International Relations (Iran, August 2003)

Before we left for our trip to Iran, we were hesitant. Of course, we knew that our hosts the IPM and mathematicians would treat us well! But we also knew that Iranians as a rule do not like the US government. That's OK; many Americans do not like those in power in the US today. We in turn do not like many of the policies of the Iranian government (in particular, the religious law and the treatment of women). So we worried about the possible effcts of strained relations. Might this be a dangerous place for us?

Of the main 'keynote' speakers for this conference, five (including Rick) came from universities in the US, one from London, one from Denmark,and one from the Netherlands. Other speakers came from Canada, Croatia, Iran, Spain, France, and the US. There were many Iranian graduate students present, as well as other listed participants from Canada, and Turkey, and the US.

We must admit that there were times when we were uncomfortable, for example when we saw large portraits of the ayatollahs displayed on public buildings, and sometimes smaller ones in restaurants. But we want to emphasize how wonderful the Iranian people are. We were treated by everyone we met with great hospitality and friendliness. They make a big distinction between 'Americans' and 'The American Government'.

In fact, Iranians that we met LOVE Americans. It was quite overwhelming. We were asked repeatedly, in markets, on the streets, at the conference: 'Where are you from'? When we answered, the USA, invariably their eyes would light up and they would say something straightforward like: "Iranian people love Americans. We want you to enjoy our country. We want you to remember us, and know the good things about Iran. We are just like you. We wish our governments would get along.' It was very touching, and we were somehow not expecting this. Also we noticed that Iranians, have many striking 'American' characteristics — their informal friendliness, outgoingness, and general enthusiasm. In our two week stay, with limited experience, we cannot pretend to have all the answers. But we can tell you what we saw and heard.

Freeways and freeway signs were just like home.

They also love watermelons in the summer, and have no smoking signs in buses and restaurants. Here's a view from our bus.

The only time we took a cab in Teharan (IPM, our hosts, had a special minibus for our group) the driver asked our translator where we were from. When she explained that Rick was a mathematician from the USA, giving lectures at the conference, he was very excited. She translated: 'He says it is a great honor to be driving you in his cab. He says his wife is studying English. He thanks you for for being his passengers, and would be grateful if you would write in his book, so he could show his wife.' He gave us a notebook to write in and we wrote greetings from America. It was late at night, and we did not get his photo, but here is the minibus that we usually traveled in. ,just outside the guesthouse where we stayed.

Many Iranians speak English. All the talks at the conference were in English, regardless of nationality, Iranian or European. (Actually, every international conference on science or mathematics will normally have all talks in English.) It is taught as a second language in the schools, and people loved to 'practice their English' with us, occasionally someone we did not know would just walk up to us at a marketplace and start talking English to us, asking where we came from and then...told us how they loved America and were hoping we loved Iran too. Signs are often in both Farsi and English.

In a mosque in Isfahan (a beautiful historical city we toured with IPM) the rules were in both languages:

Billboards advertise local products like non-alcholic malt liquor, and digital phones (which were common).

And they make big political statements. This sign reads 'The Islamic Ummah (nation) Will Forever Stand by the side of Palestinians against their enemies', in both Farsi and English. This is the official position of the government. We did not raise this matter with any Iranians.

We thought it was odd when we noticed neatly placed foot high white painted rocks placed at regular intervals around the central square in Isfahan that read in block letters: 'Down with the USA.' When we asked someone about that, they said 'Oh, don't pay attention to that. The government paints those. It doesn't have to do with us.' We were told over and over again that it is 15% minority that support the extremes of the Islamic controlling force, dictating the moral, and dress code and other policies; and even many of those people admire Americans and want us to like them.

Portraits of the founding ayatollahs are displayed on many government buildings, mosques, in hotels, and even in some restaurants.

When we asked about how Iranians felt about the Iraq war, they generally said: 'We don't like Iraq.' There are many billboards honoring martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war, and many Iranians still deeply resent the Iraqi invasion.

Iranians complained that America (Bush) had named Iran as part of the 'axis of evil' and that had made things worse for Iranians because it created support for the ruling powers.

Anyway, to reassure our international group of mathematicians, hesitant to travel at this time, the director of the IPM arranged for extra security. This meant that there was a guard on duty at the entrance to the conference site, and 'plainclothes security people' would travel with us at all times — on walks, on the bus, on tours. At first we did not know who these 'extra' people were, But gradually we realized that they were there to watch out for us. They were mostly quiet, but friendly. By the last night, on a walk, Kathy had a talk with one of them. He too wanted to say 'Iranian people love Americans. We want you to be safe, and remember our hospitality. When Kathy said 'It is our governments that do not get along', he did stop short, and said in the same breath 'But our government is a good one'. A few minutes later he brought us into a small bakery on a sidestreet, where a wonderfully scented traditional flat bread was being baked (a cookie-like one that we had not yet tasted) . He bought a large portion and gave pieces to everyone, smiling and hoping we would enjoy. It was sweet and wonderful. We nibbled on pieces through the darkened streets on our way back to our guest house.

Under the full moon, from our restaurant in the mountain park, we looked down at a city awake. From that thrilling vantage point our international group grew closer. We discussed our shared love of poetry, family, nature,mathematics and art and wondered about the future.