It was happenstance. The Jew sat next to the Palestinian. The Iranian beside the Iraqi. CPO 5934, officially listed as a graduate seminar in the "Politics of Modern Iran" on Monday afternoons in the SOC building. room 366. Dr. Mohsen Milani, professor.
The four students found themselves in the same classroom at the University of South Florida each week this semester, a microcosm of two of the Middle East's most intractable conflicts.
The Jews and Palestinians have been fighting over the same small plot of land for centuries. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody, chemical-weapons war for nine years after the Islamic Revolution swept Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into theocratic power.
I signed up for the same class, part of my effort to get a master's degree in political science. Intrigued by my classmates' seating choices, I also noticed that during at least one week of classes, all four were fasting as part of their religious traditions, each in a slightly different way. Rafraf Barrak, an Arab Muslim from Baghdad, wore the hejab — a light scarf on her head — during Ramadan. Saeed Uri, a Palestinian Sunni Arab, fasted right alongside Trev Riley, an observant Jew who didn't eat during the day during the High Holy Days preceding Yom Kippur. Raheleh Dayerizadeh, a Persian Shiite Muslim whose roots are in southern Iran, didn't wear the hejab but did fast.
Barrak's backstory is the most dramatic of the four. She left Baghdad in 2004, a target of insurgents who wanted to kill her for working as a translator for an NBC reporting crew that included correspondents Don Teague and Kerry Sanders. One day, Barrak got in a cab to go to work and the driver took off in a different direction, locking the doors to keep her inside. She managed, after a struggle with the driver, to jump out when the cab slowed. Later, a neighbor who was kidnapped told her family that Barrak's name was on the kidnappers' list.
Barrak survived two near-miss car bombings as well. After her NBC employers left Baghdad, they raised money to bring her to the United States.
Riley has a Catholic father and Jewish mother and practices Judaism. He has been involved with Zionist groups such as USD Hagshama, which sponsored the first of his four trips to Israel, but now distances himself from them while still supporting Israel's right to exist peacefully. He has toured the country from Golan to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Haifa and the West Bank. He and his girlfriend, whose parents are Israeli immigrants, are considering aliyah (emigrating to Israel) upon his graduation.
Dayerizadeh's parents are from southwest Iran, Khorramshahr, which ended up being at the center of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Her parents fled the south to Tehran, where they met and married, her father Persian, her mother Iranian/Arab. Dayerizadeh was born in Houston after her parents left Iran to move to America. She has traveled to Iran five times to visit her family members who remained and speaks fluent Farsi.
Uri is a Palestinian who was born in Florida but whose parents moved back to Palestine with him when he was 7 years old, during the peaceful days of the Oslo accord. The family ran a Checkers hamburger restaurant and lived in the same neighborhood as PLO leader Yassir Arafat, but the second Palestinian Intifadah, or uprising, drove them from their native land again and back to the United States.
Seeing an opportunity for a firsthand crash course in the modern Middle East, I asked the four of them to sit down with me for a conversation just before our last class two weeks ago. I asked Uri to start by retelling a story he off-handedly mentioned a few weeks earlier:
Uri: I was talking to one of my friends and she goes to UT [University of Tampa]. We were sitting there and she was telling me how she just watched United 93. And I'm like, "Did you hear them speak Arabic during the movie?" And she asked me, "Why would they speak Arabic? I thought they were Iraqi?"
Uri: And I'm just sitting there thinking, "How many wrong things were in that comment right there?" It's just like so many stories.
Dayerizadeh: What did she think Iraqis spoke? [Most Iraqis speak Arabic as their primary language.]
Uri: I kind of got mad. I kind of called her stupid, and I was rude about it, because I was like, "Are you serious? There's people fighting in Iraq right now and all this talk going right now about how right the war is, and you don't know what Iraqis speak?"
Creative Loafing: And even though there were no Iraqis on any of the planes?
Uri: Last week, I was in the Subway [restaurant], and I was listening to these four or five girls talk about some Iranian girl. And they were sitting there arguing if Iranians are the same things as Arabians, and which one of them are related to bin Laden.
(More laughter from the group)
Uri: And I'm just like, "Whoa, c'mon now, they're having this conversation debating if Iranians and Arabians are the same thing." For like 10 to 15 minutes, I'm waiting in the Subway line, and the girls are still debating the same thing, and they go to college, they go to USF, the same school that I go to.
