Award winning travel feature, Society of American Travel Writers Foundation
Convinced that most Iranians actually like Americans
Written and photographed by Ron Wurzer
March 12, 2001
I was worried. The ceremony marking the 11th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah
Khomeini had just finished and Ken, a Norwegian photojournalist was very excited.
"The energy in there was wild, especially that part when they were all chanting,
'Death to Israel, death to America'." See photos
My jaw dropped. I was puzzled and concerned. The Iranian press card hanging around
my neck identified me as American. I was grateful I had tucked it into my shirt earlier.
The night before I had been at a small party in north Tehran of twentysomething-year-old
Iranians. North Tehran is the upscale, more modern part of the capital. It boasts
a Nike store, internet cafes, well-stocked computer stores, and a fast-food restaurant
called Boof that sells good fried chicken and pizza.
The partygoers were college-educated. One guy sported a long ponytail, blue jeans
and a striped T-shirt a la J. Crew. The young women immediately took off their headscarves
and manteaus, or cloaks, when they walked through the door. One girl wore a light
blue dress that revealed her bare shoulders. Another had on tight black stylish pants
and a short top that showed off her bare midriff. As the heavy-metal music of Metallica
blared on the stereo, the group began passing around marijuana cigarettes.
When I told them that I was going to the Khomeini ceremony early the next morning
they didn't understand why. One guy tried to talk me out of it, telling me it was
not important. I told him that I had read that upwards of one million Iranians would
be there, and that since Khomeini was the founding father of their revolution, and
a huge reason for the animosity between our countries, I was interested.
I wanted to know just what was it with Iranians and the U.S? Did they really hate
Americans? Or was that old news?
Only one of the eight or so in the room had ever been to the shrine, about 40
miles away. Most disdained Khomeini and the mollas (similar to a priest or rabbi)
who have so much power in Iran. They shrugged at my curiosity, continued smoking
and lost interest in the topic. Instead they wanted to know from me how prevalent
marijuana use was in America.
The one young woman who had been to the shrine said she only went because she
had to for a school field trip. One guy, who was waiting for a Green Card to move
to Canada, said Khomeini had ruined Iran.
How many Iranians live the Western lifestyle? I can't be sure. How many have such
contempt for the religious authority? I can't be sure of that either. But I do know
they were certaintly different from the Iranians I would meet the next day.
While I had not known specifically what the mourners were chanting during the
ceremony because they spoke Farsi, I could feel tension. Either their's, or, more
likely, mine. While reading up on Iran before my trip I became convinced that most
Iranians actually like Americans and that the media and the U.S. government has stereotyped
them as terrorists and zealots.
I had figured though, that there must be at least a few Iranians who bear a grudge
against America and Americans. And that this ceremony would be the place where I
could run into a person like that. They were the religious ones. Many traveled hours
to be here, I was told, from rural parts of Iran, and many had little education.
So there I was, at the shrine of Khomeini, the George Washington of the Iranian
revolution. His tomb was in the next hall. And I looked to be the lone American among
the hundreds of thousands of mourners present.
This was the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country where 52 Americans were held
hostage for 444 days in 1979-81. The country that has branded the U.S. the Great
Satan, for among other things, supporting the despotic Shah and engineering a coup
of their elected president in 1953. The country that the U.S. government identifies
as a sponsor of international terrorism. The country that issued a fatwa, or death
sentence, for British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam. And the
country that has attempted to export its style of theocratic government.
In Iran the experiment is a unique one. Religious leaders are mixing Islam and
democracy and the struggle is to have elected representatives and Islamic theocracy
exist in the same government. The struggle intensified in 1997 when the people elected
reformist Mohammad Khatami president. But Ayatollah Khameini, the Supreme Leader,
has ultimate power and is stifling progress. Newspapers have been shut down and women
are struggling for more freedoms. In July 1999 the struggle peaked when bloody riots
erupted near the University of Tehran after hardliners attacked student protesters.
"Marg bar Esraaeel, marg bar Amrikaa," ("Death to Israel, death
to America") the mourners cried out. I couldn't believe it. But here were 300,000
mourners or more, all chanting, in unison and all so loud. It had sounded so beautiful
to me before. Now that I knew what the words meant, it took on a whole different
The shrine was the size of two or three football stadiums together, but the ceremony
was only in a portion of it. The sides of the hall were open to the elements and
the roof was made out of light blue corrugated translucent plastic that cast a blue
tint over everything.
I immediately looked to Amir, my Iranian guide and translator, when Ken told me
about the chanting. Amir assured me it was no big deal. "They don't mean it,
it's just sloganeering," he said. I was not convinced.
