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2015: Paris et Charlie, Chuck and Li’l Ol’ Me

I’m still writing like it’s 2015. I don’t mean brainless mis-dating in my chequebook (for those who remember writing cheques), just that my writing nook is a jumble, my mind is a mess and my habits are blowin’ in the wind. 2015 wasn’t any annus horribilis for me, and I’m far too privileged to complain about my lot in life. But although I wrote some things I’ve liked in this space, I wasn’t even a moderately productive pen-monkey¹ this year. I won’t annoy you (or me) with the details. However, I do believe in fresh starts, and before January gets any older, here’s a small bloggish step in any given direction.

¹ Writer Chuck Wendig’s self-description.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I wrote about it, though briefly, as part of my January 2015 lookback at a better year of JH.com bloggishness. For the second time in two months, Adam Gopnik was in my radio Thursday commenting on a freedom-of-speech manifesto written by the Charlie Hebdo editor, Stephane Charbonnier, not long before he and 10 others were murdered. Another misguided wretch, butcher knife in one hand and a box of toxic notions in the other (and a fake suicide vest – what in hell was he thinking?), tried to darken Paris, too, with his own in memoriam.

In November, Gopnik, Canadian-born and U.S.-based but with a longtime attachment to the City of Light and Love, had spoken movingly of how the second Paris attacks, that thuggery-in-spiritual-clothing, felt to a lover of the place. (Writer Nancy Huston was on the same CBC Sunday Edition program, and I still think of what she said. I’ll be quoting her in “He Said/She Said” soon; I’ve meant to for a month.) The dark side of the human spirit grossly forced itself upon Paris twice this year, but it was also the site of the United Nations’ COP21 environmental conference, the gathering that spotlighted an awakening world’s mounting concern over, and stumbling commitment to act on, climate change – and all the self-destructive habits and attitudes that are producing it. A long, often painful global roadshow – the one that portrays the dawning consciousness of the oneness of humanity – made three fateful stops in Paris in 2015.

I barely wrote about any of it. A snippet here, an oblique reference there. Bad pen-monkey.

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Re-Broadcast the Last: Vahid Tizfahm and His Living Letters

I could be writing, it’s true, about gun violence here and there. (Been there, wrote that, but there’s always more.) I ought to explore the tangled feelings of a frayed and stubborn father and his proud, combative son. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) There are Things to be Said about the two troupes of (mainly) 14-year-old boys that I’m spurring/goading/inspiring/herding toward basketball excellence, so impatiently. (How about now? Can you hear me NOW?! Why aren’t you trying harder?) And how about those Warriors, and the hardwood genius of Stephen Curry? And, like, all those other like sports thingies?

There’s Paris. I’ve barely written a word about the horrors of Paris then (and Beirut, and Bamako (Mali), and Kano (Nigeria), and San Bernardino (USA)…), and nothing of Paris now: governments and leaders defending their privilege (systematically) and twiddling and fiddling (often) while the climate burns, slowly and inexorably. (Heck, you think we have a refugee problem now? How about when Bangladesh or [insert your most precious coastal population centre here] is under water, or drought deepens in California or any other global or local food basket? Say, while I’m on the subject, didn’t Syria have a series of disastrous crop years just before the war?)

I’ll be getting to those. Probablymaybe. Soonerorlater.

But today, as I promised myself and The Usual Lurkers here at JH.com, I’m thinking about the last of the Iranian Seven, prisoners now on the most trumped-up of charges – weird how, suddenly, “trumped-up” accusations have a whole new layer of meaning – for over 90 months. I want you to know about and remember Vahid Tizfahm. You might not have heard of him, or his six brothers- and sisters-in-nobility, but I’ve written about each and I’ve been re-issuing the call. They’re still in jail. Their names are listed below.

There’s one, though, that I want you to read RIGHT NOW (sorry, no need to shout, I guess, not really, but wow) is this updated profile of Vahid Tizfahm, in which I include links to three remarkable — I dare say nearly incredible — letters written by (or partly by) Mr. Tizfahm.

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Re-Distribution 7.5: Behrouz Prays for His Oppressors

I’ve gotten distracted, just like the world has. For a week last May, considerable global attention — at least, within the bubble of those with the willingness (or the freedom) to look up from their routine concerns — was paid to remembrance and advocacy for seven leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran. Wanting to join the movement, I had to get to know Behrouz Tavakkoli, so I wrote about him.

Behrouz is another man who is widely known and loved — and was taken from — among the Iranian Baha’is, one of the seven who were then entering an eighth year of unjust imprisonment in two Iranian jails.  He and his partners in “crime” were the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and now that it’s seven-and-a-HALF years, here I go again. I hoped, back then, that my seven personal essays (this was the sixth) could be of some use in the worldwide protest, and maybe they moved somebody besides me, but the seven still grow old in prison. They are sacrificial lions, bravely enduring pariah status in a country that needs their kind more than it knows. So in case you missed, or would like to remember, my May series on the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for 7.5-years-and-counting, here was Issue No. 6…

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: that’s anger rising up into my chest.

