It was Dan Wessner‘s first great surprise.
One of Rachel Spory’s, too.
They had just arrived inI ran – a nation that many in the West view with suspicion and fear – as part of a delegation created by the Mennonite Central Committee. Wessner, a professor, and Spory, a recent graduate, traveled as representatives of Eastern Mennonite University.
An Iranian guide handed his visitors a delicacy – a lemon.
Wessner sank his teeth into its rind.
“It was sweet,” he recalled Tuesday afternoon, just two weeks after he returned from the Islamic Republic. “It tasted like a mild, sweet orange.”
These were sweet lemons, unique to Eurasia.
“To me, that became a really important metaphor for all the surprises Iran had in store for us,” Wessner said.
He adapted the name of the fruit as the title of a presentation he delivered Tuesday at EMU’s Seminary.
Wessner, a professor of international and political studies, spoke alongside Spory, who now works for the university, and graduates Paul Yoder and Josh Brubaker, and current graduate student Fatemeh Darabi, an Iranian native.
Yoder and Brubaker also were recent visitors to Iran. They visited in May to present at an international conference in the city Qom.
EMU, Wessner said, is forging personal connections with academic, religious and government leaders in the country.
Those connections could create partnerships that aid the establishment of a new cross-cultural center at the university, the Center for the Study of Abrahamic Traditions. The center would allow members and scholars of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths to collaborate.
“We have to be intentional about relating to each other,” he said. It’s why he, Spory and 10 others from across the United States made the 2 1/2-week journey to Iran.
The delegation departed for Iran two days after Christmas and returned Jan 13. A packed itinerary introduced the group to Islamic theologians, Armenian Christian leaders, a leading ayatollah, or Shi’a cleric, professors and students, human rights scholars, and Persian cultural experts.
“We were part of a cultural immersion,” Wessner said.
Since the early 1990s, the MCC has related with the Iran Red Crescent Society, spawning opportunities for trips like the one the recent delegation took.
EMU, too, has its own connections. For years, the university has participated in an international film program with students in Iran. They met face-to-face when the delegation arrived at the Imam Khomeini Research and Education Institute and Mofid University, both in Qom.
Twice during the trip, the delegation met with Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, who presented a list of proposals to further connections between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the delegation members.
The proposals include opportunities for a roundtable on the role of religion in international relations, a peace studies conference, and study-abroad opportunities for students.
“We’re beginning to take very seriously EMU’s role relating not just to Iran but the Islamic traditions,” Wessner said. But, he added, the presentation on this single delegation is just an intermediate step toward something bigger in the future. “It doesn’t stop here.”
We Must Relate
Of all the things that could hinder the connections with Iran, Wessner says it isn’t funding, or faith, or even the logistics of planning. It’s a matter of perspective. He started his presentation with an activity to get at the heart of American perceptions on Iran.
“Give me a phrase, anything that associates in your mind with Iran,” he asked the audience that filled a crowded, standing-room-only auditorium at the seminary. “What does the rhetoric of America say?”
“Axis of evil.”
Those, Wessner said, didn’t fit the complex reality he had seen in Iran.
“It didn’t connect for us as we were experiencing Iran that there could be a threat,” he said.
He showed pictures of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the site of the hostage crisis that began in 1979 during the Carter administration and led to the diplomatic break between the two nations that has as yet been unresolved. The group’s hotel was just across the street.
“It’s a complex country,” Wessner said. The sweet lemon metaphor, he says, repeatedly came to mind.
Spory, the graduate who now works in the university’s development office, said she was surprised by the challenges of wearing the traditional head covering for women, the hijab.
“It’s the most visually different part of the culture, I think,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for how removed it made me feel. I couldn’t hear for the first couple days.”
The degree of interest Iranians had in the West was also a surprise, the other students added.
“The way they pursued us really exemplified the hospitality we felt,” said Yoder, a 2006 graduate.
“We represented a difference,” added Brubaker, also of the class of 2006. “There’s a pretty significant difference in the way Mennonites have pursued peace.”
Wessner says the faith on each side has been the bond that’s led to the success of these cross-cultural connections.
“We must relate,” he said. “Our faith calls us to. Even when it’s unpopular, and against the wishes of our government, we do it.”