Politics aside, a warm welcome for Americans in Iran
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
... Payvand News - 7/13/07 ... --