A week in Iran: Rae's diary

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

I'm CODEPINK’s local groups coordinator, and for the past two weeks, I've been part of the eighth Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to Iran, a group of 14 Americans. The delegation left the evening of Nov. 26 from New York City to Tehran, and will return December 7. (Join the virtual delegation by checking out photos and informative captions at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/raeabileah/sets/72157610488783027/ Join the Facebook cause to support peace with Iran at: http://apps.new.facebook.com/causes/137080?fb_page_id=6663655884&m=75537ad2&recruiter_id=17875191). Here's my diary of the past seven days!

"We're building a movement of diplomacy with Iran--no preconditions."
~ Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, leader of the eighth Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to Iran

My dearest friend Ariel and I are deeply grateful to be members of this amazing delegation, and as colleagues in the peace movement, Jewish activists, and young women, to be making this journey together is really something special. Each person in our group brings a unique perspective; we are activists, spiritual practitioners, change makers, gardeners, artists, writers, nomads, lawyers, founders, students, executive directors, publicists, mediators, Americans, humans. We each belong to a set of organizations, including (in addition to FOR) American Friends Service Committee, CODEPINK, Shomer Shalom, Jewish congregations (Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform), an order of the Franciscan brotherhood, and many others who, as FOR's Ethan Vesley Flad said, "are working together to prevent US military intervention in Iran." We belong to communities that will hear about, and hopefully be touched and activated by, our trip upon our return.

Our individual voices collect themselves in a beautiful array of colorful expression; like a child's kaleidoscope, we are constantly rearranging our ideas, redesigning our assumptions, creating new images of Iran that replace the ones we came with, forming new friendships, patterns, paradigms. It is the light of peace and hope that shines through our experiences, illuminating these different, but intertwined, prisms of understanding.

En route to Iran:

First, let's start with JFK. Our delegation arrived at the airport in New York City so early that we couldn't check in just yet, so we headed for the chapel to convene. Only, JFK doesn't just have a single interfaith chapel, the way most airports do. Instead, there are four separate chapels side by side: Jewish, Roman Catholic, Christian, and "Interfaith", which we later learn has been divided in half and appropriated to the Muslim faith on one side, and the Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist communities on the other. I met the airport rabbi and he gave us the tour of the mini-synagogue, even allowing us to read from the Torah scroll. After learning that we are Iran-bound, he expresses his concern about the threat of Iran to Israel and says that the bottom-line is that Iran wants to destroy Israel, deny the Holocaust, and that war is an innate part of the human psyche. I have heard these words before. This time, instead of becoming angry, I am grateful. Grateful because I need to hear this strong opinion right before I take off on this journey, on this pilgrimage for truth and reconciliation. It is precisely this perspective that I hope to better be able to respond to when we return home. The rabbi and I exchange email addresses so that I may later share news of our trip with him.

We are on a jihad ~ which means that we are going to a conflict region and seeking to transform our perception of it into a field of compassion, a spiritual journey to deepen our understanding and bearing witness. Jihad has come to be associated with Mid East terrorist attacks, and it is time we in the West really get clear on what these terms mean in their pure, original context and start using them appropriately.

Hafiz wrote something like, "I am a hole in the flute that Christ’s breath moves through, listen to the music." While I aspire to be such an empty vessel to bear witness and soak up what I hear and see in Iran, I may be more of a saxophone with sticky keys; sometimes my thoughts and feelings around Iran and the U.S. will help me compose harmonious music that furthers peace, and at other times I'll get stuck on assumption and produce discord. Before I start to play, I make the intention to drop whatever expectations I carry that won't serve me (having a set schedule, feeling a lack of confidence in my knowledge about the region and Farsi, wanting to create innovative new whole peace campaigns by the end of two weeks, you know, things like that).

Standing outside the airport in Amsterdam on our short layover, Ariel and I physically shake out our bodies, leaving any worry and tension behind. We board the KLM flight for Iran and in the wee hours of the morning we enter Iranian airspace, slip our scarves over our heads, deplane, make our way through the slow, but very easy, customs line, and walk out into the cool fall evening. Fresh air, new faces, and a bright yellow bus that has in big sticker letters on the front of it "ONLY GOD" await us outside the modern Tehran airport. And beyond that, a city with 15 million people, surrounded by snow, enshrouded in hijab, enlivened by motorcycles and mosques, a city that is really two cities: the outdoor reality in the streets, and the one behind closed doors.

