I just arrived in Iran and I'm really excited about it.  But not all my American friends understand.  Some question the timing of a trip to the Middle East.  Others question my sanity in traveling to someplace that's an "enemy" of my own country, the United States.  But it's just those questions, born of ignorance of a country I really enjoy, that forms part of my reason for going.  It's an answer and a demonstration of the principles of Astronomers Without Borders.  That and my desire to return to a country I've been to many times and have always loved visiting.

This will be my sixth trip to Iran but my first since 2005.  I first traveled to Iran - full of the trepidation that others may feel - to observe the total solar eclipse in August 1999.  I've written about that first visit before (see a repost of my blog for Astronomy Magazine's website at http://www.mssimmons.com/ms/Iran/Eclipse99/Report.html).  My wife, Sherri, and I loved the great variety of cultures, the history, the contrasts of old and new, and especially the warm and welcoming people.  On our trip in 2004 we took a group of westerners to observe the transit of Venus from Pasargad, the 2500-year old first capital of the Persian Empire in southern Iran.  We were given special permission to set up telescopes and observe from beside the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the empire's founder.  The others in our group also had a great time meeting members of the vibrant Iranian astronomy community and others.

So for those of you from western countries who are wondering why there's a disconnect between visitors' experiences and the news you see on TV, let me make a few blanket statements.  Iran is the most pro-American country I've visited.  There are complaints of gender discrimination in college admissions there, too, but they come from the male side - women outnumber men in Iran's institutions of higher learning by 50%.  Unlike my country where astronomy is mostly the province of old-timers like me who have been in the hobby for many decades, Iranian amateurs are young and overwhelmingly female.

The reality of Iran is quite different than we Americans expect.  That included my wife and I on our first visit as well.  That disconnect, and the way that interaction between Americans and Iranians leads to real understanding, was the beginning of Astronomers Without Borders.  It's a simple idea that's been used many times in limited ways - personal interactions lead to understanding and friendship, and that personalization of a country breaks down barriers of ignorance and hatred.  Putting faces on the people of a country morphs the place from an abstract geopolitical entity into mothers and fathers, daughters and sons.  They may look and sound different but in the daily grind they're just like anyone else.

This is especially true in astronomy.  Looking up, we're not just fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth but we can experience that concept directly.  We share the same sky, and astronomy enthusiasts share the same passion.  We're in the same "laboratory" of stars, nebulae, and galaxies.  And we're looking with awe at exactly the same objects.  We're in a place that's beyond our everyday lives.  The bazaars and markets we visit during the day are different, and our cultures may lead to different experiences, but the Orion nebula looks just the same wherever and whenever you view it.

Astronomy is the most accessible of sciences, with amateur astronomers in every country, and that laboratory is open to all.  Optical equipment is nice but a little knowledge and a keen interest are sufficient.  And it's a universal interest, as though written into our genetic makeup.  The sky is half of our environment and is represented in every culture throughout time.  It's there for the taking, the lights of cities that drown it out notwithstanding.

On my earlier visits I encouraged Iranian amateur astronomers to pursue their passion, just as we do in other countries.  It was simple advice with a figurative pat on the back.  Or so it seemed to me.  I'd been doing outreach in the US for many years but the simple words I offered seemed especially important to these young Iranians.  Apparently, it was important, and they've never forgotten.  I've been stunned by the continuing messages and Facebook friend requests I get from Iranians too young to have even known who I was in 2005 when I last visited their country.  It seems to me that I've done very little - just share what I know of the sky and how to enjoy it.  But there seems to have been an outsized impact.  Perhaps this is a place to invoke the overused "Butterfly Effect" analogy.

During this trip I'll be visiting with amateur astronomers in three places, Tehran, Tabriz, and on Qeshm Island in the Persian Gulf.  It's the last of those places that is the primary reason for this trip (though I've been wanting to return for some time).  The second edition of the Qeshm Island StarFest will take place from December 11 to 14.  It's the first big star party in the Middle East despite great interest in astronomy throughout the region.  It's hoped that it will attract astronomers from throughout the region regardless of country or culture and become an annual event.  More than 200 are expected this year.  It may one day grow to join its western counterparts as a regional must-do.

Qeshm Island is a symbolically important site to me as well.  It's not just in the strategically important Persian Gulf, but it's right in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage between Iran and Oman where a huge portion of the world's oil passes.  Qeshm isn't just an island geographically.  It's an island in a sea of geopolitics - a spot of natural beauty with geology and wildlife that attracts tourists - with political tides flowing around it.

I'll be blogging about my trip whenever I can, pending available internet connections and time to compose my thoughts during a very busy schedule.  One thing I know from traveling to many countries - and traveling in Iran in particular - is that there will be surprises.  I look forward to sharing them along with the thoughts of my Iranian friends.


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