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 Writer's Desk 

May 15, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 07


Making something out of old ideas

By Margot Patterson, NCR opinion editor

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Six days ago my flight left without me. I was on my way to Iran (I thought), but my journalist’s visa never arrived. It’s Day 5 in Iran for the Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation I didn’t join, and I read their reports dutifully but unenthusiastically. It’s the next best thing to being there, but to someone who planned to be there it’s a poor second.

Here at home, I wonder about all the things that I’ll now not see and do. We were to visit the holy city of Qom, home to Iran’s largest seminary, Isfahan, a city famous for its beauty. My knowledge of these places is vague enough that I’ve only a hazy understanding of what I’m missing. Since I first started planning to visit Iran, I’ve learned the traffic in Tehran is terrible -- worse, much worse than in Los Angeles. I won’t regret missing that, or the pollution there.

I’m conscious that there’s a thousand things now I’ll never learn. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, some of them are things I know I don’t know. Even more fall into the category he memorably described as “unknown unknowns -- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Partly because it was an issue I’d already had to give some attention to, even now I’m preoccupied with how women dress in Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran demands women wear headscarves and modest clothing. For my visa application, I’d had my photo taken. My head swathed in a long scarf so that not a single strand of hair showed, I was not a pretty picture.

I and the other women travelers were to wear long-sleeved shirts, tops that would cover the clavicle, and to take care that our leg or ankle didn’t show. All the women were to buy a long coat when we arrived that would cover possible sartorial gaffes.

The restrictions strike me as a nuisance, but most things in life have their advantages and disadvantages. The drawbacks of wearing a scarf, socks and long-sleeved clothing in the summer are obvious to me. But the advantages? I could skip packing a blow dryer and hair styling products. What else would I discover as I walked around in Iran’s version of Islamic dress? To shuck off concern with fashion and appearance could be liberating. Would I resent the greater anonymity that came with a coat and scarf or enjoy it? Or both, depending on the circumstances?

I’m disappointed I won’t find out.

* * *

Report One from the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s trip to Iran records that FOR’s first meeting in Iran was at the Department of Human Rights at Shahid Beheshti University. Ten to 12 Iranian faculty members were present, about equally divided between men and women. A lively discussion followed between the Americans and Iranians. The report said that “by reason of cultural background, it was also apparent that the two groups – the Iranians and their American visitors – would put different emphasis on various human rights issues, such as the death penalty vs. health insurance.”

On that same day, the FOR delegation went to a rehabilitation center run by the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims’ Support. Over 90,000 Iranians died during the war between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988. Many more sustained crippling injuries. The victims’ stories were heart-rending: a young man who was exposed to chemical weapons when he was 21 and must use oxygen constantly in order to survive; a 19-year-old Kurdish girl who was six months old when a chemical attack took place. She lost her mother and sister in the attack in addition to 70 percent of her lung capacity. Now she’s losing sight in one eye.

In his memoir of Iran titled In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Christopher de Bellaigue examines the long war between Iran and Iraq and its aftermath. He mentions most Iranian soldiers who served during the war were gassed. On a trip to Isfahan, a doctor tells him there are about 8,000 gas poison survivors in the city. Those who’d been gassed most severely died immediately. Now 14 years later when de Bellaigue writes, the 8,000 survivors are beginning to die too.

At the time the world turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, though Western European companies had provided Saddam Hussein’s government the technology it used. In 1984, an investigation ordered by the U.N. secretary-general found Iraq to be in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol forbidding the use of poison gas in war, but nothing happened. The West wanted Iraq to win. Much of the Arab world did as well.

What comes across clearly in De Bellaigue’s interesting, sometimes incoherent book are the vicissitudes of war. It was just a year after Iran’s Islamic revolution that Iraq invaded Iran. Saddam Hussein struck because he thought the time was ripe. Iran would be weak and divided; the Arabs in Iran, a minority population, would rise up and greet Hussein’s force as liberators. (Where else have we heard this?)

It turned out to be wishful thinking.

Iran made plenty of its own mistakes. By 1982, the Iranians had expelled the Iraqis from Iranian soil. But then the Iranians decided to invade Iraq, believing that Saddam’s war machine couldn’t be left intact.

Isolated by the world’s chief arms-selling countries, Iran couldn’t get weapons. Its leaders prosecuted the war ineptly and squandered the lives of thousands of its soldiers. The war turned into a long and costly stalemate.

Today, many Iranians are dissatisfied with their government. After a quarter-century, clerical rule is unpopular. The Iranian youth are said to be more pro-American than any population in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the belligerent talk between the United States and Iran continues.

* * *

Random tidbits of information I learned while waiting for my visa:

To wear a Western tie in Iran is a grave insult, one of the greatest offences someone can commit.

There’s a small Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian population in Iran, with representatives of all three faiths holding seats in the Parliament;

Many of those involved in the American hostage-taking in 1979 have become pro-American dissidents and among the greatest critics of their government.

The Web site of the president of Iran is www.president.ir and it can be read in several languages, including English. There you can scroll the full text of the president’s recent 18-page letter to President Bush, peruse the catalogue of state gifts given to Iran and e-mail the president of Iran your thoughts.

The FOR delegation reports that Iranian food is delicious and Iranians say “bah, bah, bah” with a roll of the head when food is especially good.

Maybe if we knew more about each other, we’d be less quick to demonize the other. Maybe we’d protest more when our leaders resort to simplistic formulations that suit their purposes but disguise the complexity of situations. As we’re finding out in Iraq, war is not a quick fix. Bellicosity is not a satisfactory substitute for talking to the enemy. If we talk to the enemy, visit their country, eat their food, read their poets and their history and wear their scarves, maybe we can begin to see them as something other than just an adversary to be opposed.

Margot Patterson is NCR's opinion editor. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@ncronline.org.
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