A Somerville peace activist with a knack for political theater set up a display yesterday with a simple proposition: Let anyone who passed by pick up the phone and talk to Iranian citizens, giving regular citizens in both countries a chance to do what the activist said the country's leaders have failed to do: talk to each other. (See; EnoughFear.org)
Most people passing the Boston Common's Park Street T stop shrugged at the display: a red telephone with a retro design, symbolic of the hotline established between the White House and the Kremlin during the Cold War. It sat on a small table with a white table cloth and a sign out front, which proclaimed "Direct Line to Iran." An MIT student stood to its left, listened in on headphones and provided English-Farsi translation.
The activist, Nick Jehlen, had connected the display phone to a cellphone, which he used to dial the numbers of people in Iran he had met online. The idea was that random Bostonians could chat directly with Iranian citizens.
At times, it looked better than it worked.
Several times, the calls were dropped, leaving one particularly animated Boston Common caller to assume that he had insulted the Iranian with his direct question: "What do you think about your leader there?"
"He hung up on me," declared the caller, Dave Walsh, 48, a construction worker.
After several minutes, the connection was reestablished, and Walsh got his answer. The Iranian caller - organizers declined to identify the people on the other end of the line - was no fan of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, apparently referring to him with a derogatory term.
"I think ours is, too; George W. Bush. I think they're both idiots," Walsh responded.
But the comity dissipated when Walsh switched topics: "What's Iran's problem with Israel?"
As Walsh became agitated, Jehlen encouraged him to pass the phone to the next person.
Jehlen, a magazine art director and consultant who helped organize the "Turn Your Back on Bush" protest at the president's second inaugural, said the idea came from conversations he had with Iranians on an Internet discussion forum.
"They wanted to speak to Americans," he said.
Connecting a cellphone to a stationary phone was as much a practical move as it was symbolic. The alternative, handing a cellphone to random passersby in Boston Common, did not seem very smart, he explained.
Sarah Shugars, a 24-year-old graduate student at Emerson College, said she had heard about the effort through an e-mail group. She was the first to step up to the phone and exchanged pleasantries with a 25-year-old Iranian painter.
"So what do you do? Do you work, go to school?" Shugars asked.
After conversation about the job prospects for painters in Iran and Shugars's life in America, she asked: "May I ask how the US is portrayed in the media in Iran and sort of what the general feeling toward [the United States] is?"
"She says that Iranians don't have any problems with Americans in general," said the translator from MIT, who is from Iran and, like the Iranians on the line, gave only her first name, Rana. . "It's just your president that is very problematic and is giving Iran a hard time."
Erica Jones, 30, of Quincy, watched for a while from just outside the entrance to the T station.
"I think it's a good idea," she said. "We can learn what's really going on, because the government's not telling us."
Still, she eyed the line of about five people waiting for a turn on the phone, and decided she did not have the time.
Vicki Halal, a teacher from Medford, got on the line to ask whether her Iranian counterpart had any hope for the future. This time, the man on the other end spoke English. His response, Halal said, was that he did not, not as long as Ahmadinejad was in charge.
© 2007 The Boston Globe