TEHRAN– “Some places you have to see for yourself.” That was my stock, terse-to-a-fault answer, and I stuck with it when queried about plans to spend some time recently in Iran.
Of American hostage-taking fame. Of “Death-to-the-Great Satan” renown. Of state-sponsorship-of-terrorism repute. Of Satanic Verses hitmen. Of teenage “martyrs.” Of dyspeptic, stern-visaged mullahs. Of sepulchral, chador-shrouded women. Of Luddite license toward the Internet. Of Koranic cops. Of heavy-handed censorship. Of institutionalized anti-Semiticism. Of public executions. Of earthquakes. Of awful television. Of squat toilets. Of no beer.
What’s not to dislike except for world-class worry beads and nickel-a-liter gas?
“You are American, yes? I’ve been to Kansas City. America is a great country. Americans are great people. These are my children.”
The longer answer says that too much that matters to America — and the rest of the world — has happened here. The fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini made us examine our culture as well as our foreign policy.
The short list of America’s favorite autocrats was subsequently downsized. It also forced us to acknowledge Islam beyond knowing it has something to do with Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan and a bunch of black bouncers in bow ties.
To know a country and a people only through the filtered lens of the American media is to court collective ignorance. Arguably, too many Americans are already there on matters historical and geographical.
“Mister — you American? Welcome. You-like-Iranian-people-we-like Americans.”
A civilization — Persian –that has been around for 2,500 years and weathered invasions by Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and McDonalds has some kind of staying power. It is the only country — Persia officially became Iran in 1935 — invaded by Arabs that retained its language — Farsi — and culture.
Its 64 million people — from Third World, desert-dwelling nomads to first-among-equals nabobs in the gated communities of North Tehran — are as proud as they are stubborn. They are also young. Half the country’s population wasn’t around for the Khomeini-led revolution of 1979.
Although 20 years removed from the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the 444-day, hostage ordeal understandably remains — for many Americans — a defining, viscerally humiliating and enraging image in the demonizing of America. For many in the West — especially the U.S. — Islam has replaced communism as the Cold War villain. And nobody among the one-fifth of the planet who practice Islam has been more villainous than the theocracy from hell, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But a funny thing happened on the way to reinforcing an unflattering stereotype of the country so many Americans love to hate. The Iranian people wouldn’t cooperate.
“HELLL-o, HELLL-o. Sorry for my English not so good. Good bye and welcome.”
Not in Tehran, a noisy, nondescript, motorcycle-and-car-clogged city of more than 10 million people — most of whom appear to be crossing the street at any given time — and hundreds of abandoned construction projects. Nor in the sprawling, time-warp bazaars of Shiraz and Isfahan, the latter an oasis of beauty in an ancient ruins, desolation-dominated countryside. Not in scores of produce and spice shops; not in mosques; not at newsstands; not near universities; and not by ad hoc soccer fields.
The Iranian people were uniformly open, gracious and typically taken aback. Some NATO allies wouldn’t have been so hospitable. Old and (especially) young, male and (even) female; civilians, clerics, cops. And yes, there are mild-mannered mullahs and disarmingly friendly soldiers.
Iraqis, afterall, are the real, eight-years-worth-of-devastating-war enemy in Iran. And if Iranians just want to feel superior, there’s always the lowly Afghanis, currently straining resources as refugees from Taliban barbarities.
“Welcome to Yazd. We like Americans. Do you like futbol? World Cup? Iran 2, USA, 1. But America is good team too.”
Americans, however, seem viewed more as intriguing curiosity pieces, unwitting hostages, so to speak, of Middle Eastern stereotypes and a government still officially inimical to their own. Erstwhile support for the Shah is more a colonial footnote than a reason to dislike Americans now. And it’s been 11 years since the USS Vincennes downed a commercial Iranian airliner.
It’s as if a decade removed from the death of ultimate zealot Khomeini, there’s a sense that so much of what impacts Iranian lives today — U.S. trade sanctions notwithstanding — has increasingly little to do with America and nothing to do with Americans. It has much more to do with depressed oil prices, refugee problems, a population explosion, xenophobic attitudes and governmental meddling in the economy.
“Mister. Can we speak English to you? We-like-Americans-do-you-like-President-Khatami?”
