Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 1

In January, my husband went to Iran, a place he dreamed of visiting for 30 years. I am delighted to have him guest post for Communicating Across Boundaries these next 3 days. Cliff writes from his short time there and it is interesting, insightful and humorous. Enjoy!

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There is an old adage that says if you visit a place for a day you can write a book about it. If you visit a place for two weeks you can write a magazine article about it. If you live in a place for twenty years you can barely write a sentence about it. Well, I just returned from a week-long trip so will have to condense it into a few blog posts.

I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a 10-person peace delegation with U.S. Academics for Peace to Iran last month. The underlying motto of USAFP is “peacemaking is essential or conflict is inevitable.” We had been in negotiations with the Iranian Ambassador to the U.N, Dr. Mohammad Khazaee, for over two years to bring a group of academics to Iran to meet with Iranian academics, political leaders and clerics. In December 2013 we were given the green light and approval for ten visas to bring our delegation in January 2014. We were one of the first American delegations invited to Iran after the inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013.

tehran

ARRIVALS

After months of planning our delegation assembled at the Frankfurt Airport and boarded our non-stop Lufthansa flight to Tehran. We were seemingly the only Americans on the crowded flight. There were some German tourists and businessmen, but most of the plane occupants were Iranian. When our plane landed in Tehran the flight attendant made two announcements:

“We are arriving at Iman Khomeini International Airport. No photos of the airport are allowed.”

“All female passengers are required to have their heads covered by Iranian government decree before disembarking the plane. Welcome to Tehran.”

Two of our delegates were women and had already covered their hair with scarves. One delegate had lived in Iran in the early 1970s and spoke Farsi (modern Persian). As we filed out of the plane at 1:00am we were greeted by a man holding a sign with our names on it. Mind you just our first and middle names. We were taken down a short flight of stairs to a van waiting on the tarmac and given preferential treatment as guests of the Foreign Ministry. Somehow in the process we “lost” one of our delegates and obtained an inebriated German businessman. We were taken to the VIP Lounge, replete with comfortable couches, pots of hot tea, and trays of fresh fruit and desserts. There representatives from the Foreign Ministry, our tour company and the Ministry of Science and Research Technology welcomed us while our checked luggage was being recovered, (as well as our missing delegate, replete with her mandatory headscarf). One by one we were to go to see Mr. Mahmoud, who would fingerprint us using a digital scanner for each digit of our right hand. I was the second to go and for some reason I was doing it incorrectly so Mr. Mahmoud showed me the proper way and my ring fingerprint is really his. How fortunate for me.

TEHRAN TRAFFIC

After three hours at the airport we were taken in two vans to our hotel in the northern (and more affluent) section of Tehran. Our delegation had been warned of Tehran’s notorious entangled traffic, but luckily we were driving at 3:00 in the morning so encountered almost no traffic upon arrival. During the next six days we were to experience many hours sitting in Tehran traffic. After having lived in Cairo, Egypt for seven years, this traffic did not seem that different with one exception —Cairenes use more horns.

BREAKFAST BUFFETS AND AZERI WAITERS

While in Tehran we stayed at the former Hilton hotel, called Parsian Esteghlal (Independence) Hotel. Each day we encountered the daily breakfast buffet in the Yas Restaurant. You provided the maître d’ with your room number and the requisite, good morning in Farsi, sobh bekhayr. The buffet was plentiful with an omelet station, fruits, cheeses, olives, breads and cereals. I had the fresh squeezed sour cherry juice each day. On my first day I met a waiter and tried to thank him in Farsi, merci. Unfortunately Farsi does not have a specific word for thank you, they use the French loan word, merci, or Arabic loan word mutchekar. I accidently used the Turkish word teşekkür ederim. My waiter leaned in close and whispered, “Turkish?” I nodded, and he smiled and pointed to his chest and whispered, “Azeri.” Azeris comprise 16% of the Iranian population and are primarily from the the Northwest corner of Iran from the city of Tabriz. Each day he would greet me and bring me special cups of chai and would lean in and whisper “very best Iranian chai.”

HOW TO HANDLE YOUR HANDLERS

When we arrived at our hotel the first night we were introduced to our “handlers”. We had our tour guide, a Foreign Ministry protocol guide, two drivers and between 4-6 other “handlers” during the week. We were told that since we were American citizens we were only allowed to be escorted by these “guides” at all times. Our handlers were very educated and articulate men with great senses of humor. Most of them had lived in other countries and spoke excellent English. At first it felt constricting and I’m sure that I could have easily eluded them during our trip but thought better of it, deciding to interact with them and obey the security protocol. I never once felt unsafe or in a precarious position during our time in Tehran or Qom.

DELEGATIONS AND PROTOCOL

During our week-long stay our delegation attended 2-3 meetings a day with Iranian academics, political leaders, researchers and clerics. The Foreign Ministry had made sure that we would meet with the key people in each of these spheres. We were greeted warmly at each gathering with a crowd of Iranian delegates in formal conference-styled arrangements with named placards, microphones, and bottles of water and showered with coffee, tea, sweets and fruit. Most of our interactions were in English, with only some translation needed into Farsi. We were told on more than one occasion that there were more U.S.-educated Ph.D.s in President Rouhani’s cabinet and circle of advisors than in President Obama’s.

Our meetings were full of substance, candor, honesty and a true dialogue between American and Iranian academics and theologians. Our last meeting consisted of a three-hour dialogue with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and provided insight into Iran’s desire to interact more with those in the West, and especially in America. We were encouraged to organize more delegations and to bring more academics and graduate students back to Iran. It is a pivotal time for our two countries to begin to trust each other again.

IRANIAN HOSPITALITY AND CHAI

One cannot overemphasize the extent of how hospitable Iranians are. Our Western media has portrayed Iranians as angry, haters of America and Israel, deniers of the Holocaust and oppressors of freedom and women’s rights. We often let one event or person brand these stereotypical messages into our brains and we no longer question their validity. But the truth is far more complex. I can only say it is amazing to arrive in a country and have almost everyone you meet greet you, welcome you and serve you with extravagant hospitality. Each meeting we had consisted of Iranian tea, chai, served in clear glasses. Most tea is served with small sugar cubes which you dip into the hot tea and then place in your mouth to dissolve as you sip the tea. They also served tea with rock candy sugar on sticks and you swirled it in the tea as it dissolved. One of our delegates didn’t know what to do with it and was seen licking the rock candy directly. There is something to be said about the sharing and drinking of chai together with strangers and with friends. We continued to use the phrase, “Governments have interests, but people have friends.” Our delegation was peace making over glasses and glasses and glasses of chai.

Tomorrow join in for Part 2 where you’ll hear about nose jobs, Shi’a clerics with a sense of humor and crashing an Iranian wedding. 

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About the author:Cliff Gardner is the Senior Administrative Manager of Research in the Department of Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In addition he serves as the Middle East Program Director for Conscience International, a humanitarian relief and development organization that implements life-saving medical interventions, refugee assistance, and community development programs following wars and natural disasters.  Enhanced by Zemanta

75 thoughts on “Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 1

  1. Dear Cliff,
    I read your story about travelling to Iran. I ‘m happy to see that you liked people and the country. I ‘m not a good writer, but when I saw that in your story it was written that Persian language doesn’t have any words for “thank you”, I decided to write you this. :) The Persian word for thank you is: “sepaas gozaaram” and this is a very beautiful Persian word which people use less than the Arabic and French word.
    I enjoy reading your article and thank you for writing that. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a Turkish living in Turkey, I’ve read your post with great interest and I enjoyed it a lot. I haven’t been to Iran yet but I’m definitely planning to go there soon. I also liked your domain name. Teşekkür ederim :)

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    1. Merhaba and thank you for reading this post. I encourage you to travel to Iran. I met a few Turkish businessmen in Tehran at our hotel and they really enjoyed their trips and business connections to an opening market to Turkey. On a side note, this is my wife’s blog and we have had some amazing adventures in Turkey and hope to explore more of your amazing country.

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  3. What a wonderful post! I’ve long dreamed of visiting Iran, magical Isfahan in particular. However, as a British-Canadian woman, I realise this is something of a pipe dream. Looking forward to the next installment.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Yes, we have imagines of magical places in Iran. The famous quote about Isfahan is….”Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” “Isfahan is half of the world.” I would encourage you to look into organized tours to Iran that are becoming more common and you can visit a variety of cities there instead of trying to travel alone

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  4. Thanks for sharing this. Iran’s a country that’s fascinated me for years and I hope to have the chance to visit it someday. I’ve heard nothing but praise for the hospitality of the Iranian people. It’s easy to forget this when the media depicts Iran as little more than a dictatorship…

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Iran has also fascinated me for over 30 years. I encourage you to travel there. They have really good travel packages. Yes, we have to see beyond the sound bites we hear about any country that has been culturally isolated from the world. Go and see for yourself.

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  5. Very interesting and enjoyable. Found you on Freshly Pressed. Congrats on that. You have an easy style of writing and your subject is fascinating. A great view into Iran’s academics and well-educated people. You were entertained in the wealthier areas, of course, since they wanted to put their “best foot forward.” Have questions about the “handlers” though. Am looking forward to your next report tomorrow. Started to follow your blog today. :-)

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    1. So glad that you found this blog via Freshly Pressed. It is an honor. I wanted the post to show the humanity and humor of life in modern Iran. We were in a hotel in the wealthier part of Tehran, near Tajrish and our hosts did want us to see the best side of Iran. All American travelers to Iran have to be connected with a travel agency or government assigned protocol officer. This was explained for security purposes. I do hope that as more and more Americans travel there, these will be eased.

