February 8, 2013
Once Upon a Different Conference
“Hey dear, how are you? 10: 40 pm
I just came back from the cinema, watching “Argo” and
it made me wonder what would you think of that movie.
Was “Argo” shown in Iran at all? I was curious how
Tehran is pictured since it was filmed in Turkey; do
the buildings look similar; are the Iranians presented
in a stereotypical manner as Hollywood usually does?”
Seen 11:36 pm
My only Iranian friend I could talk to was the very first person I met last summer at a bus station in Bratislava while waiting to be picked by the MJC staff. I recognized her by the hijab (head covering). There are not many Muslims in Slovakia. This was keenly demonstrated when one of the ambassadors at the ceremony welcoming MJC to Bratislava (won’t disclose which country, not to embarrass him) asked me if the girls who are wearing those scarves were Muslims. We were a great attraction on that day for the city – hundreds of people dressed very colorfully as if it was a carnival of cultures - many in their traditional robes, laughing cheerfully, taking pictures and preserving memories together…
Bratislava Bus Station“Where’re you from?” I asked the girl at the bus station after we cleared up that we were waiting for the same car. :
“I am from Tehran. What about you?”
“I am from Bulgaria but I live in Berlin now.”
“Why did you move to Germany?”
“I came to study.”
“Why to Berlin?”
“Well, it has the biggest Jewish community in Germany.”
“Ah, so you are Jewish! I was still wondering until you said it, you could be Muslim as well.”
When I invite people to join our Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Group in Berlin, I sometimes have the feeling I am talking about self-help therapy group and it’s not far from the reality. There, we first admit as representatives of the both big communities or members of small ones that we have a problem. Once we do that, the next step is to break the ice or to be precise, the stereotypes we know about each other; third move – filling the knowledge gap about our both alienated folks.
While waiting for the car, we continued to talk:
“Have you heard about the“Israel Loves Iran Social Media Campaign?”
“That Campaign is absolutely creative and brave one. Many Iranians know that and have already liked it. But the situation and feedback about that campaign are radically different in Iran than in Israel. Buses in Tel-Aviv had pictures and posters with the name “Israel Loves Iran”. Many people admired the founder of the campaign but here in Iran it’s only on facebook and people still have the fear to show up their faces on the pictures.”
Every Generation and nation has its own way how to practice “Tikun-Olam”, resp. repairing the world. And I have a feeling that very soon it will bring the Messiah, as we Jews believe in. My parents will never completely understand the point of both: nor least the belief in the era of Messiahs revelation, but that’s a different story; and the great need for a sincere and qualitative inter-cultural dialogue. They were building a world where everyone would be equal, live a very similar life, and share the only allowed ideology. But equality does not lead to harmony.
“Have you been to MJC or similar events before in Germany or elsewhere?”
“I’ve been to a couple of inter-faith dialogues in my life but to be honest, they didn’t quite work. It all looked fake and superficial… That’s why I don’t expect much from MJC either. Do you have inter-cultural dialogue groups in Tehran?”
“Although we had many NGOs working on the intercultural dialogues, inter faith and other global issues, after sanctions many things have changed and we almost are just surviving with many difficulties that people can’t even think about those issues…”
When for the hundredth time the middle-eastern conflict is focused on by the media - demonstrations against “the enemies” or facebook images full with blood or hatred do not help much. It makes the conflict between us even more thoroughgoing. What really helps is a well organized and goal orientated inter-cultural or inter-faith dialogue. There we make the effort to listen to what we not quite agree on or as Ilja Sichrovsky, the founder of Muslim Jewish Conference said “we agree to disagree” but in a respectful manner.
This influences our own way of thinking and attitude. We can undertake changes within ourselves, to tear walls down in our heads by breaking stereotypes and prejudices, but also to acknowledging “the others” right for the freedom to approach things differently... And that’s what the MJC is all about...
Just as Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo expresses in his writing that when God created the world, he spread the truth just like the light which comes down from the sun. By the time it reaches earth, it diverges in too many different colors; it evolves into many different dimensions. So too does the truth manifest itself in many different ways and everyone comprises a piece of the big puzzle.
“Did you tell your friends from Tehran you are going to a Muslim Jewish Conference?”
“Yes, they wanted to come as well and I hope they will be able to attend next year. And how did you find out about it?”
