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Vahid: Peerless Insight From Inside Prison Walls

A world-wide social media campaign, one of remembrance and advocacy for seven unjustly jailed leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran, ends today. Their 20-year sentences for educating and counselling their fellow believers have no finish line in sight. Vahid is Vahid Tizfahm, yet another widely known and cherished community servant taken from among the Iranian Baha’is. He and his partners in “crime” are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and here we go again. Danny and Pej asked their buddy, me, to contribute to the social media protests, and I’m hoping these personal essays are of some use in the necessary worldwide conversation. Vahid Tizfahm and his six colleagues are sacrificial lions, bravely enduring pariah status in a country that needs their kind more than it knows. Here is the last instalment of my series on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven years, and counting…

Ever had an optometrist for a hero? I have, now. Vahid Tizfahm is a lion.

Ever had an optometrist for a hero? I have, now. Vahid Tizfahm is a lion.

At 42, Mr. Tizfahm is the same age as his father was when he was executed for being a Baha’i. Three bullets, no lawyer, no charge that we would recognize as remotely judicial. Vahid, the son who is now the similarly arrested father, is quite the youngest of the Yaran, the “friends”, the group of seven Baha’is that worked to guide and encourage the members of their persecuted community. As has become the disgusting norm in Iranian society, it goes without saying — so I’ll SAY it, again — that he did not go to university; as a member of “this detestable sect”, he wasn’t allowed to. He was able to train as an optometrist, and alongside this business he was a youth leader, taught children’s classes and was appointed to generally inspire, encourage, and promote learning among Baha’is. He studied under and supported the BIHE, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an underground university that trains excluded Baha’i students in living rooms and by email. He did these things, of course, until he and the other Yaran were arrested, for “crimes” such as these, a little more than seven years ago.

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Vahid is the Persian form of an Arabic word that means “unique”, “peerless”. Vahid. One of the greatest figures of the violently visionary and just plain violent early years of the Baha’i movement, in 19th-century Persia, was given this lofty title. And how we have another singular man, quietly, hardily, heartily bearing societal rejection and punishment in the name of principle, in the pursuit of justice.

The Tizfahm family. Not sure whether this is a prison visit, or just prior to his arrest.

The Tizfahm family. Not sure whether this is a prison visit, or just prior to his arrest.

Vahid Tizfahm’s son was in grade 3 when they came for him, about the same age his daddy had been when his own father was taken. The family had just moved to Tehran, and my thinly educated guess is that they had done so in order for Mr. Tizfahm to more easily work together with his Baha’i leadership colleagues. The lad is now a sophomore in high school. I have a son about that age, who probably gets more contact with his Dad than he’d like. But what about young Mr. Tizfahm?

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Behrouz: How Do You Pray for the Oppressors?

It’s Day 7 of a world-wide week of remembrance and advocacy for seven leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran. (I am doing “The Time Warp” again. One day behind. This is Stubbornness is Virtue week month, after all, and I had to get to know Behrouz Tavakkoli.) Behrouz is another man who is widely known and loved — and taken from — among the Iranian Baha’is, one of the seven now entering an eighth year of unjust imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He and his partners in “crime” are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and here we go again. Danny and Pej are among the Ottawa contingent of Internet protesters, and I’m hoping these personal essays are of some use in the worldwide campaign. They are sacrificial lions, bravely enduring pariah status in a country that needs their kind more than it knows. Here is the latest instalment of my series on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven years, and counting…

They made a carpenter out of him. Behrouz Tavakkoli, in most ways, is probably okay with that.

They made a carpenter out of him. Behrouz Tavakkoli, in most ways, is probably okay with that.

I’ve been reading about Behrouz Tavakkoli. (I’ve known some “Persian versions” named Behrouz. They usually had to defer to the impervious pronunciation of Canadian-born friends and accept ‘Bruce’. Too bad, but Iranians have put up with worse. Declaration: I’ve never had a bad experience with a Behrouz.)

