(Published June 2, 2013, The Guardian)
I recently returned from a vacation in Iran, (why does that phrase always trigger “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys in my head?) my third time there since 1998.
Time spent in the Islamic Republic and other regions around the world always motivates me to question why so many Americans remain so willfully unaware of the wider world and to believe things like:
–America invaded and occupied Iraq all those years because Saddam Hussein was a really bad dictator.
–Israel is our “friend” who we can always count on to uphold our Western values.
–If Iran gets the bomb, they’re going to start a war.
–If Egypt can finally vote for its leaders, that’s really big trouble for America.
–The American military is fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan because we’re afraid they’ll be over here if we don’t.
–And you can absolutely justify torture and mass killings in the right circumstances.
I don’t know what’s more scary: the fact that millions of us believe these grotesquely over-simplified and clearly false statements or that millions of my countrymen and women could care less about the real answers to these issues.
Back in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is a so-called developing nation with a modern subway system in the capital, a literacy rate of at least 85% (compared to about 40% before the 1979 revolution that deposed the US-backed regime of Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī), women accounting for about 63% of its university students (US 57%), an infant mortality rate that’s been reportedly halved since the revolution, average life expectancy of 78.2 years (US at 80.1 [2009 World Bank]), and a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
But forget that stuff. What really rattled me was family and friends warning strongly not to wear short pants, even though the thick, dense air of Tehran was already roasting in the high 90s and bad humidity. “The basij religious police can arrest you for wearing shorts, Lawrence!” Not wanting to experience the charms of a theocratic detention facility based on a fashion faux pas, I decided against testing the limits of my host nation’s toleration of foreign excess for the time being.
And you thought the women’s mandatory hajib hair cover and figure-hiding coat jackets were a big deal.
JUST ANOTHER GRINGO MERCENARY
As you might expect, I got some pretty strong reactions from people when I mentioned heading off to Iran.
“I’ll probably be over there in a few weeks.”
“What?! Like with the 182nd Airborne or something?!”
“Nooo,” I answered dismissively. “Just to visit family and friends. I always have a good time in Iran. Looking forward to it.”
And that was from a reasonable enough guy in his 30′s who had taught at the college level and was actually studying Persian culture and language at the time: disbelief and an automatic assumption that I could only be connected with our country’s worst tendencies toward the Middle East.
Can’t say that I blame him, based on the modern American interventions, invasions, and internecine misadventures throughout the region. But I definitely was not expecting to be called out as just another gringo mercenary looking to spill a little blood and make a few bucks for Uncle Sam.
Despite all the foreign inspired pain, this all-too-white Portland resident and proud third-generation son of the Illinois prairie is always greeted warmly in Iran. To this day, the people of Iran generally hold little animosity toward Americans, despite our government’s major role in the 1953 coup d’état that installed the Shah while deposing the elected Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, head of “the only democratic government Iran ever had,” according to Stephen Kinzer, author of All The Shah’s Men.
Despite our role in supporting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein following his invasion of Iran in 1980 (the Iran-Contra affair notwithstanding) that led to a horrific eight-year WWI-style meat grinder of a war resulting in more than a million Iranian casualties, and cementing the current regime’s hold on power.
Despite the US Navy’s shoot-down of an Iranian civilian jetliner in Iranian airspace with 290 souls aboard on July 3, 1988. The US eventually paid compensation to the victims, expressed regret but is said to have never issued a formal apology.
Despite the constant menacing threat of at least two, some reports say three, Navy carrier groups patrolling in and around the Persia Gulf.
Despite the mounting, almost daily threats of war emanating from Tel Aviv and Washington.
They say the Middle East is like a riddle wrapped within an enigma. How about this one: who here remembers that thousands of Iranians held spontaneous public candlelight vigils honoring our dead and dying 9/11 victims when news of the New York and Washington attacks reached Tehran? How many other capitals in this world did anything remotely similar?
Whenever I travel abroad, I always affirm my US citizenship. That wasn’t a very popular stance during the George W. Bush years when untold numbers of my fellow Americans cowardly decided to conveniently claim Canadian and other nationalities as the rising tide of disgust for Washington crested worldwide.
I am a proud American, for better and worse. I simply make sure to let people know that myself and others are fighting the good fight, peacefully but forcefully, at home against US-sponsored terror and injustice. Portland protests (which motivated the George H. W. Bush administration to dub our Cascadian capital “Little Beirut”) take a back seat to no one, not Seattle or San Francisco or Chicago or Boston or New York, when it comes to speaking truth to power. We gave W. loud holy hell less than a year after 9/11 when he ambled into town for a GOP benefit. Dozens of us peaceful protesters were attacked by riot clad police looking to prove themselves against women, children, students, and seniors, among others.
A STRONG REBUKE
The worst thing anyone said to me in Iran was a strong rebuke for recently protesting in Portland against any attack on Iran. “You hurt us when to say “No war on Iran, Lawrence! We want the Americans to come.”
Taken aback momentarily, I held my ground. “Look at Iraq! Does anyone there think our invasion and occupation was worth it?!”
“We know Iraqis.”
“Really? And what do they say? Do you realize how many people will be killed, and that your entire modern infrastructure will be destroyed?”
“The regime kills people here everyday. What is the difference?”
“Listen, the Americans don’t care about a regime change. They just want to destroy the military and economic capability of the country. There won’t be any invasion. So what happens then if the regime survives?”
“But the regime must fall if we are attacked.”
“Man, there is no guarantee. The American government doesn’t care about the Iranian people. The US and Israel just want to see Iran crippled for a generation or more. Just like in Iraq. This deal about nuclear weapons is a fraud, a cover.”
Israeli and American uber-hawks have convinced themselves and too many others that we must, soon, bomb the land of Cyrus the Great (storied liberator of the enslaved Jews of Babylon who also gave money to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem), the land of the fabled remains of Persepolis, the land of the glorious art and architecture of Isfahan, the home of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and the fantastically enduring poetry of Rumi, as well as the land of one or more of the legendary three magi who bore magnificent gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.
Remember, too, that any serious student of the issue will agree that Iran will not attack its adversaries first. That still means something in this world.
Several years ago, I was told in Iran that you can pretty much do anything you want, except to directly challenge the government. And I clearly remember the chilling images of election-fraud protesters on the streets of 2009 Tehran as they were attacked, beaten and arrested by plain-clothes government thugs.
And I clearly remember the chilling images of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the streets of 2011 New York, not to mention the NATO protesters on the streets of Chicago last year, as they were attacked, beaten and arrested by uniformed city police.