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Left to right: Emily Schrader, CEO of Social Lite Creative; Ran Natanzon, Head of innovation & Country Branding in the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Public Diplomacy Division; Hooman Khalili (artist); tour guide Ora Hartman; and Foreign Ministry official Dan Oryan. Photo: Dana Daraznin.
Left to right: Emily Schrader, CEO of Social Lite Creative; Ran Natanzon, Head of innovation & Country Branding in the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Public Diplomacy Division; Hooman Khalili (artist); tour guide Ora Hartman; and Foreign Ministry official Dan Oryan. Photo: Dana Daraznin.
featureArts & Entertainment

Murals commemorating Iranian protest icon unveiled in Israel

"The one country in the Middle East that cares about Iranian women is not Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, but Israel,” says Iranian-American artist Hooman Khalili.

An Iranian-American filmmaker is unveiling four murals in Israel this week commemorating the one-year anniversary of the death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman who became an icon for freedom in the protests against the Islamic Republic.

Mahsa Amini died in hospital on Sept. 16, 2022, after being arrested by Iranian morality police for improperly wearing her hijab, or Islamic headscarf. Iranian authorities claimed she had a heart attack and fell into a coma while in police custody, however, eyewitnesses who were detained with her said she fell unconscious after being brutally beaten by police.

Following her death, massive protests erupted across the country, leading to brutal crackdowns in which hundreds of Iranian civilians have been killed.

With the murals, Iranian-born U.S. artist Hooman Khalili seeks to show support for the women of Iran, who are still fighting for their liberty in the Islamic Republic. 

The artworks, which are being inaugurated in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion, are being unveiled as Iranian forces plan to clamp down on expected weekend protests to mark the anniversary of Amini’s death.

“This project reminds people that the Persian people have been friends of the Jews for 3,000 years, and have only been enemies for less than 50 years,” Khalil told JNS on Wednesday in a telephone interview. “The Islamic Republic feels very threatened by that.”

According to Khalili, Israel is the best place in the world for such artwork to be displayed.

“The murals [being] in Israel fights antisemitism better than anything in the world,“ he said. “It shows that the one country in the Middle East that cares about Iranian women is not Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, but Israel.”

Iran’s wrath   

He noted that prior to his works going on display in Israel, 75 similar murals had been displayed all over the world, including in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. Yet it was only after his art appeared in the Jewish state that Iran responded with a mural of its own, depicting an atomic bomb and the words “400 seconds to Tel Aviv” written in Hebrew.

“I realized at that moment that only the murals in Israel mattered,” he said, turning down offers to do such work in Australia, Germany and Sweden. “It started to move the needle.”

In a separate incident earlier this week, Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned a meeting in London between Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel and exiled anti-regime Iranians. The event followed her hosting of exiled Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed Shah, in Israel in April.

1,000 faces

Khalili’s new murals consist of an AI-generated mosaic image of Amini, in which each square consists of an image of one of the more than 1,000 victims of the Iranian regime’s crackdown on the protests. The murals, each of which is titled “Woman Life Freedom” in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Farsi, each have a different background: the ancient port of Jaffa, Mount Carmel, the eastern gate of the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives.

With the assistance of Foreign Ministry official Dan Oryan, various sites around the country have been found to display the pieces.

‘My life is a miracle’

Khalili, 48, was three years old when his mother escaped Iran with a suitcase and $5,000 in 1978, just a year before the Iranian Revolution.  He was adopted by the First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and subsequently converted to Christianity.  Khalili went on to become a Sunday School teacher, youth group leader and choir director before entering into his profession of filmmaker and creative director.

“My life is a miracle,” he concedes.

Through his upbringing by a single parent, he saw firsthand the strength of Iranian women, said Khalili.

“I know how powerful Iranian women are,” he said.  “Even if they lose an eye, or get raped or get 100 lashes, they are still going to keep protesting.”

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