DAY 1: Hip Manteaus and Big Shabbat in Tehran

Because we arrived in the darkness, it was not until awaking the next morning, Friday, Nov. 28, that we first got a real look at Tehran. Peering out of the 10th floor hotel window, I watched as the city buildings and distant mountains bloomed in the sunrise glow, peeling away the night and glimmering amidst a dew of polluted haze. Ariel and I embark on a long walk through the city in search of manteaus to cover over our western dress. We find a great store that features a huge variety of long black shirts and jackets from H&M and Zara. We walk by the Iraqi Embassy and pause for a photo, whereupon the guards jump up and insist we delete the photo. Ariel and I are both aware that as we walk through the city we are not a spectacle. It seems that while wearing head covering and long dress, the feeling of being oogled at by boys or stared at as foreigners does not surface.

At our lunchtime meeting, our group discusses what it solidarity means and what it will look like to support each other and to cultivate dialogue with the Iranians we'll meet. Mark, the executive director of FOR, explains how solidarity is being present to one another and bearing witness, which can lead to advocacy, and may bloom into taking on leadership on an issue, and then, if all other means of change have been exhausted, resistance. We talk about the challenge of being mindful of speaking out of our own personal conviction and representing the communities we are from, namely American and particular religions. For Jay, solidarity is acknowledging that we are brothers, fellow human beings, and understanding that each of us is "a letter in a word of a sentence in the paragraph of the book we are collectively writing." Many of our responses speak to a commitment to deep listening, to learning, to being mindful of the people around us, all attributes that I find our U.S. peace movement can improve upon immensely.

After lunch, Leila, Jacob, Ariel, and I take a walk around the city. Because Jacob is wearing his kippah, we are stopped by two Jewish men, one who is the head of the Jewish schools. Their hands are full of their high-energy kids who run around gleefully. These two men, Rubin and Robin, invite us to come to services the next morning. You've got to check out Jacob's blog about this encounter--he's a great writer and describes the whole incident with great emotion and understanding:

Friday evening we visit the largest Jewish synagogue in Tehran -- a glowing room of carved wood, gold-painted Jewish texts illuminated on the wall, chandeliers, prayer books so old the pages are yellowed and chaffed at the edges, and seating for men and women on one floor, but in different directions for the separated genders. The service is an orthodox style liturgy and has that dynamic interplay of conversation and deep prayer -- the congregation is a flurry of commotion and on the women's side this looks like everyone chatting about what happened during the week, whose kids are doing what, the local gossip, and then at key moments standing to pray at warp speed through the ancient Hebrew prayers. Ariel and I sit with a young Iranian Jewish woman, Sarah, and we talk about school, life in Tehran and New York, and what it means to be Jewish here. The noisy congregation comes to a silence when the leader of services announces that he will now turn over the bema to the leader of the American delegation present, who is a female rabbi, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb. Women rabbis are not a part of Judaism in this part of the world, and to our surprise, Rabbi Lynn is greeted with a warm welcome, and the congregation even applauds when Lynn introduces Sarah, who is a female rabbinic student from LA. Again, Jacob's blog really does justice to painting a beautiful picture of this evening service:

Our first dinner in Iran is at a traditional restaurant near our hotel. We feast on kebab and rice. When we return to the hotel, we meet up with Habib Ahmadzadeh, who works on films that deal with the Iran-Iraq war. Habib fought to defend his family and his hometown, near the border of Iraq, during the eight year war, also know here as the "Sacred Defense." Since then, he has written books and a screenplay about the war, and now works towards peace. His film, Night Bus, about two Iranian soldiers transporting a bus of Iraqi POWs back to base, revealing the soldiers similarities across borders and humanity, has been shown to grade school kids growing up along the border, in hopes of educating the younger generation about the terrible reality of war. When we talked about how violent video games influence our youth, Habib told us that since Iran is a Muslim country, war games are not really allowed and are not played by kids in the home. He additionally noted how one of the most terrorizing institutions is Hollywood, which creates the violent media that kids consume like candy.

Regarding the narratives that the US and Iran hold towards each other, Habib illustrates a parallel: Think about if a husband thinks his wife is cheating on him -- everything is interpreted through that lens; if he calls and no one is home he grows suspicious, and each interaction becomes further proof to affirm that his wife is disloyal. In other words, once we have created a story, we can find support to confirm its reality.

