Sketches of Iran

With a stroke of his pen, the President of the United States slammed the door on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations seeking to come to the United States. In addition to dashing the dreams of many who hoped to find a new home in the United States, the order has resulted in people who have already built lives in the United States as legal immigrants and permanent residents unable to return to their homes.

Equally as troubling as this awful executive order was that so many politicians and ordinary people responded with either tacit acquiescence or enthusiastic approval. Something dangerous has captured the minds of many Americans. It is the ascent of fear over empathy and imagination; which is to say, it is a victory for that powerful strain in our society that doesn’t have the slightest desire to learn about the lives of people who are different from us, and looks inward for comfort rather than outward for inspiration.

We could perhaps have some understanding of the order if it weren’t so idiotic purely on its policy merits. It won’t make our country safer at all, at the cost of shattering lives and punishing law abiding people who would be great contributors to our society. I was particularly bewildered by the inclusion of Iran on the list of affected countries. Iranian Americans are, of course, one of America’s most successful immigrant groups. Already, we have heard many stories of Iranian scientists turned away from entering America, told that they and their potential discoveries were no longer wanted in the United States. Their majority religion of Shia Islam is one of the main targets of the Islamic State, but listening to the voices of fear in this country, you could be led to believe that ISIS and the Iranian government are the same exact thing. And while Iranian society has its problems, it is much more stable than the image of an out of control war zone painted by Donald Trump’s all too wide brush.

Of course, I find it absolutely shameful that the United States reneged on its promise to offer shelter to people from countries devastated by conflict, whose lives have intrinsic worth as human beings, even if they don’t end up working as scientists or doctors, and I don’t intend to argue that this executive order is wrong solely because it happens to include a relatively stable country that tends to send us educated immigrants. But the fact that Iran was on the list of countries affected by this ban is a very clear sign to me that this policy was not one founded on any sincere (if misguided) security concerns, but is rather a cynical ploy solely designed to incite fear and hatred of Muslims. Iran is a country I visited in the spring of 2010, and I found it to be a country of bizarre contrasts. I saw both very objectionable things and things that turned my expectations upside down. However, my overwhelming impression was that Iran was a surprisingly nice place bearing little to no resemblance to its scary sounding public image in the US. While I don’t claim to understand a country I do not come from, and whose language I do not speak, I got the feeling that Iran is one of the places where American imagination and curiosity has massively failed, with dire consequences. In light of current events, I feel compelled to share random bits of my memories from my time in Iran — it feels like the only power I retain as an individual these days is to share stories with people for whom curiosity and imagination still exist.


I entered Iran via a grueling 24-hour bus ride from Yerevan, Armenia (which is a whole different story, for another time). The bus was packed full of Iranian holiday makers, who were welcome to enter Armenia with their generally globally reviled passports to partake in the drinking and partying denied to them in their own country.

I was very conspicuous as the only non-Iranian person on the bus. Speaking of the power of curiosity, I found Iranians to be nothing if not curious. Almost every Iranian person I met would start interrogating me on life in Japan or the USA (before, perhaps, launching into an impromptu recitation of Hafez’s poetry). It was a little too much for an introverted person such as myself, and towards the end of my time in Iran I tried to halt this endless stream of excited interviews by covering my face with a hoodie while in public (to no avail). During this long bus ride, an Iranian family had great fun “adopting” me and giving me an Iranian name (Mahmoud). They seemed to be educated and relatively well heeled, and they all spoke English unusually well.

Though all the women on the bus were obliged to hijab-up once we crossed the Iranian border, that did not stop these fun loving partiers from continuing to have a good time. Someone dug out a CD from their bag and gave it to the bus driver to put on the stereo system, and as Iranian pop music started to blare from the speakers, many people stood up to stretch their legs by dancing, and soon the whole bus transformed itself into a dance party as we tore through the grassy hills of the Iranian north-west. During a particularly sharp turn, a bag belonging to the man sitting across the aisle from me turned over, and what came tumbling out was a bottle of smuggled Ararat brandy (an Armenian specialty, illegal in Iran). The man stuffed the bottle back into his bag with a laugh, and no one around us took a second glance. This ridiculous bus ride was my first welcome to Iran.

