Setting Things Straight

Oct 27, 2014

Tehran - Shiraz 

We in the West have a certain image in our heads when we think of Iran; evil scientists planning world destruction in a lab, crazy fanatical leaders plotting the demise of Israel and supporting terrorists to quell their maniacal, blood thirsty whims, bearded men wandering the streets, buildings crumbling behind them as old Soviet cars belch thick black smoke into the sky. They’re dressed head to toe in Arab garb, heads wrapped in turbans, eyes sinister and beards long. Women are forcibly shoved to the periphery of life, controlled and in fear. They look upon westerners with distain and malice. 

We are wrong.

A guide to the Middle East
Credit Pew Center

Let’s dispense with the obvious. This whole “Arabs over there speaking Arabic” mantra I keep hearing. “Life if just different over there” “You will be targeted” “Arabs are dangerous”. First, Iranians are not Arab. They don’t speak Arabic.  They do not have long robes or wear beards. The call to prayer does not ring out 5 times a day; religion is a private thing, I have more facial hair than 95% of Iranian men. Their hairdos are edgy and stylized, they dye them blonde. When they see me, they ask where they can get it done and brag about the nose jobs they are about to get. Women drive cars, alone, and hang out with unmarried men at malls. They wear fashionable clothing, and they are quick to shake your hand and tell you how much they love America, “o, thank you for visiting Iran! Tell your friend we are ok here”.

They are Persians. They speak Farsi. They are Shia. No robes, no long beards for your average person. When you conjure up the images above, think Saudi Arabia, not Iran. To call an Iranian Arab, is to them, the greatest insult to their history, pride, and sense of identity.  

This Sunni Shia divide is a particularly prescient one given the moment. So, let’s recap. The time of the prophet Mohammad was the time of the original Caliphate. A Caliphate is an Islamic State under the rule of the “supreme leader”. The initial Caliphate, and that from which this divide began, was the Rashidun Caliphate. In the context of ancient history it is easier for a Westerner to think of this as the Rashidun Empire as a Caliphate acted just as any other empire, only it operated under the auspices of Islam. Remember, at this time all empires operated under the divine right of one religion or another, so for all intents and purposes, same deal. If you find yourself saying “yes, but this is Islam”, check the racism at the door. Go look in your Bible and read it literally, death for touching the flesh of pig or planning certain crops side by side. When translated literally all ancient scripts are mutually revolting. All ancient empires were exclusionary, barbaric, and awful by today’s standards. All of them, not just the Islamic ones, and no, they were not worse.

Now this Rashidun Empire was considered pretty good as far as awful, backward, torturous, ancient empires go. In fact, built into its structure were several elements of direct democracy led by Mohammad’s disciples. Remember, this is roughly 650AD, so heady stuff then. But then, as there will be, there was a problem. Mohammad the profit, “God be with him” (sorry, I couldn’t resist), died. Some of his followers believed him a direct descendent of God, and as such, his bloodline would serve as the only acceptable line of succession. They pushed for a strict blood-based lineage of rule, these are today’s Sunnis. The other side argued that the profit had set forth the law and the best man (sorry, ladies) in this case his non-blood based son-in-law, Ali, should rule and chosen at least in part by the people. These are today’s Shia – the Iranians.

Well, old timey as it was, a long and brutal war ensued and, as rational as religious conflicts are, it persists to this day. The Sunni line brought us the lovely and inclusive monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, Qatar and others – if your keeping track at home these are staunch U.S. allies, lovely places that don’t allow women to be in public alone, or drive cars, or learn. They also gifted us all but one of the 9/11 hijackers. The exception was from Lebanon, and also a Sunni – so, ten points for friendship.

The Shia line brought us Iran. Iran, Iraq & Bahrain are the only majority Shia states in the world and until the 2003 invasion, Iraq was ruled by the Ba’athist Sunni Saddam Hussein. The only time Iranians were entirely conquered it was at the hands of those implementing the now ISIS mantra of “convert or die.” When the invaders were finally pushed out Iranians built upon Shia foundational ideals and principals. Religious tolerance and open-mindedness would become absolutely central to the Shia and Iranian Identify. Where Sunnis focused on strict interpretations of the Quran and dogmatic certitude, the Shia emphasized learning, progress and interpretation for the time. Building on these principals, Iran went on to become a prosperous, proud and modern democracy, operating as a constitutional monarchy with its first parliament elected by the people in 1906.

