Impressions of the Conference / Reunion in Austin, Texas

By Mary Marks (Kerman, 1964-66)

Descriptions of the Austin experience are scattered through both parts of KhabarNameh. As a PCIA board member aware of the staggering amount of work producing this conference over the past year and a half entailed, I was looking forward to seeing how it played out. Videos and conference documentation will be added to PCIA’s website in the coming months.

Texas was still in the midst of epic flooding when folks began to arrive at the San Jacinto Residence Hall Conference Center. As they picked up their badges and meal ticket envelopes, and learned how to log onto the local Wi-Fi connections, stories of delayed flights and flooded runways bounced around the registration area. “It took twelve hours for Parvaneh and me to get to Austin from Baltimore!” said John Limbert (Sanandaj, 1964-66). And his travail was not unusual. But at last ­­­223 volunteers, spouses, friends, and Peace Corps staff were in the center, eyes darting from nametag to face, hoping to reconnect with old friends, and looking forward to whatever Iran Today: Quest for New Narratives had to offer.

In the two and a half days of the conference U.S.-Iran politics, Peace Corps Iran legacy, and Persian culture melded into a unique experience for attendees. Prof. Bill Beeman kicked off the wide-ranging political discussions, characterizing Iranian and American views of each other as “Symbolic Estrangement in Action.” Prof. Hamid Naficy expanded on the cultural challenges to diplomacy, discussing the role of the media in hardening negative attitudes in both Iran and the U.S. Beeman and Naficy joined Mary Catherine Bateson and Ambassador John Limbert on a panel that addressed the issues hampering improved relations between the two nations. In his speech closing the conference, Limbert reviewed the history of Iran – U.S. relations over the last century, reminding us that to improve relations with Iran we must first acknowledge the “ghosts in the room,” the history between our countries.

Responding to the often-raised query “What is Iran like today?” Mary Hegland (Mahabad/Gorgon, 1966-68) spoke to session attendees about “Aliabad,” the village she studies near Shiraz. An agricultural community when she began her studies in 1979, it is now a Shiraz suburb where the connectivity of village family life is being supplanted by a broader range of social contacts and individualism. By teleconference, U Mass Amherst students Nariman Mostafavi and Mohsen Jalali debated the attitudes and opportunities of contemporary Iranian young people, noting that in Iran the realm of politics is more constrained than the social arena.

Over continental breakfasts and bag lunches, RPCVs reminisced, caught up with family news and post-Iran careers, and discussed the sessions they were attending. Many RPCVs were attracted to “legacy” sessions on the Peace Corps in Iran. Tom Ricks (Mashhad/Mahabad, 1964-66) and John Lorentz (Karaj, 1962-64) spoke about three Americans—Terence O’Donnell, Howard Baskerville, and Curtis Harnack—whose time in Iran resonates today with both Americans and Iranians. Conference rooms were packed for panels on the “early” Peace Corps years and the “later” ones. Speakers’ observations reflected the changes in Peace Corps Iran during its fourteen years of existence. Group 1 volunteers, placed primarily in agricultural schools, recalled being poorly prepared for their assignments. “The operative word was ‘improvisation,’” said Dick Eaton (Tabriz 1962-1964). By the 1970s, in some cases there was an increased effort to align Peace Corps placement with volunteer expertise and make local agencies more accountable to Tehran. However, no one in the “Later Years” panel had the definitive answer to why the Peace Corps left Iran in 1976.

The Peace Corps program was one among many that ceased operations in Iran as elements leading to the revolution began to take hold. The conference also hosted graduates of the Iran Center for Management Studies, a Harvard-affiliated business school operating in Tehran in the 1970s, who convened to discuss organizing the center’s former students, many of whom are in businesses in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere.

The theme of building on the Peace Corps experience echoed throughout the conference. Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist who lived in Iran in the 1970s, ignited this challenge early on: “Our society is supportive of people our age. Use the extra thirty years we’ve gained in life expectancy…to make our voices heard when countries we know are being misunderstood.” Bijan Afkami facilitated the last hour of the conference, urging attendees to think together about “what’s next.” His exhortations excited a volume of suggestions for action. As the conference drew to an end, attendees poured out into the bright Austin sunshine urging each other, and PCIA, to speak out about Iran—to our communities, to the media, and to our legislators.