A friendship between two bloggers – an Israeli and an Iranian – is doing its part to combat the anti-Israel incitement and nuclear rumblings coming out of Teheran. With the help of his ‘travel-friendly’ Canadian passport, Hossein Derakhshan, 31, crossed a political border few Iranians could ever attempt – and spent several days last month in Israel – on a mission for peace.
Derakhshan said he undertook the trip to document the human face of Israel for his blog in Persian called ‘Editor: Myself’, and break the taboo of Iranians visiting Israel.
By law, the Iranian government forbids its citizens to visit Israel. Although Derakhshan entered Israel using his Canadian passport, he publicized his visit on his blog, which has 20,000 Iranian readers a day and is well known by the Iranian government.
According to Derakhshan, when he left Iran after a visit last June, he was interrogated at the airport and was warned that he must stop writing anti-government posts on his blog. By entering Israel and documenting his 12-day stay for the world to read, he may never be allowed to enter Iran again. Not worried in the least, he considers himself a citizen of the world.
“My Home Page is my home,” joked Derakhshan, who documents his life and political beliefs through an internet diary – also known as a weblog, or blog for short. He was one of the first Iranians to host a blog (in 2001) and now has a following of thousands of Iranians who read his blog every day, reading his thoughts on Iranian politics, popular culture and technology. While in Israel, he wrote day-by-day accounts of what he experienced and included images and video feeds for people to download.
The act of reading and writing blogs, otherwise known as “blogging”, has become one of the most popular ways for individuals to side-step mainstream media from anywhere in the world. The medium of an internet website, in the form of a blog, gives the average person the opportunity to be become a citizen journalist and report on facts through their own eyes.
Writing on the Internet in the name of politics may be a new concept to some. To others, it is a lifeline to getting and transmitting uncensored news, especially in countries where people do not have the freedom of speech. In Israel and in America, blogs can be found on any topic from computers to poetry; many corporations are hiring bloggers to aid in marketing initiatives as the medium is gaining influence over mainstream media.
On his first day in Israel, Derakhshan wrote: “I’ve publicly come to Israel to break a big taboo and to be a bridge between Iranian and Israeli people who are manipulated by their own governments’ and media’s dehumanizing attitude, especially now that the possibility of some sort of violent clash is higher than ever.”
One Iranian student, AIS, posted the comment on Derakhshan’s blog, where he is known as Hoder: “The hatred of Israel and Zionism is one of the major foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So what Hoder is doing is quite dangerous. This is a great move. I am happy for him and hope his trip will be fruitful for himself and for us all.”
Everyday citizens were not the only ones checking out the Iranian tourist in Israel. An ISP from the Atomic Energy Center of Iran was tracked to a blog reporting the visit.
Derakhshan moved to North America in 2000 with his dual citizen wife, from Teheran. He didn’t have Jewish friends when he lived in Canada, although he was interested in making contact with the Jewish community. This attitude was the opposite of what he was taught in Iran – that the Israeli flag of the Jewish nation was the symbol of ultimate evil.
“It took some getting used to – Hossein felt strange seeing an Israeli flag, at first,” says Lisa Goldman, 38, Derakhshan’s Israeli host for the duration of his stay.
Derakhshan and Goldman met at a blogging conference last December – the Global Voices Online international conference – in London. Goldman, a freelance journalist who blogs in her free time, talked about blogging in Israel. Derakhshan was surprised to see an Israeli face in the crowd and approached her during a break.
When Derakhshan, a Muslim, told Goldman, a Jew, that he had always wanted to visit Israel, she invited him to visit. He could stay at her apartment in Tel Aviv. With formal lecture invitations at Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University in place, and a guaranteed escort (Goldman) for the duration of his stay, Derakhshan traveled to Israel.
When he first entered the country he was surprised to see that it was not a police state, as he had imagined, and that people in Tel Aviv dressed fashionably. “It was important for me that he got a real sense of the rhythm of Tel Aviv and Israel and to get beyond clichés,” says Goldman. In addition to his many speaking engagements and interviews with the media, Goldman took Derakhshan to meet artists, and to visit trendy cafes and pubs.
He was surprised to meet many Iranian Jews on his visit, and has continued friendships with a few, including one tourist who lives in Texas.
Upon his arrival in Israel, Derakhshan and Goldman began posting entries about the visit on their respective blogs: Derakhshan writing mainly in Persian and Goldman writing from her perspective in English. Thousands of people around the world, from Israel, Iran, and the US logged on to read snippets of history that Goldman and Derakhshan have forged.
Professor David Menashri, an expert on Iranian affairs from Tel Aviv University, said that the visit has helped inspire Iranians based in the US to visit Israel; well-known American bloggers Christopher Lydon (Open Source Radio, New York Times), Gal Beckerman (Columbia Journalism Review) and Jeff Jarvis (Buzzmachine) all reported on the visit on their well-read blogs
It has been surprising for Derakhshan to see all the emails he is getting from Jews around the world, now that he has stepped foot into Israel. “I am getting a lot of emails from Jewish Iranians around the world saying, let’s meet up. When I was in Canada, I was interested in finding and meeting the Jewish community, but it didn’t happen,” he told ISRAEL21c.
Goldman’s impression, too, of Iranians was changed over the course of a week and a half.
“The Iranian government is setting a tone that clearly does not reflect the view of most young Iranians,” Goldman said. She has filtered through dozens of emails from Iranians, most of them expressing strong support for Hossein’s visit and thanking Lisa for helping to make it happen.
“Yes, it was taken as a political visit,” agreed Goldman who said that Iranians are leaving notes on Derakhshan’s Persian-language blog, thanking him for talking about Israel so candidly. Many of the comments are written in English, from people who do not have Persian-enabled computers; they are fascinating reading for non-Iranians who thought that all Iranians hated Israel. Some of those readers have even written that one day, soon, they too would like to visit.