The Teapot I Found in Tehran

Gaku Homma – I am not a Muslim, and was concerned that my entering the mosque might be bad manners. Out of respect, I tried gently decling entering with Ali Sensei. “Don’t worry” I was reassured, “Everyone is welcome to enter here” Ali Sensei said as he invited me inside. I was shown how to correctly perform the ceremony called Daret, by washing my hands, mouth and feet before we entered the mosque. I was surprised to find that I was free to take photos inside.  There was an area for women only to pray, but most of the space was reserved as an area for men and women to pray together. Between prayers, people were reclining naturally on the carpets, sometimes napping, sometimes playing with the children that were running to and fro between the devotees. “Wont the children be scolded fro playing in here?” I asked. “This is a family place” came as the answer to my question. The scene around me was unusual in my experiences of religious places.

Jim Wolff, Homma Kancho, Emily Busch, Nippon Kan Vice President.Inside Khomeyni Mosque.

Ali Sensei and the policeman faded away from me to join the others in prayer and I found myself standing alone. I felt very alone at that moment but also felt as if I was being watched from afar. (I am a martial artist after all.)  It was not long after Ali Sensei parted my company before I was approached by someone else who asked me what country I can come from in English. I told him I was from Japan.

After he discovered that my country of origin was Japan, he smiled and said “Welcome” and soon left. After he departed, that sense of being watched vanished. Looking around, I did not see any Chinese, Japanese or Korean faces around me. I assumed I was an unusual site for the security force and was worth investigating. Luckily he seemed happy to hear that I was Japanese.

Ali Sensei in prayer (center).Ali Sensei in prayer (center).

Between prayers, families relax together. Between prayers, families relax together.

On Saturday, Ali Sensei and I flew on a one-day trip to the city of Rasht near the Caspian Sea. Local instructor Bahram Jafari Pour Sensei was at the airport to meet us. Pour Sensei was accompanied by a man named Moglebelan who had worked in Japan as a mason for 10 years. Mr. Moglebelan had been successful in Japan and had saved enough of his earnings there to afford a good life back in Iran. On the drive from the airport, I noticed that the scenery and feel of Rasht was a little different than Tehran. The people seemed a little more open and relaxed with more a “country” feel.

Before evening practice we had time to see the local historical sights outside of Rasht. It was interesting in that I was the tourist viewing the sites, but here I was also a tourist attraction and the object of curiosity amongst other locals and site seers.  I was attracting attention and it was a little embarrassing! Mr. Moglbelan informed other onlookers that I was Japanese and this seemed to make everyone smile. One person even shook my hand.

I could tell that the people who had gathered around me were “country folk” and I was not sure how much actual information they had received about Japan. It was apparent however that even if they had only minimal information about Japan it was positive. With just small pieces of positive information, the whole group had a good impression of Japan. Like the ripples a pebble causes when dropped into a lake, a wave of good information (or bad for that matter) ripples outward, touching the most far away regions. Especially, in a country where sources of information are controlled, the smallest images can have a great effect on people’s opinions. One wrong image can form the wrong opinion in someone’s mind. That these country folks smiled at hearing that I was Japanese was a reflection on the influence Ali Sensei and students like Mr. Moglbelan had on the local community. Ali Sensei and his students were shin nichi ka(a group of people with positive things to say about Japan). I appreciated their efforts at that moment in Rasht, Iran.

In front of the seminar location. On the right: Ali Sensei  left: Bahram SenseiIn front of the seminar location. On the right: Ali Sensei  left: Bahram Sensei

Bahram Sensei used to practice karate, but three years ago changed his practice to Aikido. To do this, he went to Ali Sensei in Tehran. Every Wednesday, Bahram Sensei hops on the night bus for a seven-hour ride to the central station in Tehran, and another one hour bus ride to Ali Sensei’s dojo. There he waits another hour outside the dojo for classes to begin. After class the same evening he catches the bus back to Rasht. Bahram Sensei has done this every week for the last three years. This kind of dedication and effort marks the character of someone who can open their own dojo of which he has done in Rasht. It was a long time before Ali Sensei discovered that Bahram Sensei had been waiting outside his dojo for an hour before the doors opened. Even in the dead of winter he would wait in the cold so that he could practice Aikido.

Bahram Sensei had lunch prepared for us at his home. As soon as we entered his house, he told us that the women had been sent away so that I could relax and not worry. He took off his slacks and made himself comfortable in a pair of shorts and tank top. More people arrived, making themselves comfortable in undershirts and shorts. Even I, for the first time since I had come to Iran, put on a pair of shorts.

The house was cool with air conditioning and there was a large flat-screen TV in the living room. There was a large 200 square foot, fully equipped kitchen where lunch was prepared. The house was decorated with beautiful Persian carpets and Persian-styled furniture.

Soon there were fresh kabobs, salad, yogurt and other delicacies served. All of the men had their lunch together. After lunch, Bahram Sensei brought set of sheets and pillows to the living and everyone settled down for an after-lunch nap! When I awoke, Ali Sensei and the others were asleep on the floor around me.  While kind of an unusual experience for me, it seemed natural here and was a nice time to relax. Definitely a “man’s world.” I think Bahram Sensei asked the women to go elsewhere for the afternoon as part of his best hospitality; offering an environment where the men could be more relaxed among themselves.

Delivered lunch; plentiful and delicious!Delivered lunch; plentiful and delicious!

Signing 300 autographs in Bahram Sensei’s home.Signing 300 autographs in Bahram Sensei’s home.

