NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders (CNL) program. We are doing our book talk this evening on The Heartbeat of Iran: Real Voices of A Country and Its People with the author, Tara Kangarlou. We are very happy to have you join us. I am Nick Gvosdev. I am a senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and I am co-host of The Doorstep podcast.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome, I am Tatiana Serafin, also co-host with Nick of The Doorstep podcast and a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, and so excited to welcome Tara today, first of all because, Tara, you are close to my heart. I am a fellow journalist, so I could spend this entire hour asking you process questions: How did you get all these wonderful 24 characters to open up? How did you pick the details? What was that like?
But I won't make this a journalism talk, although that will be my inclination. I will make it a talk about what you centered around, which is this idea of identity and the fact that the world is interconnected, which are two themes that I keep talking about here on The Doorstep, the fact that the world is really interconnected in ways that people aren't discussing.
You mention it in your book as related to the fact that much of Iran's population is under 30. You say that a couple of times in the intro to The Heartbeat of Iran. That is what really interests me, this idea that a new generation is what is going to make change and change these perceptions that you speak about, these perceptions of Iran that I think your book does so eloquently in telling the people's story. It's not just about policy. It's not just about the optics of foreign policy leaders saying things or meeting. It is about the people who are living their everyday lives and connecting in ways that are happening and that we do not often talk about. I am so glad we get to talk about them today.
Not only is Tara a wonderful award-winning journalist who has written for many publications and a Middle Eastern expert on humanitarian issues and refugees. You have your own not-for-profit. You do such amazing work. I am so honored to be here today with you.
But I do want to leap into the book and to leap into having our CNL Fellows talk and ask you questions. I am going to start us off with the question that I alluded to: the young generation, Gen Z, interconnections. After you finished your book and over the last year, as we have all been hunkered down at home connecting through social media and through television shows, do you think that has changed the way that people are looking at each other, the fact that the world has gone through the pandemic together? There were no borders with COVID-19, and we had to kind of come together in various ways. Do you think that has inspired Gen Z from Iran to be more interactive and connected to Gen Z around the world?
TARA KANGARLOU: First of all, thank you so much, everyone, for joining and for the Council for organizing this great discussion. I am really excited to be speaking with you all.
Tatiana, thank you so much for your great question and getting the conversation going. It is such a pleasure to be with you all.
The first thing I want to say, Tatiana, is that Iran is a country made up of 80 million human beings, not 80 million nuclear heads, and understanding that is incredibly important. Unfortunately, so much of the media and the narrative on Iran is constantly dominated by policy talks, political issues, and foreign policy affairs. Pretty much Iran, this incredibly vibrant country and this ancient civilization, is reduced to nuclear talks, an angry man with a turban whose name people cannot even pronounce, and movies, shows, and programming that again only capture a very, very insular narrative and insular window.
With this book, which you mentioned is a collection of 24 very intimate stories, very, very personalized and human anecdotes, tales, and journeys into today's Iran, I wanted to introduce my American readers and my fellow Americans to the human side of this country. Again, as you are reading the book, these are not rosy pictures. These are not flowery, rosy stories of Iran to give you this, "Oh, no, look, everything is fabulous and dandy." No, but rather this is how people live. This is what people think. This is the air that people are breathing. Can you understand that? How does that feel to you, Tatiana? What are the mutual points that you feel connected to with these Iranian people, who again otherwise you have only heard about through sound bites and through these TV news hits?
You ask about Gen Z and the younger people in Iran and how COVID-19 perhaps connected them to the rest of the world. For me, actually it was a bit of the opposite. I think folks in the United States, folks in Europe, who to an extent always think they are isolated and protected from all the chaos of the world, had an opportunity to realize that the only difference between me sitting in New York City and someone suffering from this awful disaster and pandemic in New Delhi, Tehran, or Lebanon is so little. There is no difference between me sitting in Manhattan in the comfort of my apartment and a young person in Iran, with the caveat and with the difference that those folks over there are affected not just by the poor policies of their own government but also how the international community handles a global pandemic and how sanctions—again, we can talk about sanctions more, for instance, when it comes to Iran—are affecting ordinary Iranians at a time of a global pandemic.
