A Wall Street Occupier in Tehran
Zahra Mostafavi Khomeini, daughter of the Ayatollah Khomeini, speaks with Heather Gautney and Glenn Kaplan. (Courtesy: Heather Guatney)
March 15th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

A Wall Street Occupier in Tehran

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.

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Topics: Iran

soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. Arvand

    When I was walking with you and all other American and Iranian friends in Tehran Streets, I couldn’t imagine the volume of difficulties that you will get in when you come back to your country! You have been in other countries all around the globe, but these difficulties have shown up to you only after your last journey: IRAN! Why? The simple answer is: you have tried to see, feel and understand a country directly and out of the lens of global main stream media. You have tried to experience Iran in your own laboratory not to use the products of “globalizer media” and it is a big crime in the globalized world! Because they have spent a lot to build their desirable image of that country and they want you and all the people of the world to use their stereotypes.
    Remember the Matrix movie when Morpheus offer Neo couple of pills, the blue one to come back to the ordinary life and to forget what is going on, and the red one to go ahead and getting free from the Matrix; you and people like you have chosen the red pill, as Iran in its 1979 revolution against American imperialism chose. You have got in trouble Just like Iran in 33 years of its revolution because both of you have chosen the red pill. Iran has been patient in the face of hardships – eight years war, sanctions, defamations, terrorist attacks etc – and you must be patient too because Iran have proved that patience leads to success. A philosopher says: When you build your house on hillside of a volcanic mountain, you must expect disasters not serenity.
    I’m waiting to see you again in Iran very soon.

    March 17, 2012 at 5:15 am | Reply
    • Arash

      "Miserable people' should be pipe down for an illusion named "success."

      March 17, 2012 at 5:59 am | Reply
      • M

        Mr. Arsh
        Nature of the fishes of the world with the world of nature is different mammals

        March 18, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  2. Mahmoud

    a great and balanced article. I believe now is the time to persuade Iran and US to start a dialogue, something which although isnt in the favour of Israel and some arab countries, but is in the favour on Iranians and Americans. A brave man is needed to start and stay commited to this hard process. Thanks Dr. Gautney. These articles help the eradication of misunderstandings and mistrusts.

    March 17, 2012 at 8:35 am | Reply
  3. Arash

    Iranian Student, please provide us with an example of democracy and "rule by the people" in Iran. (to be non-emotive, i think, isn't a bad thing!).

    March 17, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
  4. Sarah

    Thank you for the beautiful post. We are so quick to see other nations as uncivilized b/c they eat, dress or pray differently. So easy to attack any country once we have shown them to be inferior or barbaric. American has been at war since its exitence and every country it attacked was smehow evil. Americans never stop to think that maybe if they start thinking like humans and act like humans, they will see the rest of the world, with its differences, as humans too. We will see them not as a race,but as mothers, children, husbands etc. We have now demonized Islam, but for years now the Muslims were amongst us and we were ok. Even today, the worst tyrants ruling the middle east are our allies. But instead of condeming them, we condemn the religion of the ppl they oppress. I say 'religion of the ppl' as the religion of these tyrants is the same as that of US leaders and elites...conceit and supremacy

    March 17, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  5. pary I

    Dr. Gautney went to Iran and try to share with us what she saw and experience in Iran .some ignorance who could not talerate the truth started to disrespecting Dr. Gautney for her truly point of view on iran. Please go to learn how to be human. Thank you Dr. Gautney for youe truly point of view on iran

    March 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  6. Ali

    I am not at all surprised that 100 hours would make so much difference in thinking. You just have to start with pure heart.
    If the Islamic ideology of goverence is spreading and slowly people are finding the all positive aspect of Islamic democracy and justice there will be some rude and ignorant people that we should ignore.
    I wish professor can go back and continue to learn more about Islam and be a bridge between Islam and Christianity.

    March 17, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  7. Arash

    Mr. M,
    'If Voting Changed Anything They'd Abolish It."
    KEN LIVINGSTONE (1987)

    March 18, 2012 at 9:00 am | Reply
  8. Maurice

    It is sad that as we beat another war drum to fight Iran (which we already started by forcing a regime change in Syria via creating cvil war and we turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Bahrain because our naval fleet is stationed there poised to attack Iran) our dear news stations do not discuss the negative implications an Iran-US war will have on our economy (the rich don't care because they will just get richer) and the increased suffering of the poor. Maybe OWS will take on a new dimension when the Iran-US war starts. They lied about Iraq and now they lie about Iran and not once has any sensible news caster questioned these lies!.

