The Moon, the Corps, and the War




It is the clouds that make the snow and hail,
And thunder comes from lightning without fail;
The sea is stormy when the winds have blown,
But it deals fairly when ’tis left alone.

— Plutarch, Lives: Solon

¤

“‘THE EAGLE HAS LANDED’ — Two Men Walk on the Moon.” This was the Washington Post’s headline on Monday, July 21, 1969, printed in very large letters running the full width of the newspaper. Right below it was a fuzzy photo of two astronauts planting the American flag on a rugged surface right in front of the Eagle — the lunar module that had descended to the surface of the Moon some eight hours earlier. The Eagle had been launched into space on Apollo 11 five days before, on July 16. Thousands of spectators had camped out at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the launch, which was broadcast live to roughly 600,000,000 people around the globe. It was to this far-flung set of people that Buzz Aldrin, the Eagle’s pilot, radioed the following message: “This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

Aldrin, who had taken communion privately in the lunar module, didn’t allude to that, because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was still fighting a lawsuit brought by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who had objected to the Apollo 8 crew reading from the Book of Genesis, stating that the astronauts should not broadcast religious activities while in space.

The naming of the program after Apollo — the ancient Greek god of light, music, and the Sun — allegedly originated in the imagination of a NASA manager, who had once mused, “Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.” In the ensuing decade, almost half a million Americans got involved, directly or indirectly, in the Apollo project, helping Apollo ride his chariots, if not across the Sun, at least around the Moon and finally onto its surface.

On March 5, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a televised speech, declaring the creation of a volunteer program called the Peace Corps, with the stated mission of helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and of helping Americans understand the cultures of other countries. The Peace Corps Act of September 21, 1961, passed by the US Congress, stated the purpose of the program as follows:

[T]o promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.

In the five-plus decades since that date, roughly a quarter of a million Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in almost 150 countries, including Iran.

Even earlier, on January 20, 1961, in his inaugural speech as the new president, John F. Kennedy had made yet another pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” Unfortunately, this commitment translated, years later, into a heavy US involvement in Vietnam, which escalated into a full-fledged war that continued through 1975, costing 60,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese lives, and provoking the vast antiwar protests of the late ’60s and early ’70s all over the United States and around the globe.

The decade of the 1960s was also a time of “long strides” in Iran. On January 26, 1963, the Shah, who had been brought back to power 10 years earlier in a CIA-orchestrated coup d’état, put his ambitious modernization program, called the White Revolution, to a referendum, gaining an overwhelming approval from the populace. Among its 19 principles, the program included key measures such as land reform, nationalization of forests, voting rights for women and religious minorities, compulsory education, and reforms to modernize schools, but it also involved the formation of three major corps: the Literacy Corps, the Health Corps, and the Reconstruction and Development Corps.

These reforms, believed to have been not only inspired by Kennedy’s policies but “dictated” to the Shah by the US administration, enjoyed only partial success — partly because of their top-down and dramatic nature and partly because of opposition from conservative clergy, who were especially troubled by the United States’s cultural influence, especially on women, as well as its political influence, as embodied in the Capitulation Laws, which provided legal immunity to Americans against any crime they might commit in Iran. It was for such reasons that, on January 21, 1965, a few days before the anniversary of the White Revolution, Hassan Ali Mansur, the Iranian prime minister, was assassinated by a member of Fada’iyan-e Islam at the entrance of the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament).

Despite the partial success of the White Revolution in lowering illiteracy, improving health, and giving voting rights to women, many of its intended outcomes didn’t materialize, thus giving rise to a large population of disgruntled peasants, farm laborers, and urban poor, who ultimately turned against the Shah. At the same time, a significant number of educated elites, who had studied the impact of the Shah’s land reforms, and who were inspired by the revolutions in Cuba and China, concluded that peaceful means of political opposition would be ineffective in Iran because the Shah had become increasingly intolerant of any kind of opposition. Many of these intellectuals came from my hometown of Mashhad.

¤

On the evening of July 20, 1969, I came back home from school to say my prayers earlier than usual. I quickly performed the purification ritual (vozoo), picked up my prayer mat, went outside, laid it out on the large porch, and did my seven postures of the prayer (namaz). At the end, kneeling down on the mat, I lifted my hands up toward the sky, directing my gaze toward the Moon, and begged God to help the American astronauts in their mission to land successfully on our luminous neighbor. Later, after the usual family dinner on the porch and some chitchat, at exactly 8:00 p.m., we tuned on the radio to catch the latest news on the Moon mission. I was greatly relieved on hearing the report that everything was coming along just as planned.

