The Iran We Don't See: A Tour of the Country Where People Love Americans

Merhad then said he'd always wanted to lead a group of Americans. I asked why.

"I don't think Americans know very much about our country," he replied.  "All this talk about regional power and nuclear arms -- that's politicians talking. No one listens to them. We're really a very simple people -- like Americans."

When we parted, Mehrad fished in his wallet and handed over a business card. "If you need anything in Iran," he said, "anything at all, let us know. We really like Americans."

Virtually all forms of American popular culture -- movies, music, television programs -- are officially "banned" in Iran. The result is a thriving black market in American pop culture that is as deep, vast, and heavily trafficked as the New York subway system. Blown-up, black-and-white photos of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro hang on the walls of the Coffee Palace café outside the Jana-Nana Museum in northern Tehran. The walls at Market, a restaurant in the Gandhi Street Shopping Center, are decorated with 1930s-era photographs of San Francisco and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Upstairs in the Café Française, a faded poster for Clint Eastwood's For a Few Dollars More is tacked to the ceiling.

For decades, the Iranian film industry has been the Middle East's most vibrant, even though its most accomplished practitioners -- Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, and others -- have long worked in exile and their films are often banned in Iran. But the Internet has made pop hits easy to download anywhere on the planet, even in the fanatically repressive Islamic Republic, so pirated DVDs of Hollywood releases can appear on Iranian streets before the films appear onscreen. Thus, for many young Iranians, the world of cinema offers a ground on which the U.S. and Iran can meet as equals.

"Who's your favorite director?" Golnaz asked me after dinner one night in the city of Hamedan, 150 miles west of Tehran. She and Arash, her companion, had invited me over to their takht, the bed-like platform where groups of Iranians traditionally sit, converse, sip tea, and munch from a smorgasbord of dishes as long as the food, drink, and conversation hold out, which can make for long evenings.

Golnaz was a fan of Martin Scorsese, especially Raging Bull, The Departed, and Goodfellas. Arash was partial to Robert Altman, but he had seen so many of his films he couldn't pick a favorite. But he did disclose his prize possession: a set of the complete songs of Elvis Presley, which he had downloaded from the Internet for 10,000 Iranian rials, the equivalent of about 80 U.S. cents.

As we picked over the last of the rice and chicken kebabs, I told them of an experience the day before on the outskirts of Esfahan, climbing to the top of a hill that is capped with the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. Also on his way to the top was Mohammed, a university student majoring in English translation whose true desire was to become an actor -- in American movies. Once at the temple, we looked out over the city and Mohammed asked if there might be a need for Iranian actors in Hollywood.

Given the stature of the Iranian film industry I was surprised. Golnaz wasn't.

"Of course," she said. "Everyone wants to go to the U.S."

Khalid, a studious, serious-minded media and communications major at Hamedan University, wasn't interested in discussing music or movies or boasting about his Elvis collection. We met in Hamedan's main square one evening while I was hunting around for a place for dinner. He led me to a basement restaurant, where we ordered grilled fish kebabs and talked politics -- specifically, American democracy.

"We don't want all this religion in public life," he said. "It should be private, not a part of government in any way -- like it is in the U.S."

I asked him what kind of government he'd like to see should the Islamic regime suddenly collapse. His answer was simple: "A democracy, like the U.S."

I asked him what was so appealing about the American government.

"The freedom."

"What do you mean, 'freedom'?"

"Anyone can say what they want, write what they want, do what they want."

"Freedom, like it is in the U.S." -- I heard variations on this so often that the words almost lost their meaning, or they could mean anything at all, depending on the perspective of the speaker. American "freedom," mythical or not, feels tangibly real to most Iranians, but in a savagely brutal police state like Iran the bar is so low that almost anyone's definition can clear it.  It is a notion as vague in concept as in application, and often reduced to a simple definition: anything not found in Iran.

In Shiraz, leaving the tomb of Hafez and its tree-lit, park-like grounds one night, I was stopped by three chemistry students from the local university. They asked, of course, where I was from.

"We just love America!" one cooed.

They had never been to the United States, but one had cousins living in suburban Los Angeles and another's brother was attending the University of Miami. I asked them what was so attractive about this country that they had only heard about from relatives and seen in pirated Hollywood movies.

"The freedom!" one replied.

"What kind?" I asked.

