By Martha Hennessy
Sunday was my first Mother’s Day without my mother. She passed away in March, her birth month. She was the daughter of Dorothy Day, Catholic convert, radical journalist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.
Both my mother, Tamar, and Dorothy continue to be a great influence on my life, and my recent trip to Iran with Global Exchange, a citizen’s diplomacy organization, was an outcome of that influence. As I traveled through the incredible landscape inhabited by calm, focused, hospitable, and physically beautiful people, I remembered my first introduction of appreciation for Middle Eastern culture coming from my mother and grandmother. They spoke of rosewater, pomegranates, mosques, geometry, the Five Pillars of Islam (especially charity), the Silk Road, sundials, and Persian carpets. In my childhood the seeds were planted for my pilgrimage to this land.
I am gravely disturbed about a possible U.S. military strike against Iran as part of the “war on terror.” Also one of our presidential candidate’s choice of words regarding her willingness as a world leader to “obliterate” this country makes my heart quake.
What did I see and hear in Iran? I saw beauty and a subtle daily thanks to God. I saw every day people dealing with inflation and working very hard to pay for food and housing. I heard of their concern about their president’s ability to lead. I felt their happiness at meeting Americans and listened to their praise for our country and for our pursuit of democracy.
Iran, or Persia, has an ancient history of civilization beginning in the 12th century BC. The people of Iran are very proud of their history and rightly so. Their cities had running water 7,000 years ago, and their ancient structures were earthquake proof. There have been many rulers, beloved and hated, endless invasions, and many layers of a rich history, one built upon the next. Much of our culture draws upon this “cradle of civilization” regarding language, food, architecture, and religion. One of my favorite examples is the word “paradise,” meaning walled garden. And the gardens! They are spectacular with water features, painted tiles, evergreens, roses, and symmetrical layouts.
We visited Roshyngar Girls’ High School, a high-ranking conservative high school in Tehran, where we were shown aspects of the educational system, which is supported by government funds, charities, parent donations, and endowments. The school consisted of 1,000 children from infants through high school. Several of the adults who worked at the school had their own children in their arms. Our meeting began nervously because the school administration was unsure of our motivations, due to the recent tensions between our governments, but by the end of our visit, we had to be dragged away by our guide.
We met a group of middle-school-aged girls out at recess, playing under shade trees with pup tents, and with their head scarves (hijabs) off. I struggled with the concepts of separating the boys and girls, and creating education with a religious focus. Also as an occupational therapist, I asked about students with special needs, and I was told that they are placed in special schools with well-trained staff. The overall impression of this school was one of happy, healthy-looking students and orderly, graceful classrooms.
In the city of Isfahan our group met with Grand Ayatollah Saide Hassan Emami, age 73, father of seven children, and considered a reformist. He was very soft-spoken and gave generously of his time. Our interview took place under a grape arbor surrounded by mulberry trees. A religious TV network that was to be broadcast to Iranians in Europe and America taped our discussion. (Look up salaamtv.com for further information.) When asked what he considered to be important characteristics of a spiritual leader, the ayatollah spoke of the need for a solid education in the sciences, sociology, all major religions, and the ability to teach people. He stated that it was important to be aware of the people’s condition and to care about improving their lives.
His son, who spoke to us before his father entered, also stated the need to work with opposition groups and to keep one’s own selfish instincts in check. On the question of what should we as American visitors bring back to the U.S. as a message from Iran, we were asked to spread the word about what the people were like. We were asked to think carefully, to learn more before making conclusions, to seek out information actively and not simply believe what mass media report. He also suggested that, when dealing with world issues, we consider the bigger picture, and that not using religious and political motivations could help resolve conflict.
On the question of war, the ayatollah stated that arming for war is haram, a sin. Seeking war, imposing war is unjust. If one’s rights are being threatened, they must be defended, but it is better to find nonviolent solutions. He said the American threat is not good for the minds of the Iranian people, but they have seen many crises and must carry on in their daily lives. When asked who he hopes to win in the U.S. election, he said he had no real knowledge of the candidates, but he hopes whoever wins will make the people happy and work for their well being.
On the question of Islamic teachings adjusting to modernity, he stated there is no threat as long as modern living doesn’t work in opposition to God’s teachings. I had to fall back on my understanding of those teachings in Christianity as well, the lessons of love and caring for one another.
My visit to Iran confirmed for me that this is a country with people like ours, with the same basic needs and desires in life, and that we share much of the same religious teachings. I also left feeling that there are attainable and viable solutions to our conflict. The people of Iran are ready for whatever comes. Are we?
Martha Hennessy is a resident of Weathersfield.