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July 22, 2008

Cultural Exchanges Cannot be Ignored, Part 1 of 2

The following is a two-part series on cultural exchanges. The first part discusses American journalists and tourists in Iran, and the second part will discuss Iranian musicians performing in the US.
Part One:

Iranian-Americans, non-Iranian Americans, and Europeans have all been working these last few years since the Islamic Republic opened up (to a certain degree) during the Khatami Administration to promote unofficial cultural ties between the peoples. Since Khatami was sworn in in 1998, more and more people each year began to travel to and from the country.
A poll conducted by worldpublicopinion.org and published in April of this year showed that 63% of Iranians favor “greater cultural, educational, and sporting exchanges”, and 71% favor having “more Americans and Iranians visit each others’ countries each year”.
There are numerous examples of cultural exchanges and tourists visiting the other country but they are largely ignored in the media, which tends to focus on the government-to-government, negative rhetoric so infamously expressed by missile tests and angry speeches. It is important to remind ourselves of these ties, as they do represent the grass-roots basis of present-day diplomacy.
The Wards, an American family that lived in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution, travelled back in 1998 to find their long, lost head-of-house, a man named Hassan. Terence Ward details their journey, from childhood in Tehran to their 1998 search for Hassan, in his book, Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran (2002). In it, Ward exposed an Iran that had seldom been heard of by Western ears in the preceding two decades, a people truly misunderstood.
In late May/early June of 2005, actor and director Sean Penn went to Iran to report on the political situation there, as the presidential elections were being held. He travelled as a journalist and later published a five-part expose in the San Francisco Chronicle, describing the political climate in Tehran in the run-up to the presidential elections of that year.
More recently an American journalist went to Iran to see if the bad publicity found in Western media was true or not. He made a film about children in Iran called ‘Hot Tea and Cool Conversation’. It will be featured at Beyond Persia’s ‘Fall for Iran’ cultural festival, a 60-day event that will feature dozens of films from Iran, 2 art exhibits, 5 concerts, comedians, and all-Iranian dance companies.
Likewise, the work of Greek-British journalist and photographer Iason Athanasiadis, who received his masters in international politics in Tehran, was displayed at the Smithsonian until the 11th; the exhibit was called ‘Children of the Iranian Revolution’. His work will also be featured at ‘Fall for Iran’.
According to Penn, fewer than 500 non-Iranian Americans visited Iran in 2004. It is very difficult for non-exiles to secure visas to travel to Iran, even journalists have a hard time securing documentation and getting approval – Penn and his two friends ‘slogged through U.N. attaches and the cultural and foreign ministries of the Islamic Republic of Iran and swam doggedly upriver through the multiple bureaucracies that lead to a journalist’s visa’ over the course of a month and a half.
On my own trips I have had a different experience. I have seen American tourists at Persepolis, Japanese in Shiraz, Africans in Tehran and Arabs in Mashhad.
Reading accounts of non-Iranians’ experiences in Iran, and vice-versa, is crucial to understanding Persian culture, the Iranian nation and its mentality. Within this context, the role of music is essential, and I will discuss ‘musical exchanges’ later this week in Part 2.

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