Birthday in Tehran: 7 Surprises from Iran

By Philip M. Hellmich

Last week I celebrated my birthday in Tehran. It was a joyous occasion capping off a 14-day trip in Iran that profoundly opened me to a new understanding about one of the oldest civilizations in the world and its people who received our group with open hearts.

This journey to Iran began in September 2015 when Stephen Dinan and I, along with other friends, met with Congressman Jared Huffman in Petaluma, California to encourage him to support the international nuclear agreement with Iran. During our conversation the idea of organizing a trip to Iran was born.

The Shift Network partnered with Cross Cultural Journeys to create a tourist trip to Iran with the intention of helping participants learn more about the people, history and culture of Iran so we could better support efforts to improve relationships between Iran, the United States and other Western countries. We had an exceptional group of nine members from The Shift Network and Cross Cultural Journeys communities on this trip. I was deeply touched by the spiritual and emotional maturity of our group and deeply appreciated how well we traveled together -- we had lots of fun too! We all shared the same intentions of learning as much as we could about Iran so we could help bridge divides. Also, I cannot say enough about our guide Saied “Hadi” Haji Hadi -- who is renown in Iran as one of the best guides with 28 years of experience. More importantly, Hadi blended his expertise with humor, patience and love.

Here are some of the key discoveries we made while in Iran, some of which you may already know, and others that may surprise you:

  1. Many, if not most, Iranians love Americans - Every day while in Iran we were approached by Iranians asking where we were from. When they heard we were from the United States, the responses were always enthusiastically positive, such as "thank you for coming to Iran! You are welcomed here! We love you!" We received several invitations to people’s homes for dinner. It was such an incredible experience of love and good will. We did not have any negative comments in the 14 days in Iran. Many people said they loved Americans and they wished our governments could get along better. I was especially impressed how Iranians were able to make a distinction between their love for Americans and concern about US foreign policies. (Remember: the US and Britain plotted a coup in 1953 to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and restore power to the Shah of Iran.)
  2. Iran is ancient - I was embarrassed to find out how little I knew about Iran’s ancient civilizations and cultures. Even though I loved studying history in high school and college, most of my classes focused on the United States and Europe. As our guide Hadi said, “Western history stops with the ancient Greeks and Romans.” The most that I remember being said in my schools about ancient Iran was that it was the “cradle of civilizations.”

    I was awe-inspired by Iran’s rich history that includes Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus made decrees in 539 B.C. that are considered the first charter on human rights. We also learned about numerous engineering inventions that greatly impacted the world, including the sophisticated qanat water systems that allowed civilizations to thrive in dry environments for thousands of years. To bring history to life, we visited a Zoroastrian Fire Temple with a fire that had been lit for over 1,534 years. We also visited Maymand or Meymand, a village estimated to be over 12,000 years old. Meymand has over 2,600 homes carved into the sides of cliffs, some of which have been inhabited for 3,000 years. While most of the young people of Maymand have moved to urban areas for work, there are still numerous families living in the same homes as their ancestors.
  3. Women are an active part of society - I was surprised to learn that Ayatollah Khomenei had encouraged women to become more engaged in society, receive educations and be part of the work force. Over 60% of college students in Iran today are women. Granted, there is room for improvements for women in Iran -- such as being allowed to attend sporting events -- but it is safe to say that women in Iran have more rights and opportunities than most women in other Middle Eastern countries with the possible exception of women in Israel.
  4. Iran has a culture of supporting homeless and poor - on every street in Iran we saw numerous boxes where money can be donated to support local organizations in providing support to needy people. We also heard that it is common for people to anonymously leave money, food and/or other supplies on the doorsteps of poorer families. We saw very few homeless people on the streets in Iran.
  5. Poetry is an integral part of life - one of the most touching aspects about Iranian life is its rich history with poetry, including the great mystic poets Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and others. Our guide Hadi said that most Iranians learn to recite poetry before beginning kindergarten. While traveling through Iran, we relished reading the mystical poetry that had such depth of heart and soul. When we visited the Mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, I was deeply moved to see people with tears in their eyes as they quietly read Hafez’s poetry of love.
  6. Islam is peaceful in Iran - Islam as practiced in Iran is peaceful and highly accepting of people observing other religions. Several people wanted us to know that the deeper essence of Islam is peace and love. We visited Zoroastrian Fire Temples and Armenian Orthodox churches that were standing side by side with ancient Mosques.
  7. Iran opposes radical Islam - Iran is opposing radical Islam, including the Taliban and ISIS. When the Kurds asked for assistance in fighting ISIS, within three hours Iran had troops on the ground. Many Iranian troops have died fighting ISIS and many Iranians have been killed by the Taliban. Iran is determined to help their neighbors as they do not want radical Islam in their borders. The US has a lot of common ground here with Iran and we would do well to work together better.

There is so much that I can write about the time in Iran and you can see a series of post I am making on The Shift Network’s Facebook page. It was such a profound eye opening experience filled with new discoveries, laughter and love.

The final day of the journey in Iran was on my birthday. It had snowed the night before and we celebrated our time together by going to a nearby mountain to play in the snow. We then had a dinner together where Hadi and his beloved wife, Sohayla, brought a cake and roses as birthday gifts.

Thank you people of Iran for giving me the gift of a lifetime: a glimpse into your hearts and souls!

Philip M. Hellmich is a thought leader in creating a new narrative of peace, from inner peace to international peacebuilding. As the Director of Peace at The Shift Network, Philip is the chief architect of the Summer of Peace, Yoga Day Summit and World Peace Libraryonline global forums that seek to inspire, inform and involve people in the many ways that peace is emerging around the world. He also is the co-lead faculty of the Peace Ambassador Training. To learn more about Philip, click here.


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This article appears in: 2016 Catalyst, Issue 19: Day of Healing and Reconciliation - Please Join Today