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2006 Iran Delegation Report 6: Friends from America who Came in Peace

FOR’s Friendship Delegation to Iran: May 2006, Report 6


What struck Gray Henry Blakemore the most on our trip was how wrong her perception of Iranian men and clerics has been.

“These men have such a quality of serenity in general and their souls are poetic and spiritual – something we don’t find in the West, save for isolated cases. There is nothing tough about them at all, and the whole idea of women confined and forced into black, stark tent-like chadors also is not true.

“For the most part, women are quite elegant in their slacks and often quite fitted over-shirts; there is color and variety – not the image I had in mind even thought I came here 10 years ago. Slowly, the few images played incessantly by the media of scowling, harsh clerics, and subjugated women in tents, has vanished.

“Later, when we stopped at the national cemetery outside Teheran, I wept to think that ANYTHING could happen to all these dear, dear sweet innocents we have met. I can’t imagine being back home and having us bomb these places. I wept, imagining sitting in anguish before a TV watching any conflagration. May God protect us all.

“As we drove through a second cemetery, I was stuck by the endless, simple, rectuangular, flat stones making up the entire floor of a forest. What a wonderful way to bury the dead – in the shade of a sacred grove!”

On Thursday May 18, we were back in Teheran, and in the morning, we visited the synagogue. The Jewish representative to the Parliament was unable to be with us, but we met instead with Mr. Arash Abadi, who is responsible for cultural and educational projects and programs.


A thriving Jewish Community in Teheran

The main synagogue of Teheran – there are 20 of them – is tucked away in a quite Jewish neighborhood. The temple is large and beautifully designed, with gold-leaf Hebrew scrolls, bimah, yarzheit board and crystal chandeliers.

Arash Abadi, head of religious and cultural activities for the synagogue, author, editor of a Persian-Jewish magazine, representative at interfaith conferences and co-editor with Muslim writers, gave the FOR delegation an overview of the Jews of Iran.

Jews have lived in Iran for 2,500 years, arriving as refugees at the invitation of Cyrus the Great, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Half of the country’s 20,000 Jews live in Teheran. Iran’s 100-year-old constitution allots one seat in Parliament for each religious minority (Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians).

The Jews of Iran are Sephardic, but follow Ashkenazi traditions because of the rabbi. The congregation is a generic brand, neither Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Reform.

Arash Abadi, head of religious and cultural programs at Teheran’s Yusuf Abad Synagogue, talks to delegates.

Because they consider themselves Iranians first and Jews second, men and women sit in separate sections during services. Women are required to wear a headscarf in public.

There are four Jewish schools and, following Iranian custom and law, they are gender-segregated. Jews can attend either public or private schools. Those who attend public school can substitute Jewish studies for Islamic ones in the required religion class.

And as elsewhere, Jews have historically been the keepers of culture, and wrote the first Persian musical notes during a time when Muslims were not allowed to have music.

As in other Middle Eastern countries, non-Jews tend to separate the Jewish religion from the politics of Zionism, During the last few years, interest in Jewish life among non-Jews in Iran has increased and the Jewish community has been busy responding to speaking requests at universities and civic groups.

Also, the Jewish community is now able to establish cultural ties with congregations and other groups outside of Iran. Particularly needed are educational materials for rabbinical training.


An Unexpected Meeting with Iranian Vice President

After lunch, our tour guide received a surprise invitation for us all to meet with Mr. Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who is the Iranian Vice President for Tourism and Cultural Heritage. He wanted to meet with us at 5 p.m. at the Hotel Laleh – one of Tehran’s finest.

Mr. Mashai greeted our group, explaining that he had changed his plans in order to meet us. He said that he was supposed to be traveling with the Iranian President and a number of ambassadors, but believed that God wanted him to meet with the group from America because peace and goodwill between our nations is so critically needed.

He told us that Iran is a peace-loving nation that is still struggling to overcome the heavy legacy of the eight-year war with Iraq. He said that Iraq had started the war and was supported by the West, because it could not accept the 1979 revolution that ousted the U.S.-supported Shah.

Of Iran’s nuclear program, Mr. Mashai said that Iran had signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and was in compliance with its provisions, yet was accused, even by nations which had not signed the NPT, of planning to build nuclear weapons.

He insisted that Iran had no intention of building nuclear weapons, adding that this was an age in which nukes should be history.

Because Iran chose to be an independent nation, the United States responded by imposing economic sanctions, he said. Medicines and spare parts have been embargoed. “In 1987, the United States shot down a civilian airliner of ours and to this day has not offered an apology.”

Mr. Mashai said Iran wanted to chart its own course and wanted peace. “That is why your delegation’s visit is so important. God wants us to live in peace.”

After Mr. Mashai spoke, there was a long period of discussion, begun with his affirming how much we shared because we all believe in God.

The delegation stressed the beauty of the country and the unfailing friendliness of the people. We expressed our desire for more Americans to visit and discover what we have discovered. We said we would work to get more face-to-face meetings between our two countries.

We stressed the importance of nonviolence and Gandhi’s teaching that satygraha — truth force — was the most powerful force in the world and that the search for Truth can bind us together.

The Vice President then posed for pictures with the delegation and announced that we would be his guests for dinner in the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel.


From the Ayatollah’s modest home to the Shah’s opulent palace

On Friday, May 19, in the morning we visited the Teheran home of Imam Khomeini and one of the palaces of the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties in Niavaran. There was a sharp contrast between the stark and simple home of Khomeini and the luxurious palace. Ellie Gatti wrote:

“On our last day in Teheran, as I walked down the hill from Ayatollah Khomeini’s home, I spied a white mulberry tree. I desired to taste the fruit, so attempted to pick some. A young soldier looked at me, and I felt a bit uneasy until he offered me some mulberries he had in a plastic bag. We both nodded that they were very tasty. He then offered some to Richard Deats, who also accepted and enjoyed the sweet fruit. Both this young man and I enjoyed the sweets of mother nature!”

After lunch, we visited an NGO founded by Mrs. Mahlagha Mallah called “Women’s Society against Environmental Pollution”. This organization was founded in 1992 to educate children and mothers, as well as high officials, about pollution.

This vibrant woman served as a librarian at Teheran University and received her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. She became aware that women were the natural teachers of language, culture, and traditions. As the managers of the household, they are the producers of the most waste and the primary source of pollution, as well as being subject to shopping disease and consumerism.

One of our delegates suggested that men are also responsible for pollution, in the areas of the military and industry. We were all charmed and inspired by the example of Mrs. Mallah’s passion, enthusiasm, wit, and hard work to save the environment of Iran and the world.

On the afternoon of our last day in Teheran, we came back to the hotel to pack, and around 7 p.m. we drove to a traditional restaurant for a farewell dinner. We exchanged gifts and speeches of thanks with our hosts from our travel agency, Iran Doostan.

There were several bands offering traditional Iranian music, and it was all we and everyone else could do not to get up and dance. Instead there was enthusiastic hand clapping and cheering for each piece.

We were surprise and delighted when one of the musicians welcomed “our friends from America” and “our friends who come in peace”. Everyone in the restaurant applauded for us.