July 20-30, 2007: Tehran - Shiraz - Yazd - Esfahan - Qom
Co-sponsored by the Virginia Anti-War Network & The Richmond Defender newspaper
The Delegation produced the following four reports during their 11-day journey through five cities in the Islamic Republic of Iran, from July 20 through July 30, 2007.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Day one of the People's Peace Delegation to Iran's 12-day, 1,750-mile journey through the Islamic Republic of Iran saw this band of five land safely, if exhausted, in Tehran on the morning of July 20, 2007. Met by the tour guide who escorted them to their hotel to clean up and then headed them over to the University of Tehran for the Friday Prayer service, which are a big thing in Iran. They don't spend money on big mosques, but find public spaces to hold these large gatherings. Some 10,000 attended the prayers at the University. The group was allowed in as “journalists” which meant they were taken to a second story balcony that overlooked the proceedings – the woman in the delegation was taken to a separate section for women where she was warmly received, treated like a sister. She wore a black veil as required. The delegation was free to photograph the services, but asked for security reasons, not to photograph a section where government officials were seated.
All were given earphones that provided instant translation of what was said. Two Imams, spiritual leaders, gave sermons – one on anger as an attribute given by God to help defend family and religion, but that can get out of hand and be self-defeating; and the other was a presentation on the political situation between the U.S. And Iranian governments.
After the services were completed they were taken back to the hotel to sleep off some of their jet lag and later that evening went out for their evening meal. Joined by their guide and one other person, $30 paid for a delicious lamb stew dinner for 7, including the tip. The delegation was then off to the airport for the 1.5 hour flight to Shiraz, a city in central Iran – the southernmost point of the delegation's tour.
Anyone who noticed that they were foreign, and from the U.S., was very friendly. The delegation talked to people as they moved around the city and they sensed no animosity to the people of the U.S. and no sense that the U.S. government would actually attack their country. One delegation member said that he felt like he was walking around in Queens NY – people look like they are from everywhere, they dress in every way you can think of – from punk rock youth to traditional black chadoor-clad matron; you can buy kabob on the street, see young people on cell phones, people rushing from place to place. Tehran is a vibrant, active, major metropolitan city. (Report based on phone conversation with Phil Wilayto.)
Saturday, July 21, 2007
In a country that is two-thirds desert a garden is considered paradise and as the delegation walks through the gates of one such paradise, in the southern city of Shiraz, the children on a school trip engulf us attempting the handful of English words they know.
“Hello” they yell with a child’s innocence.
“Hello” we all would say back.
Quickly they respond with a “where are you from?
“America” we say with a smile.
“Oh, oh I love Am-ree-ka!”
This conversation will continue with each of the several children getting to practice their English while we get to attempt a political discussion that is normally met with confused looks of a person lacking the English or a response of “I do not think much about politics.” Phil jokes that this could be the national greeting. Expressing the affection that is given to us here may be impossible to explain in a text or even by the spoken word without one seeing it for themselves.
This interaction is a reprieve for the members of the delegation who spent morning walking through the ruins of Persoplis hearing twenty-five hundred years of history while the sun bakes us in 110-degree weather. Our day was full and after a few days of travel that, took us from Washington to London and finally landing in Tehran we were lagging but enthusiastic. The enthusiasm was carried from the Friday prayers at Tehran University strait through our late night flight and arrival in Shiraz where our day of listening to history would begin.
Amin, our guide, is even struck by the heat several times saying, “Wow, it is hot,” though forgoing the “chief” that he usually seems to enjoy calling us. The evening heat is much more manageable without the sun as we go to some mosques and then to dinner where we get to meet some family members of Rostam, our Iranian colleague back home. The conversation is pleasant and their English is far better than any of our Farsi.
Many in the delegation are surprised to hear how little the Iranians even consider war between our two countries and this is confirmed with our dinner conversation. One of the young women, Marziyee says, “they don’t even think of it at all” when talking about her classmates at Shiraz University. She goes on to say that the difference between Iran and the United States is that “here we do not believe it if it is on the news where in America you do.”
Our trip will continue for many more days but if the reception is this warm then the heat of the days may be its only rival. We will hit the road today heading north back toward Tehran.
(report by Geoff Millard)
Monday, July 23, 2007
That's "hello" in Farsi, the national language of Iran, but most people we meet say "'ello!" We're learning, if slowly.
Our five members of the People's Peace Delegation to Iran woke up yesterday morning in Shiraz, the south-central city of poets, roses, nightingales and, at one time, wine. Today our main goal was completing a 10-hour van ride through the Zaros Mountains and desert to the oasis city of Yazd, home of the country's largest community of Zoroastrians, followers of the major religion that preceded Islam in Iran.
