I was in Iran when politically charged students stormed the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, in central Tehran. As an Iranian-American, I watched the slogan-chanting and fist-thrashing on TV with special interest. Last week, I watched a video replay of the same scene--this time at the former embassy itself, which opened this month to the public as a museum.
The Iranian government is commemorating the 22nd anniversary of the embassy takeover with an exhibit titled "Shattering of the Glass Palace." It's not hard to find. Banners declaring THE PEOPLE OF IRAN HATE AMERICA and DEATH TO AMERICA lead the way. An Israeli flag serves as a welcome mat. Inside, photographic exhibits detail alleged American misdeeds in Iran, as well as Vietnam, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another part of the exhibit includes the embassy's document-forgery room and an electronic eavesdropping center.
For more light-hearted fare, there are children's drawings of America as a demon, skeleton or carnivorous Uncle Sam pillaging the rest of the world. There are also several games. One is a carnival strength meter where you pound Uncle Sam on the head to score points and hear feedback like, "Wow, you pack quite a wallop." (I gave it a whack and got, "Ouch, I'm seeing double.") More target practice can be had by blasting Uncle Sam in the face with a tennis-ball gun or shooting him out of the windows of a Wild West saloon with a video pistol.
Seeing the same anti-American messages that have been repeated for the past two decades, it's hard to know where Iran stands right now in its attitude toward the United States. President Mohammed Khatami was one of the first heads of state of an Islamic country to extend formal condolences to the United States and offer an outright condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. And, with the Taliban as a mutual enemy, the two countries are now in a diplomatic position that would have been unthinkable only two months ago. Khatami will be speaking at the United Nations this week, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Iran is ready to get close to America.
The domestic political scene in Iran is a dangerous minefield of double-entendre. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week said any relations with the United States would be detrimental to the interest of the Iranian people and unacceptable. Only a few days later, the Iranian press reported foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi was courting Japan to act as a diplomatic go-between to the United States and quoted him as saying, "Iran can have relations with all countries except Israel." The overall message is garbled: death to America, but no offense.
Historical grudges aside, Iran's struggle to deal with America is a reflection of its own struggle to deal with traditionalism and modernity, religious and secular values. At the annual march held Sunday to commemorate the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, a couple of Uncle Sam effigies danced around one prominent banner which read LIBERALISM = TERRORISM.
The clash is apparent in the layout of Tehran itself. The smog-ridden streets in the southern part of the city are filled with the prayer call of the muezzin, the smell of kabob and the scenes of working-class Iranian women, black chadors tightly clenched in their teeth, bargaining over kilos of rice or tidbits of saffron. The northern suburbs, in contrast, are a cluster of highrises, satellite dishes and upscale shops. At the Golestan shopping mall, an open-air venue designed in a faux-ziggurat brick, CDs by Santana and Joe Satriani are on sale near snack bars selling hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza. The multistory Milad shopping mall offers the latest computer games, Disney movies on disc or Italian cappuccino. And, lest patrons forget, both malls have several signs reminding women to observe proper hijab (Islamic dress).
These social contrasts are among my sharpest memories of growing up in Iran and, in a way, make me feel like I never left (although my accented Farsi makes everyone think I'm a foreigner now). I attended the Shiraz International Community School (SICS) which taught subjects in both English and Farsi. My family celebrated Nowruz, the Iranian new year, as well as Christmas, along with trendy Iranian families that mingled with the expatriate set. The culture clash became more prominent when my sheltered international school was blended into the gender-segregated public school system in 1981. Teaching English was outlawed, Arabic and Quranic studies became mandatory. Many of the former teachers of the international school felt they had to prove their newfound Islamicness by slapping students around for minor offenses. For our fifth grade field trip, we went to a cemetery for the teenage martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war and told to follow their example.
It was partly the memory of this field trip that led me this time to Behesht-e-Zahra, the largest cemetery for the soldiers, including many teenagers, killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. The graves of nearly 200,000 war dead are crammed, sometimes with hardly a foot of space in between, into what has now become a mini-city with restaurants, a mosque and a bustling flower and rosewater business. It is an eerie testament to the cult of martyrdom pervasive during the war and to the huge loss for the country.
Iranian youth today, who comprise nearly 60 percent of the population, are fortunate in that they avoided the war and are given a marginally greater degree of cultural freedom. Girls layer on makeup and show salacious bits of hair. Unwed couples walk the streets hand in hand. Last Wednesday, after the Iranian national soccer team beat the United Arab Emirates in a World Cup qualifying match, cars pumping techno and Iranian pop music whizzed through streets trailing huge Iranian flags. Teenagers with flags painted on their face sang and danced in circles. The politicians may be busy hashing out dialogue with the United States, but after two decades of politicization, the Iranian youth seem happy to settle for some fun.