The Other Iran:
Montanans find country full of warm, caring, interesting people
Guest column by MARIA VAN LOBEN SELS
Why would anyone choose to visit Iran? When most Americans think of
Iran, we find it hard to envision anything other than a repressive
regime bent on supporting terrorists, developing nuclear weapons and
generally acting the part of a rogue nation.
The 18 Americans who took the Inside Iran tour sponsored by the World
Affairs Council of Philadelphia experienced quite a different side of
Iran. May I share with you some of our experiences when my husband and
I, along with five other Missoulians, visited Tehran, Kerman, Yazd,
Shiraz and Esfahan in October?
To supplement the lectures and expertise from U.S. Ambassador Mark
Johnson (retired) and his wife, Sally Cummins, we were accompanied by
an Iranian guide from the moment of arrival to departure. His English
was excellent and he was like a walking encyclopedia. Properly timed
questions got honest answers, giving us an insight into conditions now
and prospects for the future. At times we were joined by other guides,
including a woman who was willing to give us her perspective on the
lives of Iranian women.
Before our departure, WAC supplied an extensive reading list and hints
of what lay in store for us. However, the experience of actually being
there far surpassed anything we could have imagined. While antiquities
such as Persepolis, abandoned citadels, ancient tombs, beautiful
mosques and fascinating bazaars rival those of other middle eastern
countries, the people are the true treasures of this amazing land. They
are friendly beyond belief.
As we strolled along the streets, we were often asked where we were
from and had the pleasure of watching faces light up when we answered,
“America.” We were greeted with smiles and told repeatedly
how much they like Americans and how welcome we were in their land. Our
greatest joy was to walk through parks in the cities, watching and at
times joining the Iranians in their morning exercises. Both young and
old Iranians began conversations, took pictures and exchanged e-mail
addresses. We would talk and then move on, awaiting a chance to meet
Were we ever fearful? Never, though it might have been alarming to be
detained briefly for fingerprinting upon arrival in the Tehran airport
had we not expected this. The only time we felt unwelcome was when we
looked out a bus window at some anti-American artwork on the fence in
front of what used to be the American Embassy. Occasionally, we saw a
few Iranian soldiers who appeared to be on leave. No doubt there were
others perhaps out of uniform as we rode by several large military
bases. Once a police car arrived in the midst of those exercising in
Laleh Park in Tehran, possibly to set up banners for a gathering. We
simply walked away.
The Iranian people yearn for the same things all people desire. They
want more freedom, though their vision of freedom may not be quite like
yours and mine. A man, unable to imagine our freedom of speech, stopped
one member of our tour group and asked why the American pastor who
threatened to burn the Koran was allowed to consider such an act. The
young are pushing for more freedom in small ways. We saw a couple
sitting close together in a tea house and some exercise groups included
men and women. Some women wore fingernail polish and scarves that
barely covered their hair. A few tea houses and restaurants had live
music and boom boxes were common in exercise areas.
Iranians want respect for their ancient Persian civilization and the
right to determine their future. Families are the center of Iranian
life. They value education highly devoting a large portion of family
income to their children’s education. Extra classes and tutors
are common, making study in universities outside Iran easy from an
Were there inconveniences connected with travel in such a different country?
Of course, but why would one travel so far to “feel at home”?
Would I go again? In a minute! Mark and Sally will be going again in 2011.
For details, visit http://www.wacphila.org
Maria van Loben Sels was one of 18 Americans, including five Montanans, who visited Iran
in October as private citizens and as part of a tour organized by the
World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. She writes from Bonner.