Many Iranian women wore elegant black tunics with colorful print scarves pushed back over their sleek hair, along with tight-fitting pants. Many wore careful make-up, fingernail polish, and revealed several inches of bare ankles and feet with bright toenail polish. I saw very few women in full, head-to-foot, black dress and no women veiling their faces. Many women on the street met my eyes and smiled at me. I took this as a sign of sisterly solidarity. How would more of us feel about the current nuclear arms deal if more of us had a first-hand experience of Iran?
There is plenty of debate today over the nuclear arms deal America has negotiated with Iran. I support that pact but for a reason that has little to do with politics —I support it mainly because I traveled there a little over a year ago.
In June 2014, before the current nuclear arms deal had been negotiated, I didn’t know anyone who had been to Iran. Yet it wasn’t, as my companion and I discovered, all that difficult, even for two people traveling on their own. After inquiries of our agent in Kansas, we mapped our itinerary: Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. A New York agency booked our travel in Iran through an Iranian agency, which provided our English-speaking guide.
I had two anxieties as we approached Iran: the fact that my (male) companion and I were not married and that I might have to wear a full-body, black garment in the summer heat. We decided it was best not to volunteer our marital status, and I shopped for a full-length, light-colored garment in Baku before heading to Tehran.
My son-in-law is British and has many international friends, one of whom is an Iranian living in Manhattan. As he and I chatted before I left for my trip, he waxed lyrical about his country, its deep history and famed hospitality. He even offered to put me in touch with relatives in Isfahan. I declined his invitation but experienced my own version of Iranian hospitality.
A sandstorm delayed our flight for several hours, giving me the opportunity to chat with a young Iranian woman, who had spent many years in the U.S. and was returning to visit her family. She said that what I was wearing at the time (a long-tailed blouse with toreador pants) was fine for a tourist like me. All I had to do was add a headscarf, which didn’t need to be black nor even to cover my hair. I was relieved of one of my anxieties through her kindness.
No one queried us in Iran about our marital status: the fact that we have different surnames, different state residences or that we were sharing accommodations. No problem whatsoever.
We were questioned (“Where were you born? What is your profession?) and fingerprinted at Tehran International Airport, but treated politely. But once we met our guide (who apologized for the delay), we felt at ease. He had traveled in the U.S. and spoke fluent English.
He was also an individualist in his political views. When I queried him gently about the structure of Iran’s government, he was explicit. The Supreme Leader calls the shots; he even approves of who runs for Parliament, so if something important is about to change, he has had a hand in it.
In the U.S., we debate our conflicts in the public arena–a constitutional privilege that I revere. The message I received from our guide made clear that if real change is to occur in Iran, the signal will come from above. I took this to mean that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was seriously interested in improving relations with the West.
Our guide offered more. He described the government as a “theocratic, fascist, dictatorship,” which dumbfounded me. A few days later, he repeated this statement, adding, “You may wonder how I can say these things,” pausing for emphasis. “The government,” he continued, “sees words as mere molecules released into the air,” raising his hands as if to release a host of butterflies. What is said in print is another matter.
There were more surprises.
Many people, recognizing us as tourists, said “Hello” to us. Those who knew more English, would ask “Where are you from?” and on hearing our response, “Welcome to Iran.” One young woman who spoke no English, wanted to have her picture taken with us. Another young man, eager to practice his English, followed us down a path in a garden in Isfahan, asking us questions, until a family seated on the grass motioned us to join them for their late afternoon picnic. We had a lively conversation (through the translation of our guide), exchanging work histories—the young women in this group were all well-educated and pursuing professional degrees—and showing pictures of our grandchildren. They offered us tea and the soup that they were eating. At one point, one of the younger men said impulsively, “ I don’t have a problem with Americans, I just have a problem with your government.” I replied “Sometimes, we have a problem with our government.”
After being in Iran for a few days, I’d also made my peace with the dress code.