Though I was worried about what would happen to the brandy smuggler, it seemed to me that alcohol was quite obtainable in Iran, at least for those who knew where to look. At a hostel somewhere, I had found a memoir by a German businessman who had lived in Tehran for a few years, who claimed he was obliged to drink more alcohol in Iran than he was in Germany.

One night, the owner of the hotel I was staying at was chatting with me and some Canadians. Suddenly he asked, “do you guys want some homemade vodka?” He then sketchily reached behind a refrigerator and took out a dinged up plastic soda bottle filled with a clear liquid. He had apparently bought the vodka from some Armenians. Iran’s alcohol ban only applies to Muslims, so Armenians are legally allowed to make and drink alcohol, being a Christian ethnic minority. I took a sip, although in retrospect this sounds like a great way to get methanol poisoning and end up blind. The “vodka” tasted like a mix of 80% water and 20% of the cheapest collegiate plastic bottle vodka.

Given the Iranian regime’s hostile attitude towards Israel, I was surprised to come across the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in the Iranian city of Hamadan. Apparently, it is an important Jewish pilgrimage site. The Jewish caretaker there showed me around. He told me he was a collector of pens from around the world, and he asked me to contribute to his collection. I did have one shitty ballpoint pen in my bag, so I gave it to him, and he was very pleased. Unfortunately for his collection, that pen came from a totally ordinary Iranian shop that I had visited a few days ago. It was given to me by the shopkeeper in exchange for posing for a picture with him. I posed in countless photos with strangers in Iran, where I got my first (and perhaps last) taste of what it is like to be a superstar.

I asked the caretaker of the Tomb if he had any troubles living in Iran, being a Jewish person.

“No, none at all,” he told me. “Everything is fine.” I thought I heard a twinge of tension in his voice as he said that, and admittedly, the question itself was probably unfair. It’s never easy to be different, but I asked for and he gave a simple answer to what I’m sure is a complex issue. But I do hope that he was fine then, and continues to be fine now.

A note on the above: in America, you can more or less take people’s statements at face value, but I found this not to be the case in Iran. For instance, there is a very interesting Iranian social tradition called taarof. As I understand it, under taarof, it is very embarrassing to be seen as ungenerous or selfish, so you must do everything to avoid this even if this involves lying. At the same time, it is considered boorish to accept peoples’ largess if it is induced by taarof, which would mean that it is insincere. So a person is obliged to offer others items, even if they do not actually wish to give them. The person being offered the item must assume that taarof is at play and refuse to accept repeatedly (I have read three or four times, as a general guideline), and after a certain number of refusals, if the other person continues to offer, then the offer can be taken as genuine, and the offer can be accepted.

When I visited a police station to extend my Iranian visa, the clerk who was helping me was drinking tea. She offered me some tea too. I looked around on her desk. There were no other cups on her desk. There was clearly no way for me to drink the tea she was offering me without taking the tea that she was already drinking away from her. I declined the offer, though I did in fact want some tea, and at that point we could proceed with our business. Another time, I went to go see a movie at a theater, and the person sitting next to me was eating potato chips, and offered me some. I was very hungry, so I took some chips without refusing the offer first, and the person understandably looked very shocked. After all, I had just reached into his bag of potato chips and started eating them; who would do such a thing?

Taarof was difficult to navigate because, in actuality, there were many Iranians who showed me extreme and genuine generosity and hospitality. Once, while I was walking through a park, a group of old-ish men stopped me and told me to sit down with them. They offered me tea, which I repeatedly refused, but they were very persistent, and they did in fact have an extra cup lying around. They were a car repairman, a policeman, someone who was quite good at English (the others didn’t speak English), and a person who only had one foot. He had lost his other foot fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. At some point during our tea party, it was decided that I would be a guest at the house of Manoucher, the car repairman, and before I knew it and without having much input into the matter I found myself carted off into one of their cars, speeding down a bewildering series of alleyways, wondering what in the world was happening to me.