"From this!" another chimed, fingering the edge of her headscarf.

At Persepolis, the ancient Persian administrative capital sacked by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., another group of young men had similar sentiments. The 20-somethings approached me under the awning of the site's museum. The mid-June afternoon sun was blazing, so striking up a conversation with a visiting foreigner was a fine way to beat the heat.

"We want more freedom," Mohammed said. All around him, heads nodded in agreement.  "We want places to listen to music, socialize, meet people -- like in the U.S."

Again, heads nodded.

I asked them if they would migrate to the United States if they had the chance. All the heads nodded.

"We know we could learn a lot from the U.S.," Khalid, the Hamedan University student I'd met for fish kabobs, told me, "but we think the U.S. could learn a lot from us too. We've been here for several thousand years, but the U.S. is still a very young country. We've had a tradition of music and art and poetry built up over centuries. Nothing in the U.S. can match that."

Another hot afternoon a few days before in the bazaar in Yazd, a carpet seller had spotted "New York" stamped across the front of my T-shirt. He leaned out of his shop to shout, "I like your president!" Later the same day, the caretaker of the grand mosque saw an opportunity to exercise some minimal English: "Obama, good!" he said, adding a thumbs up.

Two days before I left Iran, the maid at the hotel in Shiraz paused in sprucing up my room to ask where I was from. I told her, and immediately her face brightened and her eyes glowed. The next morning she spotted me on the way to breakfast and from the far end of the hallway and called out in halting English, "Good morn ing!"

But, in all my time in Iran, I have heard few greater expressions of support for America than the words of the young man wiping the tables in the Azedegan Teahouse just off Esfahan's Imam Square. The cafe draws the occasional tourists and out-of-town visitors, but its bread-and-butter clientele are the clusters of shisha smokers who spend long hours puffing on water pipes and young couples who come to (discreetly) nuzzle in the back room. It was past closing time and most of the customers had left. Curious about the lone foreigner who had spent the past two hours nursing a pot of tea, he asked me where I was from. Then he rushed to the TV hanging in a corner overhead and turned it on. The U.S. soccer team had just beaten Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match and was playing again that night. "Go, America!" he shouted, pumping his fist in the air.

Iranians know their history well, and the Islamic Republic does not waste an opportunity to remind them of their country's prickly relationship with the "Great Satan." So Iranians are well aware that the CIA was largely behind the toppling of their first populist leader, and that an increasingly repressive Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was supported by a series of American presidents (images of Richard Nixon sharing a Christmas eve champagne toast with the shah often serve in state propaganda) but this history alone does not define the Iranian perception of America, and is even downplayed, or even dismissed. Elsewhere in the Middle East, memories of American misdeeds are long, but much of Iranian society has chosen the path of selective amnesia. For the moment, the past sins of the United States are forgiven, or at least forgotten. For the moment, the United States holds almost iconic status, perhaps because, as long as such an ideal exists, even if it is mostly a perceived ideal, Iranians can envision a much more promising future for their own country. That the United States ever lives up to such expectations is beside the point. The symbol is also a goal, a destination that they believe is worthy of their aspirations, and in this respect they also regard the United States as an equal, or a potential one.

Of the many things that the 30-year-old stalemate in U.S.-Iran relations demonstrates, one of them is Americans' shallow understanding of Iran and Iranians, who do not regard the U.S. as an unfamiliar, hostile, and alien land. Iranians lack easy access to uncensored media but are savvy enough to debunk much of  the state media they do receive. Americans are bombarded with information and images from Iran, the stories as powerful as they are ubiquitous, yet almost always framed by the country's conflict with the U.S.: wild speeches from the anti-American president, the controversial nuclear program, suppression of protestors, and not much else. With few Iran issues treated with the depth they deserve, stereotypes are reinforced and existing perspectives hardened. 

One November afternoon, I was standing in a windswept valley somewhere between Esfahan and Shiraz. Off the side of the road, workers were restoring a 300-year-old mosque. The architect in charge happened to be onsite that day. He brought out a photo album and showed me pictures of other historic buildings he had renovated as part of a government-supported restoration campaign. As we parted, he put in a bid for another project: "Tell Obama I will redesign the White House. Anything to improve the relationship between the American and Iranian people."


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Christopher Thornton teaches writing at Zayed University in Dubai.

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