Long before Iran called America “the Great Satan,” US President John F. Kennedy worried about the image of the so-called “the Ugly American” abroad – the phenomenon of arrogant and culturally ignorant US representatives harming America’s international standing at the height of the Cold War. During his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, Kennedy sought to inspire a new generation of civic-spirited young Americans, whom he challenged to serve their country and the world.
Part of Kennedy’s plan was to establish “a Peace Corps of talented men and women” who would dedicate themselves to “the progress and peace of developing countries.” Although the Peace Corps was not Kennedy’s idea – Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey had tried to launch the project in 1957 – it was Kennedy who established the organization in the early months of his presidency as a permanent federal agency within the US State Department.
Starting in 1962, the Corps sent volunteers, who were usually recent university graduates, to live and work for two years in countries willing to invite them. Their goals were to help host countries meet requirements for trained people and to promote mutual cultural understanding. While abroad, volunteers spoke local languages and worked with local professionals in education, agriculture, industry and development. Volunteers served in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Between 1962 and 1976, more than 1500 volunteers served in Iran. Many of them forged lifelong friendships with Iranian colleagues and returned to America with a cultural understanding of Iran that would prove rare and valuable when relations deteriorated following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In this series of articles, former Peace Corps volunteers recall their memorable years in Iran.
Tom Klobe was too young to vote by just three weeks in 1960, but he found John F. Kennedy’s message of public service inspiring. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, best remembered for the lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” appealed to his idealism. And so did the Peace Corps, which Kennedy had talked about on the campaign trail.
“The concept of the Peace Corps was only a small part of his campaign,” Klobe says, “but the idea of America reaching out beyond our shores for peace touched me. It seemed that previously, America had only gone out of its isolated and protective little cocoon to fight wars. I believed that we needed to work for peace and that Americans needed to get to know the world.”
When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963, Klobe was studying fine arts at the University of Hawaii. He was devastated. He looked for a way to keep the president’s legacy going. A week after Kennedy’s funeral, he saw an advertisement for Peace Corps exams in Honolulu. He and four of his friends decided to take the exam together. He and two of his friends – including his future wife Delmarie– ended up joining the organization.
At first, Klobe thought he might be sent to the Philippines or somewhere in South America. The latter prospect caused him and his parents some anxiety because, on the very Klobe took his exam, communist rebels took Robert Fergerstrom – a friend who had already joined the Peace Corps – hostage in Bolivia. Delmarie, meanwhile, received an assignment in Malawi.
To Klobe’s surprise, he received an invitation to go to Iran. “I sat back and said, ‘What do I know about Iran?’ Sure, I knew a little about ancient Persia from the art history classes I had taken, but I knew nothing about its Islamic history or the political history of the 20th century. But, I was open for an adventure.”
Getting to Iran from Hawaii did not prove easy. By the time he touched down with around 50 other volunteers in September 1964, he had gone almost two days without sleep. “It was dark, it was around 1:30 AM, and I was too tired to absorb anything,” he says.
But he soon got a rough introduction to Tehran traffic. “I remember being scared out of my wits by the trip from the airport to the hotel. The bus driver sped at break-neck speed—horn tooting—as he aggressively fought for every inch of highway with the drivers of large transport trucks. One of the American volunteers, a good Italian, started saying a ‘Hail Mary.’ I silently joined him. But, unscathed, we finally made it to the hotel in central Tehran.”
The American with the Gilaki Accent
From Tehran, Klobe headed north, taking a sleepless all-night train ride to Sari near the Caspian Sea. From there, he traveled by canvas-covered jeep to Gorgan, the capital of Golestan Province. “Everything was strange, but I loved the excitement of being out of my element,” he says.
Soon, however, he began to wonder whether he might find himself a little too much at home. “The Iranian community development officer in Gorgan that I was assigned to was brilliant and US-educated. But I soon realized that I would likely be following him around for two years and that my Farsi would never advance. So within a few days, I suggested that it might be good for me to work at the village level where I would be forced to learn Farsi quickly.”
Klobe’s plan was at odds with Peace Corps directives, which were to work with Iranian officials in cities. But the local official – who didn’t know all the Peace Corps rules – agreed with Klobe’s plan and helped him find some contacts in the village of Alang, near the south-eastern tip of the Caspian.
In October, he moved to Alang, where villagers welcomed him with a public ceremony. As it happened, the villagers had been digging for water for about a month and found it on the very day Klobe arrived. “They considered me a good omen for the village,” he says. And Klobe was determined that his stay in Alang would be a success. “I needed to prove to Peace Corps officials in Tehran that volunteers could live and work in a small village in Iran.”
While Klobe was officially in Alang to do community development work, he considered his assignment a little ill defined, not least because, while he had studied art, many of his Iranian colleagues were US and European-educated engineers.
