Last week we pointed you to the National Geographic Story on Iran. Below is an interview with the author Marguerite Del Guidice in the Persian Mirror.
If you are concerned with all things Iran, you have probably already received a few emails from your friends, telling you about the amazing cover story on Iran by National Geographic this month. I was lucky enough to be contacted by Marguerite Del Guidice a few months ago as she was putting the finishing touches on her masterpiece. For the article, she traveled to Iran two separate times, visiting many sites and speaking to as many people as she could. It is clear that she has been able to capture the essence and soul of Iran and the Persian people in her article in the National Geographic and for this we thank her.
Marguerite is not only a journalist but also a writing coach and has been a college teacher. A former staff writer for such renowned papers as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Boston Globe, she has also written for The New York Times Magazine among others. Marguerite was gracious enough to allow us to turn the tables on her and ask a few questions ourselves. Here is the PersianMirror interview with Marguerite Del Giudice.
Shabnam Rezaei: How did you get involved with National Geographic and writing on Iran and the people of Iran?
Marguerite Del Giudice: I had freelanced a couple of articles to the magazine that were well received. One was an environmental drama out of Iceland and another was an Arctic Adventure tale. The National Geographic had had a longstanding interest in doing something photographically on Iranian archaeology, and, on the writing side, that grew into the idea of exploring what was meant by Persian identity for those in the population who felt that connection. I’ve always gravitated to writing about people and culture more than politics and institutions. So it was a good fit.
SR: When did you become interested in Iran?
MDG: I suppose I had the ordinary interest of any American, wondering what was really going on in Iran beyond the narrow headlines, what this country and its people were actually about. But like many of us, I was never able to gather the time and energy to do the hard work of looking into it further on my own. So when the opportunity arose to experience the culture first-hand, I was thrilled, and I set out to wr
ite something I hoped would allow others to vicariously share at least some of my experience.
SR: Tell us about your visits there.
MDG: I visited twice for two weeks each time—in July and October of last year. I went to Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis and Pasargadae, Kerman, Tus and Mashhad, and passed through various little places in between. Among other things, I attended two weddings and visited the national museum, Golestan Palace, and the University of Tehran as well as the tombs of Hafez, Sa’adi, Ferdowsi, and Imam Reza and a number of private homes. I spoke with anyone I ran across—hotel and airport workers, money changers, waiters and shop clerks—as well as, more formally, and among many others, college professors, a sociologist, an economist, an actor, a filmmaker, a Zoroastrian priest, cultural heritage officials from the government, a Nobel laureate, an aikido sensei, an engineer, a locksmith, the leader of an outlawed reform movement, one of Iran’s vice presidents, a Reiki master, some Sufis, archaeologists, a retired oil industry executive, a poet calligrapher, a palace director, and an underground Persian rap singer. Of course I also talked to many people on the phone from my home office, and I read a lot. It was a beginning.
SR: What are the most memorable things you experienced in Iran?
MDG: There were many. The Sufi celebration in Shiraz for Imam Ali's birthday. Constantly being fed and fussed over, wherever I went. Dancing “the knife dance” at a wedding in Tehran. Making friends with some fellow aikido practitioners and feeling as if they were my brothers, that there were no borders between us. High noon at Persepolis. Perusing a 15th century copy of the Shahnameh with a magnifying glass, while wearing a surgical mask. Getting pulled into a vortex of hundreds of passionate Muslim worshipers who were struggling to touch Imam Reza’s tomb in Mashhad and losing one of the shoes I was clutching under my chador—an omen, according to my driver, that my wish at the tomb would come true.
SR: Was there anything about the people you were struck by?
MDG: I was struck by their easy familiarity—literally how they seemed to treat each other as brothers and sisters, as family—and generally by this soft side Iranians have as a people, their warmth, how caring strangers were to me, and accepting. I was struck by how careful they felt they had to be, afraid of being watched or overheard. They live in a place that has always been dangerous, century upon century, for one reason or another, so they often have had to pretend in order to feel safe, living double or even triple lives. I learned that how they live behind closed doors can be startlingly different from the contained personages one sees on the street, where they strive not to be noticed and whose Islamic culture teaches them not to be the nail that sticks out that will then have to be hammered down. Maybe I misread the extent of it, but there seemed to be a lot of stress around that. I was struck by the sometimes not-so-subtle rage against the Arabs for having conquered the Persian Empire in the 7th century. From the passion with which some people spoke, you would think it had happened last week and not 14 centuries ago.
SR: Did you come away with an overall sense of the society?
MDG: Speaking broadly, I came away with a sense of a lovely, heart-based people, who are sensitive that they are not being known as who they actually are. They feel misunderstood and miscast as dark and menacing, which is a terrible psychic shock for such a sociable and outward-looking people, who find themselves increasingly isolated from the world and even shunned by the world. They’re in a tough position, economically and politically, which ironically resulted from their efforts to overthrow previous tyranny and which is now out of their hands. Iranians are among the world’s most ancient continuous people—one man referred to them as “grandparents of the planet”—and they want to continue to be part of the human story. They feel that, with the right leadership, they could have a lot to offer, they want to play a role, and they’ve been marginalized. As I spoke to people and drew them out, a pride in who they once were shined through. Many of them felt this link with their greatness from antiquity, they were conscious of it, and I found myself feeling envious.
SR: You mentioned something about the driving.
MDG: Yes, the driving. Probably like anyone who goes to Iran, I found the roads to be not only dangerous but a defining factor in what it felt like to be there. Many of the drivers—not just in Iran but in much of the Middle East and in developing countries generally—can seem disturbingly reckless behind the wheel. They seemed to approach a ride to the mall with what can only be described as courageous fatalism. To say that I died a thousand deaths while riding around the cities in taxis or with drivers hired to take me long distances between archaeological sites may actually be a fair estimate. The workday population of Tehran, as I understand it, runs around 13 million, and they all seemed to be operating their vehicles at the same time. Driving outside the city was in its own way worse. I’d look up and see a car or a truck or a motorcycle, sometimes two, in one instance three—one vehicle tailgating the other—coming at me full-speed the wrong way down a two-lane desert highway, little dust storms kicking up from the tires as they swerved off the paved surface at the last moment to avert a head-on collision. I’ve been told that my reaction to the driving comes off as naïve. But, really. Why was my driver passing at high speeds around blind curves? Why were passels of motorcycles driving the wrong way on the shoulder right next to us, or up on the sidewalks? Why were pedestrians walking into the traffic, holding children by the hand? An English teacher I met pointed out bumper stickers on some of the cars that he translated as “Insurance by the Imams.” Which I interpreted as meaning “what’s to be will be, it’s in the hands of Allah, our future is in paradise, not on Earth, where all you can expect to do is suffer.” The Iranian consciousness seemed steeped in, among other things, a philosophy of resignation, which, given the history, is entirely understandable.
SR: What has the reaction been to your article?
MDG: So far, from both Iranians and non-Iranians, it’s been positive and appreciative of any attempt to deepen understanding of the Iranian culture and reflect its peoples’ humanity.
National Geographic Article on Iran