The prospect of going to Iran triggered within me so many mixed emotions - First, excitement and then, trepidation. As a Lebanese American I was concerned about the sanctions and whether I could go. Having resolved this matter and discovered that there were no longer any travel restrictions, I began to look forward to the voyage. I am calling it a voyage because for me it was more than just a trip. A voyage is something where you start somewhere, and you finish somewhere else completely - often in the least of expected of places.
My invitation to the Islamic Republic of Iran came from The Revolutionary Guard via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Embassy. I considered this in itself a great honor. They were inviting a mixed delegation to participate in the celebration of the National Day of the Revolution. However, it was the first time that political women were being included in such an invitation, which I chalked as a worthy milestone, and a source of pride for me as a woman.
We were 3 women in total. There was myself, the President of a Political Party, then Mrs Vera Yammine who is a Member of the Political Bureau of the El-Marada Party and heads up their Media Relations, and finally Dr. Ghada El-Yafi an activist in The Civil Society and a Parliamentary Candidate. Among the men accompanying us was a former deputy, several doctors in medicine and politics, as well as, Sunni, Chia, Druze and Christian religious and political figureheads, in other words, a cross-section representing our Lebanese society.
Having attired myself with scarves and long shirts and sweaters that hide the posterior as required, I set off on this adventure not knowing either our itinerary, our schedule, our destinations, or anything. It was truly going to be a leap in the dark and I was enjoying the unknowability of it all, having decided from the outset to just go with the flow and see what came up.
In 1979, when the revolution occurred, I was 19 and in the middle of some of the worst years of the war here in Lebanon. My family and I had taken refuge in the mountains in Faqra and we were fighting a very big battle against the Al Sa’iqa Army which was being utilized by Syria as a proxy force against us. I was part of the Christian resistance at the time, and therefore I had a very different take on what was happening in Iran. In Lebanon were were fighting for our survival and to preserve our Western ways of life.
In the sixties I had grown up with tales of wonder narrated by my grandfather Camille after his frequents visits to Iran to see his friend the Shah. To this day I remember sitting around the family table while my father Dany and he, discussed the attributes of a very special breed of ram called the Mouflon which they would enjoy hunting in the Northwest of Iran.
Added to this, was the glamour of the Shah’s second wife Soraya whose beauty ravished Lebanon’s high society during their official visits and also the buckets of caviar that would be flown back to Lebanon after my grandfather's visits. Therefore, to be fair, I have to say that when the revolution came about, I was not on the winning side of this event and I looked upon the Ayatollah Khomeini in the same way as did the whole of the Western world at the time, as a fearsome and dire character, who would change Iran for what we believed would be the worst.
Needless to say that I was in London when the Iranian Embassy siege took place and we all followed with terror the Iranian hostage crisis when they seized the US embassy in Teheran. Iran filled the news for a couple of years and then it went dark for the rest of us. But in Iran, something else altogether different was happening which I was about to discover…
As soon as I boarded the plane I was in a different world. The old images of the revolution came back as I took my seat in a plane full of women wearing black tchadors. I had brought a scarf, which I had kept loosely around my neck. I remember the moment when I would have to lift it over my head just before landing. It was a very difficult action for me and I literally had to fight my resistance and force myself to cover my head. My first instincts were not wrong because during the whole time I was in Iran the scarf issue became the one thing which nagged me the most, but it was also to be a catalyst for one of my most joyful insights.
The travel aspect of the trip was at best chaotic but we did not seem to mind. Our small group could find humor in anything. We were confronted with poor scheduling, ad hoc programs, wrong hotel destinations, inaccessible hotels by the bus, breaking down busses, even at one stage, as Vera and I sat in the front row we felt like Sandra Bullock in Speed because our bus could not stop still. If it did it would never restart! We kept coming fearfully close to climbing on top of the cars in front of us, or hitting a passer by because the driver could not slam the brakes! Needless to say, we let out several shrill screeches as we hurtled towards the oncoming traffic, much to the amusement of our stern revolutionary guard guide, Hussein, who looked upon us smiling with confused curiosity.
The hotels we stayed in were rundown and lack luster and in need of repairs! In Teheran we stayed at the Enghelab Hotel which means the Overthrow Hotel. In marketing terms, such a name is not exactly what one would choose, but I did find out that while it had been operated before the revolution by some large international group, after the revolution it was decided that all these large hotels would be given to the associations of the families of the martyrs. These hotels are now run as non-profits and 70% of the revenue goes to the families of the martyrs of The Revolution, hence the lack of commercial and competitive incentive to bring these hotels up to Western standards such as regular WC's. In some cases they only had Arabic toilets, the ones without a seat, just a hole in the ground and a hose to wash yourself down.