Again, I don't want to talk about sanctions. I am happy to, but that is a big discussion. My point is, I think that people around the world realize that fundamentally we have so much more in common with one another, our hopes, dreams, and aspirations are so universal, that the politics that divides us is quite petty and trivial and does not have to be.
With the young people in Iran, they are one of the most vibrant demographics in the region. Iran has an incredibly young population. It has the highest number of Internet users again in the Middle East because obviously of the large population, but despite all the filtering and the censorship of social media and whatnot, people are connected via social media. I was getting ready for our talk, and, lo and behold, one of the most conservative and hardline figures in the country was on Clubhouse campaigning. So you can just imagine. These people who censor or filter these platforms are on talking, so just imagine a young 16-year-old girl.
This was a great opportunity for me for the book to take a career break from mainstream news and really focus on human stories that we miss, that we don't hear from the people. I am glad you are reading the book, and I hope everyone who is joining gets a chance to virtually travel to Iran through these stories.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to pick up on that last point that you were raising about campaigning and the stories of people. As a point of comparison of your book to things that I was reading what is now a long time ago, kind of at the tail end of the Cold War, which was you started having a lot of journalistic encounters with people inside the Soviet Union.
It was the same thing. We thought of the Soviet Union as this monolithic evil empire, "They're all out to get us," and nuclear weapons—it's interesting how the nuclear theme keeps coming up—and then you had a spate of books, A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, and journalists who had greater access, and this effort to get to these stories.
But one of the things that always struck me was that, on the one hand, you had an effort to tell these stories as if these people were separate from the larger state and society, and then there was the question of, "Well, even if they are in opposition, how much are they really still a part of it?"
What I am trying to get at with the stories that you are telling and the people you spoke with and others is: How do they relate to their government? How do they see this kind of state and society question? Do they see themselves as apart from the government? Are other people doing things, and they are just trying to live their lives?
What is that sense of interconnection, either in a positive way of, "Well, we may not like it, but it's our government," and as you said, they do have elections. They may be as you said filtered and constrained, but people are asked to cast ballots. Is there a sense that people say, "I don't like this government, but it's still mine," or are people, and particularly younger people, saying, "The revolution and the revolutionary regime just doesn't speak to me, it's not my government, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to replace it," as we saw with younger generations in last years of the Soviet Union, doing the same thing?
TARA KANGARLOU: Thanks, Nikolas. I think the stories in my book really capture—some of them at least—the contrast between people and people's lives and that of their government. Obviously, I'm sure the people who spoke to me were very careful because they are living there. Perhaps they filtered themselves to an extent, but again for anyone who reads my book I add a lot of context and a lot of nuance. I call my book "Iran within Iran within Iran." I even talk about the Soviet Union, and you really get to see the role that Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States played in Iran's last hundred years and more, so it is really an opportunity for people to put context in understanding not just current Iran but what happened that we have this now.
But, listen, the majority of people in Iran have an innate resentment towards the regime, towards this Islamic government, towards this establishment, and the last couple of years have been horrific.
Let me backtrack for a second. In Iran you have "moderate reformist forces," but they are constantly capped and stifled by hardliners and revolutionaries. Having another conservative person in the White House is only going to choke moderates and reformists. Why? Because the conservative behavior of the United States only emboldens the hardliners and the conservatives in Iran. So you have two conservatives attacking each other, and any moderate reformist force is therefore sidelined. So that's why the last four years have been even further dismal.
But at the same time, Iranians unfortunately any moment that they gather themselves to come to the streets, whether it was 2009, the Green Movement that we saw, or whether it was the events of the last two years, the mass protests, they were stifled. They were choked. Again, Iran has an incredibly powerful intelligence apparatus and military, and people cannot bring that change as sort of the classic way that we have been seeing in the Arab Spring in different countries.
Mind you, again in the countries where we saw Arab Spring, it is not that their situation is any better right now. Again, different discussion we can have for hours.
But the point is, I want to answer your question, and that was fundamentally part of the mission of the book, to allow Americans to see how people are different from the government, that they are different than their government, but in lieu of them being able to bring immediate change how are they living? What are they struggling from? What do their day-to-day lives look like? How are they being affected by the policies of their own regime, but also how are they being affected by policies from abroad? How do they maneuver between this tug of war?
