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Philip Hersh: My favorite passport stamp in 25 years of globetrotting -- Iran

December 7, 2009 |  5:59 pm
To mark my quarter-century of roaming the world for the Chicago Tribune, I have -- with help from the newspaper's electronic archives -- embarked on a trip down memory lane for a three-part series in this Blog.

The first covered the 10 most remarkable athletic performances I have seen on the international beat.  The third will give props to the 10 athletes whom I have most enjoyed meeting, writing about and staying in touch with, during and after their careers.

Today is the 10 most memorable trips, my own magical mystery tour:

1.  Iran, April, 1998.  When I was a child, I read a book about Persepolis, and something about it made such an impression it became my dream to visit the site just northeast of the beautiful city of Shiraz. Given what happened to Iran in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown by Islamic hard-liners, I had no expectationIRAN2 that trip ever would happen. . .until the United States drew Iran in the first round of the 1998 soccer World Cup, and the Iranian government, in a moment of slight rapprochement to the West, allowed a few U.S. sportswriters to visit.  What I saw was a country of contradiction, publicly militant in its disdain for the United States, its people nobly upholding a Persian tradition of warmly greeting visitors.  "Even if we are not a good friend, we should be a good host,'' an Iranian soccer official told me.  And that is how I was treated, in visiting a North Tehran pizzeria where several fans wore Bulls caps; an embassy party full of young Iranian woman whose skirts had less material than a veil, Islamic dress code be damned; a park where two women playing 1-on-1 volleyball in full hijab (head scarf and long cloak) did not dare join two men next to them to have a more interesting game. In reporting a lengthy story about women's sports in Iran, I met Touran Shadpour, a long jumper who was among the last Iranian women to compete in a major international event in shorts and tank top. She insisted women were more involved in sport than they had been in the westernized past. That was, as I wrote, another paradox, for it seemed to mean that with restriction came freedom.  "Before the revolution,'' Shadpour told me, "I was never respected the way I wanted.''   And, yes, I got to Persepolis, the majestic capital when the Persian Empire reached its apogee 2,500 years ago, and its ruins were as magical as I had dreamed.

2.  On the road in Cuba, Aug. 6, 1991.  This happened during my fourth visit to Cuba.  It was during the Pan American Games, which were held both in Havana and Santiago, about 600 miles away.  Nearly all Pan Am Games visitors made the trip between the cities by plane; four of us -- Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times; Bill Rhoden of the New York Times; Bryan Burwell, then with the Detroit News; and I -- dumbfounded Cuban officials when we told them we wanted to drive because we were determined to learn more about the country. The 16-hour trip in a tiny Toyota through 11 of Cuba's 14 provinces was filled with sights so bizarre we began to wonder if we were hallucinating: a truck with a burning rag -- next to the gas tank -- as a taillight; horse-drawn carts on an 8-lane expressway; people walking in the dark in the middle of the old national highway; a man sitting with Trinidad2his guitar at a dark bus stop, waiting for a bus that likely still has yet to arrive because of gas rationing; Trinidad de Cuba, where colonial Spain still lives in cobbled streets and museums, and children begged visitors for gum and pens.  We had a flat tire in front of a bust of Che Guevara, who made as little effort as Julie's three male traveling companions did while watched her change the tire in the rain. It was a blur of indelible but ephemeral impressions, especially after night fell, impressions impossible to blend into a coherent whole.  The conclusion of my story:  "Our headlights revealed all of this for split seconds before we plunged into darkness.  Enlightenment, like the buses, would be a long time coming.''  BTW: We flew back.

3.  East Germany, February, 1986.  The running subplot to this story was "Desperately Seeking Katarina,'' for the main purpose of the trip was an interview with Katarina Witt, then the reigning Olympic figure skating champion and pin-up girl of East Germany's president.  It was an interview that I finally got...in May, 1987, in Salt Lake City. Between my futile entreaties about seeing Ms. Witt on this visit, my first of now four to East Germany during and after communism, I was treated to a dog-and-pony show that included washing down knockwurst with brandy at 10 a.m. during a minor speedskating competition in Erfurt; getting out of the car every 10 miles to clean ice off the windshield, because East German windshield de-icer was, like everything in the country except sports, of inferior quality; waving at sentries (and getting smiles and waves in return) as I did a long run near the Berlin Wall in a light snowfall; playing tennis with my government-assigned minder, Anton, on a basketball floor (he beat me, 6-1, 6-4; I would like to say it was because I had never before played tennis on a hardwood court, but the truth was Anton gave me most games I won); and hearing what we all knew was nonsense (and would be shown as such after the Wall fell in 1989) about drugs having no part in East German success.  When I arrived, I was told I was late for an interview I knew nothing about; when I left, I had been allowed to interview not a single elite athlete but dozens of party sports officials.  "They were. . .very solicitous of my wishes, always asking what I wanted,'' I wrote.  "And then they shrugged and apologized that it was impossible. . .''

