After many hours of being in planes and waiting for planes, we finally touched down in Tehran around 1:30 this morning. Amongst the announcements about tray tables and electronic devices was a reminder from the Iranian government that all women must cover their hair before leaving the aircraft, as the law requires women to wear follow Islamic dress code. It took another hour and half to leave the airport because the small group of us who were from the United States had to be taken to another area to be fingerprinted. Back in 2004, the United States decided that foreign citizens entering the US must go through this tedious ritual, so the Iranian government decided to reciprocate.
Things were quiet in the early morning hours on the outskirts of Tehran, but Leila (our guide from Fellowship of Reconciliation, who grew up in Iran), got involved in a lively discussion about politics and the upcoming election with the taxi driver, with Leila occasionally paraphrasing bits of the conversation for David and me in the back of the cab. She said the driver appreciates the work that we are doing for peace with Iran, because he opposes the current regime, but he would pick up a gun to defend Iran if the United States ever attacked. Leila explained that Iranians refer to their country as a “mother,” with the requisite mandate to defend her from violence. This is a point we have brought up many times when misguided politicians and pundits think that the US can turn the Iranian people against their government through harsh action. As an Iranian friend pointed out later in the day, Iranians are highly suspicious of foreign interference and any whiff of regime change after the US overthrew their democratically elected government in 1953. They are nationalists who are likely to put their country first whether they agree with their government (as are many people in the US).
The first order of business today was shopping for manteaus. Most women prefer to wear hijab, combining a head scarf and a manteau (a long jacket/shirt) as opposed to the more conservative chador. Leila compared what we were seeing today with her years growing up in Iran. When she was a child, you could get arrested for wearing colors that were too light or showing too much hair. Today, women are wearing makeup and manteaus and scarves in every color you could imagine, and the styles are much more trendy and tight fitting than would have been allowed back then.
After visiting a few stores, I finally settled on a green manteau, and Leila went about haggling with the man at the shop about the price. It is customary to push for a bargain when you are shopping in Iran, and considered socially inept not to attempt to get a better deal, so I was happy to have a Farsi speaker to do my bargaining for me. They went back and forth for a while, and it was entertaining to pick up the flavor of the conversation even though I didn’t know what they were saying. They had more or less settled on a price when somehow it came up in conversation that I am American. He and his coworkers brought over a chair for me to sit in, and we called in David from outside and they brought us all tea and cookies. Once he knew I was from the US, he tried to refuse my money. There is a custom in Iran known as ta’arof, in which a person insists on refusing your money, and you go back and forth but it is a formality and people really do expect ultimately to get paid. Leila said in shops they don’t do this as much and might only refuse once, but this man was insistent. I eventually paid him the price they had discussed before and he generously gave me a bigger discount than he originally planned.
After our morning walk and shopping, we headed over to meet some friends of Leila’s for lunch at a traditional Persian restaurant to discuss some plans for our trip. What you have probably heard about traffic in Tehran is true—crossing the street is a daunting experience, with cars and motorcycles whizzing around people and some intersections lacking clear traffic signals. My strategy so far has been to try to jump in with some Iranians who are crossing, assuming they know how to do so without getting hit by a car.
At lunch, we talked some about the politics of relations between our two countries and the problems of both Iranians and Americans being demonized by the other’s government. When I asked whether they felt a major difference between the Obama administration and the Bush administration, I heard a sentiment that has come up before. They like the way he is talking now, like his Noruz message to the Iranian people. But the real test is in his actions, and they are waiting to see whether he can follow through on his plans. There is some concern that the problem is really systemic and not something that is overcome but putting one man in office. When asked whether I was optimistic about Obama, I said that I really want to be optimistic and I genuinely believe that he wants to pursue a better Iran agenda, but there are many obstacles and there are people in the way who don’t want to see that policy succeed. One woman at lunch, Shirin, said it was encouraging to see how people in the US had made social change in the past. Leila brought up our victory in stopping H. Con. Res. 362, the sanctions bill that essentially called for a naval blockade in Iran, as a sign that we can have significant influence on the Iran issue.
* The very slow internet connection in my hotel isn’t cooperating with my attempts to add some photos to this post, but I’ll try to get some to you all soon!