A mural honoring women of the Iranian protest movement in the Talpio neighborhood of Jerusalem.
A mural honoring women of the Iranian protest movement in the Talpio neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Iranian protest mural in Jerusalem has ties to Bay Area radio star

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A 21-foot tall mural honoring efforts by Iranian women to secure their religious and personal freedom, which was unveiled in Jerusalem this month, has a Bay Area backstory.

On Nov. 10, Hooman Khalili — an Iranian-born media personality who for 20 years worked at the Bay Area FM radio station Alice 97.3 — posted a picture of himself on Instagram with the Tehran-born, S.F.-based artist Farnaz Zabetian.

The two were standing in Clarion Alley, the outdoor gallery and tourist attraction in San Francisco’s Mission District, in front of a mural Zabetian painted to raise awareness about the ongoing Iranian protest movement. Since September, Iranians have demonstrated in the streets after Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman of Kurdish descent, died while in the custody of the religious police. She had been arrested for violating the country’s dress code.

Zabetian’s mural depicts an Iranian woman cutting her hair — a sign of protest against the religious rules enforced by the Iranian regime — backgrounded by the colors of the Iranian flag and the popular Kurdish slogan “Woman. Life. Freedom.”

Khalili’s Instagram post, which has now garnered more than 2,100 likes, caught the eye of an Israeli journalist, who tagged the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.

“@fleurhassann we need a mural like this in the Shuk in Jerusalem!” wrote Emily Schrader, a senior correspondent for Ynet.

“Let’s do it,” Hassan-Nahoum responded. “I happen to be in charge of art in the public space committee.”

Khalili, 48, spoke on the phone with Hassan-Nahoum, who told him that Israelis support the Iranian people and said she’d like to put up a similar mural in Jerusalem.

Within a matter of days, Khalili was working with the Russian-born Israeli artist Ana Kogan to design a new piece of public art. On Jan. 8, Khalili attended the unveiling of the mural on the side of a building in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. It will be on display for six months.

The artwork depicts four women who have become emblematic of the protest movement in Iran underneath the words, in Hebrew, “Woman. Life. Freedom.” The women are Amini, Sarina Esmailzahdeh, Nika Shakarami and Fereshteh Ahmadi. Esmailzahdeh and Shakarami were 16-year-old Persian girls believed to have been killed at the hands of security forces during the recent protests. Ahmadi was the mother of a young girl shot by Islamic Republic forces while standing on a roof in the Kurdish city of Mahabad, according to her family.

“We wanted to honor them,” Khalili, 48, told J. “I wanted the family members of these people to say, ‘I cannot believe there is an image of my mom, or my sister, or my daughter, hanging in Jerusalem.’”

During his remarks at the unveiling, he asked the crowd to recite the priestly blessing, the prayer from the Torah, often said by parents for their children on Shabbat. The prayer asks God for protection; for him to ”turn his face” upon the ones blessed.

For years, Khalili was a third mic, or supporting character, on one of the Bay Area’s most popular morning drive-time radio talk shows, “Sarah and Vinnie.” With a relaxed, playful personality, a touch of Christian religiosity and pointed optimism (“my entire life is a miracle,” he often says), he developed a fan base, and today boasts more than 25,000 Instagram followers. Today he works as the creative director for the Park James, a luxury hotel in Menlo Park.

Khalili fled Iran as a toddler with his mother one year before the 1979 Islamic revolution. In recent months, he has been a vocal proponent of pro-democracy protests there. Born a Muslim, he later converted to Christianity and has since developed close ties to Israel. He has visited the country five times, including on a 2017 trip with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

I wanted the family members of these people to say, ‘I cannot believe there is an image of my mom, or my sister, or my daughter, hanging in Jerusalem.’

Khalili said he was not aware of the controversy surrounding Clarion Alley, the site of Zabetian’s mural that is overseen by the nonprofit Clarion Alley Mural Project. A handful of murals there are sharply critical of Israel or support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

One in particular drew unambiguous rebukes from the JCRC last year when a replica was slated to be included in a public exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library. The mural includes the words “Zionism Is Racism,” which JCRC called inaccurate and harmful to the Jewish community. The controversy surrounding the mural derailed the public library exhibit.

Khalili said he received some pushback from fans who opposed his traveling to Israel for political reasons. He said he hoped when they saw the result of his visit, their minds would change. “And I’m not kidding you, when the mural went up, every single one of them said, ‘Wow,’” Khalili said. “That is beautiful.”

The Jerusalem mural is just the beginning of his efforts to raise awareness about the cause of Iranian women, he added, and he sees Israel as a powerful location for those efforts. He called Jerusalem “the most important city in the world.”

“Just to be crystal clear, this isn’t the only [mural] I’m going to do in Israel,” he said. “I’m going back.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.