Mel Karman / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-02-25 22:59:45
A Place Where People Still Love Americans
Amid the Rhetoric, US Visitor to Iran Finds Warm People
TEHERAN (February 25, 2007) — My guide Hassan urges his Peykan sedan onto Shahid Sarafraz Street in the usual chaos of downtown Tehran traffic when an Iranian soldier suddenly vaults in front of the car, brandishing a machine gun and spitting venom. I have just grabbed a shot of the Canadian Embassy with my camcorder and would love to immortalize his outburst on video, but in a rare moment of common sense, I think better of it.
At most 30 years old, this stalwart Revolutionary Guard’s black eyes blaze with contempt and his block square jaw shoots up unsettling images of Arnold Schwarzenegger gone berserk in “Terminator.” He is tall, angularly muscular, with a smoldering intensity that explodes out of its hearth with screams of “Bezan kenar! Bezan kenar!!” Pull the car over!!
My guide, no shrinking violet himself, fires back a furious barrage in Farsi, and the more heated their exchange grows, the more prominently the soldier proffers the machine gun. Then my heart skips a pump as he slips two fingers around the trigger. Am I dreaming? The damn trigger!
Hassan fumes. At the moment, he resembles a commuter who dashed up to the platform seconds after the 7:05 pulled out. His wry observation a day earlier that “two guys speaking Farsi sound like a pair of dogs beginning to fight” could not have been more apt. “He claims it’s a serious crime to take pictures of the embassy,” Hassan cries, scoffing. “I told him there are no signs to forbid pictures. How are we supposed to know you can’t film here?”
Before I left for Iran from San Francisco last year, one longtime acquaintance attributed my decision to spend part of the Islamic holy month of Moharram in Iran to my “latest insanity.” A former MP and now a professor of criminology at a college in Pennsylvania, he tells me, “The only way I’d go to Iran is with the 82nd Airborne.”
God help us. Many of those people he would bomb into oblivion look, talk and think just like his neighbors in Scranton. They are educated. They are politically aware. They commute to work. They have kids at school. In the privacy of their homes, they throw off the hijabs and chadors and dress in jeans and sweatshirts. They work in the yard. They enjoy sex. And, most surprising of all, they love America.
Having visited Behesht-e Zahra, a gargantuan cemetery outside Tehran where nearly 1 million Iranian youths — some as tender as 14 — are buried, killed in the Iran-Iraq War by weapons supplied to Saddam Hussein by the United States, I’m not sure I understand the warmth. When I ask Hassan about this affinity for America, he says, “Most of us can differentiate between the people of your country and your government.”
Oh. If only we could do the same. Sure, the religious right has a chokehold on its people and dictates the morals, the thinking, the dress code, the courts and politics there — the same thing the religious right tries to do here.
During my first week in the south of Iran, suspicious of strangers glimpsing my camcorder, I turn on one who has followed me into the bazaar and snap, “I have no money for you!”
“No, no,” he protests gently. “Practice my English.”
I am completely disarmed by this hunger for human connection and contact with the western world. At the ancient water mill in Shushtar, I even experience what it’s like to be a rock star when dozens of shrieking teenage girls, their faces framed in black burqas, mob me for a glimpse of their first American.
In Yazd, a filmmaker and two colleagues offer me cream puffs in the street while excitedly pumping me with questions. “What is it like in America?” “What do you think about George Bush?” “How do Americans feel about Iran?” “Will the US Army try to invade here?” “Is it really possible to say what you want about people in government?”
While few publications in Iran will dare criticize the regime, some individuals have boldly begun to voice their opinions. Awaiting a flight to Shiraz at the airport in Bandar Abbas, a middle-age traveler seated next to me begins to rail about the country’s rulers. “I can’t take this anymore,” he says in English, as if we were old friends and had been engrossed in the topic for an hour. “We have mullahs running the country who know nothing about how to do it. They know only about making laws to say what you cannot do.”
I am taken aback by his candor. If he has misjudged and I am a basij, a civilian goon squad operative, he could be on his way to a very different destination. Like many of his countrymen who risk talking politics, he is frustrated. He says he has no future, little hope for change, and estimates that less than 20 percent of the population subscribes to the hard-line, conservative, Islamic theocracy. But there are no collective voices being raised, either.
“Maybe one day, the young people will do something to change it,” he says, “but maybe not when I am here to see this.”
When I tell him there are millions in the United States who share his outrage for the government, he grins, knowing he has a forum for his views.
“George Bush does not understand the Iranian mind,” he says. “Respect is very important to (an) Iranian. … You cannot threaten Iran, you cannot expect this government of mullahs to cooperate by pressure. They will never give in to any kind of pressure because that is an embarrassment. If (he) puts pressure on Iran to stop (its) nuclear plan, that is how to guarantee (the plan) will continue.”