Habib was a captain of the Iranian Navy and as such wrote a letter to the U.S. Navy Captain who gave the orders to fire on the Iranian civilian airbus that was shot down killing hundreds of passengers in the mid '90s. He sent copies of the letter to 900 US military personnel and received 27 responses, but never heard from the captain himself, William Rogers. Habib aspires to make a film highlighting the voices of those who wrote letters, and military personnel in both the U.S. and Iran. The fact that the U.S. never formally apologized, and that they awarded medals to the Captain for this act of violence, is a deep thorn in the recent Iranian narrative of the US.

Habib told us, "If you don't want to see 16 year old boys on the front lines, tell your government not to support Saddam, the Taliban, Al Qaeda."

DAY 2: Ayatollah, Archbishop, and the Art of Flatbread

On Saturday morning, Rabbi Lynn, Jacob, Ariel, Ann, Medea, Leila, Sarah, and I went to services at another Jewish synagogue. This one was smaller and less ornate, but had the same orthodox tone and intensity of prayer, interspersed with light conversations. Rabbi Lynn had the opportunity to present a spice box to the congregation during the service.

In the morning, we met with Ayatollah Bojnoordi. Bojnoordi was wrapped in grey and black robes and wears a black turban atop his graying hair. He wore the characteristic long gray beard and his eyes showed his keen awareness and perceptive calm. The Ayatollah shared with us Islam's views on peace, saying that war is the ultimate evil. He was hopeful that Obama will be less war-thirsty than Bush, and he pointed out that in the last 200 years, Iran has not invaded any other countries, and it has 14 neighbors. Ariel and I asked the Ayatollah this question: "Much of the support for war in the Middle East and thinking around the nuclear threat of Iran, is based on fear induced into the public by the president and the media. What does Islam teach us about facing fear and transforming fear?" Our question was lost in translation as our initial comment prompted a response; the Ayatollah explained that Al-Qaeda is not only not Muslim, but is actually anti-Islam, as in Iraq terrorists are killing kids, in Afghanistan there are murders, and in Pakistan mosques are bombed. He told us about how he cried on 9/11 and how all of Iran mourned that violent attack. He also reassured us that Iran wants nuclear technology for peaceful use for energy, as does Syria, and referenced how making nuclear bombs has been condemned by Islamic clerics. The Ayatollah touched on Palestine and the violence of the Israeli occupation, and made a distinct separation between the Jewish people and Israel. This prompted an interesting dialogue between the Ayatollah and Rabbi Brandt. At one point the Ayatollah made reference to all genders being equal, a comment that will stick with me throughout the week as I get to know the women under chador. As we engaged in this back and forth Q & A session we were all served with platters of fruit and pistachios, instant coffee.

"I like the people in your country. We didn't have problems until George Bush. Bush destroyed the US and made it into an evil in the eyes of the Middle East." - Ayatollah Bojnoordi.

In the afternoon, we met with the Archbishop of Armenian Church, Bishop Sakisiyan at the Armenian Church, a beautiful house of prayer with long chandeliers dripping from the tall spire ceiling. We were led into a courtyard and up a staircase into the meeting room, whereupon we noticed something that has become totally foreign to us -- this woman is blond, that woman has short brown hair, that woman is getting gray hairs... these women are not wearing hijab! The Armenian sacred land is free from Muslim religious law, apparently. The six other women in our delegation push their scarves off their heads with smiles of momentary liberation. I keep mine on -- for some reason it just seems easier that way, like locking the car doors every time you get out without thinking about whether the neighborhood is a rural safe place or in the middle of Manhattan; habit can sometimes lead to comfort. The bishop told us that when asked by his colleagues and friends abroad about what life is like in Iran, he tells them, "I cannot tell you because your mind has been tainted by western media, especially in the U.S. and Israel. It is better to come and see first hand for yourself." We discussed the painful history of the Armenian genocide and the lack of recognition by the U.S. government, the migration of young people to cities and out of the country, matters of faith and politics, all while we were served puffy pastries and creamy coffee.

