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Beauty pageants are all supposed to be about world peace, unless you’re an Arab national posing with an Israeli in a selfie on social media.
A few months ago, Miss Earth Lebanon was stripped of her title after making a peace sign with Miss Earth Israel, an Israeli Arab. She claimed she didn’t know the contestant was Israeli because she spoke Arabic. In 2015, another Miss Lebanon was stripped of her title for daring to be pictured with the “Zionist enemy” at the Miss Universe pageant. After accusing Miss Israel of photo-bombing, she kept her title.
But since 2017, Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, never backed down after igniting a media firestorm after posing with Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, at last year’s Miss Universe pageant with the simple Instagram caption: “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”
Not only that, the Baghdad-born Idan, today a resident of Los Angeles, has recently doubled down on her rebellion against anti-Israel hate, in Germany of all places, where she was guest speaker at the Israel Congress in Frankfurt in November. She called it her “political coming out.”
“One day, I came across one fact, an ugly one that made feel utterly ashamed,” she told a crowd of several hundred German Israel supporters. “Knowing Iraq was on the wrong side of history during the Second World War, and to be today in Germany discussing how to reach peace that negates ethnic and religious entitlements, I hope that my fellow Iraqis will join me to be on the right side of history this time.”
That’s a grand vision, given the anti-Israel propaganda among which Iraqis grow up. At the Frankfurt Convention Center, she recalled the anti-Israel and anti-American hate omnipresent in the media and on Baghdad streets.
“Our everyday news consisted of Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli soldiers holding weapons in front of them,” she said. “Then we heard 19 more Palestinians were killed as a result of a peaceful, weaponless protest against an unlawful, ruthless occupation.”
Two weeks after her German appearance, Idan was guest of honor at an Israeli consulate event held on Dec. 3 at The Sephardic Temple to remember Jews expelled from Arab lands.
“What is important tonight is honoring those Jews across Arab lands who lost their possessions, their homes and, in some cases, even their lives. All for the sake of preserving their faith, their beliefs and their identity,” she said in her keynote address.
Speaking with the Journal backstage in Frankfurt (after being inundated with requests for selfies), Idan said that she never learned that Jews once thrived in her hometown before the Nazi-inspired Farhud pogrom of 1941 triggered a Jewish exodus.
“In the beginning, the first time I met Iraqi Jews, I was mystified,” she told the Journal, donning a sleeveless, low-cut black suit. “I was like: What? There were Jews in Iraq? This is the level of ignorance they kept us at and we didn’t even know that there were Jews and they kicked them out. I called my mom and dad: ‘You knew this?’ And they said: ‘Yes. It happened a long time ago.’ ”
Today, she counts many Jews and Israelis as friends. Last summer, she visited Israel to spend time with Gandelsman and to tour Israel. “Iraqi Jewish restaurant serving bamya [okra]. Yummy!” she enthused on Instagram in June at the Jerusalem shuk. In Los Angeles, when she misses Iraqi home cooking, she opts for Jewish Middle Eastern restaurants.
“The first time I met Iraqi Jews, I was mystified. I was
like: What? There were Jews in Iraq?”
— Sarah Idan
“The taste of the food, whether the fish or the kabob or the turshi [marinated vegetables] — everything tastes like the food that I had in Iraq. If I go to Persian or Lebanese restaurants, they taste a bit differently.”
Her transformation began at age 13 after the United States occupation of Iraq in 2003.
“For the first time, I saw an American soldier in Baghdad,” she recalled in her Frankfurt speech. “I recited a chapter in the Quran as a prayer before death because I expected only one behavior from the solider: to shoot me. But the soldier came forward. He gave me a flower, and I knew that everything I had been taught was a lie” — including the idea that Israel invaded Arab lands.
The singer subsequently taught herself English via cassette tapes of American pop stars like Christina Aguilera and the band Westlife. She applied for a job with the U.S. Army in Iraq — a ticket to a green card. She moved to Southern California in 2009 and graduated in performing arts from the Musicians Institute in Hollywood.
Idan dresses like a Hollywood starlet, nothing like the stereotypical Muslim woman. Her name even sounds Jewish-Israeli, but “Sarah,” she said, also is revered in Islam, like Abraham. She was never physically coerced to pray in her home, unlike many of her Baghdadi peers. She considers herself a secular Muslim who understands the faith differently than most coreligionists.
“I wouldn’t say I’m religious but faithful,” she told the Journal. “More spiritual. I believe in God. I pray sometimes.”
And while the United States has given her the freedom to speak her mind, she still faces intimidation. She described getting dirty looks in Arabic strongholds like Glendale; a cosmetician who happened to be Iraqi treated her with suspicion. Death threats actually make her more defiant.
“At least if I die now, people will know what I stand for,” she said.
In Germany, Idan laid out her vision for Middle East peace, in true beauty-queen style, haters be damned.
“I say this to all the Arab countries: [Work] with Israel and Palestine by targeting terrorists who are controlling the West Bank and stopping those who fund them; by opening your doors to aid Palestinians and improve their means of life; by saving Palestinian children from the hands of militias; by providing them education and a chance to experience what a normal life is. Slowly but eventually, we are building a less violent generation.”
Orit Arfa is a journalist and author based in Berlin.
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