My mind drifts to other things I have filmed, most notably a group of Bakhtiari nomads. Dressed in colorful rags, these handsome, weather-ravaged men and women appear to have been transported from a hearty 18th century stock and plunked down 300 years later to perpetually cycle through the landscape of desert, hills and mountains via camel, horse and donkey. I am stunned by the simplicity of their lives and how they welcome this curiosity-seeker with tea in their tents and a bed for the night. Through my guide, I wonder aloud if they are as content as they seem and Ali, the nomad chief, replies, “I have three wives.”
I laugh. “That means you are either quite happy — or quite miserable.”
He assures me it is the former and invites me to return a year from now, when they will migrate again to these same hills, to meet his fourth wife. Then, somewhat shyly, he asks where I am from. When I reply, “San Francisco,” his brown, sun-wrinkled face looks bewildered for the first time.
“It’s in the United States,” I volunteer.
“Where is that?” Ali wants to know, and he is not putting me on.
“A long way off.”
“Sixteen or 18 hours away by plane,” I reply.
By plane? He puzzles, deep in thought. “But how far,” he asks, “by camel?”
Apparently the Tehran police have taken the call from the Revolutionary Guard quite seriously and have phoned the Canadian Embassy to alert them to the “two terrorist suspects” apprehended in front of the building. Embassy workers come flooding onto the sidewalk for a glimpse of the plotters. They mill about, a beehive buzz in the air, until one rotund 40ish diplomat boldly ventures up to the car and looks in.
“You speak English?” he asks.
“Where are you from?”
Very much in the mood to cooperate and hoping to enlist his help, I reply, “California. Can you do anything to short-circuit this mess?”
“You’re American?” he asks, sounding astounded.
Then he looks at me somewhat dubiously. “You have an American passport?”
“Well of course!” I say. What kind of passport would an American have?
“Yeah, OK — where else do you have passports from?”
“Nowhere. For God’s sake, I don’t collect them.”
The man seems struck by my response and draws himself up. “Well,” he says almost cheerily, “Good luck!” and walks off.
Hassan and I are growing increasingly restless. We joke that we have been in the car long enough for a regime change. But the soldier has yet to find another career, much less take his eyes off us.
Two days earlier, during Ashura, the culmination of the martyrdom holiday when Iranians offer anyone on the street free food, known as nazri, we stop at a corner where a powerfully built man, perhaps 50, with olive-brown flesh, fierce black eyes and a black mustache lords over five huge cauldrons of bubbling stew. His face is as round as the cooking drums and as steamy in its demeanor.
Hassan tells him I am American and the man snaps to attention, pumps my hand vigorously and crows, “At your service!” He tells me through my guide that I am his guest and, therefore, do not have to stand on the line curled around the block waiting for a meal. I will be first to be served. He struts up and down, full of self-importance, then rants about what a great country the United States is and suddenly pronounces, “But the Jews will destroy it.”
I look at him as if he’s just offered us a plate of worms. “Ask this jackass if he ever heard of the prophet Daniel,” I tell Hassan. My guide obliges and the man answers, “Of course — he is an important prophet in Islam.” Does he know the prophet Daniel was Jewish? As were numerous Islamic prophets — the prophet Jonah? Isaac? Joseph? Abraham? Moses? Even Jesus? Does he know Esther and Mordecai are buried with honors in Hamadan? Does he know Esfahan was founded by King Yazdgerd’s Jewish Queen Shushan Dukht?
The man looks stunned, as if I’ve just whacked him in the stomach with a two-by-four. There is a dead silence while he digests this, while his brain sputters, while it struggles to kick in on all cylinders like an engine trying to run on urine, until suddenly his arm is waving feverishly through the air, swatting away an invisible flurry of gnats. “But that was too many years ago,” he says, dismissing it. “It doesn’t count.”
When the police finally arrive at the Canadian Embassy, although I don’t know what to expect, I am relieved to be out of the sites of Machine Gun Kelly. Hassan tries to explain to them what happened, but nobody’s listening.
We are hauled into headquarters and interrogated for a full hour by a police captain, then dragged around to four substations. But in the morning, everything changes, most of all the xenophobia — I am ordered to erase the footage of the embassy and sign a statement, at which time my passport is returned. We’re free to go.
After Hassan drops me at my hotel and I get to my door, I find someone from maid service has left a bath faucet on and the entire room is 2 inches deep in water. Absolutely true, but that’s another story.
Mal Karman, the author of the political thriller “The Foxbat Spiral,” is a former copy editor at The Chronicle. Contact us at email@example.com.