That is until the U.K. and U.S. supported a Coup d’état in 1953 and installed a leader that could provide more “agreeable terms” on relations and oil. Unsurprisingly a strong people with a history of greatness and self-determination found this new puppet autocrat disagreeable and deposed him installing a new supreme leader in 1979.

So, you can call Iranians many things, but you cannot call them Arab. You cannot call them backward. You cannot call them terrorists. Here is what you can call them.  


Skippy enjoying a meal in Tehran.
Credit Skippy Mesirow

No less than four times today I had a random stranger buy me food and bring it to me with a handshake and a smile. You can call them open, each mention of my Americanism brought smiles, shoulder rubs and questions. You can call them peaceful. Iran is by many measures the safest country in the Middle East. It has extremely low crime and murder rates, but it also passes the smell test. I spent hours walking around alone day and night, through busy streets, back alleys, markets, and shops. Not once did I ever feel even slightly uncomfortable. Not once was I met with any hostility, not even a glaring look. Two women in our group confirmed that they too felt entirely comfortable walking alone at night; one of them is a 66 year old white South Dakotan who first left America just two years ago. You can call them accepting. My being Jewish is in fact, and to my surprise, not a cause for contention here. They are excepting of me as a Jew, inviting me into their homes, and mosques. In fact, I’ve even talked about the Israeli issue; they listened respectfully, if disagreed. In fact, 25,000 Jews still live in Iran and enjoy safe lives. They are a recognized and protected minority group and have a designated seat in parliament.

To be fair, they are also skeptical of the U.S. (for good reason), nationalist, proud and headstrong. “Despite all the sanctions, and the blockades, and the outside pressures, it is a good thing, because we must only work harder, create for ourselves, push ourselves further and in the end we will be stronger for it” I was told today in a museum in the building that formally housed the American Embassy. The traditions from all those years ago remain strong in the hearts of the Iranian people.  

But, over time, the picture gets less rosy. The Iranian government is paranoid and repressive. They execute more people annually than any country other than China with a population less than a 20th the size. Previous regimes have been massively inflammatory to the world community. They support with arms and treasure Hamas and Hezbollah, Shia terrorist groups the battle U.S. allies. Gay rights? There’s not even a discussion.  

Children on the street
Credit Skippy Mesirow

Yet you will not hear Iranians on the street condoning such actions. The refrain you will continually hear is “Iranian and American people are friends, the government is the problem… it’s only politics”, delivered with a solemn look in the eye, a hand on the shoulder and a sigh. There is a dichotomy here; an official line and an individual reality – a geopolitical strategy and a cultural identity.  

Today, I boarded a flight to Shiraz. I forgot that my 10” hunting knife was in my carry-on. I was asked to the back office to explain to two men who were skeptical but nice. One of them, angry and paranoid, claimed I hid the knife behind my laptop. I can only imagine what they were thinking. An American with a 10” knife tries to board a plane with a concealed weapon. Who was I? Why did I have this? What was my profession? The questions were rapid fire and direct. Eventually, I was let go, no search, no police, no pat down. But, blood pressures rose and the worst were feared. Imagine what would have occurred to the Iranian in the reverse situation at home. I then boarded a plane. A pretty young flight attendant left her post to come sit next to me. She talked of her hometown of Shiraz, art and culture. She expressed a desire to go to America. She said, “Religion, it’s not really even in Iran anymore”. I asked for clarity. “The young people, they do not really follow the religion, we are just like you, it’s politics”. She even suggested “You would be accepted as a flight attendant in Iran. You are attractive, tall and have good energy”. With that she touched my hand, we took a selfie, she smiled, I smiled, and she went back to work. This is Iran today.

Credit Skippy Mesirow

Fiercely independent, proud, headstrong, self-reliant, open, accepting; who does this sound like? US – this is how Americans describe ourselves. It’s also how Iranians describe themselves. We are not so different. Our leaders are two alpha males squabbling over a fight we had in 7th grade. It’s time to get over it. Our interests are finally aligning. ISIS is a Shia threat, aimed squarely at Iran. ISIS is a Western threat, aimed squarely at U.S. interests. We have been upset for years; it’s time to work together. Despite what are and should be your very real concerns of the Iranian regime, please understand they do not represent the people they oppress. Iranians may be the most peaceful, democratic, pluralistic and capable people in the Middle East.  They have a history of democracy, self-determination and inclusion. Their identity is tied to openness and acceptance. These are the people we want to keep as friends. And for our current “friends” in the Middle East, we may consider finding new ones.