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Love and Pomegranates: Artists and Wayfarers on Iran

06/24/2013 11:47 am ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

My last post was entitled "Media Washed Middle East," in which I wrote about my experiences traveling and writing about the Middle East. Those sojourns abroad culminated in an anthology that was just published this spring by Nortia Press entitled Love and Pomegranates: Artists and Wayfarers on Iran. It is a collection of essays, poetry, interviews and blog posts written by ordinary people who have found friendships, mentors and muses in Iran. The anthology aims to challenge stereotypes about Iran and its people currently perpetuated in the Western media. Below is the introduction to the book...

Prior to my first trip to Iran in March 2005, when I was invited to speak at the country's First International Children's Book Festival, I had looked for a book to help relieve doubts about my decision to go. At first, I found none. Then a friend gave me a copy of Alison Wearing's Honeymoon in Purdah. Wearing's account of her travels in Iran during the summer of 2000 helped me to deconstruct the myth that Iran is a haven of sequestered women and armed masked martyrs. Her book -- infused with humor -- showed me that I, too, would be welcomed there.

Love and Pomegranates: Artists and Wayfarers on Iran came about because my friends, colleagues and I have developed a profound appreciation of Iranian culture and an abundance of stories about the friendships we made and the generosity we received in Iran. On our journeys we found another Iran, one that lies in stark contrast to the ominous picture of their culture painted by the American and other Western mainstream media, which has repeatedly tainted our collective perspective on Iran. A recent study discovered that half of Americans view Iran as a threat and opinions of that country have worsened in recent years; yet, two thirds of us have never met an Iranian. Perhaps the study suggests that the media's focus on our nation's foreign policies and on the idea of national security prevents us from considering the richness of Persian history and culture, which reflects a long-held tradition of peace and hospitality.

Perhaps the bias against Iranians is bound up in a bias against Muslims. After the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 polls revealed that the perceived threat from Muslims living in the United States and abroad increased significantly. While many Iranians in the U.S. and Iran are Muslim, they are also secular, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Bahai, or follow other spiritual paths. An Iranian acquaintance of mine living in Tehran attends her father's mosque and her mother's Catholic church. Dr. Carl Ernst, a professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill estimates that there are at least 300,000 Christians in Iran today. Historically, in Sasanian Iran, Christianity was a prominent religion and home to a number of Eastern churches that were considered heretical by the Byzantines.

Whatever the cause, the purpose of this anthology is to counter an insufficient understanding of a nation and its people. We hope this anthology of essays, interviews, poems and blogs from people who have traveled or lived in this country of golden deserts, cypress-scented mountains, and inexpressibly-beautiful tiled mosques, will help readers to better interpret the disinformation and stereotypes about Iran that might eclipse what the human heart may discover: a warm, educated and artistic people, whose dreams are much like our own. We are hopeful that this collection will help to inspire others to get to know their Iranian neighbors at home and perhaps even travel to Iran.

Indeed, I made many new friends and acquaintances in Iran. So have all the contributors to this collection. This volume is enriched by their varied backgrounds; here are voices of botanists, a Persian dafs musician, a radio show host, professors of Persian history and literature, filmmakers, grandmothers, teachers, carpet dealers, adult and children's book writers. Many are of Western ancestry and thus have little or no familial ties with Iran. Few knew each other prior to submitting their work for this anthology. I think of each of them as "missionaries in reverse," a term borrowed from musician Cameron Powers, who has traveled in the Middle East connecting with people through the love of music as founder of Musical Missions of Peace. The American contributors in this anthology did not go to Iran to promote Western culture or to preach any religion. They went to learn from our supposed foe, to enrich and enlighten their own lives through their experiences. Reading their work, I felt a rind peeling back and seeds of a new garden spilling over me -- a leafy space where a fresh breeze of conversation flows. Their testimonies bestow a pomegranate-like radiance by which others may see.

The Iranian contributors' memories and praise for Iran spoke of love: of friends and relatives missed; of a deep yearning for the sands of their homeland; of Persian cooking, art, classical literature, music and traditions.

Many of the contributors visited Iran for a few weeks, others worked and lived there for several years. Some grew up in Tehran, but now live in the United States and other Western countries. A few of them have always lived in Iran. What the non-Iranians have in common are fond memories of those they've met during their stays in Iran. As Rowan Storm writes in her blog, "These everyday meetings with vulnerable and open-hearted people are what provide the foundation for making a difference in this world." The Iranian voices of the diaspora and of those living in Iran give us a seldom-heard view of their homeland, one which defies the bleak picture painted by some expats whose voices have become hostages of yesterday's demons. The Iranian writers in this collection move beyond the past with an open mind, give us the opportunity to hear their questions and know their assessment of us, from which we may grow.