A short while into our journey we stopped at the site of the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who in the fifth century B.C. established the first Persian Empire. Persepolis, where we visited Saturday, was Cyrus' ceremonial seat, where he received tributaries from the various nations in the Empire, but Necropolis was where he maintained his palace, a smaller but still grand greeting hall and the where he was buried. The structures are still impressive, but the depth of history was most profound. Geoff, our Iraq War veteran, was deeply moved by our guide's story of how Alexander the Macedonian (Greek) had burned Persepolis to the ground in retaliation for the Persians' destruction of a major Greek city, but spared Cyrus's tomb. In fact, he wept at the site, out of respect for this towering military and political leader.
Then we crossed the desert that lies between Shiraz and Yazd. The narrow, two-lane highway runs through a desert plateau between fiercely stark ad seemingly endless mountains. But a hundreds-year old system of wells and underground canals carries water from the mountains to Yazd, and along the way irrigates farms of wheat, rice, pomegranate and sunflowers.
This part of our journey was our first brief exposure to rural poverty, which while widespread does not seem to be abject. We are able to make some comparisons, because between us we have traveled to many countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia where extreme poverty is rampant -- not to mention parts of Richmond, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.
Iran has been under U.S. - and U.N.-imposed sanctions for 28 years and some 70* percent of the population lives in poverty. But in our first four days here we have only seen two beggars and no homeless people. The reason, as explained by our guide and also confirmed by our own pre-trip research, is that the Iranian government maintains an extensive system of social programs for the impoverished, the people they call "the oppressed." Even the smallest villages we passed have free education through high school. (Colleges and universities are also free, but space is limited and admission is very competitive. Even so, some 60-65 percent of college undergraduates are women.)
Every village or industrial site we passed seemed in need of major repairs.
Crumbling brick and mud and straw walls are common. But there is also a lot of development. A new highway is being constructed between Shiraz and Yazd, to replace the narrow highway we were traveling on. We could see construction workers toiling in the 108-degree heat. The new highway will reduce the travel time between the two cities, important because as in the U.S., most goods are moved by truck. Plus, it will make travel safer. This last point came home pretty strongly several times when vehicles coming toward us and trying to pass other vehicles narrowly avoided meeting us head on.
After stopping at an oasis truck stop we finally arrived in Yazd. This is a thriving metropolis of half-a-million people northeast of Shiraz. It's an ancient city, one whose population is very devout. (The name "Yazd" means "holy.") One indication of that is that more women here wear chadors. The full-body coverings are not mandated by law -- a woman can instead wear a head scarf and "manteau," or thigh-length coat over slacks or jeans, but many women prefer the chador. As one English-speaking college student in Shiraz told Tyla, "Yes, it's hot, but it makes me feel safe."
This is a section that Tyla wrote for this report:
"I have been warmly welcomed at least a dozen times in the first three days of our trip by lovely Iranian adults and children. These strangers are now my friends. As I haven't yet mastered even a short phrase in Farsi, I have given them nothing but my smile, and they have said kind words to me and the other four on our trip. I'm carrying with me a sentiment of appreciation to so many kind Iranians and a wish to convey their warmth and hospitality to others in the U.S. who may not have the opportunity to visit Iran."
I don't really want to tell you where we are staying in Yazd. It's almost embarrassing -- a renovated former governor's mansion, with a banquet-like dining area, wood-paneled rooms with arched ceilings and stained glass windows and a garden of narrow, secluded walkways lit by lamplight. Water fountains, crying pet birds and a quarter-moon in the desert sky ... If you're looking for an inexpensive and beautiful visit to a wonderful and almost entirely crime-free land of phenomenally hospitable people, think about visiting Iran, we'd be happy to walk you through the process.
Today we visited several historical sites in Yazd, all of which are exquisitely beautiful and all helpful in learning about Iran's history and culture. But it is the conversations we have along the way that make up the soul of our journey. Many people speak some English, and we are learning a few words of Farsi. Most exchanges start with someone noticing we are speaking English. They shyly approach us and say "'ello." We answer "'ello, or "salam," and go from there. “Where are you from?” “U.S.A.” “Oh, Am-ri-ka.” Then smiles, laughs, handshakes, and our asking permission to take their pictures…
This will be hardest for most folks in the U.S. to accept, but we have been met with nothing but the warmest hospitality and kindness from everyone we have met -- working people, educators, college students, business people, everyone. Our guide says that it's because not many English-speaking foreigners visit Iran, and people are naturally curious. And I know many people at home have told us, "Sure, the people may be nice, but it's the government ..."
But children don't lie. And the children have been universally not just friendly, but fascinated, joyful, delightful and warm. I can't believe that anyone, government leader, teacher or parent, is teaching these kids to hate people from the U.S. It just ain't happening.
Of more concern to some of us on the delegation is that almost no one seems to be telling the people they are being targeted for a military attack. Just two people we've met so far have said they worry about such an attack from the United States. It's just not an issue here. A few people have explained that, first most people are focused on putting food on the table, not on major political issues. And second, this is a people who fought an eight-year war with Iraq - more than two times longer than U.S. involvement in World War Two. It was a war -- started by Saddam Hussein with backing from the U.S. -- that cost the country 500,000 lives; and was fought almost entirely on Iranian soil. Plus, they've survived 28 years of economic sanctions, and so don't seem particularly afraid of the thought of an attack. Plus, they are a nation of 70 million people, two thirds of whom are under the age of 35, more than ready to defend their country. So they think Washington would have to be crazy to start another war. Let's hope they are right.