The mood of excitement, verging on ecstasy, left me sleepless after we laid out our mattresses on the porch a couple of hours later. Trying to listen to the evening story on the radio, I found myself unable to follow the story line, mesmerized as I was by the image of a human being on the surface of the Moon. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, the regular theme music of the radio program, took on a new sound to my ear, adding to the sobriety of the moment. Locating, as usual, the Little and Big Dippers in the sky, I wondered if, one day, humanity would be capable of reaching those stars. I fell asleep gazing at the starry sky, and woke up the next morning to the news that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had indeed stepped on the Moon a few hours earlier. Those two names were lodged permanently in my memory, and they also became household names throughout my country.

The city of Mashhad, where I was born, is the second most populous city in Iran (a population of a few hundred thousand then, and roughly three million now), and is located in the northeast corner of the country, close to the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Mashhad is the capital city of Khorasan (“where the Sun rises”), once the largest provinces in Iran, and its name (meaning “the place of martyrdom”) comes from the commonly held belief that the Shi’ite Imam Reza was martyred by agents of Caliph Ma’mun, the usurper of the throne, who fed the Imam with poisonous grapes.

The eighth in a lineage considered by Shi’ites to be descendants and the legitimate heirs to the prophet Muhammad, Imam Reza is the only Imam, out of 11, who is buried in Iran. (It is said that the 12th Imam, Mahdi, disappeared and will only reappear on the Day of Resurrection.) This gives Imam Reza’s shrine and the city a special status in the only Muslim country with a Shi’ite majority, who refer to the Imam as the gharib — an Arabic loan word that has acquired a very specific and loaded meaning in Farsi. Literally meaning “odd” and “whimsical,” “gharib” refers in this context to a person who is far away from home, traveling or residing in a new place. With no good equivalent in English, but close to the Greek xenia, the term carries a combined sense of nostalgia and homesickness, calling for generosity, hospitality, and gharib-navâzi (“xenophilia”) toward the guest. A minor variation of the term, gharib-e, on the other hand, means “stranger,” with all its connotations of suspicion and avoidance — a vivid example of how a seemingly minor change in a word can deeply alter its meaning.

It was in a religious environment such as this where I grew up, and it was under these influences that I turned to religion at a rather young age. This was a primal religiosity that, in the words of the American psychologist William James, “like love, like wrath, like hope, ambition, jealousy, like every other instinctive eagerness and impulse, […] adds to life an enchantment which is not rationally or logically deducible from anything else.” The enchantment, James adds, “is either there or not there for us, and there are persons who can no more become possessed by it than they can fall in love with a given woman by mere word of command.”

My response to the launch of the Apollo and to the landing of the first human being on the Moon had something of this nature — an enchantment, deeply shaped by my primal religious outlook. At that point, Apollo didn’t provoke my curiosity about the physics of spaceflight, the engineering of spacecraft, or the geology of the Moon, nor did it inspire me to become an astronaut, an aerospace engineer, or an astronomer, for that matter. Instead, it simply carried my imagination to faraway places, as far away as God itself. In the absence of other perspectives in my mental universe, it indeed served as a chariot of God, in the way the NASA manager had mused and Buzz Aldrin had suggested. It was as if, through my prayer, I was responding to Aldrin’s plea for people to thank God in their own way. This was my way of thanking.

The roar of the Apollo was simply too loud and too remote to affect me personally or to deeply change my psyche — at least, not immediately and not in a perceptible way. Like its namesake, and like other Olympian gods, Apollo was too nonnative to sink roots deep within my thinking. For that, I would need to wait for other voices to reveal themselves — perhaps from a closer place.

That closer place turned out to be a new high school, which I entered in ninth grade as a member of the class of 1973 — the very first group that would graduate from the school. This high school was nothing like an ordinary Iranian school, either academically or architecturally. Created on the model of American schools, it had been designed to introduce a liberal approach to education, giving as much importance to language, history, and literature as to biology, mathematics, and physics. Language — the English language, that is — was at the center of Alam’s curriculum, with the purpose of bringing students up to speed in terms of their language skills. Of the eight class-hours per day, three were dedicated to English, and classes were held in generously furnished classrooms and a state-of-the-art language lab. All the teaching material was also provided in English, and was taught mostly by American teachers, except for mathematics and most science courses, the teaching of which was left to Iranian teachers.

