The phone call from Tehran made all the difference. For almost three months we tried to get a visa from the Office of Foreign Affairs in Tehran to be able to travel to Iran and perform in the Iraqi and Afghan refugee camps. On the other end of the phone was an old student of mine, Roz Omid. Roz had returned to Iran and was now working for a tour company in Tehran. When Roz was in my class we shared a loved of Persian poetry –Sa’adi, Hafez, Rumi and others. He called to suggest that we organize a tour for Americans to visit the great poetry sites throughout Iran.
We told Roz we would help him organize the tour if he would help us obtain a visa to visit Iran. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iran was very doubtful that we would be able to get a visa. They told us they would not organize any shows until we secured a visa. Within a few days of the phone call with Roz, we were contacted by the Iran Interest Desk inside the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC telling us we had been approved for a visa.
We spent about a month in Iran. The first ten days we traveled with a small group of American friends to all of the major poetry sites. We visit the ancient ruins at Persepolis and the glorious cities of Shiraz and Esfahan. In most cities we were hosted by the local poets and musicians and spend marvelous evenings of poetry, music, food and conversation. When the tour concluded our Iranian guide handed us off to the UNHCR. The UN drove us from the Iraqi border in the west along the ancient spice road through the desert to the Afghan border in the east performing two or three shows each day.
One of the most memorable moments was in an Afghani camp near the Iran-Afghan border town of Zahedan. When we arrived in the camp an Afghan elder greeted us and asked what kind of space would we like for our performance. We said we would love an indoor space but we can perform outside as well. We could see him puzzling over our response and then he said, “The only large indoor space is the mosque.” He paused and then proclaimed, “We would be honored to have you perform in the mosque.” We did two shows, one for five hundred girls and then a second show for five hundred boys.
After the show while we were having tea with the Afghan elder he said, “The international relief agencies take good care of us, they provide us with food, shelter and clothing. But sometimes I think they see us as only bodies. In the seventeen years I have lived in this refugee cams, you are the only entertainers who have come here. But you came and today you fed the minds and imaginations of our children and they will be thinking and talking about this magic show for months. Thank you very much for what you have given to us. God bless you and please come again.” In those few words that Afghan elder expressed the mission of Magicians Without Borders as well as it has ever been expressed.
Janet loves to say that we are citizen diplomats. Our visit to Iran, at a time when our two countries are viewing each other as enemies, felt like a diplomatic mission. We had many conversations with ordinary Iranians and they could not have been more open and friendly. As we have found in many places around the world, when ordinary citizens sit down and talk over a meal or a cup of tea, we are not enemies but human beings who want to live in peace as friends.