Report from Tehran, January 22, 2014
I spent the afternoon today ambling along the streets of Tehran soaking in the city, negotiating the tiny, bustling alleys of its bazaar, and reflecting as I stood in front of the former U.S. embassy that was the focus of the horrific hostage crisis of some 35 years ago.
Perhaps a conversation in the bazaar best sums up my experience. A well-dressed Iranian gentleman, obviously one of the owners of a stall, sidled up to me and asked, “Where are you from?”
Uh-oh, I thought to myself, here it comes . . .
“I’m from the USA,” I mumbled, expecting a less than enthusiastic response.
“Wow, the USA,” he gushed! “We have been waiting for you for 35 years!! Where have you been?!”
He stopped and extended his open hand toward mine. I turned and looked him directly in the eye. We both smiled and shook each other’s hand.
His words perfectly captured the tenor of the reception we’ve received this week from the Iranian people. I’m here with a group of 10 U.S. academics on a quest for peace and reconciliation between Iran and the US. We are traveling at the invitation of US Academics for Peace, founded by Dr. Jim Jennings of Conscience International. We have been warmly received by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the faculty of the University of Tehran and several other institutions.
I don’t have time at this point in the journey to review all of our experiences but suffice it to say that we have had honest and meaningful intellectual exchanges about US-Iran tensions, including sanctions and the role of religion in our two cultures. We’ve celebrated our callings as professors and researchers and hoped that a path might be opened to faculty/student exchange and cooperation in research. I’ll certainly share more of the content of our discussions later. But, for now, I’ll stick to this particular story.
After shaking my new Iranian friend’s hand, I moved on to the front of the former U.S. embassy. There I re-lived the events of November 1979 in my mind. Our collective national trauma. The overwhelming sense of impotency in the face of a rage we didn’t comprehend. The prayers we prayed for our people and for their freedom and safety.
Young Iranians strolled by, many of them couples enjoying a relatively warm sunny day in Tehran. I walked along by the murals in front of the embassy, including the one of the face of the Statue of Liberty presented as a skull. I saw the top of the American military helicopter that crashed in the desert on its way to attempt the rescue. I took a picture of an orange vendor standing in front of a “Down With USA” sign that was painted on the embassy wall.
And then it came to me. I wasn’t looking at an active hotbed of anger and hostility toward America. I was standing in front of a museum, a place people came to reflect on a moment in history that was painful, yes, but that was also long past. Most of the Iranians walking by weren’t even born 35 years ago. It was like standing at the Berlin Wall or at the Hanoi Hilton. Important horrible events happened here but I was clearly aware of the pastness of those events. And of the need to understand them as events that have shaped our lives but that no longer have to define us as Americans or as Iranians.
And so, my new friend in the bazaar, you ask me where I’ve been? I’ve been away awhile but I think I’m ready to come back so that you and I can figure how to make something good out of this terrible mess for which all of us are responsible
Thanks for making me feel really hopeful on a cool sunny day in downtown Tehran. Your words to me could have been words of hate; instead they were words of friendship and respect, the first steps toward peace.
May God help us as we walk the rest of the way and as we encourage our brothers and sisters to make the journey with us.