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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Linking Tehran and Tel Aviv
Hossein Derakhshan is a 31-year-old Iranian internet activist, based in Canada, who writes the bilingual weblog Editor: Myself. Here he writes about his first visit to Israel, which he undertook to challenge the stereotypes of both Iran and Israel.

Hossein Derakhshan in the Israeli cafe from which he blogged (picture by Lisa Goldman)
Hossein Derakhshan wants to break down stereotypes on both sides

For me, an Iranian raised in post-revolutionary Iran, Israel has always had three great qualities: unknown, forbidden and therefore extremely intriguing. That's why I finally decided to visit Israel.

But unlike all Iranians who have visited Israel, I decided to publicise my visit to the 20,000 daily readers of my blog - even though I knew I would not be able to go back to Iran again.

I had a mission, though, which would make the risk worthwhile. I wanted to break the stereotypical images both governments use to advance their radical policies.

Stereotypes - Iran

Having been born and raised in a religious, pro-revolution atmosphere in Tehran, like many others from my generation, I knew nothing about Israel except that they were "a declining group of Jews who constantly conspire to kill Muslim and forcefully capture their lands".

That's why for us Israel never existed except when Friday prayers would finish their "death to" chants with Israel. Everywhere else, even on maps, Tel Aviv was the capital of the "Zionist Regime" or "Occupied Palestine".

Most Iranians still believe all influential world institutions are secretly run by a small group of Zionist Jews (the Iranian regime doesn't usually make a distinction between Judaism and Zionism), who basically run the world. This includes CNN, The New York Times, Hollywood, the World Bank, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations.

Stereotypes - Israel

On the other side, I could imagine how Israelis' perception of Iran was being formed by their own government, as a big country with millions of angry Muslims, all look-alikes of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bent on destroying Israel with nuclear weapons.

Book on Iran for sale in Israel
Books about Iran are popular in Israel

I thought this would be especially true of the young generation, who would not remember that 30 years ago, the then Shah of Iran was a close ally of Israel and the two countries used to exchange tens of thousands of tourists every year.

Obviously, they couldn't understand the significant differences between competing political ideologies and rival sources of power inside the current Iranian system. Also Iranians hardly know anything about the fragmented partisan political system of Israel and its internal struggles.

I believed that Israelis saw no distinction between Mr Ahmadinejad and the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami of Iran, in the same way that Iranians could not differentiate Shimon Peres from Binyamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Iranians

My biggest surprise was when I found myself with two other Iranians, completely randomly, on the same minibus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I had no idea that Israel had the world's largest proportion of Iranians in its population, outside Iran itself.

Iranian academics living in Israel meet for dinner
Iranian academics living in Israel meet for dinner - and a podcast

It was only then I could digest the fact that Israel's President Moshe Katsav and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, despite their hardline stances against the Iranian government, were originally from Iran.

I began to share with my blog's readers what I was observing, by posting entries, pictures, videos, and podcasts.

I shared stories about

  • an Israeli woman who knew the works of Persian classical poet Saadi by heart
  • an Iranian professor whose wife's family were killed in Holocaust
  • an Israeli actor who invited me to watch rehearsals of the play he was appearing in
  • a young Israeli academic who had studied Ayatollah Khomeini's ideas
  • an Iranian veteran engineer whose biggest wish was to see Iran again

I encountered some hostile Iranians in Jerusalem who saw me as a representative of a government of which they didn't have good memories. But I also wrote about an Iranian family man who generously invited me to his suburban Tel Aviv house, and in return I helped him become the first Iranian to write a blog from Israel.

Feedback

The reaction from Iranians was surprisingly positive. Of the several hundred comments I received from my readers inside or outside Iran, most of them were quite supportive, saying they believed it was a good step towards peace and understanding.

Young people in Tel Aviv hear about life for young Iranians
Young Tel Avivians were interested to hear how young Iranians live

They persuaded me to share more and more about my experiences, simply because they had never had a chance to see any video or picture about that country other than in the context of war and violence.

However, only a few known bloggers dared linking to the material on my blog, which was already filtered by the Iranian government, or mentioning the visit. Neither did any newspaper or magazine in Iran mention a word about it - unlike the significant coverage it received in Israeli media.

This indicates what a big psychological taboo Israel still is in the minds of millions of Iranians and the long way we need to go as independent activists.

Conclusion

But this was just a beginning. After the visit, many of my Iranian friends told me that they wanted to visit Israel too.

It made me think of organising a group tour of young Iranian men and women who live outside Iran and are willing to take the risk.

They could also document their trip and contribute to breaking a big taboo as citizen journalists.

Despite their president's rhetoric, Iranian youth are as much into studying, music, books, films and dancing as others around the world.

This is not only limited to secular, urban young men and women. The best evidence is the young Iranian 'martyrdom seeker' who closed his blog and other pro-regime online activities to prepare for the university entrance exam.


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