Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

“History was a recording that played continuously, so that you did not realize it was the same song, over and over.”

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

The messages began early yesterday.
“Are you okay? Will you be leaving?” “What are your thoughts on the news? When are you all coming back?” “Hey! What’s going on over there?”

At this point, I was involved in a totally different crisis, seemingly unrelated to the one that was being broadcast by all major media outlets in the United States and evidently, around the world.

A message from my amazing nephew who works at the State Department gave me more information, and I began responding to the messages that we received. Evidently the United States had called for all non-emergency government personnel to leave Iraq and the Kurdish Region of Iraq citing tensions with Iran as the reason. Rumors of war had begun and the news was everywhere.

Everyone knows this, but it’s really important to repeat: Behind the clean yet oh-so-dirty fingers of every politician that supports war there are real people who get caught in the middle and lose. They lose every, single time. People in the middle are caught between and never win. They lose. They lose security. They lose jobs. They lose peace of mind. They lose hope.

We live in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the rumors of war involve Iraq because the tensions are rising between the United States and Iran. Geographically Iraq is next to Iran; politically Iraq is caught between. Our region is finally feeling a measure of hope after a massive financial crisis and the chaos of D’aesh, or ISIS. People are beginning to feel more settled, more secure. They are receiving salaries regularly after a long time of not being paid.

And now this.

I am not a political analyst but I do suspect that wars are sometimes started to detract from real life problems. What better way to distract people then to go to war? Suddenly all the news and focus is not on poor national policy, or the latest tweets, but instead on what is happening the other side of the world.

I just finished reading a book by David Ignatius, a prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post who covered the Middle East for many years. Bloodmoney is a spy thriller that is set between Los Angeles, Pakistan, and London. It’s fast paced and interesting, a book that seems made to be a movie. At the very end of the book, Ignatius talks about how the book is about how wars end. Though he spends some time toward the end of the book discussing this, from a reader perspective, I wish he had spent more time on this.

One of the dynamic characters in the book is a Pashtun from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan called “the Professor.” At one point he is thinking about the tribal code of revenge. He thinks about how often wars end just because people get tired. They lose people and money, and suddenly both sides are done, exhausted by the bloodshed, unable to even remember what the war was really about to begin with. But, he surmises, wars that end that way don’t bring about “good peace.” Instead, they bring “dishonor, shame, and a shimmering desire for revenge.” This is something that the Professor feels the Western world doesn’t know or understand. “The victor in the war must find a way to salve the dignity of the vanquished; otherwise, there would just be another war.” (page 348, Bloodmoney)

The tribal code for restoring harmony was called nanawatay in the Pashto language. That was how wars ended among honorable men. The vanquished party would go to the house of the victor, into the very heart of his enemy, and look that man in the eye and request forgiveness and peace. The defeated man was seeking asylum, and the victor could not but grant him this request. To refuse would be dishonorable and unmanly. When a man is asked to be generous, he can unburden himself of his rage toward his enemy. He can be patient in forgiveness and let go of the past.

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

A couple of pages later, our professor is on a plane, ready to fall asleep: “He fell asleep thinking of his favorite word in the Pashto language, melmastia, which meant “hospitality.” That was the way wars ended.”

I read these words yesterday afternoon, after I had responded to many messages and written an email off to family and friends.

Hospitality. Communication. Communicating Across Boundaries. Backing down. Forgiveness. Generosity. Looking people in the eye and requesting forgiveness and peace.

Yes – this may be the way wars end. More importantly, this is how they never start. This is prevention at its best.

When will we learn? If we can’t have a conversation with someone who thinks differently then us, then there is no hope that wars will ever end. When I look in the mirror, I see someone looking back at me who is just as culpable in the little picture as the war mongers of the world are in the big picture. Everyone of us is probably at war with someone in our lives. Though the outcomes may seem different, on a small scale they are the same. Are we tired yet? When will it end?

