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July 28, 2008

Cultural Exchanges Cannot be Ignored, Part 2

By normalizing relations, the US and Iran can help foster more official cultural exchanges. For now, however, it is difficult for outsiders to get into Iran and for Iranians to get out of Iran, but there have been a considerable number of success stories of unofficial exchanges – some of which I touched on in Part 1, and others which are detailed here, in Part 2.

Music has always been (and continues to be) a very, very important part of Persian culture. Right now, however, artists in Iran are unable to express themselves freely. Says Beyond Persia (BP) co-founder and Executive Director Lale’ Welsh on artistic freedoms, “The Islamic law is oppressive in this regard, which can be detrimental to the creative process – it’s a real problem when people can’t express themselves artistically.”
BP, a “self funded, self sustaining non-profit organization dedicated to the exposure of contemporary Persian culture, outside the borders of Iran,” has successfully brought a number of Iranian artists, musicians and filmmakers to the US to exhibit their work. The team was founded and is currently operated by Iranian-Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently they’ve been promoting an Iranian punk band called Sad-o-Beestohaft (127), helping them produce a batch of CD’s they couldn’t afford to. At this time, the BP team is trying to bring artist Pouya Mahmoudi to the US from Iran.
In September, BP is bringing Mohsen Namjoo to the US for a solo six-city tour. Namjoo has become a living legend in Iran, combining a unique singing style with traditional, poetic lyrics. Some have lauded him as Iran’s Bob Dylan.
Late last year, the government of the Islamic Republic approved a proposal for the first Western artist to hold a joint concert with a band in Tehran. Irish singer Chris De Burgh travelled to Tehran earlier this year to play a gig with Tehran’s first co-ed band, Arian Band. He had recorded a song with them, called Nori Ta Abadiat (Doostet Daram) that was featured on Arian’s latest album ‘Bi To Baa To’ (literally, ‘Without You With You’).
Other organizations such as The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) offer a medium for outsiders to travel to Iran. FOR ‘works at the grass roots and policy levels to replace violence, war, racism, and economic injustice with nonviolence, peace, and justice.’ They state that they have ‘built a relationship with the Iranian government’; their aim is to use grassroots civilian diplomacy to achieve a better understanding and shift the US’s policy towards Iran. They advocate diplomatic engagement to address the nuclear program and help stabilize Iraq.  Their next trip – the ‘Iran Civilian Diplomacy Delegation’ – is scheduled for August 5th.
This past week, the national Iranian basketball team was partaking in the annual Rocky Mountain Revue tournament in Utah. Since the Iranians were last year’s FIBA Asian Champions they were invited to play. The visit was organized by the NBA through the State Department.
Also last week the Iranians Nasim Yousefi and Jafar Edrisi, who are biking around the world in an effort to promote peace, cooperation and understanding, arrived in Southern California. Along the way, they have given lectures and held seminars at such institutions as Columbia University. They appeared at the Ebn-e-Sina Cultural and Educational Foundation in Irvine, CA yesterday to share their story and present a slideshow of their journey.
On 17 July the president of Peace Action Maine and Bates College professor Eric Hooglund returned from his most recent trip to Iran. He called for diplomatic negotiations between the US and Iran, and expressed his concern of the naval blockade bills in the House and Senate. He also stated that “There is much irony in how Iranians view the ‘confrontation’ with the United States. First most Iranians tend to have a positive view of Americans and American culture. Second, Iranians are concerned about the hostile rhetoric that comes from the Bush administration and are perplexed by allegations that their country poses a threat to the United States. Third, the majority of Iranians with whom I spoke recognize how militarily weak their country is against the United States and fear the damage and destruction that possible US air-strikes could do to their towns.”
Although I have only touched on a few of the examples, these unofficial cultural exchanges are unfortunately few and far between. It is a shame because these exchanges do promote a greater level of understanding between cultures. They can help our Iranian-American community expose our Persian culture to non-Iranian Americans.

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