Inside Iran

Donna Jo Napoli, with traditional scarf over her head, in Iran, I recently returned from eleven days in Iran. Before I went, friends told me I was crazy to go. They said I'd meet a lot of anti-American hostility. I'd be in danger, even.

I met zero hostility.

I don't want this article to become a list of what Iran isn't. That reminds me too much of my first interests in the country. I write fiction books for children and young adults. In 1999, I decided to write the tale of Beauty and the Beast from the lion's point of view. My searching through older versions of the story led to one by Charles Lamb, in which the lion says he is a prince from Persia and a wicked fairy put a spell on him. So I plunged into research on Iran: political and daily history, food, music, language, literature, fine arts, and, of course, religion. When I went to web sites on Islam, I found that many began with a list of what Islam is not. These were defensive, trying to dispel popular misperceptions. When I went to books on Islam, many likewise included a list of myths about the religion, showing how they were wrong. It made me sad to think the authors expected their readers to have been misinformed, and even sadder to admit that I, one of their readers, was, indeed, misinformed. Sites and books on Christianity do not, in general, begin by trying to disabuse the public of misconceptions.

So here's what I did find, rather than what I didn't.

Barry Furrow (my husband) and I got off the plane in Tehran and were met by Elvand (Hossein Ebrahimi), one of the best known translators from English into Farsi in Iran and the translator of my YA novel BEAST. A small group accompanied him. Later I learned they were a mix of employees of the House of Translation, children's writers, and representatives of the government. We were guests of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, and for much of our trip, representatives from the ministry stayed with us.

We went to the hotel for tea (a pleasure we indulged in several times a day thereafter) and Elvand presented me with the gift of a scarf (it was my birthday - Feb. 28, 2005). The sequins on it delighted me and I quickly donned it in favor of the plain black shawl I'd brought from the US. From the moment I got off the plane till the moment I left Iran, I wore a scarf covering every wisp of my head hair. The women I saw in Iran, however, ranged from covering their heads and entire bodies except their hands and feet and face with a chador (usually plain black, but sometimes in lovely patterns and colors), to covering only the major part of their hair with a small, often glittery, scarf (letting bangs show and sometimes even curls from behind) and wearing otherwise fairly ordinary clothes with a long-sleeve jacket that went down at least to their knees.

That afternoon we visited the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. I sat with children aged 4 to 7 and watched them paint and interact with their teachers, while their parents waited out in the hall. This is a free, government-run, enrichment program, found throughout Iran. I am no stranger to children's artwork - I have five children, I worked in preschools for nine years, and I now do author visits to dozens of schools a year. But these children's artwork amazed me in two ways: it was exuberantly colorful, and it was invariably imbued with a developed sense of geometric design. The black clothing on the street was deceptive to the foreigner's eye. It's clear that inside the Iranian home these children are surrounded by the wonderful colors typical of Persian rugs and miniatures. They revel in them. Small children wear bright colors in public. But at the age of 9, girls switch to covering their hair.

That last bit, about things changing at 9 years old, brings me to an important issue. In Iran, a female is marriageable as of 9 years old. Marrying a nine-year old, however, is clearly an abuse - and it's recognized as an abuse in Iran as much as it is elsewhere. Women get married in Iran - not little girls. Yes, undoubtedly there are pedophiles in Iran, just as there are in America. Yes, some children suffer in Iran, just as they do in America. But the ordinary female gets married as an adult, just as in America.

After the Institute, we went to a museum that had artifacts going back as far as 5000 years (tablets in cuneiform, gold cups and jewelry, statues, Kufic script used in the ancient Arab world - though Iran is not an Arab country) and then to a ceramics and glassware museum. The way objects are set up in the museums is itself something to appreciate. Objects are arranged in columns that represent the columns of some famous building, perhaps at Persepolis or elsewhere. Strategically placed mirrors allow views from every side. Sand under pottery gives you a sense of where things were found. Lessons from my old grade school textbooks on the Tigris and the Euphrates areas as the cradle of western civilization came back to me. If you want to talk about countries with a long and pivotal history for mankind, Iran's your topic. Every map of the Silk Road features several cities of Iran.

