I didn't go to Iran as a businessman or as a politician. I went as what I am — a travel writer. I went for the same reasons I travel anywhere: to get out of my own culture and learn, to go to a scary place and find it's not so scary, and to bring distant places to people who've yet to go there. To me, understanding people and their lives is what travel is about, no matter where you go.
I have long held that travel can be a powerful force for peace. Travel promotes understanding at the expense of fear. And understanding bridges conflicts between nations. As Americans, we've endured the economic and human cost of war engulfing Iran's neighbor, Iraq. Seeing Iraq's cultural sites destroyed and its kind people being dragged through the ugliness of that war, I wished I'd been able to go to Baghdad before the war to preserve images of a peacetime Iraq. As our leaders' rhetoric ramped up the possibility of another war — with Iran — I didn't want to miss that chance again. It's human nature to not want to know the people on the receiving end of your “shock and awe” — but to dehumanize these people is wrong. I wanted to put a human face on “collateral damage.”
It's not easy finding a middle ground between “The Great Satan” and “The Axis of Evil.” Some positions (such as President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust) are just plain wrong. But I don't entirely agree with many in my own government, either. Yes, there are evil people in Iran. Yes, the rhetoric and policies of Iran's leaders can be objectionable. But there is so much more to Iran than the negative image drummed into us by our media and our government.
I left Iran struck more by what we have in common than by our differences. Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones. Just like my country, Iran has one dominant ethnic group and religion that's struggling with issues of diversity and change — liberal versus conservative, modern versus traditional, secular versus religious. As in my own hometown, people of great faith are suspicious of people of no faith or a different faith. Both societies seek a defense against the onslaught of modern materialism that threatens their traditional “family values.” Both societies are suspicious of each other, and both are especially suspicious of each other's government.
When we travel — whether to the “Axis of Evil,” or just to a place where people yodel when they're happy, or fight bulls to impress the girls, or can't serve breakfast until today's croissants arrive — we enrich our lives and better understand our place on this planet. We undercut groups that sow fear, hatred, and mistrust. People-to-people connections help us learn that we can disagree and still coexist peacefully.
Granted, there's no easy solution, but surely getting to know Iranian culture is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, even the most skeptical will appreciate the humanity of 70 million Iranian people. Our political leaders sometimes make us forget that all of us on this small planet are equally precious children of God. Having been to Iran and meeting its people face to face, I feel this more strongly than ever.
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You are reading "Reflecting on My Motives in Iran...and the Real Souvenir I Carried Home", an entry posted on 19 April 2010 by Rick Steves.