asked him. "There's going to be a revolution and this man will come back and take power." He showed me underground fliers and a button with a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini on it, which he was given by his driver. He'd seen demonstrations in the street. I still have the beautiful black and white photos he took on that journey.

The first chance I got to go to the Islamic Republic myself was when Ayatollah Khomeini died. I had been covering the Arab Summit in May 1989 for Time magazine when I read that Ayatollah Khomeini had died. I quickly went to Iran and covered the grieving for him, again for Time. Then the authorities allowed me to stay on and work for almost two precious weeks.

Much of the Iranian side of my family had left by 1979. But the ones who remained, I was forbidden to see by my family in New York—an American photojournalist dropping in at that time might have brought them unwanted attention from the government. Especially since after the revolution, their building in the Tehran Bazaar had been confiscated. It took them about 15 years to prove in the Islamic courts that they had no links to the Shah's regime—when they succeeded the building was returned.

Still it was a thrill to be there, to look on the same mountains my grandfather had seen, to absorb the unique beauty of Iran. It wasn't without challenging experiences—I was pressured by my minder when he took a liking to me and was screamed at by a crowd when the sleeve of my Islamic robe (chador) slipped back to reveal my wrist. To visit friends I had to take several taxis to throw informants off our scent, so I wouldn't put Iranian friends in danger simply by visiting for a party or a meal.

But after leaving I always dreamed of going back and working in more depth. This chance came in 1998 when President Mohammed Khatami was in power and my proposal for big feature was accepted by National Geographic magazine. I spent four months in the country, given spectacular access for an American photojournalist. Khatami had launched his "Dialogue of Civilizations" outreach and had invited Western academics and journalists to come see the country for themselves, and I jumped on it. He was liberalizing some rules and aspects of Iranian society. He was liberalizing some rules AND aspects of Iranian society. I traveled almost everywhere I wanted in the country. Still, some Iranians told me that I enjoyed more freedom in their own country then they do. I joined Khatami on a three-day trip to Kordestan Province. When it was finished, the story fulfilled my desire to go beyond the headlines and the obstacles between Americans and Iranians, and to bring images from deep inside Iran to Westerners and Asians through National Geographic's domestic and various foreign editions. (You can learn more in the July 1999 cover story of National Geographic magazine, and see National Geographic Explorer TV documentary on Avakian's work "Iran: Behind the Veil").

Every minute was precious to me, especially photographing the lives of ordinary people, political leaders, an Ayatollah, nomads, mystics, terrific women, and visiting my ancestral village in the northwest. I cover these stories in depth in my book Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World. There were frustrating experiences in Iran, like being detained and questioned by authorities twice or being smeared by a right wing Iranian newspaper, but nothing could spoil those memorable journeys for me. Today, Iran is again under extreme conservative rule. Yet I have been welcomed back. Until next time…

Filed Under: BooksIranPhotographyTravel

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