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Iran, in a new light


By Lynda Howland
Two men enter a mosque in Esfahan, Iran. Lynda Howland of Pittsford recently explored the country with an interfaith peace organization to promote understanding among cultures.

By Lynda Howland

Daily Messenger

Sat Jul 12, 2008, 06:15 PM EDT

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At dusk in the ancient city of Shiraz, Iranians place flowers on the grave of the 14th-century Persian poet Háfiz, then reverently recite his poetry. This was my introduction to the love Iranians have for their rich, ancient culture.

Iran embraced many civilizations over the millennia and melded them into a unique national identity. Today the country is composed primarily of Persians, Azaris and Kurds. Proud of their Aryan/Persian roots, Iranians sometimes take offense at being called Arabs.

Iranians seem able to separate Americans from their government’s policies. While anti-American signs are common, the people themselves seduced us with their irresistibly warm welcome. We were often surrounded by crowds of children and adults, endlessly curious about us and America. Soldiers passing by in a truck flashed the peace sign when they heard we were Americans.

Iran is clean, modern and safe. Tehran, the smog-filled capital, is surrounded by beautiful mountains. There, the modest home of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah, contrasts with the Shah’s opulent palaces. Everywhere are beautiful murals, memorials to martyrs or clerics and illustrations of verse.

Teahouses, the primary places of social interaction, overflow  with vibrant conversations. Most of the main food options in restaurants are kebabs, served with bread and rice, with pistachio candies for desert. Outside Tehran are vast deserts, lakes and snowcapped mountains. We visited Qom, Iran’s conservative religious center, and the crown jewels of Iranian history, Persepolis and Esfahan.

Persepolis, Darius the Great's 518 BCE glorious religious hub, was destroyed circa 333 BCE by Alexander the Great. Esfahan's centerpiece is the huge, 16th-century Naqsh-E Jahan Square, flanked on three sides by majestic blue-mosaiced palaces and domed mosques, their tiled minarets reaching toward the heavens. In the square, one gets lost in the maze of bazaars, with their arrays of artistic  goods for sale — calligraphy, carpets, metal work, engraving, paintings.

Despite numerous invasions, Iranians have maintained their deep religious and social values and culture. The essence of their culture is rich with meaning and deeply sensual, as evidenced by its love of music and poetry. Musician Hossein Alizadeh spoke to us of how singing Háfiz’s poems connects him with his culture.

Today, Iran struggles to balance modern influences with beloved tradition. At one gathering in a private home, an Iranian-American youth played traditional music on the tar and daf, ancient instruments. At another gathering, a young man played the "Jelly Roll Blues" on piano. He was the son of our hosts, filmmaker Khosrow Sinai (whose film, "Bride of Fire," recently played at the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester), and his wife, artist Farah Ossouli. Sinai summed up the contrasts, saying, “If tradition and modernity don’t come to an understanding with each other, there will be catastrophe.”
Unlike many other Middle Eastern nations, Iran has elected officials. Besides Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism are officially recognized and represented in parliament. As a Shia Islamic republic, power in Iran lies with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Assembly of Experts, who elect him. Laws are based on the ayatollahs’ interpretation of the holy Qur’an.

Most cultural activities are under government censorship, which often leads to repression of ideas considered alien to Islam. All women, including tourists, must wear the hijab (scarf) and manteau, a coat that extends to the knees, in public. Only in conservative religious cities like Qom are women seen in black chadors (not berkas), which are full-length “gowns.”

For some, the hijab is a symbol of modesty; for others, oppression. Under the Shah, women were forbidden to wear it, therefore, many parents chose not to send their daughters to school. Today, over 65 percent of college students are women. The hijab has become a fashion statement and Iranian women constantly push the envelope, hair tumbling out of colorful silk  scarves and sequined jeans under their coats. Women are very much present in artistic, cultural and professional areas despite many Islamic prohibitions.

Our group of 14 included several American experts in Iranian history, government, religion and nuclear issues. We were sponsored by an Iranian government group, giving us access to political leaders, religious figures such as ayatollahs, archbishops of the Armenian and Caldean Churches and members of the Jewish community. We also attended a multi-nation meeting about Iran’s nuclear program, at which Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Mottaki spoke.

I was most touched by our conversation with Mohammed Khatami, former president of Iran and a leader of the reform movement. His engaging manner and surprising footwear (penny loafers) contrasted with his black robe and turban.  The black turban indicates that he is a direct descendant of Mohammed. He hopes for better relations with the United States, calling for “a dialogue of civilizations,” but says the Bush administration has destroyed these hopes by ignoring Iran’s numerous offers for unconditional negotiations. He remarked, “Despite the hostile confrontation between our two countries, we can look deep down and find factors that serve the interest of both countries.”

The message we heard repeatedly was that Iran does not want war, does not have a modern history of expansionism, and has repeatedly called for a nuclear-free Middle East. And, Iran believes it has the right to a role in regional decisions and is concerned about America’s attempts to diminish it.

Many Iranians we met expressed strong dissatisfaction with their government, but resented outside interference in their country. “You can help us by leaving us alone to solve our own problems,” one woman said, a sentiment echoed by the Armenian archbishop.

Iran is full of contradictions and often seen through a distorted political lens. It’s not a paragon of democracy, nor is it part of an “Axis of Evil.”

Unfortunately, politics causes us to lose sight of the universal core of humanity that could unite us as friends if the madness of fear and war were not so prevalent.

Inter-action Link
: — The home page for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization that sends delegates to Iran and other locations to promote cultural understanding.

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