News of the giant ad has already hit Iranian media

On the trail of Tel Aviv’s ‘delusional’ Iranian Embassy

A massive banner announcing the opening of an Iranian mission has everyone from waiters to city hall scratching their heads. Is it part of a massive prank by artists or a sign of deeper hope for peace with Tehran?

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A Tel Aviv banner advertising the opening of an Iranian embassy, which was later revealed as a PR ploy for upcoming movie "Atomic Falafel." (Simona Weinglass/Times of israel)
A Tel Aviv banner advertising the opening of an Iranian embassy, which was later revealed as a PR ploy for upcoming movie "Atomic Falafel." (Simona Weinglass/Times of israel)

At some point on Monday morning, eyewitnesses report, a mysterious four-story-high banner appeared on a building overlooking Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square:

“Soon opening here: Iran’s Embassy in Israel.”

The sign features side-by-side Iranian and Israeli flags as well as a phone number for more details.

Passersby who called the phone number heard a message in English: “Salaam, you’ve reached the Iranian embassy in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately we cannot answer the phone right now, but your call is important to us, so please leave your name and number after the tone, and we’ll get back to you.”

Most onlookers interviewed by The Times of Israel were savvy enough to know that the sign was a prank or publicity stunt. After all, Iran and Israel have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And as recently as last week, an adviser to Iran’s speaker of parliament declared, “We reject the existence of any Israeli on this earth.”

But as mystifying as the sign is, the fact that it arouses a bemused curiosity and not much else (imagine the same sign with a Hezbollah or Islamic State flag) exposes the warm feelings still harbored by Israelis for the Iranian people, if not the revolutionary regime, which deposed the Israel-friendly Pahlavi monarchy in 1979.

‘If I have to sacrifice my bookstore for the sake of peace with Iran, it will be worth it’

The question is, who is behind it?

“You’re literally the hundredth person who’s asked us,” a waiter at Gusto, an Italian café underneath the banner, said. “We have no idea.”

20150825_144232
Amir. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

At the Green Brothers used bookstore next door, a customer named Amir said, “The size of that sign is in direct proportion to how delusional it is. But maybe in the distant future it could become a reality. “

Amir, a piano teacher, said he enjoys Iranian cinema immensely.

“Even though the movies were made under the Islamic regime, they’re not Soviet cinema and they’re not Nazi cinema,” he said.

“I think the country is less black-and-white than it seems.”

Brought together by poetry

Iddo Balas, one of the bookstore’s owners, chirped in, “I’m not actually wondering whether an Iranian embassy will open or not. Obviously, it’s a campaign by a group of Israelis. But I’m not sure if they’re right-wing, or what they are.”

Iddo Balas (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Iddo Balas (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Nevertheless, Balas is intrigued by the notion.

“If I have to sacrifice my bookstore for the sake of peace with Iran, it will be worth it.”

Balas joked that he would happily devote a section of his shop to books in Persian so the embassy staff would feel less homesick.

“We’ve actually had books in Persian. There’s a big market here – in June we sold out of a book of poems by Iranian poetess Forough Farrokhzad that had been translated into Hebrew.”

What’s the name of the translator?

“Sivan Balslev.”

What does Baram mean?

Before contacting translator Balslev, The Times of Israel visited the Tel Aviv Municipality to see if anyone there could shed light on the origins of the sign.

“I have no idea,” said the manager of the city’s signage department, who refused to give his name. “I’ve been trying to find that out myself.”

Inside the Tel Aviv spokesperson’s office, a woman named Gabi said, “It’s some kind of PR campaign, we don’t know who’s behind it.”

View of the banner from the 12th floor office of the Tel Aviv Spokesperson's Office (Photo by Simona Weinglass)
View of the banner from the 12th floor office of the Tel Aviv Spokesperson’s Office (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

You don’t know who puts up signs in your city?

“Only if it’s on municipal property. That’s a private building.”

But what if the sign is not truthful?

“If people were offended by the sign and started to complain, we would take it down.”

Inside the actual building where the banner hangs, no one answered knocks at their door. Finally, an elderly woman agreed to provide the contact details of the tenants’ committee. But no one answered at that phone number.

Desperate for a clue, The Times of Israel’s reporter noticed a tiny yellow sign near the top of the giant sign — “Baram.”

Baram is the name of a major Israeli advertising firm that specializes in banners on the sides of buildings.

“Yes, that banner is ours,” said the woman who answered the phone. “Well, actually, it’s a client of ours. They asked that we not reveal their identity. Please leave your phone number and their PR people will get back to you when they’re ready.”

How many journalists have followed the same trail of clues to get to you?

