The amethystine asterism dotted the night, bewitching like diamonds, the cosmos shone upon the Persian Gulf. The Milky Way stretched to the ocean. A full-moon submerged into the endless skyline, like a nihilistic world of mystery. The night, emerald-colored, cannot be found outside the Arabian world. My mind calmed, then mesmerized to sleep by this fairy tale of Arabian Nights. I praised it, and said “good night.”
I was afraid. It was my first time considering flinching; anxieties came from the realization this was the last hour in this journey. Because later when the aeroplance berthed on the isolated turmoil of Persian dessert, I would have to explore it with eyes wide open.
“Do not take any American stuff; do not speak English; please be safe…” It did not surprise me to see people’s reaction because of the global demonization of Iran since its nuclear crisis and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Moreover, George W. Bush had listed Iran along with Iraq and North Korea as the “Axis of Evil”. The warnings made me consider the risks and values of this trip. However, I never allow myself to look back.
To recover my confidence, I reminded myself of the reason was there. I always seek similarities in cultures rather than differences while traveling. Whether we had impediments to language, race, religion, nationality or even political affiliation, one fact, besides all of those obstacles, is we are human. Thus, there should be a fundamental base to establish the possibility for communication, since we all share the common sense of kindness, evil, happiness, fear, and pain. Consequently, it surprised me when people warned me not to be naïve, and that an Iranian might do everything to me out of desperation in poverty. Really? I firmly believed people are born innocent in any environment.
The City of Tehran’s tawny miracle that illuminates the night sky along with the Persian moon effaced all my curiousness until my airplane’s landing. I had a calm sleep. On this desert of ancient civilization, an isolated nation did not seem aloof ̶ it kept the industrial pace and electricity flow among buildings.
Propaganda lined the walls (see the picture above). The “Statue of Liberty” was altered to “Statue of Evil”. The walls that abutted the former U.S. Embassy earned an appellation, “Anti Arrogance Aban 13th museum”, by the Iranian government. Or “Anti-United States Museum”, in an unexaggerated sense.
That was where the Iranian Hostage Crisis fired up on 4th November, 1979. Iranian university students were supported officially, ring-fenced and broke into the U.S. Embassy, took it over and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostages for 444 days. Mahdi Farahani, a manager at Anti Arrogance 13th Museum, explained the situation.
“There were 400 (disputable) students,” Farahani said. “Three hundred boys and 100 girls, by the time they arrived they wanted to take over the embassy, based on two reasons: 1, pressuring the U.S. government to return Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Iran. 2, wanted to prevent another coup time [sic] in Iran.”
The delinquent, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who overthrew the religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini, during the Coup of 1953, in Iranians’ mind, was backed by the United States and the United Kingdom. Policies that westernized Iran, and infringed on the traditional Islamic faith, were a symbol of indulging corruption and threw citizens to destitution. Years later, Khomeini led the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, supported by several Islamists, leftist organizations and secretly, by the Soviet Union.
The Islamic Revolution exiled Pahlavi from Iran and founded the new Islamic Republic of Iran as a theocratic country. Pahlavi’s westernization ended, and conservative Islamic faith returned. Students were roused by Pahlavi’s attempt to have lymphoma treatment in the United States. The Iranian Hostage Crisis transpired. The students used hostages as a bargain chip to pressure the U.S. not to interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs, and to ask for the return of Pahlavi, the historic sinner. The de facto U.S. President at the time, Jimmy Carter, called the hostages “victims of terrorism and anarchy” and announced that the United States would not yield to blackmail.
For me, Iran is genuinely the sacrificial lamb of the inevitable Cold War that was resultant from conflicting believes. Leninism, a vanguard party established by Vladimir Lenin based on Marxism, just found an excellent chance to defend the western Capitalism. By visiting the “Anti-United States Museum,” I realized that two nations’ honeymoon had ended and may not appear again until World War III or another coup. Propaganda slogans such as “Down with U.S.A” are still painted, stretching on an entire wall. A caricature of Donald Trump is painted on a giant board that stood on the yard of the embassy, “The American elite(s) feel ashamed of having such a president”, said the caption. Brochures criticizing what the West has done in Iran “In the Name of God” were distributed “to the youth of western countries”, and printed in English.
