I am deeply saddened by President Trump’s executive order banning many Muslims from entering the United States. I also am sad to see the Iranian response: Iran To Ban U.S. Visitors In Retaliation To Trump Order.
The U.S. and Iran, along with other Muslim-majority countries, will be much safer in the long term by building bridges of goodwill with one another instead of building walls of fear and mistrust.
In October 2016, I made a 14-day trip to Iran that profoundly opened me to a new understanding about one of the oldest civilizations in the world and its people who received our group with open hearts.
The Shift Network partnered with Cross Cultural Journeys to create a tourist trip to Iran with the intention of helping participants learn more about the people, history and culture of Iran so we could better support efforts to improve relationships between Iran, the United States and other Western countries.
Prior to the trip, I had many friends and family members try to talk me out of going, saying it was dangerous. My sister cried the day I was leaving, thinking she would never hear from me again.
What I experienced in Iran went far beyond my wildest dreams and shattered all the stereotypes that are promoted in the US media.
Here are some of the key discoveries we made while in Iran, some of which you may already know, and others that may surprise you:
1. Many, if not most, Iranians love Americans - Every day while in Iran we were approached by Iranians asking where we were from. When they heard we were from the United States, the responses were always enthusiastically positive, such as “thank you for coming to Iran! You are welcomed here! We love you!” We received several invitations to people’s homes for dinner. It was such an incredible experience of love and good will. We did not have any negative comments in the 14 days in Iran. Many people said they loved Americans and they wished our governments could get along better. I was especially impressed how Iranians were able to make a distinction between their love for Americans and concern about US foreign policies. (See # 8 below)
2. Iran is ancient - I was embarrassed to find out how little I knew about Iran’s ancient civilizations and cultures. Even though I loved studying history in high school and college, most of my classes focused on the United States and Europe. As our guide Hadi said, “Western history stops with the ancient Greeks and Romans.” The most that I remember being said in my schools about ancient Iran was that it was the “cradle of civilizations.”
I was awe-inspired by Iran’s rich history that includes Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus made decrees in 539 B.C. that are considered the first charter on human rights. We also learned about numerous engineering inventions that greatly impacted the world, including the sophisticated qanat water systems that allowed civilizations to thrive in dry environments for thousands of years. To bring history to life, we visited a Zoroastrian Fire Temple with a fire that had been lit for over 1,534 years. We also visited Maymand or Meymand, a village estimated to be over 12,000 years old. Meymand has over 2,600 homes carved into the sides of cliffs, some of which have been inhabited for 3,000 years. While most of the young people of Maymand have moved to urban areas for work, there are still numerous families living in the same homes as their ancestors.
3. Women are an active part of society - I was surprised to learn that Ayatollah Khomenei had encouraged women to become more engaged in society, receive educations and be part of the work force. Over 60% of college students in Iran today are women. Granted, there is room for improvements for women in Iran ― such as being allowed to attend sporting events ― but it is safe to say that women in Iran have more rights and opportunities than most women in other Middle Eastern countries with the possible exception of women in Israel.
4. Iran has a culture of supporting homeless and poor - on every street in Iran we saw numerous boxes where money can be donated to support local organizations in providing support to needy people. We also heard that it is common for people to anonymously leave money, food and/or other supplies on the doorsteps of poorer families. We saw very few homeless people on the streets in Iran.
5. Poetry is an integral part of life - one of the most touching aspects about Iranian life is its rich history with poetry, including the great mystic poets Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and others. Our guide Hadi said that most Iranians learn to recite poetry before beginning kindergarten. While traveling through Iran, we relished reading the mystical poetry that had such depth of heart and soul. When we visited the Mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, I was deeply moved to see people with tears in their eyes as they quietly read Hafez’s poetry of love.
6. Islam is peaceful in Iran - Islam as practiced in Iran is relatively peaceful and accepting of people observing other religions. Several people wanted us to know that the deeper essence of Islam is peace and love. We visited Zoroastrian Fire Temples and Armenian Orthodox churches that were standing side by side with ancient Mosques. (Note: I had read about pressures on Sufi mystics years earlier in Iran and yet we did not encounter any such tensions.)
7. Iran opposes radical Islam - Iran is opposing radical Islam, including the Taliban and ISIS. When the Kurds asked for assistance in fighting ISIS, within three hours Iran had troops on the ground. Many Iranian troops have died fighting ISIS and many Iranians have been killed by the Taliban. Iran is determined to help their neighbors as they do not want radical Islam in their borders. The US has a lot of common ground here with Iran and we would do well to work together better.
8. Impact of US Foreign Policy on Iranians: One of the most challenging parts of the trip was to learn about the impact of US foreign policy on Iranians, the people who welcomed us so warmly. In the US, we hear so much about Iran’s threat to Israel and human rights violations. While there are legitimate concerns, what we do not hear about is how the US and Britain, because of oil interests, plotted a coup in 1953 to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and restore power to the Shah of Iran. The CIA and Israeli secret police then trained the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, which reigned terror on millions of Iranians from 1957 to 1979. Our guide, Hadi, had a friend in high school who disappeared the day after making a comment in school about the Shah. Seven years later, Hadi’s high school friend was released from prison, just one of many stories we heard about SAVAK’s terror tactics.
The U.S also gave military support to Iraq in its invasion of Iran, including chemical weapons which were used on Iranians troops. The war with Iraq deeply affected people in Iran and mobilized the entire country to save the homeland. People across the country volunteered and women sent their husbands and sons to fight. Every town and village we visited had posters of local men who had been killed during the war.
Given the US’s foreign policy history, it was perplexing to have Iranians in villages, towns and cities across the country welcome us with open arms. They genuinely loved having us, Americans, there visiting.
There is so much that I can write about the time in Iran. It was such a profound eye opening experience filled with discoveries, laughter and new friendships.
While there are reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies and human rights violations, the people of Iran reminded me of the basic goodness of humanity. I strongly believe the U.S. would do well to build upon the tremendous good will that Iranians have towards Americans and to take a long-hard look at our historical role in the region.
After this journey to Iran, I believe forging relationships based on curiosity and mutual respect will be much more productive than a belligerent policy of building walls of fear and mistrust between the U.S.and Muslim-majority countries.