~A City of Inspiration~
"New York is a tremendous generator of inspiration. It is a capital of inspiration... You feel at a place where reality is most intense." ~David Lehman
Rare indeed is the opportunity one receives to travel to the city that never sleeps in order to meet with nationally renowned professors, scholars, human rights activists and multiple heads of state. As I climbed inside of my first taxi cab I was overcome by the sheer magnitude of the opportunity I had been given. Despite what I had been told regarding New York Cities filthiness, the afternoon air was surprisingly fresh and clean, a slight breeze blowing in from the coastline surrounding Manhattan. As the taxi van rushed along the roadway my face was pressed against the glass in an effort to take in as many of the sites as I could before they sped away behind us. When I boarded my airplane in Salt Lake City I had still been unsure if I was up for the demanding itinerary that had been handed out to us, but as the Empire State Building, Yankee Stadium and Central Park each raced past my window I was filled with an overwhelming spirit of excitement and adventure. I already knew that I was going to leave this city a different person than I had been when I arrived.
Unrelenting eye candy would be too kind of a description of Times Square. For several blocks down each side of the street, the entire city shimmies and shakes to the beat of a dozen different individualized building-sized TV screens and wall-to-wall video advertisements. It's beyond overkill and it’s a gleaming example of capitalism gone mad. Time Square reminds me of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo, there really is no space. Time Square is an ocean of names and logos that go on for as far as the eye can see. I found myself standing amidst the blinding neon lights wondering just how much money it was costing the city of New York to keep all these lights on 24/7 and how better that money could be used. I wondered how much it cost Gap and Disney to produce billboards the size of buildings and wondered quietly to myself, is this what America is coming to?
Hadi Ghaemi- Human Rights Watch
On an overcast New York morning, we met with Hadi Ghaemi of Human Right Watch in historic Bryant Park. Nestled in its canyon of skyscrapers, Bryant Park is an oasis, a refuge of peace and calm filled with historical monuments, gravel paths, beautiful gardens and green chairs. Hadi Ghaemi was a very passionate man and one of my favorite people that I had the pleasure to meet on my trip to New York. Our host knew that we would be meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad later on in the evening and he had a few suggestions as to what questions we might ask: Why are all the academics, scholars and professors in your country being taken to prison? What crimes have they committed? Why are families not allowed to even have the bodies of their murdered children? You are here talking openly with us this evening, why will you not do this same thing in your own country?
Hadi Ghaemi told us he believes strongly that Iran has turned into a military dictatorship under President Ahmadinejad. He enumerated for us many of the lies that Ahmadinejad commonly uses as excuses for the murder, torture, and kidnapping that is taking place in his country. Ahmadinejad has told other countries that it is not him committing these atrocities; it is a foreign government who has come in and taken over. However this raises the question, how can it be that foreign agents are raping, murdering, and torturing prisoners when you won’t allow any foreigners into your country?
Mr. Ghaemi pointed out that not a single Iotolla or head of state will see or recognize Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran. They say that Iran is no longer a democracy and it has turned against the teachings of Islam. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s core base is quickly becoming the military because no one else will listen to or obey him. Hadi believes that Iran is now experiencing a military takeover of their political system. Finally, our host urged us to not legitimize Ahmadinejad. He urged us very passionately to wear green and stand up for those that have no voice. I was extremely moved by Hadi Ghaemi’s passion and willingness to stand up for the rights of all those being oppressed under “President” Ahmadinejad’s rule.
Farheed Kazemi-Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University
New York University is located in Washington Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village. One of the city's most creative and energetic communities, the Village is a historic neighborhood that has attracted generations of writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals. It is there that we were privileged to meet with Farheed Kazemi. Mr. Kazemi was full of facts and information about Iran that I had never come across before. He pointed out to us that Iranian history and politics are full of contradictions. No place on earth is there such a dichotomy of contradictions. Iran is a country of paradoxes, an interesting and mysterious puzzle.
Iran has very strong elements of insecurity, especially when it comes to international relations. The elite of the country are beginning to lose confidence in themselves and they are beginning to fight amongst themselves. Dr. Kazemi believes this to be a good sign. He pointed out to us that the number one sign that a revolution is inevitable is when the elite lose confidence in their control of the people and start turning on one another. Dr. Kazemi informed us that over 60% of the people in Iran want an open relationship with the United States and in order for the Islamic Republic to stay alive; it must reform and build relationships with other countries. The people of Iran are growing very tired of excuses and they will not be distracted any longer. They are in the streets yelling, “No Gaza and no Lebanon, Iran.”
