Christopher Thornton is a professor of writing at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. He has worked as a special correspondent to the U.S. State Department’s International Information Program, writing feature stories on Arab and Muslim life in the United States for the department’s website. His essays on Iran have also appeared in the Atlantic, Michigan Quarterly Review, Commonweal, and Confrontation. His book Descendants of Cyrus: Travels through Everyday Iran (Potomac Books, 2019) is now available.
Why would an American outside the foreign policy network develop an interest in Iran, long to visit the country, and ultimately write a book about it?
Iran was burned into the American consciousness on November 4, 1979, when Islamic revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took dozens of diplomats hostage. The standoff lasted 444 days and ultimately ended with the hostages being released, but the damage had been done: Iran, once a loyal ally, was now America’s number one bogeyman, and following the demise of the Soviet Union a decade later, would be given the dubious distinction of emerging as not only America’s, but the entire “free world’s,” nemesis prima facie.
I remember the hostage crisis well. At the time I was busy finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, and the following year the remaining diplomats finally left Tehran, all semi-fictionally portrayed in the film Argo. For the next eight years the horrific Iran-Iraq War made brief appearances in international headlines. But for me, as for most Americans, Iran faded in and out of awareness as too many other events crowded the media waves. But then, sometime in the 1990s, I began reading a little more about the country through feature stories that occasionally appeared in the New York Times, which was dutifully dropped on my doorstep every morning. These weren’t the run-of-the-mill political dissections by Beltway pundits. They ignored the routine, and largely meaningless, political gyrations to dig a little deeper into contemporary Iran and Iranian history, with spotlight features on topics such as Noruz and the meaning it carried in Persian culture. For several years I looked forward to these little exposes, as each one told me—Hmm, there is much more to this story than we usually hear. Hmm, this country is much more than we think it is. My curiosity was piqued.
In 2004 I left the U.S. to take a job in the United Arab Emirates. Now being within hopping distance, I set as one of my aims to see Iran firsthand. But this was stymied the following year, when former president Masoud Ahmadinejad came to power and slapped visa restrictions on American visitors. I discovered this when I visited the Iranian consulate in Dubai to apply for a visa, and saw that one country had been crossed off the list of those who citizens could obtain a visa on arrival—the U.S., or, in Islamic Republic lingo, the Great Satan.
A few years later I did manage to make a trip to Iran, arranged through a tour operator in Tehran, and the timing couldn’t have been better. I arrived days after the disputed 2009 election, when violent protests were rocking the streets of Tehran and other cities. I say the timing couldn’t have been better because I was able to experience the country with all its sores exposed. The people were eager to discuss politics and air their grievances. And a visiting American couldn’t have served as a better sounding board.
I would return to Iran two more times, in total spending approximately two months in the country and traveling around it widely. In that time would discover a land with a history as deep and aa vast as any on Earth, with a rich culture, beautiful landscapes, and sophisticated, gracious, and hospitable people, with sincere admiration for Americans and Western culture, and equal distaste—no, call it revulsion—for the ruling regime. Many times, among American friends, I have been asked if I always felt safe in Iran. Every time I had to laugh. Not only did I never experience an inkling of fear, I can honestly say that I feel quite comfortable in the country, and were the political realities radically different could even imagine it as a second home. In fact, I know of no other place on Earth that is more mischaracterized than Iran. The gap between media representation and on-the-ground reality is surreal, and this was apparent after my first few days in the country. I wanted to recheck my boarding pass to see if I really arrived in Iran.
This was the motivation for this book, to share insights and experiences with readers that would be only be obtainable if they paid Iran a visit themselves. But many can’t, for a variety of reasons, or are still more than a little intimidated. Thus, the aim was simple—to present a more accurate, in-depth, and comprehensive portrait of the country, its history, and its people, and to show readers that there is nothing to fear. From the very beginning I decided that the best format for this kind of subject is the travel narrative, for it presents a complicated subject with lively immediacy and a human touch—the best way to experience, even vicariously, any part of the world.
Now I only hope that every reader enjoys the trip.