Do they really hate Americans? I wondered. Political propaganda of “Anti-United States” was everywhere in the City of Tehran. However, Pepsi and Coca-Cola were also favored in Iran; iPhones were fashionable, just like anywhere else.
“American people? We are friends,” Farahani said, “we are friends, we are not having any problem. The only problem is [sic] the government and the politics… The U.S. government appears intent [sic] to distribute fake media, so the reality is not shown to the public, so they (the Iranian government) decided to open this (the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran) as a museum. The propaganda there then shows the world, especially the tourists there, to understand the reality of here… Like the movie Argo, they were just trying to show the thing they want, not the reality.”
The movie Argo was based of the CIA operation operation of the same name, which rescued six American diplomats during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. It is undeniable that Argo was a one-sided representation of the U.S. government’s view. In the museum, the CIA’s machines were exhibited. Annotations said these machines are the evidence of America spying on Iran. The museum wanted to showcase what the interfering imperialism of the western countries, especially the U.S., had done to Iran, to the world.
I felt strange, it is no longer a secret that every single consulate in the world had spying facilities, but why did Iranians need to prove it to the public? “Oh, of course,” I muttered.
“History is written by the victor, distributed by its authority, but remembered by all innocent people.”
Farahani’s answer to my question showed me that he believes humans are innocent, too. His words reminded me of a Wendy Sherman’s speech at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in October 2015. It was three months after the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal)” had been signed.
The United States was leading a negotiation to limit Iran’s nuclear technology. This 18- day negotiation was excruciating and froze the negotiators from all around the world in a meeting room at the Vienna Marriott Hotel. National representatives of negotiators had been revised the deal over and over, yet Iran had rejected whatever requirements they proposed. Since the Iranian government was holding many centurial grudges against the western nations, this negotiation was definitely not based on a fundamental trust. They were almost desperate, this negotiation was destined for failure.
At the moment they almost decided to discard it. Both Sherman, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s chief negotiator and Minister of Foreign Affairs, were told of their grandchildren’s births, coincidentally. They became a grandma and the grandpa during those 18 days. Happiness made it impossible not to share their surprise with each other. Thus, during the coldest international negotiation, when the two were saddled with their country’s responsibilities and context, Sherman and Zarif were caught off-guard, and they gawked at pictures of their newborn grandchildren and exclaimed, “So Cute!”
This was brilliant! It dissolved everybody’s tension at that very moment. We all are today’s children and tomorrow’s parents. After realizing this, the negotiators endeavored to do their very best.
The result of their effort was that in July 2015, the Iran Nuclear Deal was officially signed, and the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was maintained again. In exchange for Iranian giving up their nuclear development, the international society started ending the “Sanctions Against Iran.” Iran’s economy rekindled. This country was now opening its door to the world, spreading the wonder of its civilized Persian charm. Despite that, the revival had just started.
Reborn and grow
In the CBD of Tehran, some people were standing at the currency exchange centers, copying down and reporting the currency rates from the bliping screen. Banks in Iran were not linked to the global financial system, so foreign credit cards did not work within Iran. Conversely, a majority of currency exchange agencies outside of Iran do not accept or offer Iranian Rial, so international visitors traveled to Iran brought major currencies and exchanged them upon arrival.
Though there are many obstacles for Iranian people to engage in global trade, their economy started developing domestically; catching up with the world to modernize public facilities everywhere in their country. Even in some cities which lagged behind, such as Shiraz, I saw an integrated modern metro system, which had been built in a few modernized countries such as UAE, China, Singapore, and Japan. In other major cities such as Esfahan and Tehran, BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), a new type of bus transportation, had become a major means of transportation for Iranian citizens. In public parks, there were marbled geysers, and uniformed staff irrigating plants. Categorized litter bins were at street sides.
In the Naqsh-E Jahan Square (above), one of the most popular sights in Esfahan, people enjoyed their time, chatting, bicycling, dating, just like the rest of the world. Students that were assigned English homework were video interviewing the rare foreigners about their opinions of Iran: Do they like here? Do they think Iran is safe? Also, What’s the most remarkable thing here? Foreign visitors were still a novelty for Iranian people, so much that I was always asked to partake selfies with local people, at least twice a day. Iranians cared about the outside world’s opinions, they wanted the world to know their country more and more; they wanted their country to grow stronger and stronger, just like everybody else.
