• 22 July 2008
  • Posted By Darioush Azizi
  • Diplomacy, Iranian American activism

Cultural Exchanges Cannot be Ignored, Part 1 of 2

The following is a two-part series on cultural exchanges. The first part discusses American journalists and tourists in Iran, and the second part will discuss Iranian musicians performing in the US.

Part One:

Iranian-Americans, non-Iranian Americans, and Europeans have all been working these last few years since the Islamic Republic opened up (to a certain degree) during the Khatami Administration to promote unofficial cultural ties between the peoples. Since Khatami was sworn in in 1998, more and more people each year began to travel to and from the country.

A poll conducted by worldpublicopinion.org and published in April of this year showed that 63% of Iranians favor “greater cultural, educational, and sporting exchanges”, and 71% favor having “more Americans and Iranians visit each others’ countries each year”.

There are numerous examples of cultural exchanges and tourists visiting the other country but they are largely ignored in the media, which tends to focus on the government-to-government, negative rhetoric so infamously expressed by missile tests and angry speeches. It is important to remind ourselves of these ties, as they do represent the grass-roots basis of present-day diplomacy.

The Wards, an American family that lived in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution, travelled back in 1998 to find their long, lost head-of-house, a man named Hassan. Terence Ward details their journey, from childhood in Tehran to their 1998 search for Hassan, in his book, Searching for Hassan: A Journey to the Heart of Iran (2002). In it, Ward exposed an Iran that had seldom been heard of by Western ears in the preceding two decades, a people truly misunderstood.

In late May/early June of 2005, actor and director Sean Penn went to Iran to report on the political situation there, as the presidential elections were being held. He travelled as a journalist and later published a five-part expose in the San Francisco Chronicle, describing the political climate in Tehran in the run-up to the presidential elections of that year.

More recently an American journalist went to Iran to see if the bad publicity found in Western media was true or not. He made a film about children in Iran called ‘Hot Tea and Cool Conversation’. It will be featured at Beyond Persia’s ‘Fall for Iran’ cultural festival, a 60-day event that will feature dozens of films from Iran, 2 art exhibits, 5 concerts, comedians, and all-Iranian dance companies.

Likewise, the work of Greek-British journalist and photographer Iason Athanasiadis, who received his masters in international politics in Tehran, was displayed at the Smithsonian until the 11th; the exhibit was called ‘Children of the Iranian Revolution’. His work will also be featured at ‘Fall for Iran’.

According to Penn, fewer than 500 non-Iranian Americans visited Iran in 2004. It is very difficult for non-exiles to secure visas to travel to Iran, even journalists have a hard time securing documentation and getting approval – Penn and his two friends ‘slogged through U.N. attaches and the cultural and foreign ministries of the Islamic Republic of Iran and swam doggedly upriver through the multiple bureaucracies that lead to a journalist’s visa’ over the course of a month and a half.

On my own trips I have had a different experience. I have seen American tourists at Persepolis, Japanese in Shiraz, Africans in Tehran and Arabs in Mashhad.

Reading accounts of non-Iranians’ experiences in Iran, and vice-versa, is crucial to understanding Persian culture, the Iranian nation and its mentality. Within this context, the role of music is essential, and I will discuss ‘musical exchanges’ later this week in Part 2.

Posted By Darioush Azizi

    2 Responses to “Cultural Exchanges Cannot be Ignored, Part 1 of 2”

  1. Yes this is true and since the mid 1990s and especially and most significantly since 1998 and Khatami’s administration, Iranians in particular have gone back home for a visit, at least once. Most who went back once, went back numerous times.

    These exchanges opens up the mutual respect and understanding between those who want it. Iran is one of the more open societies in the region. It can get better and as the world turns to Iran for more exchanged, the more open it will become and the less power and influence hardliners will have.

  2. Babak Talebi says:

    Thats exactly why its critical for Iranian-Americans to become more visible in society and politics because we are a natural bridge between these two nations and can help distinguish the iranian people from the Iranian Government.

    btw – love your pic… I miss the Jeeyan

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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