Iran was the 'it' country of U.S. foreign policy circles this year. Why? Because after nearly 34 years of silence, the U.S. and Iran have finally started talking to each other again. All too often, such global dialogues begin and end with political leaders. This has been the case with U.S./Iran as well. But it doesn't have to be this way. Diplomacy and the finding of common ground can take place at the grassroots as well. This is exactly what happened through the creative writing project 'Letters from Iran.'
The project started as one of those late night 'wouldn't it be great' chat sessions. A group of four of us came together -- all of us born in Iran, now living in the U.S. and sharing the belief that, given the chance, people will gravitate towards understanding and peace. So two days before Christmas 2013 we launched 'Letters from Iran,' a Facebook request to friends and family in Iran to write 50-500 word holiday letters to a 'long-time American friend by the name of John or Jane.' Our goal was to get 50 responses. Within the first 24 hours of launch, the call for letters had gone viral in Iran with over 50 letters posted. By Christmas day the number was up to 150 and requests for extension of the deadline were pouring in. By the time the second and final deadline for submission had passed, hundreds of letters were submitted by Iranians, with a large majority of the letters being over the 500-word limit and having a personalized photograph attached.
We are amazed by the letters we have received. They are deeply personal and open. They reveal hopes, dreams, pains and a sense of dismay over the loss of a cherished 'friendship' -- the connection between Iran and the U.S., between Iranians and Americans. Some letters display anger over the impact of the sanctions while others articulate sorrow over the state of the world. But despite mention of these sociopolitical realities, the letters relay what some in the U.S. may find surprising -- an overwhelming warmth and kinship towards the American people. "I wish you everlasting hope and clear skies... and that we meet under those skies" ends one letter. Another wishes for the opportunity to "meet in person and start a new friendship."
And even more surprising still may be the cultural similarities of Iranians to Americans, especially when it comes to Iran's large youth population. Reading through the letters it's clear that Iran has its fair share of hipsters along with all the associated pop culture snobbishness. One author asks, "What happened to turn the US from place that created greats like Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, and Apocalypse Now to a place that puts out movies like the new Star Wars trilogy?" Another, in a closing New Year wish writes, "Now that our impossible imaginations on John Lennon's fan page have made us friends, let's make an impossible wish for peace on earth."
Reading through the letters, the other big realization is that there is no one 'real' Iran. The country is a diverse tapestry of people with diverse beliefs, temperaments and at times contradictory views. In the word of one author: "For Iranians, there are two Americas. The America that is the land of dreams and the America that is not to be trusted -- funny isn't it?"
This dichotomy comes through clearly. There is certainly some anger towards American foreign policy: "There was no war, no tanks. Fortunately [your soldiers] didn't have to come all the way here to kill us. We got sanctions; neat and easy." One writer writes about how politics have gotten in the way of love: "How can I marry someone whose uncle so easily voted to increase sanctions against my country?" And politics within Iran also lingers throughout the letters: "Our own boundaries, plus the ones that your politicians have drawn around us have made it difficult for us to breathe." "Friendship, peace and tranquility are three things our countries deny each other. I will wish these things for me, for you, for us."
But almost without exception, side by side with any anger there's an outpouring of love and deep affection -- a nod to the promise of peace -- with one writer even proposing to 'Jane.' And of course, there is the hope for a better overall human existence. An Iranian soldier writes, "... lets wish together that all television sets get turned off, all military bases get closed and all windows get opened. Lets wish for water, for no more hunger, and for kindness."
If one had to point to a common thread that runs through all the letters it would be a genuine curiosity and longing for more interaction with Americans. The words of everyday Iranians make the conversations some U.S. politicians are having about Iran, conversations based on assumptions of unbridgeable differences and chasms of hatred, seem like a bad action movie. A movie that pits people against one another for the sake of plot lines and the ultimate goal of leaving millions of lives hanging in the balance of violent options.
It has become easy, almost fashionable for a vocal minority to demonize Iranians. It's harder to recognize the hope and opportunity that exists. Or is it? After reading 'Letters from Iran,' one would be hard-pressed not to feel hopeful and even compelled to take a personal step towards diplomacy and common ground.