A little over a year ago, Iranian-born Hooman Khalili quit his career as a DJ in the Bay Area and embarked on a personal project to paint a series of murals around Israel. His mission is twofold: to celebrate the kinship between the Iranian and the Jewish peoples and to draw attention to the oppression of women inside the Islamic Republic.
“My goal is to reunite Iran and Israel as friends. It’s a 3,000-year-old friendship,“ he said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel.
Born in Tehran in 1974, Khalili left Iran with his mother at age 3, a few months before Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. The two landed in California and were given shelter by a Presbyterian church in the Bay Area, where Khalili grew up. He converted to Christianity, and to this day faith plays an important part in his life.
He has never returned to his home country, but he still speaks some Farsi and is deeply affected by the oppression and crimes committed against his people by the Islamic regime, “the number one sponsor of terrorism for the whole world,” in his words.
The artist was in Israel last week to unveil his latest mural in Tel Aviv. The artwork, designed by Khalili and painted by Israeli graffiti artist Shir Lamdan, commemorates two women, an Israeli female soldier of Iranian origin, Shirel Haim Pour, who was killed by Hamas on October 7, and an Iranian archery champion who lost her left eye in an anti-regime protest. On the left of the mural is an image of Queen Esther.
Khalili’s journey in the mural art form began shortly after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022 while she was in the custody of morality police for allegedly violating hijab regulations. Her death sparked a wave of anti-regime protests that engulfed Iran for months under the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom.” In solidarity with his people, Khalili partnered up with a street artist to create his first commemorative mural in San Francisco.
18 murals as a sign of life
Two prominent Israelis who are engaged in the defense of Iranian women — social media activist and entrepreneur Emily Schrader and Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum — discovered Khalili’s work online and invited him to come to Israel.
Since then, he has visited the country eight times in 13 months, in a quest to accomplish a mission that he set for himself – to paint 18 murals throughout the country. The number was suggested to him separately by two “prophetic people,” he said, and it corresponds to the number for chai, or “alive,” in gematria (a Jewish mystical practice that assigns numerical values to words).
His first work, in the industrial Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot, depicted Mahsa Amini and three other Iranian women murdered by the regime.
The second mural was in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, and depicted the faces of other Iranian youths slain for their opposition to the Islamic Republic.
Today, the artist is halfway through his endeavor. In cooperation with five Israeli graffiti artists, he has so far completed nine murals: two apiece in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya, one in Nazareth, one in Mevaseret (a town outside Jerusalem) and one in Haifa.
Khalili spoke with great enthusiasm about his works and the transformative impact he hopes they can achieve.
He explained that one of his two works in Tel Aviv depicts a little girl holding a gas mask. It’s a reference to gut-wrenching reports that the Iranian regime may have employed poison gas against schoolgirls to scare their parents and dissuade them from participating in protests against the hijab.
“I could never do this mural in Jerusalem, because it’s too controversial,” he noted. “The ones in Jerusalem have to be very conservative.”
In the capital, a work by Khalili dominates the entrance to the Museum of Tolerance in Independence Park. It depicts the faces of Mahsa Amini and Israeli-Iranian soldier Shirel Haim Pour with the banner “Esthers of the World, Rise Up,” and the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” in English, Hebrew and Farsi.
Asked about what he hopes to achieve with his project, Khalili enumerated three goals. “Firstly, I want to inspire the women of Iran to keep fighting.”
“Secondly, I want to show the world that the Jews are standing with the women of Iran. It’s a big deal because Israel is the only country in the Middle East that allows these murals. There are 75 murals around the world dedicated to their struggle, but the two in Jerusalem are like an atomic bomb for the Iranian regime.”
The metaphor was not chosen casually. After Khalili’s works started appearing in the Jewish state, Iran responded with street art of its own, hanging banners in the streets of Tehran depicting ballistic missiles with captions in Farsi and Hebrew reading “400 seconds to Tel Aviv,” a reference to the time the projectiles would take to reach the Israeli economic capital.
The third goal of his project is “to remind the world that the Persians have been the friends of the Jews for 3,000 years.”
A recurrent element in his visual art is drawn from an often-overlooked biblical verse in the Book of Jeremiah, in which God vowed that He would set his throne in Elam – an ancient country situated in modern-day Iran, in the region where Queen Esther and the Prophet Daniel are buried according to Jewish tradition. The fact that God has chosen Jerusalem and Elam as seats of His throne embodies a higher connection between the Jewish and the Persian peoples, Khalili maintained.
Khalili said he is not in contact with opposition leaders inside Iran – “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble for being in touch with me” – but one of his works in the coastal city of Netanya was visited last April by exiled Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, a prominent opposition figure, during a historic visit to Israel. “It’s a big deal,” Khalili remarked.
The Iranian-American highlighted how his work can contribute to improving Israel’s image around the world. “Israel has terrible PR – even Iran has better PR than Israel.”
“These murals are good publicity for Israel,” the artist said, noting that he has been endorsed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry but gets no financial support from it, nor from any public institution or private donor. All his work is self-funded.
“One of the reasons it takes so long to complete the series of 18 murals is that after each one, I have to go back to the US, work, and make some money, and then I use all of that money for the next work,” he said.
Over his numerous visits, Khalili admitted, he has developed an affinity for Israeli culture.
“One of the things I really admire about the Jews in Israel is you can sit across the table with someone you disagree with literally on everything. And then you get up and you look at the person in the eye, and say, ‘I love you, I can’t wait to see you again.’ That doesn’t happen in America at all.”
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