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Love-hate relationship in Iran

Visitor finds plenty of the former for Americans, lots of the latter for America

Sunday, December 02, 2001

By Kelly Sobczak, Special to the Post-Gazette

TEHRAN, Iran -- It is 4 a.m. when I awake. I don't know if it is due to the pack of wild dogs outside my window, a mattress that has the consistency of concrete, or the fact that this is my first full day in Tehran and I have an anti-American demonstration to attend.

 
 

Kelly Sobczak, 32, of Bethel Park, worked for the French Government Tourist Office in New York, where she left an overpriced, mice-infested apartment in March to begin traveling around the world. She plans to keep moving until her money runs out. She can be reached at kellysobczak@yahoo.com.

   
 

It is the first Friday since the U.S.-led attacks on neighboring Afghanistan have begun, and the Iranian government is calling on the people to rally at Tehran University for weekly prayers, to be followed by a street protest. When I checked in last evening at the Mashhad Hotel, the manager warned me of the "manifestation," which the government had been promoting all week.

By 6:30 I am roaming the streets of Tehran, which are eerily quiet. As the protest isn't going to start until mid-morning, I decide to keep with the day's theme of anti-Americanism and head to the U.S. Den of Espionage, a.k.a. the former U.S. Embassy. With a newly purchased loaf of bread in one hand and my Lonely Planet guidebook in the other, I go to the spot where 52 Americans were taken hostage in November 1979.

Very few citizens of the Great Satan make it to Iran, but those who do await a surprisingly warm welcome. While their intense hatred for Uncle Sam goes unmasked, Iranians are quick to point out that they have no problems with the American people.

Upon hearing that I hail from the homeland of the enemy, people shake my hands, tell me about their relatives who have made it to America, pay for my bus tickets and invite me for tea. They all express sorrow and outrage about the devastating terrorism attacks on America. Never have I felt more welcomed during my travels, even loved, than in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I know what to expect when I turn onto Taleqani Street, but seeing it takes my breath away. There they are, mural after mural, demonizing my country. The colors are vibrant and the artwork, in some cases, is quite good.

There is the ubiquitous "Down with the U.S.A," along with "When the U.S. praises us, we shall mourn," "United States of America After Gods Occupier Regime (Israel) is the Most Hated State Before Our Nation," and "We Will Make America Face a Severe Defeat."

Twenty-two years after the hostage crisis began, the embassy is now an Iranian military installation, and I can make out armed soldiers patrolling from watchtowers. Photos are forbidden.

Up and down the avenue I stroll, running my hands along a Statue of Liberty whose head is a skull, a gun with the Stars and Stripes painted inside, the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, and a picture of the Iranian passenger jet that was accidentally blown to bits by an American warship in 1988, killing 290 people.

At the former embassy's main gate, my fingertips gently trace the words, "Embassy of the United States of America." The letters were long ago hacked out by irate Iranians, but the shape of the letters and an eagle are still clear to the eye.

With the streets still calm and the guards turned away, I stealthily pull out my camera and start shooting away. After about 10 shots I tuck my camera away, only to spy a guard peering down at me. With a brusque movement of his arm and twitch of his head, he motions for me to leave.

As I turn down the sidewalk I hear him calling out and my pulse quickens. His calls became louder. I force myself to continue walking in a calm and steady manner, without looking back. Once turning the corner I make a mad dash for it.

I have to hurry up, anyway. The anti-American demonstration is going to start soon, and I don't want to be late.

Warm welcome from protesters

As I make my way across town to Tehran University, minibuses with horns honking and young males hanging out of windows weave their way past me. Looks like I am heading in the right direction, I think to myself, but I find out later they are on their way to that afternoon's soccer match, Iran vs. Iraq.

Near the university, security forces block the roads, and a few men and women straggle up the street. Seeing that the entrances are segregated by sex, I follow a few chador-clad women, only to be turned away at the gate.

As it turns out, as a foreign tourist I have to go in through a special entrance. Round and round the campus I turn, hopelessly lost as I attempt to enter the grounds. Finally I approach a guard to whom I say, "Am-er-ee-ka?" In halting English he responds, "Down with," and I figure I am in the right place.

Though locals are starting to flow in, I am instructed to wait until 10 a.m. While sitting on the sidewalk waiting to be let in, I spy a group of young adults who I figure can tell me what is going to happen and when. It turns out they are photography students who speak a smattering of English. At 10:15, the students and a French TV team, armed with the proper paperwork, venture in. I figure I might as well give it a try, too, expecting to be turned away. Not only am I let in, but I am also granted a press pass! -- in exchange for my passport.

After passing my daypack and camera through an x-ray machine and being thoroughly patted down, I am led by an escort to the women-only section, and I quickly locate my female photography friends. For the next two hours I dash around with them, taking shots of women praying for the end of what they say is the U.S.-led aggression in Afghanistan.

The photo opportunities are endless, and seeing a group of young girls brandishing signs calling President Bush a murderer, I race over for some shots. An Iranian woman informs me they are from Afghanistan.

