The Children of Iran and What They Mean

    Two weeks in Iran was an unforgettable experience. We went with a group from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace group. They organized it and the fourteen in our group saw officials we could not have visited on  our own. We also visited some of the great historic sites and places of special beauty.

    There seemed to me to be four Irans. One is the ancient Persian Iran, elegant, ancient, full of poetry and dignity. Beginning at the start of recorded history, home of Zoroastrianism. The second Iran is the best of Islam from the time of the Prophet Muhammed himself with a deep reverence for the recitation of the Qur'an and a deep unity of Jews, Christians and his own followers. The third Iran is secular, relating to the universities, sophisticated and restless about the restrictions of the current regime. A fourth Iran is the one represented by the current government, a distortion of true Islam, but struggling to be faithful to the ideals of justice, peace and compassion.

    But the children of Iran are the ones that come back to me most powerfully as I look back on the visit. They seem to be the way into the central truths about Iran today. Everywhere we went there were people, especially young people, who would approach us and ask where we were from. When we said, “America” they invariably smiled and cheered. “Welcome! We are glad that you have come to Iran!” There was not one exception; no one looked away, or looked confused much less angry.

    What did that mean? Several things. First, there is an enduring positive reputation of our nation which has survived the corrosion of the last eight years. They said, in many ways, “We don’t like our President just the way you do not like yours.” Some of them were quite reckless about saying that even though they could have gotten in trouble for being so outspoken.

     Iran is a police state; we were reminded of that often. The youngest woman in our group was stopped on the street by the police for not wearing a coat that was long enough and loose enough. They gave her a warning since she was a newly arrived foreigner, but they said that she would be fined the next time.

    The women in our group had varied attitudes about being required to cover up. The one who was stopped was quite angry about it. Others said that they were especially annoyed when it was hot, but that it was interesting not to worry about how their hair and clothing looked.

    Obviously it is a little unsettling to walk around in a police state. With all our own police problems, I still firmly believe that the police are on my side in my country. I was never frightened while I was there, but it is only because we felt that we knew the rules and could abide by them.

    The children also seemed to be free of fear. It seemed that they knew the rules too. I even felt that they enjoyed some freedom that our own children do not have in the same way. Like some of our own young people who prefer a school uniform to having to worry about keeping up with the latest fashions, they could concentrate on more important things.

    When we met with the Director of Islamic Guidance, an office with an ominous sounding name, we had a glimpse into the mind of their theocracy. The same woman, Trish, who had been stopped for her short coat, asked the Director why there were no CD’s of female singers in the music stores. He replied, “Women in Iran do not sing alone. They are either in a group or they perform for other ladies.”
Trish asked why. He said, “There is a verse in the Qu’ran which says that many men are emotionally unbalanced in a way that is made worse if they see women move in certain ways or hear them sing alone. So the state "protects them.”
Trish persisted, “Why don’t you let the men take care of their own emotional health?”
The Director answered with the greatest respect and gentleness, “There are many references in the Qu’ran to women. They are like flowers, very beautiful and very important, but also delicate.” I wish that you could have heard him and seen him because he was so kind in his paternalism. We laugh at his male-oppression answer, but I felt that I was with him when he said, “I have heard rap and heavy metal music.” And he shuddered slightly,  “It would be harmful to society for that kind of music to be readily available. There could be chaos” I disagree with the policy of government censorship, but when I look at the children of Iran and see the innocence in their faces, it seemed to be different from the children of my own land and all that they are exposed to on a daily basis. The children made me pause.

    The children also seemed to be the beneficiaries of the love of poetry in Iran. We went to the Tomb of Hafiz in Shiraz. It is a small structure, blue and tall, beautifully lit in the deepening shadows of our late afternoon visit. There were many standing or sitting and reading the poetry of Hafiz. I commend it to you. Like Rumi, another earlier Persian poet,  Hafiz is a mystic. But his mysticism is very down to earth. He finds his oneness with God in making love, in flowers, in dancing and singing and in the sky. I wish I could read it or hear it read in the original Persian. There was a man kneeling next to the actual tomb, with one hand on the tomb and another holding a small book of the poems of Hafiz. He was reading them aloud, but not audibly to me.

    That and other poetry nourishes the children and plays a big part in their education. I am told that many of them aspire to be poets the way our young people hope to be athletes and movie stars.  They  have those hopes as well.

    The astonishing beauty of the mosques, especially the ones many of you have seen in Esfahan, also nourishes the children. The minarets and domes are different from the cathedrals of Europe which I have loved all my life. The beauty is equally elaborate, but the arches are open to the sky and the tiles covering the ceilings, walls and floors are elaborately bright in their endless tracery. There is a freedom about it, a kind of luxuriating in the flowing lines and brilliant intricate colors, the height of sensuality. As an emotionally unbalanced man, I found my condition made more serious by the richness of the undulations!

