Beeman: Letter from Iran

This is the second in a series of letters written this week from Iran by University of Minnesota Professor William Beeman. Since Americans hear so little directly from that country in their media, I thought it was worth sharing, and Bill kindly agreed to let me do so.. — Juan .

Dear Friends…

Two other Americans showed up for our conference, entitled “The First International Conference on Human Rights and Cultures: Cultures in Support of Humanity.” It is being held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and heavy in attendance are the students from the Foreign Policy School run by the Ministry. Some . . . may find the subject of the conference “ironic,” but in fact the organizers, the Non Aligned Movement Center for Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, has assembled quite a large and stellar international group of scholars, NGO officers, Peace Movement functionaries and government officials for this.

The 64 presentations have been on a high level, and would meet a significant academic standard anywhere. Some titles:

“Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflicts”
“Constructing the Other”
“The Role of Cultural Diversity in Promoting a Culture of Peace”
“Establishing a Normative Framework for Evaluating Diverse Cases of Transitional Justice”

The graduate students in international relations are especially impressive. They all have impeccable English, are extremely charming, and are working on serious dissertation topics, such as: “Iran’s Developing Relations with Egypt 2000-2011,” “International Economics in non-petroleum sector in the Gulf Region,” “Iran’s prospects in West Africa” and many more. A group of them at dinner surprised me: “Do you speak Spanish?” Well I do, and so do they–quite impressively! They are all learning Spanish and plan trips to Latin America in the Near Future–even the young man posted as political officer in Sweden.

The young women graduate students have been formidable. Several are giving papers. They make up more than half of the student body. They ask great questions, don’t back down and have facts and figures at the fingertips. Forgive me for noticing sartorial details, but although they are dressed in impeccable hejab, every one of them has something that makes her dress stand out. It seems the fashion is now to turn the maqna’eh into a flattering accessory. There is the maqna’eh with a kind of rhinestone band at the forehead, one with little extensions in the front that can be wrapped in a clever loose bow, one with discreet embroidery around the edge. The women pair long skirts and jackets with front panels in white or pastel colors. They are in effect wearing the equivalent of the skirted suit. It is very smart and very professional while being distinctive.

I am sure there is a great deal of unhappiness in Tehran with the most ordinary meat at $22 a kilo and gasoline at $4 a liter, but this privileged crowd was a very happy bunch. It is always dangerous to conclude things from a few casual encounters, but I was surprised to have a cab driver tell me that gas was “still cheaper than Europe” and a shop-keeper tell me that red meat was too expensive, but there was always chicken, and vegetables were healthier anyway. “You don’t have to put a lot of meat into a khoresht.”

Several people asked me about the Wall Street movement. Their sophistication was notable. One young guy said, “it seems to me that they aren’t accomplishing much unless they can get some law passed.” Many could cite chapter and verse on the bank bailouts, the mortgage crisis and the unequal distribution of income (and taxes)–just proving what I always think coming home, and that is that Iranians know much more about America than Americans do about Iran.

In general everyone I talk to claims that their greatest concern is the economy. They are dismayed at the UK and EU cutting off dealings with the Central and other banks. “It doesn’t hurt the leaders in Tehran or the Guard,” said one, “It hurts ordinary people. We don’t understand why the Europeans and Americans want to do this to us.” So much for the fantasy that if life is made miserable enough, the people will rise up and overthrow their government.

And life is far from miserable, at least in North Tehran. Typical urban landscapes: A giant crystalline cineplex looks down on a huge shopping mall with every possible worldly good readily available. A six lane expressway winds through a gigantic landscaped urban park. The streets are jammed with young people strolling, sitting in cafes and just riding around in their cars.

The delegates to the conference are surprised–especially those who have never been here. “I thought Iran was some dark place with total police control,” said one man from India. “But it isn’t! I haven’t even seen a policeman.” A Vietnamese delegate said: “I thought I was going to be robbed, but my friends here tell me they are completely safe.” Clearly the negative press on Iran has done its job well.

Politics: One ministry official asks me point blank: “Is AIPAC really writing American laws?” Another says: “I guess we shouldn’t hope for closer relations with the U.S. now that the Republicans have Obama trapped.” A third: “Look at all the Chinese and Russians everywhere here. Do you think that is an accident?”

Informal poll: Many people think that Mr. Qalibaf has a good shot at the presidency in 2013. “He’s good looking, speaks well and he has succeeded in several administrative posts.” Some find Mr. Masha’ie intriguing but feel he has been damaged too much by bad press to be viable. People wink and hint at the idea of a revival of the Green Movement. It is clearly a dangerous topic, but it is still on peoples’ minds.

I certainly urge anyone with an interest to come to Iran. Despite ideological or political misgivings one might have, these discussions are vital and important. Without ideas and human contact nothing will ever change.

Best,

Bill Beeman
University of Minnesota

18 Responses

  1. You could have written the same thing about any number of countries, including the US. People think Americans are ill-educated, violent, and subject to crazy laws and a Christian crypto-theocracy, but if you came here and visitied say, Ann Arbor, South Bend, Davis, Cambridge, MA or any other number of college towns, you might have those preconceptions undermined. You might even find a few winks and nods about a third party president from a cab driver.

    But in the end, it doesn’t change the fact that lurking in the nearest exurb is a reactionary dominionist tea party member cheering the wars in Iraq and Afganiatan.

    Nor does what this guy wrote change the fact of Iran’s support for terrorists and their flouting of the IAEA.

    • The Iranian government is not flouting the International Atomic Energy Agency, but rather allows it to conduct inspections, unlike Israel.

