Tempted by the wafting smell of kabob, a line of Columbia students, plates in hand, stretched out the door of room 413 at the School of International and Public Affairs Wednesday night at the launch of the Columbia Iranian Network.
The new group intentionally presented a placid scene of Iranian culture at the event, in contrast to the turmoil that erupted on campus after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia last year.
"While we don't necessarily support Ahmadinejad, last year's event was very embarrassing for Iranians," Kowsar Gowhari, a student at the School of Continuing Education, said. Gowhari specifically took issue with University President Lee Bollinger's controversial introduction of the Iranian president last year, adding that "it wasn't suitable and it changed my perception of Columbia."
As a result, this event lacked political intentions. "This is more for just socializing," Gowhari continued. "Iranians are a small community at the university."
The Columbia Iranian Network appears to have been founded with that in mind. The grew out of a similar group—Iranians at SIPA—whose activity dwindled as the key members graduated.
Sanaz Memarsadeghi, a SIPA student and a coordinator of the event, said she believes that too many people see only the politics of Iran, and understand them in only the most basic terms.
"All they know about Iran is political, all they associate us with is the Axis of Evil and the hostage crisis," she said.
Gazelle Javantash, a second-year SIPA student and the group's main founder, said the network is key in creating a dialogue about Iranian culture.
Wednesday evening's event focused on the club's social aims and on Iranian culture. Attendees shared platefuls of steaming meat and rice before the lights were dimmed for a screening of the Iranian film Offside, a light-hearted, comic look at die-hard female soccer fans in Iran who, banned from going to the games, disguise themselves as men to gain admittance. The women, swaggering in baggy shirts and even in military uniforms, are often caught and detained, and (who would guess?) hilarity ensues.
Javantash selected the film, which was directed by an Iranian and was very well-received in Iran, because, she said, "it's important for people to know that all Iranian women aren't just wearing hijab, they're not all sheltered."
Javantash said that the Network will focus on breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions of Iranian culture. The group's future event ideas include talks about Iran's economy and a discussion with an Iranian basketball player recently drafted into the NBA.
The group hopes to bridge the cultural and social divides between American and Iranian students, something members said cannot only be achieved by looking at Persian culture through a Western lens.
"Iran is a country that is 70 percent young people," Javantash said. "The Network's mission is to export that vibrant, youthful culture in a relatable way and to establish a dialogue with college students, Persians and non-Persians."