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Politics aside, a warm welcome for Americans in Iran

By Paula Gutlove
Cambridge, Massachusetts - I recently returned from an extraordinary visit to Iran coordinated through the US-Iran Working Group on Health Science Cooperation, which I co-chair. This network was founded to exchange information, promote collaborative research and build trust and understanding among health scientists in the United States and Iran.

The Working Group identified Iran's Isfahan Healthy Heart Program (IHHP) as a world-class medical research initiative. After a videoconference, a series of email exchanges and a visit to Boston by the IHHP director, we were invited to bring a delegation from the Working Group to an international IHHP meeting in Isfahan in April 2007. We developed a two-week itinerary allowing us to visit medical schools and health-related programs in Tabriz, Tehran, and the historic city of Isfahan. The delegation of 5 US health scientists, including my husband and myself, was the first of what we hope will be many such visits.

The time leading up to our departure was stressful. After months of waiting for our entry visas, they were approved barely 2 weeks before our scheduled departure. Two days later, 15 British mariners were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for allegedly trespassing in Iranian waters. Media reports of anti-Western demonstrations in Tehran raised concerns about the reception we would receive there as Americans. Our Iranian hosts repeatedly assured us it was safe.

We saw no sign of demonstrators during our trip. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went. Our hosts showed us their classrooms, laboratories, and hospitals, and discussed with great interest opportunities for cooperation. Right hand over heart, bowing slightly at the waist, our hosts greeted us and asked what more they could do.

We received so many gifts that we needed to buy an extra suitcase to bring them home. Friends of friends heard from their families in the US that we were coming and showed up at lecture halls bearing 10 pound boxes of pistachios and offering to show us around or host us in their homes. Young people asked how they could come to the US to study, do research or work.

While preparing for this trip, I spent a lot of time thinking about the coat and scarf (hejab) I would wear to comply with the state-enforced Muslim dress code. I needed to cover up my hair and the shape of my body, important aspects of my identity as a woman. I was a bit daunted by the prospect. Yet, I sought to embrace this as a liberating experience. I heard that wearing hejab freed women from annoying stares and advances of men, and that the camaraderie of women becomes salient in this highly gender-oriented society. I found truth in both statements.

One night in Tabriz, we discovered that the restaurant where we were planning to eat was closed for a women's wedding reception. While the men in our group went to a nearby restaurant, I went into the inner sanctum with our female translator-guide.

Inside, women were celebrating: hair was done in 50s bouffant style, makeup was dramatic, as were the lavish floor-length, low cut, sequined dresses. I wanted to watch from the sidelines but I was instead placed in a seat of honour near the bride. Appetisers, dips, breads, salads, cakes and fruits were brought to me on lavish trays, in quantities enough for 10 people. When at last I stood to leave there were protests until finally I was escorted to the door and bid my adieu amid cries of "come again, come back to Iran, inshallah" - God willing.

The extraordinary hospitality we received during our trip was exemplified on our last night. Instead of flying to Tehran from Isfahan, my husband and I decided to drive. Halfway between Isfahan and Tehran was Kashan, another historic city, known for its carpets and its architecture. Ahmed, a physician we met in Isfahan, offered to drive us to Kashan, where he grew up, and arranged another driver to take us from Kashan to Tehran.

Shortly after we arrived at Kashan, Ahmed introduced us to his large extended family, including his wife's parents, who were introduced as Grandma and Grandpa. About 30 of us went to an outdoor picnic area, set up with low tables, on which we sat and ate fruit and cakes and drank hot, spiced tea. Later, we toured Grandpa's ancestral home, currently being restored by the Iranian historical commission, and then retired to his current abode, where Grandma and many daughters and daughters-in-law served us a multi-course dinner on their lovely living room carpet. When our driver came to take us to Tehran, neighbours came out and joined the family, so on our last evening in Iran, 50 people waved us off, saying in Farsi and English that they were glad we had come, inshallah we shall come again.

In the weeks since our return, anti-Iran rhetoric in the US has increased. In Iran, a wave of arrests has swept through the "politically moderate" community. Selected people with ties to Westerners and organisations striving to build a healthy civil society have been imprisoned. The Working Group continues to foster cooperation among US and Iranian medical colleagues, carefully, through videoconferences and email. We hope that our two countries will learn to cooperate to create a healthy world in which our children can grow. Inshallah.

About the author: Dr Paula Gutlove is an adjunct professor at the School for Health Sciences at Simmons College, Boston. She founded and directs the Health Bridges for Peace Project, and is the co-chair of the US-Iran Working Group on Health Science Cooperation.
Note: This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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