As the situation in Iran deteriorates, we hear more every day about the "expatriate technocrats" who are leaving that besieged country in droves. The overwhelming impression one gets of these families who are fleeing the good life in their "little America" communities in Iran is that they are people bewildered by their sudden unpopularity but essentially uncaring about anything except the clothing they left behind.
There are others of us (precious few, it seems, according to publicity on television and in newspapers) who went to Iran with the idea of experiencing another culture. We learned the language and, as unnecessary as it might have seemed to some, the fact is that most Iranians were delighted to know that we cared enough to bother. We lived "on the economy," which meant learning to do without corn flakes or eggs if they weren't available. We also lived in neighborhoods where we, as foreigners, were the exception rather than the rule.
We rode public buses to remote places all over the country and allowed our children to be fondled and passed around for inspection. We took part in country picnics with Iranian students and shared friendly cups of coffee with Iranian housewives. We learned to love Persian food in Iranian homes and, in turn, introduced our Iranian friends to Fourth of July barbecues and Thanks-giving dinners. We sent our children to international schools so they might benefit as much as possible from exposure to people from all over the world.
The undeniable inconveniences of life in a city like Tehran were a part of the whole idea of living abroad. We grew from the experience of learning to adjust to whatever we found there, rather than trying to duplicate what we had left behind.
Those of us who lived in this fashion are particularly touched by the tragedy of Iran's current problems because they involve people we came to cherish. The events of the last few months, however -- particularly the wave of anti-foreign sentiment -- comes as no surprise to anyone who was remotely in touch with the Iranian community in the last five years.
The glaring social problems of a developing country such as Iran were exacerbated by the presence of such a large foreign community. It was impossible, for instance, for any Iranian to find housing in his own country because landlords would rent only to much higher-paid foreigners.Eventually, of course, rents spiraled even out of the reach of foreign individuals so that companies began to pick up the rent tabs for their employees, pushing rents even higher.
Many foreigners doing the same kind of work as the Persian beside him, earned a salary three times higher.
The attitude of many of the foreigners living in Iran further complicated matters. Iranians are intrinsically friendly and hospitable people; many of the families transplanted from such places as Mineral Wells, Tex., showed no interest at all in communicating with the native population.
A colossal ignorance of Persian culture and a lack of understanding of religious mores consequently results in offensive behavior on the part of many foreigners, not just Americans, although Americans were more visible.
Then there was the arrogance toward the native community, especially among those people involved in training programs. Iranians were considered to be lazy, dishonest and basically stupid by more than a few of the foreigners whose main purpose was to make the "big bucks" and then go home. It's well known that Persians were the butt of most cocktail party stories and jokes, and it was fashionable for American women, most of whom had never in their lives had household help, to sit around complaining about how terrible their maids were.
Only an ostrich with its head in the sand could not see how resentments would build up and one day erupt in a volcano of xenophobic expression.
Although the present situation is unquestionably the result of a complicated tangle of political, social and economic problems, there's no denying that the presence of so many foreigners contributed to its development.
All of us who have lived in Iran inrecent years -- even the most well-meaning of us -- are a little to blame for the tragedy in Iran. We are at liberty to pack our bags, however, and with minor disruption of our comfortable lives, get on with it somewhere else.
The Iranians, meanwhile, are charged with the task of restoring order into their lives and of picking up the pieces of their fragmented society. Those of us who count some of them among our friends are deeply sympthetic, but hopeful that once the smoke clears, there'll be time to be friends again.