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Meeting Omid Memarian

In the picture above (from Hossein Derakshan’s photo blog), the middle figure is Omid Memarian, a young Iranian journalist who, at the time, was one of the reporters for Hayat-e No, a reformist newspaper in Tehran. The newspaper was shut down by Iranian authorities, and the reporters who worked for the paper had to decide if they would continue reporting on events inside Iran or be silenced.

Omid Memarian started a blog and continued to write. When Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was beated and killed by Iranian security forces after photographing a student protest, Memarian wrote about it on his blog. In October 2004, he was arrested, along with two dozen other bloggers and journalists, and detained for almost two months. While imprisoned, Memarian was forced to appear on state television and confess to a variety of crimes – he confessed to having written about Kazemi, but refused to confess to a more serious charge: espionage. Evidently Memarian’s ties to foreign NGOs and his attempt to travel to a conference on Iranian civil society in New York (thwarted by the US no-fly list) triggered suspicions that he was working for a foreign power.

Omid was released from prison after almost two months of custody, and travelled to the US soon after to receive an award from Human Rights Watch, honoring his efforts to expose repression in Iran. He received a fellowship to attend the School of Journalism at UC Berkeley as a visiting scholar shortly after, and is hoping to stay in the US long enough to complete a graduate journalism degree, while maintaining his English and Farsi weblogs and writing about Iranian events in papers as prestigious as the New York Times.

Knowing a bit about Omid’s background before sitting down to dinner with him in San Francisco last night, I expected to meet a firebrand – an angry young man whose passion for politics and social change had endangered his life and landed him in prison. There may be some of that in Omid, but the man I met last night is one of the most amazingly open, good-humored and accepting bridge builders I’ve ever met. We chatted about the countries he’d visited and hoped to visit in the future, his belief that food is the best way to encounter another culture, conflicts and misunderstandings between Arabs and Persians, his experiences in the US meeting types of people he’d not had the opportunity to meet in Iran…

What amazed me most was when I asked Omid what he thought would be most helpful building citizen’s media and independent journalism in Iran. He gave an impassioned argument for engaging with Iran’s conservatives, helping them learn how to report about local events and issues, to help them understand tools like weblogs and aggregators. He suggested exchange programs that would bring Iranian conservatives to schools like UC Berkeley to see what life was like outside the Islamic Republic and to help build ties between Americans and the Iranians who are most hostile to the US. After putting half a dozen ideas on the table to try to reduce the polarization between Iran’s conservatives and reformists, he turned to me and said, “I know it sounds crazy that I think you should work with the people who put me in prison.”

It does sound crazy. But it’s undoubtably the right thing to do, and evidence that Omid is a bigger man than most of us, myself included. (It took me a year to successfully invite a conservative to come have a beer with me after Bush’s second election… And Ian’s never tried to have me locked up. Yet. :-)

At a moment in time where the US and Iran seem to be lurching towards conflict, it brings me no small hope that people like Omid are working hard to build bridges between our two nations. He tells me that he was initially reluctant to write about his current life in the US, worrying his Iranian readers would be disappointed if he was talking about the US, instead of Iranian issues. But his readership has increased as he’s started talking about the reality he found here. “It was midnight, and the lab at the journalism school was totally full. At Tehran University, the lab would not be full this late. And Iranians would think that Americans would all be out drinking or at clubs at midnight – but here they are in the lab.”

It’s probably not the sort of blogging that’s going to land Omid in prison. But it just might be the sort of writing that helps us all understand each other a little better.

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