The next day we visited mosques and a carpet museum and I'm not sure what else. Jet lag was getting to me. (Iran is 8 and a half hours later than East Coast time.) All I know is that the days were full of meals of kabob and delicious rice, and people I smiled at, who quickly burst into smiles back at me, and cars that drove in alarming ways. Stoplights in Iran seem to be a suggestion; stop signs a joke. I wouldn't dare cross a street alone in the capital. Gullies along the sides of the street carry water from the nearby mountains. You cross them on little bridges or, if bold, leap them. Women exchange laughter as they negotiate their paths. And often men and women walk together. Muslim men and women can and do shake hands in Iran, even in public, although, as guests of the Ministry, the women in our group were not allowed to do so. But I found that the women I met were surprised and happy at my hugs and kisses, which they warmly returned.

We flew on to Isfahan, which I think of as the blue city because of the color of the ceramics on the mosques and hotels and even on ordinary walls in the shopping districts. Isfahan has 4 million people, but after the 10 million of Tehran and the traffic and pollution of the capital (though there are beautiful snow-capped mountains to the north), it felt small and serene. There are mountains near Isfahan, too, but the land is mostly flat with palm trees. It made me think of Tucson. The hotel we stayed in was a palace (literally, in the past) with a magnificent courtyard of fountains overlooked by mosaic-covered balconies.

The main town square is enormous, larger than any square I've seen, except perhaps Tien An Men Square in Beijing. We went to a mosque that has more tiles than any other mosque in the world. Magnificent. It made me want to cover my home in tiles. There were two central domes, one inside the other, with space between them. The imam stands beneath the double dome and calls out, and the construction is such that even if he talks in an ordinary voice, everyone can hear his call to prayer from anywhere in the square. The columns here are built in two parts, one on top of the other, with a layer of soft lead in between, so that they can flex in an earthquake, without breaking. We climbed a minaret in pitch black (I'd have been terrified if I was alone), so many steps up, to emerge on a breathtaking view of Isfahan in every direction.

"We," at that point, meant Meghan Nuttall-Sayres (another American children's writer), Jamila Gavin (a British children's writer), Elvand, Barry, and I, a couple of Iranian children's writers whose names I never saw written down, and a few people from the government, who were supposed to watch how foreigners behave. But we became friends with the government men, and one of them wound up bargaining for me as I bought a backgammon game in the Isfahan square. They weren't really censoring us; they couldn't. Usually they knew little English, and since the Americans and Brits among us spoke no Farsi, they had close to no idea of what we said to each other and to the Iranians we interacted with. Rather, they seemed to be most concerned that we enjoyed ourselves and weren't pestered by anyone.

Isfahan has three bridges. We went on two of them. Both had a top level for traffic and a bottom level for other things. The traffic these days is all on foot or bicycle, but it used to be carts and donkeys and lots of sheep and goats, so there are narrow side passages where only people, single-file, can fit and be safe from hooves. The bottom level of the oldest bridge had low, enclosed rooms with windows that looked out over the river. Carpets covered the floor and part way up the walls. We took off our shoes, crawled in, drank tea, and smoked apple-flavored tobacco through hookas. I am not a smoker; never have been. But I smoked for the camaraderie of it just this one time. Smoking is a social event; people share hookas and tell stories. In all the time I was there, I saw only one Iranian smoking other than from a hooka in a tea house, and that was the driver of our van in Kerman (the next city we visited), who smoked even as he filled the van with fuel (diesel, but hey).

The bottom level of the other Isfahan bridge had a string of alcoves where young adults met at night. Men sang, surprisingly well, and sometimes the crowd that gathered around them (men and women) joined in for the chorus. The songs were about love, and generally they were banned from radio and public establishments. But no one bothered these groups of people under the bridge. We swayed to the music and watched the lights shine on the water. And the government men swayed right along with us.