    The children seemed free of the political burdens which were certainly evident. There was a celebration honoring the Prophet Muhammed on the anniversary of his death. It took place in Palestine Square where there were many young men, marching in formation, dressed in black or combat uniforms. They were chanting and roaring their opposition to Israel and American support for Israel. They looked fierce and the signs around the square reflected their anger. We had been warned not to take pictures there, so we only have a couple, taken by Caroline, but they give a sense of the atmosphere. It was just before the recent elections and people were handing out fliers in just the same way that we do before a big election. Some reform candidates had been restored to the ballot only days before, indicating to me that the administration had recognized that they had gone too far in removing certain reformists from the rolls. There are many who seem ready for another revolution and the authorities do not want to push their power too far.

    The education is all public, supported by the state. If the Supreme Ayatollah wanted his people to see America as a devil, he could do much to teach children to hate and fear us. He obviously has not done that. Even though there are still old signs painted on the former American Embassy showing the red stripes of the American flag dripping with blood and bombs, the people without exception seemed to understand that the problem is with our President, not with the people of the USA.

    We visited Persepolis where we encountered crowds of school children, happily drinking in the beautiful remains of their ancient Persian civilization. There I was approached by a handsome soldier in the uniform of the Iranian army. He asked, in unaccented English if I were American. We talked of the beauty of the place, especially the ancient sculpture and friezes. He had spent six years in Carson City, Nevada!  We spoke of the foolishness of war and he said some words in Farsi which I could not understand, then translated:
            “We make war on people we do not know.
            We do not make war on people we do know.”
It sounds more beautiful and flowing in Farsi, the words worn smooth like the bas reliefs in the walls around us. The soldier said that he thought the peace delegation was a great idea, and wished that there were more and that there could be some going from Iran to the United States.

    I was surprised that there is religious toleration on the surface, in Iran. We visited the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Bishop of the Chaldean Christian Church. They both said that their clergy and people were not subjected to acts of intolerance. They also said that their people were leaving and it was clear, between the lines, that they felt that they were swimming against a heavy tide of the dominant faith.

    That seemed less true in our visit to the Jewish Synagogue in Shiraz. It was Friday night and 300 men were boisterously involved in their Sabbath prayers. When it was over, they crowded around us, their faces shining from their energetic worship. They treated us like movie stars or big athletes. And they too said that they were not subject to acts of intolerance. Iranians seem to make a clear distinction between Jews whom they know and the leaders of the nation of Israel. The women in our group met with the Jewish women and they painted a darker picture, saying that life is  hard.

    One of the most moving visits was with the Ayatollah Khatami, still the leader of the reform part of the government. He received us with elaborate graciousness in his huge, ornate office and spoke of the great challenge of pursuing peace. Among other things he said, “Governments can impose war. It is hard to impose peace.” He said it firmly, with touching sadness.

    One of our group, a reporter, asked, “You were the President before Ahmadinejad for a period of eight years. What were the positive results?” Khatami seemed to me to wince slightly, but he took a deep breath and gave a short speech about the difficulties of achieving reform. He emphasized the importance of seeking peaceful change from within the government and he made no claim of success. He seemed a little weary, but very determined to continue to try to work for the improvement of the common life of the people of Iran. It was moving to experience his intelligence and dedication as he, like many others, referred to the importance of continuing to pursue the Islamic ideals of peace, compassion and justice.

    By coincidence, the next to the last night that we were there, we were invited to attend an international conference of 27 nations to discuss the response of Iran to the U.N. imposition of sanctions on their trade. It took place in an elegant space overlooking the lights of Tehran. At the end of dinner the Chairman welcomed us all and invited everyone to “walk around the streets of Tehran. You will see a peaceful people, not wild-eyed terrorists. And be assured that we will find ways to live with the sanctions. They only stiffen our resolve to continue to be a proud and independent nation!”

    The determination with which he said those words reminded me of the three times I had the privilege of being in a mosque when the men were praying. In one, the imam, leader of the prayers, was in a kind of shallow well, on his knees, forehead on the ground, praying in preparation for leading the prayers. I was told that his preparation often takes an hour or two. Then the actual prayers were events you have seen in photographs: rows of men, huge numbers, knees on the ground, foreheads on the ground, with the Qur’an being chanted over their backs in a loud, keening, amplified, hypnotic flow. As you know, Muslims believe that it is the Qur’an which is the incarnation of God, not Muhammed or Jesus or any other human. Experiencing the reading of the Qur’an, on site, in Iran, made that more understandable to me. It is a challenge I cannot  meet to try to describe to you the power of those prayers. I believe that humans are created to give themselves, passionately to another. At least I feel that in myself. It is fulfilling to give myself to my wife, to my children and grandchildren, and to God, to Jesus. It is a relief, not something I have to crank up or work on. In the West, those feelings have been ridiculed. We, of all ages, want to be cool. Going as far as those Muslims go can be fanatical and can lead to extreme, even violent actions. I choose to see it as a lesson. We can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters about the joy of giving ourselves away, beyond the comforts of our insurance and pensions and seat belts and guard rails and careful planning. It is ecstatic.