And to our leaders I say the same: Are you tired yet? When will it end? When will you get tired enough to have bad peace, or smart enough to forgive, extend hospitality and have good peace?

If wars end with hospitality, surely with true hospitality they should never begin.

Communicating Across Boundaries

As for us, we are staying – at least for the time being. We are continuing to enjoy the love and hospitality that surrounds us. We are in the month of Ramadan, where all of day life slows down and the evenings light up with food and joy at the breaking of the fast. What happens next, only God knows.

Dear Mr. Graham, Let me Introduce you to Some Friends….


Dear Mr. Graham,

I’d like to introduce you to some friends of mine. 

The first friend is Golnaz. Golnaz is a bright and beautiful young woman from Iran. My husband first met her while working on a project at Harvard University. It was an instant friendship and soon after he met her, he invited her to come to our home. We got to know her and her young son, inviting them to Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas open houses. At the time, Golnaz was single-parenting. She had no family around, and little community. In the seven years we have known her, we have watched her get a masters degree, work through the difficulties of a complicated divorce, and raise an amazing son.

Here’s another set of friends: They live in San Diego in a lovely home that they open up to us whenever we are in the area. Rehan is a brilliant geneticist and Ghazala is a physician. Their house reflects their Pakistani heritage, and their living between worlds reality. They have two sons: One in university and the other heading quickly into his high school years. Both are brilliant and personable, like their parents. Ghazala and Rehan have a strong faith and wake to the call to prayer on their alarm clock each day. We share history, stories, and deep conversations of faith together.

I mustn’t forget Ali Reza. When Ali Reza left the United States for Denmark, we all cried. He brought his parents to visit right before we left. We sat on our couch, on a warm summer evening drinking mint tea together and talking. We talked and talked – even though we only know phrases in Persian, and his parents only know a couple of phrases in English. No matter, we found that the connection, the friendship, was a gift. We communicated across the boundaries of faith, language, culture, and world view. Ali Reza was like a son to us during the year he was in the United States.

There are so many more! There are Payman and Farnaz, a lovely couple who make their home in a suburb of Boston; there is Hamra – an extraordinary artist living with her husband and baby near Harvard Square.

It would take too long to list everyone, and I want to get to my main point, which is this: I am deeply troubled by the comments you made publicly about Muslims and immigration and I believe you are culpable for many of the negative attitudes toward Muslims in the Evangelical church.

I would ask you to hear me out on this one: All of the friends I mentioned above are Muslims, along with many more Mohammads, Alis, Fatimas, Khadijahs and more.They all subscribe to different truth claims than we do; they celebrate different holidays, they have vastly different cultural backgrounds. And we count it a deep privilege, a joy, to walk through this thing called life together. They no more wear the ideology of terrorism than you wear the ideology of Westboro Baptist Church. They are as afraid of radicalization as you are. This is truth. They fear God and they seek to live well between worlds in their adopted country. And that country is the United States.

Let me give you a little history of my life: I was raised in the country of Pakistan, daughter of Christian missionaries. The call to prayer was my alarm clock, curry was my staple food, and Muslim women and girls were my aunties and my friends. I experienced extraordinary hospitality at the hands of the people of Pakistan. They offered us friendship, safety, and amazing food. Early on in life, my father would take us to see men praying at the large mosque in our city during the Eid celebrations. I would watch as a sea of white-clad men, all with prayer caps on their heads, bowed in unison as the muezzin chanted from the microphone attached to one of the tall minarets. I did not see terrorism, I saw devotion. I did not see anger, I saw zeal.

My husband and I went on to raise our own family – first in  Pakistan, and then in the country of Egypt. We love the Middle East and we love our many Muslim friends, both sides of the ocean.

And so when someone like you, with a reputation for doing good, someone with a vast following of Christians, makes the sort of statement that you made the other day about Muslims, I worry. A lot. Because I believe that the other day, in trying to express compassion for marines who were murdered, you misspoke and abused your position. I believe that you had a right to be angry, but your choice to exhibit the extreme racism and ethnocentrism that came through in your words was not wise. In fact, those words were angry, hurtful, and should be retracted.