    March 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  9. Munaver

    Dr Gautney is a brave woman who wrote from her experience even though it went against the grain here at home. We need more writers like her and maybe peace will be given a chance.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    March 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  10. Yusufali

    Here's a glimpse of the 'Evil Imam' from his own family:

    Imam's wife would say, "I was never woken up by Imam praying Salatul Layl (night prayer) because he would never switch on the room light. When he would go to do wudhoo, he would place a sponge in the sink under the tap so that the sound of the falling water would not wake me."
    Agha always offered me the better place in the room. He would not start eating until I came to the dinner table. He would also tell the children: ‘Wait until Maa comes.’
    He was not even willing that I should work in the house. He would always tell me: ‘Don’t sweep.’ If I wanted to wash the children’s clothes at the pond, he would come and say: “Get up, you shouldn’t be washing.”
    On the whole, I have to say that Imam did not consider sweeping, washing dishes and even washing my children’s clothes as part of my responsibilities. If out of necessity I sometimes did these, he would get
    upset considering them as a type of unjust dealing towards me.
    Even when I entered the room, he would never say: ‘Close the door behind you,’ but waited till I sat down and then would himself get up and shut the door.
    His daughter Siddika says: My father had an extraordinary respect for my mother. In the period of 60 years of living together, he did not even reach for food (on the dinner table) before his wife, nor did he have even the
    smallest expectation from her. I can even say that in the period of 60 years of living together, at no time did he even ask for a glass of water, but would always get it himself.
    He behaved this way not only with his wife but also with all of us who were his daughters. If he ever wanted water we would all enthusiastically run to get it, but he never wanted us to bring and give him a glass of water in his hand.
    During the difficult last days of his life, each time he would open his eyes, if he was capable of speaking, he would ask: ‘How is Khanom?’ We would reply: ‘She is good. Shall we tell her to come to you?’ He would answer: ‘No, her back is hurting. Let her rest.’
    Here is one of the letters he wrote to her:
    To my beloved wife,
    O' I die for you. I have always remembered you when you – the light of my eyes and strength of my soul- have been away from me. Your pretty face is shining in my heart like in a mirror…..
    I really miss you here in Beirut. You can find a lot of beautiful places to visit in the city and at the sea. What a pity that my dearest is not with me…...
    This has been a good journey so far trip but you are really and truly missed. I miss our son, Seyyed Mustafa. I pray that God will protect you both.
    I love you so much.
    Ruhullah Khomeini

    March 18, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
    • ali

      Please if you can add the link to your story. thanks

      March 19, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
    • Praying Mantis

      In 1988 the same godly and compassionate man issued a creed (fatwa) to massacre more than 5000 mostly youngsters from different politica opposition groups already in prisons serving time. The order was carried out in span of less than 3 month.

      To see the mounds of evidence and fact just put this "1988 prison massacre in Iran" in your search window.

      June 10, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
  11. shafic

    Dr.Gautney-thank you for a write up which may open some intelligent eyes and start thinking that there is a world outside of U.S. and people are different with their own cultures,faiths,beliefs and rules of law. Crimes are not as rampant even in the poorest of countries as they are in some industrialsed countries. No country can claim superiority over any other country and same goes with the religions

    March 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  12. Jospeh

    Nice one and so so true.

    March 19, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  13. Mathew

    Amazing insight into Iran and it just shows that humans who open their hearts and minds can overcome all barriers and make Peace and friendship all over the world with mutual respect and this world becomes a better place. Iran is definitely not doom gloom and oppression as the media constantly tells us. Its a good country with lot of happy content people living the life they want to live. It may come as a shock to many that there are many cultures, languages and civilisations and ways of life out there not just the Western way of life and that people are happy living their lives the way they want. Thank you for bringing this insight to us and sharing your experience and well done to you for having the courage and open minded ness to do what you did. God Bless

    March 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  14. Peikovianyi

    American anarchists are useful to the Teheran mystics. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

    March 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  15. Esmaeil

    Someone was searching under the light very cautiously. Another guy asks him have you lost sth here? No, I have lost my key in my basement, he replies. The guy surprisingly asks why are you searching here and he says because I do not have light in my basement. The knowledge of united states about Iran is sth like this or even worse. USA seeks to his answers from Iranian opposition in USA as it does not have embassy inside Iran. It is worse because the opposition in US give wrong directions to US. If you come to Iran, you will find the answers.

    March 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  16. E

    You spoke the truth. Good job!!!!!!

    March 20, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  17. Peikovianyi

    Will OWS and the Ayatollahs agree to divide Poland? The Nazis and Soviets did.

    March 20, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  18. Shah

    Great article!
    Would love to go to Iran one day.

    March 21, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  19. Sami

    Is Good
    Very Nice, That Right
    Iran's People are Our Friends

    March 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  20. Siavash

    Oh I read this article and then the comments and I laughed and I laughed. Another name seeker goes to Iran to FIND real Iran and Islam, but admits she didn't talk about anything useful, the prisoners, the torture, the brute force of police in the street, she was treated like a queen, and who wouldn't like that. Yeah, Khomeini was very nice, he didn't steal the revolution, he just ordered thousands of executions in 1980 and 5000 more executions in 1988. Execution of prisoners who had spent 6 or 7 years in prison and still most of them were under 30. I don't expect anything more from these kind of American INTELLECTUALS who hate their own country's system so much that they condone any dictator and tyrant, like Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and now the Academicians. It's really sad. As a victim of the ISLAMIC REPUBLIC, I have to say, shame on you. You are the ones who fuel Khameneyi's tank.

    April 24, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
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