My favourite Bruce, singer/songwriter Cockburn, startled those familiar with his gorgeous acoustic guitar-picking and gentle, Christian-flavoured and granola-fed singing. It was the 1980s. As he became more aware of global poverty and the systematic injustice of so-called “first world” nations, songs like “They Call it Democracy” were wildly angry for a peace-loving Canuck. The most shocking one, of course, and likely the one that put him on an American blacklist for a time, was “(If I Had a) Rocket Launcher”. He wanted to “make somebody pay” for the terrible suffering he saw in Central and South American countries, which were ‘collateral damage’ during that ever-more–ridiculous global struggle (allegedly) between communism and democracy. (Remember the Cold War? Is it even over? Where and how is it being fought now? These are uncomfortable questions. Feel free to ignore them; most do.)

I have nothing so dramatic to say; nobody will pay. However, I read Mr. Tavakkoli’s story, and there’s no doubt:

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Saeid Rezaie is a Farmer-Loving Baha’i Intellectual*

* Clearly, he had to be stopped!

It’s Day 5 of 7. (It would be Day 6 — well, okay, it is — if I wasn’t behind. This is Stubbornness is Virtue week month, after all, so I carry on because *I* want to know these people better.) This multi-faceted man, previously unknown to me but widely known and loved among the Baha’is of Iran, is among the seven community leaders now entering their eighth year of unjust imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He — and his six partners in the most benevolent, world-minded sorts of “crime” you could imagine — are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and this is my tardy homage to Mr. Rezaie. Danny and Pej wanted thoughtful Twitter traffic; I’m producing these personal essays which aren’t being Tweeted about much. (Sorry, D&P.) These friends, among others that I’m close to, have only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from these Iranian sacrificial lions. The Seven are enemies of an insecure state simply because of their membership in a community enduring nearly two centuries, now, of slander and persecution in their homeland. The tragic, heroic and under-reported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years, continues, even if I’m a day late and several million brain cells short.

Agriculture is quite old-fashioned. Who needs it? Who even cares? It’s as if we’ve gotten so modern and giga-groovy that we don’t have to think about food production at all, and if we do, chances are it’s not much more than a glimpse: an idyllic image of a family farm on some supermarket packaging, an image that bears about as much relationship to modern agriculture as fish do to fish sticks.

I have my own agri-romantic fantasies. I want to be a farmer. I was a happy man today with a shovel, a rake and a barrow — no wheel — in my tiny backyard garden. Maybe this comes from raking and draining ball diamonds to get ready for my team’s next youthful pitching and catching and swings of the bat. Certainly it comes from growing up in a little town with two old mills within, and endless fields of corn, hay and soy all around it. Our town fair featured — for a few years among the usual tractor and biggest-pumpkin displays, greasy food and clunky rides, the Baptist Church pies and the demolition derby — an earnest group of idealists celebrating the notion that “The Farmer Comes First”. (Always liked being first, I did, but my farm dreams are a rather unlikely route to victory. I digress.)

This advocacy for the preeminent importance of the farmer was, even then, a relatively doomed notion, as more and more of us became city-dwellers and ever more remote from the reality of food. (Never mind where babies come from – where does chicken or Cheez Whiz come from?!) And yet, it’s still a concept that we might find useful, this making-sure-we-can-feed-ourselves-not-just-cheaply-but-healthily-and-sustainably thing. Y’know, the small stuff.

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Who in the World is Afif Naeimi?

It’s Day 4 of 7. I’m thinking of this man, previously unknown to me, who is among the seven innocent Baha’is now entering their eighth year of imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He — and his six partners in the most benevolent, world-minded sort of “crime” you could imagine — are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and this is my attempt to honour Mr. Naeimi. This probably isn’t what Danny and Pej had in mind; the bulk of the campaign they asked me to contribute to involves social media, an area where I have only narrow and entry-level eptitude. These friends, among others that I’m close to, have only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from these sacrificial lions. The Seven are enemies of an insecure state simply because of their membership in an often-ostracized community, which has been subject to nearly two centuries of bigoted slander from the entrenched shiah orthodoxy in what was once Persia, now Iran. I learn more of this tragic, heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years. I call to remembrance people that I don’t know, because when I read their stories, they are no longer strangers.

