New governments in 2009 for both the United States and Iran shimmer on the horizon, and I'm not alone in hoping they both see the benefit of dialogue.
By Anisa Mehdi
Maplewood, New Jersey - After my teeth were professionally scraped, polished and flossed, I told my dentist about my recent trip to Iran. In the midst of waxing on about chadors and secularism, gas lines and fabulous chicken kebabs, he asked, "How are their teeth?"
I've been to Iran four times already and no one's asked me about teeth before. But he, of course, is my dentist.
A moment's reflection and then I answered, "They're generally good."
"It's the diet," he said without hesitation. "Less refined sugar."
It's true that in Iran people still sometimes sip their tea with sugar cubes clamped between their front teeth; it's true that Coca-Cola has a vast following and that cakes and pastries are often the gift of choice when you're invited to someone's home. But fresh and dried fruit dominate the sweets tables; dried cranberries and currants join saffron in flavouring the rice; meat is broiled; and water is a staple at meals. In addition, it's fine to drink the tap water in Iranian homes and hotels. Like so much about Iran, diet is a combination of past and present, historic and contemporary, Persian pride and planetary pop culture.
I went to Iran just after Thanksgiving to attend a conference called "Women as Peacemakers Through Religion." The group was comprised of 20 women, half from Iran and the rest from Senegal, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Pakistan and the United States. The conference was co-hosted by Tehran's Institute for Interreligious Dialogue (www.iid.org.ir) and Geneva's World Council of Churches (www.oikoumene.org).
It had been six years since my last visit and it was a treat to visit with old friends and make new ones. But most important, it gave me a sense of place and possibility: Is American reporting on Iran reliable? Is our government's view valid? How do Iranians reflect on future relations with the United States, in public and in private?
Not shy to say where I'm from, I introduced myself as an American – to the cabbies, to academics, to people at parties, to shopkeepers, to current and former government officials and to religious authorities.
For a nano-second, surprise slid across the eyes of half of the people I met. Then, inevitably, it was, "Welcome! I'm so glad you're here." The other half had either visited or lived in the United States and began reciting stories.
None of us, once we got into deeper conversation, was surprised to find that we hoped a change in regime in both countries would ameliorate tensions.
It seems to me that as a whole, Iranians value the daring, vigour and success of the Iranian Revolution. They are glad to be free of the dictatorship of the Shah. Their pride in Persian culture and history swells to know it is not a puppet state. I know people who returned to Iran from the United States in the early 1980s specifically to be part of this momentous time in their national history.
At the same time, many are unhappy with their country's current politics and policies. They are anxious about the rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad. Even if Iran does have a right to explore uranium enrichment for peaceable purposes, why would U.S. and Iranian leaders taunt one another with nuclear weapons talk? Hasn't the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, criticised nuclear weapons as anti-Islamic? Why doesn't that simply put an end to this game? Why do both parties not acquiesce to UN-established terms for the time being and defuse tension? The fact that the United States is already bombing Iran's neighbours to the East and West makes this a high stakes game.
What else causes concern among the people I met? Iran's economy is flagging. The number of university graduates is up and the number of jobs is down. Young people put off marriage and children, fearing they cannot support a family. And there is intellectual oppression; political opposition is curbed, newspapers closed and some writers, jailed.
Iranians are also tired of gas lines and rationed petrol. Everyone gets only so much per month. Cars inch toward pumps for hours, reminiscent of mid-70s America during the now forgotten oil embargo. Energy savings are also apparent in the energy saving light bulbs in use throughout Iran's public buildings and hotels.
Wisdom gleaned from this recent trip teaches that patience is the road to reconciliation, both inside Iran and among its global neighbours. Blustering, boasting, bullying and jockeying for position come far more easily to the human tongue than straightforward and mature communication. New governments in 2009 for both the United States and Iran shimmer on the horizon, and I'm not alone in hoping they both see the benefit of dialogue.
Teeth are just one indicator of human capacity for good sense and endurance, but combined with others they provide reliable information about real people to sink our public opinion and policy-making teeth into.
-- Anisa Mehdi is an Emmy Award-winning arts and culture reporter/producer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at GCNews. It originally appeared in Everything Jersey.
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