UW News

May 29, 2008

Staffer returns to a beloved country from her past: Iran

Nancy Penrose is back at the University after visiting the country she once lived in but didn’t remember. The country is Iran, and Penrose lived there for two years when her father took a job with the Near East Foundation in Tehran. But she was only 4 and 5 years old at the time.

“Because I was so young, the direct memories I have are really minimal,” Penrose says, “but ever since those years in Iran, I’ve heard the family stories about our life there. My parents and my teenaged brother and sister loved it. They had very positive experiences. They found the Iranians to be very warm and formed some real bonds with them.”

So Penrose, who is communications coordinator for the Regional Ocean Observatory Program in the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences, has always wanted to return to Iran. But since the Iranian revolution in 1979, relations between that country and the United States have been strained, and it hasn’t exactly been a common tourist destination for Americans. Recent concerns over the Iranian nuclear program have only served to make the situation worse.

Then Penrose learned of a trip sponsored by Global Exchange, a membership-based international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world.

“In this time of increased political tension between the U.S. and Iran,” says the Global Exchange Web page, “American travel to this misunderstood country helps establish the people-to-people ties that facilitate understanding and peace between the countries.”

It was just what Penrose was looking for, so she applied to be part of the Global Exchange trip. “I feel that in this country we get just a tiny sliver of the picture of what Iran is all about,” she says. ” I really wanted a fuller picture. I wanted to experience it for myself.”

Penrose had to go through a careful selection process and was one of nine people approved for the trip. Global Exchange, she says, wanted people who could get along easily in a foreign culture and would be able to adapt to the restrictions that exist there for any foreigners, but particularly for Americans.

Women, for example, had to agree to wear head scarves and to be covered to the wrist and the ankle to conform to Iranian law. Penrose’s travel “uniform” consisted of a long and loose shirt with long pants and a scarf over her hair.

“You see a wide range of what Iranian women wear,” she says. “Some who are conservative wear full-length black chadors; others, who are more liberal, wear bright headscarves and coat-like tunics that can be quite form fitting with blue jeans and high heels. There are morals police who will ticket women who are not appropriately covered. I was worried before I went about what it would be like to have to wear a head scarf whenever I was out in public, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. But I also came home feeling very glad that in this country we have a choice.”

Because of the tensions between the governments of the two countries, the group was restricted to a tourist itinerary. Meetings with government officials, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and some religious minorities — meetings that would normally be part of a Global Exchange tour — did not happen in this case.

“Nonetheless,” Global Exchange says on its Web site, “we feel that citizen diplomacy in countries with which the U.S. maintains a stance of isolation is the first step to breaking the walls and barriers that stand before engagement and communication.”

Penrose agrees. For her, one of the greatest pleasures of the trip was interacting with Iranians. “We met people in bazaars, tea houses, shops, restaurants. Usually if they spoke any English and you smiled and said hello, you’d end up in a conversation. There was never any hostility toward us as Americans. People were welcoming, gracious, friendly. The ease with which those conversations happened was a delightful surprise.”

She remembers particularly one Iranian woman in Esfahan in Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a huge square with two mosques and one palace museum on its perimeters:

“As one of my fellow Global Exchange travelers and I were sitting on a bench enjoying the evening, a young woman came over to us and asked where we were from. We told her and she started talking with us. She was dressed conservatively, wearing a full-length black chador as well as an inner headscarf. She thanked us for wearing Islamic dress while we were in Iran. We started talking about religion and she said that she thought Islam was the best religion. I asked her if there was a specific spiritual leader, an ayatollah, that she followed, having learned during my trip that many Iranian Muslims do choose a leader to follow. She replied ‘Yes, Sistani.’ And I realized that she was talking about the same Sistani we read about in our newspapers as an important Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq. Turns out he is Iranian. The young woman invited us to join her and her mother, sister, and cousin who were picnicking nearby, but we unfortunately had to decline because it was time to meet up with our group for dinner.

“There were several things that I took away from this encounter: I was impressed with her openness and willingness to engage us in conversation, and with her generosity in acknowledging the differences in our cultures. I looked at this gracious and obviously well-educated young woman for whom Islam is so important and realized that I still had much to

understand about all the facets of religion in Iran. Sistani is just a name in the news to me; what do I really know about him? I can make all kinds of assumptions without understanding the truth. My task now upon my return is to keep educating myself.”

Penrose would also like to educate others a bit. She’s put together a slide show of her trip and is looking for opportunities to present it. And she knows that eventually, she’ll be doing some writing on the subject. “I write travel memoirs, which usually take a while to gestate,” she says.

“What I’m discovering is that most Americans know little about Iran. I feel passionate about trying to get a fuller story out there, and I’m willing to do it through many different avenues.”

For an excerpt from Penrose’s slideshow, go <a href=http://picasaweb.google.com/parsingpersia/ParsingPersia/photo?authkey=uKYra3CrpFY#s5203814243874359298>here</a>. To contact Penrose about her experiences in Iran, e-mail parsingpersia@gmail.com.