As I fly out of Iran after a visit to the garden city of Shiraz, I am puzzled by your belligerence toward this hospitable country. Mr. Bush, who is it that you fear?Is it the women on the flight from Istanbul, not one of whom put on a headscarf until the plane landed in Tehran? Is it the frowning guard in the "women only" side of security, enveloped in a black chador, asking, "Where are you from?" When I answered, she meekly requested, "Could you help me with my pronunciation?" She had a recitation due the next day in her English class and didn't know how to say several words. When I finally emerged from the women's side my husband thought I had been searched.
Or do you fear our host, a religious scholar whose professional attire is a white turban and a flowing brown robe? He is a philosopher, a teacher, a translator of Thomas Aquinas, a progressive thinker, a caring and sensitive husband and father, and a kind and gentle man.
Or perhaps it is the children of our host, who represent the future of Iran. After all, about 70% of Iranians are under the age of thirty. The serious youngest daughter who studies biology and art at the university combines the qualities of intellect and curiosity, earnestness, and an innocence that one rarely sees anymore in the U.S. Quoting Persian poetry to make a point, the next moment she'll dissolve into laughter at a joke, like twenty-year-olds everywhere. While thinking, she pulls her chador in over her chin, starkly framing her face with a V. At those moments she seems not to be motivated by modesty, but by a wish to create a contemplative space. The beautiful older daughter, also studying science, has been married two years to a man who appears to have stepped out of a miniature painting of a sensitive young poet. He seems the part, too - soft-spoken, kindly, but also fun-loving. She is like a rose to his nightingale; they are very much in love. Or consider the son, a handsome nineteen-year-old with a ready smile. While in England he became great friends with a British scholar, a man in his eighties who he visited every day. When I was around these young people, with their earnest self-reflection and youthful optimism, I felt I was in the midst of a Jane Austin novel except that the female principals wore chadors. Mr. Bush, are these the bogeymen who haunt you?
Or is it their mother, a woman in her forties who could pass as the elder sister of her daughters, a woman whose smile lights up her face and radiates to those around her? Could it be the helpful young woman at the hotel desk with bleached blonde hair spilling out from under her headscarf, wearing bubble-gum pink lipstick - not too much, just a little? Or is it the short, plump woman with the twinkle in her eye, her embroidered Indian dress and her striped socks peeking out from under her black chador, reminiscent of the Fairy God Mother in Cinderella? Is it the man who I met at dinner who translated Huxley's Brave New World into Farsi, now into its third printing?
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Maybe, in fact, it is the president of Iran, a bit of a cowboy like you, a man not known for deep reflection or a scholarly bent, and like you, a man who was little traveled and even less interested in doing so until affairs of state called; the man of whom one of our Iranian friends said, "Americans think he's posturing for them, but actually it's for internal consumption. Their hold on power is so delicate that one sign of their weakness would be the crack that shatters the mirror." Is this what you really fear, Mr. Bush?
Then there was the woman who I spoke to after the talk at the university. She didn't look like a student but was older, a bit frumpy, perhaps someone's mother. She pulled an antique bracelet off her wrist and presented it to me, insisting that I accept it, saying, "Iranians love Americans. Americans used to know this, but they don't anymore."
Judith Ernst is an artist who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.