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food / travel

Meet The First European Union Exchange Student In Iran

Italian Valentina Simeone's eyes were opened by her six months at Tehran University, yet another breakthrough in relations between Iran and the West.

Valentina Simeone and one of her teachers at Tehran University
Valentina Simeone and one of her teachers at Tehran University
Federico Taddia

TEHRAN — Valentina Simeone hails from the city of Cagliari on the Italian island of Sardinia, but has spent the past six months a world away — in Iran.

The 21-year-old became the first ever European Union exchange student to the Middle Eastern country, studying Farsi at Tehran University under the Erasmus Program, a EU student exchange program established in 1987. Though Erasmus had partnerships with other non-EU countries, such opportunities were unavailable in Iran until the recent warming of relations with the West that led up to the successful negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program.

Simeone has bright eyes and unruly long brown hair held back by a colorful hijab, the Muslim veil common in Iran. "At first it was a bit traumatic, since I spoke only a few words of Farsi and it was hard to find any English speakers," she says. "Thankfully the mother of one my old university professors lives in Tehran, and she helped me find a place in the female dorm and work through the university bureaucracy."

Along with her hijab, Simeone kept with the modest dress often expected of women in the country: Her coat reached her knees, and she never exposed her elbows. "I thought my behavior and style of dress would alienate me from other students, but that faded quickly and then everything went well," she says. "Sometimes while walking on the street women would scold me for not completely covering my hair or for wearing a cropped shirt, but when they found out I was a foreigner they would apologize."

When she had free time outside of studying for her exams, Simeone came face-to-face with other unfamiliar aspects of Iranian culture. "Iranian female students almost never speak to male classmates, but I chatted with them and never had any problems," she says.

She didn't go out drinking in nightclubs, which is legally prohibited in Iran though increasingly common in underground locales. Instead, she whiled away the time in the many local tea and coffee shops, but with Facebook blocked, Simeone had to find new ways to stay in touch with her friends and family. She maintained her ties to home alive by cooking pasta for her Iranian roommates, just as she sampled Iranian kebabs.

Simeone was in Tehran when the nuclear deal was approved and global sanctions were lifted, an invaluable look at a unique time in Iranian history. "Young people were very energized, and the first immediate effect you could see was a surge in tourist arriving," she says. "They want to get to know the West and drive Iran's future development."

In addition to improving her grasp of Farsi, Simeone's stay allowed her to decide on the topic of her dissertation: Iranian-Italian relations. "My experience helped me reflect on many things, especially the unwavering faith of the students I met in Tehran," she says. "It's not a burden, it's a gift that shines through in all their actions, and this led me to reexamine my faith and deepen my understanding of my own identity."

After she graduates, Simeone plans on entering the Italian foreign service. "When I told locals I was Italian, they were fascinated. They know a lot more about Italy than we know about their country," she says. Perhaps she will take her singular experience as Iran's first European exchange student to the front lines of Iranian-European diplomacy, and aid the ancient country's burgeoning reintegration with the wider world.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Palestinian Olive Trees Are Also Under Israeli Occupation — And That's Not A Joke

In the West Bank, a quieter form of oppression has been plaguing Palestinians for a long time. Their olive groves are surrounded by soldiers, and it's forbidden to harvest the olives – this economic and social violence has gotten far worse since Oct. 7.

A Palestinian woman holds olives in her hands

In a file photo, Um Ahmed, 74, collects olives in the village of Sarra on the southwest of the West Bank city of Nablus.

Mohammed Turabi/ZUMA
Francesca Mannocchi

HEBRON – It was after Friday prayers on October 13th of last year, and Zakaria al-Arda was walking along the road that crosses his property's hillside to return home – but he never made it.

A settler from Havat Ma'on — an outpost bordering Al-Tuwani that the United Nations International Law and Israeli law considers illegal — descended from the hill with his rifle in hand.

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After kicking al-Arda, who tried to defend himself, the settler shot him in the abdomen. The bullet pierced through his stomach, a few centimeters below the lungs. Since then, al-Arda has been in the hospital in intensive care. A video of those moments clearly shows that neither al-Arda nor the other worshippers leaving the mosque were carrying any weapons.

The victim's cousin, Hafez Hureini, still lives in the town of Al-Tuwani. He is a farmer, and their house on the slope of the town is surrounded by olive trees — and Israeli soldiers. On the pine tree at the edge of his property, settlers have planted an Israeli flag. Today, Hafez lives, like everyone else, as an occupied individual.

He cannot work in his greenhouse, cannot sow his fields, and cannot harvest the olives from his precious olive trees.

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