الأربعاء، 24 أغسطس 2011

The Ideal Americans | Iranian.com

The Ideal Americans | Iranian.com

The Ideal Americans

Reunion Peace Corps volunteers who served in Iran

The Ideal Americans
by Goudarz Eghtedari
The founding of the Peace Corps is one of President John F. Kennedy's most remembered legacies. Then Senator Kennedy, arriving late to speak to students at the University of Michigan on October 14, 1960, found himself facing a crowd of 10,000 students at 2 o'clock in the morning. Speaking passionately, the presidential candidate challenged American youth to devote a part of their lives to living and working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Similar to his other significant message of "Ask not, what your country can do for you. Ask what, you can do for your country." John F. Kennedy’s motivating message resonated with the youth and most Americans. Their response was immediate: within weeks students organized a petition drive and gathered 1,000 signatures in support of the idea. Several hundred others pledged to serve. This response was crucial to Kennedy's decision to make the founding of a Peace Corps a priority. Starting in 1961, young Americans had an alternative to the Vietnam War; to serve the people of the world and be ambassadors of peace rather than acting as agents of aggression.
Peace Corps volunteers started serving the people of Africa and South America immediately and later, in 1962, Iran and Turkey also became destinations for them. Iran was not a familiar place on most minds, but the majority did not object when offered to go to Iran on the Peace Corps behalf. Almost all I have talked with went to world map or globe to find out where Iran was promptly after receiving the letter of acceptance from the Peace Corps. As Terence O'Donnell (Garden of Brave in war) is quoted to have said, the volunteers from small town Middle America did not have much of a problem adjusting to life in Iran, but those from large cities perhaps had more difficulty getting used to Iran of the 60s. Initially, the Peace Corps mission in Iran was focused on education, but later it expanded to include environmental training, urban planning, community development, health, agriculture, vocational education, and other programs. Although the majority were men, a small percentage of women also served alone or with their spouses. The Peace Corps in many cases provided short-term language and cultural training in the US as well as more in depth classes inside the country.
By the end of 1976, when the Peace Corps stopped serving in Iran, close to 1800 volunteers had been sent to Iran and served tours of 2 to 6 years in remote areas of the country, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and from Gonabad and Birjand to Mahabad and villages in Ilam. It is not clear why the Peace Corps decided to end their program in Iran. As I spoke with many of the volunteers who attended the reunion, it became apparent that several reason might have influenced the decision; Ambassador John Limbert, who was intimately involved with Peace Corps, and Jackie Spurlock, a member of the last group of volunteers serving in Iran up until 1976, believe that after 1973 when Iran’s revenue of oil quadrupled, the Shah and its government needed more expertise than what could come from volunteers. Hence private companies and consulting firms became partners of Iran as a rapidly developing country. On the other hand the majority of volunteers were interested in more remote and indigenous areas of the world, rather than the crowded urban life in Iran of the mid 70s.
Consequently it can be assumed that as preparation for 1974 groups were already complete they were sent over and accordingly they completed their two year services in 1976. Talking to other volunteers however, it appears that some other speculations are also plausible. For instance, one can assume that gradually these young progressive Americans became a liability for the US government in dealing with the Shah and the Iranian intelligence apparatus, which interfered with daily routines of the country. I have been informed of at least 3 cases that support this assumption; one returned volunteer told me that shortly after he wrote a letter-to-editor to an English paper in Tehran about situation of women in Iran, he received instructions from the Peace Corps to leave the country two months prior to the end of his tour.
Late Terry O’Donnel also told me that he was in Mahan, Kerman, researching the Sufi order of Shah Nematollahi, when he received an order from SAVAK to leave the country within one week. The third is an incident that allegedly happened inside the Embassy between Peace Corps volunteers and a Military advisor or contractor which caused the then US Ambassador, Douglas Macarthur II, to prohibit the use of the Embassy’s Restaurant and Bar by Peace Corps volunteers for 45 days. The person who narrated this last story believed that most advisors were coming after serving in Vietnam and often were at odds with Peace Corps volunteers, who were known to be against the War.
On the first weekend of August, 2011, volunteers and staff who served in Iran reunited in Portland, OR after 35-49 years. This was only the second time since the Peace Corps program in Iran ended- and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Peace Corps by President Kennedy in 1961. They joined friends and family on the campus of Portland State University for a weekend to "Reconnect, Reminisce and Revitalize." The reunion was jointly sponsored by American Iranian Friendship Council, International Studies Department at Portland State University, and Friends of Iran-an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association. The reunion was an extraordinary success and a gathering memorable for years to come.