The campus, covering an area of about 50 acres, featured two rows of classroom buildings on the north and south side. A large stand-alone hall, which ran perpendicular to the classroom buildings and parallel to the main street, served as a makeshift auditorium and an examination space; a science lab was attached to the grand hall; a miniature golf course occupied a good chunk of space facing the grand hall and the building on the north side; a stadium-like sports ground was located to the west, with its canopied spectator balcony for special events; and lastly there was a relatively small office building attached to the classrooms to the south.

The large blue gate of the campus, roughly the size of four soccer goals, was the main link between the campus and the outside world. On the inside, the gate opened toward a long road that ran all the way to the sports field. Beautifully shaded by long palm trees, the road gave the campus a serene and majestic look. The shade of the trees covered the sidewalks on the two sides of the road, keeping the summer’s scorching sun and the winter’s heavy snow from hitting the sidewalk. Students started to call the sidewalks “lovers’ lane” after the school turned into a co-ed institution in its second year of establishment. My class, being the first and all-male group entering the school, had missed the love boat, but the irony that one of the very few co-ed schools in all of Iran was located in the holy city of Mashhad was not lost on us, or on outside observers.

Most of our school amenities were a legacy of an earlier time, when the campus had belonged to the Pahlavi Club — an elite sports club whose honorary chair was the Shah’s younger brother Shapur (“Prince”) Gholam Reza Pahlavi, who used to show up every once in a while for a private sports event on the premises. The naming of the club after the ruling dynasty was, therefore, more than just a ceremonial tribute. I personally never saw the prince in such an event, but I did see photos of him sitting in the front-row VIP seats of the spectator balcony, watching women in short volleyball skirts playing down below. One of those volleyball players turned out later to be my sister-in-law, whose photos of the time show a very different image of Iran from what a generation before had seen and what the next generation would see under the new Islamic order.

Then, sometime in the mid-1960s, someone decided to turn the elite club into an elite high school. The name of the high school suggested that that “someone” was probably Asadollah Alam — the uneducated but influential former prime minister and then minister of the Court of the Shah and a close confidant of his, who came from the desert city of Birjand in the southern part of the province. Between those two jobs, Alam had been appointed president of Pahlavi University in Shiraz, which had a close relationship to Harvard University. It was also during this same time that American officials, including Sargent Shriver, head of the Peace Corps, made visits to Iran. We don’t exactly know who planted the idea of the high school in Alam’s head, but his tutelage guaranteed the support of the local and central governments for the school, which was to be formally affiliated with Mashhad University, giving students access to its professors, graduate students, labs, and other facilities.

In this way, Alam High School was established in 1969, with a group of about 50 students entering as its first class. To get into the school, students had to take an entrance exam after completing eighth grade. My classmates all took the exam in July 1969, right around the time when Apollo 11 was launched. The promised prize for taking the exam and entering the school was that it allowed you to later skip a much bigger, and more competitive, college entrance exam called concours (a French word meaning “competition”) — the nightmare of any Iranian youth with career ambitions, ever before and ever since. The vision, it seemed, was to get talented students into the program, to mold them in the spirit of liberal arts education, and to give them a free pass to college in return for their training and hard work during high school. The initial plan was to have this arrangement with all the universities in the country, but this was later limited to Mashhad University — the second-largest in the nation, and highly ranked in the sciences, humanities, and medicine, but not in engineering (very much like Indiana University, which turned out to be my doctoral alma mater later in life).

The free pass to Mashhad University was one of the things that set Alam apart from other schools, such as my former high school, Ibn Yamin, which had been considered the best high school in town before Alam came into existence. What made the two schools really different, however, was their approach — their philosophy of education. Ibn Yamin, built on the French educational model of the 19th century, emphasized discipline, rigor, and rote learning, and focused on mathematics, physics, and other “hard” sciences, while marginalizing language, humanities, and the arts. With this kind of emphasis, Ibn Yamin graduates fared quite well in the concours, because the exam was designed with this kind of student in mind, especially for the most highly prized areas such as engineering and medicine. Alam, on the other hand, was initially created on the model of American liberal education, as I said, putting just as much emphasis on language, the arts, and the humanities as on hard sciences — hence, our three hours of English and one hour of history every day, along with physics, mathematics, biology, and so forth. I was initially most interested in our English and mathematics classes, but I soon developed an interest in history, thanks to our teacher Mr. L, an American Peace Corps volunteer.