You see, it’s not enough to do Operation Christmas Child on the other side of the world. Kindness and love of God needs to extend to people here as well.

As a leader, you have the ability to make friends and foster deep relationships with some of the Muslim leaders of this country. Muslims who are not radicalized, Muslims who fear God and long for change.

The lens through which we view the world is shaped by many things. And because of where I was raised, I am perplexed by the vehemence and hostility with which people who bear the name ‘Christian’ respond to the Muslim world. This was not something that my Christian parents taught me, not something that I was familiar with as a child.

Hear this Mr. Graham – You do not need to give up your truth claims to have dialogue. You do not have to give up the things that you hold dear, that you believe with all your heart, to be willing to form friendships and talk within relationship. In fact, your truth claims should guide you into those relationships without fear, without fear-mongering, but with humility and a desire to love and to understand. I am not asking you to not be angry about terrorism. I am not asking you not to express outrage at attacks against others that are carried out in evil malice. I am asking that you not stoop to the low-level of stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists. I am asking that you, as a Christian leader, walk the high road.

To build relationships with people of other faiths is not compromising our faith. Rather, it’s living out a faith that is not threatened but firm.

I am a little person in this big, wide, internet. But, should you want to talk, I would love to talk to you about this. Having spent a majority of my life living and working in Muslim countries, and with so many friends from Muslim majority countries, I believe I may be able to, in humility, offer a perspective.

Because you received excellent and Godly modeling from a man we all admire, and I would hope that you would be willing to listen.

Related Posts:

What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity

The Hard Questions

Seeing Ghosts

Challenging Assumptions

This post has been closed for discussion. 

Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 4

As Cliff and I read comments on all three of his posts on Iran, we realized that there was a missing piece – that of more detail on the dialogue. There is only so much you can fit into a blog post before losing the attention of readers, so he has continued the series with one more post.

I think this could be one of the most important posts ever published on Communicating Across Boundaries for in it we have word for word some of the concerns of a country isolated for 30 years. Please read and share as you feel appropriate. 


Many of you have asked for more specific details of the conversations our delegation had with the Iranian thought leaders we met during our week in Tehran and Qom. In this post I want to go deeper into some of what was discussed during our time in Iran. 

It is important to know that our delegation consisted of ten academics from ten different institutions and went to Iran as private citizens. We were political scientists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and theologians. We were Christians, Jews and agnostics. We were Republicans, Democrats, Socialists and Libertarians. Our goal was to meet with Iranian academics, clerics and think-tank leaders. We were well aware of the chasm that has existed between our two governments, as well as the perceptions of our populations, since the Iranian revolution.

According to mediator, Douglas Noll, one of the key principles of peacemaking is the following:

The peacemaker is charged with the sacred duty of creating a refuge where people from different backgrounds know they will be heard and understood, where their needs and ideas will be respected, and where they can safely do the difficult work of reconciling their differences.”

Each of us stepped off the plane at Imam Khomeini International with a desire to listen to our Iranian hosts but to also have the freedom and tact to ask some of the “hard questions” in our mind about Iranian human rights and academic freedom.

During the week we met at eleven different venues with over two hundred people, representing over thirty different organizations. As you can imagine that is a lot of talking, and listening and you could imagine translating. The majority of the speakers we interacted with spoke English and many of them has obtained their higher education degrees in the U.S. or Europe.

Our delegation leader, Dr. James Jennings, would begin each session with a reiteration of why our delegation had come. We were there to listen and begin a dialogue between our parties. We did not represent the U.S. government or its foreign policies, but were there to discuss a wide-range of topics.

I would say that the hardest realization was to hear how isolated Iran has felt these three decades since the Iranian Revolution. We were listening to people, who for some of them, had the first opportunity to share (i.e., vent) with an American audience. I could envision years of conversations they had been having with each other about this regional and global isolation and the effects the sanctions had on their society.

