Teaching English in Tehran airport

When a friend of mine and her husband, who is a prominent scholar of Iran and Islam, arrived in Tehran at midnight last summer, she was not sure what to expect. In the women’s customs inspection room, the female customs officer took a look at her passport and asked: “Are you American?” Upon hearing my friend’s positive response, the officer started searching under her desk and finally took out a piece of paper. Twenty minutes later, my friend emerged from the inspection room smiling. “What were you doing?” asked her worried husband and their Iranian host. “Oh, I was helping the young woman customs officer with a paper she will present to her English class tomorrow. There were a few words she was not sure how to pronounce!” This happy little anecdote invites a striking observation: it may be easier for an American to travel to Tehran and teach English to an enthusiastic customs officer than to learn about the realities of Iran while living in the United States. The difficulty is, in part, a result of the complexity of Iranian culture and politics, as complex as some of the surprising findings in the recent National Intelligence Estimate. But the truth is that we have come dangerously close to not seeing the forest for the trees. The barrage of conflicting news on Iran and the messages they send obscure rather than clarify matters. Images of the country float in cyberspace divorced from their contexts. And the words uttered by Iranian politicians reach us through a wide range of “creative” translations. Add the rumors, and rationality is totally paralyzed. According to the last one I heard, Yahoo has taken Iran off its list of countries! I decided I won’t even try to check this one out. Surely there are better ways to stop terrorists from e-mailing each other than to disconnect from the world the Iranians that we hope would change their country. Now we have the shocking finding of the NIE that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Public access to this kind of intelligence is an opportunity that comes about only in democratic countries. It must not be wasted just to embarrass politicians and to score partisan points. Rather, it should be utilized as a tool for making openings in the walls of our mutual misperceptions and overcoming the disconnect between the two countries. Surely, the findings do not alter everything. But in their light, it is easier to look beyond the inflated image of the Iranian president and see the millions of Iranians who flock to their TV sets every week to watch the love story of the Iranian man who saves his Jewish beloved and her family from the clutches of the Nazis. Much merits attention in Iran beyond this TV serial. The average age of marriage is now 20 for women, who form about 68 percent of university students and pursue equal opportunities vigorously. The overall rate of literacy is 81.5 percent (86.5 in cities). The infant mortality rate has dropped from 199 to 28 per 1,000 births since the 1970s. And yet the population growth rate has decreased from 3.2 percent to 1.2. These are among the facts that surprised Marcia Inhorn, professor of public health at the University of Michigan, during her 2006 visit to Iran. In her eye-opening June 23 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inhorn pleaded for “an open mind toward Iran.” She has a point. For, even if we are uncertain about the growing abilities of a rising nation, the way to deal with it is to keep the channels of communication open. There are other pressing issues. In order to learn each other’s language, the people of Iran and America deserve opportunities better than midnight, and settings more suitable than a Tehran airport. We have thought about the vocabulary for 30 years. It is time to start the conversation drill. Fatemeh Keshavarz is a poet, translator and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of “Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran” (UNC Press, March 2007).