Just then one of the Afghan girls calls out in perfect English, asking what country I am from. Proudly, and some may think stupidly, I tell them I am from the States. Much to my amazement, they gather around me, peppering me with questions, lashing out against the U.S. for attacking their country, while taking turns shaking my hand and asking to have their photos taken with me and their anti-American banners.

When I tell the Iranian women where I am from, they warmly welcome me and express sympathy for the tragic loss of lives on Sept. 11. Many tell me they took part in the candlelight vigil held just after the attacks in memory of the victims but say they cannot condone the killing of innocent Afghanis -- even if it is part of an assault on the Taliban government, an arch-foe of Iran. An Iranian journalist sums up the sentiment by proclaiming over and over, "Blood cannot be washed by blood."

Prayers begin at noon, and I peep over the partition separating the sexes. There is a mass of men, many more than their female counterparts and more angry as well. The holy man leading the day's prayers delivers a stirring speech of which the only words I understand are "America," "terrorists" and "Afghanistan," but I can imagine the meaning. And then it begins, the inevitable chanting of "Down with America," in Farsi.

I expect it, but what I don't expect are the feelings of fear, pride and anger that wash over me as I stand there facing a sea of angry Iranian women damning my country.

'Standing there, I start to cry'

Prayers wrap up around 1 p.m., and it is time for the protesters to hit the streets. With my female Iranian photography friends I rush back to the entrance for journalists to turn in my press pass and retrieve my passport. Thousands of women of all ages, all shouting "Down with America," stream by me. An elderly woman stops and asks where I am from.

Maryam, one of the Iranian girls, tells her I am American. Quick as lightning, the old woman grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me down to her. She kisses me on both cheeks and tells Maryam I am invited to her house. After what I hope was a gracious refusal, she turns away with a smile. As she walks away, her fist pumping through the air, she shouts "Down with America."

Standing there, I start to cry. I think of the thousands still buried under the World Trade Center. I think of their loved ones, some of whom received frantic phone calls minutes before their family members died. I think of the firefighters. I think of the police. I think of New York, a city I called home for more than five years. I think of Ground Zero. And I am furious.

Maryam notices the tears glistening in my eyes and the quivering of my chin, and she reaches out for my hand. I am glad she is there.

Outside the gates the crowd breaks up, with many of the people heading for the streets. Without thinking, I sprint in front of the protest, down the middle of Enqelab Avenue, with my camera bouncing against my chest. The bottom buttons of my rouposh, the long coat that I have to wear in Iran, have long since fallen off, and so the rouposh flaps open to my waist as I race down the street. With one hand I hold on to the camera and with the other I grasp my scarf to my head. I have to get in front of the demonstration so that I can get some good shots.

I run, turn, and snap, and then run farther on. The mob begins to jog and jump up and down. There I am, running down the middle of the street as fast as my flabby frame can go, with the crowd behind me. It feels as if they are coming after me, an offspring of the Great Satan.

As we near Palestine Square, epicenter of the protest, the crowds suddenly get much larger and rowdier. Thousands of men, women, children of all ages are there, united in their hatred for America. Running on the outskirts of the crowd I make my way towards

the center, where an effigy of Bush is being torn apart, stepped on and burned. I didn't vote for the guy, but I feel sorry for him.

There I am, with banners, burning flags and angry Iranians surrounding me, and for an instant I close my eyes because I want to remember this moment forever -- my first demonstration. The fact that it is against my own country and in Tehran, well, that just makes it more memorable.

As I meander back to my hotel, a string of security forces blocks Ferdosi Street, but I slowly make my way down the silent sidewalk. Across from the British Embassy is a camera crew and I ask what's up. As it turns out, the manifestation was going to stop in front of the British Embassy, but the police had blocked the route.

The BBC crew starts closing shop as there will be no action at the embassy. Hearing that I am American, though, they ask to interview me.

With my voice shaking, I speak of my anger and how I feel proud to be an American. How the gulf is so great between our countries, and I don't see how we can bridge it. How I don't understand why Iranians always ask me why Americans don't like Iran and why we don't come to Iran, but why the hell should we, is my response, when you see "Down with U.S.A." from one end of the country to the other. I am rambling, and I don't even know what the hell I'm saying.

Of course, he then asks why I am in Iran, and I say that by some miracle I was issued a visa.

The journalist's ringing cell phone interrupts our interview, but before he takes the call I ask if he is going to use our conversation, to which he responds most likely, yes, for BBC radio. I could die right there on the sidewalk.

That evening, as I take a much-needed rest in one of the city's many traditional teahouses, I reflect on the day's events and the kaleidoscope of emotions they brought out in me.

I realize that most of the 11 million people in Tehran did not support the demonstration, which is reported to have attracted 5,000 protesters. I think of the hospitality that has been extended to me freely and lovingly, and I wish that I had had the forethought to mention that during my interview.



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