As mentioned before, Iranians are passionate and vocal by nature and we were able to listen to them. Let me list a few topics that the Iranians wanted us (and vicariously other Americans) to hear:

“Your sanctions are killing us slowly, We cannot import certain chemicals to ease our traffic pollution and many of our medicines are too expensive for the general population.”

“Your academic journals are rejecting our papers and research in the name of ‘sanctions’.”

“We want to collaborate with your academic institutions.”

“We want Iranian-American exchange programs for university students.

“We want you to see how the sanctions have limited us and made us more self-reliant.

“We are proud of our Islamic Revolution and its principles.

“Our Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa stating that any nuclear bomb is anti-Islamic.”

“We are providing women with education and support. Sixty percent of our university students are women.”

“Your government is hypocritical. You talk about human rights, yet you support the country of Saudi Arabia that will not even allow its women to vote or drive cars.”

“We believe that our government needs to protect society from the ills of modernity.”

“We have challenges with our youth and joblessness.”

“We have a problem with drug smuggling from Pakistan and Afghanistan. We have over one million drug addicts that we are trying to rehabilitate.

These are the topics that members of our delegation wanted the Iranians (and vicariously their government) to hear:

“We are individual academics. We do not represent the American government or U.S. foreign policy.”

“How is your society addressing human and civil rights violations?”

“Why is your government supporting the regime of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon?”

“What is the status of women in your society?”

“Why can’t American tourists come to Iran and travel on their own.”

“What are your nuclear intentions? Are they just for energy purposes or for obtaining a nuclear bomb?”

“What about the freedom of religion in Iran? In the first declaration of human rights, Cyrus the Great stated in principle #4: Every man has the right to choose his own religion.”

“What is the status of Iranian Christians, Zoroastrians and Baha’i who have been imprisoned for their beliefs?”

“Many Americans want relations between Iran and the U.S. to be normalized.”

We had many honest and probing conversations with our Iranian hosts in the formal sessions and also over meals and tea. We were involved in peacemaking by trying to explain the rationale of some of the decisions made by our government, academic intuitions and journals. We listened to one another and trust that we will be able to bring more delegations to Iran and to host Iranian participants at our U.S. institutions.

Peacemaking is never clean-cut and solutions are rarely solvable in one sitting. The desire to be heard by the other party is the first step in reconciliation and rapprochement.


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Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 3

Today ends the 3-part series on Iran. Thanks for reading these posts. One of the things that Cliff and I have said for years to people who spend time overseas is to make sure to process your time. Often that processing takes place through visiting with friends and writing in journals, and in this case translating the journal into a couple of blog posts. 



Having lived in Pakistan and the Middle East, I was used to seeing photos of the current president everywhere. No office or government building in Pakistan was complete unless you had a photo of President Zia al-Haq or in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak. But in Iran we saw no photo of President Hassan Rouhani. Instead we saw the photos of Imam Khomeini and Iman Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. There were 5-6 story banners hanging from buildings all over Iran, as well as in every government office. I felt like I got to know both Imams by having looked at their photos all week.



While in Iran we were given a small taste of the immense history of Iran dating back to earliest civilization. Iranians are very proud of their extensive history. They say no other area of land has had so many different rulers and civilizations and dynasties. Most Americans are familiar with the Pahlavi dynasty that was in place at the time of the Iranian Revolution. There are no photos or images of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza. While in visiting the Tehran Bazaar I came across a small shop that sold items with the picture of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar. The Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1785-1925. I stopped and purchased a set of six teacups with the ornate painting of Nasser al-Din Shah. I could’ve also bought ceramic plates, glasses, boxes and even martini glasses with his mustachioed bust. We were to later visit his exquisite Golestan Palace in the heart of old Tehran and see that the Qajars lived in extremely opulent surroundings, much to the dismay of their poor subjects. It seemed that modern Iranians were allowed to be enamoured with the Qajar shahs, but not the Pahlavi shahs!