“A lot.”

A future ambassador?

Sivan Balslev, the translator of Persian poetry, is a newly minted PhD from Tel Aviv University whose dissertation topic was “Ideals, practices and images of Iranian masculinities during the late Qajar and early Pahlavi period (1870-1940).”

Sivan Balslev (Photo courtesy)
Sivan Balslev (Courtesy)

She was surprised to be contacted by a reporter.

“None of my Facebook friends know who is behind the banner,” she said.

If diplomatic relations were restored, would Balslev be interested in becoming ambassador?

“I don’t know if I have the diplomatic skills to be ambassador,” she laughed, “but I’d be happy to be the cultural attache.”

In that role, said Balslev, if she had to choose a poem to read at the hypothetical inauguration of Iran’s embassy, it would be Forough Farrokhzad’s “O Bejeweled Land.”

“In the poem she makes fun of exaggerated nationalism. It’s about the folly of patriotism. I would choose an ironic poem for an ironic embassy opening.”

A diplomatic backchannel?

Asked if there is a secret diplomatic backchannel between Israel and Iran that might result in the opening of an embassy, Meir Javendenfar, an Iranian-born lecturer in Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said, “Not that I know of.”

“Will there be an Iranian embassy in Israel?” he asked rhetorically. “Pretty unlikely. That would be the closest to a miracle that you could get these days.”

Why?

“Because Iranians are not going to recognize Israel any time soon. It’s something very important for the legitimacy of the Iranian regime, especially when it comes to their standing among hardliners in Iran and the region.”

Does Javendenfar think that if someone in the Iranian regime heard about the banner in Rabin Square it might melt their heart?

‘Will there be an Iranian embassy in Israel? Pretty unlikely. That would be the closest to a miracle that you could get these days’

Actually, he said, there has already been an article about the banner on an Iranian news site, Parsine.

Javendenfar proceeded to translate the news item:

“A group of Israeli citizens living in the Occupied Lands has put up a banner with the flags of the Islamic Republic and the Zionist Regime wishing for the establishment of relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv. The banner says that very soon an Iranian embassy will be inaugurated. Since the signing of the nuclear deal, despite Netanyahu’s repeated rejections, a small number of citizens of the Occupied Lands have come to support the agreement and wish for the establishment of relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv. This banner was put up by citizens of the Zionist Regime who call themselves friends of peace.”

Who is behind the banner?

 

Balslev had one more insight to offer: “Do you think the folks at the Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem are behind this? I never would have thought they could have enough money for a banner like this.”

The Iranian Embassy in Jerusalem is a project of the Hamabul Art Collective, a group of Jerusalem-based performance artists. According to the project’s website, “We are a group of artists living and creating in Jerusalem, trying to create a new reality, one which we can identify with. A reality of dialogue between the people, not dominated by mass media and governments.”

Is Hamabul behind the banner on a wall that is probably one of the most expensive places in the country to advertise? Did the group suddenly decide to move its “embassy” from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv?

On Hamabul’s Facebook wall, someone posted a photo of the banner alongside the words, “Hamabul doesn’t take responsibility, but we’re pleased.”

Members of the Iranian Embassy Jerusalem (Photo credit: Facebook)
Members of the Iranian Embassy Jerusalem (Facebook)

The Times of Israel emailed and called the group, but received no response.

However, Facebook provides additional clues. In June, the group launched a Facebook event (Hebrew link) entitled, “Auditions for Iranian Embassy in Israel,” precisely the name of the institution that appears on the Rabin Square banner.

The page read, “To Iranians living in Israel and around the world, culture lovers and actors, we invite you on an interesting journey as we open an ‘Iranian embassy’ in Israel.”

The page went on to say that the group is making a film and needs actors in unpaid roles. “The auditions will be filmed. Please come dressed for the part.”

Hamabul appears to specialize in performance art of the kind where the reactions of passersby are part of the performance, as with flashmobs or movies by Sasha Baron Cohen. Although unconfirmed by Hamabul, it’s possible that the banner itself is the prop, while journalists, curious onlookers and everyone discussing it on social media are the actors. Perhaps the plan is even to make these reactions into a movie? If that is the case, then Hamabul has achieved its goal, which is to get people thinking and talking about why Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran.

But it will likely take more than guerrilla theater to make such a rapprochement happen.

meir
Meir Javendenfar (Facebook)

“I sincerely hope that one day we will have an Iranian embassy in Israel,” said Javendenfar.

“We don’t have anything against the people of Iran, we have plenty in common with the people of Iran.

“But as long as the Iranian regime calls for the death of Israel, it pushes that possibility away.”

Most Popular
read more: