A guest post by Patrick Cox, Global Peace & Security Advocate, University of Dallas, TX

When I had inquired into participating in my university’s International Day Festival, I discovered from the Office of International Student Services that I might very well be the only Persian on our small, private liberal arts university campus. I have yet to come across anyone else from a Persian background, so I guess my university has half of a Persian. Located near the Dallas Cowboys’ Texas Stadium in the suburb of Irving, the University of Dallas is a far cry from the consciously cosmopolitan atmosphere that I had been accustomed to at Boston University in my undergraduate years.

Held every spring in the center of campus, the International Day Festival is a meeting of cultures and a chance for members of the university community to explore other countries and their cultures and ethnic foods. This year, the Festival boasted booths with student representatives from Thailand, Latin America, Africa, India, the Arab World, and more, and it happened to fall on the day before Norouz, the Persian New Year. So, on March 19th, I packed my car with books on Iran, my laptop, an Iranian flag, Persian sweets, handcrafts, artwork, and other eye-catchers for the booth and headed to campus.

Having arrived to campus that morning, I carried my booth materials up to the university mall in central campus and began setting up for the five-hour event, eager to see what the event would be like. I sorted the picture-filled tomes on Iran, the book of Rumi’s poetry, the Iranian culture intro book, the handmade Persian jewelry box, artwork, and other items neatly onto the table, and then I fit in the array of snacks – Persian walnut cookies, raisin cookies, chickpea cookies, pistachios, the traditional dried fruit and nut mix that is eaten at New Year, dates, and bamieh, a doughnut-like sweet soaked in honey. At the back of the table, Persian music playing softly on my laptop attracted the ears of passersby.

Hundreds of people stopped by at least briefly to see the various books, foods, and items that I had on display. Many people were curious about the history, culture, and traditions of Iran. I explained Norouz (literally ‘new day’), the Persian New Year, to several people. Celebrated by many peoples in Asia and in areas of Eastern Europe, Norouz is the biggest celebration of the year for Persians, can be traced back thousands of years, and is also the first day of spring (vernal equinox). Not everyone would stop to take a look, but at least I think that event helped feed the curiosity of those who were seeking to know about Iran (and other places/cultures). I also had several fruitful discussions with the representatives at the other booths, many of whom were interested to know the difference between Persians and Arabs, the difference between the former Shah and the current regime, or simply what Iran looks like (in pictures).

The overwhelming majority of those with whom I spoke appeared to have formulated their image of Iran predominantly from what is currently portrayed in the media. For some, I was the first Iranian whom they had met personally. As our government and media have been actively and increasingly concerned with this “Axis of Evil” country ever since the American public lost hope in real success for the Iraq War, this is a vital time to promote dialogue not only amongst our leaders but amongst the Iranian people and the American people. There is a dire need for dialogue between any two nations that are even remotely thought be on the brink of WAR, and the rare and precious opportunities for dialogue between our nations should focus on resolving tensions.

UD’s International Day Festival is one small way in which such dialogue takes place. Although I was aware of the relative lack of diversity on campus at the outset, even I was surprised and inspired to find that many at this small Catholic university were willing to explore and to learn about other countries, cultures, and peoples in the interconnected world that we live in. I am occasionally still stopped on campus and asked about Iran and its history and culture; a few are even curious about how they can and whether it is safe for Americans to travel there. Presenting a beautiful culture, addressing stereotypes, and discovering random things through my interactions with the university community (e.g. that non-Persians could like chickpea cookies, which I had always viewed as having a somewhat strange taste that probably takes a little getting accustomed to) for a day was truly a pleasure for me, and I believe that these simple interactions among peoples of different backgrounds and from different countries can also work to unite everyday people with a sense of global community, even when our leaders insist upon taking us to war.