What We Talk About When We Talk About Iran
The United States’ image of Iran, and Iran’s image of the US.
Last year, when I was at the University of Iowa, a young female student asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Iran,” I replied.
Then she asked, “Is the president Saddam Hussein?”
In much the same vein, I am often asked, “Do you speak Arabic?” So at this point, nothing will be strange to me, even if I am asked, “Do you use camels to go places in Iran?” Of course I am talking about the general public, whose knowledge of Iran, in most cases, is limited, often incorrect, and far from reality. I don’t mean American academics and the well-educated.
- “Enemy…terrorism…nuclear bomb…war.” These words are often used by American media to describe Iran. The image the media presents is often hazy, incomplete, and distorted. The political and military aspects of my country are covered mainly in a negative light.
- In Under Eastern Eyes (I have adopted the name from the novel Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad), I will write about those topics which American media either cannot or does not want to talk about. The emphasis will be on social and cultural aspects of Iran although, out of necessity, I will talk about politics, despite my despair.
- Yaghoub Yadali, born in 1970, is a writer and television director. His first work of fiction, the short-story collection Sketches in the Garden, was published in 1997. It was followed in 2001 by Probability of Merriment and Mooning, which was named book of the year by the Writers and Critics Award. His first novel, The Rituals of Restlessness, won the 2004 Golshiri Foundation Award for the best novel of the year and was named as one of the ten best novels of the decade by the Press Critics Award. He has also published many articles and reviews of literature and cinema in newspapers and magazines in Iran.
Recently, in a survey, Americans labeled Iran their “biggest enemy.” These are the images the American media has portrayed about Iran.
But what about the other side?
The first contact between Iranians and Americans goes back to 1833 when a priest named Justin Perkins went to Iran as a missionary. However, the first diplomatic relation between the two countries began in 1883. In 1909, Howard Baskerville, a native of Nebraska, joined a movement in favor of the Democratic Revolution against the Shah, Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar. Baskerville fought alongside Iranians and was later killed. Iranians remember him as a martyr and his statue is in one of the museums located in the northwest city of Tabriz. Later, there was Arthur Pope, an American Iranologist who lived and researched in Iran for many years. In his will, he requested to be buried in Isfahan, my birthplace. He and his wife are buried near one of the most popular historic sites in Iran, and those who visit the site also pay him their respects.
There are many cases like the ones mentioned above. In the last 180 years Americans have done so many great things for Iran and Iranians except for one huge mistake: Orchestrating the coup d’etat against the Iranian democratic movement and popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosadegh. He was removed from power by the coup d’etat in 1953. Similarly, Iranians made a huge mistake in 1979 when they invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and took all US diplomats and staff hostage. However, the point is that these two wounds, or historical mistakes, were conducted by governments, and not by Iranians, most of whom do not hold a negative attitude towards Americans.
Because there’s no research or survey available, I have to use my personal experience and knowledge to describe Iranians’ viewpoint towards Americans.
Over the course of the last twenty years of contact with individuals from different backgrounds—friends, colleagues, academia, and the general public—I have rarely encountered any negative opinion about America. The Iranian media—government-run organizations—do everything they can to paint a negative image of America and Americans, but the fact is Iranians use other sources to gather their information: Foreign broadcasters, the internet, movies, and those who travel to the US.
Iranians not only do not see Americans as an enemy, they also admire them in many cases (and some to exaggeration). It can be carefully said that the image Iranians have drawn of Americans is closer to reality than the image Americans have of Iran. Why is it like this? Why do Americans believe all news that tries to paint Iran as an “enemy” and a “terrorist” only interested in building nuclear bombs?
Without a doubt, the behavior and comments of some Iranian politicians such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former President of Iran, played a big role in painting this image. But the fact is, the amount of time and attention paid to news like this is far from balanced and far from Iranians’ daily life.
Iranians are peaceful and for the last two hundred years have never attacked any countries. Even though the Iranian government has been accused of financing terrorist groups over the last thirty years, not a single Iranian citizen has been a part of any terrorist activities against the US. However, even though the governments of Arabic countries haven’t been accused of financing terrorist groups, most of the terrorist acts in recent history have been committed by Arabs who may or may not be related to Al-Qaeda. Despite all this, the US has a better relationship with Arabic countries in which, interestingly enough, anti-American feeling is much more noticeable. Among Middle Eastern countries, Iranians were the only people to gather in public to light candles in solidarity for the victims of September 11, 2001.
The main problem is not that in the US the majority of media outlets are owned by big corporations that control the news. Nor is the main problem that in Iran the majority of media outlets are owned by the government. The main problem could be the societies, who are the ones that have the power to look for alternative information and balance it.