Sign Up

An American Woman in Iran: The Culture

How does the average Iranian view the U.S. people compared to the Iranian government?

September 23, 2005

How does the average Iranian view the U.S. people compared to the Iranian government?

After the close of the United Nations Environmental Programme conference, several other participants and I piled into a taxi to go to the southern part of the city.

The taxi sped in and out of the harrowing traffic, passing ornate gates partially hiding manicured gardens on one block and rundown houses on the next, a strip of shops bursting with bicycles, an old railroad station, public parks with flowers and fountains and many a tall building adorned with murals of the country's supreme religious leaders.

From the diverse storefronts, I got the impression that one can easily buy almost anything in Tehran, except perhaps, alcohol.

One shop even showcased glamorous sleeveless Western-style white wedding dresses, though it wasn't clear where one would be able to wear such a revealing ensemble.

Our final destination was a traditional Iranian restaurant. We were ushered in to the beautifully appointed dining room replete with hanging plants, paintings, musical instruments and platters piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables.

We removed our shoes and sat cross-legged on a raised seated area covered with an elegant Persian carpet. One of the servers brought tea, dates, and almond cookies and offered around a yogurt-based drink called doogh, an Iranian favorite.

I graciously tried the salty yeasty concoction, but found its taste to be one that neither I nor most of the other Westerners had acquired.

While we waited for our main course, a band played traditional folk music. Drawn into the energy of the lively tunes, one of the patrons up front bobbed up and down to the beat until a member of the restaurant staff came up behind him and rested his hands on the gentleman's shoulders, an apologetic expression on his face.

Not a word was exchanged, but the message was clear. One of my dinner partners, an American who had been living in Tehran for half a year, also caught the interaction and explained that the owner most likely did not mind dancing himself, but that having patrons dance could bring trouble to his establishment.

He thought that forbidding Iranians to dance was tantamount to stopping them from breathing. Apparently, private parties now served as the outlet for those without the constitution to stay still.

My visit the next day to the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's summer residence, now a museum complex, reminded me of a time when dancing was more in political favor.

Inside his White and Green Palaces were finely carpeted rooms and mirrored halls. Outside the White Palace, however, two giant bronze boots were all that remained of an immense statue of the Shah himself that was severed after the revolution.

The grounds around the palaces were immaculately kept, complete with narrow tree-lined drives and aquamarine peacocks. Replicas of dams, canals and water wells used for irrigation — very important for this partly arid country — were displayed outside the museum of water works.

The military museum showcased tools of war, ranging from a primitive wooden warship to a cannon inscribed in both Persian and Greek script to propeller planes and camouflaged tanks. Iranian soldiers patrolling the grounds with their machine guns made the experience all the more authentic.

It wasn't the last I would see of the soldiers. On my final day in Tehran I paid a visit to the old U.S. Embassy, now affectionately called the U.S. Den of Espionage. This complex was the site of the CIA-engineered 1953 coup d'état that toppled the Mohammad Mossadegh government — and, for the 25 years following it, was the base of U.S. support for the last Shah.

Then starting in November of 1979, after the March election of Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader of the world's first Islamic Republic, the Embassy became the holding center for the 52 American hostages kept for 444 days. The building now houses the Sepah, hard-line revolutionary guards.

What they see on entering and leaving the complex, and what people passing by cannot possibly overlook, are the brightly colored murals painted on the high walls around the former U.S. Embassy.

Many Iranians seemed embarrassed by the paintings that displayed in no uncertain terms distaste for the United States.

There was a portrayal of the Statue of Liberty with a skull in place of her face, a gun painted with the red, white, and blue of the American flag and epithets wishing death to America in both English and Farsi.

The old U.S. seal that had once been proudly displayed at the gate was sanded down until practically illegible. Though I had been warned against taking photos in the area as it was one of the few places where visitors had had cameras confiscated, I didn't need film to record the sight to memory — a sight that contrasted so sharply with the gracious welcome I had received from all I met.

On my last evening in Tehran, I met with Mrs. Mallah, the founder of one of Iran's largest environmental non-governmental organizations, the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution (WSAEP).

At 85 years old, Mrs. Mallah is still leading tree-planting expeditions into the hills. She and her husband, Mr. Abolhassani, welcomed me into their lovely home on a winding narrow street away from the bustle of the major thoroughfares of northern Tehran.

I sipped tea and nibbled on pistachios and gaz, a nougaty treat from the city of Esfahan, while they displayed photos from WSAEP events. Mrs. Mallah humbly shared some of the successes of her organization's environmental education outreach to children, teens, and adults.

Mr. Abolhassani was less tentative about singing praises of his wife and her work. We talked of the environment, politics, literature, history, and gardening. By half past ten at night we were seated around the dining table laden with homemade soup, yogurt, meat, delicious thin flatbread, and a plate piled with radishes and fresh green herbs.

After more inspiring conversation, I thanked the wonderful couple for a lovely evening, tied on my headscarf and slipped on my shoes to head back to the hotel.

I caught two hours of sleep before I was to make my way by plane about 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Tehran, to the ancient city of Esfahan.

An American Woman in Iran: The Environment.