Thursday, May 31, 2007


I've decided to revive this blog. It's been a year since coming to and going from Iran and it continues to become farther away for me. But I'm still in contact with some people there, I regularly hear stories from Americans who visit, and I follow the news. The organization I work with, Peace Action, has called for in-district lobby visits through next Wednesday (June 6). The purpose is for people to call, write, or visit their congress person to push for diplomatic solutions to the issues we have with Iran. Two weeks ago, congress failed to pass a resolution reasserting congressional authority to declare war (a bill aimed at preventing the President from declaring war on Iran). Here in New York, our congress people need to hear that we do not want more U.S. generated bellicosity in the Middle East or to Iran and they need to hear that people can be concerned about the security of Israel and also be against the 'tough line' against Iran.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Other things to mention before I stumble up to bed....

We have spent much of our trip visiting historical sites - in additon to NGO's and other groups. We go to Persepolis and hear: 'this gate 20 meters tall, was guarded by two beautiful huge limestone bulls from the Assyrian tradition. The heads were removed in the 19 century and are now in Chicago'. We go to (forgive my spelling) parsegaad - paradise garden. The place the word paradise originated from and we hear 'there used to be an ancient wall around the site but when the French came the needed a building to store the treasures there were taking from here so they took apart the wall and built that little house over there to store things before taking them out of the country.' In Nantaz (again, forgive the spelling), at a beautiful 16th century mosque: the tiles and mihrab (the area in the mosque that is like the gateway to mecca) are now at the Louvre. This makes me really mad. These things should be here, in their historic homes. From a peace perspective , tourism can create direct and personal relationships between people of different countries, depending on how it's done. This connection can help form bonds and ultimately, limit misunderstanding. If people can see Iran's treasures in Berlin, why bother go to Iran? People here seem to want a stronger tourism industry. The people I have spoken to are proud of their country and their heritage and they want to share it.

We visited the tombs of Saadi and Hafez - two famous Iranian poets from the 13th and 14th century. These tombs aren't American tombs. They are huge, beautiful garden parks full of roses and orange trees. Each tomb is in a beautiful gazebo like building. Both are major destinations. Some families visit every week. From what I have seen, you cannot separate Iran from it's poets. Poetry seems to permeate every aspect of society very deeply. We hear poetry used when men do exercises, poetry is on t.v in the morning with beautiful pictures of gardens and butterflies, poetry is regularly quoted. People pride themselves for memorizing many of Hafez's works. Over half of the people I've spoken to here have spoken to me about poetry or quoted me poetry. One of our delegation members has a teeshirt with a Saadi stanza on it in Farsi and English. This stanza is carved over the main entrance door of the UN. People noticed and commented.
At the tomb of Hafez, the place was hopping. There were hundreds of people. Each one went up to his tomb, knelt, touched it and said some words. Many cried. People had small books of his poetry. Some use these books to divine future results (asking a question, closing your eyes, turning to a page and reading the answer). One young woman there had her Hafez book open and was weeping. A man came up to her (we all think he was a stranger), handed her his cell phone and said 'here, give him a call' (not Hafez, but the boy she was probably weeping about)
So much more....... tomorrow. Good night.

women in Iran

Yay! Back in Tehran and back on the internet. So much has happened between my last post now. Coming back to Tehran has felt, in spite of the polluted air, like a fresh breath or like coming home.

I've written 82 pages in my notebook since we left Tehran and my head is really stewing with all the perceptions, sites, questions and gaps I'm taking in. There are a lot of similiarities between Americans and Iranians. Both in terms of what individuals want and how they think about the world. And there also seem to be some very big cultural differences - things I see somewhat but, because I don't speak the language and this is a short trip, I can't develop much understanding about.In the past couple of days, a lot of my thoughts and questions have been swirling around the roles of women: what it means to be a woman here, how do respect and power between the sexes play out, what comes from Islam and what are much older, more ingrained cultural patterns, how do these play out now, what is the role of women in the U.S., etc. The role of women seems to be one of the trigger issues that get highlighted in Western media and encourage the depersonalization and 'foreigness' people often feel about folks in many middle eastern countries. I think this contributes a lot to tensions between Iran and the U.S.We visited Persepolis, the ruins of a royal city from the time of the Persian Empire, 500 bc, when 23 separate nations pledged allegiance to the Persian, Zoroastrian King. Persepolis is awe inspiring and breathtaking. Two things about women stuck in my head. First, in all the beautiful and detailed bass reliefs and carvings, there are no images of women anywhere. Second, the Queen's palace, close to the center of the compound, was built below ground.Family space was private and separate from daily affairs. Even 2500 years ago the cultural roots were deep and strong.

Everywhere we've gone, there have been few images of women. Again and again we have heard and seen and felt how important relationships between men and women are, how they are equal in the eyes of God (unlike Adam and unfortunate Eve), how important family is, how respecting your mother is the first, second, third and fourth thing you can do, and how strong, educated and powerful the women are here.

We were in Qom (a very holy, religious and conservative city) yesterday and, entering a famous mosque, we women had to put on the chador (which means tent in Farsi). The chador is basically a slightly shaped large piece of cloth that gets draped around the outside of the body. Kind of like wrapping yourself up in a sheet. It goes over your head and you hold in closed with your hand in front of your chest. It was awkward and unwieldy (and didn't smell so great since it was a loaner) but my extremely strong reaction to wearing it had nothing to do with the difficulties in movement. I felt claustrophic. I felt irritated. I felt like crying. We were ushered into a room that was set up for men on one side and women on another. In this environment, wrapped in this sheet I was struck at how there was no way I could understand what women's dress means to Iranian women because my very Western, post-feminist reactions are so strong. I felt like I needed to push for some kind of direct engagement- some kind of proof I was seen. And, though I think some women here may have similar reactions, most of them seem to have a very different relationship to the whole thing.

I've spoken to many women about this experience since then - other delegation members, Iranians and a Menonite American woman who has lived in Qom with her husband the past two and a half years (they are both going to religious school). And it seems clear that I don't understand it - I think that is common to most of us in the U.S. It also seems clear that wearing the chador is an actual choice by many women. Not a choice of the type that, if they don't, there will be supreme reprecussions, but an actual choice. It represents different socio-political statements, it allows for more freedom of movement and I'm sure a million other things. Of the people I've spoken to, many said they would eagerly ditch their headscarves, and many said they like covering and covering fully.

In these discussions we have also talked about domestic violence, rape, education, and family planning since these often have a large impact on womens' lives and may get lumped into the discussion on covering. It is my sense, after two brief weeks, that women in Iran have many challenges - legally, and culturally, especially those in very rural areas. However, that's not the whole situation: I've heard the quality of healthcare is good, family planning services are offered widely and aren't stigmatized, there are more women in university than men, women occupy many positions in most fields of business, and women in Iran have more freedom of movement than most middle eastern countries. I spoke to one man about a famous Iranian woman race car driver. He said that there are many women race car drivers (and engineers, doctors, professors, etc.) and that the only time he came in second place (he was a race car driver) in a race was to a woman. He also said women can and should do anything they want, as long as their heads were covered.

The main thing I get from these converations is that the issues are complicated. And, as someone who does not understand it and live with it, all I can do is keep the question open and continue to recognize my gap in understanding. Also, if peace between Iranian people and American people is the intention (and it is very much my intention), it is much more productive to look at and work to understand our commonalities, to work on understanding how we define different ideas, what our shared values are, than to first, second and only, relate to and get upset about the things we don't really understand. This doesn't mean there needs to be agreement but there needs to be the space for dialogue about the commonalities, and the not knowing.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Update on Melissa (posted by her husband in NYC.)

Received a message from Melissa at around 4:30pm Sunday, EST which would make it around midnight in Iran. Everything is going well-- a lot's been happening. Unfortunately we don't get to read her latest blog (a very slow internet connection kept her from posting it). I got a quick message saying that they're in Isfahan. Things are going well. They should be back in Tehran on the 18th or 19th.

They'll be appearing on International CNN on Wednesday morning, for all of you with cable.

She said she hasn't been able to access her email account.

That's it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

miham karte internet hemaram (I want to buy an internet card)

Good evening everyone. I hope you're all good. Right now I'm sitting outside the cafe in our hotel in Shiraz called Hotel Pars. Pars was the original name for Persepolis which is an amazing ancient city just outside of Shiraz.