The dojo in Rasht was located in government-operated gymnasium. The bleachers were full of family members waiting as we arrived. There were local officials and celebrities seat in the front rows of the bleachers and there was an air of excitement in the air. Over 80 students attended class that day including some students who practice Judo and Karate. All were innocent and earnest in their practice. We held a three-hour practice, and everyone practiced hard, working up quite a sweat.

With  the children.With  the children.

With Rasht students.Annual time for friendship and communication.

Jim Wolff, Homma Kancho, Emily Busch, Nippon Kan Vice President.Smile for the camera!

Everyone in Iran loved to take photos, and we posed for photos for at least 30 minutes after practice. Finally it was time to say goodbye, and Ali Sensei and I made our way back by plane to Tehran. Many thanks to Bahram Sensei, Mr. Moglebelan, and all of the Rasht Aikidoka for the warm welcome. Please take good care and I sincerely thank you.

The next day was Sunday, and there was an unexpected change in my schedule. Ali Sensei told me to be dressed and ready in the hotel lobby at 8:00 am. I changed into my keiko gi and went to the lobby to wait, not quite sure what was going to happen next.

I was met by three soldiers in uniform from the Iran Special Combat Force who were standing at attention in the lobby. Ali Sensei was there and told me what was to happen next. “This morning you will be teaching a class at a dojo in the former American Embassy. Please this way” he said as he motioned for me to go. This was news to me…

The Iran Special Combat Forces in Iran are the fiercest members of the Iran Military and had quite a commanding presence. The former American Embassy is very close to the hotel, but a special car had been sent and was waiting to drive me.

With military personnel inside the former American Embassy. With military personnel inside the former American Embassy.

I entered the former American Embassy where the Iran Hostage Crisis played out in 1979. This was the first spark, I reflected as I walked, that ignited the tense relations between Iran and United States. This is where it had all begun.

The walls surrounding the former American Embassy are now covered with anti-American slogans and the complex is under heavy security. Cameras monitor constantly as people passed by, rotating to follow them as they walked. I cannot describe what was going on inside the Embassy to protect the trust that was placed in me by being allowed to enter. The only photos I can show are the photos I had permission to take inside the dojo where Judo and Aikido are taught. There were about 70 students attending class that Sunday morning. As usual when I am teaching a new group of students, I asked them what they were interested in learning and built a class curriculum from their requests. Three techniques were requested;jujinagekoshinage, and iriminage. From this repertoire, I built a class with several variations of these techniques moving from one technique into the next in a progressive series.

Practice inside the former American Embassy.Practice inside the former American Embassy.

After practice, I was escorted back to the waiting military vehicle for the ride back to the hotel. Most of the students gathered outside to wave farewell and thank you. The military vehicle entered the VIP lane of the road to the hotel, going the most direct route; backward against traffic without stopping at traffic signals. It did not take me long to arrive at the hotel. As I got out of the vehicle the commander of this military unit stood in salute until I had entered the building. As you can imagine, after this morning episode I was treated like royalty by the hotel staff!

Dinner at Ali Sensei’s home. Center: Ali Sensei, Right: Mr. Rashad.Dinner at Ali Sensei’s home.
Center: Ali Sensei, Right: Mr. Rashad.

On my last evening in Iran, I went to Ali Sensei’s home for dinner. We had a wonderful evening together talking about Aikido, Japan and other related topics. I found it a little difficult to answer Ali Sensei’s questions about my personal experiences with the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. The information that Ali Sensei has about the Founder he learned from books, and the image of the Founder has been distorted by fictionalized reports in many books and films. His questions were based on a fictional portrayal so it was difficult to answer his questions with what I knew from actual experience.

This brings an end to my story about Iran. It is not complete, I could write volumes but I must stop here. Some might think that I have only written about the positive experiences I had in Iran. Yes, that is true, I have written about the beauty of the towns and cities I visited. I have written about the cleanliness; I saw no hamburger wrappers or trash in the streets. I have written about the people I met; I saw no bums panhandling on the corners, or youth with loud music blasting inside their heads through iPods, or tattoos and piercings or pants that hung low down peoples’ behinds.  I do not believe I have any business commenting on the way people live their lives at home anywhere in the world. I am a traveler, and was honored to have this opportunity to share in these peoples lives. There are negative sides to any place, but I am not looking for the negative to write about in this article; that was not my experience. Iran in my experience was a moral and clean place to live. I realize that there were many controls in place to maintain this type of general mind set, and there were strict guidelines that had to be followed. We have this too in Japan. To protect public morality and safety in Japan we have the omawarisan (public safety police) and the koban (neighborhood police box or stations) who also keep Japan as one of the safest countries in the world. Other countries I have visited are stricter in their social codes than Iran, so to single out Iran is not fair or correct. Anyone with common sense and a sense of morality and respect will find Iran to be a nice country.

Nuclear armament issues and human rights issues are topics on the evening news. If we judge the Iranian people by only the negative things we hear we will never have a chance to know them, or fix the problems between Iran and the world. This is our challenge to look inside.

Jim Wolff, Homma Kancho, Emily Busch, Nippon Kan Vice President.

Please look again carefully. I found this teapot in Tehran. Please look at it again closely. It should at least make you smile. It is a teapot, but how do we use this teapot? Which spout do we pour from?  Actually, only the spout directly across from the handle is connected to the inside of the pot. IF YOU LOOK INSIDE it is simple to see that the other spouts are not connected; only one spout is real. We need to take a close look at Iran on the inside, and not be confused by the “extra spouts” that are portrayed to us.

I too will watch the future relationship between Iran and the world, but with a very calm eye.

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