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Middle East Brian Dispatch

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Taught to Fear, Told What to Think: Revelations in Iran
April 29, 2000

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We take a little break on our road trip and enjoy the beginning of spring
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The sun is high in the sky and the trees have begun to bloom here in the hills of Iran. I have almost shaken the chill of the Turkish winter from my bones by now. Grass is sprouting up on hillsides everywhere, transforming brown stretches into vast expanses of green. We continue to roll along on the greatest Iranian road trip of all time; five trekkers in a bus barreling to all corners of this marvelous country. We have been up, down, right, left, under, over and through most of Iran, and we are not even done yet.

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Signs like this one are something we expected to see...
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As Iran rolls by our window we see some things we expected and others that we did not expect. Billboards and murals of the Ayatollah Khomeini loom over the streets, decorated with colorful messages written in Farsi. When we ask our translator Louie what they say, he doesn't want to tell us, but after enough pestering he translates it for us: "America cannot do anything."

Occasionally we see graffiti in English that says "Down with the USA." Yes, we expected this; we were afraid of this. The U.S. embassy warned us about traveling in Iran, and in fact they encouraged us to avoid it altogether. It is funny to think about how scared we were when we first arrived here, because these were the only things we knew to expect.

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But now we have been in Iran for several weeks, and the unexpected pleasures far outweigh the expected fears. I have been approached many times in the streets by Iranians eager to practice their English and learn more about this interesting group of world trekkers. When I tell them I am from America, their responses are often unexpected. Instead of hostility I encounter genuine kindness. Some have expressed interest in American universities; one young man even asked Jasmine for the address of the University of Southern California so he could send away for information. Several people have discussed the effects of the revolution with me and even voiced their discontent with the direction that the country is taking.

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...but we were pleasantly surprised to meet so many friendly people!
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When we hear of revolutions in foreign countries, it often seems that the entire country, every single person, has risen up and demanded a change. The television broadcasts pictures of angry demonstrations and sometimes even riots, and if a new government takes over it is easy to assume that everyone's needs have been satisfied. When we hear of Iran in the news it may seem like all Iranians are the same; that they all hate America and fully support the Islamic revolution.

But I have learned here that it is not that simple. The only thing that all Iranians share, the only thing that all Americans share, is our humanity. We want to be happy. We want good lives for our children.

Vocabulary

humanity - the condition of being human
pilgrims - a person who takes a journey to some sacred place
shrouded - covered, hidden from view

When we were preparing to enter Iran I studied our guidebooks and read about Iranian history and culture. I looked at the pictures of children playing in the streets and tried to grasp the fact that I would soon be visiting this magnificent country. But as hard as I tried, the pictures still looked like fantasies, and the humanity of these people eluded me. I had been taught to fear this country and these people, and it was very hard to see through my own thoughts into the country itself. This is a problem between Iran and America, and, in fact, the world as a whole. How can we truly see each other when we are told what to think?

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Our guide Hadi has helped bring Iran to life
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When I look at those pictures now, they vibrate with life. I have seen children playing on rooftops in Kordestan and visited Iran's holiest shrine in Mashhad. These things are real, these people are as real as you and me. The sight of thousands of pilgrims praying at the holy shrine of Imam Reza will remain with me for a lifetime.

When traveling in Iran, I don't feel just the rules and regulations of an Islamic republic; I also feel the spirit of Persia, with its traditions that reach back thousands of years. The past twenty years are merely a blip on the screen of this region's history, and many people here live in between the traditions of Persia and the requirements of the Islamic republic. When the billboards on the street proclaim the opinions of the Islamic government and the women on the street walk by in flowing chadors, it is easy to assume that all Iranians think that the revolution met all of their needs and that they agree with the government billboards. But the insides of people's homes tell a different story. The government may impose certain public restrictions, but in the privacy of their homes people live much as they have for centuries; entertaining guests and enjoying themselves.

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This man is cooking bread in a traditional fire oven that has been used for centuries
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Sometimes both of these elements come together at the same time. For example, in Kordestan, our hostess Maryam rushed to the back room and put on her full hejab and chador when a member of the Islamic Party came by for an unexpected visit. And at the picnics celebrating the thirteenth day of No Ruz, several concerned citizens advised us to stick together because the Hezbollah (or Islamic police) started asking questions about our group.

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Iran remains a country of many mysteries
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It sometimes feels like Iran has two parts: the people, and the government. Unfortunately, we often use our knowledge of a country's government to draw our conclusions about its people. I am learning here in Iran that this is a very misleading thing to do. And thankfully, many Iranians feel the same way. We have not been treated like representatives of the "great Satan". Instead we have been welcomed with open arms.

Iran has come to life for me, this country has stepped out of the mystery that shroudedit for many years. But now I am faced with the bigger mystery of learning the history of such a fascinating place. I hope that we are bringing it to life for you as well, and that we can answer all the questions that rise in your minds. Please write to me if you have any specific questions about life here in Iran. I will miss this country and its people when we leave, and I do hope to return someday.

Related Links

http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/980727/27basi.htm
http://www.salamiran.org/


Brian

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...briwingate@bigfoot.com
 

Monica - The Man Behind the Picture: A Tour Through the History of Emam Khomeini
Kavitha - The Tragic Tale of Mahraz
Abeja - Songs To Iran
Monica - Mindin' Your Own Business! A Story About Cross-Cultural Interactions

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