Manoucher’s house was modest, but he was generous with his space. As soon as I got to the house, a dizzying array of people of all ages and genders started appearing from what I can only assume were various preternatural portals located throughout the house. I was extremely disoriented the entire time I was there. Once enough people gathered out of nowhere, a dinner party began.

Manoucher’s son was just a couple years younger than me, and although his English was halting, he tried very hard to communicate with me about all sorts of things using a dictionary on his cell phone, which I appreciated very much.

After our dinner was done, Manoucher insisted that I spend the night. This was a little too much for me, and eventually, after much discussion, he agreed to drop me off at the hotel I was staying at, driving me in his Kia Pride, his pride and joy. After some long goodbyes, we parted ways. I still remember that evening as if it were a dream — mysterious and unbelievable, and yet I know for a fact that these things happened. And now, a question on fear and suspicion: would you, sitting in a park having tea with your friends and suddenly spotting a dirty traveler from a distant country who you know nothing about and doesn’t speak your language, invite him to sit with you, take him to your house, feed him dinner, insist that he spend the night? I want to say loud and clear that Manoucher the Iranian car repairman did precisely that. I think I would be too frightened to do the same, and I assume the same is true of most people I know.

In case it wasn’t clear already, I felt very safe in Iran, perhaps safer than I feel in the streets of Minneapolis. I took naps in the park, and walked all over without problem, although I should add the disclaimer that I suspect things would have been very different had I been a woman and not a man. In any case, the Iran I saw wasn’t a conflict torn hell. Instead, it was on the surface a peaceful and civil society, although there were simmering tensions and discontents lurking in the background.

Walking down the streets of Tehran, you could see the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s face sternly glaring at you from a mural, while women covered head to toe in black chadors scurried past. Just a few streets over, I could see that almost every apartment had an illegal satellite TV dish hanging on the balcony, no doubt more than a few of them tuning into Baywatch, Iran’s most popular TV show. A faux-Apple Store was thronged by fast food restaurants shamelessly ripping off American intellectual property, inside of which fashionable young women were hanging out with friends, with colorful cloths just barely covering the backside of their heads to appease the letter if not the spirit of the law.

I met many people who were not afraid to voice their frustration with a government engaged in a constant struggle to claw their society back into the past. One elderly Iranian I met used to live in America, and showed me his wristwatch, which he bought near Harvard Square many decades ago. He was on his way to the US Embassy in Ankara, to try to make it back to the US, somehow. A university student lamented how his friend worked hard to secure a spot to study at an American University, but all of those plans were ruined when his Iranian university made some arbitrary change in policy. He told me in Iran, there were no laws.

America is undoubtedly a better place, where we can have more trust in our government and its institutions, but recently, that trust has been shaken to the core. A visa, or a green card, is a document promising to let an individual into the United States. But with a stroke of his pen, the President can make legal documents suddenly invalid. Even stamped with the approval of the US government, a nation of laws, words may not mean what they say anymore. Are you feeling safe now?

I was exposed to a bewildering array of viewpoints during my time in Iran. There really are people in Iran chanting “Death to America.” Although I didn’t meet any of those people myself, they made their existence known through anti-American propaganda painted on murals. Many people I met were conservative, religious, and voiced what seemed like valid criticisms of US foreign policy, using reasonable language that would feel right at home on America’s college campuses. Many urban Iranians seemed to be cosmopolitan and secular, and were enamored with American culture, and spoke admiringly of the US. I also did meet one person who seriously told me he wished for President Barack Obama to bomb his country, so that his people could finally be free. Not a single person made me feel unwelcome for being a US resident. I mostly remember the Iranians I met for their gregariousness, their love of poetry, their obsession with civility, and their insatiable curiosity.

A few years after my trip, I gave up my Japanese passport to become a US citizen. I had hoped to return to Iran someday, but it looks all but impossible now, at least in the near future. But at least I can always remember: that when I was on the train that would take me out of Iran onward to Turkey, having just put the city of Tabriz behind us, I looked out the window, and I saw the afternoon sun setting fire to endless hills of golden grass, and I thought it was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen, and I felt like if I looked hard enough, my body, and the train, and the tracks would start floating into space, and dissolve into nothingness under the gleaming sun.