Within those differences these people are still living, and quite frankly while many are surviving, especially with the last few years economically Iran has been going through so many challenges, but some have had success stories, and I explored how, what were the challenges, and where do they want to go next.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is important that you say these things because I think it resonates with us too. Not every person on the street resonates with either the Trump administration or frankly the Biden administration. The more that we can reinforce that the people and the government are not the same thing in any country—unfortunately, as you said, it tends to come to sound bites, which is also the media problem. We talk in sound bites sometimes too often or stereotypes, and I think that gets in the way of the people's stories. You create this stereotype, and then you do not really talk about the individual stories.
But I think as cultures are explored—and I do think cultural exploration either through books or through television shows—you may not like the reality series Shahs of Sunset but we can talk about the fact that these are people who have aspirations. Even in your book you talk a lot about the people who have aspirations. They are wanting to strive for something better. Any single person on the street can find a way in and parallel to their lives and that idea of "I'm working to better my life, to better my children's lives." That is a story for everyone.
By having these books, films, and media tell the stories of the people just living is going to change perceptions and give people the idea that they are just like my neighbor next door, and to the extent that we can do more of these kinds of discussions—in my introduction to Iran, I just want to tell you, when I was living in London, you celebrate spring with a big party, and I went to a big Persian spring party. I didn't know much about Iran. In fact, my introduction to it was this beautiful culture of food, dance, and music. So I think it is how you are introduced to a culture and how you are introduced to story. That's why The Heartbeat of Iran I think is such a wonderful exploration into Iran, its culture, and its people. I guess we are waiting for the movie version.
TARA KANGARLOU: Oh, thank you. I am so excited. If anyone has any Hollywood connections, do tell me, because I really do see this as a sort of Babel or Crash, where you have vignettes of life from a different spectrum of society, but somehow they are so connected through these universal stories. So we'll see. Maybe that will come next. I am actively thinking about that.
But, no, Tatiana, you are 100 percent right. Again, as a journalist and also an immigrant and an Iranian American, I do believe that when people don't know of each other, that's when fear comes to be. When you don't know my story and my reaction to you, that's when you automatically become fearful of perhaps even communicating with me. I think people of Iran—again, people; the nation is so pro-America; I'm not talking about the government—are so pro-America, they are so welcoming, and unfortunately they have been stifled and isolated. But in that region they are perhaps one of the most pro-American peoples that you would find.
Again, unfortunately the 300-plus million Americans in this country don't know Iranians and don't see Iranians. I am so excited and happy to hear that your first experience with Iran wasn't Not Without My Daughter or wasn't the hostage crisis, which again, important stories, but you saw the dance, the culture, and the Nowruz celebration, which is an ancient celebration.
When I moved to the States I was 16 years old. I was born an American citizen. My parents came to the States in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and I didn't think that there was a difference between myself and my American friends in high school, but because of this lack of understanding of the Iranian people I had to constantly explain myself. No, we don't ride camels. I don't have to wear this dark, black burqa. Yes, yes, there are people who do that, but my mother doesn't look like that, or I don't look like that. So this constant idea of explaining yourself was something that really prompted me to even pursue journalism and pursue this mission to tell stories from places that are not often heard of or reported and also capture issues from the vantage point of people who are being affected by whatever issue that they are being affected by.
Fundamentally, Tatiana, I do believe, again based on my work as a journalist, that if you don't tell your stories, someone else will tell your story for you, and that story may not be one that is accurate nor one that you like. I think over the past years Iranians did not have much opportunity to tell their own story. They were not able to control or be always a part of the narrative the way they should and deserve to be, and we can talk about that. There are a host of reasons I think are worth talking about. I think the first generation of Iranian immigrants were so worried about making their way in the United States, moving away from again the hostage crisis and this negative stereotype, and quietly forged their way as immigrants that they didn't even bother working on this narrative on Iran.