Those students’ naïveté reminded me that genuine change in a biased ideology was possible by recognizing their instinctive emotion which shone the light of innocence in the darkness of militarism. Suki Kim, a woman who went undercover posing as an English teacher in North Korea, taught students who were expected to be the future leader of the nation.
“They lie so often and so easily,” Kim said in a Ted Talk. “Whether about the mythical accomplishments of their Great Leader, or the strange claim that they cloned a rabbit as fifth graders… They lie to shield their system from the world, or they were taught lies, and were just regurgitating them. Or, at moments, they lied out of habit. But if all they have ever known were lies, how could we expect them to be otherwise?”
Formatted education banned critical thinking, brainwashed the ideal that the DPRK is the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation, and the rite of honoring their Great Leader occupied their free time. All of this education happened on the heavily guarded campus of Pyongyang University of Science & Technology, which forbade students from reaching others included their families. And everywhere was bugged.
A revealing, sincere emotion in a student’s personal letter touched Kim’s soul and made her give up the idea of telling her students the truth and opening their minds. She came to adore her students after really searched their hearts; she just realized how dangerous it is to attempt to change others recklessly:
“They wrote that they were fed up with the sameness of everything, they were worried about their future. In those letters, they rarely ever mentioned their Great Leader,” Kim said. “During those months of living in their world, I often wondered if the truth would, in fact, improve their lives. I wanted so much to tell them the truth… But for them, the truth was dangerous. By encouraging them to run after it, I was putting them at risk ̶ of persecution, of heartbreak… My dear gentlemen, I don’t want you to lead a revolution, let some other young people do it. The rest of the world might casually encourage or even expect some sort of North Korean Spring, but I don’t want you to do anything risky, because I know in your world, someone is always watching. I don’t want to imagine what might happen to you if my attempts to reach you have inspired something new in you. I would rather you forget me and become soldiers of your Great Leader, and live long, safe lives.”
Due to incomprehension, misunderstanding and a misleading media, the world treats Iran as a mysterious country of chaos. Granted, Iranian’s national condition is different to North Korea, the interference in others’ lives, forcing them to change in case of everything is unknown, would put those innocent people in danger as just what Kim had almost done to her students, which might leads insurrection.
Iranians’ ideology embraces neither Westernism nor Orientalism. Only Islamism. Nowadays people would like to call it a theocracy, or some would call it a dictatorship. Intellectuals do have the right to criticize, but you and I never ever have the right to decide what should Iran be and how the Iranians should live. Iranians have their own logic of managing their country since only Iranians know what Iranians want. I understand their logic, and I recognize it. And I heartfeltly hope that we, as the outside world, can leave them alone and watch for the metamorphosis when the innocent Iranians transform their country into a beautiful butterfly.
My discoveries in Iran have refreshed my opinion of this “third-world country.” Although I had met tourists from the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden, I had not seen any Canadian, American or British, I knew they are afraid of visiting Iran.
Iran is a theocracy, rigid religion takes the role of leading people’s faith. Iranians smile so naturally, I never felt the danger the media articulates. At the end of my journey, I did not even want to call it an adventure, as Iran is much safer than I’ve ever imagined. Poverty does not lead Iranians to desperation, and Iran is not like everybody thinks it is.
My past experiences structure my opinion of the world. During my last Thanksgiving trip to Sri Lanka, I realized that innocence could be emphasized once it is apart from ostentatious vanity. Admittedly, we are afraid of the unknown, but I believe the unknown is the only thing we’ve ever been afraid of.
Every time I take a step to start a new journey, my mind is always peaceful. I want to see how we are the same, how we can still be the same as we live in different cultures or lands even those that are isolated. I hope I can always keep this traveling style and the real world shall not force me to change what I believe: We all are born innocent.
Copyedited by Xipu Li
Originally published on The Feather: https://www.thefeather.com/2017/12/04/column-my- discovery-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran/