Observations from an American in Iran
By Cindy D. Tan
Cindy D. Tan ’08 attends Harvard College and is a History of Art and Architecture concentrator in Eliot House.
Iranian police cars are recognizable by their clean, white bodies, cobalt blue strips and, most notably, the silver Mercedes medallions perched on their hoods. Often they sit in the shade of a string of tall, leaning pine trees, a few hundred meters behind a clearly marked sign in both Farsi and English announcing their presence. Traffic builds up on the single lane roads at these police roadblocks, and old Peugeots and Renaults wait impatiently to be checked for stashes of opium before being released. The enormous fleet of police cars guarding the roads is comprised of expensive, German-built cars that were purchased some years ago as a result of bloated state budgets and an expanded security program. However, after years of use, damage and deterio-ration, the police budget could no longer meet the cost of basic repair replacement parts. These “Iran super cars” as many locals sarcastically call them, are now used until they become dilapidated old jalopies and are then replaced with Iranian-made cars. There are even YouTube videos of now-censored Iranian TV talk shows that make fun of them. No one was scared of the police then. In fact, it seemed there was very little to be scared about. I was surprised to see how fearless many Iranians were about political and social issues. To an unimaginable degree, the Iranians I met were happy to discuss with me their thoughts and personal feelings on their way of life, their government’s policies and the future of their country.
With the support of an academic fellowship, I traveled to Iran this summer to conduct my senior thesis research on medieval Shi’ite tomb architecture. The nature of my project led me through the desert and mountains and into the most populous cities and remote villages. However, my reasons for traveling went beyond the scope of my academic research. I wanted to see how Iranians, whose country maintains a tenuous position between deep tension with the U.S. and international isolation, saw themselves in light of their country’s controversial stance. I imagined that Iranians were hideously misrep-resented in the media based on discussions I’ve had with my Iranian friends at Harvard who are dual citizens, and overwhelmingly, I found that to be true. Despite travel warnings and pleas by my friends and family not to travel, my month-long sojourn in Iran this summer was marked by the surprising hospitality and warmth with which I was received.
Certainly, people looked on curiously as I walked by, mainly be-cause of my ridiculous ensemble. I wore a heavy raincoat and a thick, black pashmina wrapped tightly around my face. Embarrassingly, I knew that many of the women on the street, by whom I was dread-fully outclassed, stared in wonder at my hot struggle with a constantly slipping headscarf. Fortunately, water was constantly available at mosques and it was common practice to stop on the street and take a sip from tin cups chained to the side of communal fountains. At first I was concerned about how potable the water would be, but I soon I learned to trust the tea and water I was given. I received many invita-tions to have tea and biscuits in the homes of kind strangers. Seeing how exhausted and sunburned I was, Iranians were deeply sympa-thetic; it was an expression of the natural hospitality I found common to Iranians. With each positive experience, my preconceptions of Iranian life were gradually transformed.
State authorities never singled me out for being an American. However, on the streets, my presence often caused a great commotion. When I arrived in the village of Nayriz, it was already twilight and the air had begun to cool. The rounded roofs of the small adobe houses glowed in the warm sunlight and children played in the streets. The afternoon siesta had just ended and life had revived with bustling activity. The shops were open, women bargained for groceries, and old men played chess on the sidewalks. Many families sat on carpets and blankets under the shade of trees and drank tea. It made me happy to see these rich scenes of provincial desert life. I felt fortunate to be among so many people as I passed by brightly colored shops and fragrant bakeries.
My work for the day was near its end and the last site I visited was a dilapidated mosque dating back to the 11th century. The front doors were bolted and I followed a dirt path around the mudbrick structure. I saw a group of young boys playing soccer in the adjoining open lot and as soon as they saw me, they ran up and excitedly shouted, “What’s up? What’s up?” Their greeting, translated from a sitcom on Iranian television, must have been the only English they knew. They all wore short-sleeved button-down shirts, khaki shorts and rubber sandals. The eldest boy pointed to my camera and demanded to know what I was doing in their town. Though my guide explained that I was an American researcher, they kept asking me to take their pictures so they could be in the movies. I asked about the mosque and a few of the youngest boys guided me through a collapsed entrance into the courtyard, where a majestic cypress tree stood at least four stories tall. They were all too excited about having their faces in Hollywood movies to appreciate my own curiosity and I soon resumed taking their pictures, which I promised would make it to the U.S. for many people to see.
My encounters with women never lasted as long. Young Iranian women are fashionable and carry themselves with confidence. They do not wear full burkas or cover their faces. They wear heavy makeup and let carefully placed strands of dyed hair frame their faces. Every young woman I met smiled easily and spoke with a bright voice that rung with lyrical clarity. Many were university students studying architecture, though some were training to become doctors, nurses, and officers in government agencies. While many women wore long black chadors, others dressed in fitted jackets and colorful silk scarves. At the trendier cafes in Isfahan, particularly in the Armenian quarter known as the hip part of the city, women smoked cigarettes and drank espressos. The Beatles’ “Come Together” played in the background, as the women nodded indifferently to the beat of the song.
The general apathy toward authority in Iran does not carry a defi-ant tone. The modes of resistance to the imposed behavioral laws were passive but visible. Alcohol and pop music were readily available but no one talked about such things publicly. Little girls rode on bicycles and men wore short-sleeves. The rural areas are unsurprisingly more conservative, but even in these areas the most educated people we spoke with were not afraid to offer their opinions on their quality of life.