BACK TO THE FUTURE: January 1979

Our delegation visited two important historical sites that seemed frozen in time: January 1979. The first was the former American Embassy. We parked our vans across the street and were told to only take photos of certain walls. There were security cameras along the walls with barbed wire fences on top. There were murals of the Iranian Revolution, including those of Imam Khomeini, the U.S. flag with the skulls instead of fifty stars. There was the requisite “Down with the USA” mural, but over all it was sedate. The embassy now has a museum and a center for Islamic teaching.

The second place we visited were the grounds of Saadabad in North Tehran, with the backdrop of the Alborz snow-covered mountain range. Saadabad was the royal grounds for the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. This beautiful complex has many buildings located among the pines. We visited the Green and White Palaces. The White Palace was the home of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his third wife, Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi. The décor is quite exquisite but frozen unchanged when they fled the country in January 1979. The dining room last hosted King Hussein of Jordan. The color television in Farah’s boudoir was the first color television in Iran. It felt like going back in time.


After the tour of the elaborate palaces of Saadabad we were taken to the humble home of Imam Khomeini. He lived in a middle class neighborhood and we were given a tour of his home, the mosque he officiated at and a small museum, primarily a photo gallery of the life of Imam Khomeini, including his personal effects. It was striking to see how simply he lived in just two basic rooms that he rented until his death. The people we talked to during the week often referred to him or his fatwas, religious statements, but they also seemed realistic about him as a person.


Even though the primary religion in Iran is Shi’a Islam there are Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian minorities. We had many discussions about religious freedom and pluralism in Iran. We had the privilege to visit an Armenian Catholic Church and speak with some of the Christians that attended it. Across the street we visited a fire temple for Zoroastrians, a monotheistic religion that centers around the worship of Ahura Mazda (Great Lord) and worshipped via light, including fire and the stars. We met a few Zoroastrians who were reading the Avesta in the fire temple and learned of their freedom to worship.


Each day I woke up and went out on my balcony on the 14th floor. I had a spectacular view of the Alborz mountain range, but within 2-3 hours that view was blocked by the pollution and smog of modern Tehran. Everyone spoke of how bad the pollution was and we heard multiple times that due to the sanctions on Iran, they were unable to import certain chemicals that would reduce pollution from cars, trucks and motorcycles. We heard, “the sanctions are slowly killing us” by the pollution. One of the days that we were there the pollution was so bad that all the public schools were closed.

We heard of the various other sanctions imposed on Iran. Iran can only export oil to five countries in the region. They cannot be paid in Iranian Rials but have to keep the money in banks in these countries in the currency of that country. No foreign banks can work in Iran, but it appears that this door might be opening for 1-3 foreign banks entering the market. Many banks and companies are poised to enter when the international community gives the green light.

One delegate we met said that the sanctions have been very hard on Iran but in one sense had made Iran less dependent on other countries and that they had allowed Iran to create new infrastructures, independent of foreign collaboration.


Our delegation made our way to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We had a 3:00am flight to Frankfurt. We were sad to leave and four of our handlers came with us and we had an emotional departure. They wanted to make sure that all of our needs were met and that we were taken care of until the very end. I often told our Iranian hosts, “This was my first trip to Iran, but will not be my last.”

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking here and here.
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Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 2


Today is Part 2 of the series on Iran. If you missed yesterday’s feel free to click here.


For those of you who have had the privilege to sample Iranian/Persian cuisine you are definitely in for a treat. Before I left my good Iranian friend, Payman, said, “You will be served more chelo kebab than you have ever been served.” Now chelo kebab is a national dish in Iran, with small pieces of beef, grilled with sumac (a lemon-like spice) and served over saffron enhanced rice and whole grilled tomatoes. I laughed at my friend and said, “Could one ever get tired of chelo kebab?” Well, his prediction came true. After each delegation meeting and even in the evening we were treated to sumptuous meals of chelo kebab kobideh, rice, salad and occasionally fesinjan, a chicken stew with walnut and pomegranate sauce. By the end of our trip we were ready for a break from chelo kebab.