4.  Trinidad, Nov. 17-20, 1989.  I went there to cover the soccer match that would either make Trinidad & Tobago the smallest nation to play in a soccer World Cup or give the United States its first World Cup berth since 1950.  Trinidad needed a tie; the U.S. needed to win, which it did, 1-0, ending the islanders' hopes but not spoiling a week-long party that rivaled Carnival.  What I remember most was not the game but its aftermath, when I gave up on the idea of finding a cab that could fight through thousands milling on the streets and joined three other U.S. reporters to walk four miles back to the "Upside Down Hotel'' (the higher-numbered floors were progressively deeper below ground level).  We were all slightly nervous, knowing how losing fans often reacted in a sport plagued by hooliganism and noting we were the only whites in a sea of nearly all black faces.  "Within seconds,'' I would write, "Trinidadians blocked our path, reached out their hands. . .and shook ours in congratulations.  Such greetings continued for at least half our walk.  Maybe it was Trinidad & Tobago.  Or maybe it was sport.  Or most likely it was the confluence of the two, bringing people together, making our fears of what we do not understand seem ridiculous.''

5.  Havana, Cuba, January, 1991.  A group of visiting reporters was invited to a press conference at which President Fidel Castro would answer questions about the upcoming Pan American Games.  A person ran into the room, whispered something in Castro's ear as the President was answering a question, and the President interrupted himself (no mean feat for a man known to talk nonstop for hours) to say, "I have just learned from CNN that the United States has begun bombing Baghdad.''  No more sports; Castro began denouncing the United States.  It was rather unsettling to be told your country was at war by the president of a nation with whom your country has long been at cold war.

6.  Friesland, the Netherlands, Feb. 26, 1986.  The call from my office came while I was visiting my wife in Brussels, where she was a Fulbright scholar.  The office had gotten a call from the Dutch Consulate in Chicago, wanting to know if the Tribune had anyone available to cover a sporting event taking place the next day.  It was an event that had become a fragile link for Frieslanders to what I would write was "the sweet long ago, (when) skates were their means of transport and communication across the flat, frozen countryside.'' My office wanted to know if Belgium was close to Holland; ever the smartass, I replied, "They were the same county until about 150 years ago; is that close enough?'' 

So I took off for northern Friesland to cover the Elfstedentocht, or "Eleven Cities Tour,'' a 124-mile speedskating race that then had been held only 13 times in 76 years -- and there had been 22 long winters, from 1963 until 1985, between races 12 and 13, because the canals rarely freeze any more, what with global warming and pollution.  The race touched all 11 "free towns'' of Friesland; the night before, in the starting town, Leeuwarden, I happily joined locals on the Eleven Bars Tour.  A crowd began to assemble by midnight for the start at 5 a.m. (darkness helped keep the ice solid under the pressure of 17,000 pairs of skates).  When a full moon was replaced by an enormous ball of a sun rising low over the landscape, the skaters appeared to pass right through it, delighting the British photographers who generously took me as a passenger.  Evert van Benthem won the 1986 race, as he had in 1985; the spoils allowed him to buy a cattle ranch north of Calgary, Canada, where he still lives.  The race has been held just once (1997) since the one I covered, making me feel fortunate, indeed.  "It is,'' I wrote, "a 200-kilometer trip back through time, to the Holland of every imagination, the country of windmills and wooden shoes and Hans Brinker skating along the frozen canals.'' 

7.  Prague, March 7-15, 1993.  I could remember this trip as the first time I saw Oksana Baiul skate in person, or as a precursor of her victory in the 1994 Olympics, or as the first time I had a graphic example of Prague2what a joke ice dance judging was, as I saw one judge sleep through a performance at the 1993 world championships.  I prefer to remember it as my first date with Prague, a companion so enchanting she left me breathless. Civilization caught a break when one of the ugliest barbarians in history, Adolf Hitler, spared Prague from utter devastation (but not death) because, as one story goes, he found it so beautiful and wanted to preserve it.  So we still have its old medieval quarters, its ancient Jewish cemetery, its castle, its near mystical ambiance.  Walking through a narrow gate late on a winter's night, I was transported through centuries.  Only two other cities have left me as awestruck: Jerusalem, the most wondrous place I ever have been, and Dubrovnik.

8. Hangzhou, China, Sept. 26, 2007.  I was in Hangzhou, a city of 6.4 million, to cover the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinal match between Brazil and the United States.  With a couple hours to kill in the early afternoon and the inviting West Lake (where Mao once had a summer retreat) visible from my hotel, I decided to rent a (battered) bike and do some exploring.  The ride was steamy and refreshing, allowing me to see a China being transformed at breakneck pace as I explored it on what tens of millions of Chinese still use as their primary means of transport.  As I noted:   "In the first mile, I passed a Porsche dealer, a Ferrari dealer and a Maserati dealer and had to be very careful to avoid being run over by dozens of black Audis.''  The soccer match will be remembered for the Hope Solo Affair, in which the U.S. goalie blasted the coach for having benched her and said she would have done far better than the goalie who took over, Briana Scurry.  That was a hot story for five days.  My hot bike ride is a memory of a lifetime.

