Members of the delegation share their reflections on their recent trip to Iran.
In this post are essays by Ann Morrell, Bill Gillen, and Jack Schultz. Ann wrote about what she describes as the highlight of her trip, a connection she made with a group of schoolgirls in Esfahan (see above photo):
We were descending the steps on the way out of the Palace of the Forty Columns in Esfahan. We only saw twenty columns because the large reflecting pool was drained and instead of the shimmering reflection of the twenty columns, we saw workmen patching the sides of the pool. It was a beautiful sunny morning in a lovely park. On the steps were so many teenaged girls talking together in clumps that I surmised they were on a school trip.
Maybe at home they show a little variety and wear a long jacket and a scarf, but for this trip they were uniformly swathed in black draping. Passing by, I happened to meet the eyes of one of the girls, and smiled at her. She giggled and flashed a brilliant smile, so I said, “Hello.” She gushed, “Hello. Hello” back, and advanced towards me. Two or three of her friends followed. One of them said, “Where are you from?” and I replied, “America.” “America!” an astonished gasp. Now I had twelve girls ringed around me, and more crowding up from behind. I began to explain that we came as a peace delegation to build friendship between the Iranian and American people.
This vocabulary was a little advanced, and the girls pulled forward their mate with the best English. I explained again, and she translated. There was a chorus in response of “Welcome! I am happy to see you! Do you like Iran? We are so glad you are here!”
Now a man and woman came closer from my left, clearly the teachers in charge, and I explained to them that we were Americans coming to build peace between Iran and America. The young lady with the good English translated. The man, who had a serious air about him, said in Farsi, “That would be a very good thing. We would like to be friends with America.” I stuck my neck out a little further and said, “The people are friendly, it is just the governments that make the problem.” He replied, speaking through his youthful translator: “The Government of Iran erects no barricades against friendship.” I said something like, “But our American government has been very unfriendly.” He waved this away and seemed to apologize for having implied it. “Well, that’s all politics. Welcome. Do you like Iran?”
We said a few more things, and then the teachers and girls moved off to the other side of the pool. I went back to my fellow delegates. Then I went after them. I caught up and gave my business card to the English speaker. “Send me an email,” I said. “You can practice your English.”
I rejoined my five male colleagues, and we regrouped for a minute. David said, “Oh, we should have taken a picture with the girls and the Peace with Iran banner.” But the classes were too far away and the moment was past.
We strolled along the pool and stopped at a postcard stand. Everyone looked and some of us bought a few cards. That done, we went to the end of the reflecting pool, and pulled out the “Peace with Iran” banner, posed ourselves with the palace in the background, and had our wonderful guide Said take a photo. As we were folding up the banner, Bill said to me, “Ann, I think those are some of your fans again.” Indeed, they had progressed down the opposite side of the pool, and were again waving and calling out to me, “Hello! Hello!” Dozens of girls coursed down the path, and so I checked with their teachers, and including them in the line-up, we got our photo of me with the schoolgirls holding the “Peace with Iran” banner.
The next morning our first stop was The Bird Park. We delegates stood together as Said bought the tickets for us. Bill said: “Look over there.. Aren’t those the same girls?” I turned and there they were, giggling and waving at me. I went over and said a few hellos, and shook some outstretched hands. I wrote down the website for FOR and said, “This will tell you the story of our trip.” Said came over and gently extracted me, saying that we had to get going. I hope I will hear from them.
Bill Gillen wrote the following piece on an inspiring initiative called Miles for Peace, which to many FOR supporters will evoke good memories of the lengthy North American visit of Nasim Yousefi and Jafar Edrisi.. That energetic young Iranian couple spent more than ten months in 2007-08 bicycling across the U.S. to talk with people in our country about peace and environmental sustainability.
A meeting with members of the charity organization Mercy for All stands out for the friendly exchanges with the group, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. As we entered the room for the meeting, we noticed someone had written on a whiteboard above the conference table: "Ann, David, Louis, Jack, William and Max, Welcome to Iran! Miles for Peace."
Miles for Peace is a project of the charity (Rahmat in Farsi) that was started in the 1980s. Its goal is to help poor families, many of them headed by a single parent, achieve independence. Rahmat members work one-on-one with about 100 families at a time. The organization has no paid staff and spends all the financial aid it receives on the poor and needy.
Miles for Peace sent 14 cyclists from Tehran across Europe and the United States for 70 days in the spring of 2007. They attracted much media attention and met with government officials in all the countries they visited, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York in Washington. They conveyed the Iranian people's message of "peace, friendship and peaceful co-existence with all other nations."
Dr. Ali Nikjoo, a supporter of the charity, delivered an eloquent address on the implications of the relationship between the United States and Iran. He said, in part, "Unfortunately, the United States has suffocated democracy in parts of Iran. In our collective memory, our government (a reference to the events of 1953) was toppled, Saddam with the support of the United States attacked Iran. These events caused a stalemate for democracy for many decades. In times of war, it's hard to develop the foundation of democracy and build civil institutions."
Nonetheless, he said he hopes that President Obama will remain true to his promises and believes that Obama "places great value on the humanity of people." He continued, "The pressure exerted by the United States affects people. We live with great hardship. Problems such as unemployment and drug addiction threaten our wellbeing. The U.S. war machine can cause problems for Iran and all the world."
He concluded, "We are Iranians and Muslim and want to remain Iranians and Muslims."
Later that day we met with several other activists who are working to instill a peace culture in their society. They teach families, including children and teenagers, how to use nonviolent means to resolve conflict. The government funds some nonprofits and the Tehran City Council has supported some programs, too. A psychologist working with children said teachers are interested in spreading the message about nonviolent behavior. Some libraries in rural areas were also interested in such programs. What was impressive to us was the dedication and enthusiasm all these peace workers brought to their chosen field.
Jack Schultz wrote the following essay, looking at the nature of American exceptionalism:
During our delegation's visit, underneath the friendliness, the warm welcomes, and appreciation of America, sometimes one could hear a muted concern that once more Iran might be attacked openly or covertly. A spokesman told me of what was ostensibly a visit from a United States' NGO representative who — rather than being on a humanitarian mission — encouraged resistance to the Iranian government.
However, I think that generally FOR has developed trust. it was accepted at face value that, no matter what our private opinions might be, our group had no such intentions but rather wished only to do what we could to foster dialogue and reduce tensions between our countries. But there was some wariness — certainly justified in light of past history.
Notable also was Iran's interest in and reliance on poetry — people on the street could quote and critique verses by Hafiz and Sadi as easily as the latest soccer scores.
In trying to learn some Farsi before the trip I had come across the poems of Hafiz and was astounded by their beauty and insight. Hafiz often used a poetic form called "ghazal." I even tried my hand at a verse about the immediacy of God — inspired by Hafiz.
It seemed necessary often to reassure our hosts that FOR, and we as its representatives, act in as in non-partisan way as we can. Further, as so many others have remarked, one of the most important things to Iranians (as to all of us) is to be treated with respect. It is something our country often does not do well.
So, in order to speed up some of the assurances of peace between our choirs, I made the following verse — trying for the ghazal form. Said and Ali helped me translate it. Halting attempts to recite it to our hosts in Farsi seemed much appreciated.
We have not come to help Iran.
Iran does not need food, nor clothes, nor instruction — from us.
We have come instead to defend our country.
Not from Iran —
But from itself.