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Recapitulation 7.5: Saeid Rezaie is STILL a Farmer-Loving Baha’i Intellectual*

* Clearly, he had to be stopped!

Mr. Rezaie was the fifth of the seven “friends” (Yaran) who had taken on the job of looking out for the needs of the oppressed Baha’i community in Iran, the land of its birth. In the past few decades, their elected councils have been outlawed, their reputations slandered, their businesses shuttered, their youth deprived of education, all in the wake of the execution of hundreds of believers following the “Islamic” revolution in 1979. Even the Yaran, voluntary leaders of the oppressed community, were arrested, and Mr. Rezaie and his colleagues are now halfway through 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 — were the focus last May for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, and this was my homage to Mr. Rezaie. 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.

Now it’s November, half a year of imprisonment later, and the tragic, heroic and under-reported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for a week of years, is still a burr under my saddle. So here’s what I said, and here’s what I say:

*****

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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Re-wind 7.5: Who’s Afif Naeimi, Again?

I should likely have been writing about my visit with Margaret Atwood Monday night. (Me, and about 500 close friends.) I have strong feelings, overwhelming at times, about Beirut and Paris (and, did you hear? eastern Nigeria) that ought to be recollected in whatever tranquillity I can scrape together. What’s more, I could be writing about my basketball teams, which are pretty darned fascinating in themselves and in the contrasts they present with each other. Heck, I could even dive back into my stillborn book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Men and Sport and Meaning But Were Too Distrapathetic¹ to Ask.²
I may yet write the darned things.

¹Not a real word. (‘Til now.)        ² Not its real title.

But not tonight.

The Quietly Magnificent Seven, in freer times. Community service becomes treason to a government bigoted and paranoid.

The Quietly Magnificent Seven, in freer times. Community service becomes treason to a government bigoted and paranoid.

The short answer to the title question above is that, for the fourth day in a row, I’m reminding a vanishingly fine slice of humanity — you guys, the ones who read my stuff — about the seven Baha’i leaders who, by all accounts, remain amazingly resolute and even light-hearted about the kangaroo-court decision that put all of them in jail seven years ago. (Well, it was seven years last May, when I wrote this series of profiles as part of the #7Bahais7Years consciousness-raising campaign. It’s now seven-and-a-half.) They are awesome.

Six months ago nearly to the day, I wrote: “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.” Not exactly Twitter-verse, but not a bad sentence, if I do say. I then went on to write about my getting to know the fourth, Afif Naeimi, andthat’s the point of this short post. I commend him to your attention.

Over the previous three days, I’ve also re-pubbed my profiles of Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi and Jamaloddin Khanjani. (Three pretty links, all in a row.) Sorry, though: if you want to read RIGHT NOW about Number Five, Saeid Rezaie, well, you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow!³

³ Or, I suppose, you could search this site and find it lickety-split back in May, talented human that you are.

Reminder 7.5: You Can’t Kill Jamaloddin Khanjani

This was the third of my quick and furious reactions to the ongoing imprisonment of seven innocent Baha’is in Iran. May of this year marked the end of their seventh year in captivity. As I wrote back then, “I’d never heard of Mr. Khanjani 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 were the focus for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign, which was a noble thing but not yet bearing fruit. Now, it’s 7.5 years. Counting…

Here’s one heroic and underreported story of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran.

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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Re-Iteration 7.5: “Criminality”, Iran Style

Six months ago, I started writing personal reactions to the lives and imprisonment of seven leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran. Their institutions had already been dissolved (subsequent to their elected members being routinely executed in the aftermath of the “Islamic” revolution), their young people barred from university, and their lives and businesses disrupted or destroyed. The month of May marked the seventh year in captivity for these seven citizens, on charges ranging from the incredible to the ludicrous.

Now it’s 7 years and a half. (The Islamic Republic of Iran appears to have been unmoved by my blogging last spring, but they haven’t heard the last from me yet.) Yesterday, I began re-posting my earlier profiles, beginning with a little-known Iranian woman named Mahvash Sabet. The international media campaign, tagged #7Bahais7Years, brought considerable attention but no release of the innocent. So here I am, six months later, because they are still in prison.

The second profile was on another remarkable woman, Fariba Kamalabadi. My sarcasm got the best of me; I titled it “Biography of a Criminal”. I plead outrage. Please click here to read about the inspiring courage and conviction of Ms. Kamalabadi.

