Comments on My Travel in Iran
(March 8-15, 2011)
For many years, I have been in email correspondence with a young Iranian philosopher, who has translated a number of my papers into Farsi and had them published in Iran. Under the auspices of the Academy of Iranian Sciences and Culture, he organized a conference on Religious Doctrines and the Mind-Body Problem and invited me.
My husband, Tom Baker, and I had a thrilling (not too extravagant a word) trip to Iran. We had no difficulties or delay stemming from any authorities--Iranian or US. Once we got the visas, getting in and out of Iran was a snap. We didn't even have any problems with US customs. So, although I had been apprehensive about the trip beforehand, it turned out just fine.
More than just fine. The conference was exciting (and huge--100s in the audience, with about 45 papers in all). There were speakers from Jordan, Egypt, Sweden, Ghana, England, Finland, Lebanon, and Austria, as well as Iran and the US. The talks were in English or Farsi, with simultaneous translations.
We found points of similarity between Islamic and Christian theology: Both traditions endorse doctrines of an afterlife, for example. The Muslims are more closely tied to interpreting the Qur'an than we are (or at least than I am) to interpreting the Bible. We had several small sessions with about 20 people in which Ed Wierenga (philosopher from the University of Rochester) and I explained our views on souls; the audience of Muslims asked questions or made comments. Philosophy in Iran is very scholarly. It is closely tied to texts that propound religious doctrines of the soul. (However, the philosophers took an interest in my view, despite the title of my conference paper, “Persons Without Immaterial Souls”.)
At these small sessions, I was usually the only woman in the room, surrounded by men, many of whom were in clerical dress and turbans; except for my all-black, full-body-coverage clothing, the discussions were much like ours (but noticeably more polite). I was always treated very well.
After the conference, as promised, we had a trip to Isfahan and Shiraz. Women treated the dress code somewhat more casually in these other cities. Guides, drivers and a wonderful mullah accompanied us. Although we were always under their watchful eyes, I never felt restricted: we were too busy seeing and doing fascinating things. We had a convoy of four cars, each with a driver and guide, from Qom to Isfahan. Our hosts flew us from Isfahan to Shiraz and then back to Tehran. We stayed in first-rate hotels; we were frequently plied with "snacks"--bananas and oranges. (I really enjoyed the food.) The logistics were extremely complicated and were carried out very smoothly by men constantly on their cell phones. The Iranians’ organizational skills are daunting.
We saw many mosques and shrines of surpassing beauty. The shrine to the the poet, Hafez, stood out as extraordinary—with its delicate lighting and carving. The Iranians for centuries have been masters of tilework and stonework, as Tom said. Near Shiraz are three dazzling World Heritage Sites: tombs and reliefs in stone of Darius the Great, Xerxes, Ataxerxes and Darius II; the tomb of Cyrus the Great with ruins of palaces lying around; then--breathtakingly--Persepolis, with enough remains that you could imagine the original grandeur before Alexander the Great's army destroyed it in 330 BCE.
People on the streets were often very friendly. The population is young and exuberant. Teenagers, especially, would venture a giggling "hallo" as they passed. We attracted crowds of boys who ignored me, and of girls who ignored the men. They were astonished to discover that we were from America. Everyone wanted to be photographed with us. Among the girls, I felt like royalty.
To me, the relations between men and women were among the most striking features of Iran. Men and women do not walk together or talk to each other unless they are related or married to each other. Men do not touch or shake hands with women. By law, all women, including foreigners, must be fully covered from head to toe. In the Holy City of Qom, women are covered all in black in heavy, hot clothing, with nary a hair (or much of a face) showing. (Men too dress modestly but more comfortably, in trousers and long-sleeved shirts.) The women I met were as intelligent and animated as the men: but as soon as a man came up, they lapsed into silence.
Women sit separately from men in lectures and mosques and go through separate security checkpoints at airports (the only advantage I saw). However, the relations between men and women are more complex than they first appear. Men love their wives and children, and there are more women than men in universities. Women can teach women, but not men, in universities; men can teach both men and women. One of the cabinet ministers is a woman. An encouraging sign: At a magnificent ancient unused mosque, there were a number of young women, all in black, with laptops and graph paper. They were architecture students (Later, I saw two of the students measuring the distance between two columns), and they did not appear to be watched.
Today’s Iran is a theocracy—and not in name only. There are religious police to maintain public conformity to a particularly stringent interpretation of the Qur’an. (Sitting in the courtyard of a Holy Shrine, a man in our group sharply berated two teenaged girls for some infraction; the only word that I could make out was ‘Sharia’.) At the gas stations on the highway, there are places to pray, separate for men and women. Hotel rooms have arrows on the ceilings pointing toward Mecca. The Iranians we were with are openly devout and prayed five times a day. Calls to prayer are transmitted on the radio. We were always respectful, and none of the religious rules, with the possible exception of the prohibition of alcohol, affected us.
At the end of our visit, we were showered with beautiful gifts--books, including the Holy Qur'an; DVDs; boxes of candy and nuts; briefcases; a lovely wall-hanging. The Iranians really deserve their reputation for hospitality and generosity. The trip was just amazing.