In the evening we visited the Center for Intereligious Dialogue, the government-affiliated agency that is hosting our delegation. There we met Dr. Rasoolipool, a generous, kind man who suffers from chemical effects of the Iran-Iraq War. The Center facilitates dialogues between many faiths throughout the region and in Rome, bringing together religious leaders and experts. We spoke about how this dialogue helps to enrich our cooperation, communication, removes misunderstanding and allows us to really meet each other. The first imam said that "people are the enemy of what they don't know." Ariel asked about whether these dialogues include creative interaction, like poetry or music exchange, and we learned that they are more straightforward, but that there is a desire to expand to that kind of work, and to reach more people. We heard about the delegation of 10 American teachers who visited Iran last month and I brainstormed with Dr. Rasoolipool about the possibility of linking universities in our countries by teleconferencing technology. During the introductions and discussion, I was keenly aware that the women working at the Center are totally silent. I invited them to introduce themselves and we found out that (of course) they are accomplished authors, researchers, and staff. Sallie proposed that we have a meeting with just the women. All of us ladies looked excited while the men agree politely but with little interest or seeming understanding of why this would be so spectacular.

We dined on our second night in Iran at a great hookah restaurant, and amidst the apple smoke buzzing through my head and the flatbread flying in and out of a giant brick oven and the plates and plates of kabob, I see our delegation recline into cushions, stretch our feet, smile, and relax into being in Iran for perhaps the first time collectively.

DAY 3: Eyes of Discern, Bags of Books

Sunday morning, we met with Jewish community at their community center on the third floor of a concrete building in the middle of the city. We're walking up the stairs and all of a sudden there's a Hebrew awning and we're in the middle of the center. Mr. Rafimiyan, the leader of the community, addressed us in a sharp blue suit with a yellow tie and kerchief. He talked about the exodus of Jews to America, England, France, and Israel after the revolution; his comments were obviously moderated by the presence of the two government officials in the room. These officials, one from the Center for Interreligious Dialogue and one from the tourism dept., are always with us. Every 500,000 people in Iran merits one representative in the parliament, but in addition religious minorities are guaranteed a representative, so that the Jewish community, which has a population of about 20,000, gets 1 seat in parliament. Tehran has 12 to 15 active synagogues, and 25 total. It also boasts a Jewish hospital which the community is extremely proud of -- though many of the doctors are Jewish, the hospital serves about 5% Jewish people and the majority of the patients are Muslim. This Jewish community also creates a magazine that circulates throughout the Middle East and the States in English, Farsi, and Arabic, which you can see at www.iranjewish.com. Mr. Rafimiyan strongly affirmed that the Jewish community first identifies as Iranian. The conversation was engaging, formal, and serious, with the exception of cracked smiles that appear after Rabbi Lynn asks what dating and marriage is like in such a small community. The golden moment of connection for Ariel and I with Mr. Rafimiyan came when we interviewed him in a separate room. We'll post this interview in video form once we return to the States. Upon our departure, the Jewish community gave us goodie bags with a copy of Pirkei Avot, other spiritual books and magazines, and a keychain with their logo.

Our next stop was Ayatollah Khomeini's house, which sits atop a winding narrow road in North Tehran. It's a humble, modest home meant to signify that the Ayatollah was with the people (in stark contrast to the Shah). Adjacent to the house is a large room with a stage and camera platform for press conferences and national addresses. There was a large yellow banner and simple, straw mats on the floor. The room smelled dank and was lit with an eerie aqua glow that seemed to cast shadows on memories that I don't fully know but could feel under my skin. We descended into a basement museum of photographs documenting the Ayatollah's life. Seeing him as a young man, a boy, was somehow humanizing, amidst the sea of floating heads of his serious, sideways gazing, strong browed face. We are served candy and tea and given bags with books and a DVD about the Ayatollah.

We lunched in the mountains at an outdoor restaurant where we sat on raised tables with bright carpets. A small stove at the table kept us warm while we ate kabob, yogurt, saffron rice, tea with rock sugar, and nan. Outside the restaurant merchants sold platters of bright red beets and sweetened hot nuts. Snow dusted the mountains in front of us and consumed the far horizon.

We arrived at the Shah's palace in the rain at dusk. Touring the Victorian rooms and the grand halls reminds me of European museum exhibitions and other colonial fancy preservations. I was unimpressed by the wildly rich decor, but excited that the expansive mansion afforded us some time to meet and get to talk with the young Iranian women docents.

Ariel got to weave a thread onto the national Friendship Carpet at the adjacent carpet gallery.

