By Stephen Shaffer
Queens, New York
The time had come for me to depart from Iran. Into my duffel bag I crammed my memories, thoughts and souvenirs of the nooks and crannies of the country. My sneakers still held the dust of Persepolis, Darake and Shomal. My face was still red from the midday summer sun.
Throughout my final day, members of my host-family stopped by to say their goodbyes and each arrived with a few items for me to take back to the States for myself and for their family members living in the States.
That night I watched the sun set through the smog that hung over the western part of the city and as I surveyed the capital, a white dove that belonged to a local bird collector landed on the TV aerial on my roof. A few moments later, it took flight and continued to circle the neighborhood. I hoped it was good omen for my trip back.
The mother of the host-family filled a bowl with water, picked some leaves from the peach tree in the hayat, or courtyard, and put them in the water. As I crossed the threshold of the house and out the gates into the kooche (alley), I walked under the bowl and a Qoran. Once off the premises, the water and leaves were poured on the ground. The ritual is done with the hopes that the visitor will return soon.
It was a rather solemn and emotion-filled moment, one I will not forget easily. The entire family piled into two cars and we headed toward Mehrabad airport. For some Iranians, such a trip reminds them of a time when members of their own families said farewell. It was at that same time that I began to understand the attachment Iranians have for their family members, both near and far.
When I departed, I was treated like family. It didn't seem to matter much that I had been born into a different family, in a different country with a different mother tongue. The leaves that lay in the kooche said more than any of us could put into words.
Before visiting Iran, I had run into several Americans and Europeans who had lived in Iran for various lengths of time. Most loved the time they spent there and fondly recalled their experiences. Some even told me that had it not been for the great upheaval the country experienced, they would have retired in Iran.
The extremely unfortunate part of the story is that most in America and in other parts of the world received violent events after 1979 as their introduction to Iran and its people. A most unfortunate introduction indeed.
I can recall the impression those events imprinted on my memory at a young age, and the impact it made on the way I viewed Iran. Fortunately, like many things in life, once you get to know something and see it from a new perspective, one's opinions can change.
Although many will draw their own conclusions about Iran, I, and for that matter anyone, can adjust views and opinions with experience. After all, isn't that what experience is for? I doubt that experience is gathered and revered by many for the sole purpose of reinforcing negative impressions.
Upon reflection, one point that I should have made in an earlier article for The Iranian is that in every city and town I visited, Iranians wished to know one thing: What do Americans think of Iranian people? They stressed the "people" part of their question because they worry, and rightly so, that American media lump a people and government together.
They wanted Americans to know that Iranian people are good people. They are worried that Americans may not be aware of the difference between government and people, something taken for granted in the States. For them the two are not one and the same.
My presence in Iran did not seem to disturb anyone, rather it surprised most people. At hotels in Shiraz and Isfahan, eyebrows were raised with the appearance of my blue passport. I suspect that many assumed I was German, Austrian, or from another European country. Many children I encountered in the bazaars and streets claimed that they had never seen an American before meeting me.
An entire generation has grown up only seeing images of Americans on television, receiving the business end of official speeches, literature and wall murals. However, despite the negative input received by Iran's "Generation X," they appear to be well-disposed toward Americans.
No doubt many have seen American TV via satellite, or bootleg copies of movies, but I hope they're not under the impression that we're all gun-slinging cowboys or hooked on Metallica.
I tended not to discuss politics while I was there. As one Iranian friend put it, "exporting politicians to Iran is like trying to export grain to Hamadan." (For those not familiar with the province, Hamadan is a major grain producer.)
I don't honestly feel that the resumption of ties with any one nation alone will turn Iran's fortunes around and in a more prosperous direction. Too many internal obstacles remain in the way and need to be overcome lest they become a permanent part of the Iranian social, political and economic landscape.
Resumption of ties with the U.S. may be a big part of the equation, but cannot stand alone. It seems that Iran isn't quite clear on where it is going, or if it does have an idea, which path to take. It seems caught between images of its past and an amorphous present, a form still to be determined.
As it attempts to catch its breath from all that has happened, it is also trying to determine its distinct identity and how to build upon all the various elements of its past and present makeup. The result -- a hybrid in which no single element predominates the soul of the nation.
In view of the upcoming elections in Iran, it is hoped that elected leaders will transmit hope and not gloom and doom to their constituents. Not necessarily officials who can be found amid a crowd of Tehranis using phrases which hark back to a former New York mayor who frequently asked New Yorkers "How'm I doin'?"
A start has been the efforts of Tehran's present mayor who has made many cosmetic and infrastructural improvements to the city's landscape. Although cosmetic improvements are not a panacea for Iran's problems, they are tangible and can be associated with a face by those bearing most of the country's burdens.
One of the difficulties in summing up thoughts on my trip to Iran is that there really is no single point from which I can begin. Nor do I feel that I can end with any hard and fast conclusions. In a country in which time seemingly passes almost unnoticed and without concern, it would be foolish to fix a beginning and end.
It would also be just as difficult to place the pace of change (or the lack thereof) on any timetable. Similar to the rhythm of the passing of seasons, life in Iran seems to have a rhythm as old as time itself, a rhythm which includes the celebration of Nowrouz on the first day of spring.
With such a rhythm one can be sure that when all else fails, the sun will rise and set, Nowrouz will come and go, just as they have for centuries. These are the kinds of things, I believe, on which Iranians focus and rely when all outside their hayats fails to make sense.
A 25-year-old political science graduate from New York University, Shaffer traveled to Iran last August. This is his fourth article about his trip for The Iranian.
* Also by Stephen Shaffer:
- Shomal; The pleasant reality -- Seeing only green in Iran's Caspian region.
- An American in Iran -- Observations on post-revolutionary Iran.
- Mostaqim! -- On riding a taxi
* THE IRANIAN Travel section
* Cover stories
* Who's who
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