Iran Henry Posner Jr. ’41 contrasts an angry government,
a welcoming people
By Henry Posner Jr. ’41
The first thing we saw was a dark armored vehicle with a swivel-mount
automatic machine gun manned by a helmeted soldier. Closer to the
driver were two more soldiers, clutching automatic weapons pointed
outward. They were already traveling at high speed, some 50 yards
off our port wing, when we spotted them moments after our Iran Air
jet touched down at Tehran airport. As the plane slowed and turned
toward its gate, the vehicle maintained its position on our flank.
When we stepped out of the plane into the 86-degree heat of a July
night, there they were, our military escort, even more impressively
armed than I had realized from my window seat. It was to be a recurrent
realization over the next seven days.
A street scene in Tehran
I had accepted the invitation of an Iranian-American friend, John
Ghaznavi, to join him on a trip from Pittsburgh – where we
both live and work – to his native village, Rahagh, near the
city of Kashan in central Iran. We had traveled together to Doha,
Qatar the year before on an institutional mission, and I knew him
to be a lively and resourceful companion. John proved himself within
minutes now. The Iranian “paperwork” for my visa had
not cleared, said the uniformed customs officer in the terminal;
after 30 hours en route, I could not be permitted to enter the country.
John, whose father was a tribal chief and community leader in his
region many years ago, has been generous with his former villagers
and is frequently called for consultation by Iranian government
officials. Now he reached for his phone and called the Iranian foreign
minister, rousing him from bed. Within the hour we were on our way.
Our reception at John’s sister’s house in Tehran couldn’t
have been more different. Mitra, a younger sister, met us at the
door and led us inside. Joined by her family, we sipped aromatic
tea, a sugar cube clenched (precariously in my case) between the
teeth according to custom. Everyone wanted to talk – in Farsi
– but although it was now well past midnight, we proceeded
to a vast dinner of fruit, nuts, rice, fava beans, chiraz leaf and
onion salad, chicken, lamb kabobs, and beef, the meats cooked long
and slowly so they could be pulled apart with only a fork and spoon
(knives were not used). After dinner the conversation and tea continued
until 3 a.m. The hour, which I took to be the consequence of our
arrival, proved instead to be the pattern. Rarely did we get more
than four hours of sleep.
An Iranian family traveling
Mitra’s son, Ali, whom I guessed to be about 40, spoke excellent
English. Exceptionally well-informed, he was a warm and lively conversationalist
who engaged me immediately. I learned later that when he was young
he had been imprisoned for four years – and beaten in prison
– after being caught reading forbidden political material
with a friend. The friend was executed.
The next day, with Ali driving, John and I left for Qom, Kashan,
Rahagh, and later Isfahan. To avoid the impenetrable traffic of
Tehran and the 105-degree midday temperatures, we had risen at 5
a.m. Even at dawn a substantial proportion of Iran’s 70 million
people (more than France or Italy) appeared to be on the road.
At the wheel, Ali had the disconcerting habit of looking at the
passenger he was addressing, regardless of speed, traffic, or seating
arrangement, while simultaneously talking on his cell phone. Other
drivers appeared to be doing the same. Thankfully, the highways
were broad and modern, although the price of gasoline (40 cents
a gallon) seemed all too encouraging. I was particularly surprised,
though, to notice that street signs, billboards, and other signs
were in English as well as Farsi. That implicit embrace of Western
culture, I came to realize, pervades Iran in ways that were not
peculiar to John’s relatives or an American’s presence.
It isn’t just that the women wear Western clothes and jewelry
at home, donning the chador only to go out in public. Or that alcohol
is freely available in homes, but never in public places. American
T-shirts, American music, and other Western styles are manifestly
popular with the people on the streets. And those people are overwhelmingly
young: Two-thirds of the population is under 26. More striking than
their age, though, was a readiness to distinguish between the personal
and the governmental. I repeatedly got the sense that the Iranians
like Americans – but not the American government.
One of our stops was at a small school in Kashan for abandoned
girls, one of two that John founded and continues to support. Many,
though not all, of the girls had physical or mental disabilities.
John knows how harsh life in Iran can be. More than 20 years ago,
he and his American wife found a sickly baby girl by the roadside,
where she had been left to die. With great and protracted difficulty
they managed to bring her to the United States for medical treatment.
Now their healthy adopted daughter, she lives in Los Angeles and
works in the film industry.
Jr. ’41, seated center in light blue shirt, at the school
for abandoned girls in Kashan founded by his Iranian-American host,
seated to Posner’s right.
It was hot when we arrived at the family farm in Rahagh; so was
the welcoming tea, served by John’s older sister, Fati. John’s
grandfather had 15 wives, so there was no shortage of relatives
on hand to greet us. A widow, Fati manages the farm, which employs
as many as 80 at harvest time. Once word got out that John was there,
the elders from nearby villages came to pay formal respects, drink
tea, and ask for favors. Such traditional rituals notwithstanding,
the television was always on, as at Mitra’s house, usually
tuned to one of the 17 U.S. channels received via satellite.
The embracing receptions and the palpable enjoyment of things
American was oddly out of synch with official signs and signals
I had seen along our route—on billboards, in the papers—from
a government that seemed perpetually angry. Police, conspicuously
armed, were virtually everywhere. The walls of many city buildings
bore huge portraits of the dead from the Iran-Iraq war, adding a
military, funereal scrim to the public scenery. On the highways
we passed TV towers and TV station buildings, all with armed guards
and gun emplacements, and a nuclear facility guarded by soldiers
and heavy weapons.
But those reminders of official, governmental presence seemed
strangely detached from the life I encountered. Along with usual
souvenirs of this harsh, beautiful, and endearing land, such as
pictures delicately painted on camel bone, I brought home the recollection
of warm tea and an eagerness for engagement.
After graduating, Henry Posner Jr. ’41 was recruited
to help develop solid fuel for rockets and take-off boosters for
B-17 and B-29 bombers. In 1944 he joined the Manhattan Project,
the secret program at Columbia University to develop the atomic
bomb. When the war ended, he returned to Pittsburgh to teach chemistry
at the University of Pittsburgh while earning a master’s degree.
In 1946 he joined the Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising Corp., managed
and partly owned by his father. In 1952 he and his father bought
the Morton Advertising Co. in Baltimore. After 23 years as chairman
of Pittsburgh Outdoor, Posner went on to help develop and manage
more than 20 companies. Active as chairman of his investment company,
The Hawthorne Group, Posner in recent years has devoted considerable
attention to charitable gifts, primarily benefiting education and