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Middle East Monica Dispatch

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Failure, and What We Can Learn from It
April 26, 2000

We have been on the road since five this morning, racing to cross the barren, dusty stretch of desert between Tabas and Yazd before the heat of the sun makes us stop. The landscape here, in Khorasan province, is dry and windy. A two-lane road winds through the sand, and Samad and Sayed Ali alternate driving while the rest of us snooze. Outside, I see bent trees and the old remains of caravansari stops. The colors of the earth alternate between red, brown, tan, and gold, and camels pick their way through the rocks. See Abeja's April 12th dispatch.

Without warning, Sayed Ali lurches to a stop. I glance out the window and don't see anything different. What's happening? We all hop out of the bus, the women tying on headscarves. Kavitha brings a pen and paper and I carry a camera; it's time to find out the significance of this site, here in the middle of nowhere!

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A metal sign in the middle of the desert

Outside the bus, a bent metal sign proclaiming "Down with USA" catches my eye. There is nothing else around us except desolation. Abeja points out a dried-out goat hoof at the foot of the sign. Where are we?

Louie, our translator, explains this is a memorial marking the spot where United States military forces attempted to land and rescue the hostages being held in the US Embassy in Tehran. By all accounts, this rescue attempt was a botched effort. It left eight Americans dead and five wounded, and the hostages continued to be held, for a total of 444 days in all. In Louie's words, "It wasn't a good plan. They were going to land here and thought they could go all the way to Tehran with nobody finding out." I nod in agreement, seeing as we are hundreds of kilometers from the capital.


desolation - ruin
botched - fouled up hopelessly
flagellate - whip
otherness - state of being different
portrayal - description; picture
prejudice - an irrational attitude of hostility against an individual, group or race, or their supposed characteristics
assumption - to think something is true without proof
preconception - what you thought of someone or something before you encounter them or it

If you don't remember the hostage crisis, ask people older than you to see if they remember the endless news commentary and a day-by-day countdown of the hostage situation. Much of the coverage at the time showed Iran as an indescribably alien country where Shi'a Muslims flagellate themselves, leaders cannot think beyond strict Islamic rulings, and people in general hate Americans for no reason. This sense of otherness continues to be a source of distrust. For example, a childhood classmate emails me the story of his Persian friend, who "looks very Iranian" and had to pretend he was Italian so other guys wouldn't pick on him. It didn't work. He got beat up one day during the hostage situation, simply because he was Iranian.

At the time, the portrayal of Iran in the American media was no different from the portrayal of the United States in Iranian media. America was called the "Great Satan," and its policies of cultural domination and its support of the State of Israel were denounced continuously.

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for larger view
Abeja in front of the pillar

Nowadays, that portrayal still reflects in the monument where we have stopped. A small pillar across from the "Down with USA" sign has two lines of Arabic and then some Farsi. Louie reads the Farsi, "The United States cannot do anything. One night the Great Satan, that means America, invaded Iran and they didn't know that this country is kept by God. The fifth day of the second month of 1359. We are going to celebrate this day. This monument has been made at the fifth day of the second month of 1377." Keep in mind that this is the Persian calendar, and we just celebrated No Ruz; this is the new year of 1379.

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The memorial. See our bus in the background?
graffiti of the Hizbollah symbol: a rifle in a bandaged hand

Other cars are stopping by the side of the road and other people are coming to see the signs and the pillar, as curious as we are to see this small monument. We go for a walk to see another sign, standing a little apart farther up the road. On this sign, there is a legend inscribed in Farsi that draws similarities between a foreign army's attempt to capture the holy Muslim city of Mecca and the United States' attempt to infiltrate Iran. "Thirteen hundred years ago, some people went to destroy Mecca," it reads. "But seagulls attacked the army of the enemy with small stones." It continues, "The fifth day of the second month, we celebrate the day the United States was crashed in Tabas." At the bottom of the sign is more Farsi, reading "Tabas City. Hizbollah. Iran. From Tabas." Louie notices a small Hizbollah sign spray-painted in the top right corner: a rifle in a bandaged hand. We had earlier seen this symbol in a mosque in Ghazvin, so we recognized it, too.

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Sayed Ali, Hady, and Louie: our Iranian friends

We pause for a moment and look out at the empty expanse of desert, then pile back into the van for the rest of our day-long trip. Once on the road again, I muse about prejudices and assumptions and how those can form such a large part of Iranian-American relations, if we let them. I ask you to take a moment to examine your own prejudices and assumptions about other cultures. What do you believe about Iranians?

Now, I ask you to keep those preconceptions in mind as you continue to learn about other cultures with us.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - Tehran - The BIG 10
Kavitha - The Jesus of Iran
Kavitha - The Great Satan
Team - Punishing Iran: 20 Years and Counting
Team - Earth Day: a Celebration and a Reminder

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