College girls react to an American visitor in Isfahan, a cultural center and university town in Iran.
College girls react to an American visitor in Isfahan, a cultural center and university town in Iran.
Steve Knipp

A Different Face of Iran

Iranian schoolchildren skip across the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient ceremonial capital northeast of Shiraz.
Iranian schoolchildren skip across the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient ceremonial capital northeast of Shiraz. (Photos By Steven Knipp)
By Steven Knipp
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 3, 2006

As a journalist, I've spent considerable time over the years in places where America was not always popular. In the bad old days, that meant Russia, China and Vietnam; more recently I've reported from such human-rights black holes as Uzbekistan and North Korea. Then there were the destinations with elements of danger: Israel, the southern Philippines, Northern Ireland. None of those ever gave me pause.

But I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't admit being slightly uneasy about going to Iran -- now in the United States' cross hairs because of its developing nuclear technology -- when a U.N. contact invited me to join a group of international reporters on a trip in May.

The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran haven't had diplomatic relations in 26 years, since students in Tehran seized 66 American hostages inside the U.S. Embassy and held some of them for as long as 14 months. Neither nation has an embassy in the other's capital, and the U.S. State Department has a travel warning on Iran. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is pressuring Iran to stop its uranium enrichment, and the Bush administration is talking sanctions.

I applied for my visa in a room on the second floor of a nondescript building in upper Georgetown marked "Iranian Interests Section." This facility is technically part of the Pakistani Embassy (which handles Iran's affairs in the United States), but Pakistan's embassy is actually two miles away. What I saw here didn't ease my mind. Inside were a dozen Iranian Americans waiting for their own visas. As they waited, they gazed at videos on a large plasma television. On the screen was the classic image that most Americans have of Iran: a bearded, red-faced mullah wagging a bony finger at a stadium of young people. For what, I didn't know.

Four days later, visa in hand, I boarded an Air France flight from Dulles to Tehran. There I met my colleagues arriving from various points; they were German, British, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Korean. I was the only Yank.

What took place over the next fortnight astonished me. Everywhere I went -- from the traffic-choked streets of Tehran in the north to the dusty desert town of Yazd in central Iran, to the elegant cultural centers of Isfahan and Shiraz -- I was overwhelmed by the warmth and, dare I say it, pro-Americanism of the people I met.

Ponder the irony of that last statement for a moment. While much of the rest of the world seems to be holding their collective noses at us Americans, in Iran people were literally crossing the road to shake an American's hand and say hello. Who knew?

Initially, when Iranians asked me where I was from, I'd suggest they guess. But this game quickly proved too time-consuming -- no one ever guessed correctly. So instead I would simply mumble "American." And then their faces would light up. For better or worse, Iranians are avid fans of America: its culture, films, food, music, its open, free-wheeling society.

In a small stall at the bazaar in Isfahan, for example, I was nonchalantly eyeing a carpet while the young rug merchant looked on sleepily. But when I responded to his casual question about where I was from, he became as energetic as an 8-year-old near an ice cream truck. Straight away, he launched into a virtual love sonnet to all things Hollywood.

"Do you agree," he pressed, "that Marlon Brando was the greatest actor in the world?"

Indeed he was, I granted, slowly edging toward the exit. But he beckoned me back. Reaching under his desk, he pulled out a large paperback, which turned out to be a well-thumbed Brando biography . . . in Persian.

He turned the pages with gentle reverence, gesturing at specific photos of the Great Man. Then, holding his hand up in a "don't go" gesture, he broke into an impersonation of Brando doing Don Corleone. "Ya come to meee on desse de day of ma daughter's wadding . . . " It was the worst Brando impersonation I've ever heard, but surely the most heartfelt.

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