Then also, again I say this as an American, in the United States we love boxing things—the red or the blue, the left or the right, north or south—but things are not boxed. It's not either/or. In between these two there is a host of colors that are worth exploring, that are millions of stories. So I think this narrative building and enabling people-to-people connection and exchange is only going to make this world a better place and be beneficial to the enhancement of a global community.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just one of the things as you were talking right now—and again you anticipate in many ways the questions that I want to ask. I think you are right about the extent to which the hostage crisis—and again, it's now further away from us in history than the fall of the Berlin Wall, which seems like happened ages ago, yet for some reason it really burned itself into the American narrative on Iran so that people who were not even alive at the time of the 1979 events somehow react to them.
Then, of course, the point about immigrants and particularly people who are refugees from the regime coming over and then essentially being held accountable for what was happening in Iran by people who said, "Well, you're the same as the people over there," sort of from the frying pan into the fire. But as you said, of course what has happened is that a diaspora has developed, and going back to this point about cultural products and exchange, when you have a reasonably robust Iranian American presence and certainly the production of things in the media—music and film items, and now with the ability to transmit this over social media, you saw how Iranians in Iran embraced Anousheh Ansari as an astronaut. Of course, she paid homage to her Iranian roots by bringing the Iranian flag with her as well as the American one on her spacesuit.
Is there a sense that the Iranian American community is one of these points of conduits in Iran, and how do Iranians react to the Iranian Americans? Is there a sense of, "You're part of us, and you can tell our story?" Do some people say, "Well, you and your families left, so good riddance to you, you're not with us anymore?" How do people from the diaspora navigate, and how are they received by Iranians in Iran? Is it "Tell our story, connect us," or is it also, "Why aren't you doing more for us?" What's your sense of how that connects and the relationship between the Iranian American community and Iran?
TARA KANGARLOU: That is such a great point, Nikolas, and I am glad you are asking that. It is so interesting. It is quite fascinating.
Unlike other diasporas—the Chinese American or Indian American—Iranian Americans have not done well, and I am very vocal about this. Quite frankly when I did this book the Iranian American community was like, "Oh." Everyone else was so excited. I had an incredible reception, and Iranian Americans tend to be so self-centered. Again, I can say this because I know them and I am part of the diaspora. They are, "Yes, you have the Anousheh Ansaris, who would do actions that are incredible—and more power to her"—but collectively they are not united. They try to stay away from political issues because so many of them belong to the royalist camps, they are old school and they are pro-shah, and you have the other people who are not pro-shah but they are anti-regime, and they support that. And you have other people who do that.
Somehow so many people in the diaspora are stuck with their own political ideologies and mentalities entwined with their own struggles of living life as immigrants in the United States that they do not connect with people in Iran. Iranians inside the country quite frankly are not waiting for the diaspora to help them, save them, or do anything for them because they are not connected, and they are not united and unified. Quite frankly, even in a basic protest about a very basic human rights issue, Iranians are at each other's throats on the streets in New York or Los Angeles, so you can just imagine what a joke they are to Iranians in Iran. Obviously, there are exceptions and people who are better than others and whatnot, but there is this general lack of rapport between the diaspora and those in Iran.
Again, mind you that Iranian Americans in the Iranian diaspora are so careful, walking this line: "We're not bad Iranians, we want to get a business deal or do something that may be jeopardized because of our Iranian background," then they are not Iranian.
Or even this whole thing about Persian and Iranian. I don't even know—I hate getting involved in that because I am from Iran. I am Iranian. And, yes, I have a Persian culture, and I celebrate it and so on. In the diaspora some of the people don't even say I am Iranian because Iran is associated politically.
But I can understand that. I get it. I was in Chicago, coming to New York, and I went to the bookstore in the airport, and I went to ask the girl, American girl, "Do you have The Heartbeat of Iran?" Actually I felt a little bit nervous saying "Iran." Isn't it crazy that I felt a little bit of nervousness?
TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes.
TARA KANGARLOU: I am being very open. I am me. I was like, Is she going to think it's a book on terrorism? Why? Why? Why should I be ashamed or nervous about saying I am Iranian, Tatiana, and I live in New York City because I don't want to be confronted with this question that you may have: "Oh, did you escape a revolution?" Or, "Oh, my god, can you do this or that?" All these negative stereotypes that we always have to confront and address I think are part of this resentment of the diaspora owning their heritage and Iranian identity.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is old-school thinking, and I don't think Gen Z cares or knows about the hostage crisis, and I think they are very different. We will go back to that question because I love Gen Z.
