The Odyssey
The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Great Satan
April 26, 2000

Click image for larger view
The US is blamed for supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and for shooting down a passenger plane in the Persian Gulf

Sure, I've done things wrong in my life, but for the most part I've tried to live my life in a positive way, hoping to help rather than harm whenever I could. So you can imagine my surprise when I arrived here in Iran and found out that I was a part of the Great Satan. I never thought that I would be associated with something so dreaded, something believed to be so evil. But I guess that is how some people here in Iran perceive least that's what I'm told. Let me explain.

Click image for larger view
The American flag turns into barbed wire imprisoning Iran
"The Great Satan" was the name given to the United States during the Islamic Revolution here in Iran. Iranians blamed the U.S. for supporting a cruel ruler , and for taking advantage of local resources and businesses. They felt that U.S. intervention left them poor and lacking in basic human rights. In addition, the U.S. is the number one supporter of Israel, whom Iranians blame for stealing land from the Palestinians, causing unrest in the Middle East, and taking the holy city of Jerusalem unjustly. Since the revolution, the U.S. has continued to be an "evil" superpower that endlessly attempts to squash and control Iranian politics and supported Iraq during the eight year Iran-Iraq war, imposed severe economic sanctions against Iran, and to top things off Americans shot down an unarmed Iran air plane in the Persian Gulf in 1988!

The Den of Spies

For Americans, the most dramatic and remembered event that has contributed to tense relations between the United States and Iran was the hostage takeover of the American Embassy, or the Den of Spies as it is known here in Tehran. Horrible images of the hundreds of Iranian students who invaded the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979 flooded our TVs and nobody could imagine what horrors those 52 blindfolded American hostages underwent for the 444 days they were in captivity. The students claim they overtook the embassy as a defense against a potential U.S. backed coup d'etat. The Islamic Revolution had finally ousted their hated ruler the Shah and brought into power their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini earlier that year, and in September the Shah had arrived in New York. They were convinced that the U.S. and the CIA were aiding the Shah in gaining power again, similar to the CIA-engineered coup d'etat in 1953. Some of the students even went so far as to piece back together thousands of pieces of paper from a paper shredder in the embassy to figure out the secrets from the Den of Spies.

It was a long, grueling 444 days with failed rescue attempts and suffering relations, while the hostages remained in awful conditions. Can the U.S. ever forgive Iran for such an atrocity? Well, a couple of years ago one of the prisoners who endured the long imprisonment, Barry Rosen, the embassy's former press officer, met face to face with Abbas Abdi, one of the dozen student leaders who planned and directed the hostage taking, in hopes of being an example of reconciliation. While Abdi still justifies the students' need for defense measures back in 1979, he apologizes for the hardships the hostages and their relatives endured. While Rosen does not feel the students' actions were warranted, he is sympathetic to Iranian complaints about U.S. support of the Shah's repressive regime. Both hoped that their meeting could help restart normal relations between the countries and contribute to a better understanding. Perhaps it is finally time to turn that difficult page in history.

Wow, I guess I can't blame Iranians for seeing the U.S. as the "Great Satan," but I had nothing to do with any of that. I was too young to even know about most of those events.

In my country too, Iran has quite a negative image. All I knew about Iran was that they had attacked the American Embassy and kept lots of innocent people hostage for over a year! I had seen many images of their Supreme Ruler, the Ayatollah, on the news--that fierce looking, bearded man in the turban. He always seemed so stern and scary looking on TV and always spoke out against the U.S. He was always surrounded by throngs of supporters holding signs saying "Down with the US" and "Death to America," so all Iranians must be anti-American fanatics right?

Wrong. Just like I had nothing to do with bombing that civilian plane in 1988, most Iranians had nothing to do with holding the Americans hostage back in 1979. It's been over 20 years since the revolution and yet, the governments still haven't figured out a way to come to a mutual understanding and peace. But governments don't make a country. The people do. And from what I've seen over the past five weeks here in Iran, Iranians are far from the hateful, fanatical people I so wrongly imagined long ago. And I'll let you in on a little secret too: They don't all hate Americans either! Far from it. In fact we've found quite the contrary. It is so rare for Americans to come visit Iran that when people find out we're from America, usually they are incredibly pleased to meet us and curious about us. We've been invited to stay in people's homes, to join complete strangers for picnics, and have even had parties thrown merely so friends and relatives could meet the Americans that were visiting! It's been wonderful. Persians are among the sweetest and most hospitable people I have ever met.


atrocity - an act of cruelty and violence that is monstrous
stern - harsh or severe
hospitable - disposed to treat guests with warmth and generosity
depiction - pictures
sentiment - a thought, a view, or an attitude based on feeling or emotion instead of reason

Our guide Hadi has warned us against being too open about the fact that we're American, though. He's always trying to make sure we're not talking too loudly about where we're from or wandering off on our own when we're in the city. There have been times that we've gotten a little frustrated about it, feeling like he's being too overprotective, but today we realized that it's not totally without good reason.

Click image for larger view
Harsh signs outside the embassy

First, the guard at the Department of Foreign Affairs didn't want to let us in to get our visas extended when he saw Brian's American Passport. Then a man drove by the window of our tourist bus and made a very rude gesture at Monica. Hmmmmm....Those are strange things to come across in Iran, where people are usually so overly nice, but we still didn't think much of it. Then we drove by the old American Embassy, and that's when it really sunk in. The old American Embassy, or The Den of Spies as it has come to be known in Iran, has been closed since the hostage crisis over 20 years ago.

Click image for larger view
liberty click thru

Your Turn!!!

What do you think could have made the Iranians so hateful of Americans?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

We expected to find traces of the takeover and possibly old anti-American graffiti, but instead what we found are recently-painted, bright murals graphically and artistically showing "A Portrayal of the Great Satan," including an American hand setting fire to a peaceful image of the post-revolutionary Iran and a sign stating "We will make America suffer a severe defeat." These weren't deteriorating old murals, they were vibrant, recent depictions painted in the last couple years. Hmmmmmm...I guess Hadi's not so crazy and overprotective. There still is a little anti-American sentiment here in Iran, and he was just looking out for us.

Click image for larger view
A hand, with the American flag painted on it, sets fire to the peace and beauty of the Iran of today

But these were only three minor instances during our five week stay here. Every Persian that we've actually met face to face and spoken with has been extremely kind and interested in knowing more about America. Even the government is changing. The recent elections brought in a majority for the Reform Party, which has spoken about trying to establish better relations with the United States and about making the country more liberal in general. Both the Iranian President Khatami, and America's own President Clinton have called for cultural exchanges aimed at bringing down the "wall of mistrust" between the two nations.

Click image for larger view
Are we willing to hear the other side?

I'm very grateful that I have had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country, and now more than ever before realize the importance of cultural exchanges. Too often all we know about another country comes from TV and magazines and is only about the governments. You can learn so much more about a culture from the daily life of the people, than you ever could from the actions of presidents. (The people that make up a nation have many more riches to share than a president or his or her parliament.) I truly hope for those of you that have been reading our dispatches throughout our stay in Iran that your "walls of mistrust" have been broken forever, opening the way to true communication and understanding.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - Tehran - The BIG 10
Kavitha - The Jesus of Iran
Monica - Failure, and What We Can Learn from It
Team - Punishing Iran: 20 Years and Counting

Meet Kavitha | Kavitha's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info
Meet Kavitha