Opinion

Island Forum | Trip to Iran dispels stereotypes, opens understanding

I recently returned from a trip to Iran (or, as their government calls it, “The Islamic Republic of Iran”). I was traveling with an education tour sponsored by the United Nations Association of Seattle, which is dedicated to the encouragement of understandings between countries. There were 25 Americans from all over the United States on our trip. Lowell and Nancy Ericsson, of Mercer Island, and my friend, Anne Corley, were among the group.

Prior to leaving, I was somewhat apprehensive about the trip since we have been exposed to so much negative publicity about Iran and due to the hostile relations between Iran and the United States in recent years.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is notorious for making inflammatory remarks about the United States, Israel and other countries. I also considered that Iran would be a dangerous country; backward, belligerent, unwelcoming and anti-women’s rights.

Much to my surprise, I found my preconceived impressions were entirely wrong. When we arrived at the Tehran International Airport, we had no problems going through customs. In fact, we were not even fingerprinted, and our baggage was not screened. The official said, “Consider this a courtesy to you, our American visitors.”

The people in Tehran were genuinely friendly, warm in welcoming us and in talking to us. They were very interested in us, as there are few American travelers in Iran. Many said that they were glad that President Obama has sent kind messages to the Iranian people and wanted us to tell all our friends that they liked the American people and that they want peace.

We were there just before their presidential elections, and there was a great deal of excitement about this event. Many Iranians spoke enthusiastically for a change in leadership because they didn’t want to be isolated from the world as they have been in the past few years. Unfortunately, this change has not been the case, and the people are very upset over what they believe to have been a stolen election.

It seems a bit eerie to see the TV news accounts of the unrest and demonstrations in locations where we had been relaxing just a few weeks prior.

When we were in Iran, the people talked freely about their government, their grievances with the government, their family and most everything else. They usually wanted to have their pictures taken with us.

We had no problem with the authorities, with whom we had little contact. We were free to travel anywhere we wanted to go and had no government guide with us.

Even though the official Iranian language is Farsi (Persian), citizens are required to take English beginning in the third grade. Most of the younger adults speak at least passable English and many speak very good English. All of the road signs in Iran are in Farsi with English written underneath. Many of the store signs are in both Farsi and English.

While we were in Iran, we saw some of the grand old ruins and visited four cities. We were impressed with the beauty of the cities Esfahn and Shiraz, and the varied geography of the country.

The cities are very modern. In fact, the city of Tehran has a new communication tower that is more than twice as tall as the Space Needle. It has a 12-story office complex near the top with a revolving restaurant. The country manufactures most of its domestic needs, including cars.

All in all, our visit to Iran was an eye-opening and fascinating experience.

As I was departing at the airport, the Iranian customs official stamped my passport and asked me if I liked Iran. When I said it was a good experience, he said, “I’m glad that you liked it and come again.” This from a government official. Surprising.

Dr. Robert Lewis is a practicing dentist and Island resident.

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