Sure, the Iranian government is restrictive and paranoid, but who can explain governments anyhow, including our own? And yes, the name Monica Lewinsky, embarrassingly enough, did surface but only to buttress the contention that government leaders are rarely worthy of those they govern.
Right now Iran is undergoing serious, sometimes strident, internal debate on just how much to open up to the West and how much to ease up on its citizens without running afoul of Islamic guidelines. The personally popular president, Mohammad Khatami, does a high-wire act daily over the political mosh pit of religious hard liners and pragmatic reformers.
“I think what you have experienced in your travels is a true reflection of how Iranian people feel about Americans,” summarized Akbar Heshani, the owner of one of the myriad Persian carpet shops in the Isfahan bazaar. “You are admired as a people because of your many accomplishments and your country, of course, is the only super power,” he said. “The Iranian people are surprised and probably flattered you are here.
“All that’s happened in the past is between governments,” he added. “We are different, but we can still be friends.”For now, that will have to do.
There are no official diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Only recently has the U.S. government backed off its embargo on all trade with what is still considered a pariah state that supports terrorism and fancies weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions are being waived on a case-by-case basis on the export of food and medicine.
As for Iran, although President Khatami has called for better relations with the U.S., he has stopped short of endorsing an official dialogue. But the good news is the reminder that individuals will always have more in common than in conflict.
What’s amazing, however, is that we have to keep relearning that basic lesson in human nature. People not caught up in governmental power politics tend to get along.
Which means that diplomatically, a friendly “salaam,” a courteous smile and an extended hand will just have to do — nicely as it turns out.
Let the (Friendship) Force be with you
The U.S. State Department officially — and euphemistically — warns all U.S. citizens to “defer” travel to Iran. There are no formal diplomatic or consular relations between the U.S. and Iran, although the Swiss government, through its embassy in Tehran, serves as protecting power for U.S. interests there.
But nobody pretends a surrogate government can “protect” an American the way an American Embassy can — provided, of course, no one swarms its grounds, scales its walls and takes its citizens hostage.
The Iranian government, however, does grant visas to American citizens and operates an Interests Section in Washington. Application can be made there — and a visa granted subject to review by Iran’s Foreign Ministry. The understandably few Americans interested in traveling to Iran are advised to allow at lea
st several months for the visa process to run its bureaucratic course.
In my case, there was also the travel vehicle of the Friendship Force, a non-political organization that fosters friendship among private citizens worldwide. I traveled with a contingent of 24 other Friendship Force “ambassadors.” The Friendship Force expedited the visa paperwork by utilizing the good offices of Canada, which often intercedes for the officially estranged countries.
Co-founded more than 20 years ago by former President Jimmy Carter, the FF is based on the premise that friendship — facilitated by direct people-to-people contact — can be a catalyst for improved world relations. Atlanta-based Friendship Force International now includes clubs in more than 350 communities around the world — from Brazil to Belarus.
Additional information on The Friendship Force is available at (404) 522-9490.
Land of contrasts, country in transition
Some things you can’t blame on an all day, all-night, twitchy-limbed, bleary-eyed flight from Tampa to Tehran via New York and Frankfurt.
For instance, upon the approach to Tehran there was an abrupt morphing of all the women aboard Lufthansa flight 405 into a sea of cloaked, scarfed specters. No manner of eye-rubbing and double-taking could change it.
One moment you’re next to a woman; the next moment you’re beside a speed bump. For some, make-up became even less prominent. Whether Westernized Iranians returning from overseas or non-Islamic Republic visitors, they were all gearing up to cover up.
Since 1983, public “veiling” has been mandatory for all women in Iran. And there are no summer-color loopholes. Earth tones rule.
Then there’s the Customs Declaration for Arriving Passengers. “In The Name of God” is emblazoned at the top of the form to remind all that the Deity is also the Ultimate Bureaucrat in Iran.
Anyhow, you’re asked to declare that not only are you not bringing guns, ammunition, drugs, alcoholic beverages and glossies of the late Shah into Iran, but you’re also not toting cassettes, CDs, books, magazines and films that are “in violation of public order and decency and national and religious values of the country.”
After a two-hour airport welcome — disguised as a paranoia attack by officials at the sight of 25 Americans — it’s on to an official briefing. To quote a government tour guide: “You must remember that there is no alcohol available here. It is forbidden. Not in the hotel. Not in restaurants