Rick Steves Visits Iran: Friendly People, Unfriendly Signs
“Death to Hatred and Militarism”
Rick Steves finds friendly people and unfriendly signs in Iran during a 2008 visit
By Rick Steves
I’m working in Iran, part of the “axis of evil” (as defined by my president) in a land whose own president leads chants of “Death to America.” This has me thinking about bombast and history.
Of course, the word “axis” conjures up images of the alliance of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito that our fathers and grandfathers fought in WWII. Many locals in each country believe that each president maintains his power only by his ability to stir the simplistic side of his electorate with such bombast.
Bombast hogs the headlines, skewing understanding between the mainstream in each country.
If the typical American knows anything about the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad (whose name I cannot pronounce), it’s his recent comments about gays and the Holocaust (which, I would imagine, was designed to shore up his political base).
The buzz lately in Iran about the American election is what McCain (who famously rewrote the lyrics of the Beach Boys classic song, “Barbara Ann,” to become “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran”) or Hillary (who recently said she would annihilate Iran if it attacked Israel) would do if elected president.
And as I explore and experience this country, I can’t avoid the hateful images and slogans. Like our children start each school day pledging “allegiance to one nation under God,” Iranian kids chant hateful slogans against the Great Satan and its 51st state, Israel.
Rather than marketing products to consume, billboards sell a political/military/religious ideology. They glorify heroes who died as martyrs, taunt the US, show the stars and stripes of Old Glory made of Stars of David and falling bombs, and so on.
I try to make sense of the fearmongering and billboard hate, which mixes with huge smiles and welcomes. People greet me with a smile. Invariably, they ask where I’m from. I often say, “You tell me.” They guess and guess, running through 9–10 countries before giving up.
Finally, I say “America” and they are momentarily shocked, thinking, “I thought Americans hate us. Why would one be here like this?” Their smile leaves their face. Then a bigger smile comes back as they say “Welcome!” or “I love America.”
In a hundred such interactions in ten days in Iran, never once has my saying “I am an American” resulted in anything less than a smile or a kind of “Ohhh, you are rich and strong,” or “People and people together no problem, but I don’t like your president.” It’s clear to me that Iranians like our president as much as Americans like Iran’s.
It’s ironic that in most countries these days, Americans find they’re better off keeping a low profile. But here, in a country I’m told hates me, my nationality has been a real plus — absolutely everywhere I’ve gone.
By the way, our government guide has not stopped me from going anywhere or talking to anyone. We haven’t been able to film just anywhere, but I’ve been free to roam about on my own without him and have fun connecting with locals.
And I have absolutely never traveled to a place where I had such an easy and enjoyable time connecting with people. Young, educated people speak English. Locals were as confused about and fascinated by me as I was about them.
Hezbollah and the Contras
I think that, from an Iranian perspective, Iran is to Hezbollah as the US was to the Contras. (Supporters of Israel and the Sandinistas would find both Hezbollah and the Contras evil.) Everyone here understands that the Iranian president is more extreme than their supreme leader, Khamenei (the Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor). However, the supreme leader is more powerful than the president. All over town, you see posters and quotes from Khamenei… never the president.
The Iranian president has a kind of Hugo Chavez notoriety around the West for his wild ideas: “Death to Israel,” and “The Holocaust didn’t happen,” and “We have no homosexuals” and so on.
He is an ideologue. His ideas make sense to him as does his bombast. He believes that since Germany killed the Jews, Germany should now house them. He doesn’t see the rationale of displacing Palestinians to provide Israel a homeland because of Germany’s genocide against the Jews.
In our hotel last night, I saw a short news documentary on Al Jazeera. Even without understanding the language, the images spoke powerfully.
They showed the towering American-funded wall being built today in Palestine concrete block by concrete block… literally blocking the sunshine from Palestinian communities and making them look and feel like corralled animals. Anyone watching this with an empathy for Palestinians (i.e. the entire Muslim world — a billion people) would be charged with angry emotions.
While the Iranian president solidifies his political base by saying “Death to Israel,” his unwavering policy is that when Palestine accepts the existence of Israel, Iran will too.
A stop at the former US Embassy
We stop at the former US Embassy, which hosted the 444-day-long hostage crisis still so profound in the minds of many Americans.
(For many who are angry with me for visiting our “arch enemy,” that 30-year-old media circus remains the defining event in their mindset toward Iran. It seems that because of this national humiliation, they consider it unpatriotic for a citizen like me to come here as an ambassador of understanding and goodwill.)
Our guide is almost proud to let us walk the long wall of anti-American murals. He encourages us to film it, making sure we know when the light is best for the camera.
As a gang of revolutionary students captured the world’s attention by insulting the US, this was a great moment for Iran. But that was 30 years ago — and today, most Iranians weren’t even born yet, and they seem happy to let the murals fade in the sun.
As we were struggling to drive away in a horribly congested street, our guide made a telling aside. He declared, “Death to traffic.” Then he said, “Because we can do nothing about this traffic, we can all say ‘Death to Traffic’.”
Did he mean kill all those drivers that were in our way? Does Iran really mean death to the US and Israel? Or is it a mix of international road rage, fear, frustration — and the seductive clarity of a catchy slogan? This quirky cultural trait might be worth looking into and trying to understand.
All I’ve got to say is, “Death to hatred and militarism based on misunderstanding, fear and national pride.”
Rick Steves has been a fixture on PBS and other stations for decades and owns a tour company that offers trips to Europe. His book Rick Steve’s Guide to Italy is one of the best-selling travel books of all time.
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