¤

Mr. L walks into the class, wearing, as usual, khaki pants, a floral-patterned tie on a white shirt, a dark blue sleeveless V-neck sweater, and, of course, his signature rimless glasses, which give him the look of a smart and sophisticated man who imagines himself on top of the world — much like Condor, the intelligence officer played by Robert Redford in the movie of that name — only shorter and stockier.

“Take out your vocabulary sheets.” This is what he does at the beginning of every session, since reading history in the English language is a big challenge for us novices, not only because of its subject matter but also because of its often quite unfamiliar vocabulary. Mr. L wants us to listen to the words as he pronounces them, but not to repeat after him, perhaps to keep us focused on the correct pronunciation. He had given this instruction in very clear terms in the past, and it was religiously followed so far. Today, however, a group of students have decided to act mischievously and to chant the words after him, unwillingly and unknowingly mispronouncing them at the same time. I was not one of them.

Out of nowhere, Mr. L tosses his papers onto his desk, grabs me by the collar, pulls me toward the door, thrusts me brutally out into the foyer, and shuts the door behind me. Then, as I stand right outside the door, I hear that a deadening silence has taken over the class, as if no one is even breathing. No one, as we say in Farsi, jik-esh dar nemiyad (“makes a peep”). A minute later, I find myself on the outside, aghast, in a state of total shock and disbelief. I try to pull myself together, looking around to make sure that nobody is watching. After a few seconds, I gather my energy, put my ear against the door, and try to figure out what is happening in the classroom. I can hear only Mr. L’s voice going through the vocabulary list, this time all by himself:

— Rivalry

— Sovereign

— Tyrant

— …

Apparently, as in all situations of this sort, the act of outrage has sent the “right message” to the rest of the class. There are no students chanting the words anymore. Confused, I walk toward the mini-golf course across the road and lean against its blue fence, trying to digest the situation: Was this a calculated action to send a message to the rest of the class? A sudden burst of outrage and frustration, with no control? Or a deeper undercurrent that I’m unaware of? I am so deeply immersed into these thoughts that I don’t notice Mr. Mirdamdadi approaching me:

“Why are you not in class, Ekbia?” he asks with suspicion.

I evade the question by feigning stomach pain: “I’m here to take some fresh air, Aqa (“sir”).”

This fooled him. He walks away, and I start walking in the opposite direction.

What should I do now? What are my options? I can go to the principal’s office and report the incident; I can talk to Mr. L after he leaves the class, protesting his behavior or at least explaining my innocence; or I can simply wait until the class ends, get my stuff, and go home. Without much deliberation, I opt for the last scenario. I wait till the hour is up, go back to the classroom, pick up my things, and head home. Despite my innocence, I decide not to protest on the spot or later, not to Mr. L or to anyone else. Hurt and very troubled when I get home, I retreat to my room, close the door, take a short nap, and then start doing my homework. When my mother calls me for dinner, she notices my distress, but she can’t get a word out of my mouth. She’s not going to be able to help, so I see no point in sharing my suffering and embarrassment with her.

Back in school the next morning, I go to my classes as usual — first biology, then English, then math, until the time for history class arrives. I am weighing my options again: Should I skip the class? Talk to Mr. L beforehand? Or afterward? Or simply behave as if nothing happened? The last option prevails again. I go in, take a seat in the back row, where I normally sit in other classes, take out my stuff, and start reviewing the vocabulary. This is my only protest, if we can call it that: moving to the back of the class. What a coward!

The day’s discussion topic is the Greeks in the era of Hesiod (circa 700 BC). Hesiod was a poet and a commoner, and, unlike Homer who was all about heroes and their sagas, he became a prophet of moderation, justice, and hard and honest work. In his long poem Works and Days (about 800 lines long), Hesiod described human labor as the source of all good, attacking idleness as the source of all evil.