On the other and, most people seem aware that Muslims and Iranians in particular are getting a bad rap in the U.S., and so they're very appreciative when we say we are here in part so we can go home and better explain to the U.S. public what Iran is really like.
Got to go -Yazd shuts down in mid-afternoon so folks can take a break during the hottest part of the day, but that time is almost up, and we're about to leave for a bazaar. More tomorrow -
And, please, to all our friends in the anti-war movement: Every time you raise the demand "U.S Out of Iraq," please remember to add "And no War on Iran!" If just some of you will do that, our 12-day, 1,750-mile journey through Iran will be a success. (drafted by Phil Wilayto with input from all delegation members.) – end –
* The poverty rate in Iran is officially 18%, but according to UNICEF 23% of the population live below the poverty line, according to the CIA website 40% live in poverty, and the World Bank's figure was 32.74% as of 1998. A UNISAP report acknowledged 70% as an absolute figure and 25% as a relative figure given the country's safety net - meaning most people get the nutriution they need to be healthy, and other assistance including free education.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Hi folks. Sorry it's been a few days since our last report, but sometimes it's hard to get to an Internet cafe or phone that takes our calling cards when you're on the road.
Yesterday we were in Isfahan, surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world. One and a half million trees for one and a half million people, a lovely river that runs through the center of town with picturesque bridges, endless parks and the stunningly beautiful Iman Square, the second largest such public space in the world.
It was also in Isfahan that we had perhaps our most significant meeting to date, with three veterans of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. We met in our hotel lobby with Habib Ahmadzadeh, a former Naval officer who fought through the entire war; Mohamad Reiza-Sharafoddin, who fought for four years; and Ahmad ali Pakdaman, a disabled eight-year veteran who lost his Father during the war when a U.S. warship, the USS Vincennes, shot down a civilian Iranian airplane.
The meeting was particularly poignant because two of our delegation members are also veterans: Tom Palumbo of Norfolk, Va., a member of Veterans for Peace; and Geoff Millard of Washington, D.C., member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace.
The shooting down of the Iranian "air bus" happened shortly after then-President Khatami had spoken before the Untied Nations, calling for more dialog between the countries of the world. M. Ahmadzadeh took it upon himself to write an e-mail to the captain of the Vincennes, trying to open a dialog. He also wrote 700 other U.S. Naval officers, suggesting that if members of the various militaries could talk directly to each other, then perhaps that could lessen the chances of war. He told us that 27 officers responded to his e-mail. Mr. Ahmadzadeh has written a book, translated into English, with his letter and some of the replies. He presented copies of the book, titled "The War Involved City Stories" to each member of our delegation, and included hand written poems for each member. His second book, "Chess with the Doomsday Machine," will soon be published in the U.S.. Mr. Ahmadzadeh said he planned to dedicate it to the People's Peace Delegation to Iran.
Mr. Reiza-Sharafoddin began making films as a student during the war, alternating stretches at his university with four years of military service. He is now working on a film about Mr. Ahmadzadeh's attempts to get a reply from the captain of the Vincennes. The war cost both sides more than 500,000 people, but it was fought entirely on Iranian soil, meaning there was incredible devastation of whole Iranian cities and towns.
Mr. Pakdaman, was also a student when the war broke out. His home city of Abadan was besieged for more than a year. He lost one eye, but kept fighting. He was also injured when Iraqi troops gassed the city. Later he was severely injured, losing his right arm, resulting in his being captured. After 30 months in prison camp- in Iraq, he was released in a prisoner exchange. That's when his father flew in from neighboring Dubai to see him. On the way back to Dubai, the air bus was hit. Mr. Pakdaman, missing one eye and one arm, volunteered to return to battle. The U.S. government said it was an accident and paid some compensation to the families of the nearly 300 people killed -- and then Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush gave the Vincennes captains seven medals for "bravery." "We were very surprised, "Mr. Ahmadzadeh. "It would be like giving Osama bin Laden a medal for attacking the World Trade Center." To date, the Vincnenes captain hasn't responded to Mr. Ahmadzadeh's letter.
Following these presentations, our tour guide translated into Farsi a statement the delegation had hammered out the night before in preparation for the meeting. It reads:
"The purpose of the People's Peace Delegation to Iran is, in some small way, to try and prevent a war between the United States and Iran. Terrible things happen in war, such as the shooting down of the Iran Air Bus by U.S. forces. We would like to express our deepest sympathy with the families of the martyrs of that tragedy, and we pledge to return home and promote an environment in which such tragedies will never reoccur."
Our meeting ended with warm handshakes, exchanges of e-mail addresses and a group photo of the five veterans, Iranian and U.S.
Find out more about the People's Peace Delegation to Iran, click here.