We Jewish Israelis--and people from the West in general--tend to look at Iran as the enemy of the Free World, as a place where the rulers are racing towards a nuclear bomb to annihilate Israel and challenge the domination of Western culture, and as a theocratic country ruled by dictators who are bent only on evil ways. As a result, we tend to forget that there are actually human beings living there, with normal desires to lead healthy family lives, not to mention "reformers" who would like to change Iranian policy and society for the better.
This is why, on a recent trip to Italy, I was particularly grateful to have been given a wonderful book to read by Terence Ward entitled Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran. Having just finished reading this book, which is filled with poignant personal stories and pearls of wisdom regarding Iranian culture, I must admit that a new window on classical and contemporary Persian/Iranian society has been opened for me.
I met Terry Ward and his fascinating wife Idanna Pucci at the World Assembly of Religions for Peace in Vienna last November. Over dinner one night, with mutual friends, we began to learn about each other's personal stories and we struck up a friendship. When I let them know that I would be in Italy for an interreligious conference in March, they invited me (and my wife Amy) to visit them in Florence. So, after our conference ended in Rome, we spent two memorable days with them in Idanna's home city, the enchanting and inspiring city of Florence, and we heard lots more personal stories, especially those of their recent visit to Iran, only a few months ago, as well as some memoirs of Ward's growing up in Teheran with his brothers and their parents in the 1960s (before the revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran from power in 1979).
More than 30 years after they had lived there, Ward and his family decided to undertake a long-awaited journey back home, not to Ireland but to Iran. Ward outlines the contours of the journey at the beginning of his book:
While most Americans still recoiled with images of ranting hostage takers and wild-eyed terrorists, we put our fears aside. My three brothers and I, with our elderly parents, would cross the vast Iranian plateau on a blind search for Hassan, our lost friend and mentor who had taken care of us in Tehran so many years ago. Our seven hundred mile overland trek, from the ancient southern city of Shiraz, once called the Paris of Persia, all the way north to Tehran, the metropolis of modern Iran, would be a cross-cultural odyssey to rediscover a country, its people and our much-loved adopted Iranian family.
I would add that not only did I discover a country and its people but I learned a great deal about Iranian culture in a loving and inspirational way.
For example, I learned about the great Sufi poets and how much the Iranian people revere them.
Rumi, Hafez and Attar, all three from the Sufi tradition, are as sacred as Dante, Shakespeare and Yeats. These Persian mystics celebrated life's pleasures--nature, wine and love--while singing to their beloved with ecstatic emotion. "Sufi" may come from the Persian saf, meaning "pure" or, in Arabic, "wearer of wool", for the humble garments worn by enlightened seekers who wandered over Iran as sadhus did in India. By the twelfth century, they could be seen in every part of the Muslim world. For Sufis, God is the beloved, found in the heart and in every particle of creation. Their poetry is a far cry from the puritanical austerity of the mullahs.
I also learned about their love for their own language of Farsi and how the Iranians were the only people to maintain their original language, while all other countries between the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Tigris River of Iraq, changed from their original languages to Arabic, with the conquest of Islam.
Moreover, I was introduced to the political reformers who are playing an increasingly important role in contemporary Iran. If you only read the tabloids in Israel and the West, you would hardly know that reformers really exist in Iran. Our government and some of its leaders--and the mainstream press--are constantly portraying the "smile campaign" of Iran's leaders today in a negative way, so that we are led to believe that none of the reformers are sincere or serious. But Terry Ward meets them and shares with us his encounters with them, as part of his re-familiarization with Iran, which for readers such as myself, is eye-opening.
But more than anything else, I learned about the journey of a unique family to reconnect with another family, a deeply human story. Not only did this family make an intensely moving and even somewhat miraculous journey to Iran in 1998, and several times since then, but Ward returned to Iran again this year (just a few months ago) for a special event with Hassan and his family, before a crowd of 700 Iranian tour guides, on the occasion of the translation into Farsi and the publication of this book.
In our conversation, Ward told us about this gathering vividly and with much emotion, and he also showed us many photos from the event. In these photos, the women were dressed in colorful traditional Persian clothing, and they were not covered from top to toe. "Things are changing in Iran, things are opening up," Ward told us with much enthusiasm. Moreover, there was great excitement about the publication of his book in the native language of the country, and much celebration of the reunion with his Iranian family, and a fair amount of positive press about this.
Just as I have come to know that there are humane people living real lives beyond the current conflict in Israel/Palestine, so have I now learned that there are people in Iran who also are genuinely interested in dialogue with the West on human and cultural levels, which can become the bridges to understanding and peace.