Farheed Kazemi had some very interesting facts to share with us. He informed us that 17 members of the fortune 500 companies are owned by Iran; next to Israel Iran has the highest population of Jews, and when Iran’s nuclear issue was made international, 90% of the international community believes that Iran should have the right to nuclear energy.
One of the biggest questions that I have struggled with in my studies of Iran is who really has the power? Is Ahmadinejad controlling the military or is the military controlling him? Dr. Kazemi believes that the military, which in the past has always been subject to the rule of the government, is now controlling the government. He told us of a new airport that was built in Tehran, within 3 days the airport had been taken over by the revolutionary guards. The revolutionary guard has taken over everything that has to do with the economy and is now also running the black market. Even the Basij is being controlled by the revolutionary guard. Our host ended his discussion with us by explain that the Iranian Judiciary is ordained by the supreme leader and he believes that the judiciary is the #1 culprit in destroying Iranian democracy. I loved meeting with Dr. Kazemi, he offered incredible insights into the inner working of the Iranian government.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
What does pure evil look like? When you are in the presence of the devil are you filled with fear or just utter loathing? These are just a few of the questions that I asked myself before meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the days and even hours to our dinner with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I found myself torn between choosing to attend the meeting purely for the experience of meeting with a foreign dignitary and controversial person, or adding my voice to the throng of protestors standing outside on the sidewalk, making known their outrage at the audacity of the man they believed stole the democratic election of the people of Iran and proceeds daily to commit outrageous human rights violations. Ultimately I decided to attend the dinner as it was a once in a lifetime opportunity after all and I couldn’t bring myself to simply pass it up. Initially we had been told that we would be able to bring cameras and video recorders but the day before the meeting we were informed that this would not be the case after all, which is ironic because the Iranian mission taped every word of it. Once we had passed through the security shakedown we were shown to our seats and told that President Ahmadinejad would be with us shortly. ‘Shortly’ soon turned into more than an hour and a half as we listened to his private entourage sing his praises.
Once he arrived Ahmadinejad proceeded to give an explanation for his tardiness: the president of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi, had gone outrageously long in his address to the United Nations. He then gave a brief speech expressing his gratitude for our attendance and welcoming us on behalf of the wonderful people of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After these brief introductions, he began taking questions from the audience. His answers really surprised me in a way. Questions that I never thought he’d answer, he did and questions that I thought he would have no problems answering, he pretended to answer by using his amazing ability of spin. He was asked about the holocaust, the elections, the demonstrators, the human rights violations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I believe the best question came from one of UVU’s student, Najib. He asked Ahmadinejad about the poor treatment of Afghans. He asked why they were being imprisoned, tortured and killed for no reason whatsoever. We all knew that it was a good questions when Ahmadinejad asked that the cameras been turned off. He told Najib, a native Afghan, that his information was wrong and that the people of Afghanistan were treated like brothers in Iran. He told Najib that if his Afghan brothers were to hear such a question they would be saddened and upset because they are leading happy and prosperous lives in Iran. When asked about the Holocaust he told us that he believed that there just wasn’t enough scientific evidence to prove that it actually occurred. He has read over 20 books and 100 articles on the subject and he feels like both sides are just not being heard. He said that scholars who have come forth with information contrary to the holocaust have disappeared and been imprisoned. I was quite surprised at the length of his answer. He must have gone on about the holocaust for close to 15 minutes.
When asked about the demonstrations and the imprisonment and violence against the demonstrators he was very quick to point out that he is not in control of the judiciary branch of the government, nor can he question the decision of the judges. Whenever he was asked a question about unlawful imprisonment, human rights violations, or the demonstrators, he would always go back to the answer about not controlling the judiciary and not questioning the wisdom of the judges. If someone was in prison, it was because they broke a law and unfortunately people who break laws must be punished.
Ahmadinejad is an incredibly intelligent man and a very practiced politician. He is very good at answering your question and yet not really answering your question at all. He smiles and compliments you and then proceeds to take you through a maze of an answer. Although this was a very hard dinner for me to sit through, I am very happy that I made the decision to go. I believe very strongly that we need to talk to our enemies, no matter how insane they may be and no matter how much we might disagree with them. That is the true meaning of diplomacy and that is how peace is built and sustained.
