ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's time now for our travel segment, Winging It. A place off the beaten track, Iran is in the middle of a tourism boom. American travel agencies say they're planning more trips to the Islamic Republic. Officials in Iran say they are issuing more tourism visas, and spending by foreign visitors is up.
Of course, that's not Iran's reputation in the West. This country neighbors Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The U.S. State Department says American visitors should be aware of the risks, and indeed Iran's border areas can be very dangerous. But our next guest says if you stay away from those regions, you'll find a warm welcome. Kamin Mohammadi is an Iranian-born journalist and travel writer who splits her time between Iran and the U.K. She says Western visitors will generally go with a tour, which is bound to start in the sprawling capital of Tehran. Beyond the metropolis, there are countless historic sites. Mohammadi says the city of Isfahan has some of the most exquisite mosques in the world.
KAMIN MOHAMMADI: We have a medieval mosque, for example, called Menar Jonban, which has two minarets. You can climb up into one minaret, and you start to shake it, and the other actually starts to shake alongside.
SHAPIRO: You shake the minaret?
MOHAMMADI: Yeah, you can shake - they're actually called - Menar Jonban means shaking minarets. I'm not sure how it's done, but this is something - I've done it. They're very narrow.
SHAPIRO: The tower wobbles.
MOHAMMADI: Yeah, the tower wobbles. You go inside the tower, and you sort of wedge your legs against one end. And you kind of move, and it moves with you. And the other one move, too.
SHAPIRO: And it's been doing that for centuries?
MOHAMMADI: It's been doing that for centuries. I don't think it stopped doing it yet.
MOHAMMADI: And this is one place, for example, in Isfahan that I never hear mentioned. And it's incredible. And that's because there are so many other places just in Isfahan itself to see. I mean, if I start telling you the names, we'll be here forever. But you can't go wrong with Isfahan. It's absolutely beautiful. It has one of most beautiful historic hotels, which is in the main square. And, you know, to go and sit in the Abbasi Hotel and to take tea with a water pipe and lounge back against, you know, Persian copper-covered cushions by the central hose with the fountain tinkling and a nightingale singing, you know, that's your quintessential Persian experience.
SHAPIRO: In the United States, when we hear about Iran, it is typically in connection with sanctions or disputes over the nuclear program. What misconceptions do you think the West has about what life in Iran is like?
MOHAMMADI: We tend to kind of group Iran in with its neighbors that are having a very different experience of the last few decades, like...
SHAPIRO: Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan.
MOHAMMADI: ...Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. You know, the Iranian regime is not like the Taliban. Iranian women, particularly, are much more free, I think, than we imagine here. When people from the West go to Iran, they're very surprised by how much they see women visible in public life on the streets and how much they're not really sort of covered up in the way that we expect them to be.
In fact, in Tehran itself, there is now - the Tehranis - I mean, Iranians in general, but Tehranis in particular are so obsessed with fashion. You know, and so in somewhere like Tehran, you know, not only do you have the bazaar in the south of the city, which is a sort of Arabian nights kind of adventure as one would expect, but you also can go up to the north of the city, and there are all these highly designed, architect-designed kind of shopping malls that are incredible. So I think the thing that will surprise people the most about Iran is how modern it is.
SHAPIRO: I'm Jewish, and I'm gay. Would I be able to have a nice vacation in Iran?
MOHAMMADI: You so would. You know that Iran has the largest population of Jews outside of Israel in the Middle East. One of the places that I didn't mention 'cause I got so enthusiastic about Isfahan that must be visited, of course, is also Shiraz, outside of which in the desert lies Persepolis, which was the old kind of main palace and, let's say, capital of the ancient Persian kings. It was built in the sixth century B.C.
Now, one of our great Persian kings, Darius, he is actually mentioned in the Bible for freeing the Jews from slavery and welcoming the Jews into the Persian Empire. And in fact, the Persian Empire was known for being very tolerant - the ancient Persian Empire, and that's something that's gone on and again is something that we tend not to know about Iran, how much religion tolerance there is. So I don't think you're going to have any problems being Jewish.
Being gay - first of all, in Iran as a foreigner, I think you're going to be left alone as long as you respect the laws on the outside. So women, if they can cover the hair and cover their - you know, you respect the dress laws and the sort of behavior laws, which are just logical things really, you know. There's no problems. The fact is that everything exists in Iran as it does here. It's just that the way that we have to approach things there are slightly different.
SHAPIRO: Kamin Mohammadi is an Iranian journalist and author of the book the " The Cypress Tree." Thanks so much.
MOHAMMADI: Thank you very much, Ari.
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