Mr. Naeimi, circa 2005 or so.

Mr. Naeimi, circa 2005 or so.

When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. So did Afif Naeimi. I was undone, for most medical schools, by my underwhelming performance in university chem and biology labs. At the progressive school I came the closest to being selected for, my clumsy interview performance likely roasted my goose. Mr. Naeimi? Now that’s a different story. He’s 53 now, which means that when he graduated from high school, a superb student, the Islamic Republic of Iran was in place, and a member of the “detestable Baha’i sect” was automatically disqualified from university. This is still the case in 2015.

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You Can’t Kill Jamaloddin Khanjani

This is my third quick reaction to the ongoing imprisonment of seven innocent Baha’is in Iran. I’d never heard of this man until recently, but today he’s my hero. He and his six partners in the most benevolent, world-minded sort of “crime” you could imagine are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and so here’s an introduction to Mr. Khanjani. Danny and Pej got me going on this project, feeding me information about this tragic, heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years.

The Unbreakable Mr. K.

The Unbreakable Mr. K.

Mr. Khanjani is 81.

His given name means something like “God’s beauty”.

He was arrested on May 14, 2008, along with five of the Quietly Magnificent Seven. In 2011, his wife of over fifty years, mother of his four children, died. He was not permitted to attend her funeral.

He is held in Gohardasht Prison. (The place even sounds harsh to a Western ear. Tehran’s Evin Prison is more infamous, but Gohardasht is brutally harsh as well.) He lives.

While his story will echo for a long age among Baha’is – among all who pay attention to grace under pressure, to indomitability under the worst circumstances – surely his days are numbered, yet when I read a brief biography, the man does seem to be pretty much unbreakable.

Listen: after the 1979 Revolution, Iran’s Baha’is were still under the leadership of their annually elected National Spiritual Assembly, nine women and men who never asked to be leaders, never campaigned, but were chosen from among the mass of Iran’s largest religious minority to care for and administer the community. It wasn’t long before their death sentences were handed down, the crime being heresy (or espionage, or immorality, or sedition, or any number of euphemisms for cut the head off the snake and the body will follow). All nine were executed.

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Biography of a Criminal: Fariba Kamalabadi

How’s this for a life of crime? Dad’s a doctor who loses his job for practising medicine while Baha’i (that’s known as a ‘PMWB’ offence, which went from a misdemeanour to a felony after the Iranian Revolution in 1979). He was imprisoned and tortured, though it probably did nothing to straighten him out. (You know how these people are!) His daughter Fariba seemed to think that, just because she had outstanding high school marks, her brazen attempt to go to university was somehow her RIGHT. The ruling authorities of the Islamic Republic, fortunately, were able to nip that nefarious plan in the bud. Ms. Kamalabadi, however, was incorrigible, embarking in her 30s on an extended, clearly delusional attempt at higher education from an underground university, the notorious “Baha’i Institute for Higher Education” (BIHE). She had a lengthy criminal record with a wide range of what are euphemistically called “volunteer activities” and was imprisoned several times. Finally, when her propensity for repeated, remorseless involvement with a gang of six other reprobates continued – why, these people were helping that illegal Baha’i element to learn, marry and other of their supposed “human rights” – she was among the seven who were finally rounded up and removed, dangers as they clearly were to law-abiding Iranian citizens, from decent society…

*Coughs*. That’s enough of that. Irony is hard. Sarcasm kills…

Pre-incarceration photo, likely much changed now -- except for that resolute chin.

Pre-incarceration photo, likely much changed now — except for that resolute chin.