Our trip was primarily focused on delegation meetings, rather than tourism, but after one meeting we were taken to the main Tehran Bazaar. As we piled out of our vans, accompanied by 3-5 “handlers” we first stopped for refreshing hand-squeezed pomegranate juice. We were all in our suits and ties and began our walk towards the main bazaar. Iran does not have many Western tourists and even fewer Americans that visit. So you can imagine the looks we received. At one point an older woman asked one of our delegates if we were from Germany. She said, “Na, ma az Amrika ast” “No, we are from America.” The woman took her hand and said, “Welcome, where have you been? We have been waiting for you for 32 years.” It was a genuine expression that was to be repeated over and over during our time in Tehran and Qom. Iranians seem to be tired of the isolation of their country from much of the world and would like there to be more interactions.


Someone asked me upon my return if I had witnessed women being “oppressed by Islam”. It is not the first time I’ve been asked this question by North Americans when they find out I have both lived and traveled extensively in the Muslim world. From my view people seemed genuinely happy and relaxed in society, interacting with each other freely, observing cultural norms of modesty. All women had their heads covered with fashionable scarves and most showed some forehead locks, some even with super-stylish curls. Most were modestly dressed with their manteau (covering to their thighs) or dresses. When we visited the holy city of Qom, about 2 hours from Tehran, all of the women were in black chadors with no hair showing. But we saw many women interacting with men in every day life and even saw women working in the bazaars.

One of our ‘handlers’ pointed out a situation one day in the area called Darband where four young women were put in a police van and were going to be taken for questioning. In front of the van were four bored policemen and two serious morality policewomen in full black chadoors, zealous in their job of upholding the modesty of the young.

During our stay we learned that Tehran was the “nose-job” capitol of the world with over 90,000 nose jobs a year performed. We saw Tehrunis proudly strutting with bandages on their noses, both men and women alike. My wife always said that God made Iranian women the most beautiful in the world and left the rest of the world to fend for itself. What a surprise to find that with some of these women God got a little help in the form of a plastic surgeon skilled at crafting noses. 


I have to admit that I was most interested in meeting with Shi’ite clerics on this visit. I certainly had perceptions of them being intensely spiritual and serious men. As we went from meeting to meeting we started to interact with more clerics. What struck me most about these clerics was their deep passion to connect their religious intellect with the passions of their heart and with culture and education. We had very honest and candid conversations about faith and the intersections of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But what surprised me the most was the sense of humor that they had. At one lunch I sat across from two clerics, one with a black turban and one with a white turban. We discussed a variety of topics when I posed to them, “Can you tell me of the religious significance between the black and white turbans?” The cleric leaned in and said, “Well, it is because I have a black heart and my friend here has a white heart.” They laughed and then explained to me that those with black turbans were sayyeds, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The cleric in the white turban said about his friend, “He is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and I am only the descendent of the Prophet Adam.”

After our lunch conversation the black-turbaned cleric said to me, “You must stay in Iran. We will keep you here with us. We can find you an Iranian wife.” I replied in Arabic, “Haram alayk, God forbid, I already have a wife and one is most sufficient.They laughed and made the offer again. We posed for pictures with them and were told to come back and visit and bring others with us for more dialogue and discussion.

One day our delegation traveled for two hours to the holy city of Qom. It is like the Vatican for Shi’ite Muslims and seat of great learning and pilgrimage. We met with clerics and academics at two universities and was welcomed into their midst. We had candid discussions about religion, theology and practice among Muslims, Christians and Jews. We were given a private tour of the holy shrine of Fatima Masumeh, the sister of the 8th Shi’ite Imam, Ali Reza. We were able to see faithful pilgrim come and venerate this shrine along with the tombs of other religious leaders and teachers buried there. It was a great privilege as non-Muslims to enter into such a sacred place for Shi’ite Muslims.