Iran is a country of orality. Songs live. And the storytelling tradition lives. People say whatever they think, freely, to each other and to strangers. Taxi drivers often disseminate the daily news as they maneuver through traffic. The Internet quickly spreads the word. The press, however, is not free; but it hardly matters. Iranians are wired. They walk the streets glued to their cell phones. They check their computers often. They turn on their satellite TVs.

Many of the people I talked to were on the list of people I was supposed to meet: publishers, writers, illustrators, translators, educators, and government representatives. But I talked to just as many who were not on anyone's list. For example, in the bathroom of a large library in Isfahan a young woman came up to me and asked me where I was from. We walked out of the bathroom talking. Soon she called over some of her friends. For the next hour I stood talking with students who were in the university or studying for the entrance exams or in high school. They wanted to know what I thought of the situation between Iran and the United States. And they wanted to tell me what they thought.

Most of these women were studying science. The one who first approached me loved mathematics and wanted to know whether I thought a career in civil engineering or electrical engineering was better. Another was a chemist. And so it went. Later, when we flew on to Kerman, we visited a junior high and I asked what people wanted to become. More than half the girls had science careers in mind. And my Iranian friends confirmed for me the fact that many women work in science. They know what's going on in other places in the world; they want to be part of the larger world.

These people and the other people I met (often just at random in the bazaar) range from being fervently Muslim to being atheists, but their religion didn't seem to correlate with any particular attitude toward non-Muslims. Not once did anyone say anything negative about another religion to me. And they never put me on the defensive for being American. Iranian society has more variety in it than I had realized (despite having checked out a number of sources before I went - one of the more comprehensive of which can be found at: We visitors were interviewed for magazines, newspapers, radio, and TV. One of the interviewers I spent quite a bit of time with is a third generation Iranian of Armenian descent: a Christian. One of the interpreters we got to be dear friends with is a Kurd. We met one of his friends, who is Zoroastrian. All of them seemed to be as integrated into Iranian society as anyone else. I met no Jews, though around 40,000 live in Iran today. It's been twenty-six years since the revolution, and cultural and religious diversity is definitely present in this country.

In Kerman we visited an orphanage. There I asked the double question that had become my standard by then: what are your fears, what are your hopes? One girl told me her worst fears were earthquakes and George Bush. When I could finally manage to speak again, I simply whispered, "I'm sorry." Kerman is just a couple of hours drive away from Bam, where an earthquake killed 50,000 out of the population of 100,000 a little over a year ago. It is also less than half an hour away from another town where an earthquake hit just this February. So the fear of earthquakes is strong. There's a lot of suffering in Iran. To think that my president (and I didn't vote for him, but I'm American, so he's my president) was as frightening to these children as an earthquake took my breath away in shame. They know the famous speech in which Bush called Iran part of the "axis of evil." I have not visited Iraq or North Korea, so I cannot make a comparison. But the Iranian people are no axis of evil.

The distinction between a government and a people is important. The government of Iran is repressive; the laws stifle in ways Americans can hardly imagine. But, from what I can tell, that government has loosened up in the years since the revolution, allowing more daily freedoms every day, not with changing laws, but with simply not enforcing them. It's no surprise: the people are warm and open, both intellectually and emotionally - too warm and open to be easily controlled. They do not wish evil on other countries. They want what all of us want: to live decent lives, to see their children thrive, to have peace and harmony. In fact, after so many young women had told me they wanted careers in response to my question about their hopes, I asked if anyone wanted to become a mother. The answer, after a quiet look of astonishment from many faces was firm: "It is everyone's dream to be a mother."

Before I go further, I must say that not everyone I talked to is afraid of George Bush. The political views expressed to me ranged. Iran was in an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980's. At least a million Iranian boys (from age ten and up) and men died. Perhaps as many Iraqi boys and men died, as well. Most of the people I talked to hate Saddam Hussein. (The idea our government circulated a couple of years ago that Iran would have entered into cahoots with Saddam Hussein's regime is so absurd as to be obscene). Some of the people I talked with are glad that George Bush led us into a war against Iraq.

