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.
In 1965, Michael Craig Hillmann joined the Peace Corps to avoid the draft. A 25-year-old graduate student studying English and Latin at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, Hillmann opposed the Vietnam War but realized he would never be able to get a deferment unless he changed subjects. Instead, he applied to the Peace Corps and trained as an English teacher. When the organization asked him to name three countries in which he would like to serve, he named India, Afghanistan, and Iran.
His motives were partly literary. “I was doing a master's thesis on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath,” he says. “I was also teaching Virgil's Aeneid at a Benedictine junior college monastery school in a town nearby. I was very interested in epics, and I knew that Indo-European cultures had epics, so I wrote down those three countries.” While he didn’t know that Iran was much different from Iraq, or that Iranian culture was distinct from Arab culture, he had heard of the Persian poet Ferdowsi’s 10th century Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. When the Peace Corps gave him his pick of countries, he chose Iran.
From Omaha to Mashhad
Hillmann hadn’t travelled much before he flew to Iran that September. He had only been to parts of the US and Mexico. But when he arrived, he adjusted quickly. He went straight from teaching English literature in Nebraska to teaching the English language at Mashhad University in eastern Iran. “Universities are universities, and if you’re doing something you’re used to doing, that’s kind of a safe place,” he says.
Although it took him about six months to get comfortable speaking Persian, he found life easy and sociable. He had an American roommate who spoke good Persian, and he found a group of friends to play basketball with. And his older students – true to Iranian traditions of hospitality – were not about to leave him on his own. “Some of the students were very concerned about their American teacher who didn't have a family, so they invited me lots of places,” he says.
This often happened on Fridays, the weekly day off in Iran.” At 10 o’clock in the morning, they would show up and say, ‘We're going to be with you today.’ We'd walk downtown or go to the movies. I remember seeing several Indian love stories that were popular at the time. I also remember seeing, in the fall of 1965, Ganj-e Qârun – Croesus’ Treasure – the first Iranian movie to compete favorably with Western films.”
Then there were the dilemmas of the bachelor abroad. “I did notice that they didn't have pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, milkshakes or peanut butter. This wasn't disconcerting, but I couldn't cook, so I ended up having chelo kebab – lamb with saffron rice – for lunch and dinner for most of the two years.”
Hillmann and his roommate also scoped out the Mashhad dating scene, such as it was. “There was no dating, but we tried,” he says. “I remember ‘doubling’ with John Newton that fall. John, fluent in Persian, had arrived at Mashhad University the year before. He made arrangements for chelo kebab dinners to be delivered to his University Club basement room. John also had a Phillips 45 record player and several Beatles records. John’s “date” was a senior and mine a freshman. I recall nothing about the evening except for the feeling that, despite my inadequate Persian at the time, it was special and ended too soon.”
A Place of Meetings
During his second year in Mashhad, while teaching a freshman English course for 200 students, Hillmann met his future wife, a history student named Sorayya. “Her interest in remedial English group sessions at the University Club led to the group getting smaller and smaller until...” he trails off meaningfully. Although they didn’t “date” in any conventional sense, they found ways to spend time together, usually at the university. “Everything went swimmingly,” he says. “We were in love.”
Hillmann was struck, and intrigued, by how similar their worldviews turned out to be, even though they had both grown up within strong religious traditions in different cultures in distant parts of the world. “We never talked about religion while I was courting her. But later on, we discovered that we both were at most deists and, more likely, agnostics.”
When they began to think about marriage, Hillmann was keen to make sure Sorayya’s family wouldn’t experience too much culture shock. “Her mother, once she was convinced that Sorayya wanted to do this, approved of it. Her father, I wouldn't say he was opposed to it, but he didn't want to talk about it to anybody.”
In Iran, families usually play a substantial role in facilitating a marriage. The man’s family typically sends someone to visit the woman’s family and raise the prospect with her father. Hillmann didn’t have any family in Iran, but he did get a friend to serve as an intermediary.
That intermediary, a friend and colleague from Mashhad University whose family happened to be acquainted with Sorayya’s father, was none other than Ali Shariati. Shariati, a sociologist, is remembered today one of Iran’s leading Islamic intellectuals. An enigmatic figure with a much-contested reputation, Shariati combined a Shia Islamist agenda with elements of Marxism and the influence of Third World philosophers like Frantz Fanon. Shariati has been called “the main ideologue of the Iranian Revolution,” although he never lived to see the events of 1979. After the revolution, one of the longest streets in Tehran was named after him.
