Rss

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.

Continue Reading >>

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.

Continue Reading >>

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.

Continue Reading >>

No Academy Award — Just Light in a Dark, Dark Room

My friend Sherri asked me to help out with an event she was helping to organize. So I did. I got to see a woefully underviewed but important film. For free. And I hardly had to do anything, but I got to write this:

Sherri Yazdani is a prairie girl, but as her surname suggests, she married into an Iranian family. Sherri is a mother, a storyteller, a lawyer, and when she stood in front of a nearly full auditorium in my city, she stood for human rights victims half a world away, yet not far from her family. She was a symbol, without making any fuss. She was there to bear witness to the ongoing, and indeed worsening, situation of the Baha’i community of Iran — maybe you’ve heard about this? — and to introduce the Ottawa screening of the documentary film To Light a Candle. She was one of several voices that brought local accents to its stirring international subject.

****

Bahari is on the right, and that's Jon Stewart in the middle. (Sorry, other guy!)

That’s Jon Stewart in the middle, actor Gael Garcia Bernal on the left, and on the right, the man he portrayed in Rosewater, Maziar Bahari. (Thanks, Sherri, for the edit!)

Canadians familiar with Maziar Bahari likely know him from the 2014 Jon Stewart biopic Rosewater, or perhaps from the Iranian-Canadian Bahari’s best-selling memoir Then They Came For Me, the book that inspired Stewart to make his directoral debut. However, before his now-famous stay and forced “confession” in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison following the suspicious 2009 elections, Mr. Bahari was Newsweek’s Iran correspondent and the award-winning maker of numerous documentaries. His most recent film is To Light a Candle.

Mr. Bahari, as part of a global campaign (www.educationisnotacrime.me), chose February 27 as an international day of conscience and awareness, and many Canadian communities screened To Light a Candle, supporting Bahari’s efforts to spotlight another notable injustice from his homeland: the Iranian government’s denial of education to Baha’i youth. (Bahari is not a Baha’i himself.) Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including South Africa’s Desmond Tutu¹ and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi, joined with Mr. Bahari and many other notable artists and public figures in speaking up for the beleaguered Baha’i community of Iran.

Continue Reading >>

William Sloane Coffin (on education and perspective)

I was never an American, and I was at the dimly echoing end of the Baby Boom generation, so I didn’t catch Reverend Coffin — now there’s a foreboding name for a man of the cloth — the first time around. He was an ordained pastor, the chaplain of Yale University from the late ’50s to the ’70s and later the voice of New York’s Riverside Church. In both places, he was a strong and fearless champion of peace, disarmament, social justice and a progressivist orientation for people of faith. (He was called, by some, the “true heir” to the mantle of Martin Luther King after King’s assassination in 1968.)

William Sloane Coffin, calling on the faithful, calling out everybody.

William Sloane Coffin, calling on the faithful, calling out everybody.

Lewis Lapham‘s 2006 eulogy to Coffin, in the July edition of Harper’s Magazine, was a beautiful and resonating thing which, however, has still not led to my more attentive reading of WSC’s works, such as The Heart is a Little to the LeftLetters to a Young Doubter, and Once to Every Man: A Memoir.  I read Lapham’s praise of Coffin again a few days ago, in the course of pruning my too-bountiful files of things to think about and teach. Not everything old is news, but this felt fresher than the latest poll numbers for Rob Ford, fergawdsake.

I do, however, pay attention to the bits and pieces I know,

Continue Reading >>

Paulo Freire (on political “neutrality”)

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire (1921-1997), from his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was a Brazilian educator, philosopher and community activist, and this quote skewers any possibility of sincere people maintaining an “oh, well, nothing I can do about…” attitude — about wealth and poverty, about “developed” and developing nations, about racial or class or religious prejudices — and thinking that this is somehow an even-handed approach. It favours the privileged, those established at the top of the hill, which seems rather obvious when we think about it. Most of us don’t. Look at me — I’ve been quoting Freire and thinking around the edges of commentaries about this highly influential work, and yet have never actually read the book. For shame! jeered the crowd.

Abdu’l-Baha (on the greatness of goodness)

“Is there any deed in the world that would be nobler than service to the common good? Is there any greater blessing conceivable for a man, than that he should become the cause of education, the development, the prosperity and honour of his fellow creatures?…The highest righteousness of all is for blessed souls to take hold of the hands of the helpless and deliver them out of their ignorance and abasement and poverty, and with pure motives, and only for the sake of God, to arise and energetically devote themselves to the service of the masses, forgetting their own worldly advantage and working only to serve the general good…”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), The Secret of Divine Civilization (1875), p. 103. This then-anonymous treatise, an open letter to the people of Iran (then Persia), is still an incredibly valuable perspective on human progress, true happiness, and the development of nations. The line “only for the sake of God” has had me thinking. Yet another re-read of this seminal book this summer has been contributing to the general good of this man’s mind.

Guest Post: A Chinese Student Speaks Up

Through a P2C2E — a “process too complicated to explain,” as Salman Rushdie called it in his wonderful youth novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories — I got to meet Ms. Z. Like many Chinese university students, perhaps most, she studies in a major chosen by her family, not by her. Unlike many, she is a writer, even in her second language. In a spasm of bravery, she wrote an English essay about something honest and true-hearted and even a bit angry, and it found its way to me. It is a declaration of independence. It is her youthful emancipation proclamation.