After the orphanage, we visited a middle school in Kerman. There a seventh grader said, "We are all studying English. Are American children all studying Farsi?" What American children even know where Farsi is spoken? Again, I felt like a bully - the American bully, whose culture everyone else in the world is expected to adapt to. My head spun.

We visited a day care center in Bam (way to the south, in desert) and sat with children who had lost one or both parents in the horrendous earthquake. Some had lost their entire extended families. The teacher showed us artwork the children had done, bearing little resemblance to the exuberant art of the children in Tehran. Some had photos of their dead classmates, which they drew various things around. For many months after the earthquake, children chose black paper to paint on. Now, more than a year later, they are painting on papers of all different colors. They have a "grief train" they ride on. They hold photos of their dead relatives and when they are ready, they are supposed to toss them away at a fixed place. The children can ride the train as often as they want, and no one tells them when to let go of the photos. The children went home, while the teacher kept talking to us, so I was free to let go myself. I cried continually as she showed us their artwork: the sun weeping, flowers on fire. And I marveled at how much this wonderful Muslim woman, this lady of mercy, dressed like and looked like the Catholic nuns of my childhood. I vowed to do something to help these children - and I am now involved in proposing a writing project, the royalties from which will go to the children of Bam.

Not everything was sad. We ate fessenjen, duck in a sauce of walnuts and pomegranate juice. Amazing. And ghorme sabze, a stew of lamb in spinach. And abgoosht, which you need an Iranian host to teach you how to eat properly, it is such a wonderful ritual. And Bhaghali pulo, small chunks of meat in rice with cranberries, pistachios, dill, and other herbs. The goat yogurt is the thickest and creamiest I've ever had. The nonalcoholic beers are a surprise, especially the lemon ones. The fizzy yogurt drinks made some of us happy (not me, though).

We visited the tomb of a famous Sufi poet, four hundred years old - a huge, intricately tiled place, with a magnificent garden. Then they took us to what they considered the real garden, with seven pools of water and little waterfalls from one to the next. It was stunning. We climbed a minaret again and had a view of desert with snow-covered mountains in a half ring around the town. We ended with a stroll around the summer guest house of the crown prince of Ahmad Shah (whose rule ended in 1920) at nearby Mahan. The next day we visited a Zoroastrian fire house, which was not a temple for worship, but rather a place where believers went to get fire when they needed it. It was made of mud, eggs, and camel milk (more easy to find than water) and rose out of the desert like a giant hive; it was over a thousand years old.

The trip culminated with the First International Children's Literature Festival at Kerman, which opened on March 8, 2005, and lasted four days. It was the reason I was invited to Iran in the first place. The two American authors and the British author all gave talks. And we joined up with a Palestinian author, Sonia Namr, who gave a talk. My husband, who is a law professor and acts as my literary agent, also gave a talk. And we all participated in round tables and workshops with Iranian authors and illustrators. The most remarkable thing about this conference was that the writers' most pressing concerns were identical, regardless of the country we hailed from. All of us worry about censorship, from the religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and the PC mongers on the other. We are squeezed from both sides, no matter what country (Iran, America, Britain, Palestine). We came from different backgrounds, but we understood each other so well, we could have finished each other's sentences.

I hardly slept the whole time I was in Iran, I was so excited by the things that happened every day. Everyone I met was kind to me. Iranians are marvelous people, they have a marvelous and long culture. It is my fervent hope that we Americans do no harm to this superb country.

Postscript on June 30, 2005: For more information about the plight of Bam, visit,,3-1665400,00.html. I have written a picture book about Bam which will come out with Hyperion Books (they just accepted it in June, 2005). The illustrator is not yet chosen. Part of the author's proceeds will go to the day care center of Bam.

Donna Jo Napoli
Prof. of Linguistics
Swarthmore College
Swarthmore, PA 19081