Local travel expert Rick Steves lectures on Iran to a Bellevue audience; his trip will be the subject of a documentary to be released early in 2009.

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BELLEVUE — Like most people, Rick Steves says, he knew next to nothing about Iran or its sometimes scary-to-Westerners Islamic culture.

Unlike most people, though, Steves, local travel guru, sees that kind of thinking as more dare than obstacle. So last spring, he took his film crew and folksy disposition into the “axis of evil” to see for himself.

Steves presented a slide-show, travel-talk preview of his efforts to a sold-out crowd of about 450 people gathered Monday at Sammamish High School by the World Affairs Council, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to promote global understanding at the local level.

The final product, an hourlong travel documentary, is scheduled to be shown on public television across the country early in 2009.

The trip was Steves at his best: no politics unless it involves understanding, just travel.

He and his crew — Simon Griffith, his director, and Karel Bauer, cameraman — filmed over 12 days in Tehran, the capital; Esfahan, the country’s second-largest city, and Persepolis, the now-ruined capital of the Persian Empire dating from 500 B.C.

Tehran, with 10 million people, reminded Steves physically of Vancouver, B.C., with high-rises superimposed before a mountainous backdrop. Its roots go back to the glory days of Persia. The city is big and noisy, its traffic anarchist, with no traffic lights even at the busiest intersections.

The trip was, Steves said, a chance to put a human face on a populace that knows Americans mostly from the “saber-rattling” that passes for diplomacy between the two governments.

“The people feel they’ve been abused by the media a lot. I made it clear I had no political agenda,” Steves said, adding mischievously, “I think it’s a good agenda to get to know people before you bomb them.”

That doesn’t mean, he says, the Iranian government gets a pass on fundamental differences Westerners have with the country, which is run as a theocracy.

For instance, “modesty regulations” require women and even grade-school girls to dress to hide the shape of the body. Hair mustn’t creep out from under the scarf they’re required to wear in public. And any café allowing a film crew to show women breaking the rules could lose its license.

Steves’ crew ran afoul of plainclothes “security guards” more than once, tying up filming time while the government-appointed translator/guide he calls his “minder” argued over permission to tape this or that.

The crew wasn’t allowed to film in some surprising places. Banks couldn’t be shown, or shopping malls.

“I really wanted to go to a mall and see teenage girls acting naughty,” he said.

There’s a feeling of claustrophobia in that kind of governmental control that Steves likens to the old Soviet Union.

“It was creepy for me to realize there was no freedom there,” he said. The Soviet Union was “driven by political ideologies, while Iran is driven by a religious ideology.”

Steves works hard to understand the inexplicable he saw everywhere.

There are the ubiquitous signs that proclaim, to Western ears, a shocking “death to” perceived enemies, for instance. One of Steves’ slides shows a yellow banner hung prominently in a mosque that his “minder” translated as “Death to Israel.” Another shows a huge American flag painted on the side of a building, with stars depicted by skulls and stripes made by flaming bombs streaking toward Earth.

Steves has decided that sort of thing is pretty much cultural noise. He likens it to Westerners damning what they don’t like. In fact, he says, he heard one driver yell, “Death to traffic!”

He was dismayed to find little but “dusty vases” at Tehran’s historical museum. He was told the treasures of Persia were taken over time by colonial powers to fill the museums of the West, leaving Iran with little patrimony.

The film crew was impressed by the friendliness of the people they met on Tehran’s teeming streets. People drawn by Steves’ Scandinavian blonde looks invariably would stop him and try to guess where he was from. When they heard he was American, they were incredulous.

“They’d say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And then they’d say, ‘We love you.’ “

Mostly the people of Iran just want what all people want, Steves says, “to raise their families with their own Middle Eastern values. To do that in a theocracy requires them to give up some of what we would consider freedoms. But they just don’t want their daughters to grow up like Britney Spears.”

The Iranians are trying to expand tourism, Steves says, and he ran into European tourists at all the major sites. That said, there are few historical or cultural places for a Westerner to visit, “so we saw the same people everywhere.”

Although English is the business language and most educated Iranians use it as a second language, the infrastructure that American travelers demand (hotels, pleasant eateries and help in getting around) isn’t really there yet. Any woman could travel there, he said, “but she’d have to wear a scarf.”

The World Affairs Council audience was enthusiastic about the prospect.

“I hope his program opens some minds,” said Donald Walter of Seattle, after the slide show. “He has a talent for seeking out insights into other cultures that I wish I had.”

“I loved seeing the humanity of a culture we only see one side of,” said Ebon Ameen, also of Seattle.

Steves hopes, in the end, his efforts will morph into more dialogue with the Iranian people, a better understanding between leaders of both countries and, in the end, peace.

“In war, there are only losers,” he said, “and we can’t afford that anymore.”

Sally Macdonald is a Seattle-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Seattle Times.