The Iranian


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Sehaty Foreign Exchange


    June 15, 1999

    Minds do change

In response to Nariman Neyshapouri's recent comments on Mansoureh Haqshenas and Kouroush Bayat's "I must be a Jew," and in light of recent arrests of Jews in Iran on espionage charges, I'd like to offer an Ashkenazi (non-Iranian) Jew's view on relations among our peoples. Neyshapouri rightly notes that no ethnic group can monopolize bigotry -- namely, many American Jews harbor distrust, prejudice and even hatred toward Iranians (among others). These attitudes are, of course, born largely of ignorance -- and, as such, they can often be changed.

Last summer I spent 3 weeks in Iran on a scientific expedition. I was already interested in Iranian food, music etc., but the experience offered remarkable insight into a complicated society. As an American, I experienced nearly excessive kindness (some degree of which may be reserved for non-Iranian visitors!), explored culturally rich cities, met new friends who told new jokes, tried faaludeh for the first time, and enjoyed one great street party after a certain soccer game.

During my stay, I also heard occasional anti-Arab and anti-Jewish comments -- one guy blatantly told me he liked all foreigners 'except Jews of course,' not realizing that the guy whose tea glass he'd refilled for half an hour was a Jew. He was flustered to learn it, and could give me no reason for his feelings save political concerns about Israel.

Frankly, life's too short to let such incidents ruin any of it. He was wrong, but he was generally a good guy -- and me and my friends are wrong about a lot of things all the time. I know he didn't necessarily speak for anyone but himself -- not every crosscultural interaction has to be a miniature act of diplomacy. Beyond that, I actually appreciated his unwitting openness. If more people laid their prejudices on the table in front of anyone, those prejudices might be easier to root out.

Back in America, I gave a talk to a group of retired Jewish professionals about the state of science in Iran and the former Soviet countries. Many of them told me later that, from the publicized title of my talk, they'd expected a scary update on rogue science in those places (speculation on weapons of mass destruction and whatnot). What they got was

1) my impressions on how science is done (the influence of Islam's strong scientific focus, the availability of lab-grade ethanol in dry Iran versus only cheap vodka in resource-strapped post-Soviet labs etc.) differently in different places,

2) the basics of our genetic anthropology research, i.e. investigating human history through genetic diversity, and

3) a bunch of slides showing people I'd met and cool places I'd seen, with lots of small human stories.

My audience asked questions about the status of women and Jews in Iranian society, but they also asked about the significance of poets in Shiraz, about where Tehranis go for fun, and about what somaq tastes like. Filling in small details about a culture, I sensed some frozen misconceptions melting away. People's minds can actually change; let's hope the process continues.

Nathan Pearson
Department of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago Chicago, USA

P.S. Our expedition's website: //

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