It’s often bothered me when I hear people refer to the region somewhere between Africa, Europe, and China as “the Middle East” as if it is one homogeneous country. To be fair, I suppose we say similar things about Europe and the United States. But most people realize that Germans are quite different from the French, and from that Californians are all beach loving super models while everyone in Texas rides a horse to school. At least we recognize the different units that make up the whole, we recognize the human and landscape variation. But often, at least in my experience, “the Middle East” is just that desert area full of oil where we are constantly involved in some sort of war, or pretending not to be.

Iranian and US flags side by side. Mohammad Reza Abaee and Sonya Iverson. Photo by Kiavash Sharifi.

Iranian and US flags side by side.
Mohammad Reza Abaee and Sonya Iverson.
Photo by Kiavash Sharifi.

“We fear what we don’t understand, we fear ‘other’.” These words, heard as a teenager have hung around in the back of my head ever since. On specific occasions I’ve heard people make wide sweeping generalizations like “they are all just a bunch of Muslims over there anyways” and “we should just bomb them,” “bomb who?” “all of them, they’re all going to be terrorists some day.” Often it is apparent how little the speaker actually knows of the region, the countries, the religion, and the politics involved. I don’t blame them for the lack. We live in a world overloaded with media and information, news about conflict, economics, politics, scandal, violence, and all of the things that are going to cause or cure cancer. I mostly tune it out and I’m still overwhelmed at times. I do not blame them. But that lack of knowledge, lack of any sense of connection to a large percentage of the human race, scares me.

I find hope in social media, however. When I first started using chat rooms in the dark old days of dial up, I had an online friend from Pakistan. At least he said he was from Pakistan. People said a lot of things in the anonymity of the internet, of course. I remember thinking then that the internet would change how we viewed each other, would change politics and war, would perhaps even help to end the drive for military intervention.

The original viral photo. Linked from

The original viral photo.
Linked from

Almost two years ago now I saw this begin to happen when an Israeli graphic designer, Ronny Edry, posted an image on Facebook. A photo of himself and his daughter and a simple vibrant message. It went viral. Practically overnight an online community sprung up in the form of Facebook groups named Israel-Loves-Iran (121k followers), and Iran-Loves-Israel (33.8k followers). New branches quickly appeared including Israel-Loves-Palestine (16k followers) and Palestine-Loves-Israel (14k followers). Sure, a hundred thousand people makes up only a fraction of the population of each country, yet its a start. And each of those people shares a photo, shares a message. These sites run social campaigns, asking people to send photos of friends from across borders, flood the internet with bright simple images of lovers and friends with their names and home countries posted boldly. More information can be found at the PEACE Factory. And please, take a moment to like those pages.

First group photo! Standing on the edge of a cliff in Geyikbayiri, Turkey.

First group photo!
Standing on the edge of a cliff in Geyikbayiri, Turkey.

I wrote briefly last week of meeting the Iranian side of Crossing Lines while in Turkey. I mentioned that we sat at a table with Iranians, Israelis, Americans and Germans; Muslims, and Jews, and Christians, though I’m not sure any of us think of ourselves as religious. It is irrelevant, however. That is the point. Our race, our nations, our religion whatever it may or may not be, was irrelevant. We were climbers, and highliners, and travelers; photographers, scientists, and engineers. We were there for the community. We were there to play. And in our case, we were there to plan a grand adventure and take some powerful photos.

A week before the carnival I found myself at the Banff Film Festival in Somerville. Among the videos was a beautiful film, North of the Sun, about surfing in the Arctic. Near the end of the film were a few comical clips of one of the surfers trying to catch waves while waving a Norwegian flag. I had an idea. During intermission I pulled out my phone and messaged Mohammad asking how easily he could get an Iranian flag to bring to the carnival. While waiting for his response I flipped to Amazon, found and purchased a flag in approximately thirty seconds, and went back to enjoying the films. Mohammad showed me the flag he had purchased that first night at camp, along with a miniature American flag and we laughed at the oddity of him being able to buy one in Iran. Due to his responsibilities recording the festival as the official videographer (his photos and video will be coming soon) we kept missing each other and it was only on the last morning, hours before Jade and I flew back to Istanbul that we were able to quickly hash together the photo shoot I’d had in mind.

Looking up, the view from Armin Popa who was climbing below us.

Looking up, the view from Armin Popa
who was climbing below us.

Kanyon, one of the sites at the carnival, is laid out such that all of the lines anchor near each other on one side, fanning out like tire spokes. With Mohammad on the outer line and myself on the next, flags clipped to the leash rings, we got to experiment with how it feels to pull something behind you while walking towards a shared anchor a few hundred feet in the air, the flags flapping and waving and threatening to wrap around the lines. After weighting the corners with carabiners and quickdraws they managed much better and we both tried to smile for the camera while timing our walks to meet at the end. Down below, Armin Popa, another highliner/climber at the carnival, captured a beautiful shot for us while Kiavash perched across the way with one camera and Jade caught the behind the scenes with mine.