I pull my 22-month-old son along in the hand-made red, wooden wagon my husband built last Christmas. We enjoy our familiar “wagon rides” to our local Walgreens. The cashier with wildly adorned, seasonally inspired hats greets us with a smile. I pull my son through the aisles picking up his favorite Pirate Booty “puffs” and a few odds and ends.
As we move through the checkout line, I catch the headline news. For the first time in over 30 years, the president of the United States and the president of Iran communicate via phone. Hope for the eventual thawing of a cold political stalemate fills my heart. I look closely at the photo of President Obama on the phone. Instantly, I am transported to another time and place
“That will be $6.85,” the cashier says.
I focus my attention on the present moment and pay for our treasures. My little guy eats his puffs as we begin our walk home. All the while, Iran is on my mind.
Nearly ten years ago, I stood in the front yard of our New Jersey home reading a letter from my friend Karima Alavi.
I am organizing a trip to Iran for American educators.
You are personally invited to join us…
As my husband pulled up in our black Ford Ranger, I walked over to him. “Honey, read this,” I said. He took a few minutes to peruse the invitation and then looked up at me.
“Let’s go,” he said with a smile.
Ever the adventurer, I knew he would be up for the experience. With some trepidation and a great deal of interest, I began to prepare for the journey. Telling family and friends added an interesting dimension to the task.
“You can’t take your wife to Iran,” my father-in-law remarked. “You’ll get your heads cut off!”
My husband did his best to explain the key differences between Iran and news headlines coming from Iraq. Finally, at the end of the conversation he simply stated, “You don’t understand, Dad. She’s taking me.”
At the time, I taught courses at The Lawrenceville School on Islam and The Middle East. I was particularly interested in gaining more insight into Shia Islam and Persian devotional poetry. I read multiple books and memorized a self-made chart outlining watershed moments in Iranian history. I met with an Iranian friend for beginning Farsi lessons. My husband and I watched every Iranian movie we could find.
In the summer of 2004, during the final year of President Khatami’s second term in office, we joined a small group of American educators and journeyed to Iran. The photos taken, friendships forged, and paradigm-shifting conversations that unfolded stay with us. Whenever I read up on current events relating to Iranian politics, I remember our Iranian friends—people we remain in contact with to this day.
As I pull the red wagon home, the faces of these friends, the memories of walking through the streets of Isfahan, and the smell of fesenjan-- with its fantastic pomegranate and walnut sauce-- fill my consciousness.
I remember joining families at the Zayendeh River. As they relaxed at the end of a workday, I waded in the refreshing water. I remember finding a copy of the Qur’an in each hotel room and feeling ever grateful for the renowned Persian hospitality we consistently encountered. The sublime beauty of ancient mosques still moves my soul.
As we turn the corner home, I reflect upon the brutality of unpopular regimes and the courageous youth that challenge them. My son watches me. Unable to decipher the meaning of the newspaper article that sent his mother into a quiet reverie, he eats his Pirate Booty puffs silently.
“Truck!!!” he suddenly exclaims.
A large FedEx vehicle drives by. I turn to look at my little boy. I love his fantastic smile. His joy brings me back to American soil and the remarkable task that engages me as his mother. I watch him soak in the world with wonder. I vow to build upon and nurture his love for exploration and learning.
According to philosopher Ken Wilber, there are “deep structures” and “surface structures” to human existence. The deep structures are shared universally. We all need healthy food to eat and clean air to breathe. In every time and place, the human mind creates symbols of meaning to make sense of our world. Children everywhere need love. On the other hand, surface structures vary and transform. While the need for food is universal, the delectable differences between cuisines delight. Clothing styles and political structures change with times. There’s nothing like traveling to reflect on the beauty and diversity of the human experience.
May my son celebrate the deep structures that unite the human family as well as the surface expression that provides contrast and color. I look forward to the day when I can share photos and stories of our journey to Iran. Even more, I look forward to a future where he can share his travel stories and photos with me.
The astounding and awe-inspiring beauty of Iranian mosques never failed to bring our group to a hushed silence. My husband took this photo-- of a mosque in Isfahan-- as the light poured in.
A group of schoolgirls surrounded us as we toured an ancient palace in Isfahan. I stepped back to take a photo as my husband engaged in thoughtful conversation.
We were the first Americans most of them had ever met. The teacher introduced us by stating, “We may not like the American government, but we know there are many good American people.”
Looking at this photo now, I remember the words of then President Mohammad Khatami “Should the spirit of dialogue prevail, humanity, culture and civilization should prevail.”
Centuries ago Saint Augustine wrote, “The world is like a book and those that never travel only read one page.”
Every home in this world constitutes another page in the book of humanity. As we traveled in Iran, we walked through many doorways and were warmly welcomed by Iranians who courageously shared stories, hopes, fears, and dreams.
We searched high and low for a backpack or T-shirt with phrases in Farsi. Yet, the popularity of English dominated the market. At times, we had to laugh out loud at the creative use of the English language. “Queer Baby Good.” What does that mean? We should have purchased the backpack. Instead, we took this photo.
The current government structure in Iran is widely unpopular. Serious economic challenges make life for most Iranians a struggle. The streets of Tehran have witnessed profound political change and upheaval. My husband took this photo on our flight from Isfahan to Tehran.
Iran’s sprawling capital city of nearly 8 million inspired many conversations due to its complexity, life-threatening traffic, and stark juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. To understand modern life in Iran more clearly, I drew upon the work of Iranian-American author Afshin Molavi. His book “The Soul of Iran: A Nation’s Struggle for Freedom” is simply fantastic.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that ended a detested US-backed dictatorship, hardline Islamists took hold of the political stage. Once banned under the Shah, the wearing of headscarves for women in pubic spaces was suddenly mandatory.
The creative use of female beauty in contemporary Iranian advertisements struck me. While this drawing doesn’t depict the woman’s hair, the woman’s beauty is still used sell a car.
Through the window of a shoe store, this young girl and I watched each other. Eventually, I was able to get her to smile. Yet, it is this photo that stays with me. Where is she now? How will her future unfold?
While my husband and I make sacrifices to ensure the healthy development of our son, this young girl’s wellbeing and happiness also concern us. The fate of all of the world’s children are inextricably linked.