About the same time that I was visiting Iran, our president delivered his now famous “Axis of Evil” speech. I once read the author Al Kentawi’s comments that to label someone or an entire people as “evil” degrades their character to a sub-human status – it is easier to hate someone or something that is “evil” than something that has similar values to your own. I wonder, if when President Bush labeled Iran as “evil” if he painted with too wide a brush? Perhaps the government has bad qualities, but is that enough to condemn an entire nation of people?
And so, I was curious to know about these “evil” people.
I suppose that I should start off with my guide and driver, Mohammed. This man was courteous, polite and treated me like family. When it came time for lunch, he invited me to his home for a meal. I met his wife and young daughter and the family brought me into their home like an old friend. Mind you, this is someone who I had just met a few hours earlier. I cannot imagine a New York cabbie inviting anyone home for lunch. Certainly does not sound “evil” to me!
Mohammed drove me all around to see the sights in Kish – not too difficult to do; while there was much construction on the Island it seemed as though not much of it was finished. It seemed as though everywhere we went there was a new building being constructed. Maybe Iran has a grand vision for this island and I am curious to know if it will work out considering the competition from its neighbors who do allow alcohol sales.
I told Mohammed that I wanted to go shopping and he took me to one of the main intersections in town where a newly constructed mall was located. At the intersection I noticed that there was additional construction taking place on the far side. The streets, lights and gardens looked relatively modern but there were no people, no traffic, nothing much going on. It reminded me of that Kevin Costner movie, “build it and they will come.” I wonder if the Tehran planners had a similar vision?
As I walked into the mall I noticed that there were many political banners along the sidewalks. I can’t imagine President Bush using tax dollars to fund posters of himself to hang all around every town in America. I’ve noticed that you only see posters of political leaders in countries that lack basic freedoms and civil rights – I can’t imagine a free people standing for their tax dollars to be used for such wanton propaganda. We do have government sponsored propaganda in America, it is just more subtle. Seeing the Ayatollah sort of just “jumps out” at you when you walk by!
Or maybe this is an election campaign banner? Anyone who speaks Farsi, I’d love to hear your comments.
I made my way into what looked like an average two-story mall – one that you might find in mid-America. I walked in an found that half to two-thirds of the store fronts were empty and the bars pulled down over the empty cement floors. And of the remaining stores that had merchandise, about two-thirds of those were closed and their glass doors locked. I only found about a dozen stores that were open and doing business. I almost felt like I was in one of those postapocalyptic movies where most of the population had fled or been killed off. It was like walking in a ghost town.
The few stores that were open were a vitamin store (selling mostly herbal remedies and supplements) and a children’s toy store. I went up the stairs (no escalator) to the second floor and found that even fewer stores were open on the top level. Eventually I found a restaurant and decided that I might have a snack. I walked up to the front doors and opened them to find a small fourier and a host standing behind a greeting desk. I greeted him in English and he beamed back a large smile. He enthusiastically welcomed me and ushered me towards the door leading to the restaurant. He knocked boldly on the door and a moment later a narrow panel slid open near the top of the door behind which I could see the eyes of another man. The panel looked rather stout much like the firing port on an armored car or the viewing port in a prisoner’s cell.
After a moment, the man behind the door closed the viewing port and then I could hear him unlock the door and pull – what sounded like – a security throw arm. I felt as if I was entering a drug house or an illegal casino. When the door swung open I was quite surprised to see a lively lunch-time crowd of men and women sitting at tables eating and chatting and – get this – drinking beer and cocktails. And so the “heavy” front door with its viewing slit began to make sense: this restaurant was a bit off of the approved government Sharia law.
I was seated at a nice table with a view of the town and soon I found the proprietor of the restaurant standing at my table greeting me (in English) and asking if he could have some food or a drink brought. He made sure to let me know that he had beer in stock and asked if I wished for a cold one. I browsed his menu and saw that he had Heineken and asked for one and soon it was delivered, the bottle open served with a tall beer glass. I looked over by the front door and saw on the coat rack burka after burka hanging on clothes hangers. I looked around the room and saw so many beautiful Iranian women all dressed in tight and short skirts and cocktail dresses. I almost couldn’t believe it. Just outside every woman is covered head to toe save for her face and in here I thought I could be in a New York night club.
The owner asked if I was hungry and I told him that I wasn’t as I had just eaten at Mohammed’s house. He insisted that I try some appetizers and I thought I would have a go. He called to the waiter and said something in Farsi and the waiter scrambled off. He asked if he could join me at my table and I agreed. He began asking me where I was from, what I was doing here, how long was I visiting and how I was enjoying Iran (so far). I told him that I felt quite welcomed and that I was a bit surprised at this restaurant with the beer and dress and all. He explained that in much of Iran there is alcohol and disco clubs and parties but that it has to be kept out of public view. He said that the Mullahs even knew about much of this activity but they did not care so long as they could maintain power. In a sort of a quid pro quo attitude they keep and maintain power, keep the appearance of Sharia and in return the people don’t complain too much or try to change the government.
He also explained that 80 or 90% of the people want a free and open democracy but they want to evolve to this on a slow and peaceful path. The restaurant proprietor (whose name I have failed to mention intentionally) had great admiration for Turkey and its secular government. He said that most Iranians would love to have a similar form of government in Iran.
As we talked I asked him a few questions including, “If the people want democratic change, why don’t they protest or agitate for it?” He laughed and said that the Iranian revolutionaries had all the guns and if anyone stepped outside of the “approved” party line they found themselves imprisoned or worse. He told me of the recent elections wherein many moderates were elected to congress and 3 or 4 of the most outspoken liberals all died mysterious deaths. He told me how political dissidents might be run over by a car, drown or be killed in a “mugging.” He said that the Mullahs were sending a message that political dissent was punishable by assassination or imprisonment. He said that most of the Iranian people were moderate and liked America and the West – they were in a precarious position and had to be careful to not upset the ruling party (the men with the guns). One point that he was emphatic about, he said that the Iranian people very much like America and its people, they just weren’t particularly happy with our current government.
We chatted for about an hour and when we were done he called for the waiter and spoke again in Farsi. The waiter brought over his business card and he flipped it over and wrote 30% discount and signed his name. He asked me to tell other western travelers (word of mouth only) about his restaurant and encouraged visitors. He said that any western visitor who came to his restaurant would receive a 30% discount and all were welcome.
I thought about the “Axis of Evil” speech and then thought about the warm and friendly people I had met here and I thought how we are not so different from the Iranians. I could smell revolution in the air – the way the people talked. I wonder how long the Mullahs can hold power here before the people throw them out – whether it be at once or a more moderate and slow replacement through political attrition?
As I walked out of the mall I saw another banner and it made me wonder how nervous the Mullahs must be do put up such propaganda…
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