COLUMBIA — Lily Tinker-Fortel clenched the passenger door armrest as her Iranian taxi weaved in and out through the congestion of cars, motorbikes and pedestrians on Valiasr Street, the longest street in the Middle East and the busiest 12 miles for Tehran’s 13 million residents.
“Imagine a busy street lined on both sides with beautiful, towering sycamores. Miles of sycamores,” Tinker-Fortel wrote in her blog on June 9, 2008, recounting her first afternoon in Tehran.
It was day one of a 12-day, 21-person civilian diplomacy trip that took the 24-year-old peace activist from Columbia to numerous Iranian historical and cultural centers of the villages Qom, Esfahan, and Abyaneh, and the city of Shiraz. Tinker-Fortel, community outreach coordinator for Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, was part of an interfaith delegation that went to Iran in May on a mission of fellowship.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest and largest interfaith organization in the United States, organized the delegation and began their Iranian program in December 2005. According to Leila Zand, director of the organization’s Iran program, the delegation sends civilian diplomats into Iran to meet Iranian civilians, government officials and religious leaders from Iran’s Muslim majority and those in the minority Armenian-Christian, Iranian-Jewish and Zoroastrain communities.
“In the Iran program the main goal is to educate Americans and Iranians,” Zand said. “Its really important to see that Iranians are just like us and its really important for Iranians to know that Americans don’t always accept their (the American) government’s policies.”
Tinker-Fortel recalls that although the 36-hour trip from Missouri to Tehran was exhausting, her adrenaline kept her wide-awake.
“We were embarking on this very exciting journey for all of us. Anytime you are in the midst of a new experience your senses are definitely alert and excited,” Tinker-Fortel said.
Tinker-Fortel believes the purpose of her trip and the concept of civilian diplomacy is to get past the political rhetoric in the lead up to war and get back to the human component of violent conflicts.
“What gets lost is that we are talking about human beings. It’s tragic that it’s lost,” Tinker-Fortel said.
Tinker-Fortel used the kids she met and saw in Iran as an example.
“A picture comes to mind of these boys and one was eating an ice cream cone,” Tinker-Fortel remembered. “They like cool cars, they read books. And they go with their moms and dads to the park. They have hopes and dreams, too.”
Tinker-Fortel has given presentations to organizations and friends in Columbia about her civilian diplomat experience in Iran as part of a campaign to educate Americans about Iran and correct misconceptions about Iranian society.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk and the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Non-Violence, was a fellow delegate to Iran and believes civilian diplomats can build bridges of understanding and influence their societies towards peace.
“Its part of our duties as citizens to create peace on the ground. It has to be intentional,” Gottlieb said.
Both women experienced firsthand Iranian anxiety of the possibility of war with the United States as Tinker-Fortel was confronted with the fear while exploring the Imam square of Esfahan, the second-largest public square in the world.
“I woke up early and went with a couple of other women to explore the square,” Tinker-Fortel said. “As we were shopping for scarves we were approached by three other women, one knew English and a conversation was born.”
The American women explained who they were and showed the Iranian women their peace advocate buttons. Tinker-Fortel recalled that as the conversation ended the English-speaking woman began crying and asked them to tell American people that Iranians are friendly.
“It was one of the first times I experienced the fear of an American-led or -sponsored war with Iran,” Tinker-Fortel said.
She explained that Iranians have witnessed war in recent history and have vivid memories of the Iran-Iraq war.
The Fellowship requested Tinker-Fortel join the delegation after she worked with Mid-Missouri Peaceworks to bring Stephen Kinzer, an author and lecturer, to Columbia. Jeff Stack, coordinator of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation cited her compassion and articulation as reasons he believed she was a good representative to Iran.
“I’m encouraged by this next generation that she seems to represent,” Stack said. “She is a person working hard to help support and make possible a more creative and constructive uplifting society.”
Long-standing political and cultural tensions between the United States and Iran have increased recently with U.S. opposition to Iranian attempts to develop a nuclear program. As recently as Thursday, President Bush repeated his willingness to include military force as a viable option to curtail Iran’s nuclear program during a meeting with European leaders in Germany, according to other media reports.
“We literally spoke to hundreds of people who expressed their hope that the U.S. would not bomb their country,” Rabbi Gottlieb said.
Tinker-Fortel’s experience in Iran has increased a sense of urgency for her to use civilian diplomacy to effect change by encouraging citizens to demand more from their elected officials.
“We have a great opportunity to reclaim the way we are represented,” Tinker-Fortel said. “I’m just another person trying to share that with others, bring it back to the people. There’s nothing to lose by trying diplomacy.”