Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Why Iran?

Why visit Iran?

my visa photo for IranThe purpose of the delegation I joined was "citizen diplomacy", "building people-to-people ties"—trying to help create peace between nations via personal connections between individuals. (at right, my visa photo - women's hair must be covered!)

I admit that before the trip, I was extremely skeptical about this goal. "What impact can one person have?" I wondered, generally feeling that the answer to this question was negative. (This would change for me during the tour... stay tuned to find out how!)

My main motivation for seeing Iran was that it is full of amazing ancient sites and gorgeous mosques, and if war does come, I may never have a chance to see them. In contrast to my companions' noble goals, this sounded like—and perhaps was—an amazingly selfish reason to travel. I felt a bit like a secretly selfish stow-away on the citizen diplomacy tour.

The reaction of others to my plans was very interesting.

My partner was very worried and tried to dissaude me, but when it was clear I was determined, she said she would not comment further (and would try not to think about it).

Several of our friends had the same reaction. Others were more excited and encouraging.

Mom's contribution to my wardrobe for IranMy mother wished desperately that she could come with me (but this is not surprising; where do you think I got this crazy streak of wanderlust?) (at left: Mom's contribution to my wardrobe for Iran - a balaclava! "We have such slippery hair," she said. "Mom, I'll roast," I said.)

Most people, when they heard of my plans, reacted with, "IRAN? Why??????" I was always unsure as to how to respond to this question, mainly because it was never clear what they meant.

"Why Iran?" could mean, "Why would you visit a country that took our hostages/sponsors terrorism/defies the UN/hates America?"

Or it could mean, "Why would you visit a country that's nothing but sand and camels?" or "Why would you visit a country that the U.S. might be preparing to attack?" or "Why would you visit a country where your personal safety would be at risk?" ...

...Or some combination of all of these.

For a long time, I found it almost impossible to respond to the "why" question.

The cacophony in my head—generated by all the possible meanings of the question and all the possible responses—rendered me inarticulate.

"Um, ah, well, there's lots of beautiful things there," I sometimes said. Or, "I hear they are very welcoming to Americans." My questioners rarely looked satisfied at these responses; some looked downright suspicious.

These were uncomfortable conversations—the suspicous looks even frightened me (was someone going to report me to Homeland Security as a spy??)—and I finally stopped telling people where I was going.

"I'll be out of the country," I'd say, or "I won't be available."


As departure drew closer and the "citizen diplomacy"-themed emails from the tour sponsor started coming fast & furious, I realized that teling people where I was going was part of "doing my part" to help people learn about Iran.

I still couldn't manage much of a response to "why," but I started saying, "I want to go everywhere, and this might be my only chance to go to Iran." That seemed at least somewhat satisfactory and stopped the scarily suspicious looks.

The other thing I started to say was, "I hear that Iranians say, 'we don't like your government but we welcome you to our country,' and if you think about it, that's how we would welcome them if they came to the U.S." This seemed to be thought-provoking and opened the door for further discussion as well.

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About this blog

Although I didn't end up blogging while I was in Iran, I still want to share my experiences and impressions. I'll (hopefully) write each day about one day's experiences (much as if I were writing while on the trip, although inevitably the perspective is different). I'll also write separate posts to collect and summarize my thoughts and impressions on specific topics (i.e., the revolution, the government, women, etc.), based both on observations and on prior reading.

Comments Policy

Comments are welcome; offensive comments will be deleted. It's my blog, so I will be the sole and arbitrary judge of what is offensive. People seeking to insult (or advocate harm to) others can post that crap on their own blogs. Rationale: I have visited too many interesting blogs whose comments are a waste of space, full of ridiculously petty arguments and traded insults. (Boring!) Comments whining about the policy will also be deleted.