The faces of Iran

As the public face of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a public relations disaster for his countrymen. His incendiary, and often wacky, comments should leave even the most broadminded among us thinking, "What?" And it must be embarrassing for Iranian Americans.

Theirs is a rich history, a refined culture that greatly values education. And the Iranian president's comments on topics from the Holocaust to Israel to homosexuality show him to be - in the unapologetic words of Columbia University's president - "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."


While Mr. Ahmadinejad was making national headlines during his recent visit to the United States, scholars at the University of Maryland, College Park were preparing for a conference on a figure of Persian culture whose reputation far exceeds that of Mr. Ahmadinejad: Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, the 13th-century poet-philosopher-mystic better known as Rumi.

The two events occurring within days of each other was a coincidence, but they provided an opportunity to reflect on opposing views of a society that remains a mystery to many Americans, and a feared one at that. UM's Center for Persian Studies, one of the first in the country, organized the conference as part of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's "International Year of Rumi."


Born in Afghanistan, Rumi wrote in Persian, founded a mystical sect of Islam, and died in Turkey in 1273. Iran claims Rumi as a great Persian poet, but he's a figure of pop culture whose work has been performed by Madonna, celebrated by Time and widely read in America.

The College Park conference drew 400 participants to hear scholars from 12 universities, including UCLA, Tehran University, Hunter College of New York and the University of North Dakota. That's an indication of the growing interest in Persian studies across the country, says Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, the UM center's director. College and graduate students studying Persian doubled between 1998 and 2002, from 614 to 1,117, according to the Modern Language Association. Such studies should be encouraged because the continued isolation of Tehran isn't in this country's long-term interests at home and in the Mideast region if the hope is for a moderate, democratic Iran.

Increasing the number of Persian speakers and our familiarity with Iran - and the Arab world as well - shouldn't be viewed solely in terms of increasing our advantage in the "war on terror." Demonizing an entire nation fosters bad public policy.

At Maryland, the Persian studies center attracts ethnic Iranians and as many non-Iranian students. Culture and language may be their interest, but politics does intrude. How can it not, when the U.S. president includes Iran in his "axis of evil" and Iranian clerics routinely refer to America as the "Great Satan"?

And those are the views that seem to dominate the public debate. The ruling clerics in Tehran, of course, impede rapprochement by imprisoning academics and dissidents, thwarting free speech and insisting on a nuclear program of questionable intentions. Their actions leave U.S. policymakers with difficult choices and limited options.

But the diplomatic stalemate shouldn't dissuade Americans curious about Iran from pursuing their interests. There's much to be learned on both sides. Consider the experiences of some UM students.

Behnaz Razavi, a student volunteer at the Rumi conference, has been struck by how little people know about her native country: "Until three years ago, Iran and Iraq were mistaken to be the same country by many American citizens. Now they know the difference."

Through his studies and relationships with Iranian students, graduate student Robert White has seen how diverse Iranian society can be. It's not all religious fanatics, veiled women and terrorist sponsors, as media reports would have you think, says the 24-year-old.


But some Iranian friends, Mr. White says, have a skewed view of the U.S. from watching television sitcoms and Hollywood movies. "I have found myself in very long conversations," he says.

"Once you sit down and talk and share with people, and you realize you have a mother who nags you about cleaning your room - and so do they."

Now, there's a breakthrough.