It was Hesiod who, roughly a hundred years later, inspired the liberal aristocrat Solon to develop and advocate the policy of compromise — a policy that gave rise to Solon’s Code of Laws, which, in direct contrast to the Code of Draco (of Draconian fame), counseled kindness and leniency toward others, especially the poor. All citizens, according to Solon’s proposed constitution, were entitled to take part in the general assembly — a policy that became the hallmark of democratic governance for centuries to come, giving the liberal aristocrat Solon a reputation for moderation and balance.

The discussion about Solon that day gave me, rather surreptitiously, a way out of my predicament with Mr. L. He was not, of course, an aristocrat, nor was I a poor commoner, but the asymmetry of our situations, with respect to both his position and where he came from, suggested parallels that I couldn’t fail to notice. Hesiod and Solon were providing me with an alternative model to that of Socrates, who had chosen death over a compromise of his principles, and to that of Imam Hossain, the third Shi’ite Imam who had taken an army of 72 soldiers on this same path to martyrdom. I had now received my first lesson in liberal democracy: I was going to counter Mr. L’s violent act neither by violence (which was a non-option for me) nor surrender (which would’ve undermined my dignity), and not even by direct protest and confrontation (which would’ve led to unpredictable outcomes), but by perseverance, hard work, and contemplation. No longer did I feel like a coward.

Very luckily, my interest in history didn’t dwindle in the aftermath of this incident. The subject, especially the way Mr. L taught it, had already left an imprint on my receptive mind, and nothing, even an act of violence by the “imprinter” himself, was going to erase that. I was intrigued by the history of the ancient world as a battleground of ideas and cultures rather than simply as a stageground for wars, invasions, victories, and defeats among empires, cities, and fiefdoms — Assyrians, Athenians, Egyptians, Ionians, Lydians, Persians, Romans, Spartans, and others.

That was how history had always been taught to us up till then: the heroic victories of the Persians in the war against the Greeks; the glory and bravery of Persian kings — Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, Xerxes, Artaxerxes; their generosity toward their enemies and their subjects; and so forth. That my own ancestors were key players on this stage had infused in me a strong sense of pride, but now, thanks to Mr. L’s style of teaching, my pride was accompanied by a skeptical curiosity: How did our ancestors attain this status? What had driven them down this path? What were the tools and means at their disposal? What ethical constraints guided their actions? What were their lasting contributions? Whatever had happened to that past glory? How did we get from that position to where we are now? Who should get credit for the past glory, and who should be blamed for our later decline? Who were our rivals, and what were their privileges? And so on.

I spent hours at a stretch every week, trying to dissect, absorb, and understand the history material that was handed out to us in photocopied form. My copied pages were filled with underlines, arrows, and Farsi equivalents of English terms. Finding the meanings of the words in the dictionary was a big part of this, and it took a great deal of time, but I greatly enjoyed this, nonetheless. I was simply fascinated by the stories, and no event and no individual was going to take that away from me. Hurt by the earlier incident, I seldom talked in class, but I followed the discussions with alacrity.

At the end of the semester, after we had submitted our final essays, something quite unexpected happened. Mr. L summoned me to his office, and suggested that we take a walk around the campus. During the half-hour walk, he praised my essay and my thoughts on the rise and fall of civilizations. He especially liked a phrase that I had used to talk about the continuity of cultures in the face of social and political change. Stealing a term that I had learned from physics, I had used the phrase “cultural inertia” to suggest that cultures are not as susceptible to change as politics, dynasties, and governments are. He seemed to be in agreement.

Mr. L went further, and asked about my other interests, my plans for the future, even my family, but he said nothing about what had happened on that day in class. This way, he gave us both the opportunity to save face by acknowledging past harms, but also to move on. Neither of us saw cowardice in this kind of peace. As we shook hands, I saw, for the first time, the hint of a grin on his face. Even the reflection of a December afternoon sun in his shiny glasses could not hide the deep smile in his eyes.

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Many things have changed in the roughly 50 years that have passed since those days. What has undergone the most dramatic change, however, is perhaps the outlook of people like myself. Not too long after this, my religious beliefs started to fade — a change that was to start most clearly in my high school days and to grow deeper as I grew older. In my current nonreligious outlook, I wouldn’t pray for the success of Apollo, although I would still be happy for it to succeed. The second of John Kennedy’s grand visions — the Peace Corps — brought home for me what his first vision — the Apollo — had not fully delivered.