[This is the second of my stubborn efforts to get to know more of the seven innocent Baha’is in Iran, who are the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and so here’s a taste of the remarkable life of that “arch-criminal” Fariba Kamalabadi, 52. Again, thanks to intrepid Baha’i social networkers Danny and Pej, who have fed me with a steady diet of sad yet still ennobling information about this tragic, heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years. This won’t take long; be sure not to miss her own description of her “crime” below.]

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Late Night Thoughts on Mahvash Sabet

Stubbornness is Virtue, I’ve been insisting. I said I’d have a few things to say upon reading more of the story of the woman who is today’s focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and here they are. I knew next to nothing before intrepid Baha’i social networkers Danny and Pej led me to a pool of information on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years, but they didn’t force me to drink.

Ms. Sabet was the first among the seven Baha’i leaders to be arrested, in March of 2008. These seven had taken on an ad hoc role of guiding and encouraging the oppressed Baha’i community of Iran, since its local and national institutions had been banned in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Over a year after her arrest, Ms. Sabet was charged with “espionage” and “spreading propaganda against the [government]” in a kangaroo court proceeding, more of a political harangue than anything we’d recognize as judicial. There she is, and here am I, wondering about her life as I read a brief biography.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

Greyer, but what a kind, calm face.

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7Bahais7Years: Getting Mad, No Getting Even

UPDATE: After this post, I wrote short personal essays on each of the Quietly Magnificent Seven — Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. Click on a name to get a quick impression of each.

Now this is really starting to burn my cookies. Must be time to write. (You write beautifully when you’re angry, cooed Howdy’s imaginary mistress of exposition. Liar. And thanks, he replied.)

Listen: I’ve known about the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders in Iran for a while. I hang around the Baha’i community quite a bit. I am irritated occasionally by their relentless kindness and optimism and my repeated failures of same, it’s true. They’re everywhere you look, but there are never enough of them. But where else would I go for reasonable views on the spiritual life, for a worldview both epically hopeful and practical, for a community that embodies (better than anything I’ve seen) all the grassroots democracy and unity-in-diversity that I can shake an old hockey stick at? Long story short: nowhere. I keep lurking behind the frontlines of Baha’i community-building because it stirs my mind, shakes my lethargy, calms my despair and lifts my spirit. Not bad!

So: the Baha’is in Iran are under assault in their own home, right where this global system of knowledge and practice began. (Call it a religion, if the word doesn’t poison you) Where their Faith originated, they have been vilified, harassed and murdered for a century and a half. The old story. It continues. Scapegoating. Jail. Executions. The whole nine.

Or, in the particular case that’s overturned my emotional outhouse and toilet-papered my trees todaySEVEN. Seven Baha’is. Seven years in two different Tehran jails, and who can say which is more infamous?

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SIV: Germanwings, High School, and Islands

Yes, and you may have heard of Stubbornness Is Virtue (SIV) week, self-declared and self-extended, in which I have granted myself executive authority to Get Stuff Done, no matter how ‘last month’ it might be. This week, we have heard more from the investigation of the Germanwings air disaster, more on the sordid rehearsal that CopilotBoy did for his all-too-sadly-inclusive march into oblivion. I wrote, quite bitterly, about this unnameable coward earlier, but here was my first (pre-empted) reaction, now finally finished — rather like my lengthy high school career.

I was in high school for a LONG time.

It was five years, at first, back in the era of Ontario’s Grade Thirteen. Five years of education and some factory/retail time later, I did some teacher prep-time in a few southern Ontario elementary schools, and then resumed what seemed to be the endless walk down the halls of eternal high school. I was a full-time Creature in my 20s, and was still barking and grinning, cajoling and joking and explaining and teaming my ever-lovin’ head off ‘til I was deep into my forties.

Then, in China, I taught university students, but it didn’t feel much different. (The kids, so sheltered by the abrasive cocoon of high-pressure study – and so charming in their child-like forays into English – seemed younger than European and North American kids. Less experienced. Less jaded. The freshmen inevitably reminded me of ninth-graders, the girls beginning to dress for the male gaze, the boys pretending not to notice.) And even now, having retreated from that consuming, exhausting gig, I hang with high-schoolers all the time. Two of ‘em live with me, and I chase many more of them around gyms, with a whistle and incessant roundball counsel. (It’s no way to make a living, but I feel lively when I’m doing it.)

