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
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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)

During my visit, I could not pause on a street corner for more than 30 seconds without someone coming up and shyly asking if they could help. Discovering that they had an American in their midst, they would often insist on walking me to my destination. Some told me of their friends and relatives living in the United States. (Precise figures are impossible to come by, but Iranian immigrant groups believe that between 1.5 and 2 million Iranians and Iranian Americans live in the United States.)

According to Iranian government officials, about 70 percent of Iran's 69 million people are under 30. They have no memory of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran's last monarch; the taking of U.S. hostages; or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. Navy ship in 1988. And to me, few young Iranians seemed happy with their own government. I seriously doubt that if Iran had opinion polls, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity ratings would be any higher than George W. Bush's. Another irony.

Many people I spoke with did voice fears of what President Bush might do to Iran. Some were frightened of being attacked. But others were concerned about what effects U.S. economic sanctions would have on an economy that is already appallingly managed by mullahs. Yet I never sensed any personal hatred toward Bush.

Iranians seem readily able to separate in their minds the difference between the American people and America as a nation, with a U.S. government whose policies they strongly oppose.

Everywhere I went, however, Iranians -- from high school students to middle-aged taxi drivers -- repeatedly asked me: "Why does America call us Evil Axis?" Then they would indignantly add: "We are good people -- we are Persians! Iran is a good country, some are bad, but most people here are good." They seemed genuinely wounded by the political rhetoric of the White House.

When told I was a reporter, college kids asked me to tell Americans: "Please know this: We are not Saudi Arabia. We are not Iraq. We are not Yemen. Please tell them we are not the same as these places!" In fact, Islam came late to the Persia party. The Persian empire boasted a rich civilization several centuries before Arab invaders swept in from the west. During my visit, I got the distinct impression that Iranians admire Islam's sense of discipline and are grateful for the art and architecture that were its gifts. But younger Iranians have little interest in its rigid dogma and social intolerance. After all, it was Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet, who wrote the famous line celebrating life's earthy essentials: "A loaf of bread . . . a flask of wine, a book of verse -- and thou."

What astonished me the most about Iran were its women. I met and spoke with scores of them from all parts of the country. And everywhere they were wonderful: vivid, bold, articulate in several languages, politically astute and audaciously outward-looking. While some men demurred, the women weren't afraid to voice opinions about anything under the sun.

In fact, women in Iran can work and drive and vote, own property or businesses, run for political office and seek a divorce. The majority of Iran's university graduates are women.

But socially, Iran's women still live under Islamic edicts: They must wear the hijab when leaving the house, and they cannot normally associate with any male who is not their father, brother or son, or shake hands with a man. Despite these restrictions, they manage to remain utterly feminine. They are keen on bright lipsticks, nail polish and eye shadow. And they have a passion for imported handbags and shoes.

It's the women who give me the most hope that this once noble nation will one day return to its tolerant roots. Most of the young people I spoke with insist that change is coming.

On my last night in Iran, as I waited to board my flight to Paris, a little boy named Ali queued up behind me with his father and his elderly grandmother who had come to see them off. The old woman, dressed in black, was distressed at the boy's departure and was smothering him with hugs and kisses.

I handed them sticks of cinnamon gum and snapped their picture. At this, the old woman pulled Ali close and whispered in his ear. The little boy's face lit up. He walked up to me and introduced himself in halting English, shook my hand and said: "We can be friends, yes?"

Steven Knipp last wrote for Travel about Hong Kong after SARS. He is the D.C. correspondent for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

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