Therefore, there was certainly an adjustment to be made for all of us when it came to our accommodations. But then I realized something, that it was the same everywhere we went. Even the Shah’s former winter residence which we were taken to visit - which was by our Lebanese standards a nice villa equivalent to one in Rabieh for instance and for them was a palace and a sign of imperial oppression -Even there, I witness a lack of attention to appearances, some walls were in need of repair, the pathways just left without any care.
I concluded that Iran has been insular for so long that it had not needed to see how others might see it. We are used to having monuments presented in such away as to attract tourist but the same effort is unnecessary with no tourists, and it will be interesting to see, as we enter into this new phase of openness to the West, whether Iran will have to adopt some of these western veneers from which it has so far dispensed including such things as Facebook, twitter, and YouTube which are still banned in Iran.
It is time now for me to talk about the Revolution and its star the Ayatollah Khomeini. After visiting the Shah’s palace, we were taken to the Ayatollah's home and final abode which consisted of two small rooms overlooking a terrace, and our attention was drawn to the contrast between the Shah’s grandeur seeking lifestyle and the Ayatollah’s path of renunciation. Maybe because I myself am a practicing yogini, I can understand the path of renunciation more at this stage in my life, but it suddenly dawned on me in ways that I could comprehend, that the Ayatollah’s Khomeini was worshiped in Iran as a great Guru, an enlightened being who through his self-discipline and courage was able to bring about a social revolution that has feared better than any other revolution in history - Whether it conforms or not with our own political preferences.
Strangely enough, I also believe that the West inadvertently, because of its sanctions on Iran and its isolationist policies towards it, has shielded this revolution from the shocks of the clashes of civilizations for over 37 years, and thus, given the people of Iran the space to grow into their new social order.
The one thing that one does realize about this revolution is that it was implemented in a rigorous and methodical manner with no stone left unturned. I mentioned the hotels earlier but everything else is like that as well. They have given huge consideration to honor their people. The streets are named after their martyrs not their heroes. The respect for their struggle is reflected in everything that they do. The war museum is a chronicle of the long road of suffering that they have endured, including the terrible conflagration with Iraq and their great losses through the chemical attacks waged against them, as well as, the recent assassinations of their nuclear scientists by the Mossad. Everything is memorized, recorded and weaved into the narrative of their triumph.
During one of our long bus Rides I sat talking to a young man called Taha, whose father died only 20 days ago in Aleppo. He was one of their most respected generals. Taha told me that one of the Ayatollah’s main slogans was “Yes You Can”, which is ironic considering Obama’s own dictum during his elections.
However, for the Islamic Republic of Iran the truth is “Yes They Have”. Time and time again after being tested, Iran has proven that it can overcome all adversity. It worked assiduously at being able to refine its own oil when the West was banking on it failing to do so, it has proved time and time again, that it is a major regional military force, it has developed its nuclear capabilities against great adversity, to the point where the West was forced to negotiate with it.
Today, the people of Iran have a very clear sense of their identity and their autonomy. They possess a great unifying pride in their nation’s ability to overcome anything, which also makes them confident that they can withstand opening up economically to the rest of the world.
Whereas over the last half century we have seen social revolutions rise and fall, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, the Islamic Republic of Iran has one advantage over all of them, which is the overarching unifying principle of their fervent Islam - Now made even more intense by the Sunni / Shia divide which is senselessly costing hundreds of thousands of their lives.
The Ayatollah’s resting place is a vast mausoleum paid for by the people. As I stood in its center under the vaulted dome grander than any pharaoh’s tomb, more ornate and intricate, I understood the volume of love that they have for this holy man, whose teachings sought to protect them from the hegemonic imposition of the Western world’s standards and values on a culture unwilling to receive them.
Therefore, my only warning to the West is do not try to change Iran. Do not try by other means to “liberate” the people. Understand this: the people are “free” in their own Iranian way, which needs to be respected, and any move towards liberalization has to emerge from within progressively and steadily as they seem to do best.
I discovered that The Islamic Republic of Iran is different. This is neither good nor bad just different and in this, it is a success story.
As far as my own experiences went, I began each day to value more and more our mixed group of Lebanese, the religious leaders and the lay people, the tolerance, the openness, their non-caring whether we wore scarves or not, their appreciation for our female presence, the respect that they showed us, all these things made me just fall in love with my small little country of Lebanon all over again!
I rediscovered passionately that I love what Lebanon symbolizes. I love that we squabble and argue but ultimately we don’t impose anything on each other religiously. I told a reporter who interviewed me that the difference between Iran and Lebanon is that in Iran they respect diversity under uniformity, but in Lebanon, we uniformly respect our diversity.
So to my great surprise and delight my journey to the Islamic republic of Iran ended with a love affair with Lebanon and a recommitment of my own vows to myself, to defend our uniqueness because we too are different and THAT is good.