We don’t usually think of beauty queens as brave. And it is fashionable to mock the swimsuited Miss Galaxies for their bleating efforts to “bring world peace”.
But Sarah Idan, last year’s Miss Iraq and contestant in Miss Universe, is undoubtedly brave – and is also doing her utmost to try to bring a little bit of peace and understanding to the troubled region of her birth.
Last year, Idan convulsed the beauty world by making friends with – and, worse in the eyes of many people, posing in Las Vegas for a selfie with – her opposite number in the Miss Universe contest, Miss Israel.
Idan and Adar Gandelsman were snapped together and Idan posted the image on her Instagram account, captioning it “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel”.
The two women had “just clicked”, Idan said, explaining: “We became friends in less than 10 minutes, and now think of each other as sisters.”
But for Idan the fallout was instant and terrifying. There were death threats to both Idan and her family and eventually her family relocated to America, where Idan was already living.
Two weeks ago, at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Idan took an unthinkable step for a young Iraqi and travelled to Israel to address the AJC’s global policy forum in Jerusalem.
During the trip, she reconnected with Gandelsman and says she was greeted with the warmest of welcomes by Israelis.
She admits that when she was first asked to go to Israel, she refused. “I knew I would get into trouble andI really didn’t want any more headaches,” she says.
She discussed the idea with her family. “My dad was on board, but my mother was very worried. The AJC talked me round, and said I would be the fi rst person [from Iraq] to come to Israel, and that it would be worth it, and eventually my mother calmed down.
“Of course, the difference is that I was able to go as an American citizen, and that’s the problem for most young Arabs – they don’t have any other place to go.”
During her visit, a defiant Idan toured Jerusalem and ate at an Iraqi kosher restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market in the city.
She says she already had many Israeli friends in Los Angeles, but the actuality of being in Israel was, of course, very different. Disappointingly for Idan, her visit drew more negative comments on social media – she says she lost more than 8,000 followers on one of her accounts.
Although she told the AJC audience in Jerusalem that young people in the Arab world did not have a problem with Israel, she acknowledges that there is “a huge amount of anti-Semitism”.
She explained: “There are people who don’t just have a hatred for Israel, but for the Jewish people, and it is appalling.
“I received over 1,000 comments/messages describing Jews as people with no right to have a country, cursed by God and who are the murderers of all prophets and innocents and hoping I join them in hell. This is anti- Semitism and extremism.”
To one Twitter critic of her visit, the feisty Idan responded: “Rats, pigs and monkeys. You call them [Jews] these names to dehumanise them. This may work in the Arab world, but not in the west, where people don’t believe in prejudice.
“I saw your post calling me a Jew, as if it’s an insult or a warning… People like you are the reason I show support.”
But she is clear on one thing: “Not a single Iraqi attacked me,” she says, noting that most of the hatred came from elsewhere in the Arab world.
Now she is back in the US, the Baghdad-born beauty is not just talking the talk.
“I have one goal in my head,” she says. “I want to build a connection to improve relations between Jews and Muslims, between Israelis and Arabs.”
She is setting up an organisation called Humanity Beyond Human Borders, the aim of which will be to establish contacts in Israel for Iraqi children who are in need of lifesaving surgery.
“Normalisation is my motivation,” she says, adding: “I want to make a documentary film to show people getting and giving this treatment, and learning to trust each other.”
Idan is aware of the hurdles she faces in the Arab world, but says she believes she can overcome them.
“Not a single Arab TV channel showed a story about my trip to Israel, but this is my new project – to start a channel in Arabic that will show history, religion and challenge misinformation.”
Meanwhile the former beauty queen, who is a musician and composer in real life, is concentrating on making the links between Israeli medics and potential Iraqi patients.
“My title as Miss Iraq gave me a pedestal”, she says. “Now it’s giving me a voice that has to be heard.”