Omid Memarian

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Q&A:A Holiday in Iran
My interview with blogger and globe-trotter Michelle May (First appeared on IPS New Agency)

OAKLAND, California, Aug 26 (IPS) - When Michelle May, an avid traveler, returned to New York's John F. Kennedy airport after a seven-week trip to Iran this summer, she says she was closely questioned and her luggage searched after officials read on her customs card that she had been to the Islamic Republic.

When May asked why she was being subjected to such scrutiny, a customs agent said, "They were the ones who attacked us."

"This response embarrassed me as an American -- to think that there are people in my country who still today are so confused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and who perpetrated them," May told IPS correspondent Omid Memarian in an interview.

The number of U.S. citizens who visit Iran is less than a 1,000 a year. During her 10-week trip in June and July, May posted pictures of herself with ordinary Iranian people on Facebook, a popular social networking website, and continuously updated her blog, drawing considerable comments and attention.

Although U.S. citizens are not allowed to travel in Iran without an official government-approved tour guide with them at all times, May used her Irish passport and was able to travel independently.

May, 35, has traveled to 48 countries over the past decade. Her latest journey included Iran's northern Caspian Sea and border region with Turkmenistan, to Kurdistan along the border of Iraq, and finally to the dangerous region of Baluchistan.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: How were you welcomed in Tehran's International Airport, as an American, and at JFK airport, as somebody who was coming back from a member of the "axis of evil" club?

MM: In Tehran, I quickly passed through immigration and customs, with fellow passengers helping me carry my luggage, and kind smiles from chador-clad female Iran customs agents.

In contrast, back home at JFK I was treated with great suspicion. One customs agent even asked me if the U.S. government had given me "permission" to go to Iran. In fact, I do not need my government's "permission" to go to Iran. Given the fact I have passed through customs over 100 times in my life and never been searched at all until now leads me to suspect that I was treated this way simply because I was coming from Iran.

IPS: What was your impression about Iranians' opinion of the United States and Americans?

MM: Time and time again I was told by Iranians of varying walks of life that they "love" Americans and they badly want a "relationship" with Americans. I never felt unwelcome and I never felt unsafe. In fact, most people I spent time with seemed to be "proud" of me -- for lack of a better word. Many expressed that they wished there were more American tourists.

IPS: What were their opinions of U.S.-Iran relations?

MM: Many expressed that regardless whether they agree with the U.S. government or not, their feelings about my government's acts have no bearing on how they view the individual people of America. Many said they were sad that they could not have more relations with the everyday people of America due to serious visa constraints on both sides prohibiting much tourism.

IPS: As a woman you have to wear a hijab headscarf and mantou, which covers your body. What was your feeling about it and also the women in different parts of Iran?

MM: At the end of two months, I had gotten used to it and see its benefits -- just as many women of Muslim countries do. It is a great deterrent for unwanted male attention, it shelters you from the intense sun, and lastly, it takes the guesswork out of what to wear each day.

In different parts of the country, the hijab changes. In some parts like Kurdistan, and Baluchistan the hijab is much more colourful and casual. While in urban centres black seems to dominate though many times it comes in the form of a skin-tight mantou, in addition to extremely heavy makeup, and bleach blond hair popping out from under the headscarf. The Iranian hijab is open to personal interpretation, unlike other countries in the region.

IPS: You traveled from Iran's Baluchistan, which has been a target by rebels in recent years, groups like Jondollah, who have carried out a series of kidnappings. Weren't you afraid of being kidnapped?

MM: Everyone told me I should be afraid, but I was also told that if I went that I would have a police escort with me anytime I left my guest house, as well as a police motorcade if I decide to travel from one city to the next. I went and found this to in fact to be true. The police made sure that nothing happened to me.

IPS: What do people think of these groups?

MM: The people I spoke with are scared of them and do not travel to that region because of these groups. Those who believe that the U.S. is funding these groups are angry that an outside force is disrupting the peace in their country.

IPS: Do they follow the U.S. elections?

MM: Yes. Many expressed they felt [Democrat Barack] Obama was a man of peace and therefore the man for the job, while others felt that [Republican John] McCain was their preference since he has a "heavy hand". I was surprised to meet some people who agree with the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, the majority of people I met are very sad about what is happening to their neighbours. They know that the outcome of November's elections may affect them.

IPS: What's people general opinion about their government, and particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

MM: Most people I met said they do not feel that Ahmadinejad represents them. Most said that since he came to power their country has gone backwards and that they are suffering, especially economically. They do not simply blame him, however; most I met blame the mullahs who they feel truly call the shots.

IPS: What kind of people did you meet, and how religious did you find ordinary people in different cities to be?

MM: I met a variety of people, but most I met do not consider themselves to be "very religious." Still, they love Islam and the Koran, yet they do not go to mosque every day; among the younger set, I did not meet many who even pray every day. The "very religious people" I did meet were very kind and open to me; they seemed very tolerant.

IPS: What are major differences you saw in Iran versus neighbouring countries?

MM: From what both Sunni and Shiite people told me, it seems Shiite people are more modern in dress, and more flexible in their interpretation of their religion than their Sunni neighbors. Women also are more present in Shiite society, and seem to be a bigger part of the workforce than the neighbouring countries I have been to. At night-time, society is very alive -- parks are packed with families enjoying meals and music; women are out late, laughing, enjoying themselves, and even smoking hookah