At night we watched Habib's movie, Night Bus. (Ironically, on the way to see the film tonight our bus had a problem and we had to transfer to another bus-taxi in the rain.) (Two interesting facts about the movie business in Iran: Iranian films are subsidized by the government. There are more women film directors in Iran than in the US.)

Night Bus is a movie about a two Iranian soldiers who are transporting a bus full of Iraqi POWs back to their base. The film showed the humanity of the soldiers, in one case an Iranian discovers that one of the Iraqi prisoners is actually his friend from before the war. The black and white movie is a moving account of the people fighting war that just makes war all the more distasteful. Habib gave us each a copy of a glossy photo book -- the women get a book about women in the war! -- and a DVD of the film. Back at the hotel, Ariel and I pour over the book and discover photos of women in chador with machine guns, women caring for gravely wounded bloody soldiers in the hospital, women kissing their men goodbye and sewing their uniforms, all for the sake of serving the fighter men, many of whom became part of the half-million martyrs.

Habib spoke with us about how a gesture of solidarity the US could make with Iran would be to commemorate and mourn the U.S. attack on the Iranian airbus, acknowledging the irreparable loss and understanding that murder victims are murder victims, we are all equal. Rostam Perzal was at this meeting and helped translate for Habib. Rostam shared his experiences working with the international group, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (www.campaigniran.org/) with us.

Day 4: Women in Black

To Quom! On Monday, we schlepped out of the hotel early and began our bus journey south to Quom, Iran's religious center. We reached it by midday and arrived at Mofid University for a meeting with the cleric-faculty and students. Well, it would have been just a meeting with the faculty, until Ariel made an excellent proposal that we meet with the students who lined the rows of chairs behind our dialogue circle in a large, new room with individual microphones and shiny chairs. Each of us on the delegation introduced ourselves to the professors and heard their introductions and statements about understandings between religions. Abdul Rasmin, professor of theology and philosophy of religion said that "the clash between faiths is just due to misunderstanding." Professor Talmuchi held up copies of the books he has written about Judaism. Rabbi Lynn and Brother Clark were also given an opportunity to make an address. Clark shared an excellent story with us that I will try to relate here:

St. Francis wanted to create a friendship between the Sultan of Damieta by trying to convert the Sultan to Christianity. ("St. Francis was crazy," Clark said here.) The sultan prepared a test of faith for St. Francis upon his arrival. There are two versions of this test, one in which he is asked to walk through fire and another that involves a Persian rug. Clark chooses the carpet version, which goes like this: The sultan lays out a beautiful Persian carpet with crosses in the pattern and asks his visitor what he thinks of the carpet. St. Francis immediately knows that it is a trap to make him defile Christianity, so he smiles and says that those crosses are used to crucify people, while the true holy cross resides in the heart. The two begin to laugh and dance around the room, and acknowledge that neither will convert. They begin to tell stories to each other, and a great friendship is born. The two join in prayer. St. Francis went back to Italy enthusiastic about his experience with Islam and, inspired by the prayer call of Muslims, started ringing church bells. To this day, the church bells ring three times a day! The moral of the story? The way to be in dialogue is with each other, to share stories, to be in relationship, to be creative when facing obstacles, and to always see the best and most lovely in each other when we are together.

Later when speaking of our peace work, one of the professors said that our work is like that of the nightingale in the story of Abraham, in which the small bird tries to extinguish a great fire by filling its beak with droplets of water. Making peace is, clearly, a big duty. And all the talk led to a hearty lunch at the school. After lunch we met with the students, who are excited, have a thousand questions, as do we have a thousand questions, and we swapped short answers for a half hour while making giddy snapshots of our mingling groups. The young women mostly said they don't like wearing the hijab and they have boyfriends.

From Quom we traveled on the yellow bus to Isfahan. It's a long ride and we sleep in shifts, stopping only once at a roadside gas station where we get pistachio candy and tea.

We reached Isfahan at night, checked into our hotel, ate dinner at a hookah restaurant, and headed home to rest. At midnight I jumped onto our CODEPINK weekly staff conference call by Skype, via my laptop sitting outside my hotel door so my roommates can sleep peacefully. I am draped in my manteau over my pajamas as I help plan our demonstrations at Obama's inauguration with women who are an ocean away, and yet so present.

