Iranian blogger 298.88.
(photo credit: Orly Halperin)
The threats of mutual destruction wafting between Israel and Iran were drowned out this week by an Iranian Shi'ite, Hossein Derakhshan, walking the streets of Tel Aviv with "I love you Teheran" emblazoned on his T-shirt.
The 32-year-old former journalist, now resident in Canada, has undertaken a campaign to show Israelis and Iranians the human face of the people they may be contemplating nuking.
Derakhshan, who addressed a conference on "Reform and Resistance in the Middle East" at Ben-Gurion University last week, is credited with having popularized the concept of the Weblog in Iran, a phenomenon which reached an astonishing scale. During his recent visit, he established contact with Israelis willing to reach out via the Web to counterparts in Iran and break through the crust of governmental hostility separating them.
According to speakers at the Ben-Gurion conference, some Israelis and Lebanese used blogs to communicate with each other even as the bombs fell during last summer's war, apparently the first such use of blogs between enemy populations in wartime. Derakhshan's aim is to establish a dialogue between Iranians and Israelis to prevent the bombs from falling.
He first visited Israel last year and subsequently posted photographs and videos of Israel on his Farsi-language blog, which is seen by some 20,000 Iranians - those with the know-how to bypass the filter Iran has placed on his blog (firstname.lastname@example.org) and those to whom he sends the blog content in the form of e-mail.
"Those were the first videos any Iranian has been able to see about ordinary daily life in Israel," he said in an interview. "I want to humanize Israel for Iranians and tell them it's not what the Islamic propaganda machine is saying - that Israelis are thirsty for Muslim blood. And I want to show Israel that the average Iranian isn't even thinking about doing harm to Israel. I want them to see Iranians who don't look like [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad."
For all his good intentions, Derakhshan is not your run-of-the-mill peacenik. He opposes, for environmental reasons, Iran's public drive for nuclear energy. But he supports, for strategic reasons, Iran's secret drive for nuclear weapons. "We need it as a deterrent." Not against Israel, he says, but against the United States, which in 1953 organized a coup in Teheran and whose military presence is amply visible all around Iran today.
In addition, says Derakhshan, Iran is surrounded by other potentially hostile entities. Iranian diplomats have been killed in recent years by Sunni extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranians harbor deep hostility towards the Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia which has acted brutally towards Shi'ite pilgrims during the haj.
ALTHOUGH HE admits in his blog to being an atheist, drinking liquor and enjoying an occasional joint, Derakshan surprisingly favors continuation of the Islamic republic in Iran, although in more enlightened form. "I support any government that attempts to marry democracy and religion." In a deeply religious region like the Middle East, he says, attempts such as Turkey's to subjugate religion result in its forcing its way to the surface in contentious ways.
He views Israel as an example of a democracy that has successfully integrated religion into its national fabric.
According to Derakshan, Iran is seeking to adapt Islam to modern ways. Blogging, as it happens, is one example. In the seminaries in the holy city of Qom, he says, clerical students are taught how to create Web pages.
Although a reformist, he is opposed even to non-violent resistance. "The system in Iran is democratic enough to permit change through elections." Former president Muhammad Khatami was brought to power by reformists, but they grew impatient at the slow pace of change and boycotted the last presidential elections in an attempt to deny the government legitimacy. However, this only brought Ahmadinejad to power. The reformers learned their bitter lesson, as shown in last month's elections in which Ahmadinejad supporters were savaged by a large turnout. "We can gradually change Iran. We are already doing it."
Ahmadinejad, notes Derakhshan, was elected on a platform that was entirely domestic. "He made no mention of Israel or nuclear weapons. Nothing. It is because of his failure to cut unemployment and improve the standard of living, which he promised to do, that he has lost his popularity, even among the uneducated, even among the religious. The government is simply mismanaged. The people he brought in have little experience, and he himself never had a major managerial position."
The president, he said, has limited powers and must defer to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on the most important decisions. "He has no control over the army, no control over the state media. And it is Khamenei who chooses the three key ministers - foreign, intelligence and oil."
