DAY ONE in Tehran
What an extraordinary day! After arriving at our hotel in the middle of the night, I woke up early raring to go. Our hotel is in a great location downtown, and I took some time before our meetings to buy some beautiful crafts in the nearby stores and chat with the storeowners. After a hearty Iranian breakfast that included delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh eggs, cheese, yoghurt, flat bread and mouth-watering olives, the “work day” began for the three of us—myself, CODEPINK cofounder Jodie Evans and Col. Ann Wright.Our first meeting was with our dear friend Rostam Pourzal, who works with the anti-sanctions group CASMI. Rostam used to live in Washington DC, but moved back to Iran recently. Thank goodness he came to greet us, because it turned out that the government person who was supposed to set up our schedule today didn’t show up. So Rostam filled in the day for us with an amazing variety of activities and meetings.First, he brought over a filmmaker, Habib Ahmadzadeh, who works on films that deal with the Iran-Iraq war. Habib took us out to a delicious lunch in a typical, old Persian restaurant where we ate scrumptious lamb, eggplant and kabobs. Then we went to his office, but along the way he stopped to show us the old, abandoned U.S. Embassy. It is now surrounded by murals with anti-American slogans—a stark reminder of the harsh rhetoric emanating from both governments.
In a screening room at his office, Habib showed us one of his beautiful films called Night Bus. It chronicled a fictionalized story that reflected Habib’s own odyssey as a teenage soldier during that war. An 18-year-old Iranian soldier ends up being in charge of transporting 38 Iraqi prisoners of war from the battlefield to an Iranian base. During the adventure-packed ride full of agony, betrayal and bonding, the Iraqi and Iranian men discover their common humanity. We were all weeping when the lights came on, and had a long discussion afterwards about the futility of war. Habib also showed us a short docudrama about the 20-year anniversary of the July 3 downing of an Iranian commercial airline by a US navy ship in which over 200 people died—a terrible tragedy for which the U.S. government has never apologized. There are so many sad pieces of our history that most Americans are unaware of, but that make us seem so callous in the eyes of the victims…
From there we went to a refreshing artists’ park, replete with a beautiful sculpture exhibit, art stores, and a café/vegetarian restaurant inside. Most of the people milling around looked like—and were—painters, writers, playwrights, filmmakers and poets. It was a cultural oasis, with conversations buzzing inside and outside. We added to the animated atmosphere by having a table full of people coming and going to meet and greet us. Most were called by Rostam, but a few—like a nuclear engineer Jodie met—just came by out of curiosity (yes, the pink does stand out). Among those joining us for tea was a famous woman filmmaker named Rakhshan Banietemad, a woman who runs an eco-tourism company, a producer of plays, and several women who work for peace.
We were so thrilled by the conversation that we asked if any of them would be willing to be filmed. We decided that it would be great to ask Iranians from all walks of life to comment on what they would say to Barack Obama if they had the chance. Some of the women were afraid to be videoed, but Rakhshan, who was in a more secure position because of her prominence, agreed. So with the help of Habib as cameraman, I interviewed Rakhshan about US-Iranian relations and what could be done to move our countries toward a more peaceful path. With so many incredible connections being made, our tea turned into dinner (which the Iranians refused to let us pay for) and we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 9:30 pm.
But it turned out that the day was not yet over. At about 10:30pm, while I was checking email at the internet café, two of our dear young friends from the group Miles for Peace showed up. It was great to reunite after our time together in Washington DC. They are so bubbly, so hopeful, so creative, so loving. We heard about some of their upcoming ideas for youth exchanges with the US—soccer matches, swimming the Persian Gulf (!), a bike trip through Iran with 50 Iranian-Americans. All such terrific ideas. We will meet with the larger Miles for Peace group tomorrow evening.
Reflecting on the days’ events, I was struck by how much more open Iran is than I had thought. Yes, we have to wear headscarves and long coats, but that seems so unimportant –although I must say that I feel very claustrophobic covering my head all day. (During lunch at the restaurant, Rostam told me I could take the scarf off, but about 20 minutes later some men came to complain.) I have been comparing the atmosphere here to that of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and here it is very different. People in Iraq were afraid to speak out against Saddam, people in Iran aren’t. We heard criticism of the government while we were still on the plane. Then in customs, when an official asked our guide why we had come to Iran and she replied “trying to make peace,” he laughed and said, “Not with this terrible government of ours.” The taxi drivers complain; western-educated elites complain, businessmen complain. While most wouldn’t want to be filmed venting against their government, they talk to us in an amazingly open fashion, barely looking over their shoulders to see if anyone is listening. I suppose I shouldn’t jump to conclusions after one day, but the atmosphere is much more open than I thought it would be, and that in itself is reason for hope.
The original post stating their seditionist intents (HURL Alert):
CODEPINK goes official…in Iran
Before our first meeting, Jodie and I took a morning walk, looking at the stores, watching the people. They were watching us, too, especially Jodie. At first she wondered why people were looking at her feet, then we realized that between her long skirt and high heels, her ankles and some bare skin were showing. That’s a no-no here.
So when a policeman approached us, asked where we were staying and said, “Come with me,” we wondered if we might be getting arrested for Jodie’s bare ankles. He was smiling, though, so we followed him to the police car. It turns out that he and his partner, who was sitting in the police car, were just really nice guys who wanted to give us a lift back to the hotel. We joked around with them, took a photo of me in the police car, and rode back to the hotel in style!
Our first meeting was with the head of the U.S. desk in the foreign ministry. He is handling the official part of our visit, and had arranged for us to meet with two of the women members of Parliament. So we bundled into his car and drove there.
Our meeting was in the incredibly ornate old Parliament, built in 1906, bombed by the British, rebuilt, and eventually superceded by the new Parliament. They gave us a tour of this wondrous work of art—the room where the Parliament convened, the shah’s coronation room, the sitting rooms where private meetings were held. We gazed in awe of the craftsmanship and beauty. The sparkling coronation room was replete, head to toe, with cut and sketched mirrors and exquisite chandeliers. The wood-carved desks and tables were so intricate that each piece must have taken a lifetime to complete.
As we were being served tea and pistachios in one of the sitting rooms, the two women from Parliament arrived and sat in the oversized chairs across from us. Next to them were two men, who they introduced as the assistants and notetakers. The older woman, Eftekhari Laleh, looked very pious, covered from head to toe in a black chador. She was a second-term member of Parliament (they have four year terms) who was on the education committee, and she taught religion at one of the universities. The younger woman, Dr. Zohreh Elahian, was a member of the Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy. She was also a medical doctor and worked in a women’s hospital one day a week.
They told us that there were only 8 women in a Parliament of 290 representatives, but they were proud to add that two of the four vice presidents were women. One was in charge of women’s affairs, the other in charge of the environment. Dr. Elahian added that 70 percent of medical specialists were women.
While the women Parliamentarians had relationships with their counterparts from all over the Middle East and Asia, they had never met with U.S. congressional representatives and in fact, our meeting was the first time they had ever met with Americans! They said our visit opened new doors in the relationship between our countries.
Regarding the U.S. elections, Dr. Elahian said that during the campaign, she didn’t see much difference between Obama and McCain in terms of their unconditional support for Israel and their hardline stance about Iran’s nuclear energy program (which they insisted, as does everyone here, that Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy but it was not developing nuclear weapons because that went against their religious beliefs). She also said that while Obama may try to make changes, she realizes that corporations and monied interests have a long history of control in the U.S. and could prevent Obama from fulfilling many of his promises. However, she felt that the American people were tired of warmongering and the politics of invasion. She said the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was only making the security situation worse and that the increase in opium production since the U.S. invasion had negative repercussions in Iran, since the drugs are transported through Iran to Europe. She also expressed sympathy for the suffering people of Gaza and concern about unconditional U.S. support for Israel.
We asked the women about the effects of U.S. sanctions against Iran, and Dr. Elahian explained some of the negative impacts, like making it harder to get radiation treatment for cancer patients. But she added that sanctions had made Iran become more creative and independent scientifically. She boasted that despite the sanctions, Iran is one of a handful of countries that had reached the UN millennium development goals for reducing poverty and curing preventable diseases, and that Iran had made great headway in addressing HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
We tried to get the women to talk about the struggle for women’s rights in Iran, but they insisted that women had full rights. After the formal part of the meeting was over, however, Dr. Elihian said that her female constituents would often come to her office asking for help in matters such as divorce and inheritance—areas in which women do NOT have equal rights.
We ended the meeting exchanging cards and ideas about follow up, including a possible meeting—in a third country—with some U.S. congresswomen.