Day 5: City of Bridges

Isfahan: snap, snap, learn, pause, snap, buy, snap, pray, snap, snap, snap! Today, Tuesday, was our first day as full-on tourists in a new place. While many of us struggled with how to be a tourist when we were more interested in social change work, it seemed like a clear necessity. How can we talk about the Iranian people, the culture, the politics, without having a historic and geographic context for the region? Everywhere we went, people want to know (not only "whoooo we aaaare" but also...) if we find Iran beautiful and if we like the country and the people. In Isfahan we delved into the ancient history rich with stories, architectural feats, the geometry of understanding.

In the morning we met up with our tour guide, Jafar. I asked him if there are a lot of tourists visiting Isfahan and he said, no, there aren't, and asks me why this is the case. I started to talk about the visa situation, and then he stopped the whole group in the middle of the sidewalk and addressed my question by answering that because the U.S. -- "your country" -- says Iran is not safe, tourists don't come. After all, who would want to go to a dangerous country when you could be sunning yourself at a Club Med somewhere? Sometimes in Iran it is hard to remember that we are still in a "code red" style country because we feel so safe.

We visited the second shah's palace, which is called 40-column palace, and stood at the end of a long reflecting pool surrounded by roses. Inside the palace the walls are covered with frescos of historic and fantastic scenes with rich color and expression. On the steps outside I unfurl the Peace with Iran pink banner from Leslie and Martha in SF CODEPINK for the first time and Ariel and I make a photograph with university women.

Next we went to Imam Square, which is an absolutely breathtaking, huge mosque at the end of a rectangle of tan two story building which house a U-shaped bazaar, interrupted twice (on both of the long sides of the rectangular square), by the shah's palace and the shah's personal mosque. The entire structure is circa 1598 and used to contain a polo field in the middle of it. The government prohibits skyscrapers being built so that there is a wide-open expanse of sky all around us all the time (except in the crowded halls of the bazaar). This was really the first time we've been able to stand under the wide Middle East sky since we'd been here, and it starkly contrasted with the ornate, intricate designs of the mosaic work and the crowded bustle of the cities. Under this great big sky we met a lot of young folks in the square. One group of 20-something guys take a photo with our "Peace with Iran" banner and told us about how all humans are created equally, noting that wherever you have clear water, you also have mud. "It's only the governments that want us to be enemies," one young man says. Guess which is the water and which is the mud, the people or the government?

Jafar took us into the mosque and points out each minute detail, down to the colors of the tile, the angle of the spire, the resonant sound of the water basin, the asymmetry in the marble carvings, which denotes the "only one god" concept. I'm grateful to have a guide who can bring so much life and meaning into this remarkable place. Honestly, standing in this mosque, being in Iran becomes all the more real. It's like bringing a photo I've seen as a child to life, stepping into a scene from my early understandings of "far away." And here in the mosque under the bright winter sunlight, I felt an incredible nearness, a tender closeness to the divine, to the people around me. We were meeting students at every turn and corner and hurriedly exchanging email addresses before we were ushered along. We attended midday prayers in the winter indoor mosque, and once on the women's side, Ariel and I adorn ourselves in a white chador for prayer. I meditated for a few minutes and then turn around to see a circle of girls primping their hair and swapping palettes of eye shadow with the same speed and voracity as the women up front are bowing, rising, and repeating "Allah Aquba!" I've never seen women getting dolled up while in a masjid. They eagerly invited us over, and one girl braided Rabbi Lynn's hair (which is out of hijab!). Just when they were about to do Ariel's eye makeup, an elder woman came over and chastised them, and then it was time for us to go. Iran is a tale of two cities, indoor and outdoor, and now, before my eyes, I have seen both of those worlds collide under one roof.

We had lunch upstairs from the bazaar and sat on carpets eating olives and yogurt. We wandered the bazaar, becoming familiar with the metal work, the bejeweled boxes, the carpet shops where tea and hospitality is served brimming full, the tablecloth printing tradition, the Jewish shopkeeper, the scarves. On our way out, Ariel and I met Abed, a 26-year-old Iranian guy who was quick to speak English, disapproved of the government and religion, and excited to connect with foreigners. He had stylish jeans, a phone that played music into the headphones he at first didn't remove from his ears when he meets us, and a wry grin. He walked with us and told us the way he sees it, "Iran is a cage of pigeons and the United States is a pen of hens." The fox, the government. Our people are the same. We part with Abed at our hotel and hope to meet up later.