Dr. Martin Luther King said during the Vietnam War, "The world now demands of America a maturity we may not be able to achieve." He called for a worldwide fellowship "that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation," and for "an all- embracing and unconditional love for all men." The writers in this anthology from both East and West, who have made an effort to find themselves in others, help show our diplomats and public officials a path toward that maturity. The synchronicity, the friend- ships, and forces that drew these writers from many different continents together in this book is--to borrow a notion from the late Cistercian monk Thomas Merton--"an epiphany of certainties we could not know in isolation." An epiphany that affirms a deep belief that there is a more sympathetic way to live and gaze upon this world. President Barack Obama's rhetoric toward Iran seems to suggest a willingness to undertake a small but crucial step toward Dr. King's dream of a mature America. One that may lead the world to a more inclusive vision of compassion.

In This Collection

Within, you will find a communion of spirits among new voices from many countries: America, Iran, Greece, New Zealand, Britain, Turkey, and more. Original essays will take you, among many other destinations, into a bakery in Tehran to bake bread; on a journey from Tabriz to the Turkish-Iranian border in search of a lost passport; alongside a painter whose work is transformed at the foot of Hafiz's shrine in Shiraz; into the heart of an Iranian poet as she questions her new American identity; high into the Alborz Mountains to discover flowering lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) in its native haunts; deep into the woods on a dark winter night to witness a Zoroastrian fire ritual; and beneath a bridge over the River Zayandeh to smoke hookah.

Love and Pomegranates opens with the section First Impressions and Persian Hospitality which captures immediate reactions to Iran as written in blogs as well as reflective essays on returning to Iran after a prolonged absence. It also holds stories of Iranians of the diaspora stepping foot on the soil of their ancestors for the first time and tales of random acts of kindness experienced by Westerners, such as a spontaneous all-day tour with a stranger. Natives talk about tourists they've hosted or welcomed to their country. In the section Finding Ourselves in the Other Westerners talk about Iranians they've known and loved, and about finding common ground with others they've just met. Iranians living outside of Iran write about their adjustment to their adopted coun- tries, their nostalgia for the traditions of their homeland and what it means to be part of the diaspora. The sections Arts and Culture and Islam and Other Faiths share stories by artists and scholars who traveled to Iran in pursuit of their muse or work. They express their admiration for Iranian musicians, painters, writers, Islamic saints, Sufis, nature, art and architecture. A New Path Forward touches upon the United States' past and cur- rent relationship with Iran. It includes thoughts on how the West might move toward a better understanding of Iranians at home and abroad through cultural, academic and medical exchanges, as well as other creative avenues.

A theme running through many of these essays by contributors from both East and West, involves having experienced in Iran a sense of ecstasy -- a communion with a larger reality, a universal light. It seemed fitting to include in this collection poems by the classical Persian Sufi poets Hafiz, Sa'di, Khayyam, Ferdowsi, 'Attar, Rumi and others, writers who call us to a deeper consciousness and who remind us that only love will help us evolve. No book celebrating the richness of Iranian culture could be without them. In keeping with Persian tradition, some of the selections of these poems were made by the contributors opening books by their favorite poets to a random page. This age-old practice has proven that the words found in the poetry offer wisdom or even an anecdote for whatever question or problem the reader or seeker might be experiencing at the time. We encourage you to read this collection in a similar spirit of openness.

It is my hope that the depiction of life in Iran in this anthology will lift you out of this period in history in which we sometimes reduce people and nations to simplistic groupings of good and evil. Love and Pomegranates is a gesture of peace.

I invite you to read the first story in this collection, "The Frangrance of Naan," by Shahrokh Nikfar on loveandpomegranates.com. Shahrokh is a U.S. citizen who was born and raised in Tehran and who returned to his homeland in 2000 for the first time in twenty-one years. I've included an image of him in this post reading from his piece at a recent gathering of intrepid readers and travelers from Spokane, Washington.

Shahrokh hosts a weekly radio program The Persian Hour, KYRS Radio, Spokane, WA. Coming soon on loveandpomegranates.com is a podcast of recent discussion between Shahrokh and myself about the story of how this anthology came to be, its 67 or so contributors and their work.