Uri: And they don't know whether Iranians are Arabians.
Dayerizadeh: They don't ask the like, what — 30-percent Arab population of USF? Just go and ask them, anybody.
Uri: It's just random things that you run into. It's crazy how they are so lost.
CL: Does that happen to you at all [Raheleh]?
Dayerizadeh: People all through elementary school and middle school and high school were always asking questions like, do we ride on camels or do we have cars? Do we have air conditioning? Do we have TVs? It's just a misconception of, like, we're living 100 years back there. And the only place that is up with technology is America, and there's no way the Middle East has anything but sand.
Uri: And oil.
Dayerizadeh: Oh yeah, oil. I never met more ignorant people about that. I think more people in the Middle East know what's going on here, what we have here, than what we know what people do there.
Uri: A lot of people give me that argument, too, but it's because America affects the Middle East.
Dayerizadeh: More than the Middle East affects you.
Uri: I don't know if it's ignorance or what. I think that at the university, it becomes ignorance.
CL: Talking about American misconceptions about the Middle East, the Arab world and Israel, Trev, do you go to Israel often?
Riley: I try to make it a regular thing, but I'm trying to break that habit.
CL: The expense?
Riley: No, no, it's not the expense. It's the people. The first couple of times you go as a tourist and it's looking at it through a tourist's eyes, and it's like, this is so cool. Then afterwards it is the reality that people are really rude and obnoxious. You kind of start to see that they do kind of act like they have got a chip on their shoulder. It's like they are the center-of-the-universe type of mentality. So even though I'm Jewish, they're still like that to me, because I'm not Israeli.
CL: So it's like a second-class citizenship of Jewishness?
Riley: Exactly. And the funny thing is, it's really the European Jews.
Uri: Yes, it's a big problem.
Riley: They act like that, and they do it not only to the Arabs but to the Spanish Jews, the Mizrahi Jews. An overwhelming sense of superiority. Quite honestly, I remember reading all these anti-Semitic books that talk about how Jews always acted like they were the chosen people, like they were deserving people. I've been there a couple of times, and I'm starting to see what they are talking about.
I just watched a movie last night, Paradise Now; it's a Palestinian film.
Uri: I've watched it, yeah.
Riley: And it was talking about how the Palestinians are feeling humiliated and rejected. And I can kind of understand what they are talking about. The funniest thing was, my girlfriend's father is Israeli, born in Tel Aviv, grew up in Tel Aviv, served in the IDF, was in the 1973 War, moved to the United States and has lived there for the rest of his life. This is the first time he's gone back to the country in 30 years, for any length of time. And we go to Eilat [a well-known vacation destination on the Red Sea]. This was vacation time, you know, you're scuba diving.
Uri: I've been there. Swim with the dolphins.
Riley: Exactly. And by the end of the week in Eilat, he was so sick and tired of Israelis he was ready never to come back to the country again.
Uri: I have friends who have lived in the West Bank their whole lives, and when they come to America, they give me a call. And their expressions of how America looks, they're just like, "Wow. There's no way this place is real. It's a dream world. Everything is so perfect. There's no garbage on the floor," they tell me. "What did you do with all the garbage?"
The scariest thing about it is once they get into the American life and start working, they give me a call back six or seven months later and say, "What am I doing in this country?"
Uri: "Send me back home. I need to go back home."
Dayerizadeh: I don't know if Israel is like this too, but does it seem like time goes by slower [in the Middle East] than here? People take the time to wake up and eat breakfast and more for lunch and take the time to enjoy it.
Uri: And coffee. We have coffee time six times a day.
Dayerizadeh: Work comes after family time.
That's the one thing I love about going there in the summer — you really get to relax. [Aside from the fact that] the taxi drivers are a little crazy and scary.
Riley: I literally tore the leather in the back seat of the taxi [from gripping it so hard in fear] the first time I got in one. I went from Ben Gurion [Airport] to the middle of Tel Aviv, and they just drive like 120 kilometers an hour, no regard for traffic lanes or other cars on the road.
Dayerizadeh: Personally, as soon as I get out of the airport, my eyes are closed. In Tehran, I don't even know how people are alive walking down the street. They have motorcycle taxis, where you can fit three people on a motorcycle, and they get them in between the cars to get where they are going to.
Riley: The number one cause of death in Israel is not fighting, it's not heart disease. It's traffic accidents.
Dayerizadeh: That's true. And when there's traffic accidents, it's fatal.
Uri: Palestinians always like to claim that we're killing a lot of Israelis, but they're just not admitting it [so Palestinian press accounts insist], "Oh, they just threw them in cars [to hide the cause of the deaths]," and I'm reading this, "Do you guys really look at Israelis as people who would do this type of thing?" And they're like, "Yeah, they're doing this because they don't want to demoralize their people. They have weak morale."
Riley: There is a huge amount of propaganda that goes on.
Dayerizadeh: In Iran, they're saying things like if a Jew finds a Palestinian child, they will kill them and drink their blood.
Riley: In 2004, years after Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty, the borders open, you can travel back and forth between those two countries — it's $40 for a visa, but still you can travel back and forth. Jordan published a news story in the official newspaper that said that [Jews drink blood.]
Riley: Egypt, I think it was last year, did a miniseries based on the Elders of Zion [an anti-Semitic forgery dating to Tsarist Russian that purports to be a blueprint for world Jewish domination].
CL: If that is the way Jews are portrayed in "friendly" nations, what are the chances of peace between Israel and Palestine?
Riley: The overwhelming feeling [in Israel] is that even if Israel dismantled the settlements, gave up the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and half of Jerusalem, the attacks [by Palestinians] would still continue. I'm not saying that that's right, but that's what the mindset is in Israel.
Because of groups like Hamas and Hizbollah, whose aim is the complete destruction of the state. While that is the stated goal of Hamas and Hizbollah, Hamas represents such a small portion of the Palestinian population, hardcore believers, that really if you did give up that stuff and you did establish a viable Palestinian state, 95 percent of the Palestinian population would go on with their lives.
Uri: Hamas was silent for about six years. You didn't hear one thing coming out of Hamas during Oslo, except during the flare-up during the whole Hebron massacre. Other than that, only after the Intifadah [the uprising against Israeli occupation] has Hamas become a problem. I lived in Ramallah for seven years, and I only heard about Hamas in the last two years of my life [there], during the Intifadah. It was a dying political organization.
Riley: The problem is it's getting its support by the fact that the Israelis continue their military occupation. It's getting worse.
CL: Of all the places in the class you could sit, [Trev] ended up sitting next to [Saeed]. [Rafraf] always sits next to [Raheleh], but you guys know each other from other classes and things. Most people would think, "Wow, they can't like each other."
Barrak: She's Iranian, and when I first met her, I was like, "Oh my God, an Iranian sitting right next to me." We had a couple of classes together. But last week, I was telling her, "Look at our class. We have a Palestinian and an Israeli, and me and you; it's ironic." It never happened in any of my other classes.
The [only] problem with me and her, she considers [Iraq's Shiite Ayatollah] Sistani her marja [a cleric who is a reference for emulation for a Shiite, whose legal rulings she follows] and for me ... I don't support him. I think he is a hypocrite and he doesn't stand for what he should stand for. He doesn't stand for himself [strictly as a non-political] religious leader.
Uri: That's present in the Arab World a lot, isn't it? Because my parents look at him in the same way, as an American puppet. I guess he went to England for surgery or something, and all of sudden he comes back and tells everyone to vote [in Iraq's first free elections].
Barrak: In Iraq, he's more of an Iranian puppet than an American puppet. He is actually considered as being against the Americans. When the elections happened and people were trying to vote there, they put on their walls, on their flyers, that says vote for this party or that. Well, one party that had all the religious factions in it, all the clerics like [Abdul Aziz] al-Hakim, that one party they said when they printed the flyers they put the picture of Sistani on top of it. Everyone said this is the group that is voted by Sistani to be in the elections, so this group won by 70 percent of the votes.
Dayerizadeh: Yeah, but there must be a reason people voted for him. Why would all those people vote for him if he's not a good guy?
Barrak: Because they considered him as a religious figure. One of the people who work for him, not him, in one of the speeches in Friday prayer [a very important method of political and social communication in the Arab world], if you do not vote, you go to hell. Now people say, "You know what, if all my religious figures ... let's say half of them are in this [ballot] list, and if they are telling me that I am going to go to hell if I don't vote, I am going to vote."
Dayerizadeh: It could be that.
Uri: How much is the percentage of people who have mixed marriages in Iraq?
Barrak: Mixed marriages, you mean Shia and Sunnis?
