Last Monday, at 11:30 am on a beautiful, brisk fall day, I met nine other Penn State undergraduates and two professors under the Gateway to the Sciences in the center of our University Park campus, in conservative business dress and with nothing but ID and a notepad on me.
We were driving to the Warwick Hotel in New York City for a rare opportunity: we would be in a small group of university representatives that would be addressed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and some of his diplomatic delegation, followed by a question and answer period. By 9 am, when I was dressed, I had already decided that I would be attending this event as a journalist -- not a protester, because I was not going to tear open my blazer to reveal a "Support Israel" shirt and start yelling at Ahmadinejad, à la Code Pink -- and not as just a student with all of the accepting, sponge-like qualities students might have.
I was going with as open a mind as a Jewish liberal Democrat from New York could possibly have while preparing to hear the Holocaust-denying, 9/11-was-an-inside-job, illegitimately elected president of a country that is probably secretly developing nuclear weaponry speak. The way I was dressed, in fact, probably says a great deal about my warring desires to be respectful and to get the most out of the opportunity and to indicate my displeasure at some of Ahmadinejad's more objectionable statements.
I had asked the Iranian student who arranged our invitation to the dinner what to wear in order to show my respect for the customs of Islam -- and found that the guidelines were really very similar to what I might have worn to Hebrew Day School on a Friday, I might add -- and asked if we would be required to wear head coverings. We would not, and I was easily able to find a three-quarter-sleeve sweater and dress pants that would be not just appropriate, but considerate. I hesitated over the large, silver Star of David necklace I often wear and selected a dressier layered necklace instead, but, after more consideration, slipped on a ring I got in the Marais in Paris. And my favorite ring, inscribed with the Solomonic saying gam zeh ya'avor, meaning "this, too, shall pass." I didn't need to wrap myself in an Israeli flag, but I didn't need to suppress or hide my identity, either.
I expected -- what? Maybe for Ahmadinejad to say something shocking. Maybe to be deeply offended. Maybe to be very, very uncomfortable. Maybe to be lied to, very obviously, and very often.
What I did not expect to be is piqued.
And piqued is really the right word.
Because how else does one feel, as an American, when the Iranian president -- who possibly did not legitimately win his last election at all, but certainly not by the margin which the official vote count claimed -- tells you you've got a real problem with your elections because of the state of the campaign finance system? For heaven's sake, I started an ironic super PAC. I hardly disagree with him. Still, I could not suppress the wicked impulse I had when Ahmadinejad tacked this judgment to the end of a demure refusal to endorse either presidential candidate: I caught the eye of my friend Mike, who did an abysmal job as my navigator, but likes The Colbert Report and is therefore alright enough in my book, and did my best Stephen Colbert impersonation. I shot my left eyebrow up to my hairline, cupped my hands in the gesture that Colbert uses to indicate cojones, and mouthed, "Big. Brass. Balls." as clearly as I could. Then I sat back and smirked when his expression shifted from disbelief to that particular facial contortion people get when they try to swallow a laugh. Mike learned not to let me catch his attention for the rest of the discussion.
What can I say? I'm not cut out for diplomacy.
And at this point, over an hour into the question and answer period, to which Ahmadinejad had arrived half an hour late, I had stopped occupying myself with trying to scribble every word the translator was muttering into my headset. Partially because a lot of them were effusive, flowery words of thanks to the Almighty for allowing him to "pass a few moments" with us, all of which were meant to convey just how absolutely delighted, grateful, and blessed Ahmadinejad felt to receive every question we posed. Partially because he was asked about nuclear policy and plans repeatedly, and gave a series of long-winded remarks that could all be summarized thusly: There is still potential for 5+1 talks to be successful. I will neither confirm nor really deny that we are building a nuclear weapon. We are held to a double standard with regard to inspections and that's not fair because look how many weapons the United States and the Zionist Regime have. Besides, that research is necessary for our economy, and how dare certain people assassinate our scientists?
He was also asked about Israel repeatedly, and, amazingly, did not utter the name "Israel" one single time during over two hours of speaking on the subject. The turn of phrase he preferred was "the Zionist Regime," which may refer specifically to the current, extreme right-wing leadership of Israel, but more likely refers to the entire state. Sometimes he essentially said if you know who I mean or certain people.
I was piqued when, after hours of this, President Ahmadinejad said that he believed Christians, Muslims, and Jews could coexist quite happily if there were only more open dialogue -- open dialogue being a theme he really hammered into us over the course of the talk. He emphasized this in a professorial manner, and, having also been introduced as a former professor who just loves to be able to educate students, I understood that this was the image he wanted to project by inviting the eleven or so university groups of twelve to sit before him with provided notepads and pens. It was neatly designed. It both legitimized Ahmadinejad and placed us in a position that quite literally said you have something to learn from me; let me tell you where you have gone wrong.
I was piqued when, bunting a softball question from the NYU graduate student group about how Ahmadinejad's family has influenced his political career, he deftly steered his answer into a tangentially related, seemingly rehearsed, and bombastic speech about how much better off we'd all be if only women were in charge. If I can read my shorthand script (and I can't), this is a quotation that jumped out at me as the translator relayed it, and which I scribbled verbatim:
"We do believe that the ruling of the ladies is much superior and creates much better conditions than the rule of the men."