The two men would often meet on Fridays. Hillmann, who had begun to speak and even think in fluent Persian, enjoyed their in-depth exchanges. “Shariati was a very interesting guy, a lot different from how he is portrayed by his followers and his enemies,” Hillmann says. “He was very articulate, very soft spoken, quick witted, with a good sense of humor. But he always dedicated to what he thought was the task at hand, which was to somehow get people to think about doing something about the government of the day.”
Hillmann didn’t warm, however, to Shariati’s peculiar fusion of Shia Islamism and Third World socialism. “I was not in favor of his using Twelver Shiite imagery and icons as a way of appealing to people to have a socialist attitude toward the future,” he says. “I thought you couldn't tell whether people were going to take it literally, or whether they were going to appreciate his metaphor. I never decided whether he himself didn't jump back and forth from seeing what he was doing as religious, or seeing what he was doing as a metaphor.”
“A Totalitarian State with Coats and Ties”
In the mid-1960s, there were few signs of a revolution on the horizon, but Hillmann did notice that the country was ill at ease politically. “It came close to home that there weren't many families I ran into that didn't have somebody who had gotten into trouble with the Pahlavi monarchy,” he says. “All kinds of families had stories of children being arrested.”
And while Hillmann taught hundred of students, and didn’t know them all personally, he did notice when four freshmen students disappeared from class , during the fall semester of 1966. “These kids had probably read a couple of books, talked about a couple of things, and were arrested by the secret police. Then their pictures were on the front page of the national newspaper as having been executed for treason. That stayed with me. I recognized that in Iran, there was a totalitarian state with coats and ties and stylishness as opposed to anything East European or Soviet.”
And that state kept a large section of Iranian society in restive silence. “I had no idea that anything like the Islamic Republic could possibly happen,” he says. “In retrospect, I think the reason for that was that people who have no power or authority are not likely to open up to the people they think have power and authority.” Many Iranians who worked with the Peace Corps, he says, didn’t share any personal views that might prove controversial, as they were just trying to make a living.
To America and Back Again
In the summer of 1967, Hillmann and Sorayya married in Iran. Ali Shariati attended their wedding. Days later, they flew to Baltimore to visit his parents, and then on to Portland, Oregon, where he took up a job with a Peace Corps training program at Reed College. At that point, Sorayya didn’t speak much English. “Entertainment in those days was more often than not television,” he says. So I became a simultaneous translator of not-so-scintillating American TV shows for my wife. I remember that vividly. Why wife would be saying to me in Persian, ‘What are they saying?’”
Hillmann went on to pursue graduate studies at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. In 1969, he returned to Iran with Sorayya on a Fulbright dissertation grant to research Iran’s most celebrated poet, Hafez. In 1970, their daughter Elizabeth was born in Tehran. Hillmann stayed in Iran as a Peace Corps trainer until 1973. He and Sorayya returned again in 1975. “We actually had thoughts about not leaving,” he says. “As it turned out, because the revolution happened, it was a good idea that we left.”
What the Peace Corps gave him, he says, was ultimately more of a learning experience than a teaching experience. “We were getting knowledge that would stand us in good stead whatever we were going to do later,” he says. “Whenever we heard somebody talk about Iran in a categorical or stereotypical way, we could remind them that if they are not familiar with the country, and they think it is like other places, they have to go back to the drawing board a little bit.”
Postscript: Of Trump and Iran
When Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, IranWire asked Hillmann how the Trump presidency would affect US-Iran relations. Hillmann replied with a series of impassioned comments he had posted on Facebook since June.
As he watched the presidential campaigns unfold, Hillmann, who describes himself as a “lifelong Independent,” cast doubt on Trump’s claims that he would end the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. “Mr. Trump, he wrote, could you cite three or four steps in the legislative process that you’d take to achieve that end, while referencing the fact that European partners to the agreement have already proceeded to adopt irreversible policies in line with the agreement?”
He also probed Trump’s claim that “Islam hates us.” He wrote, “As someone who lived in a Muslim society for six years and who has studied Islam as the cultural context for appreciation of Iranian art and literature, your often repeated statement…surprises me for two reasons. First, you imply in the statement that you and I (and Americans like me) constitute an “us,” whereas we may share little more than a native language and U.S. citizenship. Second, you imply that Islam is monolithic, which implication suggests that you would be unable to answer even the most straightforward questions about the various orientations and beliefs of people in our world who call themselves Muslims.”
Michael Craig Hillmann is Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of From Durham to Tehran.
Also in this series: