Oberlin’s Friendship Festival Celebrates 10th Year

Oberlin’s annual Friendship Festival, now in its 10th year, will take place this Monday in Wilder Main Space. Featuring crafts, guest speakers, free food from Aladdin’s, and raffle prizes, the event is sponsored by the Oberlin Friendship Circle. It comes out of of 12 years of friendship studies at Oberlin and aims to celebrate friendship as the antithesis of war, prejudice, isolation, and hate. 

For Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, Presidential Scholar in Islamic Studies and the Nancy Schrom Dye Chair in Middle East and North African Studies, the annual Friendship Festival is also a culmination of over three decades dedicated to studying international relations and friendship. Before coming to Oberlin, Mahallati served as the Director General for Economic and International Affairs in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also acted as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations.

As U.N. ambassador, Mahallati spent time mediating the Iran-Iraq war — an experience which changed his perspective on mediation. In order to be effective, Mahallati learned, mediation requires an interdisciplinary approach of humanities and social science — much like economics and sociology.

“I was convinced that [mediation] was more than a knowledge,” Mahallati said. “It’s an art as well.”

By the time he arrived at Oberlin, Mahallati had spent two decades teaching and navigating the complex issues of war and peace.

“When I came to Oberlin, I needed something totally different to refresh my mind,” Mahallati said. “And naturally I thought, ‘What is the opposite to war? Oh, friendship.’ So let’s work on friendship.” 

To Mahallati’s surprise, this realization would carry him through the next 12 years, as he has worked to make friendship not only a teachable subject but also a practical one. He has concluded that friendship must be taken seriously as a strategy for policy-making and can no longer be treated as just an intellectual inquiry or marginal idea.

College sophomore Gillian Chanko, co-president of Friendship Circle, attests to the impact of Mahalatti’s classes. 

“We talk a lot about using friendship in foreign relations, being not just allies but having presence of positive peace,” Chanko said. “So, good relationships rather than just the absence of war, because you’re much less likely to go to war with someone that you genuinely care about, which friends do. I don’t think people often think of diplomacy in terms of friendship.”

In 2011, to test the practicality of friendship studies, Mahallati went to the Oberlin City Council and successfully persuaded them to create the Friendship Resolution No. R11-05 CMS. This resolution establishes friendship as “a powerful foundation for international peacemaking.” 

According to Mahallati, he told the council that the U.S. is the number-one arms exporter in the world, but it also celebrates Valentine’s Day as a day of love. While Mahallati appreciates the importance of Valentine’s Day, he believes that friendship is more universal and warrants its own day of celebration. 

Oberlin students eagerly responded to this idea and created the Friendship Circle, a weekly gathering space for folks to discuss friends, music, poetry, cultures, and other universal uniting forces. 

College sophomore Brigit Cann, the group’s other co-president, explained how the club can change perspectives on diplomacy.

“I think people often think of diplomacy in terms of preventing war or preventing conflict,” Cann said. “But I think the message of the club and one of the goals of the club is promoting positive peace-building and positive interactions and communications between individuals and whole communities.”

Mahallati also aims to incorporate aspects of Islamic religion and culture into his teachings of friendship. Most importantly, he focuses on the collaborative aspect of religious rituals such as group prayer as “an encouraging mechanism within religious rituals that say, ‘Hey, come on, do it together.’” Similarly, friendship is based on togetherness, which inspired Mahallati to create this festival. 

Friendship Festival is the club’s biggest event of the year. Kiera Markham, College sophomore and Friendship Circle’s treasurer, explained that speakers are chosen based on how they contribute to the organization’s goals of community building. 

Besides guest speakers, “The biggest thing that you’re going to be spending money on is food, because food is just such a uniting factor for people,” Markham said. 

The importance of friendship is currently being recognized outside of Oberlin as well. In Britain, for example, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first Minister of Loneliness to investigate means of alleviating social isolation. The appointment followed a report released by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in January 2018, which found that 9 million Britons — 14 percent of the population — suffer from loneliness, which has devastating and costly effects on mental health. 

“Friendship is exactly an antidote to all this too,” Mahallati explained. “It’s against war; it’s against loneliness.” 

For Professor Mahallati, this mission began within his family. He cites their mediation skills as representing “the United Nations of our family.”

In the future, Mahallati hopes to introduce the festival to other communities, launch friendship studies as a full program, and bring these theories to international relations. 

The friendship festival will be held this year on Monday, April 8 from 4–6 p.m. in Wilder Main Space, and is open to the entire Oberlin community.