The Other Iran:
Montanans find country full of warm, caring, interesting people

Guest column by MARIA VAN LOBEN SELS

 Montanans in Iran picture

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 someone else.

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 academic standpoint.

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.

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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.