TARA KANGARLOU: Can I respond to that, though?
You are totally right. I agree with you. I think Gen Z in this country doesn't know about the hostage crisis or these narratives. These dark, gray, awful narratives are not embedded in their heads. But what do they have instead? Here's the thing: What do they have instead? All they have in Iran is the nuclear talks, sound bites, the news.
And precisely again this is why I did the book because there is a void of alternative narratives on Iranian people so that the Gen Zs that you are talking about, how are they going to connect to people in Iran, the young people in Iran? How are they going to connect with the current society that lives there right now? I am not talking about people who left. I am not talking about old people who are part of the previous generation but people now, exactly to your point. I think not just about Iran touched on that. Any country that has a convoluted dark history should introduce new narratives to connect with the younger generation as to what is going on right now, and the young generation can decide for itself.
TATIANA SERAFIN: One hundred percent.
QUESTION (Brett Buchness): This is a bit of a process question that Tatiana was trying to steer away from, but I am actually curious: How did you go about selecting who to interview for this book? You have 20 different stories. Was it deliberate who you asked? Was it random? Was it a combination of both? How did you ensure that you got the whole picture from a boots-on-the-ground perspective? That may just be a journalistic question, but I think it's a critical one because I could interview 20 people in the United States and then interview another 20 different people, and they could tell you two entire different things.
TARA KANGARLOU: Exactly, and I appreciate you asking. I always talk about this because I think it is part of the storytelling and part of this narrative building.
When I decided to do this book after I left Al Jazeera America, right before the previous administration in the United States took office, I took this career break and started working on this book. I remember in my office I had this whiteboard, and I wrote every single topic that I wanted to tackle, again topics that we do not hear much of on the news or are often reduced to sound bites, but topics that are incredibly important, relevant, and again nuanced because they would open layers and layers and layers.
I can talk about the specific topics too. I filled this whiteboard with topics. Just to give you an example, I knew I wanted to talk about child labor, I knew I wanted to talk about addiction because that would open a few other windows that I wanted to tackle. I knew I wanted to talk about child marriage. I knew I wanted to talk about this demographic of hard-working single women whose husbands were either drug addicts or from these rural, poor, impoverished communities who strive for a better life for their children.
I knew I wanted to talk about teachers. Teachers have such an important place in Iranian society. I remember moving to the States and when my teacher would say, "Oh, call me Joe or Jack," I would be like: My god, no, this is terrible. It has to be Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Johnson. How could students not get up when a teacher comes into the room or how can they talk rudely to the teacher or how can they not raise their—you know what I mean? These things were so shocking to me. This place of the teacher in the society is something so profound in Iran. That leads to education, the economy, sanctions, medicine, and healthcare.
I wanted to take my readers to the Persian Gulf. Let's talk about this Persian Gulf. Let's talk about the environment. Let's talk about food, art, culture, music, religion, and ethnic minorities—it will come to me as we speak—but the point is these topics and areas of discussion were what I thought about, and I packaged them so that one story could unpack some and many. Again, by no means 20, 40, 100 stories would capture an entire nation of 80 million, so by no means am I saying that I did that, but at least it is a slice of life. It is a slice of the story. It is a slice of the society.
I have to say that I interviewed close to 40 individuals. I finished writing 35 or 36 of these stories, but again we had to cut. My editors in New York cut it down because it simply wouldn't fit. It would have been a very thick book that probably no one would buy. Unfortunately, we had to cut quite a few, and there were so many stories that I loved. There was no reason as to who was cut and who made it, and the only thing that mattered was which stories could capture more. Whose story captures more? But I quite frankly think that every chapter deserves an entire book to itself, but these are just little vignettes, little moments that you or anyone in the United States can sit back and connect to their Iranian counterparts and see a little bit of what they perhaps may not see otherwise.
QUESTION (Juris Pupcenoks): A quick question, something that sparks my imagination as you were talking. You mentioned the Iranian diaspora not doing well in the United States. For years I have been hearing stories about a missing million Iranians who are not really part of the diaspora because they chose to Americanize and completely cut ties. When we talk about diaspora we talk about a migrant background community that is still politically active and cares about the homeland.
