Maryam Faghihimani’s childhood was spent in the living room of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, where she played with the children of other prominent Iranian ayatollahs. Her father, Faghih Imani, is still a senior ayatollah in Iran and was personally responsible for spreading Khomeini’s message of revolution to mosques and Muslim gatherings around Iran before 1979.
Faghihimani was educated in a religious school that served her a steady diet of hatred of Jews—Israel was erased from maps and the Holocaust from all history books. But in her earlier twenties, Faghihimani had an epiphany that radically changed the course of her life, which she’ll share Sunday as keynote speaker at Harvard Business School’s Economic Prosperity for Peace Conference.
The youngest of nine children, Faghihimani was a rebellious child. She would find books in the library, such as those about the French Revolution, which she was forbidden from reading; she asked questions that angered her father; and she was so strong-willed that, among her four sisters, she was the first (and only) one to be allowed to attend college before being married off.
Unlike her siblings and peers, Faghihimani understood early on that there was a “different window of thinking,” she said.
“On TV we couldn’t watch all sorts of movies but the series we were allowed to watch were censored. There was no mention of Jewish people. The state translated and edited stuff and so often times we didn’t know that a movie about the war in Europe was about Jewish people going through the Holocaust. And when it comes to case of Israel, everything was very hostile. All we learned was made up news and the main message was that Israel is the bad guy.”
By the age of 16, Faghihmani started to doubt everything.
“I wasn’t sharing the same ideological views of my parents or government and I wanted to learn on my own,” she said. She knew if she stayed in Iran she would be forced to hide her liberal and secular beliefs.
It was during a trip to Lebanon that Faghihimani had a revelation, and it changed her beliefs about Iran and Israel once and for all.
While there, friends of hers with close political ties to Hezbollah had her sipping coffee with some of the organization’s most senior figures.
“There was a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon at the time but we could see that Hezbollah fighters were sending rockets to the Shebaa farms and then denying they had done so on Arab media,” Faghihimani said. She explained that she also found it strange that the Hezbollah fighters she would meet—Lebanese Arabs—were speaking Persian so fluently. This immediately signaled to her that they had all received training from the revolutionary guards in Tehran.
“When I would ask about their training, people would say that it wasn’t true and that Israel had made all of this up,” she said. “This was a turn in my thinking about the information I had learned about Israel and the conflict.” It was at this point where Faghihimani did a 180.
In 2003, at the age of 26, Faghihimani left Iran against her father’s will. “He boycotted me and decided not to speak to me or support me,” she said.
She went on to study in Kuala Lumpur, conducted research in Norway, Finland, Portugal under the auspices of the European Commission, and took cultural diplomacy courses in Berlin. Meanwhile, she befriended many Jews.
“I got to learn a lot about their culture and saw a lot of similarities in Persian and Jewish culture,” she said. “I started thinking we should be able to get back on the same track.”
Today she is the founder and president of the Centre for Cultural Diplomacy and Development, which promotes democracy and tolerance, and provides an entrepreneurship platform for youth and women in the Middle East.
Faghihimani believes meaningful communication is a very important step for peace building, but stressed that it’s not enough. “We have to walk the talk,” she said. “We have to work together, and that makes our peace movement grow in a sustainable way. Otherwise it will remain empty talk. We need to move ahead and build a future instead of looking into the black holes of pasts.”
The conference, organized by a group of Arab and Israeli students, is designed to jumpstart a conversation about increasing stability through cross-border economic cooperation in the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Iranian-Israeli dispute.
Faghihimani—now a very different woman from the one her father hoped she’d become—hopes others, like herself, can overcome religious and cultural barriers in order to build a better future for Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region.
On Sunday, she’ll continue to turn her dreams into a reality.