Danny, 22, is a long-haired, electro-loving medical student hipster, with colorful clothes and a colorful attitude. In fact, most of his suitcase was filled with changes of clothes, and it takes him a good 15 minutes in the morning to choose the right outfit, get his hair sorted, and make himself generally presentable. He and his friend Salma couchsurfed at my apartment in Nahlaot in late January of 2014., and I knew I liked these guys from the beginning when they arrived bearing offerings of Belgian beer and chocolate. While they were staying in my living room, I took the opportunity to interview them about their life stories and what brought them to Israel.
Born to religious Muslim parents who emigrated from Iran to Belgium for work purposes, Danny speaks of the complex and sometimes conflicting influences on his identity. While growing up in a religious home, he went to a public school where he studied philosophy and today he negotiates a delicate balance between a religious and secular identity. This sometimes causes tension with his parents, who miss the religious Iranian way of life and are worried by the European influence on Danny’s identity.
“My parents are religious, so I hide the fact that I drink and smoke from them. My father can get pretty pissed off, but my mother has become used to the European way of life. I think that once you taste freedom you can’t go back.
“I have a lot of religious friends who are close minded about the West, about Israel, about Jews, but I choose to be influenced by sources in Islam that teach tolerance and respect for other cultures. People say that Islam is very intolerant, and of course there are sources in Islam that if interpreted literally make Islam sound very harsh, but when you read the part that says you have to kill all the infidels, you have to keep in mind that this reflects a different reality from over a thousand years ago), so you have to read between the lines to come to a relevant interpretation.
“For example, there is a religious verdict that prohibits men from wearing silk or gold, because a man should use his money to take care of his wife so she shouldn’t have to work, but I don’t think that should apply today when most women work. I don’t consider myself to be non-religious, but I have my own interpretation of Islam that I follow. I don’t know anyone else who thinks like me, so sometimes its’ difficult to hold my own ground because my conservative friends can’t understand me, and they’re like: you have to do this and you can’t do this, but I don’t feel that they judge me.
“My mission is to live in a way that helps people see Islam positively, and to explore the world. I already feel as a Muslim that the culture here in Israel is not so foreign, but I would like to go to Asia and interact with people of truly different beliefs and ways of life, so for me Israel is just the first step.
“I can’t really say if I am Belgian or Iranian. I feel that I belong to both countries – my family roots are Iranian but I grew up in Brussels. I don’t feel that I have a primary and secondary country, both are part of who I am. I am critical of certain aspects of the Iranian government, I don’t like the fact that Islam is the state religion, and that the Sheikhs determine what is allowed and not allowed – I think that people should be allowed to practice their way of life freely and without coercion. I think that the radicalization of Islam is a reaction to European influence, and I don’t think Islam was like this a thousand years ago. But honestly, there are some aspects of the Iranian government that I support – did you know that all Iranian civilians have bank accounts that receive part of the money from any petrol sold by Iran? Compare that to the corruption of the West-backed Saudi government who take the money for themselves and leave their people in poverty. So apart from the issue of religion, there are things that we can learn from Iran too.
“I think the most valuable aspect of travelling is meeting new people. I don’t like vacations where you just stay in a hotel and go sightseeing, the whole point of being in a new culture is to discover the people, the people are the true reflection of the culture. I like couchsurfing because it brings you into contact with people who are deeply part of the culture. I know this sounds like a cliché, but its true – couchsurfing promotes tolerance by helping you see past the surface impression and really connect on a human level beneath all the differences.
“Before I came to Israel I had my suspicions about how welcome I would feel. I guess I was influenced a little by the media and I didn’t think at first that Israelis were open-minded. It didn’t help when I was interrogated for 5 hours at the airport the last time I was in Israel, so upon arrival I was already thinking to myself “this is the last time I come here”.
But my perception was changed when I was waiting for my couchsurfing host in Tel Aviv, and some random chick came up to me and asked me if I was lost. I told her I was waiting for my host, and she invited me to join her for a coffee. When I told her I was Iranian she was like “great, we love Iranians!” and she brought all her friends to sit with us, it was one of the best moments of my life and this is what brought me to come to Israel again, even if I am interrogated for 5 hours again. Actually this time it was only 2.5 hours so we’re making progress”.