“I have many friends who were at the previous two and told me, it’s a life time experience but I am still skeptical…”
Everyone had their own reason to be there like for instance, those who already had few friendships with “the other”, but despite that they flew more than hundreds of kilometers to raise the questions which they are not comfortable to raise at home; or those who have never met a Jew before and have heard mainly negative things about them. There were at least five people among the Muslims to whom I could relate a hundred times better than to those are of my community. There were also those who once cried and those who made jokes all the time; those who screamed because they wanted to impress and those who were quiet but not because they had nothing to say. The only feeling which was missing there was the apathy. MJC was however, lacking representatives of the lower classes who couldn’t afford the expensive tickets. This is one of the crucial gaps for which sponsors are required to fill.
“What if you fall in love with a Jew at the upcoming five days?”
“I discussed that with my friends. They were really surprised and said, it’s impossible.. After I asked them to think more, they said it depends on the person. I also saw a comment on the Israel loves Iran’s website penned by a Muslim Iranian girl who felt in love with a Jewish guy, but she had written it is impossible to be accepted into a Jewish community being Muslim. So she was very depressed that she would never reach to her lover…”
Well, some Rabbis might not advise you to attend MJC or similar inter-faith events for the great chance of inter-marriage. But if I was strong enough to resist of joining Pakistani Panjabi dancing (as observant Jews don’t dance gender mixed), then you could succumb to a similar temptation either…
“I am in the Art Committee as I paint and do photography. I brought my pictures to show in the Identities Exhibition here. I find that art is one of the ways how to build bridges between people.”
Besides the obligatory committees like “Women in Religion”, “Islamophobia & Anti-Semitism”, “Faithful Citizenship” etc., which we had to take part in, there was time for “self-made” sessions like “Ask the Zionist” and plenty of hallway discussions on the Middle East.
One of our main goals was to create projects on which to work after the conference is over.
In our committee we used a big part of the time instead to go through very intense Q&A sessions for which we were very grateful to our chairs. As a result we didn’t present great projects in the end, however many of us did continue to stay involved and organized a row of follow up regional activities. So, for example, I and some friends first named it mini-MJC reunion but surprisingly so many new people from Berlin showed up on the very first meeting. So we initiated a Muslim Jewish Dialogue Group which offers a safe space to raise questions and learn about each other.
“But have you met any Jews before?”, I asked hoping to be the first one…
“Yes, I have met Jews both inside and outside Iran. We have a Jewish community in Tehran which has their own Synagogue, Hebrew classes, events and a whole neighborhood.”
Another fact that cannot be stressed enough is that after more than half a year of any kind of conference or seminar, people still remain very enthusiastic as demonstrated by our active Facebook group. A five day conference has built up an entire community. Now that’s a very big deal!
Here comes my criticism regarding their motto: “What’s the big deal?” promoting on their website [->linked tohttp://muslimjewishconference.org]. In the video participants express how they all don’t eat pork, practice circumcision and so on, demonstrating cultural behaviors we share. Last days even had us made pictures in pairs saying things we both fancy.
But MJC carries much more global message than that, which is not only applicable for Jews and Muslims only: we shouldn’t close our eyes to what we disagree on, however we’ll never move forward via negative speech, hatred, aggressive protests but through respectful, complimentary, appreciative dialogue.
My personal, crazy scale for measuring the success of MJC was at the very last night when we had a talent show. Suddenly a flow of improvised jokes were pouring out. Few of them even border-line racist... Perhaps due to my already ‘challenged’ state and having gone through many help group therapies mind, I find it that telling racist jokes to each other is the very last level of challenging any stereotype. Simply laughing at a stereotypical joke without getting offended (or hunt for the enemies who said it) and therefore ridiculing people who actually believe in it, as Sascha Baron Cohen did in “Borat”. So a group of Jewish guys started to sing:
“In my country there is problem,
And that problem is the Jew.
They take everybody's money,
They never give it back.
Throw the Jew down the well,
So my country can be free.
You must grab him by his horns,
Then we have big party.”
It was simply hilarious – the song, the ambiance, the people, just all together.
At our small party later that night, in a typical eastern-European coffee shop, I experienced another joke with my newly Pakistani friend who whispered in my ear: “We have to leave immediately. I placed a bomb in the basement.” If before, I would fall into the trap of my irrational panic hunch, now I couldn’t stop laughing just as I did while listening to the racist Borat’s song.
im“I would love to come and see Iran one day. I heard it’s a beautiful country! I just have to make a new Bulgarian passport without my Israeli stamps in it.”
“You can really do that! But have a look at my Iranian passport.”
It was written: “The holder of this passport is not entitled to travel to the occupied Palestine.”
“At least you can visit Israel!”
She started to laugh: “No, occupied Palestine and of course, Israel.”
Finally the car has arrived to take us to one very unique and different conference