They were packed tightly, elbow to elbow, as if at a rock concert. Men were separated
from women. It was hot, and there was no air-conditioning. Some were passing out
from heat exhaustion and paramedics would squeeze through the crowd and take them
away on stretchers. The males, from early teens to men in their 60's all wore long
sleeve shirts and pants. Dark colors were the preference, particulary black. There
was a look of intensity in their eyes. They appeared to believe in a cause. Khomeini
and Islamic fundamentalism?
That's why I had put that press card into my shirt... just to be safe.
During my 17-day trip to Iran, I experienced no other anti-American sentiment,
either from the government officials I met, the police, or ordinary citizens. On
the contrary, everyone was especially nice to me when they found out I was American.
At the Khomeini Museum, I was offered dozens of free English language books about
Khomeini and Islam, my own personal tour guide, and an ice cream bar. They were very
pleased and excited that an American had an interest in Khomeini.
On a previous night out walking the streets, I had even met a young molla who
told me he had no problem with Americans, just the American government.
After the Khomeini ceremony, still trying to make sense of it all, I walked around
the outside of the complex taking pictures of Iranians camping, eating, sleeping
and boarding buses for the ride home to other parts of the country.
Dozens approached me, hamming it up for my camera, wanting to practice their English
and asking where I was from. When they found out that I was American, most became
giddy. "America good," a few said, or "America, welcome."
But one guy became visibly agitated and jumped back a step or two behind his friends,
his eyes wide. "America?" he said, in disbelief. Yes, I said, as I showed
him my ID card. After a minute or so of checking me out he stepped forward and shook
my hand and insisted I take a picture of him and his buddies. All was well with this
But what about the chanters? "Marg bar Esraaeel, marg bar Amrikaa."
Less and less did I think that meant much, yet I couldn't be sure. I knew little
of the rural population, since I spent almost all of my time in large cities and
meeting urban folk.
Some of what I saw in the cities struck me as surprisingly Western. Among them,
an internet cafe in north Tehran where the two young Iranian men sitting next to
me were looking at pictures of girls in skimpy bathing suits (internet activity appears
to be unregulated); translations of Western rock lyrics, including Bob Dylan and
Metallica; a fast food restaurant in north Tehran called Behrooz, with a weekday
crowd overflowing onto the sidewalk and a logo that was obviously modeled on the
McDonald's golden arches; mollas in the holy city of Qom entering their lesson plans
onto the internet, and a religious bookstore in Qom that displayed books for sale
by American self-help guru Tony Robbins.
On a Friday afternoon near the end of my time in Iran, I was walking near the
University of Tehran and came upon a large crowd of people spilling into the street.
Fridays are the holy day in Islam, and the university is host to a large prayer gathering
every Friday afternoon. I noticed a commotion. Twenty or so Iranian men and children
were circled around a man who was holding up a magazine in one hand and a newspaper
in the other and yelling loudly.
I backed away. I was alone and slightly worried. The guy was wearing a red headband
with some yellow Farsi writing on it that identified him as a Basiji, a volunteer
moral police enforcer.
I had read about them and heard about them from other Iranians. These were the
guys who would stop couples on the street if they were holding hands and question
them to make sure that they were married. These were the guys who would raid parties
to see if alcohol was present, and if so, arrest people and make sure they were given
40 lashes with a whip the next day. They were also well known as the suicide bombers
during the Iran-Iraq War who would strap explosives to their bodies and crawl under
Iraqi tanks to blow it and themselves up.
From a distance I took pictures of the man and the crowd. After asking around,
I finally found a guy who spoke some English who could tell me exactly what the fuss
was about. Yes, the Basiji was angry that the woman on the magazine cover did not
cover her hair completely. She wore a scarf in the picture but the front part of
her hair was visible. This is a no-no to religious Iranians.
As we talked, a crowd of about 20 people formed around me. To my surprise, the
Basiji suddenly appeared at my side. He gave me the once over and the others seemed
to tell him what we were talking about. He demonstrated for me by pretending to stomp
something under his foot. It's symbolic, I was told, for what he thought the pictured
woman was doing to the Koran by not covering her hair completely.
Then he reached out and shook my hand and introduced himself as Reza. I was relieved.
I had half-thought the guy might start yelling at me, or worse, for being part of
the decadent American culture that he thought was contributing to the ruin of Iran.
Then he really surprised me. He took off his headband, neatly folded it, and presented
it to me with both hands.
As I took it, he held his hand over his heart, a typical Iranian gesture of friendship.
Ron Wurzer has been a staff photogrpaher at the Seattle Times for the
past 10 years. He visited Iran last year. This feature won an award from the Society
of American Travel Writers Foundation (2002).