I was moved by her courage and her plain-spoken message, and asked her permission to share it with my readers. (I did a quick edit of some rough second-language edges, but this is all Ms. Z.) She is not a “typical” Chinese student, if you assume such a thing exists, but neither is she alone. Perhaps you will enjoy a small taste of life in a Chinese university — but this time, from an eagle-eyed student perspective. She calls her piece “Marionette Generation”.

The ties that bind.

Continue Reading >>

Time Goes Fast, Learning Goes Slow *

Love this album.

* This is a line from from Bruce Cockburn‘s song “When You Give It Away”,  from his 1999 album Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. Bruce is mighty, but this post isn’t about him. It’s all about me, folks. (Well, and maybe them, and her, and all of us, and maybe even you.)

I should know by now.

(I do know, as through an angry glass, darkly.)

I should know by now that vehicles on Dalian streets do not yield for pedestrians, but may accelerate around corners or slalom from one lane of traffic to another to get past them. I should know better than to get revved up, but I still do. It happened again yesterday, though I didn’t shout and flail. (Progress!?)

I should know by now that my freshman class’s leader wouldn’t really understand my directions, though he said, “Got it!” I should have known that he would go upstairs to ask the school administrators for an empty classroom, rather than just doing the quick walkabout I’d recommended to find a spot for a writing class that we’d had to re-schedule. (I knew they wouldn’t help him, since he was a mere student, and they likely wouldn’t have had any better answer for me. Such requests are, no matter how banal, always “very difficult”.) By the time I arrived, just barely at the time we’d agreed on, some of the group had dispersed because there were “no rooms available”. Yes, well, except for the one on the first floor, the one on the second, and the one on the third. I didn’t go any higher.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, later that day, that our Canada-bound sophomore students are required to pay a 6500-yuan “service/counselling fee” to get their visas. That’s about a thousand bucks. That’s about two months’ rent for our well-above-average apartment. My surge of head-shaking disgust was surely redundant. I shouldn’t have been surprised, either, that the kids seemed entirely resigned about it.

I should know better than to have let my temper rise at dinner last night, too. He was only 20-something, and yes, he had too much to say, and he talked right over the friend to his right and was sublimely uninterested in hearing from the two women at our table. Four bottles of beer in an hour didn’t help him much, come to think of it, and I do have a son-of-an-alcholic’s distaste for those who find loud courage in a bottle. It’s true, also, that most of our students and young Chinese friends assume that Canada is paradise and that our lives are far more fortunate than theirs – which, in most ways, is nothing but true.

But he got so aggressive in bemoaning how hard it was to find a wife, how little he had learned in seven years of university, his not knowing how to do his job, how difficult it was, how long it would take him to save for a house so long as he turned down his well-off daddy’s standing offer to buy him one or two (which would, according to Chinese custom, make his wife-hunt much easier, sad to say). By the time he launched into you don’t know, you’re from Canada, everything is easy for you, I should have known it was time to bid a polite good night, but this spoiled prince-ling had hit a whole bunch of a cheek-chewing Canadian’s buttons. He probably doesn’t think a lot differently than many young men I know here, but he was rude and insistent enough that he got both barrels. I don’t like to be so salty and direct, and I wish I’d been able to do it without so much heat, but enough was enough and maybe I was burnt by a long day of learning what I ought to already know. We had spoken earlier of the value of directness, and maybe he learned something, too. We parted civilly, all of us, with mutual congratulations for frank discussion and the importance of seeing for ourselves, but I was still muttering to myself as I got ready for bed. I slept long.

I knew this wouldn’t be easy. There is so much education to be had! (Trouble with nations, trouble with relations / Where you gonna go for some illumination? / Too much to carry, too much to let go / Time goes fast, learning goes slow…*) As we approach the end of four years living and teaching in China, I know who the real student is. (Imagine: I complained a little in our first year that our living conditions in China were too comfy, that we weren’t really experiencing sufficient hardship to genuinely grow, to contribute usefully to this society. I hope I’m growing. I hope I’m giving something that China can use. But I should’ve known better than to tempt the fates as brazenly as that!) I wasn’t used to thinking of myself as a slow learner1, but I should’ve known that a stubborn idealist and a fiery perfectionist (those would be me) would take some bumps.

 

1 And, if more evidence were needed, I’m headed for another adventure in old-boy basketball Sunday night, playing students again in the same gym from which I took an unscheduled hospital trip in January. Some guys never learn, and sometimes that ain’t so bad.

And Another Thing! Heels Over Head In China

Yes, and sometimes they ARE upside-down. And BENT.

I posted, a few days ago, about the ways in which China is upside-down, at least from a Canada-centric point of view. I missed an obvious one.

Here’s the ‘nother thing: people here don’t sing sentimental anthems, a la Bryan Adams, or make nostalgic carpe diem speeches to adolescents, saying that university and especially high school are “the best years of your life”. (Lies the Adults Told Us. I could go on and on, and often did with my students  back home, but let me say this: high school is a painful and confusing period for many Canadian kids, and those early-bloomers for whom those really were the best of times are doomed to chronic disappointment.) China is really upside-down about that whole wish-I-was-young-again thing. They don’t miss high school a bit!

Continue Reading >>