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. If I had even a sledge hammer, I wouldn’t swing it at anybody, I don’t think. I’ve been well-trained by all the sports I’ve played (once I left hockey at 13), by being a teacher, a father, by being geographically fortunate at birth: a guy has to control his rage. Yes. So if I was face to face with Iranian jailers, at best I’d probably shout a lot, and swear, and flail my hands. Today, I tap on a keyboard, and when I finish I will feel more calm — it’s good to finish something, even as insignificant as this — but it’s hard to read another story of innocence punished. Damn it! It’s not even innocence but outright civic benevolence that Iranian authorities recast as ‘espionage’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the regime’. (Side note: there were likely some American authorities who’d have willingly thrown Cockburn into jail for singing about “the usual panic in red, white and blue”. They’d have had infinitely more evidence of anti-governmental feeling than the Iranians have ever gotten from the Baha’is.)

Behrouz Tavakkoli turns 64 in a few weeks, so unlike generations of younger Iranian Baha’is, he did get to go to school. He got a degree in psychology, served in the Iranian army, and began to specialize in social service to those with mental or physical disabilities. He did, that is, until he was fired a few years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution for a ‘DSWWB’ infraction — that is, for Doing Social Work While Baha’i. (And again: what a COST Iran has paid for its religious bigotry!) He became a carpenter. He volunteered in the Baha’i community, running youth classes and various kinds of study groups. He was harassed and imprisoned for four months in 2005, and not for small-time woodworking. When he was arrested again in 2008, it was as one among seven people trying to encourage and educate, to maintain, the oppressed Baha’i community. This, in a country that has signed the U.N. declarations on human rights and religious freedom.

It’s enraging, but there’ll be no rocket launchers for me, not when Behrouz Tavakkoli writes to his grand-daughter, in 2009, proud to have been imprisoned for his beliefs, principles and kindly actions. “I don’t want you to ever bear any ill will toward your countrymen,” he wrote. “I assure you that we even love those who have persecuted us; not only do we not feel hatred toward them, but we pray for them.” The man not only became a carpenter, then, but along his persecuted way he learned to act like the Carpenter of Nazareth advised, two millennia back. As his son later wrote, Mr. Tavakkoli “is not an unusually brave man,…but when it comes to serving his Faith, he fears nothing”.

I’d love to be this man’s brother. (I AM this man’s brother, when I have my head on straight.) As I ended the last paragraph, as I was writing about a man who “fears nothing”, “Brothers in Arms” was playing on my little song-blaster. That brilliant album Dire Straits album of the same name came out in 1985, not long after Behrouz Tavakkoli lost his job and began to regressively lose the standard protections of citizenship. Bruce Cockburn, also in the mid-1980s (a while back but not so far away), wanted to retaliate against “things too sickening to relate”. Band leader Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits — and ain’t THAT the truth, speaking of injustice and religious bigotry! — had a different perspective. If you remember, he and his bluesy guitar preach in succession. (Great song! Play it while you finish.) Knopfler ends by singing,

…There’s so many different worlds, so many different suns
And we have just one world, but we live in different ones…

Now the sun’s gone to hell and the moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell, every man has to die
But it’s written in the starlight and every line in your palm
We are fools to make war on our brothers in arms

The Iranian authorities, I can’t help but agree, are foolish and misguided to hound a minority that has done nothing but bring honour and respect to Iran, for the resolutely peaceful and civilizing work they have done in their homeland and in nearly every corner of the earth. So, sure, Knopfler’s right, and Behrouz Tavakkoli no doubt chants the same theme with a Persian accent. A part of me, though, is still back there with Bruce C and the weapon he fantasized about having. This makes me mad. Typing doesn’t solve bloody much. BIC7DaysBanner

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