I was piqued because while he was pontificating about the value of women -- indeed during the entirety of the talk -- he was flanked, at a long table in front of the Iranian flag and a picture of the Ayatollah, by several men of his diplomatic delegation. And at the very end of the table, shrouded more by the silence about her presence than by her hijab, sat a specimen of the very gender Ahmadinejad was so effusively praising. She was scarcely present, however. She was neither really seen nor heard. She was acknowledged only by a man who introduced her in passing with such brevity that I did not catch her name or title in my notes.
I was piqued when he uttered a series of unobjectionable remonstrations and platitudes about international, and, indeed, interpersonal relationships:
Show kindness to one another. Practice that art.
We believe all humans, no matter where they are in the world, are seeking prosperity and dignity.
We have not been able to realize the full potential of humans.
I do firmly believe that all of us, all nations together, can build a much more beautiful world.
... the best way of bringing minds together is dialogue. Dialogue in a friendly atmosphere.
I was piqued when Ahmadinejad sidestepped the issue of homophobia with a neat little sentence that sounds innocent, but was, in context, a clear statement of his stance on the issue of gay rights:
I believe that if the family doesn't exist, society will cease to exist...If families do not exist, there is no place to express love to its utmost.
I was piqued when Ahmadinejad conceded that "perhaps in many instances Iran could have behaved differently," but went on to lament the fact that the United States and Iran have not resolved the nuclear issue yet, because if the United States would only be reasonable and have transparent dialogue, or maybe "be part of the nuclear enrichment process in Iran; build and furnish nuclear power plants alongside Iranian scientists," we could finally stop talking about this non-issue.
Look. Ahmadinejad didn't fly off the handle. He didn't rant and rave, say anything totally berserk, or lose his composure at all. He didn't say anything wildly or explicitly anti-Semitic. He didn't make any profoundly offensive statements at all. And his speech probably had about the same relationship to the truth as Paul Ryan's did to the facts of Obama's first term, or as Hugh Hefner does to his current female accessory. That is to say, it's an open relationship. They are seeing other people, and, as is inevitable, spending less time together. They may dissolve their relationship entirely very soon.
Was it interesting? Of course. Of course sitting mere yards away from President Ahmadinejad and being able to look right at him while he talks about the most pressing foreign policy issues of our time was an interesting and valuable experience. But I don't know that I learned much from it, unless the lesson to learn was that a politician is a politician is a politician.
I don't know if I expected him to throw in a few "Great Satan"s or "Death to America"s. I don't know that the fact that he didn't is really going to inspire a paradigm shift within me -- although, seeing the Orthodox Jews outside the hotel protesting against Israel and claiming to personally know that Ahmadinejad is not an anti-Semite has me thinking, days later. As does my Iranian friend's claim that Ahmadinejad was mistranslated when he was quoted saying that he wanted to "wipe Israel off the map," when what he really said was more akin to "I don't recognize that Israel exists on the map," though I'm not quite willing to believe such a prodigious difference of meaning could have been allowed to stand.
So, did I learn? I don't know. I feel like I was somehow broadened by the experience, though. I made new friends, in the way that you must if spending eight hours of 24 in a car with people. I ate Iranian food -- polow, or a non-sticky rice, being among the foods I tried -- and was amused by the thought that, for once, I didn't have to worry that any of the dishes contained pork, and therefore didn't really have to ask what was in anything and could pretend to be an adult and just try things (and not spit them out, even if they turn out to be eggplant). As a group, we Penn Staters had a great time -- especially when we tried to find our assigned table and saw none labeled 'Penn State,' but one labeled 'University of Pennsylvania,' and had a good laugh at the vexation we have all seen on the faces of UPenn students who are accused of going to Penn State.
Though the other drivers had elected to park in Union City, NJ and take a bus to Port Authority, I, being familiar with driving in New York City, had parked right next to the Warwick. And when Ahmadinejad had taken his leave -- quickly, because he apparently did not feel well, though he had been planning to take pictures with us (I'd have posed with a big thumbs up like Colbert and it definitely would have prevented me from ever being hired anywhere, so that was fine) -- and we had retrieved the cell phones we had to surrender before security, we had a shared moment outside the hotel. It was a moment of such closeness and raucous laughter, juxtaposed oddly with the police officers with assault rifles on their chests that were watching us with warm eyes, like they had reluctantly caught our contagious good humor, that strangers asked us where our group was from. "Happy Valley," we told them cheerfully, "Penn State." And then we rushed off to get on started on the trip home, fully 12 hours after we began our journey.
I slid back into the driver's seat, ready for a few hours and 200 miles of the empty, black expanse of I-80W that is familiar to me from all my trips home to Rockland County, and handed my iPhone and auxiliary cord over to Mike again. "It's not exactly 'driver picks the music,' it's you pick whatever you guys want that's on my iPhone," I said.
"What do you want to listen to?" Mike asked our friends in the backseat.
We collectively remembered that we had discussed attending the Green Day concert at the Bryce Jordan Center next semester, and I'm convinced that when Anna said "American Idiot," we were all thinking it.
Right, I thought, smiling as I headed back toward the Lincoln Tunnel. American Idiot.