9.  Havana, Cuba, April 17, 1987.  Yes, Cuba again.  I am endlessly fascinated by the place, and it seems I always have at least one extraordinary experience there.  I am going to recount this one by quoting the first several paragraphs of the story I wrote about it:

PhilFidel2 The meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro developed like the plot of a Grade B spy thriller.

The 13 members of the Indianapolis organizing committee for August's Pan American Games and a dozen members of the accompanying media were invited to cocktails and dinner Friday night at a site kept secret until arrival. The visitors were finishing a dinner of suckling pig, beef tenderloin and fish, washed down with beer and the bedeviling rum drink known as a mojito, when the call came.

Suddenly the delegation from the organizing committee (PAX/I) was whisked away so fast that purses and cameras were left behind. Fifteen minutes later, the media was hustled off, just as abruptly.

It was a 20-minute bus ride to the Palace of the Revolution. Someone opened a bus window to let in the perfect tropical night. A Cuban official politely ordered it shut.

Then,  for the media, the wait began.

We were ushered into a conference room. We were not alone. There was also a sparrow, which alternated flying and walking about.

The room also contained a blackboard upon which a new deployment of Cuban state vehicles was being drawn up. And there were seven models for a memorial to Celia Sanchez, who had been Castro's confidant and presumed lover for nearly 30 years until her death in 1980.

At midnight, the next call came.

We walked down a hall to the conference room where Castro had been talking with the PAX/I group for more than an hour.Castroball 

There, in the midst of a chaotic swirl of introductions, stood the familiar bearded figure in starched, green military fatigues, fatigue cap and polished boots of a style quite unfit for combat. Castro shook hands with everyone, paying particular attention to four women reporters. 

A United Press International reporter from Houston gave Castro an Astros cap autographed by pitcher Nolan Ryan. The president responded by autographing the Cuban-made baseballs the visitors had been given earlier in the day, signing one after the other until one of his aides started to get antsy.

Castro nevertheless kept signing and pointed to the words "made in Cuba" on the balls.

 "It is good propaganda for us," said the baseball-mad president of a baseball-mad, communist country.


10.  St. Petersburg, Russia, November, 1997.  I had been to St. Petersburg, one of the world's most beautiful central cities, in 1983, when it was part of the Soviet Union.   When I returned in 1997 to do reporting on a story about the Russian figure skaters and coaches who had stayed and those who had left for green(back)er pastures in the United States, I had no idea what to expect.  One change was apparent as soon as I checked into the Astoria Hotel:  in 1983, it had been a slowly decaying hulk of its pre-communist grandeur, with tatterdemalion furniture and decorations and, quite literally, purple water coming from the taps.  Fourteen years later, it was once again a top-notch hotel, with an international clientele of "businessmen'' gathered in the lobby and restaurants, an assemblage that combined both mystery and menace.

One of the greatest Russian coaches, pairs guru Tamara Moskvina (four Olympic champions), took me and my USA Today colleague Christine Brennan on a breakneck tour of the city in the Mazda 323 given her by 1992 champions Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev.  One of the sights:  the navy cruiser, Aurora, from which the shot was fired that signaled a critical assault in the 1917 Revolution; looming over the ship 80 years later were wall advertisements  for American cigarettes and an Italian aperitif.  "I have traveled, and I saw how life was in other countries,'' Moskvina said of living in such a world of contradiction.  "When change came, I accepted it.  I always knew there was more than one way.''   Then we embarked upon a vodka-laced evening with Tamara and her husband, Igor Moskvin, at her apartment, where she unearthed a photo of herself doing a Biellmann spin 25 years before Swiss skater Denise Biellmann made it her trademark.

A day earlier, we had visited 1994 Olympic singles champion Alexei Urmanov in the 3-room apartment he shared with his mother on the eigth floor of a cell block of a building in St. Petersburg's ugly Soviet era neighborhoods.   Drug dealers roamed nearby streets.  The elevators did not work.  A urine smell filled the halls.  It was, I wrote, "the depressing middle of nowhere.''  Yet Urmanov stayed.  His mother, Galina, pulled a table from a corner of the tiny living room where the Olympic champion slept on a convertible couch and filled it with smoked salmon, roast pork, cheese, bread, tea and chocolate as a welcoming snack for us.

"It is unbelievable we love this country, because this is a terrible country,'' Urmanov said.  "We will always be here.  I am Russian.  If I move to the United States, I will never be American.  I will always be Russian."

-- Philip Hersh

Photos, top to bottom: my visit to Persepolis; Trinidad de Cuba (Cuban postcard); the Jewish cemetery in Prague; me (foreground, right) with reporters meeting Fidel Castro in 1987; a Castro autographed baseball.)/p>

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