Iran: It can be tough to say goodbye

08/23/2007 12:00 AM

08/23/2007 5:06 AM

There are many countries where you wouldn't mind being held over by popular demand, but Iran usually isn't high on that list. We haven't exactly been on partying terms with the Iranians since the hostage crisis of 1979.

More recently, they have a nuclear program and we don't want them to, leading the Bush administration to sabre-rattle about invading Iran.

And on Wednesday, President Bush also lambasted the Iranians for detaining American travelers there.

Modesto's Janet Shummon can tell you about that last one firsthand. In late July, she visited Iran as part of a group attending a meeting of the Assyrian National Congress. She found it a bit unnerving when the Iranians told her she couldn't go home -- not right away, anyway.

"When most of your group is leaving, and most of the delegation has left, of course you're worried," said Shummon, who came here in 1974. "The Assyrian representative assured us there was nothing to worry about. We took his word."

The hang-up? The Iranians don't recognize dual passports. Because she was born in Iran, they forever consider her Iranian. Shummon's U.S. passport simply wouldn't do, even though she has been a U.S. citizen since 1980 and has worked at the Stanislaus County district attorney's office for 30 years.

To exit Iran, she needed to get a copy of her birth certificate and secure a new Iranian passport. Another member of the delegation, Ninus Bebla of San Jose, encountered the same situation and also had to stay.

In the United States, getting a passport can take 12 weeks or more, depending upon the agency, and we tend to view some of the Middle Eastern countries as being technically primitive.

Yet, Shummon was able to locate a copy of her birth certificate within three days even though some of the Iranian government offices don't have computers. Once she had her birth certificate in hand, she was able to get the passport that same day and depart.

A relief? You bet.

Shummon, though, came back to the United States having seen a different Iran than she remembered from her youth, and certainly a different country than is depicted in the media.

"Because the government of Iran approved our meeting, they were very nice to us," she said. "The foreign minister invited us to meet with him."

Iran, she said, treats its Christians much better than they are treated in Iraq, where churches are bombed and they are forced to pay a "jizya," or protection tax to Muslims in some parts of the country.

"We visited seven Christian churches in Tehran alone," Shummon said.

Her group also visited a Christian church in a northern Iranian village.

"It was hundreds of years old and in bad shape, but the government there rebuilt it," she said.

In the Christian areas, the women could take off their head covers and long coats and dress in western style.

"(The Iranians) even allowed a female singer from Chicago to give a concert, and that's something that hadn't happened in 30 years," Shummon said.

She found she could buy just about any product

A paradise? Hardly. The Iranian government still keeps a tight rein on its citizenry, she said.

"The people are stressed. The city (Tehran) is crowded. They're (rationing) gas," she said. "There's nothing there for the young people -- no TV or limited programming. No parties -- nothing."

In fact, she said, Christians have more freedoms than Muslims in Iran, she said.

"We had a big dinner party with dancing," Shummon said. "The Persians still have their weddings in separate rooms," the groom in one, the bride in the other.

Though she was held against her will, she wasn't jailed. She remained in her hotel and said she was treated cordially by her hosts.

Three days after their friends were back in the United States, Shummon and Bebla were allowed to go home, too -- an international crisis averted.

To comment, click on the link with this column at www.modbee.com. Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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