I wore a hijab (a multicolored scarf that I brought from home) and a manteau, the Iranian term for the form-fitting tunic that covers the arms, chest, hips and upper thighs and is mandatory for women. In Tehran, I bought two light-colored linen manteaux, which I alternated during the days, wearing one of my American-styled shirts in the evenings. Many Iranian women are not only slim and beautiful, but also stylish. Most wore elegant black tunics with colorful print scarves pushed back over their sleek hair, along with tight-fitting pants. Many wore careful make-up, fingernail polish, and revealed several inches of bare ankles and feet with bright toenail polish. I saw very few women in full, head-to-foot, black dress and no women veiling their faces.
Many women on the street met my eyes and smiled at me. I took this as a sign of sisterly solidarity—as it was clear to them that I was a foreigner.
The population in Iran is young, the majority of whom are under the age of thirty-five. I observed this on the street, where I saw few older people, by which I mean folks my age. At first I thought that they kept indoors, but learned otherwise. In the parks of Isfahan, you will see families of several generations strolling in the evenings or having a picnic (replete with carpets and cooking vessels) on the grass. While the U.S. is an aging baby-boomer society, Iran is young. Such a population is likely to be restless and looking for change. I sensed this from our guide’s openness about political matters, as well as from his stories of adolescent rebellion.
Our last day in Shiraz, he took us to “Love Road,” the high elevation close to dormitories of Shiraz University, where students in his day used elaborate strategies to elude the Moral Police, who regularly patrolled this area. He showed us how they’d park their cars above the road that led to the summit, so they could spy the police winding their way upwards. Times have changed, he told us, but he’d parked on that road and never been caught!
My partner and I turned to each other in wonder. We’d traveled to Iran not knowing what to expect—worried, for instance, that we might not be allowed to walk around by ourselves at night or that we might be spied on. Our guide assured us there were no restrictions on our movements, and we took many strolls by ourselves. Neither of us (he in his international business career and I in my literary conference travel) had experienced a country more openly friendly than Iran!
We in the United States hold strong, and widely varying, political views, yet we tend to characterize Iranians as speaking with one voice. We picture them as chanting “Death to America” and imagine that they want to develop a nuclear weapon so as to wreak havoc in the Middle East. Yet, it seems to me that Iran has as great an interest in the stability of their region as we, and the most immediate threat to that stability is not Iran but ISIS/ISIL, whom the Iranians oppose as strongly as we do.
I experienced no animosity toward me as an American from the people of Iran. Quite the opposite: I found Iranians open, friendly, interested in engaging with us and expressing their views. The young people of Iran are more concerned with economic opportunity than with maintaining hostile or war-like relations with the West.
One more observation. Iranians are deeply aware of their non-Islamic history. As a civilization, they go back to 550 B.C., when Cyrus the Great conquered the Medes. Zoroastrian symbols (the religion of that time) pop up everywhere. As our guide explained: when the ruling regime is Persian (read the detested Shah), the general populace turns toward Islam as a revolutionary ideal; when the regime is Islamic, Zoroastrian and Persian symbolism revive. Iranians have a complex relationship to their religious, cultural, and political heritage. The same is true for Americans, is it not?
What if more Americans had a first-hand experience of Iran? How might this change our political discussion and debate, especially around such a significant issue as possible nuclear war?
Madelon Sprengnether is a poet, memoirist and literary critic who teaches in the literature and creative writing programs at the University of Minnesota, where she holds the title Regents Professor. She is the author of three memoirs, Great River Road, Crying at the Movies and Rivers, Stories, Houses, Dreams; two chapbooks of prose poems, Near Solstice, Mourning and La Belle et La Bête; and two collections of poetry, The Angel of Duluth and The Normal Heart. She is also a feminist psychoanalytic critic and theorist, whose collections of criticism The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Criticism, and Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, have had major impact in their fields. Her book The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis is the first to probe Freud’s phobic responses to the figure of the mother in his life and theory.