The following essay is adapted from a talk given by Reed political science professor Darius Rejali at the conclusion of the Fall 2006 Public Policy Lecture Series, Understanding Iran: Images and Realities. Recordings of the lectures can be downloaded at web.reed.edu/public_policy_series/.
A crash course on Iran and the United States would have to touch some key bases: Iran’s past conflicts with the U.S.; the Iran-Iraq War; the changing nature of Iranian social life; Iran’s population growth, democracy, human rights, youth, women, and myriad nationalities; and Iran’s current political posture toward the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Shiite power, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, oil, and nuclear weapons.
But this outline of topics—many of them covered insightfully in “Understanding Iran,” our fall lecture series—leaves out the rhythms and patterns of contemporary life in Iran that weave all these topics together. Insight into daily life can perhaps best be approached personally and anecdotally, and that in turn requires that I tell you a bit about myself.
I was born and raised in Iran and left to attend Swarthmore College in 1977. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, I stayed in the West, pursuing my academic career. My Iranian father and American mother met during graduate school in the U.S., then moved to Tehran in 1959 to work as university professors. They left Iran briefly at the time of the Islamic Revolution, then returned and remained in Tehran through the revolutionary turmoils and the scud missile attacks (the so-called “war between the cities” phase of the Iran-Iraq War) until 1995, when they left permanently for the United States. We have returned several times, most recently to visit family following the death of my grandmother, Princess Ghamardowleh (so named because she was descended from the Qajars, the Iranian royal family that preceded the Shah’s).
The standard “cultural” lecture on Iran would perhaps start with Persepolis and Persian poetry, and I will not do that. Instead, I will focus on ordinary life and experiences, including my father’s emergency hospitalization in Tehran and a bus tour I took with other Iranians to the region of southwest Iran most devastated by the Iran-Iraq War. To put it another way, I will begin with something that is familiar to many people in America—a prostate operation. Then I will speak of something entirely unfamiliar to Americans—a vicious cross-border war that poisoned an ancient land, killed a million people, and indelibly imprinted the current generation of Iranian leaders. Finally, I will return to broader cultural themes of belonging, departing, and remembrance.
Photographs by Darius Rejali