At night we visited the majestic Haju Bridge, and while walking under its archways, we met a group of young men who are singing love ballads. I am reminded of Italian singers in Venice. When their sorrowful and beautiful song ended, we women responded by singing a traditional Jewish melody about peace. Of course, it is illegal in Iran for women to sing in public. Our brief exchange of music was for me the first real, heartfelt vision of peace that I have been a part of. There is no façade here. We were in our hearts and sharing with each other. Near the bridge we visited the tomb of Prof. Arthur Pope, an American who lived in Iran for 30 years and wrote some key books about Iran's history, and his wife. He was well-respected by the Iranian people, and thus during the revolution, when the revolutionaries were violently desecrating many buildings and graves, their tomb was left alone, and stands perfectly today.

Next we walked across the longest bridge in Isfahan, where there were throngs of young people crossing and hanging out. After our bridge walk, we had tea and soup at the regal hotel. At night, Ariel, Jacob, and I met up with Abed and go out on the town. We walked along the river to the Armenian quarter where there are coffee shops full of young people, fast food places, and a hole in the wall ice cream shop where we got delicious coffee and chocolate ice cream and hot creamed corn. Abed talked with us about the feeling young people have here, that there is constant pressure and uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring. He compared the situation to a cylinder in which if the pressure gets too much, it will explode. He said the government lets out just enough steam to keep people from really rising up. What is letting out steam? Being able to have these coffee shops, being able to meet one another in this way? But just a few weeks ago the main coffee shop was shut down. Prohibiting men and women from dancing together or even sharing a coffee too closely might sound ridiculous to you, and if it is, you can check your own judgment, and then learn this great Farsi word: maskharast! (that's ridiculous!) The fantastic four of us took tons of photographs, wandered around, and stopped to have coffee at a shop that had Starbucks bags on its walls for decoration.

Back at the hotel we meet a few more new friends who share Iranian hip-hop with us and good conversation. I had been wondering how we could connect Iranian and American youth across the borders without actually traveling halfway around the world. I discovered through my conversations with our new friends that Facebook is often used (except in Tehran where it is blocked), as is Google chat and all things Yahoo.

In the wee hours of the morning, I was blogging and while attempting to plug in my computer, I sparked a short that knocked out all the electricity in our room. A series of running up and down the stairs and playing with the switchboard brough light back to the room, just in time for me to catch a few hours of sleep before dawn.

Day 6: Isfahan, take two!

On our second day in Isfahan, Wednesday, we visited another incredible mosque. This one is divided into four sections, for the Sufis (who are wrongly equated with the poor), the students, the learned scholars, and the main mosque area, all divided by the wide open square in the middle. We have lunch at fancy restaurant which serves chicken fesenjan, the most incredible dish of walnut sauce. After lunch we go to the Armenian church, a plain adobe colored building with a mosque-like dome in the middle. Upon entering, we crack a geode and the jewels of this church are revealed: bright frescos adorn the walls from floor to ceiling, depicting violent stories from the bible and sweet faced women and men in adoration. These paintings have lasted so many years, as if to be immortalized. Now there’s something sustained, sustainable! Outside there is a monument to the Armenian genocide.

As dusk began to settle, a group of us women jumped out of the bus at the bazaar for one last round of shopping. We visited a music shop where the shopkeeper played sitar for us. Lynn fell in love with a drum and was invited to play it. Then the two, the shopkeeper and Lynn, played music together. The shopkeeper could drum a fast and enchanting beat that was hard for us to understand and really hard for Lynn to play. Without a common spoken language, somehow Lynn and this sweet man found the language of the drum beat and reached a harmony. I created a short film of their music that I hope to post when home. Here, like the back and forth singing with the young men under the bridge, was a living, breathing model of peace. Lynn purchased this beautiful, antique drum painted in bright colors resting in a big hard case lined with pink faux fur. We drank tea with our new friend, scrambled through our Farsi phrasebooks for the words to exchange, and shared family and performance photos. We left smiling and lugging the new drum through the busy bazaar back to the hotel. Lynn shared the drum beat with the group at our nighttime circle, like a little tease of a longer rhythm, an extended journey, a melody that will span the sea and bridge our two countries.

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  • Alexistori Gonzalez
    followed this page 2020-03-11 02:31:21 -0400