My trip to the City of Peace (Jerusalem)
Uru-shalim was the original name of the city. The word Uru or Ur are related to the Hebrew word 'Ir' and mean 'city (of)'. Thus, the Hebrew name Yerushalayim means 'City of Peace' and its Arabic meaning is 'The Holiness'.
Most of the time we read a book or two or an article about a topic and we feel that we have a pretty good understanding of the subject and pretty quickly we are ready to have opinions and suggestions about it.
Well it was so for me as well, before my trip to Jerusalem. I had watched news reports, read articles and books, even attended talks about the conflict in Palestine and Israel and I thought I understood the problem and what the solution should be. Well, I was wrong. There is no way to understand the depth and the complexity of this conflict until one is physically there and in contact with it.
I went there to give a talk on my experience of traveling to space to the Palestinians youth. I did not know what to expect. I was a little worried about the trip but having lived through the revolution and then the war in Iran; I figured it can’t be worst. I arrived at the airport with a friend and as VIPs. I thought we would get the red carpet treatment. Instead of the red carpet we got the “I’m an Iranian-born American treatment”. After 2 and half hours of repetitive questioning by 3 different people, we were cleared to enter the country.
Our other friend, who had invited us there, was anxiously waiting for us and was relieved to see us come through the security. Being together, the intensity of the moment melted away and we were soon laughing and joking about the process. As we drove through the streets toward our Hotel, the city seemed calm and like any other small European city. It actually reminded me of Greece and I looked out the window at the twinkling lights of the city and told myself this is going to be fine.
The next morning I woke up and opened the window of my room and looked out. It was a beautiful morning with a fresh breeze caressing my face. The city was alive with sounds of cars honking, a drill at a nearby construction site, the birds chirping and the sound of Azan calling the Muslims to their mid morning prayer. We were planning to visit three different centers in Palestinian territory. As we started our journey, in the light of day, the city looked different. It was like the city had two faces just like those Mardi Gras masks with one side smiling and one side crying. One side of the road was Palestinian homes some in really good shape and some very rundown, there were refugee camps and little villages. Around them, an 8 foot wall separating them from the main road, with guarded gates and security check points. On the other side of the road there were a series of cookie cutter buildings some occupied and some vacant. It looked like a massive campus dormitory buildings, all the same height, shape and color. I was told they were Israeli settlements, built and given away for free for those Jewish immigrants who want to come and live there. There were rows after rows after rows and still more being built. In order to go form one area to the next there was no other way but to go through checkpoints and gates. The gates would be closed after certain hour and Palestinians did not have permission to pass through certain roads. The entire place looked like a big prison - a prison where both sides were prisoners in different ways. One thing I have learned from my life in Iran, is that life is a prison where there is no peace of mind – and it was obvious that there was no peace of mind here.
My friend, who had been doing relief work in the area and was very familiar with the procedures, was driving us. We also had one of the other members of her relief organization with us. He was a young Palestinian man who had been helping her build the centers in the region. As we started approaching the check points, my friend started asking us if we had our passports with us and sounded a little anxious. She slowed the car and I could see very young soldiers, probably about 18 years old or younger standing there with their guns and talking to each other and waiving the cars. My friend was driving very slowly and the young man with us kept telling her just drive forward, don’t stop, don’t stop. We slowly drove past the guards and as we cleared the area, we all had a sigh of relief. It felt strange, it felt like we had done something wrong and we were afraid to be caught. We were doing nothing wrong, we were not carrying anything illegal, we were not plotting anything illegal, yet we felt anxious. I couldn’t explain why. May be it was the sight of the guns in the hands of young inexperienced soldiers. May be it was because it reminded me of the checkpoints in Iran after the revolution and the people who were arrested. For a second I had forgotten that I was an American. I had become that young Iranian teenager afraid to be arrested because her scarf did not cover all her hair.
As we drove a little further, the car stopped and my friend, who was driving us switched places with the young Palestinian man with us. She explained that he could not drive the car in the Israeli territory because the car had an Israeli license plate. We drove to the first center and met a group of young very enthusiastic women waiting for us. We spent a couple of hours with them learning about their lives, how the center had helped them gain self confidence and a place they could go to and be with other women and learn new skills. It was so heartwarming and full of energy. They had cooked a wonderful meal for us and I knew that it was a big stretch for them to prepare this lunch for us. Even though under other circumstance I would think twice before eating food and vegetable anywhere other than very safe restaurants, I could not say no to all this warm hospitality and we all sat at the table and ate and listened to all the challenges that the staff had to face building the center and convincing the men to allow their wives and daughters to come to the center.
We then continued on to our next stop which was the youth center in Bethlehem. As we arrived and walked up the narrow staircase there was a long receiving line of young Palestinian boys and girls between the ages of 13 to 18, waiting for us with flowers and big smiles on their faces. We walked up and were given a tour of the different rooms with pictures of the activities that the young members had accomplished in the past year. the walls were covered with pictures of them helping elderly in the hospitals, playing with young children with disabilities, putting on shows and performances for the villages and cleanup projects of different neighborhoods.
They all spoke English; some were shy to show their language skills while others were eager to practice their English. As they all gathered in a room to hear what I had to say, I felt strange. I would sometimes get anxious in front of a big audience, but this was different. As I was looking around the room, I saw young enthusiastic faces, but in their eyes, I saw a longing - a deep yearning for a life like any other teenager in America or in Europe. I was nervous, because I didn’t know what to tell them. I could tell them my story but would they relate to it. I can tell them about my passion for space and my love for the stars, but would they care or would they think here is another person from America talking about things that are so out of reach and irrelevant to us. Here are these young men and women, with a very uncertain future, without much to look forward to and here I am standing in front of them and telling them to Dream Big!
I nervously stood in the middle of the room, took a deep breath and decided I would tell my story from the bottom of my hearth, with my best intentions to let them see my life as testament that even your most impossible dreams can come true and to bring them hope and then let the rest unfold. I started my story by telling them about my early beginning in Iran and growing up with my eyes to the stars and wanting to fly to space. I told them how I came to US and gave up my dream out of necessity so I could study something that would get me a job and support me and my family. I told them how my dream never died in my heart and how it was like a little glowing coal under the ashes, waiting to come to life with the first wind that would wipe off the ashes. I told them about my life in America and becoming a successful entrepreneur and then flying to space. I shared with them how my trip to space and seeing earth from up there has changed and made me realize even more how we are all connected as human beings and how this planet is our only home in this vast universe. I told them how determined I was in empowering the youth across the globe so they can save us from ourselves. I told them that in connecting with the youth across the globe they would have the key to peace and that my mission is find ways to connect them all together. I told them that I believe in their power to bring about change despite everything that goes on around them. I did the same thing in every center I visited and I’m sure if I had visited an Israeli youth center I would have experienced the same thing. In every one of the centers, at the end, when I looked around the room I could see a sparkle in their eyes – a little glimmer of hope – the hope that may be, one day, their dreams would come true – and I promised myself not to forget those eyes and smiles and help them and pray for the day that their dream would come true…