I’ve been thinking, lately, about “safe spaces” on college campuses, and about the desire that some potential participants in academic conferences express for “safety” — meaning, by safety, not the reasonable assurance that they won’t be physically assaulted but, if not altogether affirmation for their ideological positions and lifestyle choices, at least no sense, however muted and implicit, of rejection of or dissent from those choices and positions.
And I find myself thinking, in that context, of the academic conference that I attended in the Islamic Republic of Iran back in (I think) the late 1990s.
Going at all was potentially dangerous — very literally so — and, although I often like to have my wife accompany me on major trips when she can, I didn’t even ask her whether she wanted to go on this one. (I figured that my kids deserved to have at least one parent in the home.) The United States didn’t have, and still doesn’t have, an embassy in Tehran, and visiting Americans have been known to disappear from time to time into the obscure and sometimes fatal abyss of the Iranian prison system.
I knew that a faction in the government had invited me to the conference, but I remember wondering as my plane approached Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport which faction would be in power when we landed.
The hotel where we were lodged had been nationalized during the Revolution. Formerly a Sheraton, I think, it now had an inscription in gold Arabo-Persian script over the lobby and the registration desk, a Persian-language quotation from the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that read (in translation) something like “America is the common enemy of all humankind.”
One of the highlights of my stay there was an unintended visit to the former Embassy of the United States (aka “the nest of spies”), which has been turned into a kind of museum focused on the evils of my native and which was emblazoned with anti-American slogans in both Persian and English — including the ever-fresh “Death to America!” as well as anti-American murals (featuring such charming elements as the Statue of Liberty with a skull for a head, and so forth). Wherever I went, I was shadowed by agents of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and we weren’t permitted outside the conference venue and our hotel without escort.
Anyway, suggestions that Brigham Young University is an ideologically unsafe place in which to hold an academic conference probably would have made me laugh and left me unimpressed anyway, even without my experience in Iran. But when I think of that visit to Tehran — which I actually enjoyed enormously — I confess that BYU seems fairly congenial by comparison.