Their stay in London was short, but nevertheless, very
effective. For those of you, not familiar with the group, "Miles for Peace", it
is a group of Iranian citizens on a cycling tour around the world to spread the
message of peace. They started their journey in Tehran just over a month ago and
so far they travelled through Italy , Germany , France and
liveliness, yet down to earth attitude, was so evident to me during the three
hours I spent with them. They do not see themselves as 'representatives' of the
Iranian people. They are rather a cross section of the Iranian people as a whole
and this is well reflected in their varied backgrounds and persuasions. All,
except one, live in Iran, most in Tehran and some like Javad Takook in
Kermanshah; something I realised immediately when I heard his distinct dialect.
What has brought all
twelve of them together though is their distinguished charity 'Mercy for All'
which supports orphan children. They are all volunteers there and from the brief
conversation I had about this, it was clear that this is no ordinary charity. It
is rather an innovative social activity which benefits not only the children and
their families being supported, but in my opinion, also those who give their
time and money. The charity maintains a strong emotional connection between the
donors and the families being assisted and they are very mindful of the
long-term effects that receiving charity may have on the children's pride, which
is why their activities look more like ordinary and fun get-togethers in the
traditional Iranian sense when families meet, as opposed to often remote
financial assistance. You can find more information about 'Mercy for All' here:
Right now however
they seem to have a much bigger worry which has overshadowed their charity work
in Iran and as a result they've embarked on a mission around the world to state
quite simply "We Iranians are peace-loving people".
"Our message is
simple. We are Iranians and we want to live in peace with other people. You may
ask how we can prove this. The fact is we have nothing but ourselves as a cross
section of the Iranian population. In our manifesto, you will find references to
our history, how Iranians have always been a peace-loving nation, how Cyrus, for
example, treated the Jews in Babylon, and our literature, poetry and culture
which are all full of references to peace and love. This is a platform for all
the people of the world to express their love of peace. It is not limited to
Iran . The five fingers in our emblem represent the five continents and only
when these are together peace can be achieved."
Shabnam Shayan who
seems to be the youngest in the group says:
"In the first
instance, people are rather sceptical towards us and our message. Yet after a
few minutes of talking, beneath the surface, we reach common ground. You can
feel it in the way they say goodbye, the way they shake hands, you can see how
their view towards us as fellow human beings living in another part of the world
changes after 5 minutes and more so after 10 minutes."
Mehrdad Kazemi who
is a bit older explains:
humanity' which knows no race or religion is what has kept us going. Despite all
the hardships we have been through so far, the tremendous support we have had
everywhere we went to and the changes we have been able to make, however small,
has given us the strength to continue our journey."
What strikes me is
seeing how confident they are. You'd think in the current climate of hostilities
towards Iran , they may be on the back foot in explaining what Iran is really
about. But that was not the case at all. I found the group very energetic even
though it was 3 AM! The fact that they come from different backgrounds and each
one has a different way of putting their point across means they can communicate
well with nearly everyone on their way; be it ordinary people, politicians,
bishops or academics.
"The very fact that
we have chosen bicycles as our preferred method of travel is because we want
that first hand experience and that immediate impact we leave on those we come
in contact with. But that is not our only goal. Everywhere we go we try to meet
with representatives and officials of the cities too. We encourage them to pass
our message of peace to their constituents as well as to their seniors and call
upon them to be in peace with Iran ."
Ali Rafiee is a
photographer by profession. He ignores all the questions about the details of
their trip and speaks of a 'wider picture':
"I want you to see
this in a wider context. Our goal is to convert a thought that we have had for a
long time into reality. We are not into meticulous planning of what we do in
every town; nor could we wait to see what happens and then react. Our journey
first started in our hearts. We are travellers with a message, an urgent message
of peace. We have done our part by coming all the way to here. It is up to all
those Iranians and non-Iranians alike who come in contact with us to ask
themselves what they can do to further promote our message of peace."
It was clear for me
that their mission is as much about putting their message across as it is about
learning other cultures. They are quite mindful not to sound lecturing (as is
common with many Iranians!) and their relaxed attitude coupled with their direct
approach is very helpful in that sense. I thought these guys know exactly what
Ali Nasri has
studied in France and lives in Canada. He sees the two cultures of West and East
"To have peace
within yourself you need freedom, spiritualism and individualism in one place.
The same applies to peace on a global scale. East cannot ignore the values of
the West, liberalism, pluralism or democracy, the achievements of 300 years of
Renaissance. Similarly the West cannot turn a blind eye to Eastern spiritualism
and its values or claim a monopoly on what modernity is. You need the two to
come together if there is to be peace and stability in the world."
He adds: "We live in
a world where two very different ideologies exist. One is Samuel Huntington's
which expects the eventual clash of civilisations. The other is more of a 'give
and take' nature where direct contact between the civilisations is encouraged.
We are of the latter. There is a lot we have learnt in this journey so far. I
believe you can even explain Western values such as democracy in terms of
Eastern Mythology. A characteristic of the Eastern culture and mysticism is the
lack of ethnocentric or nationalistic approaches; something Western
individualism might be still too rigid to deal with."