The memory of these two incidents — my unfair expulsion from class and the walk with Mr. L around the campus at the end of the semester — lingered in my head for years and decades to come. When I came back to the United States in 1996, I had a strong desire to find and reconnect with Mr. L, and the internet seemed to provide an easy solution. To my chagrin, however, the more I looked for him the more disappointed I became — there was no trace of him anywhere. There were people, especially history educators, with similar names, but not him … Until in 2017, through a series of connections I finally managed to find his email address, and I wrote him the following with the title: “From an old student of yours.”

Dear Dr. L,

This email has been long in the making. I’ve been looking you up on the web for many years without success, until last month when I got the chance to visit Dr. G. in Michigan and obtained your email address from him. I was one of your students at Alam High School in Mashhad back in 1970-71. That was more than forty-five years ago, and many things have happened since then, creating deep gaps in time, space, and, of course, in our memories. Certain things, however, never disappear from our memory. 

For me, one of those things was my experience in your history class, the walk that we had around the campus at the end of the semester, and its lasting influence on my psyche and on my way of thinking. Although I didn’t become an official historian, I can certainly say that, deep down, I think like a historian, and I owe this largely to what I learned from you and to how I learned it. This is a long story that cannot be told in an email, but for the last few years I’ve gotten reconnected with some Alam students and have tried to find our teachers, especially you, through these connections! I was, therefore, extremely delighted to hear that Dr. G. had an email address from you through a Peace Corps publication. Although he wasn’t sure that you were still at U., we both thought that you might still use this email address. I hope that you do!

If so, and if you receive this email, I’d be greatly thankful if you could write back, so that we can stay in touch and, hopefully, get the chance to see each other after all these years. Dr. G. was not my teacher at Alam, but my wife and I were immensely glad to visit him and his wife in Michigan last month. As a matter of fact, we’re flying to Washington D.C. today, where the Gs happen to be also visiting for the Middle Eastern Studies conference, so we’ll get the chance to see them again on Saturday. It’s probably unlikely for you to be at this conference, but I hope to be able to see you sometime soon. We live in Bloomington, Indiana, and it shouldn’t be difficult to travel to the east coast again, assuming, of course, that you’re still in the area. 

Warm regards,

Hamid Ekbia

Two days later, to my great surprise and pleasure, I received the following response.

Dear Hamid, 

Thank you so much for your warm and thoughtful message. It is wonderful to hear from you after a gap of so many years, and especially to learn of your outstanding accomplishments over the years. I am aware of those not so much because of your message but because your email led me to be in touch with G. (so thanks for helping me to bridge a gap of years with him as well), which helped me to learn of your very impressive career. I am truly amazed and humbled to think that anything I might have done in the classroom in Mashad could have had a positive influence on your distinguished record of teaching and service. G. also mentioned the documentary film about Alam High School on which you are working. I would be interested in learning more about that project and what led you to embark on it, and perhaps to seeing the finished product as well. Best wishes with that endeavor and all of your other activities. [1] 

I am sorry that you had so much difficulty in reaching me. I still have the xxx email address but because I retired in 2011, I don’t look at it very often. You may know that I was director of the xxx in the last part of my career at xxx. Since retiring, my wife and I have traveled extensively (in a way picking up where we left off in our Peace Corps days), engaged in our own continuing education, and gotten involved in a range of volunteer activities, trying in a sense to “give back” in recognition of the great good fortune we have enjoyed in our lives. Among our activities are helping to teach English to the refugees who have settled in this area, mostly from the Middle East and Africa (again drawing on our Peace Corps experience). We’re also involved in Habitat for Humanity, hospice, voter registration, and a range of musical activities. 

Thanks again for reaching out to me. I am greatly honored that you would wish to do that.

Warmest regards to you and your wife.

N.

This response, needless to say, cheered me, not only because of Dr. L’s humility, but also because of the great human being that he had continued to be, volunteering for all kinds of activities and services to all types of causes and people — refugees, hospices, the Habitat for Humanity — all on the basis of his Peace Corps experience and in the spirit of “giving back.” This is the spirit that my classmates and I at Alam High School found most appealing in our American teachers. It is this same spirit that my family and I still find most intriguing among many Americans.

¤

Our admiration for the American spirit of “giving back,” however, doesn’t stop us from thinking about the political mistakes and miscalculations that many American leaders have made in dealing with Iran for many decades now — starting, most damningly perhaps, with the CIA-orchestrated coup d’état of 1953 against a democratically elected prime minister. Nor does it keep us worrying about the possibility of a war erupting in the near future between the United States and Iran. The similarities between the 1960s and the current moment are too striking to be ignored. Then, at the height of the Cold War, humanity was not only witness to an exciting space race, but also to a tough nuclear arms race and an expansionist geopolitical race between the United States and the USSR, each seeking to maintain or extend its sphere of influence around the globe. It was within the context of these multiple races that President Kennedy launched the three initiatives that I recounted above: landing on the Moon, launching the Peace Corps, and a commitment to the “surviving and success of liberty” at “any price.” These were very different initiatives not only in their spirit (science, culture, and power) but also in their method (research, outreach, and war). No wonder they had such different outcomes.

The Moon mission gave the United States the upper hand in the space race, which then essentially came to a halt, and then turned into a more cooperative form of space exploration through the International Space Station. The war in Vietnam, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, ended with American withdrawal and the severance of ties between the two countries until, decades later, it turned into a more normal relationship. The Peace Corps, on the other hand, provided an opportunity for some Americans to understand other cultures and for people in different parts of the world to gain some understanding of the American culture. While, for understandable reasons, some saw this as a means of expanding America’s influence and “soft power” around the globe, there is no doubt that it established deep bonds of personal friendship among the volunteers and members of local communities where Peace Corps members served.

Half a century later, it is those bonds that have survived or are being revived between the two groups, as is evident in my exchanges with Dr. L. In fact, through similar exchanges with Dr. G., another teacher of Alam High School, I am now connected to dozens of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs, as they refer to themselves), where we have an online reading group focused on books written on Iran by Americans or Iranian Americans. One such book is A Young American in Iran, whose author, Tom Klobe, spent two years of his life as a PCV in a small village in the Caspian Sea area. In recounting this experience, Tom explains Iranians’ “incredible hospitality” and their eagerness to meet other people in the following manner:

I sometimes wonder if it has to do with living in an isolated place — a desert or island mentality — where you long for contact with the broader world. It’s like being in Hawaii and our aloha spirit. This isolation may be what contributes to the Iranians’ incredible hospitality. Invariably they are grateful to meet someone from another place and receive news from afar.

One hears similar comments from almost anyone else who has visited the country. The spirit of gharib-navâzi and xenophilia is not unique to people of my hometown; it is, rather, a widespread characteristic of the Iranian culture. As hospitable as Iranians are, however, they are equally wary of foreign invasion and of violent intrusion in their affairs. Having been subject to outside invasion all through their long history — from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan in earlier centuries to the British, Russians, and Saddam Hussein more recently — Iranians have found themselves the target of attacks from all directions. They, therefore, do not take foreign aggression lightly.

¤

This brings us to the current moment and the deafening drums of war that have started to fill our ears from different directions. With the fragile situation in the Middle East, a war between the United States and Iran is likely to lead to dire outcomes beyond anyone’s imagination. Is there a way to avoid this?

In Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom, was originally a birdlike creature in the form of a sea eagle. Unlike Apollo, who needed chariots to move around, Athena had her own wings to fly — wings that allowed her, over centuries, to travel easily across lands, cultures, and eras. Curiously, the bald eagle that symbolizes America’s might happens to be a sea eagle, too. Is America going to act like Apollo, like Athena, or like neither? If an Iranian teenager could learn to follow the path of compromise, and if a decent American teacher who had lost his temper for a moment was willing to make up for his behavior in a discreet manner, could the political leaders in the two nations adopt a similar approach, sparing themselves, the region, and the rest of the globe from yet another foolish disaster?

The answer to this should come from Mithra — the ancient Iranian god of light and friendship, who also maintained the cosmic order. The son of Ahura Mazda (“Lord of Wisdom”), the supreme god of ancient Iranians, Mithra was a major force against evil, darkness, and deceit. It is to this god and to what he represented that I would like us to turn to for help in thinking about the current moment.

¤

Hamid Ekbia lives and teaches in Bloomington, Indiana. He is finishing a memoir — which he’d like to call a “heterobiography” — titled Pebble in the Stream.

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Featured image: NASA.

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[1] The documentary that Dr. L refers to is soon to be released. Although I contributed to the film, I am not its creator: https://vimeo.com/91799662

 

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