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As soon as I saw John Ghazvinian’s new book, America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present, I knew it was a must read for me.
The American Hostage Crisis
Recollections of a Middle Schooler
The winter of 1979-1980 was my twelvth. I was in 7th grade, which by itself is messy, and a lot was going on in my personal life. I had started junior high in the fall, and it happened to be a year in which the opening of a new high school building meant the “junior high” (then grades 7-9) also moved, so no one was paying attention to acclimating the new students: everyone, including the staff, were new to the building. My mom started a challenging job teaching adolescents, for the first time ever, in a low income school. And then both of my grandmothers, my only living grandparents, got seriously ill, and both died before the school year was over.
I remember daily life consisting of being picked up from school and doing my homework in the waiting rooms of two different hospitals, in two different cities, each night, interspersed with visits to my dying grandmothers.
Add to that my natural (messy) maturation process which that winter included the Soviet (Russian) invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.
Of course, the Vietnam conflict, with all of its violence and national angst, had been going on my entire life, but I guess my child’s mind, which was starting to change, protected me. My parents probably protected me from the news as well.
What I was left with was the idea that these countries were scary and wanted to hurt me. I remember hearing the local radio station playing “Bomb Iran” (to the tune of the Beach Boy’s “Barbara Ann”) in the morning. I liked it because it kept me from feeling scared.
Recollections of an International Educator
Fast forward 25 years: I packed up my daughter and moved overseas.
During my 12 years living abroad, more than once I have been struck by the kindness of Iranians. The first incident came from an unsuspecting 8th grader when I was still teaching. We had a new student who was not being accepted by her classmates. Her other teachers and I changed the seating chart several times…in this school, the students mostly stayed in one classroom, and the teachers came and went…to help her, but nothing worked. Finally, we hit upon the solution of seating her next to the biggest extrovert in the room. She was louder and wilder than her mostly reserved classmates, and she was always the center of everything. She was a class leader.
It worked. The gregarious student included the new student. The new student was still pretty quiet, but now she was quietly standing in the middle of the group rather than on the fringes of the room, and she seemed happy.
That school had students from more than 50 nationalities, and I believe this student, the loud one, was the only Iranian.
Later, when I lived in Jordan, I met an Iranian neighbor while I was walking my dog (walking a friendly dog in a foreign country is a great way to meet people, fyi). She told me about the difficulty she had getting her adolescent son, who has Down Syndrome, into school. Having been an educator in that country for a while, I was aware of the lack of access special needs students have to educations, and the outdated attitude of many everyday people that leads to this problem. Needless to say, I was impressed.
I also started to wonder because twice the experience I had with Iranians was the exact opposite of what I had been taught about the country.
Obviously, it’s possible my experiences were just coincidence, but honestly at that time I knew so many people from so many different countries that I had learned that there are some nationalities it’s best to be careful around.
I asked my other friends when I had a chance; friends from Western, first world countries who mostly worked for embassies or international aid organizations. People who were similar to me and would have experience I didn’t. They agreed with what I had seen. Some of them had been to Iran, and they told me they felt the people were educated, sophisticated, and kind.
Keep in mind that the United States has not had a diplomatic relationship with Iran since the hostage crisis that ended in 1981.
Iran from a Different Point of View
Let’s back off a minute from the image we have of Iran as a state packed with Muslim extremists and terrorists.
First of all, not that it should really make a difference, Iran is not Arab. They are Persian. They speak Farsi, which is also known as “Persian Language”. Farsi is written with the same characters as Arabic. I can read a little Arabic, and I was able, for example, to decipher Ghasvinian’s name (جان قزوینیان) when written in Farsi on Wikipedia.
Many of the Gulf states were traditionally filled with people who followed a nomadic lifestyle. Obviously, a nomadic lifestyle is also complex and developed, but just for comparison’s sake, but I’m pointing out that during that time, ancient Iranian’s/Persians (“Persian” was a name bestowed by Europeans, so Iranian is a better term) were busy running their own empire.
So instead of whatever image you have of Iran burned in your brain, try this one on for size: In the story of the Christian Nativity, three of the most important characters involve the three wise men, or kings. Did you ever wonder where they came from?