      I suspect that the groups you think are terrorist and that Iran supports are seen differently in the Middle East, and some groups you support are viewed as terrorist in nature.

      • I think you’ve misread me as a kind of Likudnik. No. I think you come to this conclusion by reading the last sentence only.

        My point was similar to yours: someone from outside America bombarded by anti-American propaganda might have more of those illusions shattered in a college town at an academic conference than, say, by visiting an evangelical conference in Springfield, MO.

        The point isn’t that Israel and the US are good and Iran is bad. It’s that when you travel enough, letters like this become almost tautological. There are educated and interesting and informed people everywhere and that may or may not have anything to do with the quality of their government.

        Indeed, I bet a visit to Israel would result in the same kind of ruminations along the lines of how can so many quality people support thugs like Bibi and Lieberman.

      • asserting that Iran is not flouting the IAEA and hasn’t a history of flouting, is what’s known as being untruthful……

        link to iaea.org

        K. Summary
        52. While the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement, as Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation, including by not implementing its Additional Protocol, the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

        Maybe the IAEA is in better position to judge whether Iran is flouting than you are.

    • On the contrary, many Arabs, Persians and Indians go to universities in Europe and the United States. They watch our movies and televisions shows. They get Fox, CNN, John Stewart, David Letterman and Sean Hannity. Seen Al Jazeera much on MSM in the US?

      They pay attention to our politics, in large part because our policies affect them – a central point of Bill Beeman’s letter. Finally, most folks I meet and work with in the UAE and other countries I have visited in the MENA region distinguish between our culture and people and our government’s policies; a quality you might choose to emulate.

  2. It constantly amazes me how profoundly ignorant we (Americans) are about culture and life in most other countries, especially those in the Middle East, North Africa and southern Asia. I live in the UAE, ironically, which has a fractious relationship with Iran; but we have many Iranians living here. Teheran is considered a terrific place to visit; the skiing is very good, although the resorts are not quite as posh as the Alps and the Rockies.

    I just saw an amazing Iranian film, A Separation, and had a chance to meet the director, Asghar Farhadi, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The movie is reflective of the amazing, thriving film industries in Iran and many other regional countries.

    Please publish more from Iran.

  3. “Iranians know much more about America than Americans do about Iran.”

    I am often pretty sure that pretty much everyone knows more about everything than Americans know about anything.

  4. When I was in Iran last, a shoe salesman who was the son of a gardner explained to me in perfect (BBC) English how the GOP had used the gay marriage issue to fracture the Democratic vote. He had never set foot outside of Iran. I was flabbergasted.

  5. I have admired WIlliam Beeman’s writings on Iran but I am disappointed in his report from this conference. There was no effort to get behind the facade that all such meetings in repressive regimes attempt to construct.
    Was Beeman able to get outside the conference and see any reformers as I was able to do in 2003 when I visited Iran? On my initiative, I talked with Omid Memarian and his then-boss, Sohrab Razzaghi at their Civil Society organization. Subsequently, both have been forced to leave Iran. They were obviously doing something right.
    Or, as the first commentator asked, “Did you go south, down the hill?” Perhaps with one of those well-dressed North Terhani women he was so impressed with? Would she have passed muster with the morality police at Khomeini’s Tomb?
    I hope Prof. Beeman does not feel he has to play nice with the regime in order to be able to return to this interesting and important country.

    • It’s not binary. Beeman goes to Iran and has conversations and conferences with students and other guests and writes about how much folks know and understand about our country and politics. Meeting your standards for behaviour and truth telling in this article is not his goal…obviously.

  6. I saw a documentary about young Iranian women which showed both the presence of the morality police and humanity and intelligence of much of the populace. Watching non-propagandistic Iranian films, whether fiction or documentary, is a good way to open your eyes to the humanity of the people that some want to starve or bomb. Reading the poetry of Forugh Farrakhzad might make you scratch your head when you hear about a clash of cultures.

  7. The really sad thing about this letter is the choice of the writer to overlook the obvious major concerns of human rights.

    There is much discussion about the fashion merits of the hejab. The major omission is that women are *forced* to wear it in public. Of course, this is just indicative of the general status of women in Iran who, for example, cannot work or travel abroad without their husband’s approval.

    The letter focuses on the political discussion about the economy as well as about US issues. The major omission is that of course they cannot talk publicly about the critical issues of Iranian politics like the rule of Islam, or the legitimacy of the last elections. Free speech is forbidden in Iran.

    It is sad that many in the west have become so used to their basic human rights and so obsessed with the remaining small issues (e.g. Gay marriage), that they completely forget the order of magnitude differences between these issues and what the poor people of Iran (and many other dictatorships) have to endure. I wonder how many of the participants were Gay or Lesbian, but I am sure that non were openly so: in Iran this is routinely punishable by Flogging, and legally so by the death sentence too.

    Does the writer really not see that the conference topic “Human Rights and Cultures: Cultures in Support of Humanity” really *is* ironic and that the fact that the “Non Aligned Movement Center for Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, has assembled quite a large and stellar international group of scholars, NGO officers, Peace Movement functionaries and government officials for this” is even more ironic?

  8. Tim: Jon’s comment, (#2) summarizes my thoughts well. Beeman did not even try to get behind why these intelligent and aware “students” were talking like this. The Government controls access to these meetings very carefully, and he should be aware of this possibility.

    Robert: I’ve met many humane Iranians and keep up with them. There are also many corrupt operators there who will play on the legitimate resentments of poorer Iranians to provide the muscle to keep themselves in power. Read up on the Revolutionary Guard, eg.

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