Barrak: Well, before the war there were like 55 to 60 percent. Now, after the war it went down to like 45, 40.
Dayerizadeh: I know there's a lot. Where we're from, it's not a Sunni-Shia mix, but it's Iranians marry Iraqis. My whole mom's side of the family were on the border, so all of our cousins married Iraqis. When the [Iran-Iraq] War happened, they didn't have contact at all.
Uri: Look what politics do to people, man.
Dayerizadeh: I remember hearing stories of Iraqis coming into our city and massacring everyone, and they're evil and they have this evil thought. But then over here [in the U.S.], I think my parents' friends during the war, my parents' friends here on this side of the world, were Arab, Iraqis, anybody in Muslim that they could find they were friends with. But over there, no, no.
Uri: It's the same thing between us and [Israel]. It's like growing up Palestinian, all you learn about is different massacres. The massacre here, the massacre there. The massacre here, the massacre there. You grow up reading the books, and massacre to a Palestinian is 10 people.
Dayerizadeh: But this is worse because this is Muslims killing Muslims, cousins, people married to each other.
CL: Three of you are American citizens, but America is playing a direct role in your homelands, or future homes. What role should America have in the Middle East? Raheleh, do you worry about the U.S. attacking Iran over its nuclear program?
Dayerizadeh: I do worry about it, but I don't think it can happen because of what is going on in Iraq. I think it would be an economic strain and a military strain for America. It would become possibly another Vietnam.
Uri: Another Iraq, OK.
Dayerizadeh: Another Iraq, yeah.
The only way that I would have thought would have been a good way [to spread] democracy is economically. Arabs love Cadillacs (laughs), I mean, I'm sorry, it's just an example. Saudi Arabia and Cadillacs, c'mon ... American goods, Levis and Lee [jeans], these are things that are just huge in Iran. You go to Iran and tell them you are coming from America, and they call you and tell you to bring them this, this, this and this.
If you can economically influence people, it's a lot better than with the military.
Barrak: It's like this. There is a level of educated people who look at America as being the place where you can improve your life in certain ways. They look up to it in that way because they are educated enough to know that what is happening there [in the Middle East] is not the end of life, there is more to it, there is more progress in the world, there is more technology, you can actually use it. You can go to America and study and get a better education.
And then you have the level that are uneducated, not really uneducated, but that they are more into tradition, and the culture and how there were brought up and they are more attached to that than science or mere facts that are right in front of their eyes. They are more attached to what their ancestors have told them and their religious [upbringing].
Dayerizadeh: Plus they feel threatened.
Barrak: They feel threatened that those traditions will be gone. Before the war, the first thing they were saying on our TVs was that this war is going to bring distortion to the old traditions and culture. The Americans are going to come. They're going to bring their Western ideas, and they're going to remove everything else.
So the whole structure of the people were divided into two parts: the part where the young people, just getting to know the world and educated, and they were like, "You know, that's a good thing."
And then there's the older, and they are the majority, and they said, "No, this is wrong. We're not allowing anybody to just come here and get rid of what we have lived all of our lives."
Dayerizadeh: You have to realize there is a difference between a terrorist and someone who is anti-American. Or anti-Western. That doesn't mean they're going to get a gun and go ...
Uri: It was like those girls I was telling you about who were doing their report on the Middle East, and they wondered why Iranians didn't like Americans.
Dayerizadeh: Which is so not true.
Uri: But I mean, look at it. They were saying to each other, "We never did anything to them. Why do they hate us?"
Riley: We shot down their plane and then high-fived each other. [Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by a U.S. warship during the Iran-Iraq War, resulting in 290 civilian deaths.]
Uri: When did you ever hear about the 1953 coup? [In that year, the CIA secretly overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, to save British oil interests.]
Dayerizadeh: I heard about it from my parents, but that's just because it's in their head all the time.
Uri: There are important facts, things that America has done not just to the Middle East but to the entire world that everyone forgot. The whole Cold War era, when America did whatever it had to do to take care of Russia, it's gone.
CL: Are you going back after you finish your schooling here? If Iraq were to be a peaceful place to live?
Barrak: It's not like it's going to be a peaceful place. No.
Uri: You can come live with me in Palestine. Waaay more peaceful.
(They all laugh)
Barrak: Iraq is not like Palestine. You can live in certain parts of Palestine where you cannot be touched by anybody. But in Iraq, right now, you cannot live in any part of it.
Uri: War destroys people.