Gregg Hurwitz and Samar Ali at the World Cup in Qatar Credit: Courtesy Samar Ali

While the primary focus of the Banner is covering civic news, occasionally we delve into things that are unique to Nashville, like Demetria Kalodimos’ look at the bald eagles at Radnor Lake. In the interest of full disclosure, Samar Ali is a member of the Banner’s Advisory Board. I’m a big fan of the work that her nonprofit, Millions of Conversations, is doing to get people to overcome the things that divide us. I hope you enjoy this column.

As a sports fan, I loathe opening ceremonies.

It’s always fun to see the athletes arrive at the Olympics, but the pageantry built around some arbitrary theme? I’ve never understood the appeal. Let’s get on with the games.

This was even more true for the World Cup held in Qatar in November and December. The competition began under a cloud given the controversy surrounding how multiple stadiums were built using imported labor. The workers often lived in terrible conditions, and hundreds of deaths were reported. Throw in U.S. involvement in the region, fighting almost nonstop since 9/11, and I was uninterested in pomp. I just wanted to watch some soccer.

So I was struck as Morgan Freeman walked onto the field and began a conversation with Ghanim Al-Muftah, a 20-year-old Qatari YouTube star very popular in the Arabic world, about the fractured nature of our perceptions about the Middle East.

When the man who’s so effectively played God in two movies speaks, you listen.

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“How can so many countries, languages and cultures come together if only one way is accepted?” Freeman says.

“We were raised to believe that we were scattered on this earth as nations and tribes so that we could learn from each other and find beauty in our differences,” Ghanim replied.

“I can see it,” said Freeman. “What unites us here in this moment is so much greater than what divides us. How can we make it last longer than just today?”

“With tolerance and respect, we can live together in one big home,” Ghanim said. “In Arabic, ‘Beit Ash-Sha’ar’ is the Bedouin tent, and when we call you here, we welcome you into our home.”

***

Even for a cynic like me, unity and peaceful coexistence are powerful messages. So I was stunned to find out that the scene was written in part by a Nashvillian.

Samar Ali is a research professor at Vanderbilt University and the president of Millions of Conversations, a nonprofit organization attempting to depolarize communities. She got a call last year from her friend Gregg Hurwitz — an author best known for the Orphan X book series — who said he and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis had been approached to write part of the World Cup opening ceremony. Hurwitz is a frequent collaborator with Millions of Conversations and needed Ali’s years of experience as an attorney, business developer and diplomat in the Middle East.

That scene with Freeman and Ghanim was inspired by a focus group Ali had conducted a few years ago for MOC on perceptions of Muslims in America. A woman looked at Ali and said, “We fear you. How does it feel to be so hated?” But by the end of the conversation, the woman’s attitude had shifted completely. “When you first came here, I was afraid of you,” she said. “And now I’m afraid for you because of people like me.” It was one of the experiences that confirmed Ali’s belief that Millions of Conversations could have an impact.

“That’s one of the first stories someone told me about her work when we first started working together,” Hurwitz says. “And that always stuck in my head, that notion of, ‘Can I be part of your community?’ There’s a call, but there’s also a brave and courageous vulnerability, anytime you’re trying to cross between groups.”

World Cup organizers wanted to focus on unity, something central to Ali’s work, as a theme for the month of competition. Part of their challenge in delivering that message was made easier when Freeman was hired and gave them a chance to think bigger.

“Part of what he represents is where he’s from as a Black man from Mississippi, in terms of also thinking about truth and reconciliation in our own country,” Ali says. “His ability to deliver and just his presence were immense.”

“There’s always a place on a screenplay or TV show, once it’s cast, it’s different,” Hurwitz says.  “Once you know, ‘This is the [performer’s] age, this is their temperament, this is going to be their strong spot.’ And we knew that what we wanted was a Morgan Freeman archetype. And we happened to actually get Morgan Freeman.”

For whatever issues there may have been around the World Cup, Ali says it was a chance to hold a microphone on the world’s stage, even for just a few minutes. Even if it was wrapped in a shell of pageantry, the chance to deliver a message of peace was irresistible. After months of work, to see it actually performed in the stadium was “an overwhelming experience” for Ali.

“I cried,” she says. “It was an out-of-body experience. It was wild. There’s just no other words for it.”

I’ve known Samar for more than a decade. One of the things that always impresses me is the level of thoughtfulness she brings to anything, even a ceremony at the beginning of a soccer tournament.

“There’s a Quranic verse that talks about celebration, celebrating differences,” she says. “And so there was a debate back and forth, whether or not to include that in the dialogue. And it was decided, yes, that was part of the inspiration, which is also similar to verses in the Bible and similar to verses in the Torah. It is embodied in the spirit of many faiths, which is, God didn’t create us all to be the same, because that would make a very boring world. And so he created us with differences to explore those differences, and to be curious about it.”

If Ali gets her way, that exploration will go a long way toward diminishing fear and hatred.

Photo: Gregg Hurwitz and Samar Ali

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...