REPORT: Monday, July 23, 2007
That's "hello" in Farsi, the national language of Iran , but most people we meet say "'ello!" We're learning, if slowly.
Our five members of the People's Peace Delegation to Iran woke up yesterday morning in Shiraz , the south-central city of poets, roses, nightingales and, at one time, wine. Today our main goal was completing a 10-hour van ride through the Zaros Mountains and desert to the oasis city of Yazd , home of the country's largest community of Zoroastrians, followers of the major religion that preceded Islam in Iran .
A short while into our journey we stopped at the site of the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who in the fifth century B.C. established the first Persian Empire . Persepolis, where we visited Saturday, was Cyrus' ceremonial seat, where he received tributaries from the various nations in the Empire, but Necropolis was where he maintained his palace, a smaller but still grand greeting hall and the where he was buried. The structures are still impressive, but the depth of history was most profound. Geoff, our Iraq War veteran, was deeply moved by our guide's story of how Alexander the Macedonian (Greek) had burned Persepolis to the ground in retaliation for the Persians' destruction of a major Greek city, but spared Cyrus's tomb. In fact, he wept at the site, out of respect for this towering military a nd political leader.
Then we crossed the desert that lies between Shiraz and Yazd . The narrow, two-lane highway runs through a desert plateau between fiercely stark ad seemingly endless mountains. But a hundreds-year old system of wells and underground canals carries water from the mountains to Yazd , and along the way irrigates farms of wheat, rice, pomegranate and sunflowers.
This part of our journey was our first brief exposure to rural poverty, which while widespread does not seem to be abject. We are able to make some comparisons, because between us we have traveled to many countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia where extreme poverty is rampant -- not to mention parts of Richmond , Milwaukee and Washington , D.C.
Iran has been under U.S. - and U.N.-imposed sanctions for 28 years and some 70 percent of the population lives in poverty. But in our first four days here we have only seen two beggars and no homeless people. The reason, as explained by our guide and also confirmed by our own pre-trip research, is that the Iranian government maintains an extensive system of social programs for the impoverished, the people they call "the oppressed." Even the smallest villages we passed have free education through high school. (Colleges and universities are also free, but space is limited and admission is very competitive. Even so, some 60-65 percent of college undergraduates are women.)
Every village or industrial site we passed seemed in need of major repairs.
Crumbling brick and mud and straw walls are common. But there is also a lot of development. A new highway is being constructed between Shiraz and Yazd , to replace the narrow highway we were traveling on. We could see construction workers toiling in the 108-degree heat. The new highway will reduce the travel time between the two cities, important because as in the U.S. , most goods are moved by truck. Plus, it will make travel safer. This last point came home pretty strongly several times when vehicles coming toward us and trying to pass other vehicles narrowly avoided meeting us head on.
After stopping at an oasis truck stop we finally arrived in Yazd . This is a thriving metropolis of half-a-million people northeast of Shiraz . It's an ancient city, one whose population is very devout. (The name " Yazd " means "holy.") One indication of that is that more women here wear chadors. The full-body coverings are not mandated by law -- a woman can instead wear a head scarf and "manteau," or thigh-length coat over slacks or jeans, but many women prefer the chador. As one English-speaking college student in Shiraz told Tyla, "Yes, it's hot, but it makes me feel safe."
This is a section that Tyla wrote for this report:
"I have been warmly welcomed at least a dozen times in the first three days of our trip by lovely Iranian adults and children. These strangers are now my friends. As I haven't yet mastered even a short phrase in Farsi, I have given them nothing but my smile, and they have said kind words to me and the other four on our trip. I'm carrying with me a sentiment of appreciation to so many kind Iranians and a wish to convey their warmth and hospitality to others in the U.S. who may not have the opportunity to visit Iran ."
I don't really want to tell you where we are staying in Yazd . It's almost embarrassing -- a renovated former governor's mansion, with a banquet-like dining area, wood-paneled rooms with arched ceilings and stained glass windows and a garden of narrow, secluded walkways lit by lamplight. Water fountains, crying pet birds and a quarter-moon in the desert sky ... If you're looking for an inexpensive and beautiful visit to a wonderful and almost entirely crime-free land of phenomenally hospitable people, think about visiting Iran, we'd be happy to walk you through the process.
Today we visited several historical sites in Yazd , all of which are exquisitely beautiful and all helpful in learning about Iran 's history and culture. But it is the conversations we have along the way that make up the soul of our journey. Many people speak some English, and we are learning a few words of Farsi. Most exchanges start with someone noticing we are speaking English. They shyly approach us and say "'ello." We answer "'ello, or "salam," and go from there. “Where are you from?” “ U.S.A. ” “Oh, Am-ri-ka.” Then smiles, laughs, handshakes, and our asking permission to take their pictures…
This will be hardest for most folks in the U.S. to accept, but we have been met with nothing but the warmest hospitality and kindness from everyone we have met -- working people, educators, college students, business people, everyone. Our guide says that it's because not many English-speaking foreigners visit Iran , and people are naturally curious. And I know many people at home have told us, "Sure, the people may be nice, but it's the government ..."
But children don't lie. And the children have been universally not just friendly, but fascinated, joyful, delightful and warm. I can't believe that anyone, government leader, teacher or parent, is teaching these kids to hate people from the U.S. It just ain't happening.
Of more concern to some of us on the delegation is that almost no one seems to be telling the people they are being targeted for a military attack. Just two people we've met so far have said they worry about such an attack from the United States . It's just not an issue here. A few people have explained that, first most people are focused on putting food on the table, not on major political issues. And second, this is a people who fought an eight-year war with Iraq - more than two times longer than U.S. involvement in World War Two. It was a war -- started by Saddam Hussein with backing from the U.S. -- that cost the country 500,000 lives; and was fought entirely on Iranian soil. Plus, they've survived 28 years of economic sanctions, and so don't seem particularly afraid of the thought of an attack. Plus, they are a nation of 70 million people, two thirds of whom are under the age of 35, more than ready to defend their country. So they think Washington would have to be crazy to start another war. Let's hope they are right.
On the other and, most people seem aware that Muslims and Iranians in particular are getting a bad rap in the U.S., and so they're very appreciative when we say we are here in part so we can go home and better explain to the U.S. public what Iran is really like.
Got to go -Yazd shuts down in mid-afternoon so folks can take a break during the hottest part of the day, but that time is almost up, and we're about to leave for a bazaar. More tomorrow -
And, please, to all our friends in the anti-war movement: Every time you raise the demand "U.S Out of Iraq ," please remember to add "And no War on Iran !" If just some of you will do that, our 12-day, 1,750-mile journey through Iran will be a success. (drafted by Phil Wilayto with input from all delegation members.) – end –