Hour by hour, print, TV, and web sources bring news, narratives and dramatic images from Iran of protests and violence as Iranians take to the streets to voice opposition to the results of the recent presidential election.
The news from Tehran has brought back memories from a summer long ago. In 1976, a 17-year-old just a year away from high school graduation, I spent the summer studying Russian language in the Norwich University Summer Russian School, a full-immersion Russian language and cultural program. Norwich, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont, was also the site of another kind of cultural exchange program. Enrolled at Norwich at that time were about 30 members of the Iranian Imperial Navy, young men given the opportunity to study in the U.S.
One of them, Morad, became my friend. When I wasn’t studying myself or involved in Russian School activities, I would hang out with him, taking long walks or gamely learning tennis under his patient tutelage. He was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in his life. He missed his family, particularly his sister, and his friends in Tehran, and would describe his life with them back home. We constituted our own small cultural exchange program as we asked each other questions and eagerly swapped stories about life in our respective countries. He spoke English flawlessly, enjoyed language study, and appreciated my own curiosity about foreign languages. He was pleased when I asked him to teach me some words of Persian, and he happily did so, pointing out the similarities between his native language and mine, both Indo-European tongues.
As I recall, he phoned me once or twice after I’d returned home when my program ended, and then we soon lost touch as kids do. In 1979 the Shah fell from power, toppled in the Islamic Revolution, and months later the U.S. severed all diplomatic ties. At that time I thought of him and the other young men from the Iranian Navy and feared for their fate on their return.
The news from Iran resurrects these half-forgotten memories of a long-ago friendship. I wonder where Morad is now and whether he is safe. I think how fortunate I was to meet him, to learn something of his country and language with their ancient cultural roots, and to spend a little time with him — two kids, just talking and hanging out.
If only diplomacy were so simple. If only our shared humanity and mutual curiosity were enough.