Editor's Note: Dr. Heather Gautney is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, supporter of Occupy Wall Street and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era (Palgrave Macmillan). The views expressed in this article are solely those of Heather Gautney.
By Heather Gautney - Special to CNN
This past December I received an invitation to speak at a conference on Occupy Wall Street at the University of Tehran. Given the grim state of U.S.-Iran affairs, I was naturally filled with suspicion. Perhaps the Iranian state was trying to use the Occupy movement to foster anti-American sentiment? Or maybe the conference organizers were just naïve dissidents and my husband Glenn and I would be viewed as foreign instigators, attempting to foment internal strife.
But, I reasoned, Occupy may be anti-corporate, but it is unambiguously pro-American and there was never any talk of Occupy Iran. So I accepted the invitation.
That night, my husband and I watched news reports of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on camera displaying a recently captured U.S. drone. Days later, Iran deployed naval ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world's oil trade passes. Obama retaliated with the severest round of sanctions to date, backed by the European Union. The embargo was being justified as the "humanitarian alternative" to war, but we knew from Iraq what that meant: A line had been drawn in the sand, and everyday people were going to suffer - people that we Americans were about to meet face to face.
Continued conversations with conference organizers helped ease our paranoia. Iranian North American Studies students and faculty members genuinely wanted to understand the historic Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street has inspired fundamental changes in the American political and cultural landscape, with much of the world's support and respect.
I prepared my talk carefully, haunted by news reports of detained journalists and Green Revolutionaries. What should I not say? Will I be watched, controlled? Will I, as a woman, be treated as a second-class citizen, captured by the fashion police? Or will my husband bear a deeper brunt, as a Jew? We felt like we were jumping off a cliff. Yet my Iranian friends and academic colleagues strongly encouraged me. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. The media, they said, always overblows Iran. Much of the mythology is based on lies. You will absolutely love the people.
It took much less than the measly 100 hours we spent in the country to discover that truth. Indeed, we soon fell in love without our gracious hosts, especially the graduate students that accompanied us everywhere, engaged us personally, intellectually and culturally, and sacrificed their time and energy to make sure we were cared for.
Against the common misconception of anti-Americanism in Iran, faculty members repeatedly talked about Iranian students' desires to know America, study in its universities, and experience its unique culture. And despite its reputation for anti-Semitism, some expressed concern that an attack from Israel would endanger their friends in the Jewish minority within Iran.
Unlike academics in the U.S., large numbers of faculty attended the conference, as well as the in-between lunches, dinners, and tea times, offering lively and rich conversation. We found common ground in heavy teaching loads and underfunded research. Not once did any of them speak to each other in Farsi while in our company. And not once did I feel second-class, as a female professor.
I do not want to overstate or overgeneralize my experience. There was quite a bit we did not discuss, and there remain many unknowns. We were visitors, and we were treated with white gloves. I know that. I did not learn enough to assess the elections or the magnitude of desires for reform. And of course, I did not gain insight into what's fast becoming a key geo-political mystery of our time: whether Iran is developing WMDs. I did not search for such answers. One hundred hours is not enough time to unravel the complexities of any country's social and political life. And any decent ethnographer knows that you cannot force "truths," especially those that may be informed by decades of misunderstanding and conflict. It was more important for me to share human moments. And we did share many of those.
One such moment occurred my very first day in Tehran. After touring a colorful and energetic bazaar, we decided to step into a majestic mosque made of ornate blue tile with a brilliant silver sheen. I was exhausted from travel and enjoying an immediate camaraderie with the female graduate student accompanying us, named Zahra. Just as we approached the entrance to the mosque, a man ran out from a booth and placed a chador on my shoulders. Zahra smiled sweetly, "You look beautiful!"
The men entered with the men, and Zahra and I, with the women. The walls of the interior glistened like diamonds, and I felt myself shrink before the enormity of the place, the enormity of what we don't know about Iran, and the enormity - and sheer beauty - of Islam.
Such Awakening remained a common theme, both in and outside the conference. Presenters located continuity between Occupy and the Arab Awakening, and the crucial struggle against inequality, imperialism, and the 1%. I spoke about the socio-economic woes that precipitated Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Though I did not use the language of Awakening, I did speak about dispossession, and the grassroots nature of the movement aimed at taking back what had been lost to corporate irresponsibility.
Another American participant, Dr. Iris Hamid, translated this message of loss and Awakening in moral and spiritual terms, illuminating the Islamic concept, wallayah, a dynamic and communal love that interconnects people and binds them to God and each other. Occupy signifies the breakdown of such bonds in American society, but also the deep desire to re-find them. I thought of the Occupy camps. With all their warts, they represented the found community that so many people in this country desperately need.
The metaphor of Awakening struck an even deeper chord during a special meeting the faculty had arranged with the Ayatollah Khomeini's daughter, Zahra Mostafavi. We toured Khomeini's modest home, beginning with a remarkable room of photographs documenting the Islamic Revolution. The Revolution involved some of the largest street protests in modern history - interesting by any standard, but for a social movement scholar like myself, a true wonder.
As I viewed the dramatic scenes of Khomeini's life, I flashed back to my own childhood, to propagandistic images of Khomeini as an evil dictator, the terrible jokes about Muslims that circulated through my Catholic grade school, and the absolute support of the tyrannical Shah, who privatized much of Iran's resources, turned it into a comprador regime, and committed unspeakable acts against his own people. During the hostage crisis, Iranians were cast as fundamentalist monsters in American bedtime stories, and it's that generation, my generation, who are now setting the terms of our political relationship today.
"During our meeting, Dr. Mostafavi told us the story of Khomeini's intellectual and spiritual development, his stalwart activism, and difficult exile. He did not force the Revolution, she said, but rather waited patiently for a popular Awakening. People had to see the world differently for themselves, they had to believe in the possibility of change. Like many such revolutions, this one opened the door to autocracy. Nonetheless, Khomeini did, in his writings, eschew simplistic East versus West narratives of inequality in lieu of a framework of Arrogance versus The Oppressed."
I thought of OWS. The 1 Percent is not just a statistic. It is a concept that speaks to the arrogance of power. After we said goodbye to our new friends in Iran, Glenn said: "We can't go to war with this country. We just can't."
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Heather Gautney.