When we look at an Iranian diaspora in the United States, is it true that there are many, many members who are no longer members of the diaspora because Alis become Als and so on? When you say the diaspora has not done well here, are these people who chose to become part of the diaspora or—basically my question is: What do we know about the Iranian diaspora in the United States? I have not been able to find good sources except for a lot of stories.
TARA KANGARLOU: There are some good organizations. I will be happy to drop them in the chat if you are interested in getting to know more about groups that are active in the Iranian American community and the diaspora. And, yes, I think to an extent so many people in that sort of immigrant journey that I think again is very universal, let go of their name Ali and became Al or Alex, and you would find many of them here in the United States, but some, especially the younger generation of Iranians who left for mainly education purposes in their twenties are connected.
I also want to say that so many of these students and younger generations in their thirties, forties, and even fifties have family still in Iran. They have their parents in Iran. I don't want to get political too much, but that is how policies affect human beings and people. When you do a blanket travel ban on a country you are affecting a family who is spending their entire livelihood to have their daughter or son study at an amazing university to better his or her life, but suddenly he can't visit his parents in Iran. And what happens when the pandemic hits or a parent gets cancer? The child would be banned essentially or halted from seeing his parents who are dying. I can tell you so many stories of such.
So, yes, so many of these younger-generation Iranians have had connections to Iran. They have their parents there, and they want to have this back-and-forth. But they can't for various reasons. But again the older generation in the diaspora, some tend to be very political, and they are very active, and some end up staying very quiet.
But also again I want to emphasize the fact that it is so interesting, Tatiana, and mind-boggling that the minute you have an Iranian American organization that is not constantly bashing the Iranian regime and is sort of forging ways toward diplomacy, then they get labeled "pro-regime." Or then, if you have an organization that only focuses on culture, then they are like, "Ah, they don't do anything." There is this constant labeling by each other that I think has contributed to this lack of unity I should say in the diaspora. But there are some that have, at least in the last decade or so, presented Iranian Americans in a more favorable and vibrant light, I should say.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I do think the travel bans and the pandemic unfortunately negatively affected travel and the physical exchanges of people moving back and forth, but do you see—I think the younger immigrants, the people studying here, when travel was possible, we do more of that, right? You even mention in your book this idea that you went back and forth visiting family.
It's so different than being in a situation where, for example, I am the child of immigrants from the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc, never got to go because—never. The immigrants that are coming in now are treating the world as an equal platform. Whether I am in Ukraine or here, doesn't matter because I could be there, I could be here. It's the same thing.
To me I love to study them because I think it's so interesting because they don't view it the same way as, for example, my parents would view that travel is—you might as well be on the moon. That's how we thought of the Soviet Union back in the 1980s. You would never travel.
Where are we with that travel with Iran? Assuming that the pandemic ends and travel is normal again—we talked a little bit about this when we met you earlier today, that travel is not where it used to be—do you see that that physicality will return, and do you see younger generations just going back and forth as if there are no barriers, that physical barrier is not there?
TARA KANGARLOU: I don't think I can give you a yes or no quick answer, Tatiana. This is a very complex and complicated situation, perhaps one of the most complicated ones. For example, in my case, I was born and raised in Iran. My father was a surgeon. He decided to go back to Iran and work for his people and his country and was absolutely against the government establishment, but he wasn't a political guy. He was a doctor, so he lived life and wasn't involved in government.
But when I found my place in the American media as an American journalist and I worked for some of the most known networks in the world, I then had to be very careful because I am no longer just an ordinary citizen. I am an American journalist, so starting in 2012 after my dad passed that is when I started with CNN, and I was wary, I was careful of whether or not I should go back and forth. My mom was worried. That was a very specific story to me. My story changed. My cousins didn't change or my friends didn't change. None of them had anything to do with politics, none of them were activists. They were just whatever, ordinary people.
So in 2015 when I went back with Al Jazeera America to cover the nuclear talks actually, the first round, I had to go as part of an American delegation. I went with my network. And of course I was nervous because I just didn't know because of these ambiguous blurry lines when it comes to journalists and so on. So my story is very unique in this sense.
