Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of the growing opposition movement inside of Iran is its dependence on the hospitality of strangers. The place of a guest in Iranian culture is far different than that in most so-called Western cultures. Guests are a blessing. They receive preferential treatment over any member of the family. Hosting them is an art form and a great honor. Inviting visitors, even strangers, into your home is a mitzvah and a moral obligation, and to deny them entry, let alone an invitation to stay as long as they need or want, is a transgression against our most valued mores.
I’ll never forget calling an all-women’s fire station for an article I was researching several years ago. The station was in Karaj, north of Tehran. Initially, I dialed the wrong number and got a photography studio across the street. The gentleman who picked up the phone not only looked up the correct number for me, but he insisted that I come to visit and stay with him and his wife the next time I returned to Iran. This complete stranger who I didn’t even intend to call and with whom I’d only spoken for a few minutes was absolutely relentless in his insistence that I come see his hometown and stay with his family. And he wasn’t the only one. Each of the women with whom I spoke at the fire station expressed the exact same sentiments. By the time my research was finished, I had over ten separate invitations to as many homes.
Today, this unyielding hospitality has become a saving grace for the Iranian people. It is responsible for a unique burgeoning Underground Railroad inside of Iran. While this Iranian Underground Railroad isn’t meant to move people from one area of the country to another, the intention remains the same as that of its American counterpart: it is an attempt to create shelter and make way for freedom. The stories are many, and the courage of the Iranian people is extraordinary. Protesters and demonstrators have depended on the culture of hospitality that abounds there by seeking refuge in the homes of total strangers. Turning someone away from your home, especially when a life is at risk, is inconceivable to Iranians. This is not a political issue. It’s a cultural and a personal one.
Should this new Iranian revolution succeed, much of the credit for will go to those who, whatever their ethnic or religious backgrounds, followed the traditions of our ancestors by respecting and maintaining this sacred practice of hospitality, no matter the outcome. This time-honored tradition will not be abandoned for the sake of expedience or even personal safety. It is in our blood, and we are willing to shed that blood to protect this hallowed Iranian institution.
We will continue to provide protection to our own people even if the government won’t. We will continue to welcome strangers into our homes, and we will do so with joy and pride. Cultural convictions that have lasted over two millennia do not die quickly or easily. If and when this new revolution does succeed, it will be Persian culture and not merely political protest, that will lead the way.