In 1986 a group mostly of Quakers from Richmond, Indiana, were walking together through the Kremlin on their last night in the Soviet Union before flying home. They came upon the idea of forming an organization to promote people-to-people contact with those countries that our government has labeled as enemies. The organization was given the name Neighbors East and West (NEW), and for the next four years it sponsored trips to the Soviet Union, sought and established a sister-city relation with the Russian city of Serpukhov, and organized an exhibition of Russian Art and Culture that traveled around the counties of eastern Indiana and western Ohio.
With the exception of the Sister City program, most of these activities ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s. The founders of NEW realized that there were other "enemies" in the world, and they sponsored seven trips to Cuba before the George W. Bush administration made such trips impossible in 2003.
In May 2008, my wife and I returned with a Neighbors East and West delegation of 20 people who had just completed a two-week visit to Iran. The purpose of this trip was to encounter ordinary people in Iran on a personal basis and attempt to establish personal bridges between the citizens of Iran and the United States at a time when the two governments were engaging in threats rather than negotiation.
To assemble this group, NEW had to spread its nets widely. Iran is both distant and unknown, and the information available here presents that country as dangerous and hostile. Travel to Iran seems to take some courage, or perhaps just a better understanding of the nature of the country and its citizens.
The travelers came from Washington state, California, North Carolina, Indiana, and many places in between. Of the 20, 6 were Quakers, 5 were Unitarians, and the rest represented other faiths. They ranged in age from 26 to 86.
As is usual in NEW excursions, participants found personal contacts easy to attain and always rewarding, while government action often was complicated and hard to understand.
For Ruth and me, the trip included extended stays in Tehran and Esfahan, with brief visits to the cities of Qom and Kashan as well as an overnight stay in the small village of Abyaneh. Others in our group also visited Shiraz and the ancient Persian capitol of Persepolis.
We arrived at the Tehran airport at 2 am, as our third day of travel began. Our passports held visas that were barely dry, having arrived at our homes just two days earlier, and some sleepy and apologetic border police fingerprinted us and took our passports away for a while before they let us into the customs area. Our bags were not opened, and from that point on we did not encounter any negative treatment—in fact, we became warmly welcomed guests.
A few hours later, Ruth and I awoke in Tehran, a huge, bustling city of more than 12 million at the foot of the Alborz Mountains. It is comparable to Los Angeles, with its heavy and chaotic traffic, accompanying smog, and apparent lack of a civic plan. It does give the feeling of a modern city, with wide streets, an efficient metro, and an atmosphere of organization.
Though the city could be confusing, we were helped many times by men (often in suits) and women (often in black chadors) who would show us the way to the bank, the metro, or the post office, which we would not otherwise have been able to find. We visited three museums, traveled a short way into the mountains, and walked through the Tehran Bazaar. Mostly we recovered from the long flights and rapid time-zone changes we had just endured.
In the midst of a brutal desert 250 miles south of Tehran, we found the growing city of Kashan. We wound our way through half-built neighborhoods of apartment buildings, departing from our bus in front of a rather nondescript wall and gate. Inside the gate we suddenly found ourselves in a beautiful garden of flowing water and fountains, built in the mid-19th century. While our guide tried hard to explain the history of this site, we were soon intermingling with Iranian high school and university students: the boys wearing T-shirts and jeans and the girls often in uniform and always with their heads covered. They were all similar in their eagerness to meet us and to use their newly learned English. Always their first words to us were "Welcome to Iran!"
Our most elderly traveler, Al Inglis of Richmond, Indiana, often would entertain on his e-flat harmonica. Another of our travelers, Bob Mullin of St. Paul, always had a frisbee handy when the situation called for it. We also carried with us pictures and letters from people of all ages back home who wished to make contact with others like themselves in Iran. What proved most useful was a picture book assembled by a Brownie troop in Montana. It usually provided a way to introduce ourselves and show a more personal view of the United States.
We enjoyed other historic parts of Kashan, and then we traveled to the mountain village of Abyaneh, where we spent the evening and most of the next day investigating its tiny streets, wide enough for only one donkey at a time. Bob introduced frisbee throwing to the eight students of the local elementary school, and he left the disc as a present to the school. Others in the group sampled the hand crafts and dried fruit available in the shops along the way.
At noon, Ruth and I were walking through a small park a little way from the village. We passed a family sitting comfortably on a carpet, laying out a picnic. When they saw us, they immediately invited us to join them, made room for us, and offered us a variety of nuts, fruit, and sweets. We had no choice but to (creakily) sit down with them, share what little we had, and enjoy a conversation of fractured English with a little Farsi added. This kind of encounter was repeated over and over.
We traveled on to Esfahan, which is described by visitors as "half the world." On the outside Esfahan is a desert city with low buildings and dusty streets. On the inside it is a jewel. Its predominant feature is Naghsh-e Jahan Square, 500 by 300 meters, with the large Imam Mosque at one end and several remarkable buildings along the sides. Joining all the buildings together are the arcades of the Bozorg (big) Bazaar, containing the work of skillful Persian craftsmen. Scattered here and there are shops containing the finest oriental carpets in the world—and probably the finest carpet salespeople as well.
But Esfahan is more than a large square. Leading to the Zayenda River is the Chahar Bagh Abbasi Boulevard, a shopping and walking street unique for its beauty and business. The river itself is flanked by miles of carefully kept parks and crossed by seven bridges, each an architectural masterpiece. Yet we found Esfahan to be even more than parks, magnificent buildings, and interesting shops. Most special were the people we met. We think back with pleasure to the evening we asked about finding a post office, and as a result, a young married couple took time out of their day to give us a full tour of the parts of central Esfahan that we had not seen. We can think about the baker who gave us freshly baked bread whenever we passed his shop, and when we tried to pay for it he gave us back more in change than we had given him. And we can remember the young man who took me all over Tehran to show me a Santur, the ancient ancestor of the hammered dulcimer. When we crossed the street he would guide me carefully and always position himself to block oncoming traffic.
We returned to Tehran for our last three days and managed to become comfortable with the metro and with the unwritten rules that govern the traffic there. We were able to make even more new friends and were invited into two different homes for a meal or afternoon tea. We were given a tour of one of Tehran’s universities, and we visited Linda and David Kusse-Wolfe, former Earlham School of Religion students who were finishing a year of study in Iran. We were regularly recognized as tourists, and when Iranians found out our nationality they became interested, excited, and hospitable, all at once. For us it was one of the few times as travelers when we have been happy rather than embarrassed to have been identified as U.S. tourists.
When we returned to the United States we were amazed to encounter very strong negative attitudes toward Iran at all levels, promoted by a remarkable ignorance of the country. Iran seems to be some sort of threat to us—our natural enemy, about which presidential candidates use phrases and words like "bomb, bomb, bomb" or "obliterate."
Not only does it make no sense to us, it also hurts us deeply that the friendly and decent people who were so helpful to us can be so easily categorized as our collective enemy. We are hoping that other U.S. citizens can travel to Iran and experience it firsthand. Perhaps together we can recognize that beautiful lives are more significant than political rhetoric.