If we are talking again about a 25-year-old student who got an acceptance from UCLA, five years ago and left despite again all the financial challenges but wants to go back to see his parents, of course it is going to get better and is going to go back and forth, but at the same time I don't want to discount this incredibly sensitive issue that we constantly see with Iran, this unfair and unjustified imprisonment of dual citizens and dual nationals as political bargaining chips and so on, but again that is not the entire story, nor is the other side the full picture. I think when it comes to traveling to Iran people need to understand the whole picture, the whole story. All of these nuances are so important. But again, ordinary people, those students that we talk about, of course are going to have an easier time.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Listening to your conversation, I am really struck by some of the parallels one can draw with the Cuban American experience, the same questions about access of travel, and difficulty of traveling. It was very difficult for many decades for American Cubans that supported any sort of engagement with the island to get traction because the sense was, "Well, now you're pro-regime, you're pro-Castro if you don't take the absolute maximalist hard line on that," and then these questions too of the ease of travel and the dual national question of, for some people, whether or not that would apply. It is really I think a fascinating discussion.
Again, going back as you started this conversation, where we are dealing with people as individuals and individuals having to navigate in ways that other people may not know or appreciate or just think, Well, you just travel from one place to another or you carry a passport, and so on. I think again that those kinds of discussions, particularly as we always talk about the benefits of a globalized world and where barriers are coming down and we have moved into what some people call the "decentralization epoch," where states may matter less and we can connect across borders and the like, but it is a reminder that we are not in that completely flat world. Not everyone enjoys the flatness of the world in the same way, and I think those are great points there.
TARA KANGARLOU: Absolutely. To your point, if I may briefly, Nikolas, I want to add—this maneuvering is so brilliant, and in my book that was an element that I wanted to point out that I hope my readers would understand and see—is how everyday Iranians in this country despite all the challenges, hurdles, restrictions, and confinements are maneuvering. That is something that Iranians have found out so well, so meticulously, and they perfected it over the last 40 years, how to maneuver from point A to point B and how to have this public/private life, how to maintain a public life despite all that is going on, and how to have this vibrant life that perhaps in many cases does not defer from a young person's life in the United States or the United Kingdom. I think the book allows people to see how these maneuvers have taken place. Absolutely. It is a big part of life in Iran, maneuvering.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: We often hear about Iranians in the United States as if America is the only outside country that matters, but Iran is in a neighborhood, and you often hear people opining over here about Iranians and Arabs and the like. What is the sense that you have in your conversations, those that made it into the book and those that didn't, do Iranians look at the Arab world and say, "We're a part of this greater Middle East?" Before, in the time of the shah, there was this effort to try to say, "Well, Iran, Israel, and Turkey are non-Arab states of the Middle East that should help define it so that the Arabs don't define the Middle East."
We often hear about Iranians making pilgrimages across the border coming into Iraq, going into Najaf. The ordinary Iranian looks at his or her Arab neighbors and do they say, "Part of our neighborhood, people we get along with, people we don't get along with but we get along with when outsiders"—what is the dynamic of the Iranian relationship with the Arab world, and particularly again also with young people, with people who were born after the Iran-Iraq War, born after the First Gulf War of 1990–1991? How do they look at Iran in the neighborhood? And are they looking at other places that we as Americans are not thinking about that we might be surprised in terms of Iranians looking to France, China, India, or some other place?
TARA KANGARLOU: How much time do we have? Five minutes, okay.
This is a great question. It is an important one. Again, I don't want to keep showing the book, but I do talk about this in the book and these nuances and these very important critical issues that you raise I try to answer in the book, for example, in the story of this incredible young Sunni Iranian who is living in Sistan and Baluchistan, as was the story of a rabbi that I profile in the book, and this other young Jewish female entrepreneur that I talk about, I really try to delve into this issue of religion.
A few key points I want to say because I know we are tight on time: Iranians are incredibly proud of their Persian heritage, of their identity. So there is a huge distinction between Persians and Arabs. It has nothing to do with the last 40 years. That has been the case for the last 3,000 years. Obviously, as you know, after the invasion of Arabs around 2,000 years ago that is when Islam came to Iran, but for Persians we were originally Zoroastrians, so these elements continue to exist within the society.
However, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 the government and the regime plays off its politics on ideology and religion. Therefore, Iranians have become wary and fatigued of religion. This is a fascinating observation that I made in the last couple of years when I traveled the region. If you go to any Arab country, you will find young, educated people who are religious, who pray, who respect their religion, and who observe.
But in Iran it is the contrary. The more you go to rural, poor, conservative communities, that is when you see religious folks. The moderate, educated, urban society in Iran is not religious because religion has become an ideology that is associated with the government, if that makes sense. Again, I talk about his in the book.
Before the revolution it was quite different. You would have these old-school religious families. They would do their religious ceremonies during the holy months, but then they threw the most lavish, fabulous parties, and no one was judging them. There was no judgment. But right now, again religion has become an ideology.
Again, the story of this amazing rabbi unpacks the relationship between Iran and Israel, and I think it is worth saying that Iran during the shah, after the creation of the State of Israel, Iran was the second country in the region after Egypt to recognize Israel and have an amicable, cordial relationship. So many Iranian Jewish folks contributed to the growth of Israel at the time. After the revolution it became a political thing. Again, it is a political issue.
And this whole Shia/Sunni thing, again it's ridiculous. It's such an America-driven policy. I grew up in Iran. Obviously, girls go to girl school, boys go to boy school, and you have religious classes and so on, but it wasn't until I came to the United States where I was constantly fed with this narrative that, "Oh, you guys are Shia, Shia, Shia, Sunni, Sunni, Sunni," and again I talk about it in the book. People in Iran, daily, everyday people, don't care. They want to belong to an international community. They want to belong with their neighbors. They want to connect. They want to grow. They want to have commerce, exchange, economic relations, and again in lieu of all of that Iran is becoming closer and closer to China.
Let me ask you: Do you think they have more in common with their own neighbors than they do with a country that is far, far away? I think it is more with their own neighbors, so the more opportunity any country has to engage with their closer friends and neighbors, the better that is.
But also, I know you asked about France and Germany. Iran historically, dating before the 1900s, has had relations with Germany and France, and that still continues. I think they are two of the biggest allies. Again, talk about politics, they always try to be brokers between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Iran.
I hope I answered the question as deeply as I could.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, you did. Thank you.
TATIANA SERAFIN: You did, and it is so wonderful.
I don't want to end without doing maybe one little reading from your book. Do you have a favorite passage to read because it really is beautifully written, and I want everyone here to hear that as we close out our session.
TARA KANGARLOU: "As I finish writing my introduction"—or as I finish this conversation with you—"I can't help but think of Margaret Atwood's words on how she hopes that people will finally come to realize that there is only one race, the human race, and that we are all members of it. As you read this book, more than anything I hope you come to understand the values and humanity that you share with the average Iranian, an experience that will enable all of us to see beyond the surface, beyond the political headlines, and beyond the dark shadows of hostile governments. In doing so, you are already creating a path for discourse, dialogue, and engagement, all necessary ingredients for any form of progress, peace building, and change. Inherently, when people recognize their similarities they become more tolerant and understanding of one another. And when you finish this book, I hope you remember that it is the people of a nation who define their country, their values, and their history.
"By now, some of the people I have featured in the book may have left Iran, some may have changed careers, and some may have even died. But one thing will continue, and that is, or was, their passion for life. Governments come and go, presidents change, regimes collapse, but what will forever remain is the pulse of the people who pump blood into the veins of their land, people who, in this case, are the heartbeat of Iran."
TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so very, very much for joining us today. Thank you for allowing this recording so that people who couldn't make it will be able to hear your words, and we look forward to maybe inviting you to our podcast.
TARA KANGARLOU: I would love that, absolutely. Thank you so much, Nikolas and Tatiana. It was such a pleasure. And thank you to the Council for organizing this. For the folks who haven't gotten the book, I hope they can get it and really get to meet their Iranian counterparts.
You know where to find me.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.
TARA KANGARLOU: Thank you. Thanks so much for your time, everyone. It was a pleasure.