Thursday and Fridays are government holidays in Iran, so on juma’ (Friday) we were taken on a tour around Tehran. We stopped for lunch at the International Ferdowsi Grand Hotel. We were told that we were being taken to a “traditional restaurant”. It turned out to be called Traditional Restaurant. It was decorated with large wooden chairs covered with Persian carpet squares, large wooden tables and large brass samovars around the room. Through the middle of the restaurant there was a large fountain and river. A sumptuous buffet table was laden with Iranian appetizers, rice, vegetables, fish and chelo kebab! They served us the most incredible bread I’ve ever eaten called sangak, a large rectangular flatbread that had been cooked on hot rocks.

Against one wall was a raised dias with 4-5 musicians setting up their instruments for a live traditional music performance. After our delegation was seated at two large tables we noticed a large influx of guests, mostly women. We were told that a wedding reception was taking place. As the live music started, a man in a leisure suit and coiffed hair began to croon before the crowd. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love music and that I love to dance. As the music started, the drums beat and the accordion accorded (?) I started to move my hands and hips to the music. My Iranian handlers found this most amusing. I went up to get some food at the buffet and was entranced by the music. I went up closer to the performers and took a short video. The wedding singer then motioned for me to come up, biyah, and I set my plate down and joined him on the stage and began to dance. The women from the wedding party started to clap and egg me on. I didn’t need a more encouraging audience. I danced and moved and noticed the camera phones of my handlers take pictures across the distant room.

After the song ended I left the stage and returned to my table to continue eating and enjoying the wedding festivities. When it was time to leave I met in the foyer a young man dressed in a trendy blue suit jacket and jeans. I said to him, “You have the best suit at this wedding!” he leaned closer and stated, “I’m the groom.” We laughed and talked for a while and took pictures together. When I left the restaurant he thanked me for dancing at his wedding.

Join us tomorrow for Part 3 as Cliff writes about Khomeini; mosques, churches and fire temples; and the effects of sanctions on Iranians.  

Pomegranate Juice Stand – Tehran, Iran

Fruit of the gods – selling pomegranates Tehran, Iran

All that glitters is Brass

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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!


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.



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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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. 



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

People Have Friends; Governments Have Interests

Tehran University

When I first began dating my husband, I would joke that I dated him and 30 Iranians. Cliff had hundreds of friends. And most of them were International Students at the university he was attending.

During those initial dates we would go to underground Marxist events, Nowruz parties, or sumptuous Wednesday night dinners of kebabs, pilau, torshi, and tea served in special glasses with sugar cubes — all with Iranians. He counted them as among his best friends. Through our courtship and then marriage, they became my friends as well, some of them young men; others whole families. I became convinced that God created Iranian women first and used up so much beauty that there wasn’t much left for the rest of us. Bad theology? Maybe. Truth about their beauty? Absolutely.

It was during the Iran Hostage Crisis that my husband befriended these students and families. In a recent conversation one of his friends admitted that several of them thought he may be with the CIA. Who else asks that many questions?

Iran was not popular with the United States at the time. Three decades have gone by and not much has changed.

I was fortunate to have been able to travel to Iran when I was younger and remember walking busy streets and navigating Tehran traffic followed by delicious meals with friends. I would relay stories of these trips to Cliff and for as long as I’ve known him, he has wanted to go to Iran.

On Saturday this 30+ year dream came true as he left for Iran via Frankfurt for a week visit to this country. He arrived in the wee hours of Monday morning in Tehran with a group called U.S. Academics for Peace. While there the group will be going to Tehran University and Shahid Beheshti (the Iranian National) University for talks and a conference.

