Interview with Marcia Franklin, fall 2003 IRP Fellow

Excerpted from Idaho Statesman

Fellows Fall 2003

By Marcia Franklin

June 04, 2009

What it is like to be an American in Iran?

Because we have no diplomatic relations with Iran, there is no American embassy. Because there are American sanctions, there are no U.S. companies operating there. In addition, you cannot change money before you leave, so you have to bring it all in cash. There are no ATMs to use and no credit cards

Americans can go to Iran on a two-week tourist visa, but not many seem to be doing that. As a result, I saw no other non-Iranian American traveling there during my entire six weeks. I actually enjoyed that, since Americans are so ubiquitous in the rest of the world.

Marcia Franklin of Idaho Public Television traveled to Iran on her Fall 2003 fellowship

Iranians, as a general rule, love Americans, much more so than other Middle Eastern countries. I was treated warmly almost everywhere I went. But shortly after welcoming me, people would often launch into a diatribe against our government.

It doesn’t seem to be about the war in Iraq, since Iranians despised Saddam Hussein and the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. Instead, it was that people seemed to feel that our current leaders are arrogant and want to take over the world. They think everything America is doing is for Israel.

There are anti-American rallies, anti-American articles in many papers and 10-story anti-American murals on the sides of buildings. However, I found them relatively easy to ignore.

What was more difficult to deal with were the conspiracy theories about the United States. For instance, almost every person, no matter their educational background or whether they have lived in the United States, believes that the U.S. engineered the Sept. 11 attacks to have an excuse to invade Muslim countries. With a few friends, I tried having a discussion about these issues. But in general, it’s not something that is possible or even advisable to debate.

As for the nuclear situation, people did not understand why America and Israel could have nuclear weapons and they could not, particularly when America is the only country to have actually used a nuclear weapon.

The customs

It was difficult to have to wear a headscarf and long coat all the time, particularly carrying camera gear. I was often hot and frustrated and began to feel irritated that men could wear short-sleeved shirts. My scarf was always falling down, so despite protests from my young Iranian friends, I wore a more conservative hood-like fabric on my head. It stayed on better, and I blended in with Iranians. Some even stopped me and asked questions in Persian.

It is difficult to be a reporter in Iran. There are many restrictions and there were many things I would have liked to take pictures of, but did not. As you may recall, a Canadian journalist was killed in Iran in July for taking pictures of a prison there. I was stopped a few times by plain-clothes police, but in general I had no problems.

The most common question I get is whether I had to wear a burqa. The answer is no, because no Iranian women has to, either. But the women in Iran do have to cover their hair and wear a coat or chador (long piece of fabric) to cover their body down to their thighs.

Women in Iran

Women also have to ride in the back of the bus and should not be touching unrelated men (including shaking their hands.)

The women I met don’t like the restrictions. They are often hot and uncomfortable. But it is not something that is high on their list to fight. There are more pressing issues, such as the status of women in marriage, divorce and employment.

Misconceptions about Iran

Another misconception is that everyone in Iran is religious. Many people are not observant Muslims. For example, they don’t go to mosque or observe Ramadan.

I asked many Iranians what they thought was the most common misconception of their country. Most said that they wanted people to know that they are not Arabs. Indeed, the word “Iran” comes from “Aryan,” a nomadic tribe that probably migrated to the area from the Caucasus in about 2,000 B.C.E. From 637 C.E. to 1050, Arabs controlled Iran, and introduced Islamic culture, religion and laws to the area. Today, though, only 3 percent of Iran’s population is classified as Arab. Half is considered Persian and 25 percent is Azeri (from Azerbaijan.)

Almost all the Iranians I met also told me that they wanted people to know that they don’t like their theocratic government; one they think Arabs imposed on them. But they want to figure out how to change their situation on their own, not with American intervention.

Will you go back again?

Some scholars have studied Iran their whole lives and continue to be surprised by it. So I definitely feel I have just scratched the surface in terms of my understanding of the culture. I would like to return. On a personal level, I miss my new Iranian friends, the great food and the culture. On a professional level, Iran is on the cusp of change, which is exciting and intriguing to witness. I hope the reporting I did will result in pieces on public radio, television and newspapers. This spring I also will produce an Idaho Public Television special on Islam, which will include discussions around the state.