SearchBourdain: Iran different from what I could have imagined

Bourdain: Iran different from what I could have imagined ... 01/11/2014 Politics

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Fareed Zakaria On GPS: Bourdain's take on Iran
Fareed speaks with author and chef Anthony Bourdain about his visit to Iran. Watch the full interview on GPS this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN, or watch Bourdain in Iran on Parts Unknown at 9 p.m. ET.

A intense sandstorm engulfs Tehran, seen from the top of the Milad Tower.

* * * So you did the thing most American negotiators haven't yet done, which is actually go to Iran.
Yes, and an incredible experience. What we saw inside Iran was extraordinary, heartbreaking, confusing, inspiring and very, very different than the Iran I expected from looking at it from afar, from a geopolitical sense or what we read on the news – what we know from that long and very contentious relationship we've had as nations.
What do you think was the most surprising thing to you?
To walk down the street as an American and have total strangers constantly saying, where are you from? America, have you tried our food? Thank you for coming. Just outgoing, friendly, welcoming to strangers, to a degree that we really experience very, very few places – and I'm talking Western Europe and allied nations.
We'd been told to expect that. But you get thrown by it when you face it everywhere. Our producer – it was his birthday and we all went out with our local crew to a very crowded restaurant. Traditional Persian music and Iranian families eating. And someone found out that my producer, it was his birthday. The entire restaurant sang "Happy Birthday" to him and presented him with a cake. It was a very different Iran than I had been led to expect or could have imagined.
Post by:
CNN's Jason Miks

On the next "Parts Unknown," Anthony Bourdain explores an Iran few Americans have visited since the 1980s -- a country that's complicated and changing.

Bourdain on Iran: Not what I expected
Words Matter
By: Anthony Bourdain, CNN

Words matter. Especially in Iran where what is permissible—to say, to do, to be seen to say or do—is an ever changing thing.

It took us many years of trying to finally be allowed into Iran, the country with whom the United States has probably its most contentious relationship. At the time, we thought that perhaps our welcome was an indicator of a new attitude, an opening of a window. But as it turned out, that is probably not the case. The window appeared to slam shut in particularly ugly fashion shortly after our departure.

What we saw, what we came back with, is a deeply confusing story. Because the Iran you see from the inside, once you walk the streets of Tehran, meet Iranians, is a very different place than the Iran we know from the news. Nowhere else I've been has the disconnect been so extreme between what one sees and feels from the people and what one sees and hears from the government.

Iran's official attitude toward America, its policies, its actions in the region, are a matter of record. How it treats its own citizens, as far as their personal behaviors, also is a matter of record. You do not want to be perceived as behaving inappropriately in Iran—as we have seen with the recent video of kids dancing along to the song, "Happy." And what is inappropriate is an ever-shifting thing.

What the "government" or the president says is OK one day might be deemed dangerous or unacceptable by the clergy or the "basij", the roving, unofficial but official religious police, on another—as we came to find out.

I'm going to be careful about what I say here. Even here.

Like I said. Words have consequences.

Not for me. I can go to China, for instance, and come back, and say whatever I want about Tibet or human rights without fear. But what about the people I leave behind? The ones who were kind to me, helped me, innocently put their trust in me and my crew not to hurt them? That is something I think very seriously about—and it's something we are very careful not to do: put people in harm's way for no crime other than associating with us.

Innocence, in much of the world, is, sadly, no defense against accusations, and worse.

One of the reasons this episode is deeply confusing might be because the "vibe" in Iran, the general feeling of walking down the streets, through the markets, the way we were received everywhere by total strangers and passersby, was overwhelmingly friendly. I have said that Iran is the most outgoingly warm, "pro-American" place we've ever shot—and that's true: in Tehran, in spite of the fact that you are standing in front of a giant, snarling mural that reads "DEATH TO AMERICA!", you will, we found, usually be treated better by strangers—meaning smiles, offers of assistance, curious attempts to engage in limited English, greetings and expressions of general good will—than anywhere in Western Europe, It would be hard to imagine strangers in Germany or France or England, on recognizing you as American, giving you a thumbs-up and a smile simply for your nationality. That was overwhelmingly the case in Iran.

We were having an off-camera gathering to celebrate our producer Tom Vitale's birthday at a restaurant in Tehran. When the other diners heard there was a birthday at our table, the whole dining room sang us "Happy Birthday" in Farsi and English. This was not an isolated incident, only one example. Our daily experiences were filled with delightful incongruities.

At the time we were there, the mood was cautiously hopeful for a time where we, Americans and Iranians, might see more of each other in the near future. Iran, it should be pointed out, is very beautiful. The food is spectacular. Iranians are very proud of their cooking—and for good reason. They are also famously generous hosts.

Men get their hair cut in a barbershop in south Tehran.

* * * During my time in Iran, I was not naïve about where I was—or the realities of the situation: The secret police camped out a few doors down from my room (very genial ones, to be fair) were a reminder. As was the fact that Twitter, Instagram, Facebook are forbidden. The sinister-sounding Ministry of Guidance, for whom we had to refer for approvals, were unfailingly polite and helpful, however. No intrusive government presence or attempts to shape our story were felt as we went about our business, unlike any number of other places we've shot over the years.

We were not there to do an exposé of life inside Iran. Nor were we there to do a fair, balanced, comprehensive overview—or anything of the sort.

A series of beautiful restaurants is tucked up into the hillside of Darband, a mountainous neighborhood inside Tehran's city limits.

* * * My intention was simply to give a flavor of that weird intangible, what it feels like to walk the streets, sit at the table, look around. To listen. To show you what I saw.

This is not a black-and-white world—much as people would like to portray it as such. That's not an apology for anything.

Anthony Bourdain joins two young Iranians for chelo kabab, as close as you can come to a national dish in Iran, in a restaurant in Tehran's bazaar.

* * * I'm just saying that the brief, narrow slice of Iran we give you on this episode of "Parts Unknown" is only one part of a much deeper, multi-hued, very old and very complicated story. As with anything as ancient and as beautiful as the Persian Empire, it's worth it, I think, to look further.

It's also a place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next.

At the time of this writing, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian remains imprisoned. The reasons for his arrest have never been explained.

The tower in Azadi Square in Tehran, Iran, was built in 1971 in the shape of an upside-down Y.

* * * In our time with him, on camera and off, he was unfailingly affectionate and generous in his portrayal of Iran, an advocate for—if anything—understanding. It is a mystery and an injustice that any would find fault with him or his wife, Yeganeh (who has only recently been released)
Tony says Iran is "neither East nor West, but always somewhere in the middle." The country far exceeded his expectations...

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