    So,  I return to the children. I went because I was terrified that our President might, in his last weeks in office, decide to bomb Iran. I wanted to do anything I could, no matter how small, to help prevent that horror. That prospect has become less likely since then, but the press continues to chime in,  demonizing Iran.

    It is important for us to know that the Supreme Ayatollah distanced himself from the remarks made a year ago by President Ahmadinejad and, as his superior, scolded him for implying that he would bomb Israel. The Supreme Ayatollah said that Iran has no plans to bomb or invade any other country. It was a rebuke of Ahmadinejad by his boss, but it was given much less space in our newspapers than the bellicose words of Ahmadinejad. It has never been clearer to me than today that the media thrive on conflict, especially war. I now reduce sharply in my mind the reports of any conflict and especially any build up for war.

    Iranians are proud of the sophistication of their society.  Even with the exceptions noted, they seem a peaceful, educated people in spite of their anger about the bombings of Gaza which took place while we were there, killing 130 people. The  billboards of the father holding his dead infant, killed by Israeli bombs, were displayed in many places.

    The officials with whom we met were unfailingly polite in everything they said to us, but they made their  complaints clear. They are familiar to all of you. They reminded us that the state of Israel had been carved out of the land of the Palestinians. No sufficient compensation was made to them for that.  Then Israel occupied more land and still more land. They have nuclear weapons and their neighbors have none. They feel humiliated by the might of Israel. We all have responses to those grievances, but the stand-off remains.

    I pray that the day will come when our nation will recognize that the state of Israel is a member of the family of nations, that we will acknowledge the divisions within Israel about the best policy to pursue at any given time. They too have a left wing and a right wing. We will then praise some official policy and we will deplore other official policy, just as we do with any other nation on earth. We must continue to do all that we can to protect Israel and that include treating it honestly and openly, not looking the other way when it acts with needless harshness toward its neighbors.

    I do not come lightly to this long, bloody argument and I offer no facile solutions.  I was eleven years old when the first newsreels about the concentration camps were shown. It was a scorching experience and it shaped my soul for the rest of my life. It made me want to relieve suffering any way I could, as my life’s vocation. I rejoiced when the state of Israel was created in 1948 when I was fourteen. But in our two weeks in Iran, the grievances were the elephant in the room in virtually every official visit we made, always delicately treated, but a topic eliciting strong, restrained passion.

    I have had nightmares from time to time all my life, since those old newsreels, about the Nazis coming to get me and getting ready to torture me.. While I was in Iran I had a new version of that nightmare.  I was in the line in the concentration camp where the Nazis extracted the gold teeth. In my dream, it would soon be my turn.

    What is the best way to remember that horror beyond all measure? What is the best way to honor those helpless people in that line, weeping, waiting their turn? We need to come up with better answers than we have found thus far. When we do, the people of Iran and people throughout the Middle East will be glad. The children are waiting.

    I conclude with the story of our visit with Kusrow Sinai, an Iranian film Director, lionized in his own country. He gave us wonderful hospitality in his home. Among many stories, he told of his dream to do a documentary about men who have killed their sisters. They were living far from the urban centers and committed those murders because they felt obliged to defend the honor of their families against the transgressions of their sisters. Sinai got official permission to visit the men who had been convicted of murder under the laws of the Islamic Republic. The laws of the state supersede the local customs. Sinai said that he expected to find wild men, rampaging about, and even feared for his own safety briefly, as he entered the prison. Instead he found the men slumped over, deeply depressed, filled with remorse for what they had done. While in prison, they had had time to reflect upon their actions, to talk with others more in the main stream of Iran society and realized that they had committed unspeakably horrible crimes. One said, in summary, to Sinai, "When I was outside, free in my village, my mind was in prison. Now I am in prison, and my mind is free."

    Sinai hopes to make the film to show that Iran is moving, even at its most extreme edges, toward modernity as a whole society.

    America has every reason to hope and expect that we will be able to negotiate with Iran, to be partners in achieving peace in Iraq and to learn from this ancient part of the world as we seek solutions to some of our own problems.