“I found that the villagers had access to Iranian engineers and technicians who knew how to do things better than I did,” he says. “My job became one of having long discussions with my Iranian co-worker, Shabhan Ali Rahemi, to figure out ways of encouraging the villagers to accept and initiate change in their living conditions—like putting in water systems, building bath houses with showers instead of a common pool, building schools, and setting up general sanitation that would improve health in Alang and four other nearby villages.”
He also taught English to adults in Alang, a job that seemed to fall more neatly within his skills set. “I found it effective to say I was a teacher rather than an American coming to Iran to show them how to live, which I found offensive. It smacked too much of ‘the Ugly American.’” His class was a success. One of his students, he says, passed Iran’s national university entrance exam in sixth place out of nearly 500 applicants, with his highest score in English.
Living in a village, meanwhile, helped Klobe excel at his Persian studies. The villagers adopted him as a son and brother, and he, in turn, adopted the local language and culture. “At the time of the Peace Corps’ first in-country conference, after I had been in Iran about 2 ½ months, my comprehension of Farsi was among the best in my group,” he says. “I loved traveling in Iran. Iranians were always entranced with my deep interest in their history and culture, and astonished at my ability to speak Farsi, but with a northern, Gilaki accent.”
“A Progressive Time”
Klobe remembers the Iran of the 1960s as an optimistic country. Although he avoided talking about politics with Iranians, he recalls enthusiastic public support for the government-backed development projects that were then reshaping the country. “We were in Iran at a very peaceful and progressive time,” he says. “Great programs that were initiated by the government were occurring in education and health, and in community development. I saw tremendous advancements in the rural areas I worked in. These developments were coming from the people themselves, and there was national support to help them.”
More than a decade before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also seemed to be popular. “I witnessed sincere support for the Shah,” Klobe says. “By and large, there was overwhelming support in rural areas for a government that the people could see was trying to help them, even while they recognized there was corruption at higher levels.” People were visibly saddened, he says, when Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur was assassinated in January 1965, and when a soldier tried to assassinate the Shah at the Marble Palace in Tehran in April the same year.
While he was in Iran, Klobe grew more skeptical of America’s role in the world as he tried to make sense of the escalating Vietnam War, mostly through Persian-language media. “I had very confused thoughts about Vietnam. I was most disillusioned with the ‘double speak,’ of politicians saying things for political gain,” he says.
But he never stopped seeing the Peace Corps as a way of helping Americans relate to other people and cultures. Being in Iran, he says, helped him make fruitful comparisons between imperfect societies. “We talked about corruption in Iran, but while I was there, I also realized that corruption existed at the highest levels in Washington. That realization has characterized my political thought ever since. I am not sure that I would have come to that realization with the same passion had I not lived in another country.”
“Tom of Iran” Goes Home
Serving with the Peace Corps in Iran, Klobe says, was the most significant aspect of his life. When his duties came to an end after two years, he didn’t want to go home. “Leaving Iran and the village in June 1966 was the most difficult thing I ever did,” he says. “I had never been homesick in my life, but when I arrived in New Delhi, the first stop on my way home from Iran, I spent three horrible days trying to figure out if I should give up going to America and if I should return to the village to remain ‘Tom of Iran.’ I finally forced my rational mind to dominate and headed off alone across the Indian subcontinent on my way to becoming ‘American Tom’ again.”
Klobe brought a trunkful of life lessons back with him. “I had learned how to live,” he says. “Having been somewhat shy and unsure of myself, the Peace Corps experience gave me confidence. I will always be grateful to the people of Alang, who provided my life with professional, emotional, and spiritual depth.” Iran also introduced him to Islamic art and culture, which have become some of his main passions as an art scholar. Although he is retired now, he still lectures on the topic. “In that way, I am fulfilling the 3rd goal of the Peace Corps—to help Americans understand the people of the country in which we served.”
Postscript: Of Trump and Iran
When Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, IranWire asked Klobe how the Trump presidency would affect US-Iran relations.
“We cannot come together as humanity by our constant arrogant ‘rattling of sabers’ approach,” he says. “For years, I have advocated that US chief executives approach Iran by sincerely offering to sit down together at the highest levels, drink tea together, talk, and eat together,” he says. “There were times I was met with initial consternation in Iran when I said I was an American. But when we spent time talking, drinking tea, and eating together, any barriers were let down. I strongly feel that Americans need to set aside what they consider the insult of the hostage crisis and realize that Iran can be our friend, and a very good one.”
Donald Trump’s intentions toward Iran are unknown. While he has threatened to “police” the 2015 nuclear agreement “so tough they won’t have a chance,” he has also gained a reputation among some America-watchers inside Iran as a “merchant” with whom the leadership might be able to do business. “I'm not one to predict the future, especially with a leader who seems unpredictable,” Klobe says of Trump. “I never give up hope. Maybe he will be the ‘Nixon in China’ for Iran. This could be his great mark on history. I only worry that someone will tick him off and he will go ballistic.”
Tom Klobe is Emeritus Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Hawaii and the author of A Young American in Iran.
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