In Iran, US runner joins the races

Sarah Kureshi was the only American athlete at the 4th Islamic Women Games.

The middle-distance runner didn't know what to expect, as the first American female athlete to compete in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

She even brought the Stars and Stripes, uncertain whether the Iranians would provide a flag for the opening ceremony.

But as the sole American competitor in the 4th Islamic Women Games in Tehran this week, she needn't have bothered. Officials here "had a big US flag ready," says Saira Kureshi, and Iranians have provided a big welcome to match.

"It's wonderful to get to know people as people, regardless of what the governments say," Ms. Kureshi says, referring to the 25-year estrangement between the US and the Islamic Republic. "Part of the purpose [of coming here] is to bridge some of the gaps ... and show Iran that Americans are interested in them and their culture."

Competing for medals has taken second place to the experience of visiting Iran and participating with nearly 1,700 young women from nearly 40 countries, in events ranging from handball to the high jump.

Kureshi ran one heat of the 1,500 meters before illness forced her to the sidelines. But she has been the focus of steady Iranian media interest, with journalists exploring her views of Iran and its stormy relations with the US.

"I'm proud to be an American Muslim athlete - I love America, and the freedom [there] to be a Muslim; and I love Iran," says Kureshi, who made the visit with one coach who helped organize the US presence.

Some 40 other Muslim-American women wanted to compete in Iran, but could not break from study or work commitments, says Kureshi, who last competed four years ago as a member of her college track and cross-country teams.

Kureshi only heard of the chance two months ago, when a message was sent out by the Muslim Women's League in the US, canvassing for participants. "No one in America had even heard of these games," says Kureshi, adding that she was nevertheless impressed by the level of competition.

A further group of seven non-Muslim women trainers were asked to introduce a new sport - they had chosen Ultimate Frisbee, and had printed 700 specially for the event - but were not granted visas.

The request had come from Faizah Hashemi, daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who is head of Iran's Women's Sports Federation and organizer of the women's games.

Facing hurdles finding funding for the games, Ms. Hashemi told journalists that "we have to clarify that sports has no boundaries and in the first place stands for peace and friendship." Hashemi said her "biggest wish is for equality among men and women."

Kureshi is an unlikely but determined goodwill ambassador. A Muslim of Pakistani parentage, she is now a medical student on leave from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn.

Last year, she earned a master's degree in public health from Harvard University, and has worked with sex-trafficking victims in India and with refugees on the Thai/Burmese border.

After the closing ceremony in Tehran Thursday, she planned to return home to the US for a week, before leaving again for a yearlong Koranic Arabic language course in Cairo, Egypt.

She speaks often of "empowering women through sports," and hopes in the future to work in the Middle East, starting public-health and preventive-medicine programs from within communities.

Kureshi's positive perceptions of Iran were first shaped by a women's studies class she took last year, and by her Iranian professor. But aside from Iranian journalists' questions about nuclear issues, there have been a few surprises.

When Kureshi competed in college, she wore long tights to cover her legs; her university let her fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

But throughout competition in Iran, men and photographers have only been allowed at a few venues, such as archery and golf, so it felt "like a college meet," Kureshi says. Women wore shorts and tank tops at most of the events.

Taking time out Wednesday, Kureshi shopped in the north Tehran district of Tajrish for manteaux, the Islamic overdress meant to hide the contours of the female form, but which in Iran in recent years have grown tighter and shorter.

Kureshi says she wants to write articles about her trip, hoping that her experience will go some way toward eventually bringing the US and Iran closer together.

Iranians have shown a deep interest in her presence and her perceptions, she says. Kureshi expects that Americans, too, will be interested in hearing from a person who has visited a nation President Bush labeled as part of the "axis of evil."

"If something good can come from [this competition], that will be wonderful," says Kureshi. "I think people will be very receptive, because when people in the US hear that you are going to Iran, their ears prick up."

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