During our final night in Iran, I was interviewed at length by two reporters from a Tehran newspaper. I mentioned to them that during my High Holiday sermon to my congregation, I noted that Americans (and especially American Jews) chronically misunderstand Iran. I told the reporters that ironically enough, I learned on this trip that I really hadn’t understood Iran nearly as well I as I had thought myself.
The most essential thing I’ve learned is in some ways the most basic: Iran is a beautiful country with a venerable history and wonderful, gracious people. It is also a powerfully complicated country, marked by a myriad of cultural/political/religious/historical layers. I am now more convinced than ever that we in the West harbor egregiously stereotypical assumptions about this country – and that we harbor them at our mutual peril.
We spoke to many Iranian citizens during this trip and probably the most common comment we heard was that they had no problems with Americans – and that the real problem lay with our respective governments. (On more than one occasion, I heard this said in regard to Israel as well). While I realize that these statements like these probably reflect characteristically Iranian t’aarof, (“graciousness”), I don’t underestimate the abiding truth of comments such as these. I do believe that we ultimately have more in common than not. I do believe that our respective governments continually misunderstand and misuse one another. And I do believe that true communication and reconciliation between our two nations is not only possible, but utterly essential.
The challenge of communication was driven home to us over and over during the course of our formal meetings and dialogues. It became fairly clear to us fairly soon that even with direct face to face conversation, even with decent interpreters, miscommunication was virtually inevitable. And though these kinds of miscues might have seemed to us to be fairly benign at the time, we came to appreciate that even subtle misunderstandings had important implications.
More often than not, these barriers were due to cultural differences where words/idioms could not be simply translated literally in a single rendering. And I can’t help but believe that many of the more ominous assumptions we hold about Iran and Iranians are due less to substance than to cultural misunderstanding. While I prefer not to weigh in on the rhetorical hairsplitting debate on Ahmadinejad’s notorious 2005 “threat” to “wipe Israel off the map,” I’ll only suggest that our attitudes (not to mention our foreign policy) must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.
None of this is to sugar-coat the more disturbing aspects of the Islamic Republic. If our delegation was ever tempted to do so, we received a hard dose of reality when we read in the Tehran Times about a public hanging of two men convicted of bombing a mosque that was scheduled to take place in Shiraz shortly after we were there. Yes, we are justified in recoiling from reports such as these – and we’d be foolish to deny that there are troubling human rights issues that Iran would do well to address. But at the end of the day these are Iran’s issues to address, not ours. And the solutions to these problems are certainly not ours to impose.
As a matter of fact, the Iranian human rights community has been confronting these issues for some time. And it is worth noting that their fight for peace and justice serves as a challenge to us as well. On the final night of our stay in Iran several women from our delegation met with members of Iranian Mothers for Peace, an anti-war NGO founded by courageous women, many of whom have done time in Iranian prisons for speaking out against the injustices of the Islamic Republic. But they have also gone on record against the US war in Iraq and in particular against a potential US attack on Iran.
From one of their public letters:
To all peace-loving mothers of America,
We are addressing you from the Middle East. Our motherly instincts compel us to share a common pain with those of you whose children are fighting in the Iraq war. Iranian Mothers for Peace is an independent organization that was established in October 2007 to object the war and warmongers both in Iran and the United States of America. We are diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, and ideology. Iranian Mothers for Peace opposes war, human rights abuses, injustice, and poverty…
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing each American family $25,000 a year during a time in which the United States is in an economic crisis, with many citizens still lacking health care and economic stability. Once again American Government officials are singing the ominous song of war – this time against Iran. It is unjust for our children to be killed and murdered while the weapons manufacturers and oil monopolies collect blood money.
Therefore, we are asking all of you peace-loving American mothers to oppose the war and those who are inciting the war in order to prevent this mistake from happening again. Please do not let our children draw weapons against each other. Please do not allow the decision makers to force Iranian, American, Iraqi, and Afghani mothers to suffer from pain and heartbreak for their children forced into fighting unjust wars.
As I read these words, I’m reminded of the many remarkable, inspired individuals we met on our journey: Dr. Raffi, committed to serving a Jewish community that makes its home in an Islamic Republic; Habib, who seeks peace by bearing witness through his art; Dr. Rasoulipour, who devotes his life to religious understanding and tolerance, but to name a few.
So in the end I find myself returning to the subject of understanding – a concept that seems to be in such painfully short supply these days. If anything, I believe our trip highlighted for us the critical need for mutual understanding. Such a simple thing, yet somehow still so tragically elusive in our world.
There’s so much more to say, and perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to say it somehow down the line. For now, these are the impressions that will live with me forever: a beautiful country with an exquisite heritage. A gracious, poetic people who showed us the true meaning of honor and hospitality. And perhaps the most important: a reminder, despite all reports to the contrary, of our common humanity.
I can only hope that our experience can, in its small way, help bring this blessing to a world that needs it now more than ever. Inshallah…