I have wondered in recent weeks why Iran has touched me so deeply. I have travelled to 25 countries in my life. In all of them, I have marveled at various aspects of culture, history and natural beauty. And yet this 25th country I visited, Iran, has touched me more than all others. It is a land that has haunted my dreams, touched my soul, and shifted my consciousness. Little did I know that, after visiting Iran, I would never be the same again. From unexpectedness came an appreciation inexpressible by frail words.
New York Times journalist Roger Cohen spent many months in Iran before and just after its presidential election, and it touched him so deeply that he wrote: “We journalists are supposed to move on. Most of the time, like insatiable voyeurs, we do. But once a decade or so, we get undone, as if in love, and our subject has its revenge, turning the tables and refusing to let us be.” He further said that Iran “crushes people with its tragedy”, and he called Iran “a land of poets who knew how to marry the sacred and the sensuous and always laughed at the idea of a truth so absolute it would not accommodate contradiction.” To me, this description is incredibly apt, for Persian poets like Rumi, Saadi and Hafez wrote in beautiful and profound prose, yet they would have never been able to imagine the tragedy that would befall the land they loved. To me, Iran is a land of parks, poetry and wonderful people. And yes, it is a land that has crushed me with its tragedy, a country cast into the cauldron of darkness.
There is something unspeakably tragic about young, well educated, non-religious women who are forced by the state to wear a headscarf in the sweltering heat, young women who are strong willed but yet whose fashion is directed in minute detail by old men with beards who supposedly represent God. There is something strange and sad about a country and civilization that once formed the first true Super Power of this earth, under Darius the Great, a leader who influenced both Eastern and Western civilizations and religions, and yet today is guided by small, belligerent men, who seek conflict with the world. Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and his cronies have turned a land of profound poetry into a place of perverse puppetry.
As the days have passed since I left Iran, I have thought about the individual people I met. I think about my friend Sohrab, in Esfahan. His father marched in the revolution of 1979, but Sohrab is an atheist. He told me straightforwardly, “I could legally be killed because I was raised a Muslim but now I am an atheist…that’s bulls**t.”
I think about my friend Atifa, also from Esfahan. The first time I met her in person, she said “My name is Atifa, it’s an Arabic name, I don’t like it!” We all laughed. Her headscarf slipped off as smoothly and regularly as the waves of the sea covering and cleaning the rocks on a wind swept shore. She was as religious as a deviant drunkard in a monastery.
I think about my friend Sepideh, a more traditional girl, with her headscarf always secure. Sepideh prays regularly and is a sincere Muslim. Yet I marveled at her intelligence, kindness, patience and helpfulness.
I think about the little baby boy in a stroller in Shiraz, who held in his hand a green flag, given by his parents, supporters of the Reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. From his face I could tell that he was a bit confused, uncertain of why I was smiling at him, but there was no mistaking the fact that his parents hoped that he would grow up in a better and more free world than the one that they inherited. The little green flag he held represented the small spark of freedom, and held the promise of a better future for him and other children of Iran.
Of course, these were just a handful of the people I met and spoke with in Iran, yet most of the hearts I sampled I found to be beautiful.
I am grateful that I had the chance to set foot in this place, blessed with a prolific history and rich natural beauty, but unfortunately cursed by the scourge of men who exercise absolute power in the name of religion.
I have tried hard in my life to learn about this world, and all that is in it. Many things I don’t know and never will. And yet, this one thing, I know. I know Iran, not the Iran so commonly portrayed in our media, but rather its pulsating soul, experienced by breaking bread with its people, walking the dusty streets of its villages, and feeling the chaotic energy and vibrant beauty of its vast cities. Until the restless dream of Iranian freedom is achieved, this is the bond I make with her citizens, and with my God. I will stand with the Iranian people, and give all that I have for the land and people that have so strongly shifted my consciousness, and so deeply touched my soul.
All personal names used in this article have been changed and are not real names.