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    1. Thank you so much for commenting. I will ready our blog post about your trip. I would love to take a bus around the country and interact with the diverse peoples that live there. The hospitality, food and tea are legendary.

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  6. While I appreciate this article and enjoyed it I cringe at the naivete of you conclusion that Iranian are fine. You yourself acknowledge that this trip was stage managed. What kind “nice people who have nothing to fear provide escorts and watchers

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    1. Hi – and thanks for the comment. While I hear what you’re saying and I’m not the author. I assure you that the post was not written in naivete. We have lived in the Muslim world for years, and while this was my husband’s first trip to Iran, I’ve been before. Keep in mind that this series is written for Westerners who ‘fear’ Iran. Westerners who are so busy pointing the finger at other nations that they don’t see 3 fingers pointing back at them. There was much discussed on the trip and he is doing a follow-up article but when you go on a peace-building mission you don’t start by pointing the finger. That gets you nowhere. You start by building bridges. Also do you know how visiting delegations are treated here? They are not left to fend for themselves or sent to crime-ridden areas. They’re wined and dined.

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    2. Thank you for taking the time to read these blog posts and to comment. I trust that you are able to read all four blogs related to this trip. A few of our delegation had been to Iran before and we were not under the assumption that all was rosey and well in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We were able to ask probing questions and hope to pave the way for more people to visit Iran and interact with diverse voices in the country.

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  7. I am so glad you got this opportunity! My future daughter-iin-law’s stepfather is Iranian and a delightful man. I really do hope peace is something that can be made between our nations.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m so happy that you get to interact with Iranians. They are most hospitable and full of personality. We all pray for a humanizing peace between our two governments and trust that the ice is thawing.

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  8. This was really great to read. My best friend is dating a Persian/American girl (she has dual citizenship) and the stories she tells about being in Iran are nothing like what one would think based on how our government portrays it. Sure, the government may be run by kooky religious zealots, but that’s not indicative of the general populace. If anyone here speaks French, I recomend a good read on the subject: L’iran: la revolution inachèvée et l’ordre américain by Chapour Haghihat. He’s an Iranian native that writes for a French audience about the American’s involvement in Iran. A very interesting perspective, very different from Americas.

    But enough of my ramblings. Fascinating post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you rcomment. We should almost always separate what we read in the media with the facts on the ground. So happy that you are interacting with this Persian-American. There are over one million Iranians living in the U.S. Thanks for the French book reference. France and Iran have had a more substantial relationship with each other, even before the Iranian Revolution.

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  9. So awesome Cliff! I love that you are bringing together our two countries by sharing a cup of chai. (and my favorite bits are that your fingerprint really belongs to Mr. Mahmoud and you had a secret Azeri waiter friend!) :)

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    1. Ya Hillary, thanks so much for reading these posts. It is important to humanize other people to break down boundaries (real and perceived) between us.

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  10. The minute I knew about your trip to Iran, Cliff, I hoped for blog posts! Loved your description of interacting with the Azeri waiter. Thanks so very much . . . can’t wait for the next installment!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Just loved it Cliff and like Robynn I am jealous and impatient, too where is the next one? I am so happy that you are busting the media created myths of the great Iranian bogeyman. Like you i have always found Persians to be gracious, intelligent, knowledgeable and friendly people. Can’t wait to read the rest.
    I would love it if you would put in a few or more than a few anecdotes of interactions you had with various people. Also individual impressions, which would make us readers see them more closely rather than as a bunch.

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    1. Pari, thank you for your comment. I have been able to interact with Persians for over 30 years and have found most of them to be quite gracious, intelligent and most of all passionate about life. I trust that some of these posts will provide some insights into modern Iranian society.

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  12. I find the mandatory head covering fascinating since the two Iranian international students that I know wear western clothes and do not cover their heads. I wonder how it feels to fulfill a religious requirement not because you believe in it, but because the government requires it? It must be the way non-believers felt in Puritan New England.

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    1. Our Iranian friend did her Masters thesis on the mandatory head covering….what happens to a religious symbol when it becomes mandatory? So interesting I agree. I’ve wanted to read her thesis for a while. If I get a copy I’ll email you.

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    2. Anne, thanks for your comment. It was interesting that all women had their hair covered, albeit in various fashionable expressions. We met some Iranian Christian and Zoroastrian women who had their hair covered as well and I would’ve liked to have asked them how they felt about the mandatory head covering.

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  13. Cliff! I am so jealous! What an incredible experience…. One of your fellow delegates looks like Dr Dudley Woodberry. I’m excited to read the next two installments.

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    1. Robynn, yes, it was an amazing experience. And yes, you are most astute in recognizing one of our delegates as Dr. Dudley Woodberry of Fuller Theological Seminary. He has a vast experience interacting with Muslims all over the world and had last been to Iran in the 1950s.

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