Last updated: 02:46 PM ET, Wed September 02 2015

As Senate Prepares to Ratify Nuclear Accord, Interest in Travel to Iran Grows

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | September 02, 2015

As Senate Prepares to Ratify Nuclear Accord, Interest in Travel to Iran Grows

Photo by Brenda Pierce for Carava-Serai Tours

Now that President Obama has secured the votes he needs for the Senate to ratify the recent nuclear accord with Iran, the suspense is over. The treaty will be upheld, and those who have been waiting for approval before making plans to travel to Iran can go back to planning.

Caravan-Serai Tours of Seattle has been offering tours to Iran for 15 years, but lately, since the diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and Iran, more people are calling about Iran than ever. Many of them are not yet quite ready to go, but they are asking questions.

“Now I am finding that we are getting calls daily,” said Rita Zawaideh, founder of Caravan-Serai. “People think it is safer now, though honestly it has always been safe.”

Zawaideh has been offering tours to the Middle East since 1984. She was born in Jordan and moved to the U.S. when she was 14 and has always had one foot firmly in each culture. She was able to make the transitions easily from one to the other and to understand what her clients would need to know to travel in the Middle East.

The company offers tours to Algeria, Armenia, the Caucasus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey.

Though formerly on Caravan-Serai’s list of destinations, Libya is now out and Syria is off the map as well. The company operates in an area of the world where a great deal of specialized knowledge is required to provide services for western travelers. Caravan-Serai is one of the few operators that are deeply rooted in the culture and the region and can offer a real insider’s glimpse.

But the Middle East is constantly in a state of flux, and while Libya and Syria have dropped off the map, Iran has become an emerging travel destination since the recent signing of an accord with the west.

Zawaideh said Iran does not yet have a hotel infrastructure sufficient to handle a large influx of western tourists. But as interest grows, hoteliers will be trying to stay a jump ahead.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. interest in Iran sparked sharply when the nuclear accord was reached. As Americans start to consider travel to a place most of them have considered off limits for decades, it starts with tentative inquiries.

“Iran has been up and down,” says Zawaideh. “In the past we would do maybe two or three groups a year, never more than 15 people, sometimes as small as five, as well as individual travel.”

Now suddenly calls are coming about Iran practically every day, and many specific questions.

“Now we’re getting calls daily about something for Iran or just a question about Iran,” says Zawaideh. “’Is it still safe to go? Would you recommend going? Can you give us names of people who have recently been on your trips? If I have certain countries’ stamps on passport is that going to be a problem?’ That’s the type of thing people are asking about.”

Women want to know about the dress code. Is it restrictive?

“We have a thing on our website that shows the three different kinds of dress that you can wear,” says Zawaideh. “Somebody could wear a long Indian tunic and we would just tell them that with pants it’s okay. There are still restrictions about head covering, but it’s not as tight as it used to be. A lot of woman still do a cover, but their hair is somewhat showing.”

But while the actions of diplomats have opened Iran to the west, there is a quiet social evolution taking place on the ground. For example, in an odd new social practice, Iranian women have lately have taken to wearing false hair pieces that stick out of their scarves like pony tails.

“They’ll have that showing so when the Morality Police stop them and say you have to cover your head, the woman says, ‘OK,’ and pulls the pony tail out and hands it to the guy, and he just freaks and drops it.”

The Iranian women are struggling in their own way to free themselves from the restrictions placed by the Muslim culture on their gender.

“I tell that story to western women,” says Zawaideh, “because they think, ‘We’re going to help the Iranian women and we’re going to show how they can get their liberties and become freer.’

“And I say, ‘Look, you have to leave it to the women in the countries themselves. They know what they are doing. You can’t really help because you don’t understand the issues that they are going through. They’ve had more freedoms in a sense, than western women, and western women don’t realize it because they think the dress code is so repulsive.

“But I say, you’ve got to remember when you were still fighting for women to become doctors, or get equal pay, head in governments, and be in films or making films, that was already taking place in our part of the world. Since the '50s and even earlier we’ve had women in government and power, and women that are doctors.” 

The women of Iran are doing it for themselves. But Western women traveling in Iran need guidance in regard to clothing codes in Iran.

“On the street your hair has to be covered,” says Zawaideh. “And you need to have something that will pinch you about the knee level so that it’s covering your bottom. They don’t want anything tight or revealing the human form.”

Caravan-Serai gives its clients pictures to guide them in how to dress.

“They’ll see Iranian women wearing the black chador,” says Zawaideh. “It’s a big black flowing cape, but if you look at the younger Iranian women, they’re wearing jeans with a sort of long top over it.

“Many of them will push the limit, so sometimes it’s very tight and very revealing. They may get a ticket from the morality police. But that’s the way they will get their own freedoms and freedom of dress.”

The clothing codes only apply in public.

“When they are in their own homes, they dress exactly the same as westerners do,” says Zawaideh. “There’s no difference at all. But when you’re in a hotel, your head is covered still. And they are really strict with that.

“It’s your hair that is covered. But when we first started going it had to be totally covered, almost like a nun. You couldn’t have any hair showing. Then over years it’s gone back and back and back. So now you have bangs showing, and pieces of hair on the side showing. So it’s not as restrictive. But it still has to be partially covered.”

According to the Morality Police, women are not supposed to wear tight-fitting clothes.

“You’re not going to have capris pants or shorts or anything like that,” says Zawaideh. “You can wear jeans and long pants. Tops have to be loose and they should be down to around the knee level. You can wear jeans or any kind of pants, but not leggings or really tight pants.”

What happens to westerners who defy the restrictions?

“If a westerner does not obey, the morality police will usually stop her and if she’s on a tour they will talk to the tour guide and tell her to be dressed properly. It you’re an Iranian and you’re out like that you’ll get a ticket. The westerners are not given tickets, they’re given a warning.”

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