Greeted by the Iranian and Israeli flags, a large crowd gathered on Monday for the opening of the Iranian “Embassy” in Jerusalem. The event did not signal a sudden and unexpected rapprochement between the two countries, but is the brainchild of a group of Israeli artists, some with Persian roots, who seek to highlight Iranian culture and its many links with the Jewish state.
“The Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem is an embassy of people and culture. Express your voice as people who seek a connection and good relations despite gaps and tensions,” declared the Facebook invitation.
The “embassy” – somewhere between political statement and performed art – has been organized by the Hamabul (“The Great Flood”) Art Collective. Hamabul is partially sponsored by the Jerusalem municipality, which also allocates them part of a shelter complex in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood where the collective resides and the “embassy” is located.
“We are a group of artists living and creating in Jerusalem,” explained Matan Pinkas, 30, a filmmaker and the group’s coordinator. “We are committed to researching society and to find ways to ease the social tensions.”
“It’s been 36 years since the official embassy in Israel closed,” Pinkas continued, recalling that the two countries maintained full diplomatic relations until the 1979 Iranian Revolution. “According to our research on Iran and Israel, we know that there isn’t any tension between our peoples. The Israeli regime and the Iranian regime have created these tensions and have vested interests in doing so.
“So in this embassy we will create a dialogue between our peoples that isn’t dominated by mass media and governments. We want to challenge the very essence of an embassy by representing culture, not governments.”
The audience of some 150 people that crowded to the event was eclectic, including representatives of the Association for the Preservation of the Heritage of the Jews of Iran, a registered NGO, students from the nearby Hebrew University campus, and even a few neighborhood dog-walkers who happened by, drawn in by the music and commotion.
The embassy takes up three rooms in the six-room Hamabul facility. In one room, radio personality and DJ Rani Amrani has set up a full radio studio. Against the background of the heavy beat of Black Cats, a popular Iranian rock group, he explained that he has been broadcasting his online radio station (RadioRan.co.il, located in Or Yehuda) for some seven years and that the station boasts more than half a million visits per month. Listeners, he said, include Israelis, Iranian exiles throughout the world and Iranians in Iran.
Born in Teheran, Amrani, 35, came to Israel at age 15. “I am proud to live in Israel, but Persian culture, including modern Iranian culture, is a big part of who I will always be,” he said.
During the event, Amrani interviewed members of the Iranian community as well as Iranian poet and playwright Payam Feili, who fled Iran last year because of persecution over his homosexuality.
Feili, who has a Star of David tattoo on his neck, declared to his listeners that he “has fallen in love with Israel and hopes to stay here forever.”
In another room with boldly painted walls, organizers had hung examples of current Iranian art, including photographs, examples of calligraphy and a painting of a Persian rug, all modern yet clearly referring to classical Persian motifs. Pinkas explained that the works were contributed by Iranian artists, most of them in exile.
The audience packed into the largest room for performances by singer Janet Rotstein-Yehudayan, whose repertoire includes traditional Jewish-Persian music, and Saffron, an Israeli ensemble playing popular Iranian folk songs.
Pinkas readily admits that the “embassy” is “somewhat of a gimmick, to call attention to our work and to challenge the assumptions and fears about Iran that have penetrated into our society.”
According to Yaffa Cohen, 60, Israeli project director for the Merage Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in the United States that supports Iranian Jews in Israel, the local community numbers about 150,000.
“We are a community with many cultural organizations, but we were not respected in Israel and were ashamed. Now, a newer generation is proud of our heritage and we, the older generation, are joining in,” she said.
As the Saffron ensemble played familiar songs, older adults joined in, singing along and swaying in graceful, wavelike movements to the sounds of the santur, a xylophone-like instrument, the strings of the kamancheh, and the beat of the Persian Zarb drum.
Ilan Aghajani, a 68-year-old tour guide from Jerusalem who is a member of the Association of Iranian immigrants in Jerusalem, noted that “by nature, Persians are not pushy, we hold back. But with events like this embassy – you’ll be hearing more about us.”
The exhibit will be open until January 21 and entrance is free, with hours posted on the group’s Facebook page.