iranian blogger Houssein Derakhshan 248.
(photo credit: Orly Halperin)
As he walked around the streets of west Jerusalem, Hossein Derakhshan blended in easily. No one turned their head when he passed by. No one commented.
Yet, Derakhshan is no ordinary visitor. He is an Iranian Muslim visiting Israel knowing that it may mean he can never return to his homeland.
"But it's worth it," said the friendly-faced Derakhshan in an interview with The Jerusalem Post over lunch at a trendy restaurant off Jaffa Street.
The 31-year-old reformist came here at a time when tension between Iran and Israel can almost be cut with a knife. He came with a mission. He wants to stop an Israeli attack on Iran and he wants Iranians to understand that "Israelis are not evil."
"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," he wrote for all to see on his personal Internet diary shortly after landing in Tel-Aviv.
Derakhshan is famous among thousands of young Iranians inside and outside of Iran for his Web log, or "blog" (Internet diary), called "Editor: Myself".
As a student in Teheran, he was one of the millions of young people who voted for his country's first reform-minded leader, Muhammad Khatami, and he wrote regularly for a reformist newspaper. But following the crackdown against such publications in 2000 and the difficult economic situation facing youth, Derakhshan decided to immigrate to Canada.
Today Derakhshan is the Godfather of Iranian blogging. When he created his blog in the summer of 2002, shortly after arriving in Canada, there was only one before him.
In September that year, he posted a step-by-step explanation in Persian on how others could easily create blogs. Within a month, hundreds more had sprung up. Then he created a special Persian blog script. Today, he estimates there are over 700,000 bloggers writing in Persian - both in and out of Iran.
Now, although he lives far from his native country, he could not be better known.
His blog is the platform for him to express criticism of the Iranian regime. It is his tool for creating democratic change in his country. And it is his way of connecting across the globe to his Iranian readers from the kitchen table in his Toronto apartment.
His visit is one of the most significant moves he has made as a "citizen journalist." He has spent the last week since he arrived talking to Israelis to learn what they think of Iran and to show them that Iranians "are not Ahmadinejad" - referring to his president who has called for Israel to be "wiped off" the map.
Derakhshan wants to correct misperceptions. "Iranians try to portray the Israeli people as evil and the West tries to portray the Iranians as [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad."
Indeed, according to Derakhshan, very few people support the hardline Ahmadinejad. "People were really angry when he said the things he said about Israel," said Derakhshan, recalling other Iranian blogs he had read. "One woman wrote, 'Is he trying to get us killed?'"
Derakshan said that his people wanted the nuclear bomb as a defense strategy. He opposes building anything nuclear, citing environmental reasons. "It's too risky," he said.
Nevertheless, he said, were Iran to get the bomb, Ahmadinejad would be powerless to use it. "It's up to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei," said Derakshan, "and he does not want to attack Israel."
While he has much criticism for his government and his president, Derakshan is also critical of the Bush Administration in the US, blaming it for telling Iranians to boycott the elections. "If he [US President George W. Bush] hadn't done that, Ahmedinejad might not have won," he said.
Voter apathy, he said, was the main reason for the failure of the reformists.
Derakhshan's visit to Israel, combined with his criticism of the Iranian government, makes it close to impossible for him to return to Iran. Nevertheless, he opposes violent regime change in his native country. Instead, he believes that slowly but surely the system can be changed through reform - and the Internet is the way to achieve that.
Already, he and a network of other Iranian reformists in and out of Iran are planning to help a few reformist leaders win seats on the Teheran Municipality Council elections next year.
Blogging is not only a way of creating change in Iran, though - it is a way of life for Derakhshan, who makes a living through donations to his blog and by freelance work in graphics and Web site designs.
That money pays his rent, his food and this trip to Israel, and to blog conferences in London and Germany.
It was in London in December where he met Lisa Goldman, a Canadian-Israeli blogger, who invited him to come to Israel. The two were attending the Global Voices Online international conference where Goldman gave a lecture. Derakhshan came up to her afterwards, introduced himself, and said he had always wanted to go to Israel. Goldman offered her couch.
"I had actually said this to every Israeli I ever met," said Derakhshan as he sat with Goldman and a Post reporter. "Lisa was the first to say 'come.'"
His parents have been "surprisingly supportive," he said, although they are scared to call him on the cellular phone he got here. "I told them they should, because it proves I have nothing to hide."
Derakshan said he was not worried about their safety, because they were from a pro-revolutionary religious background and thus well-connected.
However, not all his readers are supportive. While some of the feedback posted on his blog from Iranians is very positive, others are quite negative.
"Some people say I shouldn't come to a country which is occupying other people's land," said Derakshan. "But I'm not touching the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That is not why I came. I came to deal with Israel-Iran relations."
He says that the only way there can be peace between Israel and Iran is by developing relations between their people first.
Indeed, Derakshan wants to break one more taboo before he leaves. "I want to meet [President Moshe] Katsav," he said, adding that he wanted to shake his hand.
In reference to the disputed handshake between Katsav and Khatami at the funeral of pope John Paul II, Derakshan smiled and said: "And I will say that I shook it."
Amir Mizroch contributed to this report