One woman I spoke with kindly invited me to her home for tea. A delicate woman in her thirties, she lived in a rented two-room mud-brick house with her mother and her two children. She never told us the whereabouts of the children’s father but she insinuated that he was not a part of their lives. She spent her time weaving carpets that are sold in the western parts of the Middle East and, although she did not know their selling prices, she imagined they went for much more than the pittance she received. She expressed how difficult it was for a woman to find work and she explained that her only two options were to live at home and weave or work in a factory, because she could not afford the vocational training necessary for finding a different job. She also explained that she could not leave her town easily and that Iranians often raise their families and live their whole lives in the place where they are born. She never expressed resentment towards her government, but she did express the belief that life is harder now than it was for her when she was a child, perhaps a subtle comment about what life was like under a different regime.
Almost everyone is poor. The Iranians I spoke to recognize the reality of their circumstances and know that the world is watching. However, the media attention that Iranians receive does not directly affect their everyday life. Iranians don’t believe the international community will intervene on the behalf of dissidents. There is little movement towards change, mainly because Iranians struggle to achieve minimal stability and fear the consequences of escalating internal conflict. Once, I was surprised to see a small bumper sticker of the Swedish flag on a cargo truck. I soon spotted these small flags on many trucks. To many Iranians, Sweden, not America, is the land of freedom. The U.S. and its policies were frustrating to the Iranians I met who could not understand why they were being targeted for evildoing. If anything, Iranians consider themselves among the most peaceful people in the world, albeit only when disassociated from their government. The Iranians I spoke to have a powerful sense that they lack political representation and they have the suspicion that Americans are given an inaccurate view of their country. Many of the people I met felt surprised that there was any U.S. antagonism at all. They could not comprehend why they were being judged based only on the words of their president.
The feeling of awe I first felt when I arrived was soon mingled with a sense of consternation. Here was a vast, peaceful country in which the people, who are more educated than many of their neigh-bors in the region, take a largely passive stance towards a government they do not support. Instead, to circumvent government censorship, many Iranians use American IP addresses to connect to the internet. One Iranian told me that if his government mobilized the army for war no Iranian man would stand up and volunteer to fight. He said that maybe Iran should declare war and then the world could see how peaceful Iranians actually are.
Verses of the Qur’an are painted in enormous white letters on the sides of hills and mountains so that they will be visible from the highway and nearby villages. The highway is also dotted with signs that remind pious Muslims of proper behavior and proclaim praise for the Prophet and the coming of the Twelfth Imam. In my early days in Iran, feeling that I was a witness to spiritual communication, I concen-trated on each message I passed. When I learned that industrial corporations also use mountains to advertise their products, I discov-ered that I was often staring not at a message from the Prophet but at an advertisement to purchase bulk steel at low prices. Here was a small intrusion of secular life into the world of religious proselytizing.
While Islam pervades all aspects of life, there exists an equally pervasive secular way of life rooted in Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. Every Iranian I met was proud of the country and its history. But I was fascinated to learn how deeply Iranians revered the memory of pre-Islamic Persia. The guides or curators I met at museums and historical sites always referred to pre-Islamic building practices and Achaeme-nian kings in explaining the influences on more recent constructions. (It is also worth noting that the Achaemenian king, Cyrus the Great, who ruled over 2,500 years ago, issued one of the world’s first declara-tions of individual rights, including the right to freedom of religion.) In the teahouses and restaurants, I was told which foods and spices existed before the introduction of Islam and I observed young men and women holding hands in the bazaars where the mosques were mostly locked. There was no clear dividing line between the religious and the secular. They seemed intertwined and Iranians traversed these fine lines at their convenience.
I was fortunate enough to be present for a three-day national holi-day celebrating the birthday of the Twelfth Imam, al-Mahdi, and I saw the country burst into excited celebration. Islam unified the country and on those three days, everyone was a believer. Mosques, lavishly decorated in ribbons, flowers and posters of Imam Khomeini and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, were attended in unprecedented num-bers. Elderly men came up to my guide and me to offer us sweets and invite us to join their prayers and celebrations. Food and brightly colored syrup drinks were handed out along the road and streamers hung from every tree. The typically quiet streets were flooded with people shouting happy greetings to one another. Even then, in the midst of that chaos, I never felt unsafe as a female traveler, but walked easily in the streets among the cheering people who were queuing for food handouts. Despite our enjoyment, both my guide and I recog-nized something sad in this. We had met so many independent-minded, generous people desperate for more freedoms and greater knowledge of their world, but here they were, standing in line, jostling each other for a free meal.
Perhaps it was a sign of the cultural divide that I could not appre-ciate the full import of that momentous holiday. The serious human rights violations, torture, and suppression of free speech that I read about before coming to Iran were a constant thought in my mind. Yet what I saw before me was the momentary relaxation of cultural restrictions and the appearance that people enjoyed life and were content with their circumstances. Every experience I had in Iran confirmed this new observation, however incongruous it was with the presentation of the country I received in the media.
It greatly surprised me that, in the course of my experience in Iran, I found myself feeling safe, welcome and comfortable. Once in the company of locals, I was embraced. It is a horrible shame that Ameri-cans are presented such a dark view of Iran. What little I saw of it in a month demonstrated to me that this was a country with deep-rooted, vibrant traditions to which people cling, either to maintain a sense of national pride or because, in the face of serious criticisms by other nations, there was little else to hold the country together. An artist I met in Isfahan expressed his frustration that a country as hypocritical and corrupt as the U.S. could judge his country. This level of national-ism seemed prevalent and might have altered how Iranians ap-proached me. Women pride themselves on the freedoms they enjoy, however limited they may appear to us. Young urbanites consider themselves fashionable and rebellious. The cities move at a pace that reminds me of home, and the countryside, beset with poverty, reveals immense faith and an appreciation for a traditional way of life.
I left Iran feeling sad to go and treasuring the memories of all the things I had seen. The sun sets with an orange intensity that makes the entire desert look like it is on fire. In the cities, the mudbrick houses begin to cool and the colossal domes of the mosques emerge with splendor, glittering in the fading light.