I ask how successful
they think they have been in this journey so far in projecting a more realistic
image of their country.
"When we say to the
people we have come from Iran and have a message of peace from the Iranian
people, initially they are usually surprised. But putting aside the differences
in language and culture, all people of the world have one common language and
that is the language of peace, love and kindness. This is the only language you
can speak and no one will interrupt you. This is the language we speak in."
"One of the common
stereotypes we have come across is the perceptions towards women in Iran ;
something we have been able to correct by the simple act of cycling. The image
of Iran is quite distorted in the West and I believe the media is responsible
for that. Bizarrely we are asked if women can go outside the house or if they go
to university or if they work! So you can see they are surprised. It is worrying
that the public in the West know too little, too distortedly, about Iran ."
"We do not beg for
peace. We want others to know us the way we are; that we are not interested in
war; that we are not AlQaida. We are different to what the media tries to
Ali N. is eager to
"We do not want a
single bomb to drop on Iran . We don't want a single human killed. We don't want
to hear the drum-beats of a yet larger war. This is us. This is Iranians.
Perhaps before the attacks on Iraq , the Iraqi community did not have the
facilities to speak out against the war by going to the US or they were not as
strong as the Iranian community. There was talk of Saddam being behind 9/11
which many believed. Yet the Iraqis themselves were not as loud in saying how
evidence was being fabricated to justify the attack and the invasion of their
country. We are in the same situation today. Because of some undiplomatic
rhetoric from certain politicians in Iran the whole country is shown as if it
has built a nuclear bomb and its finger is on the red button ready to push. This
image is not real and we have the power to change it."
I ask about
sanctions against Iran and how they think it will affect them when they go back
to Iran :
"Of course there
will be a lot of pressure on the people; both economical and psychological
pressure. Especially that Iranians have the experience of sanctions during the
war [with Iraq ]. They know too well what sanctions do and what happens when
there is shortage of certain commodities. The country has been moving forward
after the war but if there are more sanctions again, our financial institutions
will suffer. Many small Iranian companies are going to have to close too. I am
sure many of my friends and myself are likely to loose our jobs. Then there are
social movements. When people are in economic hardship, naturally they will not
be thinking of anything beyond their daily needs."
"We know from
experience that sanctions not only cause the suffering of the poorest people in
the country, but they are also an obstacle to the advancement of democracy. The
more a country is isolated, the more its civil society will be hurt. Just look
at North Korea or Iraq . In a climate of isolation, there will be much less
interaction between NGOs internally and externally; this will be used as reason
to suppress many of the human rights movements. It will ultimately cause many of
the country's civil society structures to collapse."
"This is what
happened to Iraq 's women's rights movement. Because of the sanctions, because
of the pressures, all their effort was focused on their day-to-day needs and on
supporting their families. They had little, if any, opportunity to follow up
their dreams of a fairer society. In that sense there is little difference
between sanctions and war. In Iraq, almost 5,000 children under 5 died every
month because of the sanctions over twelve years. That is two world trade
centres full of children every month. That is how horrendous it is. Further,
there are hardly any limits to sanctions. They always start from something small
and as time goes by, with the risk of investment increasing, many foreign
companies will not get involved in the businesses inside the country. All the
pharmaceutical and medical technology companies will suffer and that will lead
in turn to humanitarian disasters as we have seen. So I cannot understand how
sanctions can benefit a country's social movements. During all the years of
sanctions against Iraq , Saddam's palaces became more and more luxurious while
ordinary people were suffering or dying."
"Sanctions and war
are not much different in practice. Look, in any confrontation, the party that
feels more powerful tries to impose its own conditions on the other. In war,
this is done by the use of bombs and bullets and in sanctions it is done by
preventing a nation from obtaining what it needs or imposing on it what it does
not want. It is the same in a personal fight, it starts with shouting and
swearing and then it leads to full scale kicking and punching. So they are both
unpleasant. Sanctions are no better than war. Sanctions are just another form of
It was getting late
and they had to start packing to catch their flight to New York . I have few
words to describe how passionate I found these people about their cause for
spreading the message of peace around the world. Especially with all the
stereotypes about Iran, the very fact that they have embarked on this journey
says it all for their bravery.
What is interesting
is that only a few of them such as Pupe Mahdavifar are professional
athletes/cyclists. She pedalled around the world once four years ago. The rest
of them are ordinary Iranians from a variety of backgrounds and jobs.
They have been able
to find sponsorship for half their journey and the rest of it effectively they
are paying from their own pocket. If you can contribute to their cause in
anyway, financially or otherwise perhaps by organising events for them or
promoting their message in your local media, make sure you get in touch with
them and visit their website on http://www.milesforpeace.com
In the wise words of
our very own Ali Nasri "Ask not what your cyclists have done for you, ask what
you have done for your cyclists" :)
A Podcast of this
interview (in Persian) is available for download [here]. If you understand Persian, make
sure you listen to the audio file as it contains exclusive material that I have
not covered in the English translation.
"Miles for Peace"
will be in the United States until early July before going to Italy to meet the
Pope in their final destination.
... Payvand News - 6/18/07 ... --