‘Why do you Israelis want to wipe us off the map?” asked Zahra.
The question wasn’t meant to be provocative; Zahra was merely curious. I was, after all, the first Israeli she’d ever met. And she was the first Iranian – at least someone who currently lives in the country rather than, say, an expat in Los Angeles or the child of Iranian Jews now residing in Israel – I’d had a conversation with, as well.
I met Zahra on a recent trip to Barcelona, where I was covering a conference for a client. Zahra runs a tech company in Tehran and had given a presentation, earlier in the day, where she described the difficulties of doing business in the midst of Iran’s current economic crisis.
Runaway inflation (nearly 40% at the end of 2018) means that the price of a supermarket item in the morning may not be the same as the price at the end of the day, Zahra explained on stage.
Zahra’s story gave me an opening to make “first contact.” I approached the businesswoman during a coffee break.
“I really related to your story about inflation,” I said. “The annual inflation rate where I live was over 400% in 1985. We used to joke that you’re better off prepaying your taxi fare than using the meter, in order to lock in a lower price.”
Zahra looked at me quizzically. What country did this guy, speaking perfect English, come from that had inflation like that? Certainly not the United States.
“I live in Israel,” I said, sensing her confusion.
Zahra’s eyes widened ever so slightly, though her demeanor remained steady. A consummate CEO with a winning, unwavering smile, dressed in pants, a long tunic and a red and cream-colored hijab covering all but a wisp of hair, she brushed past the elephant that had suddenly set up camp in the conference hall and asked if inflation is still high in Israel.
I launched into a simplified explanation of the 1985 economic reforms that would eventually transform Israel into the Start-Up Nation.
But the next session was starting and it was my job to report on it, so I had to run back to my laptop.
I CAUGHT up with Zahra again the next day. Apparently our brief chat had made an impression. She had already told her family in Tehran that she’d met an Israeli. What she said I wasn’t privy to, but now, at least, she wanted to know about more than shekels and start-ups.
“What do Israelis think about Iranians?” she asked, her smile as unreadable as before.
Suddenly thrust into the role of unofficial Israeli ambassador without portfolio, I paused for a moment to choose my words carefully.
“I think most Israelis are able to separate the people of Iran from what its government says,” I responded, as diplomatically as I could. “People are basically the same everywhere, don’t you think?”
“We all just want to make a living,” I continued, gaining confidence. “To raise our children to thrive, to be happy.”
“So then why do you want to kill us all?” Zahra abruptly asked.
I was momentarily stunned.
“Is... that what you h-hear about Israel in Iran?” I stammered.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
I felt myself resisting her words – they didn’t fit my expectations of how a worldly Iranian entrepreneur at an international tech conference would think. That was supposed to be rhetoric from the ayatollahs, not the general population.
“Well, I have never heard anyone in power in Israel ever say they wanted to obliterate the entire Iranian people,” I replied. “It’s not true, not in the least.”
Zahra kept smiling as she took in what I imagined was new information. I shifted uncomfortably in my dress shoes and fidgeted with my name tag.
“Then why do you shoot Palestinians?” she continued.
I tried to add some context this time.
“If someone is running at a soldier with a knife, the solider has to defend himself,” I said. “If a terrorist is planting a bomb, he’s going to be stopped. But the name of our army is the Israel Defense Forces. Its mission is to defend, not to initiate action.”
Was I getting through? I couldn’t tell.
“Don’t you think, if the Palestinian conflict was solved, all the other issues in the Middle East would go away?” Zahra asked.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I started to say, but we were cut off for a second time, as the networking break came to an end.
Zahra and I exchanged business cards.
“Perhaps someday it will be possible to visit you in peace,” I said. “I hear Tehran looks a lot like Tel Aviv.”
Zahra didn’t reciprocate with a wish of her own to sip tea in Jaffa, nor did we shake hands as we parted. (I didn’t try, not knowing if her hijab meant no contact with the opposite sex.)
Afterward, I sent Zahra an email with a copy of the article I’d written about her presentation and a pledge to continue the conversation virtually.
I never heard back from her. Perhaps the email never got through the Iranian censors.
I hope that Zahra’s business trip to the West, in the midst of increasing sanctions on Tehran, wasn’t entirely in vain. If nothing else, she met her first Israeli and he turned out to be not quite the monster she’d always expected.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World
, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.
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