Derakhshan denies that Ahmadinejad is intelligent, even though he ran rings around a 60 Minutes interviewer on American television last year and fenced ably with members of the Council on Foreign Relations during his visit to New York. "He's street smart and has good social communication skills," says Derakhshan, who trained as a sociologist in Iran. "He relates easily to people on a personal level. But he doesn't have the intellect to convince people who can think. He can't respond to sophisticated questions."
Because of his blogs, Derakhshan has been marked by Iran's intelligence service for arrest if he returns, but he remains an Iranian patriot. "Iran is deliberately misrepresented by the Western media." If there is a war between Iran and the United States, he says, he would fly home to fight for his country.
THE SON of a rug manufacturer in Teheran, Derakhshan began playing with video games as a teenager and was among the first generation in his country to take up computers. He began writing a weekly computer column for a widely read reformist newspaper. It was so popular that it became a daily column. It was the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 that alerted him to a dimension he had not considered before.
"Two weeks after 9/11, I discovered the New York-based blogs describing people's feelings there. I started my blog to show the amazing potential of this new media."
He was flooded with e-mails from Iranians asking how to start their own blogs. He explained how to find free on-line services for making English-language blogs and how to adapt them to the Farsi language. Since then, an astonishing 700,000 blogs have appeared in Farsi, of which an estimated 40,000-110,000 are still active.
Unlike satellite television, which is officially banned in Iran, blogging is encouraged by the government. Even Ahmadinejad has a blog. "It's trendy," says Derakhshan. Only about 100 high-profile Farsi blogs are filtered by the authorities, who cannot possibly cope with the mass of blogs on the Web. There is no attempt to block Western blogs, he says. Even Hebrew-language newspapers and The Jerusalem Post can be read on Teheran screens.
When not traveling, Derakhshan produces two blogs a day - one in Farsi and one in English. "I'm more of an activist in my Persian blog - I push a reformist agenda - and more of an observer in English."
Five years ago, he moved to Canada where he married an Iranian woman, whom he subsequently divorced. He earned a living as a journalist and by creating Web sites. His blog is written from there.
During his two-week stay here, Derakhshan pursued a number of ideas with people who expressed readiness to join in his project. These include:
* Willingness to accommodate Iranian bloggers and filmmakers living in Europe or North America who would come to Israel to report on life here for Iranian blog sites. Israeli filmmakers cannot go to Teheran but they could learn about Iranians in a place like Toronto, which has tens of thousands of Iranian immigrants and an intensive communal life.
* To use social networking Web sites like chat rooms to communicate in English directly with counterparts in Iran.
* DJs would "remix" Iranian popular music with Israeli elements and play it at parties. Teheran musicians would do the same for Israeli music sent them via the Internet.
* Selected blogs in Hebrew and Farsi would be translated for audiences in the other country.
DERAKHSHAN ENVISIONS such activities carried out at the expense of those involved or with small-scale donations. "I've had so much positive reaction since my last trip to the idea of connecting Iranians and Israelis."
He recently set up a Web site as a focus for these activities. Called Teheraviv.com, it is still empty, but he hopes to begin filling it with content shortly.
The average Iranian student, says Derakhshan, sees no threat from Israel and does not take seriously statements about a possible Israeli attack on Iran. "They know that Iran is not a real threat to Israel and that Ahmadinejad has limited power. If Israel attacks Iran, I think people would see it as done at America's behest."
That average Iranian student, he said, is not very sympathetic toward the Palestinians and the Arab world in general, which supported Saddam Hussein during the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war. The older generation of Iranians still remembers normal relations with Israel during the time of the shah. There may still be some who remember Israel's extensive aid in reconstructing Iranian villages destroyed in massive earthquakes. There is even pride in a native-born Iranian having been chosen as Israel's president. The one black mark against Israel is its alleged training of the shah's secret police in torture techniques.
Before departing Israel in midweek, Darakhshan celebrated his 32nd birthday in what he described as "the coolest bar in Tel Aviv," on Rehov Lilienblum, where he had a haircut in a side room at 10 p.m.
Said the Iranian activist: "Tel Aviv is a city I could live in. It's a mix of Middle East and European values and lifestyle. If Iran opens up a bit more and could have public bars, Teheran would beat Tel Aviv."
Does he think he will see peace between Israel and Iran in his lifetime?
"In five years," he says.