When I heard “the Wise Men cam from the east”, I always thought “Far East”. But I was wrong.
While no one knows exactly where they came from, they are thought to be Iranian, or at least from the empire that encompassed present day Iran at that time.
This was before Christianity, and it was before Islam. The three kings were Zoroastrian, which is a monotheistic religion that predates Judaism, which of course is the basis for both Christianity and Islam. The “Abrahamic” faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are thought to have roots in this earlier faith and all three faiths are permitted in modern day Iran.
For a classic take on the story of the Wise Men, check out this classic post FREE (and Wonderful) Christmas Books and Stories to Read With Your Family
Ghazvinian’s America and Iran
I’m not going to lie to you: this book is long. There are a lot of details about a lot of aspects of the relationship between Iran and the United States. It is all spelled out.
What kept me going is that the style of the book is almost compulsively readable. Ghazvinian’s accomplishment as a writer is amazing in that he is able to make a long, complicated, and statistics laden story almost compulsively readable. That, my friends, takes talent. And Ghazvinian has it.
A couple of times I wanted to stop reading, especially when I got to the release of the Embassy hostages in 1981. I really don’t want to recommend any book that I haven’t read completely, which partly kept me going, but I also realized that the hostage crisis was 40 years ago, and Iran and the United States continue to have problems.
We have this situation despite the fact that Iran fought a long and bloody war with Iraq, with whom the U.S. has even more problems.
Why is this?
I read on to find out.
This story is messy and complicated. To me, the key component that seems to cause the problem is the fact that Iranian national interest is not the same as the United States national interest, which is fair.
The secondary issue that comes up quite often in this book is the role of the State of Israel in carefully maintaining problems between the United States and Iran because that is in THEIR national interest.
Then there are the Arab states, which like Iran are primarily Muslim. And remember those Arab states include the Palestinian Territories, whose boundaries the Israelis constantly challenge.
I think the impulse is to what to divide governments into “good” and “bad”, but that just doesn’t work. Look at how much we disagree on in the United States alone, and we are all one country.
If you are interested, like I am, in trying to understand that part of the world and why the U.S. has such a difficult time getting along there, give this book a read.
Rick Steves’ Iran
Until I saw the Middle East for myself, starting in 2013, I always had difficulty reading books set there. I realize now that it’s because I was having trouble visualizing what I read. If you find that you have the same problem, try watching Rick Steves’ Iran, Rick Steves’ Holy Land (Israel & Palestine) , and Rick Steves’ Europe Season 8, which includes more of the Holy Land and Turkey, where Asia and Europe meet (I really love Turkey) for some context. Ghazvinian briefly mentions Rick Steves’ Iran, which was made right after Barak Obama’s presidential election in hopes of the US and Iran renewing a diplomatic relationship and possibly reopening tourist travel to Iran.
Steves is careful to point out that he made this episode with the support and approval of the Iranian government, but I’m sure he wouldn’t say anything he didn’t believe when he said it. In fact, I think he got a couple of things superficially wrong, but the important thing is actually seeing Iran so that you can picture it.
These travel videos will give you enough of an idea of what things look like that you can transpose it to other parts of that parts of the Middle East. I’ve gone from Jordan to as far south as Oman, including the UAE, and I would say as you metaphorically go south, just picture everything as hotter and less green/more dusty.
Understanding Others’ Perspectives
He points out some anti-Israeli artwork along with some anti-American murals, but as the people in the video say: it’s about government, not about people.
I think when you get to know individual people from different countries, feeling open about different points of view in government gets easier.
Have people from other countries ever misjudged me because I’m an American, or tried to take advantage of me? Absolutely.
In return, I wonder how I’ve misjudge them. You don’t need to let people take advantage of you: I respect them and myself enough not to allow that. But I do try to reverse things in my mind.
If you want to read more about this topic, try Rick Steves’ book, Travel as a Political Act, which features a chapter on Iran.
For more on Rick Steves and travel, check out my post with most ironic title and date ever: Why should you travel with a guide book in 2020? Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, & more