January 10, 2008

Friendship on the Fault Lines

It is tragic when the only thing that is able to transcend bellicose rhetoric and confrontational policies is a catastrophe that flattens an entire city and consumes 50,000 lives in one night. In 2003 an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.6 destroyed the 2,000 year old citadel of Bam, entrapping and burying the inhabitants as the ancient city came crumbling down. Among those buried were Adele Freedman and Tobb Dell’Oro, two American tourists. Jahangir Golestan’s documentary, BAM 6.6, tells the intertwining stories of these two individuals along with the Iranians surrounding them.
The aim of the movie is to show how human empathy “transcends geopolitical differences with a simple message of love and hope amidst tragedy, unfolding through the story of two young American victims of this devastating earthquake.” Despite the uplifting feel good aura of the movie, what caught my attention was the international aid that poured into Bam particularly that from the United States.

The documentary included interviews by U.S. aid workers that were sent to Bam to take part in the humanitarian efforts. On December 30 an 81-member USAID/DART team arrived in Iran where they aided in search and rescue missions as well as maintaining sanitary and health conditions in the region. However, the team left shortly after on January 14, when sympathy once again turned into hostility as the two countries continued on their path of mutual bitterness.
Once again, missed opportunities. In fact, this could have been the perfect opportunity: no politics, only sympathy and human compassion to kick start things. Bam seemed to be the big finale to a series of missed opportunities. After the 2001 invasion in Afghanistan and Iranian intelligence/military support to U.S. forces, a year of progress in mending relations came to a startling halt in 2002 as Iran was condemned a member of the axis of evil. Again in 2003, the U.S. government completely ignored, and even denied the existence of a Grand Bargain Proposal sent via the Swiss embassy in Iran. As the USAID group left Iran, they seemed to take with them what seemed to be at that time the last remnants of hope.
Since then, there have been several other occasions to initiate talk between the U.S. and Iran, though none seem to be as significant as those rare opportunities that lingered on between 2001 and 2003. Regardless, BAM 6.6 is only a further testament to the fact that humanity has no boundaries and that perhaps people to people exchanges and track two diplomacy are the way to go. But then again, is the U.S. willing to put an end to its ridiculous sanctions on NGO to NGO exchanges? And is the Islamic Republic willing to end harassment of its own people to allow them to take part in such exchanges with the U.S.?

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