Today we visited an organization run by the city of Iran that gives job training, counseling and classes (including English) to single mothers whose husbands have died or are in jail or are drug addicts. They learn to make rugs and other things that they, as a co-op sell in the local bazaar. They form and manage the co-op themselves, with help from this organization. This structure helps them buy supplies, maintain an income, etc. I bought a beautiful hand embroidered caftan from them for a whopping $15. We also went shopping for manteaus and scarves today. The interesting thing was that both stores we went to were staffed entirely by men. I asked about it and apparently that isn't the norm but there is no concern or problem with it. The whole division of the sexes thing seems talked up in our media way more than is true now. Perhaps it was that way just after the revolution. The only time we have had to be separated is going through security at the airport in case we need to be searched and have to take the manteaus and scarves off. And though the whole manteau/scarf thing is to preserve modesty, the guys certainly look. The only people who seem to wear the chador (black from head to foot but the face is not covered) are very religious women or older women who (perhaps?) don't really want to wear anything more fitted (like our mumus or sweat suits?)

We went to the Iranian Art and Islamic Culture Museum today as well. Some things I learned: when the Arab invaders came in around 600 ad it took the Persians 200 years to convert to Islam from Zoroastrianism. Many Persians moved to India, to Parsis and have become a quite established and powerful presense there. Persians invented forks and spoons 1700 years ago. When a trader brought them to Europe the church forbid people to use them because they were like the devils pitchfork. The museum didn't have a huge amount of stuff. Why? Because most of it was taken by the British (and the French) when they occupied the area and is in Western museums. If they were nice they sent back a replica. We saw a replica of the code of Hamurabi that the Persians stole from Babylon when they took it over in 1160 bc. It was in Iran for a long time but is now in France in a museum.

We flew from Tehran to Shiraz on an airplane leased from Russia to Iran. Apparently Iran has trouble getting airplane parts because of the US embargo on Iran. So, leasing is the best way to do things. I was pretty afraid of the flight before coming over. I pictured fiery crashes on a mountainside. The flight was incredibly smooth and comfortable. Everywhere we go we're given little juice boxes - orange, pineapple, or mango juice. The flight was no exception.

Our hotel is quite Western. There's a big screen flat monitor tv in the lobby. European light switches, compact flourescent bulbs, cool modern couches and a pool table. Before coming down to write the e-mail I was in my hotel room watching a sewing show on tv. The woman on the show wore a chador but was showing us how to sew mini-skirts among other things. You can wear miniskirts over pants and a shirt with a headscarf.

I heard a lot of complaints about the government today. Two sisters, one 26 and one 24 walked up to me and started talking about their frustration with the job situation in the country. One of them trained to be an electrical engineer in the university (university is free here) but cannot get a job in that field because there aren't any. So she makes rugs now. They want to come to the U.S. Most of the population here is under 30 and it looks like the frustration with the current situation is really building.

I've also heard a lot about people's frustration with the U.S. People seem to be very concerned that Westerners might think of them as backward, uneducated, barbarians (more how Persians describe Arabs who they put down). That's one of the main questions we're asked: how do people think of Iran in the U.S. And I realize how off our pictures are. I researched this country quite a bit before coming and I'm having so many things blown out of the water. For example, the quiet submissive women covered in black - not true. Less than 5% of the country attends Friday prayers (Friday is like our Sunday) because it's become politicized. Only government officials and the extremely devout attend. Our tour guide said that, generally, only 12 percent of people attend prayers at other times. Most people pray at home if they pray. People are frustrated at how misunderstood they are and how misunderstood their country is. They have been occupied by foreign invaders for much of their history and, from what I've heard and read, they've never had a good experience with that. There is a huge desire to join the world community, to become the sophisticated, modern country they were under the shah, but on their terms. I hear this over and over. And this is pretty much the subtext in the English translated Iranian papers.

Another interesting thing. People here love western movies. And they get them quickly. It comes out in the theater in Europe and the next week people are watching it in Tehran. Bootleg copies on DVD via Turkey. A lot of the manteaus came from Turkey as well.

Apparently we were on Democracy Now today (someone just told me) in some kind of stream. I can't find it right now but maybe someone can look?

Sahar (my Farsi speaking half Iranian roomate) and I have been having interesting language conversations about the perceptual differences caused by each language's grammar.

Good night. I'll try to post more tomorrow since I've heard people are reading these.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

salaam as Iran

Hello from Iran!

We are having a fantastic time and learning a lot. Timothy wrote a little post about our orientation.
We arrived in Tehran Monday night around 9 pm Tehran time (only 7.5 hours ahead of est) It's about 10 pm now and I'm pretty exhausted but I really want to share a bit about our trip so far. I really like it here. The images of a bleak, gray country with women head to toe in black and no one laughing or smiling are completely inaccurate.