During the weekend program, attendees participated in panel discussions and workshops, focusing on topics such as travel to Iran, environmental issues, Iran’s current situation and its future outlook, preparing oral history interviews and putting together slide shows, and other educational and informative programs. They also viewed several films on Iran. But more than anything this was a golden opportunity to come together and share stories and memories of more than 35 years ago. It was amazing to see that a large percentage of people had kept their connections with Iran and other social causes through activism, continuing education, academic work, authoring books, and overall pursuing the dream started in 1961 by President Kennedy’s challenge.
While many had not had a chance to reconnect with their colleagues in the Peace Corps, now it was the time to share pictures of children and grandchildren, and to talk about different paths each had taken after returning from Iran. Those who we talked to unanimously believed that the Peace Corps and the experience of Iran had changed their life forever. On Saturday, attendees had the opportunity to enjoy the 12th annual Iranian Festival held each summer in Portland and to enjoy Persian cuisine, art and culture.
Later that day a Persian banquet was held and for some it was indeed more than thirty years since they had last tasted Persian food. Banquet started with remembering close to 100 of their colleagues who had passed away since returning to the US, amongst them were Terry O’Donnel (Garden of the Brave in War: Recollections of Iran , Seven Shades of Memory: Stories of Old Iran ) Portland’s own historian and storyteller who lived in Iran for 15 years and taught for Peace Corps and Shiraz Pahlavi University; Dr. Gertrude Nye Dorry, a Persian language teacher and researcher at the Teachers Training College in Iran, who also worked with the Peace Corps, running the Experiment in International Living program and then teaching English at the Iran-America Society in Tehran was remembered with her daughter and grandchildren in audience; Finally, Dr. Glenn Barkley Moore, the longest serving member of the Peace Corps in Iran who served from 1964 to 1970 in Gonbad Kavous, was recognized by one of his Iranian students.
The highlight of the banquet, however, was the keynote speech by Ambassador John Limbert [i] who served in Iran with Iran-4 group, but continued to be connected to the country via his wife, and companion for more than 40 years, Parvaneh. Dr. Limbert taught in Iran, both as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1964-66 and as an English instructor at Shiraz Pahlavi University from 1969-72. Ambassador Limbert with his brilliant humor recounted his trainings before going to Iran and instances of his revelative experience serving in Mahabad and elsewhere. He quoted British poet James Elroy Flecker’s saying that “for the love of knowing what must not be known, one takes the Gold Road to Samarkand.” He equated it to his own and other Peace Corps volunteers’ adventure in going to Iran in pursuit of the unknowns. Of his current diplomatic insight, Ambassador Limbert then shared his analysis of the US-Iran relations or lack thereof, which was overshadowed by his pessimism about ever having normal relations between the two countries due to mistrust and misunderstandings.The weekend was emotional and profoundly moving for many. Here are a few comments:
* “Our Peace Corps/Iran Reunion and the Portland Iranian Festival in the park was an overwhelming experience for me — one that I’m still reacting to. It brought back memories (and clarification of diverse ideas) from one of the best three years in my life – my time living, working and traveling in Iran 40 years ago.”
* “Though I know I will, I do not want to come back down to earth any time soon. Remaining at about three meters altitude while thinking of all the friends here and over there, I can deal with this great feeling.”
* “For me it was a delight to be with so many others who also love Iran and think back upon their Peace Corps experience as transformative.”
* “The reunion brought back my feeling of idealism that I felt then.”
* “Serving in the Peace Corps was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I am amazed how often I think of it and how many of my own ideas and values originated during that time.”
The RPCVs who came revisited something that had been a powerful and long-neglected part of their lives. The pervasive emotion was joy and fun, with pain, loss, and nostalgia mixed in. And the desire to find realistic hope. In seeing what each other have done with our lives, it was clear that Peace Corps changed us, and that one’s Peace Corps country lodges in the heart forever. We came together to explore that attachment and expand it into everyday action.
While the Peace Corps started as an initiative for youth, nowadays more than 7% of volunteers are 50 years old or more. And contrary to the solid majority of men at the beginning more than 60% of current volunteers are female. In September of 2011 the Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th Anniversary in Washington, DC. This recognizes more than 200,000 volunteers who have served in 139 countries during the past half a century.
[i] John Limbert joined the Foreign Service in 1973 and afterwards he held various diplomatic posts including Ambassador to Mauritania. Ambassador Limbert went back to Iran as a political analyst after the Islamic Revolution and became a hostage for 444 days, at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. One of very few diplomats who speaks fluent Persian, he is the author of numerous articles and 3 books on Iran: At War with History (Westview Press, 1987), Shiraz in the Age of Hafez (University of Washington Press, 2004), and Negotiating With Iran, Wrestling the Ghosts of History (U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2009). After retirement in 2006, he returned to the State Department in 2009 to be Deputy Assistant Secretary in charge of Iranian affairs in President Obama’s cabinet.

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