“People have friends; Governments have interests” is a quote that I’ve heard many times. Living in the United States affords many of us unique opportunities to form friendships with people who are from countries considered dangerous, countries that are not counted as ‘friends of the United States’. Because we are not our governments. Our decisions on who to love, who to trust, and who to befriend are not dictated by who or what our government does or does not deem ‘safe’. 

Too many times we confuse the two. Subconsciously our attitude becomes: If the United States Government and the mainstream media sources do not trust a country, then we can’t trust people from that same country. If they are on bad terms we must be on bad terms. 

My husband and I are not unique in having Muslims as some of our best friends. We know many Christians who claim the same. And we are among many who believe friendship and dialogue trump government interests and activity every time. As I’ve seen articles and been in conversations there are times when I fear some Christians in the west allow government policies and opinions to dictate their friendships; other times when media sources control their hearts and minds. I would suggest that this is misplaced loyalty creating a poverty of thought and spirit preventing us from befriending and reaching out to those who God has placed around us.

Meanwhile my husband is in Iran, and I am here slightly envious of his opportunity; praying and hoping for meaningful interactions, because people are not governments.

“If we leave it to the mainstream, corporate media to form our conception and understanding of the surrounding world, the entire universe will be a gloomy, failing and disappointing entity in which no sign of hope and dynamism can be found.”

There’s more to say on this topic, but I want to open it up to you. Wherever you live, how does the government and media affect how you view people? Who you will or won’t let into your life? Do you agree with the quote “People have friends; governments have interests?” Why or why not?

*Quote from Kourosh Ziabari — an award-winning Iranian journalist, media correspondent and activist.


Stacy brings us Caesar Mini Muffins this week that look creative and satisfying. She says this “We love Caesar dressing with its sharp fresh lemon juice, salty anchovies, spicy garlic and, of course, the Parmesan cheese that gets heaped on top of the salad. So, I give you: Caesar Mini Muffins.”

Sharing Bedrooms and Dialogue

“See! If more people shared a bedroom when they were juniors in high school, we would have better dialogue in this country!”

This was my comment to a high school friend as we exchanged views on the strong reactive response to Chick-fil-A  last week.

Tina and I were fast friends in high school. Although we knew each other when we were younger, we met again in Pakistan during our junior year. She had just come from school in Iran and I from the United States.

We roomed together. We double dated with Tim and Skip. We talked and laughed late into the night. We fought. We went on 14 hour bus trips, all the time. We shared life in a way most high school kids don’t because it was a boarding school.

I love Tina – I haven’t seen her in years but I still remember her laugh, her acerbic wit, her anger, her tears, and her smiles. In fact she’s the only person from my past who still calls me Mare Bear.

Reconnecting on Facebook I get to see glimpses of all those again — but we are no longer in high school. We have both faced life in all it’s beauty and ugliness; life in all it’s complexity. And we don’t agree all the time. There are strong opinions on various issues – sometimes expressed openly, other times in more subtle ways through posting pictures, articles or the iconic thumbs up Facebook like button.

Dialogue is best done in relationship, over breaking bread, over coffee.

We both have strong convictions that could lead to ugly – but we don’t let ugly happen. We share Facebook bread. I don’t think it’s even conscious; I think it’s just an unspoken recognition that we shared much in the past; a past that very few could connect with or understand and this relationship is foundational to our online communication. It’s not planned – it just is.

I  don’t think it’s easy. Human reactions, emotions and interactions are complex. I also know there are some things that I won’t discuss online, not because I lack conviction but because the potential for misinterpretation is too high, the possibility of offense equally so.

But there are other areas where I think it can and does work and that’s what I want Communicating Across Boundaries to be – an online bedroom of sorts where we dialogue with respect, at the same time not watering down our convictions to please.

And that’s precisely what I see more and more. I am honored  by the thoughtfulness and intelligence in comments; by the real questions asked and the open sharing of conclusions and convictions.

Keep it coming! Share the Communicating Across Boundaries Bedroom. This blog is nothing without you.