“Down with USA”. I stared at the mural. What did they mean? Down with the USA, like I hope the country becomes a fiery apocalypse? Or, like, yeah, I am down with the USA, they are AOK in my book. This is a conflicting message that travelers are continually confronted with when visiting Iran.
At first brush, it is easy to be filled with some trepidation when visiting Iran. The Iranian government does not make it easy to visit, including a lengthy visa process and a required guide to accompany you during your visit. It also seems like Iran has a penchant for imprisoning visitors on trumped up charges. Iran has brutally suppressed recent democratic movements in their country. The leader of the Iran, the Ayatollah, is fond of ending his Friday sermons with “Death to America!”
And of course, no American will forget the attack on the US Embassy in 1979 and the imprisonment of 52 Americans for 444 days.
So, what would possess me or any other American to visit this isolated pariah state?
Iran is one of the world’s oldest civilizations dating back to 3,200 BC with a rich history and culture. Iran is a multi-cultural society with multiple religions and languages. And as a visitor, there is a cornucopia of amazing historical sites, too many to visit on a single trip.
And the average Iranian is incredibly friendly and hospitable. I was stopped dozens of times during my ten day visit with a giant smile “Welcome to Iran!” after informing the questioner that I was from the U.S. Not the interactions you would expect from perusing western media.
So, how can you square the circle? My first stop in Tehran, the sprawling capital of Iran, was the Den of Thieves. Also known as the former US Embassy of Iran. Currently, it is the headquarters of an Iranian militia group. The walls are covered with anti-American graffiti. As I photographed the wall, two men sitting by called me over. They asked where I was from, and I shared with them that I was from the U.S. They smiled and shook my hand as they welcomed me to their country. The irony was not lost on me, as the three of us stood in the shadow of a skull-faced Statue of Liberty.
The Iranians have their own valid frustrations with the United States. The U.S. engineered a coup in 1953 overthrowing the democratically elected leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and reinstating the autocratic and freedom-suppressing Shah Reza Shah Pahlavi. And the U.S. with many other countries supported Saddam Hussein during the brutal eight year war with Iran.
Anti-American propaganda is not limited to the Den of Thieves, but it can be viewed throughout the country.
The flipside of the coin were my actual interactions with the Iranians I met throughout the country. Warm smiles, hearty handshakes. Multiple “Welcome to Iran!” I have been to some countries in the Middle East where I simply lied when I met a random citizen. I would offer a Canada or Australia as my origin, instead of sharing with them that I was from the U.S. In Iran, I always offered my true origin. I knew I would be met with a warm response. Down With USA? Make your own judgement when you visit.
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