There weren't enough candles in the world to brighten that day. (photo from rt.com)

There weren’t enough candles in the world to brighten that day. (photo from rt.com)

High school is where I live, still, with much of my heart. No surprise, then, that when the Germanwings airliner went down, and my morning dose of Bad News at Home and Abroad muttered that “…eighteen of the dead are from one German high school”, my heart ached more than usual. The last time I felt this way – like a bombing near-miss, where I’m assaulted by the carnage but haven’t a scratch myself – was the bit-by-bit unfolding to me of the costs of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, especially in the lives of children buried in shoddily built schools.

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Getting Your Howdy On: SIV Week Is Here

It’s my mother’s birthday. Were she still shuffling, flat-footed and bunion-aching, along this mortal coil of frayed and ravelled rope, she would be turning 95 today. She would be steamed. I’m so angry I could spit! she used to mutter when one of us, not always me, would race heedlessly past the wide but certainly finite fields of her patience. She loved life, doted on her family and especially those teeming crowds of grandchildren gathered around every Howden turkey. She’s a woman who suffered, and yet got pretty much what she had hoped for in life. In her last months, though, she’d had enough, and was quite-content-thank-you to be DONE with sleeping and waking and eating and all these things. One day in a hospital bed, she awoke, looked around with confusion and (at least the way I read it) growing dismay, and said, “Am I still here?”

Today is Enid Day. She died in 2006. (I remembered her, in one of my favourite and least-saleable pieces in JHdotCOM history, here: http://jameshowden.com/2006/11/enid-mary-elizabeth-howden/ . Sorry, still unable to hyperlink.) Her birth-day is when we most remember her. I got a note from Big Sister that looked forward to her third Enid Day in Nunavut, where she her last few years of “retirement” teaching some of the damaged and despairing children and youth of Cape Dorset. She was enticed there by my ex-wife, with whom she lives. (That’s a pretty good story, I figure, though not mine to tell, not yet.) So, happy Enid Day to them, to all my relations, and to you and me.

In memory of her, I have declared this SIV Week. I’m not sure who was more stubborn, Enid or my Dad, though I’d say both changed astral planes more easily than they often changed their minds. The stubbornness I rue with such arm-waving in my fourth son informs me — eventually, ruefully, guiltily — of just how cement-headed I so often and so chronically am. Solution? StubbornnessIsVirtue Week. SIV. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em; if you can’t alter it, exalt it! Winston Churchill was stubborn. So were Gandhi, King, Teresa. So am I, if only I could beat that adamantine forehead of mine against more meaningful walls.

Therefore, this having been declared SIV Week, I’m taking several half-finished things that I’ve written over the past while — and, for various reasons, chief among them cowardice, fatigue and cerebral untidiness, haven’t had the poop to complete — and I’m GETTING THEM BLOODY WELL DONE. (I also remain, certainly, cursed by Enid’s endlessly repeated counsel that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, which has led to more procrastination and dismayed unfinish-ing than either of us can abide.) So, first you’ll see, in the It’s All About Sports section, my final Final 4 basketball thoughts, though that American college hoops lollapalooza finished three weeks ago. Other gottawritems are even older, but won’t look so obviously out-of-date because they’re less particular.

So: I’m finishing stuff. I’m clearing the decks. Spring cleaning of the neocortical kind. Purging. Loosening my load, in hopes that new and fresh things might follow, but mainly out of brute determination to do-stuff-my-way-even-if-it-makes-no-sense-to-readers-’cause-Mum-never-gave-up-and-mulishness-should-sometimes-bear-fruit-even-if-it-looks-like-a-dungpile. It’s MY dungpile. I made it all by myself! Happy Enid Day, and Happy StubbornnessIsVirtue Week!!

The rest, below, is in explanation of what this site has done and does when it’s not SIVW.

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