Some impressions - much more engagement between people - on the street (families at the airport taking over the pick up and drop off lane for a chatting and hugging area), bright colors and lights all over the place, beautiful murals (mostly of martyrs but very beautiful), incredibly lush and green, snowcapped mountains just north of the city, very interesting architecture and what appears to be a lack of attention to structural and facade concerns, women in a huge range of outfits - no one looking or acting beaten down, oppressed, etc. and holding a very broad range of jobs.

Iranians began to engage us before the plane had even taken off from Paris: 'why are you coming to Iran?' 'We're so glad you're coming to visit, we love Americans, we want to share our culture with you. etc.' We were treated well and handled quickly at customs. Our tour guide (state sanctioned) and helper (our advocate - not state sanctioned) are both really delightful. Very friendly and generous. Boming out of customs, we were greeted by BBC tv cameras and a reporter. No one knows how they knew we'd be there but apparently some in the group were on the BBC. Today reporters from the AP and Reuters interviewed people from the delegation.

My roomate is half Iranian and is an academic in San Francisco. This is her first time in Iran and she was able to meet her mother's family. The reunion was quite emotional and happy for everyone. Her cousin brought a ton of food for our room - Iranians love food. Good chips, cookies and fake beer here (no alcohol).

This morning we woke at 6:30, ate breakfast together in the hotel dining room (nan bread like in India, cucumber and tomato slices, hard boiled eggs, yogurt and a ton of delicious green olives)and were out on the road by 7:45 am. Our first meeting was with the Shahid Behesti University UNESCO Chair for Human Rights, Peace and Democracy. About 10 people came from the department, we sat in a circle and had an excellent conversation about what the department is doing in Iran, how its work fits in the broader Iranian culture, obstacles, opportunities, misperceptions by the West and by Iran regarding human rights, what democracy means and many other things. It seemed to me that these people talked with candor and I learned a lot. We hope to meet with them again later in the trip to talk more.

After that we went straight to our second meeting with a news bureau that handles Iranian cultural and historic affairs. The conversation was somewhat limited because they wanted to know about our impressions of Iranian historical and cultural sites. Having seen none yet, there wasn't much to say. However, we spoke about the role of historical and cultural sites and other important parts of heritage and how each culture relates to them. I wanted to ask them about freedom and repression in the news media but we were encouraged to save these types of questions for interactions one-on-one and there wasn't an opportunity.

Our final meeting was with an NGO that works with victims of chemical weapons. It was eye opening, moving, inspiring and helped make sense of some of Iran's previously incomprehensible responses to the UN and other organizations. There may be more about this on the FOR post that should be up tomorrow. I was struck again by how little we, as Americans, pay attention to the impact of our actions (or inactions). Peace has no space until we become aware of that.

At each meeting, people expressed their gratitude that we made the trip, that we are interested in their culture and we want to promote peace between both countries. It seems like Iranians want that too very much. We have buttons with a dove on them that says Peace in Farsi. We've been giving them to everyone we meet with.

We just finished dinner and now it's time for bed. Tomorrow we'll buy manteaus (it's hot!)and hit two museums. Sab Bexeir! (good night)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Notes about the trip from a Catholic retreat center in Long Island.

Melissa's husband is posting the following:

FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation) started immediately prior to WWI. It founded the Civil Liberties Union. It organized the first Freedom Ride in 1947, as part of the civil rights movement.

The group of twenty going to Iran are in retreat at present; learning about Iran, their mission to "extend the hand of peace" and each other. They are from divergent backgrounds: artist, physicist, peace activist, student, real estate, publishing etc. One of the many things they'll be learning today will be the wearing of head scarves, along with other cultural nuances. They'll be flying out of JFK this evening for Paris, then on to Tehran.

Yesterday they discussed the significance of doing things as a group. One main reason was to make for less confusion in their comings and goings.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

I've been packing today. One perk to the female dress code - scarf + manteau + pants - is that my luggage is a lot lighter.
A wonderful book to read about Iran - All the Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer. It's an easy read and gives a good look at the history of Western involvement (exploitation) in Iran and how the U.S. toppling of Mossadegh in the 1953 (I think) directly set the stage for the Revolution in '79. Over and over again, our problem solving mechanisms do seem to create larger problems for the future.
Sab bexeir (good night) pronounced saab be'hair with an h like you're clearing your throat.