Hooshang Amirahmadi, President of the Iranian Council, Princeton
Princeton is absolutely gorgeous. With its amazing gothic architecture and landscaping, I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in my entire life and Hooshang Amirahmadi was by far one of the best parts of my trip. I found him to be incredibly intelligent and charming and I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short amount of time.
Dr. Amirahmadi started out by saying that Iran must become a democracy and they must come to this on their own. He pointed out that no country has ever become a democracy without first having good relations with the United States. A good relationship between the United States and Iran will not only help democratize Iran but it will also help Iran to overcome many of its human rights issues as well.
We then discussed sanctions and the use of force by the United States against Iran. Dr. Amirahmadi believes very strongly that the lack of diplomacy, such as Iran not being included in the Oslo peace talks, brought Ahmadinejad to power. He is a product of our lack of diplomacy and our harsh treatment towards Iran. We have caused a military security situation and a military security government.
Dr. Amirahmadi expressed 3 main issues with U.S./Iranian relations. They are nuclear weapons, terrorism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He then explained that these issues are not really issues between the U.S. and Iran, these are all global issues, so he questions why these things are getting in the way of a good relationship between Iran and ourselves. When it comes to nuclear weapons, other countries build new weapons every day. When it comes to terrorism, there’s Osama Bin Laden, Hamas, and Hezbollah, Hamas being Arab Sunni and Hezbollah being Persian Shia. Most Muslim countries abuse human rights, support terrorism, and are lifelong dictatorships. And finally, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how in the world can this be about the U.S. and Iran when this problem has been going on for a hundred years?
The political community in the U.S. believes Iran to be a troublemaker and also believes that Iran has harmed the U.S. more than any other country. Iran may have made trouble but it was for a reason. The United States has never accepted or legitimized Iran. President Obama is the first president in over 30 years to recognize Iran as a legitimate government and call Iran by its real name. We need to realize that Iran making trouble is Iran’s way of protecting themselves. When the United States invaded Iraq, Iran recognized that the US would quickly set its sights on a similar conquest in Iran. Iran did the only thing they knew how to do, they preoccupied the enemy (the United States), by paying trouble makers such as Hezbollah, to make problems for us in Iraq. They figured that if our work in Iraq was never truly complete we would be incapable of waging another invasion.
The United States has never really listened to Iran. Even if its nonsense, we need to learn to listen, that’s diplomacy. Dr. Amirahmadi described this as ‘zip-plomacy’; Iran zips their mouths while we talk. He believes that as soon as Iran is guaranteed security, they will give up terrorism. He also believes that Iran’s relationships with Palestine and Hezbollah have nothing to do with human rights; he believes that these relationships are about keeping Israelis and Palestinians from coming together. If Muslims and Jews (two of Iran’s biggest enemies) were to come together, Iran would be unable to defend itself. Keeping Israel and Palestine fighting is a form of protection.
Dr. Amirahmadi made it very clear that both the United States and Iran need to let go of their preconceived notions of each other and come to comprehend one another as they truly are. We need to come together and create a policy that is win/win, a policy that works for both of us. We must recognize each other’s worth and value. Iran holds grudges; we really don’t need to give them another reason to hate us. We need to recognize their culture and history. Throughout the years, the relationship between Iran and the U.S. has been kept private, we need transparency. Dr. Amirahmadi believes that President Obama is Iran’s last chance at a diplomatic resolution. There must be bi-lateral discussions between the U.S. and Iran. Multi-lateral discussions where other countries are brought to the table will only cause more problems. With multi-lateral discussions there are just too many people talking and trying to further their own interests. These kinds of talks only create more enemies.
If the United States is truly ready to build a relationship with Iran, Dr. Amirahmadi laid out six concrete steps that we can take to begin this process. 1) We need to unfreeze all the assets and money that we froze when Iran overthrew the Shah. It’s not about the money; Iran has asked over and over again for this money to be released, it’s the principle of the matter. 2) We need to take the sanctions off Iran’s oil and gas. If we don’t want them to go nuclear, we need to take the oil sanctions off. We are forcing them to need nuclear energy. 3) If we want peace with Iran, we need to give the Palestinian people what they deserve. 4) We need to prove to Iran that what we are saying is true; we have lied to them too much in the past. 5) We need to lift the 20 mile travel restriction, which just shows mistrust.6) 2,000 Iranians have died in plane crashes over the last 2 years; we must lift the sanctions on airplane parts. Iranians are blaming America for the deaths of these 2,000 innocent people and they have every right to do so.
