Iran Journal, Part 4: Making Friends

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(Host) Kings and shahs have tried to make Iran more worldly and western. Clerics have tried to make it more religious and isolated. Recently VPR’s Steve Zind traveled to Iran in search of family history. In Part Four of “Iran Journal,” he discovers that neither the approach of the shahs or the mullahs seems a perfect fit for the Iranian people.

(Sound of train car.)

(Zind) My brother and I are on an aging train riding through the desert between the Iranian cities of Yazd and Esfahan. We’re in a berth with three young men: Amir, Mohammad and Hamid Reza. Amir, sitting next to me, speaks a few words of English. Mohammad doesn’t speak at all, he just stares. Every time I look at him I meet his dark, penetrating gaze.

Hamid Reza, on the other hand, speaks volumes – in Farsi. He is a big man with a loud voice and an explosive laugh. It’s clear he’s making jokes about us in Farzi. He asks us if we have any whiskey. He keeps asking for souvenirs, which is making me nervous. It sounds more like a demand than a request.

Finally I reach into my bag and pull out three Vermont postcards. They stare at the pictures of big white farmhouses, red barns and brilliant foliage. They are thrilled. Amir passes out candy. I hand out maple lollipops. We pass around my Farsi-English dictionary and share some laughs. Then Amir offers me his string of pale yellow prayer beads. I tell him I can’t accept his gift. He offers them again. I say I can’t take them. Again he stretches out his hand – and once more I decline. I’m observing an Iranian custom called ta’roof. A gift should be refused three times before it is accepted. So now I can take the beads. As the train arrives, Mohammad’s and my eyes meet. He is smiling and sucking on a maple lollipop.

There is a saying: ‘Esfahan is half the world.’ Esfahan is a city of surpassing beauty, with horse-drawn carriages in the square and leafy boulevards that hide the desert beyond. Tree lined terraced sidewalks wind along the Zayendeh River which runs through the city.

Late on summer nights families picnic on blankets spread on the grassy riverbanks. In the echo-y recesses of the Khajoo Bridge, young men sing traditional songs as friends listen appreciatively. The voices mingle under the 400 year old bridge.

Islam has inspired Iran’s most stunning architecture. Everywhere there are mosques with their bulbous domes, slender minarets and intricate blue mosaic tiles. The Emam Mosque in Esfahan is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. We enter it through an ornate honeycombed portal. Inside, archways surround a wide courtyard and reflecting pool. Directly under the dome, sound reverberates eerily. A man demonstrates for us.

(Sound of echo in the mosque) “Allah o Akbar… Allah o Akbar…”

(Zind) The man takes us to a part of the mosque closed to the public.

The call to prayer, the billboards with the faces of clerics, the buses painted with the phrase ‘Don’t Forget God” – they are constant reminders that Islam is both religion and government in Iran. One Iranian man tells me that to get a good job you have to show you are pious and support the government; your actual qualifications aren’t that important. Another man tells me that unless he prays at work, he’ll lose his job.

“In this office, it is obligated for me to say prayer. I’m tired of this culture. I want to try another culture.”

(Zind) Sixty percent of the college students in Iran are women. Women vote, run for office and pursue professional careers. But legally and socially, Iranian women have fewer rights and freedoms than men do. One night we have dinner with two young women who speak bitterly about these constraints.

Young people we talk to are apathetic about politics because they don’t believe things will change. They tell us they lead two lives in Iran: the one they have to live in public and a separate one at home. We talked to people who said they wanted to leave Iran for freedom, for jobs and for education. But we also talked to those who said they couldn’t imagine leaving. They expressed a love for their country that was touching and profound in light of the hardship of their lives.

I witnessed it one evening when I listened to a group of young people sing a song that’s become a kind of alternative national anthem. The official anthem of the Islamic government praises Iran’s religious Imams and martyrs. This song evokes the country’s art and ancient culture. It celebrates a different Iran.

(Host) Friday, in the conclusion of his “Iran Journal,” Steve Zind visits the home city of his grandfather’s family and discovers a living family patriarch.

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