God and Allah Need to Talk

Two years ago, when Sarah Forth (G94) was paging through travel brochures, looking for an escape from a book project she was working on in Los Angeles, she came across a flier for a tour in Iran. “No one goes to Iran. No one is supposed to go to Iran,” she remembers thinking at the time. “No one I knew had ever been to Iran.”

So she decided to go. And out of that decision came a commitment to educate U.S. citizens about the people of Iran with the goal of promoting understanding between the two countries.

“I knew that President Bush had declared Iran part of ‘the axis of evil’ in his 2002 State of the Union Address,” she says. “And I thought at the time that sort of declaration was a lousy way to conduct diplomacy.”

Forth found a travel program run out of the New College of California, navigated the vexing visa hurdles and spent a couple of weeks touring the country, camera in tow, meeting with locals and chronicling what she found.

She wondered if Iran would be like the former Soviet Union, where secrecy was pervasive and citizens were afraid to speak openly. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “They were welcoming, very friendly. They took our pictures, practiced their English, served us tea and, in every way they could, let us know that the people of the United States and Iran should be friends.”

Today Forth takes her slide show and experiences before community groups and schools around Los Angeles, showing what life and people are like in Iran. “I’m hoping to make an emotional connection between the audience and ordinary Iranians,” she says. “Our government is working hard to make Iran seem monstrous and evil. I show photos of laughing kids and smiling adults to make it harder to believe the propaganda. I think it’s difficult to call someone an enemy once you’ve looked into their eyes.”

Interest in Forth’s presentation is growing in the Los Angeles area. She is also noticing other groups traveling to Iran on similar missions. And she’s teamed up with others concerned about U.S.-Iranian relations for joint presentations.

“Slowly, slowly, interest in this issue grows,” she says.

For fellow Los Angeleno Ruth Broyde-Sharone (J63), promoting interfaith dialogue is a lifetime passion. “It is the most important work being done today around the globe,” says the filmmaker and freelance journalist. “We can’t afford to be strangers and suspicious of one another. We must find what joins us together, even while recognizing what differences exist in our religious practices and beliefs. We have to strengthen moderate voices and band together to excise the extremists.”

Broyde-Sharone, who is Jewish, has brought that message to many venues and communities, including a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue group in West Los Angeles that she has participated in for the last four years. The group explores and expands on the things they have in common, rather than those that divide.

“It’s quite amazing how many similarities there are between our two communities, insofar as prayer, dietary laws and our holy books are concerned,” she says.

Broyde-Sharone has traveled all over the country and abroad presenting her interfaith program and her documentary God and Allah Need to Talk. The 25-minute film highlights two gatherings of Muslims, Jews and Christians who came together to share meals and prayers, first at an Islamic center in Los Angeles and weeks later at a Passover Seder in a synagogue.

The film’s title came from a billboard she spotted on Hollywood Boulevard after the 9/11 attacks. “The billboard clearly indicated that people didn’t recognize that God and Allah were one and the same,” she says. It was a thought that troubled her deeply. “We had not only divided ourselves, we had also divided God. That billboard message summed up our current state of alienation from one another.”

In January, Broyde-Sharone spoke before more than 1,000 Shi’a Muslims gathered at a peace rally in Los Angeles. She was the first woman ever invited to speak at the annual Ashura commemoration. She told the audience that she was sharing the platform with her longtime interfaith colleagues who have been working together, supporting each other and inspiring one another.

“The truth is,” she admitted to the crowd, “sometimes we wake up in the morning and wonder if we are making a difference.”

One of the Muslim men in the audience shouted out, “You are making a difference! You are!” Broyde-Sharone recalls.

“That was a golden moment.” — T.S.