Reboot 7.5: Late Night Thoughts on Mahvash Sabet

I had a few things to say, six months ago, on reading the story of a little-known Iranian woman named Mahvash Sabet. She was the focus, on May 14, for the international #7Bahais7Years campaign that tried to train a spotlight on her imprisonment, and those of six of her fellow Iranian Baha’is. Iran ought to be ashamed of itself.

The world was briefly more aware of the Quietly Magnificent Seven, prisoners of conscience in Iran for seven outrageous years, but as of right this minute it’s now seven and a HALF years. There is no sign of their imminent release from an incarceration that would be ridiculous if it weren’t such a serious injustice, such an outright loss to Iranian society. So if you missed it, here I was, trying to get to know Mahvash a little better.

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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Return of the Attack of the Cool Lean Bean-Counter

[Last night, the Ottawa Writers Festival took me on a road trip to Rwanda with Canadian humorist Will Ferguson. Wait. What? Rwanda? Humour? Yes, both, and it was superb. SPOILER ALERT: Rwanda has more to it than machetes and murder. (Gorillas. Mountains. Peace. Progress. More females in government than in your country.) Rwandans laugh. They remember. They change. It’s not still 1994 there, even if it is in most of our minds. But speaking of thought, I haven’t even told you about the previous WriteFest journey I went on, which stayed much closer to home.]

 

Speaking of public radio, and public spaces, and public service – as often happens around my little corner of the globe – I was in a sacred place last week where service to the common good was extolled with the help of a radio star that video couldn’t kill. (It probably helps that Alan Neal might be part hobbit.)

The SPACE: Centretown United Church is a lovely old stone building about 10 bus stops from Canada’s Parliament. Churches give some people the creeps, sometimes with good reason – desperately resisting the temptation here to mention what happened in Rwandan churches – but the UC is a benevolent and remarkably open-minded Canuck institution, and this place gets a different but complementary dose of the sacred whenever the Ottawa Writers Festival takes it over. Stained glass, hard benches, bright light at sundown, elevated and inspiring conversation. And BOOKS. (Another flavour of heaven, though as my father-in-law muttered afterward, “I don’t know what Pierre Berton was thinking when he called his book The Comfortable Pew. Had he ever sat on one of these things?” Irony can be fun.)

The RADIO: An interview with the evening’s author had already been done on CBC Radio 1’s local afternoon show, but the cherubic and funny Alan Neal was glad to recapitulate his conversation with Kevin Page for a live, though clearly greying, audience. It was like public radio in a really big studio, and was punctuated by the duo’s mock competitition to see who could insert more promos: the host at “All-in-a-Day-at-91.5-FM-in-Ottawa” or the writer “flogging my book Unaccountable”. I declared a tie. They made a good comedy team in the context of what could have been a very dry and earnest conversation. It gave bureaucrats (and public radio) a good name.

Kevin Page and a Parliamentary chandelier. (photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Kevin Page and a Parliamentary chandelier. (photo by Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The PUBLIC SERVICE and its SERVANT. Kevin Page became an unlikely centre to a surprising storm of Canadian attention. A self-professed “bean-counter”, this long-time economist within the Canadian federal public service became Canada’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2008. “Nobody else wanted the job,” he claims. It would seem to be a rather grey and readily-ignorable position; certainly, the sitting government during his tenure would have preferred that it remain so.

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September FIRST. What’s It To You?

Top o’ the evenin’, friends. (All slip and slope from here.)

Here were the many bits of sparkle and significance of an apparently random Tuesday in the life of a meaning-masher (me), trying to understand where one slightly eccentric but on the whole rather typical guy (also me) was coming from.

(NOTE: I am aware of autumnal equinoxes and Officially Falls, but summer was over and I heard the school bells ring. September First is a Time of Change.)

Once a teacher, always one, and always for me has the first of September been a wistful but galvanizing passage. The anxiety dreams were, and are still, in full swing. (Can I still do this? Even if I don’t actually do it anymore? Luckily, performance worries are easily transferrable.) It was, once again, time to get ready.

September 1 marked Cycle 39, Phase IV, Action Plan 13(b) of my eternal Get Organized! campaign. Those shelves? Downstairs. Clear that desk. These books go here and there. (Some may even be released into the wild.) Several priorities are in the shop for rearrangement. So much STUFF. And what do I do with cassette tapes of radio recordings and The Talking Heads? A coil-bound series of musty journals? My files from a teaching career that shows hopeful signs of being defunct? Major conundrums. Serious biz, no doubt, but I waded in and felt enlivened and resolute (with a hot ‘n’ sour side of rueful fatalism).

Speaking of fate and rue: 9-1 was mumblety-seven years and a few odd days past a coulda shoulda wouldabin wedding anniversary, would’ve been a quietly joyful reconnaissance of things past if the lights hadn’t gone out that dreadful year. Instead: “Yup. That happened. We started off so well, I thought.”

On the other hand,

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