On paper they were enemies.
A 6-foot-6-inch tall American man and a 5-foot-4-inch tall Iranian man. A devoted Muslim brought together by connecting paths with a spiritual man with no real links to organized religion.
But through an unlikely friendship, a human-to-human connection bypassing national politics, a set of core similarities that pierced a shell of superficial differences, Rick Gunn and Mohammad Tajeran are trying to promote peace between people who just happen to be from conflicting countries. The effort has been long – years in the making – but one child’s drawing at a time, one planted tree at a time, one bicycle mile at a time and one talk at a time Gunn and Tajeran are trying to plant the seed of friendship and unabridged human connection between Americans and Iranians alike.
Gunn returned to the United States April 24 after a trip to Kish, Iran – an island off the coast of mainland Iran – where he participated in the “Tipping Point,” a TEDx talk. The independently organized TED talk came just days after an American-led coalition and Iran reached a preliminary deal for Iran to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for lifted sanctions. Gunn and Tajeran spoke about the promise of peace and the possibility of friendship between the people of both nations. They also spoke about their project, Wheels of Peace, in which both men collect children’s friendship and peace themed-art from their respective countries and share it with students at the other country.
The road to the TEDx talk, metaphorically and somewhat literally, started in 2005 in San Francisco, when after more than 14 years of working as a newspaper photographer Gunn embarked on a more than 26,000-mile journey on his bicycle.
“I had a dream to ride a bike around the world. And so, I did it,” Gunn said over quietly-playing soft Arabic music as he electronically flipped though photos of his adventures abroad in his South Lake Tahoe home.
Gunn rode across the United States then flew to Europe, where he spent about eight months. He then rode across the Middle East, into Asia to China, over to Tibet, into India and on to Southeast Asia.
“What happened about halfway through – I saw so much poverty and disease and the results of war and then I began to volunteer and do stories about volunteering and continued to ride my bike,” Gunn said.
Gunn’s first contact with Tajeran came when he was cycling through the Middle East and was trying to get into Iran – he was ultimately unsuccessful. Gunn found Tajeran’s website, www.weneedtrees.com/, which documented Tajeran’s journey riding his bike around the world and planting trees for peace along the way. Tajeran’s mission spoke to Gunn, so he contacted him and the two began corresponding through email. A year later, Tajeran suggested they meet in Malaysia.
“He was riding his bike around the world one way and I was riding my bike around the world the other way,” Gunn said.
The two men rode together across Malaysia for 10 days. During those 10 days, Gunn got to know a fiercely patriotic, fiercely pro-peace and non-violent man. A sincere man who has no problem showing affection or discontent, a former competitive cyclist and engineer. Tajeran was kind-hearted, a kindred spirit – a man who has befriended Sunnis and Israelis. A passionate man who is committed to what he does, a greater cause to help make the world a better place.
Gunn is normally nervous around people who are patriotic, excessive patriotism can be toxic and lead to a false sense of superiority, but that was not the feeling he got from Tajeran.
“What I can say about him is that he follows his heart,” Gunn said.
One major difference between the two was faith.
“I always got nervous because he prays three times a day, so we had to stop. He has to wash his hands and wash his feet and then go into the forest – or in the last case we were in the desert and he went out to a space in the desert – and on almost every occasion he did that we were in places that were so incredibly beautiful, it was hard not look out to where he was praying to and not feel some form of connection to something larger,” Gunn said.
Tajeran explained to Gunn that he did not believe God was in the Mosque, but that he exists everywhere. He found that God was best represented in the forest.
“When he explained it that way, it became much softer. It wasn’t this hardline, ‘I’m a Muslim, this is what I need to do.’ It was, ‘this is where I go with it. This is my feeling of it,’” Gunn said.
But during those days of such close interaction and codependence, the two cyclists discovered much deeper similarities.
“One of his parents had died when he was young. He had a dream to ride a bicycle around the world and he also had a dream of being of service to the planet, of being of service in a larger way,” said Gunn, who also lost a parent at a young age.
“There’s something that is exceptionally formative about losing a parent at a very young age. And I think that that was a big bond for us.”
“We had more in common than we had differences. Here was a person who some people here might consider my enemy, or in Iran people may consider me their enemy. But I had more in common with this guy than I did with a lot of my friends back home.”
However, not everyone they encountered during their trip saw those similarities as quickly as they did.
“The interesting thing is that we would go into these Malaysian stores and shops and people would stop and turn their heads,” Gunn said.
He remembers specifically a time when a man walked up to them and curiously asked them where they were from.
“He said, ‘but you two are enemies.’ And Mohammad looked the guy in the eye and said, ‘no, we’re friends.’”
In Kish, in front of roughly 700 people, that was what Gunn and Tajeran wanted people to see during their TEDx talk, that there can be a human connection between people who are from dueling countries.
“We were tired of the rhetoric between our two countries. They’ve been at each other’s throats for the last 35 years,” Gunn said.
Gunn focused primarily, through his and Tajeran’s story, on trying to get people to see each other as individual people, as regular human beings. The lack of being able to see people as people and not just as Iranians or Americans has led to a misunderstanding between the two populations and subsequently to a misguided ideology of enmity.
It’s hard to send that message across when people in the United States see the worst of the worst on TV and hear the worst of the worst on the radio, he said. He imagines it’s hard for someone who doesn’t know an Iranian, who’s never really experienced the Iranian culture to grasp their kind and hospitable nature.
“As soon as I got there … a little girl came up and her dad realized I was from America and the very first experience I had was her dad putting chocolates into her hands and sending her up to me to welcome me,” he said.
During his visit, people were generally welcoming. They wanted to engage him and hear his perspective on the conflict. They wanted to know why they are viewed around the world as evil.
Most of the country doesn’t have a choice of what happens in their government, Gunn said. They’re stuck with a reputation that came with someone else’s actions.
“They want to live their lives with a certain amount of freedom. They’re sick of being the black sheep, the international black sheep, because most of them don’t have a choice. They don’t have a decision.”
“My job now is to bring humanity to these people’s faces. I believe that half the country sees the Iranian people as quote-endquote monsters. Because they don’t know,” he said.
For the future, Gunn and Tajeran, the man Gunn now calls his brother, will continue to work on their mission through Wheels of Change. The initial plan was for Gunn to visit mainland Iran and for Tajeran to visit the United States to personally deliver the artwork from the children of the other country to the students, but both countries denied visas to Gunn and Tajeran. Late last month, Gunn returned from Kish with the children’s artwork and will soon deliver the responding art from the children in the Middle-Eastern country.
Still, Gunn believes someday he will get to ride in mainland Iran and Tajeran will have the opportunity to come to the United States.
“I think I will probably get in there before he gets in here, because we’re more stringent over here,” he said.