In our next meeting, with three advisors to the President in the areas of media and communications, diplomatic niceties were dispensed with and the kid gloves came off. The man who did most of the talking was Mr. Kalhor. He had long, gray hair tied back in a ponytail and wore sandals with no socks, giving him the air of an aging hippie. And with his background as a poet and architect, together with his quick smile and twinkling eyes, I assumed he was going to be a gentle, conciliatory kind of guy. That’s why I was shocked when he started to roar like a wounded lion. “Talk to Obama? We don’t want to talk to Obama. What’s the point of making agreements with the United States when the they always renege on their agreements anyway? For the past five decades, the U.S. has been the source of all problems in the Middle East thanks to its support of Zionism. As far as sanctions, we have been living under them just fine for the past 28 years. And if we do talk to Obama, it will be with our own preconditions: full withdrawal of U.S. troops from our entire region and an end to U.S. unconditional support of international Zionism. We don’t need help or goodwill from Obama or anyone in the United States; we need a radical change in U.S. policy—period.”
Whew! For almost two hours, we had a lively back and forth with Mr. Kalhor. At times we got the impression that he was saying things he didn’t really believe. In fact, at one point, he said, “Look, these are not necessarily my positions, they are the positions of this government.” I pointed out that if his job was to convey the Iranian government’s positions to the world in a sympathetic light, then denying the holocaust, threatening Israel’s existence and talking about the international Zionist economic conspiracy was not very good “packaging.” I suggested they would be better off talking about the need to respect the human rights of Palestinians and stop the tragic deaths of U.S. soldiers in unnecessary wars. My comments only brought on a fresh cascade of anger, accusing us of only caring about the lives of U.S. people and proving “just how arrogant America is”.
After almost an hour of Mr. Kalhor’s tirade, the second man, Ali Akbar Javan, finally got a word in edgewise. Although he looked more the part of a conservative bureaucrat, he turned out to the “good cop”, calling for diplomacy. He told us that he traveled quite often internationally with the Ahmedinajad, so he seemed to have the president’s ear, which was good to hear.
At the end of the meeting, I mentioned to Mr. Akbar that I had spent a lot of time in Latin America, and immediately he started speaking Spanish to me. It turns out he had lived in Spain and spoke quite well. We quickly established more of a rapport, joking and exchanging emails.
The meeting with these gentlemen, while difficult, was a good reality check that pushing for dialogue on the part of the Obama administration would not be sufficient. The Iranian government also needs to be convinced that it is worthwhile to negotiate with the U.S.
Our last meeting of the day came as a refreshing renewal after our bout with realpolitik. It was with the group Miles for Peace, our cyclist friends. We met their founder Dr. Rouhani, an impressive man who worked as an elementary particle physicist by day and a peacemaker by night, as well as about 20 young people. We ate the dinner they had prepared for us and exchanged ideas for furthering people-to-people ties. We told them about the YouTubes series we wanted to make called Iran talks to Obama, with Iranians from all walks of life giving advice to the new U.S. president. They loved the idea, and signed up right then and there to be interviewed. Before collapsing, we managed to film five incredibly beautiful, heart-felt interviews. One of the young women didn’t want to be interviewed on camera, but instead wrote her comments to Obama. I include her beautiful words below for your enjoyment.
It was almost 1am when we left, but we felt elated by these beautiful young people with their hearts so full of goodwill.
Warm greetings from this ancient and fascinating land,
Dear Mr. Obama, I am an Iranian girl, just an ordinary Iranian girl, and I wanted to share some thoughts with you. I know you are a father, a good father, I can tell from the sparkle in your daughters’ eyes. I have a request for you: Whenever you have to make a decision about war—anywhere in the world—please look into your daughters’ eyes and remember that far, far away there are thousands of eyes just as beautiful as those of your children. But these children are living in fear of losing their lives, their parents, their security, their happiness and more. If you believe that you will “save” these children by making war, as your former president believed, please think again. The costs are much greater than you think. I grew up during the Iran-Iraq war. I spent my childhood and school days under constant fire from bombs hitting my city. I touched fear, I lost my friends, it was terrible. I don’t want my children or any children in the world to live through such an awful experience. So please, Mr. Obama, look at those sparkles in your lovely daughters’ eyes and think about a new world without violence and bloodshed. Please… Laya Bidgoli, Tehran, Iran, November 23, 2008
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