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The first stone
How could I promote Iran as a destination for tourism?

July 3, 2001
The Iranian

I just got two emails from the same address with the subject heading: "Iran needs your help!" I, of course, automatically opened them thinking it may be from one of our political, cultural or charitable groups that spring up with the best of intentions, and are passionately active for a few months, before they self-destruct with the kind of venomous infighting that would make the worst internecine tribal wars seem like child's play.

Or, I thought, it might be from another young Iranian, stuck without a job in Iran, who has just discovered the Internet and is tickled by its capitalistic promise. One young man kept writing emails asking for money so that he could marry -- to the horror of the many addressees who found his plight preposterously not that dire.

But this email was claiming something I had secretly wished for, but never really believed, since the revolution. That my country, which had exiled my family and looked at my "type" with contempt, would actually "need me".

It was morning and my thoughts were blurred with the previous night's dream which is a recurring one. In this dream, that used to be a nightmare but is now just a dream because I have had it for so many years, I am running -- totally naked -- in an Iran that is green and mountainous like Switzerland. I realize I am naked and can be arrested. In panic I wake up. Nowadays the dream comes very rarely and in it I don't really panic anymore I just feel uncomfortable, run away and try to hide.

So this morning when I opened this email telling me that my beloved Iran needs me, I opened it with eagerness -- half hoping it was true. I read it and it was from some Iranian touring company asking me to help promote tourism in Iran. My immediate reaction was," how idiotic." These people should research their email recipients and omit people from their marketing list who, like me, have nightmares of running naked in Iran afraid of getting caught!

I travel to Iran and love to see more of our beautiful country. Even when we lived there, it seemed my mother preferred the shops of Oxford Street to the archeological sites of Fars. I, shamefully, grew up more familiar with the boutiques that stud Faubourg Saint Honore and Bond Street than the natural and architectural wonders of my own country. So I love the idea of tours to Iran.

But how could I promote Iran as a destination for tourism? I, who have just woken up from a bad dream again?

These days when I hear or think of Iran, the only image that comes to my mind is that of a woman buried to the neck in the ground ready to take the first stone. A great promotional image don't you think? I can see a poster of it in the travel agency of my mind: a head of a beautiful woman with olive skin and large brown eyes waiting in the sand against a backdrop of Persepolis splendid and ancient. Do they have to have something covering the woman's hair for the stoning? Is she buried to the neck so her breasts don't show? Or so that it would be harder for her to get out than a man? Or is it to render the adulteress sexless and easier to kill?

Who casts the first stone? How could he and I be from the same place? Speak the same language? Was he told, like I was when growing up, "mayaazaar moori keh daaneh kesh ast keh jaan daarad-o jaan-e shirin khosh ast?" (Do not harm an ant who is bearing a seed for he has life and his life is sweet) Who throws that first stone and what is he thinking? These are the questions swimming in my mind these days as I drive the kids from one summer activity to the next.

My dear tour agency friends, I am the worst person you can target. What do I tell these foreigners who want to pay our country a visit? "Iran is beautiful but if you happen to have an affair with a married person and get caught you will be buried to the waist or neck, depending on your gender, and stoned to death!" Or, "There is a bustling social life in Tehran but if you are unlucky enough to be invited to a party that is raided, you will find yourself in a prison waiting for hours, maybe days, to pay a big fine or face lashings just because you where in mixed company and having a beer." Or, "Things are much better now that we have a reformist president who is so powerless that he cannot stop the arrest of members of parliament whose only crime is voicing their opinions. He is a scholarly type, a man of dialogue and debate not of action. Our president got 76% of the vote but has to turn a blind eye to the stonings, murders and arrests. Which are very rare, I assure you."

My dear compatriots of something-something tours, I am the wrong person for the job. When I think of Iran these days I hear the thump of the stone on a young woman's head. Blunt and dull but somehow lasting forever. My questions are not about hotel prices in Isfahan. I want to know what that person who throws the first stone thinks. I want to know why is it that -- in Sharia Law -- if a person can climb out of the hole and run away, he or she is exonerated? Are you less of an adulterer if you can survive a stoning and are strong enough to set yourself free? Or is surviving the ordeal considered punishment enough? How are the crowds put together for the stoning? Do there a community announcement asking all who are interested in killing a soul to show up at the town square?

These are the questions crowding my mind as I drive down route 270 to pick up my children from "Fun Theater Company Camp". These are the questions that have bothered and numbed me to the point where I can't even conjure up the will to research them because I know that the answers will leave me feeling even more numb and helpless, even more unable to "help Iran".

So my dear friends of the tour agency, you need someone who does not suffer from recurring questions and nightmares to help you. I am not the person for the job. I am sorry that Iran needs me to promote tourism and that I am under-qualified for the job. But do tell me: Are women amongst the stoning crowds? Is it true that the stones have to be small and smooth to assure a slow death?

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety


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