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.
Growing up in South Dakota in the 1960s, horizons for young women could seem limited. “Women in the Dakotas usually had a choice of being nurses or elementary school teachers or maybe social workers,” says Mary Elaine Hegland. But when she was a junior studying sociology and psychology at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, Hegland’s father, a Lutheran minister, suggested a different path. “He said, ‘If I were young, I'd go into Kennedy's Peace Corps.’ Although she hadn’t thought much about the Peace Corps or its mission, she applied.
In the summer of 1966, Hegland was sent to Austin, Texas with a group of volunteers training to be English teachers in Iran. Her choice of destination had been almost random. She had simply asked to be sent somewhere far away. But during her training, she began to learn about America’s Cold War relationship with Iran, and about how her Peace Corps trainers saw Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, one of America’s main allies in the Middle East. “We were told by some of our trainers that Iran really had to have a dictator because people were illiterate and they really weren't ready for democracy. I suppose I was pretty naive at that point. I just thought the Peace Corps would bring benefits to Iran and bring about face-to-face interaction between Americans and Iranians.”
But before she was to leave the University of Texas, Hegland had a terrifying brush with history, in the form of one of America’s first mass shootings. On August 1, 1966, as she and several other Persian language trainees were leaving classes, a shooter, former marine Charles Whitman, opened fire from the main tower of the university campus. He killed 14 people and wounded more than 30 others. “One of our members, Tom Ashton, was killed. Two others were wounded. I remember sitting behind a building with several others, waiting an hour for the announcement that it was now safe.”
Two members of the Persian language program were wounded. One of the wounded men decided not to go to Iran. Another, David Mattson, who had been shot in the wrist, had to delay his trip. He later spent much of his time with the Peace Corps in Tehran, where he could get further medical attention. “It was a pretty traumatic summer,” she says. “But in those days, not much attention was given to therapy for those suffering trauma.”
Somewhere with Mountains
Once Hegland arrived in Iran, the Peace Corps asked her where she would like to serve. “I said I was used to places where there are four seasons and that I liked mountains,” she says. She also insisted she didn’t want to be sent anywhere with another female Peace Corps volunteer, as she didn’t plan to spend her time with other Americans.
The Peace Corps sent her to Mahabad, in the mountains of Kurdistan, not far from the Iraqi border. But there was no way the Peace Corps would send her there alone. “The Peace Corps would only send females to a site where there was a male American volunteer as well, which was really sexist! The situation was actually rather problematic, because some of the men in the areas we were working assumed that the women were there for sexual services.”
In Mahabad, there were two other male Peace Corps volunteers. One was an English teacher, and the other was an agricultural specialist who travelled by motorcycle to local villages to assist with agricultural projects.
Hegland, who taught at a girls’ high school, ended up spending most of her time in the company of Kurdish women. “I seem to have been received quite well,” she says. “People were very nice and were very hospitable.” Living in the home of a Kurdish family, she rented three rooms with a Jewish Iranian teacher from Tabriz, who taught Persian literature.The two women would usually accompany each other to and from the school.
Hegland only recalls one unhappy incident with a local person. “Once, I was walking and some man or boy on a bicycle came from behind me and stuck his hand between my legs. I was furious. That was one of the problems that the female volunteers occasionally had. But in general, I felt very comfortable."
On the other hand being a woman in Mahabad also gave Hegland insights that weren’t necessarily available to male volunteers. “If anything, being a female allowed me to be in family situations without any problems,” she says. “The male English teacher used to go on hikes with the other male teachers, but in many family settings, a male might not have been wanted. Hegland, however, remembers many convivial winter evenings gathered around a charcoal brazier with her host family and her housemate.
America and the Shah Through Kurdish Eyes
Although Hegland didn’t speak Kurdish and had to rely on her Persian language training, teaching in Mahabad gave her crash course in Kurdish history. “Some of the students were very important to me. One of them was a relative of Qazi Muhammad, who had been the president of the Kurdish Republic in Mahabad,” she says, referring to a famous Kurdish separatist leader. Following the Second World War, separatist forces in Mahabad and neighbouring Azerbaijan asserted their independence from Iran with the support of the Soviet Union, which was trying to extract oil concessions from the central government. But when Soviet forces withdrew in 1946, the Pahlavi government reasserted control and executed Muhammad and the other separatist leaders for treason.
