Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Post #246 - Truth and Falsehood

Char Simons at a Tehran synagogue
The following was written by Char Simons, a member of my 2006 delegation to Iran. Char is a steering committee member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Olympia chapter and a member of the Community for Interfaith Celebration. She is an adjunct faculty member in Middle East studies and writing at The Evergreen State College, and a free-lance journalist and runner. She wrote this after our return home, but the ignorance to which she refers has not been noticeably reduced in the intervening years.


By Char Simons

True or false:

  1. Iranians are the most pro-U.S. people in the Middle East outside of Israel.
True. A poll commissioned by the Iranian parliament in 2002 showed that 75 percent of Iranians favored renewing ties with the U.S.

  1. The president of Iran sets foreign policy and decides whether to wage war or peace.
False. The most powerful political post is that of faqih, an expert in religious law. Ali Khamenehi currently holds the position [commonly called The Supreme Leader].

  1. There are 25 national political parties representing a wide range of opinion. Men and women ages 16 years and older may vote in elections.
True. People vote on a variety of politicians and political issues, including electing the body of representatives that chooses the faqih, or supreme ruler of the country.

  1. More Americans than Iranians attend religious services regularly.
True. Only about 17 percent of Iranians attend Friday mosque services. More than half of Americans attend religious services on a regular basis.

  1. Iran has not invaded another country in 300 years.
True. The last aggressive war was when the Safavids reclaimed Afghanistan, and drove the Ottomans from Georgia and Armenia and the Russians from the Iranian coast.

How surprising is this information? It certainly is different from what many Americans are being led to believe. As part of a 12-day fact-finding and friendship delegation to Iran this past May, a group of 21 Americans and one Brit decided to see for ourselves. Our trip was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest and largest U.S. peace group, founded in 1914. We ranged in age from late 20s to late 70s, and included war veterans, clergy, educators, nonprofit agency directors, a publisher and a banker. Members of our group came from all three Abrahamic faiths. Our mission was to meet with our professional and religious counterparts in both organized meetings and chance encounters on the “Persian street.”

I expected the Iranian people to be gracious, gentle, good-natured and hospitable, which they were without exception. What I didn’t expect was:

  • The integration of men and women in public space. From administering a major university library to jogging, women, often wearing colorful headscarves and fashionable slacks, tunics, high heels and jewelry were very visible.
  • The subtlety of religious practices. Iran is the only Middle Eastern country I’ve visited where I didn’t hear the call to prayer.
  • Poetry as a major part of the national identity. A form of both political dissent and appreciation of beauty and the human spirit, poetry performances draw crowds in the hundreds. Major streets are named for poets. Everyday people from computer programers to college students knows reams of classical poetry by heart. The hottest Friday night dating scene is the garden tomb of Hafez, where couples meet to recite love poems.

The Persian empire, which preceded modern Iran, gave the world the fork, the long-haul postal system and designed the Taj Mahal. The words which grace the entrance to the United Nations, “all human beings are members of one body,” is from the great Persian poet Sa’adi.

As a chemical weapons survivor and veteran of the Iraq-Iran war told us, “Governments around the world have led people in the direction of war instead of peace. They are using people as tools to achieve absolute power. The leadership of our two nations don’t want us to get close to each other. As individuals and members of organizations, our duty is to bring people together. ”

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