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RPCV Rob Saleski returns to Iran
RPCV Rob Saleski returns to Iran
Rob Zaleski: Jews visiting Iran? Have a cup of tea
By Rob Zaleski
November 20, 2002
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In Ken Opin's mind, it made perfect sense.
The last time he'd been to Iran - as a 23-year-old member of the Peace Corps - the Shah was in power, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and a geeky-looking British rock group called the Beatles had just invaded Shea Stadium.
So it was only natural, Opin suggests, that he would jump at the opportunity to return to Iran four decades later with other former Peace Corps members and see how the country had changed.
Still, as his plane touched down in Tehran late last month, Opin admits wondering if perhaps his friends and colleagues had been right - that he was taking an incredible risk in visiting a country that had been branded part of the "axis of evil" by President Bush.
"I had some apprehensions - plenty of them," says Opin, a retired lobbyist for the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers and a longtime member of the Madison Plan Commission. "I had visions of religious fanatics burning American flags and that sort of thing."
There was one other concern. Opin and his two traveling companions - his wife, Jan Silvers, and Silvers' 28-year-old daughter, Jesse Wolovoy - are Jewish. And since Iran is one of Israel's most bitter enemies, Opin was admittedly nervous about what they might encounter.
Meanwhile, Silvers, Wolovoy and the other females in the group had an additional worry: Iran's strict laws regarding women's attire. Not only were they forbidden to wear jewelry, but their heads had to be covered and they were required to wear loose-fitting garments that didn't reveal their figures.
"So it wasn't like going to Paris - you know, what am I going to wear for dinner?" jokes Silvers, who last week was seated beside her husband in the dining room of their Marquette neighborhood home and marveling about how wrong their fears had been.
To their utter astonishment, they had encountered no animosity, no anti-Semitism, not one negative comment about being Americans during their 11-day stay.
"Every shop we went into, the people wanted us to sit down and talk with them," Silvers says. "And they served us tea whether we were going to buy anything or not."
What the group quickly discovered, she says, was that the Iranians make a distinction. They like the American people. They don't like our government.
"And you know what?" she adds with a laugh. "I don't like our government either."
But that wasn't the only surprise.
Back in the 1960s, Iran's literacy rate was about 25 percent. Today it's around 90 percent, Opin says - and almost everyone speaks English.
Perhaps most shocking of all, Iran has at least 30 daily newspapers and some of them are surprisingly critical of the country's leaders, he says.
But if there was one moment that stands out, Opin says, it was the night they went to a restaurant to celebrate the birthdays of two members of their group and encountered a huge Iranian family that was having a wild celebration of its own. At one point, a family member asked Opin to take some photos of the party, and Opin returned after dinner to give the children some cake.
A short time later, he says, another family member approached him and said that her grandfather wanted to meet him. Opin says he eagerly accepted the invitation, but was startled when the elderly man removed a ring with a large stone from his finger and presented it to him as "an expression of his friendship to the Americans."
"I was absolutely stunned by that act of generosity," Opin says.
Three weeks later, Opin and Silvers say they're still amazed by how warmly they were received - but also saddened by what a distorted image Americans have of the country.
Yes, Iran is led by Islamic extremists who despise both the United States and Israel, Opin says. And yes, the Iranians send $150 million a year to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, "which is terrible and causes problems with our allies."
But we should keep in mind, he suggests, that Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, is trying to promote democracy, and that Iran hates the Taliban and Iraq's Saddam Hussein almost as much as we do.
Most important of all, we need to understand that the Iranian people want nothing more than to be our friends.
Granted, some might find that view simplistic or naive, Opin says.
"But, you know, maybe we should try building bridges for a change."
Published: 10:34 AM 11/20/02