While Hegland’s host family had never supported Muhammad or the Mahabad Republic, living in close contact with Kurdish culture made a powerful impression on her, and offered her a rare perspective. “Joining the Peace Corps was a great education for me,” she says. “I developed a special interest in the Kurdish population, and I was concerned about the on-going difficulty between the Kurds and the government.”
Just before she left in 1968, she says, there were reports of an agreement between the Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani and the CIA to prevent Iranian Kurds crossing the border into Iraqi Kurdish regions. “Some of the Kurdish dissidents would go across the border to escape from Iranian forces,” she says. “But they were not allowed to do so, because the relationship between Iran and the US government was so close. She also remembers several Kurds being killed in clashes with government forces.
One of these happened to be the son of Qazi Muhammad, whose family she had already met through her teaching. “I went with my student, who was also a relative, to the home of Qazi Muhammad's daughter, the sister of the man who had been killed. Women were sitting together, weeping quietly. It was very distressing.”
In the city, too, there were other grisly spectacles. “Around the same time, I was walking home from the high school having just given an exam, and people were saying that in the Maidan, or the main square, up on a pole, was the naked body of one of the Kurdish men who had been killed along the border. Underneath hime there was a placard that said something like, ‘This is what happens to people who are against the Shah's government.” I didn't go and look at it. Of course, the Kurdish population was traumatized.”
The Peace Corps Legacy
When Hegland reached the end of her Peace Corps service in the summer of 1968, she didn’t want to leave Iran. But in the end, she departed with a lifelong attachment to the country and to the Kurds. “I tried to do a really good job teaching English. At the time, I really hadn't thought about the benefits of the Peace Corps for Iran or Iranians. But in retrospect, since a lot of people have left Iran and have needed to know some English, it might have been positive.”
Volunteering with the Peace Corps also gave Hegland a new direction in life. “It's what made me decide to go into cultural anthropology and focus on Iranian culture,” she says. When she returned to the US, Hegland took up postgraduate studies in anthropology, pursuing her MA in social and cultural anthropology at New York University, and her PhD at The State University of New York at Binghampton. She now teaches anthropology at Santa Clara University in California.
1960s and 1970s, she says, saw an extraordinary level of contact between Iran and the US, and the legacy of those years can be seen in Iran today. Back then, when so many Americans were travelling to Iran with the Peace Corps and in other roles, Iranians themselves also made up the largest group of foreign students studying in the US. Some of them, she says, had probably had Peace Corps teachers. That era of cultural exchange, followed by a proliferation of communications technology in the ensuing years, helps to explain why the few Americans who still travel to Iran can expect to encounter fellow members of a global culture.
Postscript: Of Trump and Iran
After Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016, IranWire asked Hegland how the Trump presidency would affect US-Iran relations.
“As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I am very concerned and very worried,” she says. “Mr. Trump is the antithesis of all I believe in and have worked toward all of my life. Given Mr. Trump's Islamophobic attitudes, dearth of knowledge and understanding of international relations, threats against Iran, misguided support of Israel and its illegal settlements, and statements against the nuclear accord with Iran, one has great cause for fear about what effect his presidency might have on Iran-US relations.”
Trump’s rhetoric, she says, may strengthen the most hardline elements in Iranian and American politics. “Perhaps Mr. Trump will wield his strategy of fanning the fires of fear and hatred for manipulation and political mileage to wage another war. One can only hope that economic realities, international pressure, and wiser voices may restrain him and his wild, irrational pronouncements. We need to support diplomacy and moderation and resist apparently easy answers of using threats and force.”
Mary Elaine Hegland is Professor of Anthropology at Santa Clara University. In 1978, she returned to Iran to carry out field reseach and became the only American scholar to do so during the Islamic Revolution. She is the author of Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village.
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