In conclusion, Dr. Amirahmadi believes that Ahmadinejad represents change; his is just the wrong kind of change. If we want positive and lasting change to occur in Iran we must be willing to listen, to understand, and to make up for all the wrongs that we have committed.
Reception for Madhav Kumar Nepal- Prime Minister of Nepal
Attending the reception for the Prime Minster was definitely a highlight of my trip to New York. The people of Nepal are the kindest, most gracious people I have ever met. As the room filled with beautiful women wearing saris of every color of the rainbow, I felt like I was at home. I was able to meet the prime minster along with his cabinet and I made many friends that night that I am still in communication with. I had an unforgettable time that I’m sure I will never forget.
Freedom House is an amazing independent organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world. They believe that freedom is possible only in a democratic political system in which the governments are accountable to their own people. Freedom House functions as a catalyst for freedom, democracy and the rule of law through its advocacy and action. One of the great things Freedom House does is release its annual reports on 193 countries and 15 related and disputed territories that are then used by policymakers, the media, international corporations, civic activists, and human rights defenders to monitor trends in democracy and track improvements and setbacks in freedom worldwide.
We talked with freedom House about Iran and the possibility of Iran becoming a democracy. At this point in history many people believe that Iran is on the brink of a revolution. We discussed how this same thing happened with China Everyone thought that China would fall just as Russia, Poland and Korea had, but it didn’t. There is always the possibility that this same pattern will be followed by Iran as well. Iran has seen what happened to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and they are doing everything in their power to prevent that same thing from happening to them. They are working to break up all forms of opposition, the opposition coming from within the country and from outside as well.
Freedom House believes that Iran is just running out the clock until they are in possession of nuclear weapons, they are buying their time. I am not quite sure that I agree with everything Freedom House had to say but I enjoyed our conversation and I respect their research and opinions. Their report for 2009 on the country of Iran shows no increase in freedom or democracy over the past 10 years.
Visiting China Town was like leaving the United States of America behind and walking down the streets of Beijing. When we arrived I was immediately overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and, most pervasive, aromas that surrounded us. I have been to China Town in San Diego before and thought that I was prepared for the experience but I was sorely mistaken. The China Town that I had visited before didn’t hold a candle to the complete cultural immersion that I discovered on the streets of the Big Apple. The best part was being able to just window shop and feel the cultural exchange wash over me like an ocean wave, I never would have guessed that I would come across live frogs for sale for only a few dollars each or dozens of pig snouts lined up alongside more traditional cold cuts.
To my surprise, despite the fact that I am a firm agnostic, one of my favorite experiences from the trip was being able to visit several historic cathedrals. Never before had I seen such astounding religious artwork as in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Known fondly as St. John the Unfinished the church, which started construction in 1892 has yet to be finished – in fact due to a fire it is simultaneously being constructed and restored. None the less, the gothic design was breathtaking in its flawless coordination of both the astonishingly intricate and the blessedly simple artwork, encompassing the entire gamut from stained glass windows to religious iconography and stonemasonry. Equally as wonderful, though for entirely different reasons, was the historic Riverside Church in Harlem. Known as the most progressive church in the United States, the New York Times called it "a stronghold of activism and political debate throughout its 75-year history influential on the nation’s religious and political landscapes.” The special significance it held for me centered on the fact that it was the site of one of my absolute favorite speeches given by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.
Of the various sites that we saw my favorite was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their exhibits were both astonishing and breathtakingly beautiful. To be able to walk among actual Egyptian ruins, examining ritualistic artifacts and ancient works of art was like stepping a millennia in the past. Never have I been so captivated by ancient antiquities as staring into the eyes of a statue of Anubis or gazing at actual sarcophagi.
My trip to New York was, in no uncertain terms, one of the most amazing, eye opening experiences of my life. On the flight home all I could think of, beyond seeing my beautiful family once again, was that someday soon I needed to do whatever I must to return to the Big Apple, with my family in tow, perhaps this time to stay.