Monday, February 18, 2008

"... that love seems easy at first ..." -- Hafez
(Dedicated to my dear friend Nazy Kaviani.)

While waiting in a lounge in Beth Israel hospital for my x-ray results, I watched a replay of a DVD about Dalai Lama's meditation. It was titles Compassionate Meditation. If I understood the message of the Zen Master correctly, we all love, and are concerned about, people who are either related to us as family members or as friends or distance relatives. Some of them, like our immediate family, we spend plenty of time with, while with the rest we spend much less. Otherwise, we spend the bulk of our time with people with whom we have no relationship, those we are in contact with through work, not necessary our co-workers but even those who are affected by our jobs. Also, those with whom we share a common space daily, those with whom we drive side by side on the highways and streets, or those alongside whom we walk in parks and streets. Since we are not connected to these people personally, we do not even see the necessity of loving them, or even thinking about them. The teachings of the Dalai Lama suggest a kind of meditation to connect ourselves to these “middle” individual and love them as we love those related to us, just to guarantee peace and harmony. The DVD showed classes in Los Angeles where people would go to meditate, and, as is customary, they sat with crossed legs on the floor with closed eyes. Though their voices were not audible, I could hear in the back of my mind the sound of ommmm.

I watched the DVD and fell back into my armchair and whispered to my self ommmm. “What does ommmm mean, Mommy joun?” I asked myself.

This I repeated many times to myself to the memory of my dog who died two years ago. He was a stray dog whom my husband found one Sabbath night in his way back from synagogue. I was getting dinner ready, and waiting for him to return, when he called and told me I should take the car to the nearby college to bring a lost dog home. By the time I arrived, the police and university guards were trying to catch him (not my husband, the dog!) Well, they would not let us to bring him home; we even had to lie and sign a form saying that we knew the dog and his owner. (New York City in those days put large old stray dogs to sleep.)

We brought the dog home. Being a large mix breed of German shepherd, husky, and Doberman and few others things, being mature, male, ill and badly infected with worms, he was not adoptable. We had no choice but to add one more head to our household of four to become five. We had two little dogs (Mercutio and Ginger) already. We called him bill clinton. (Yes all lower case, the most fashionable in graphics!) We gave him this name since he was very intelligent and very handsome and indeed very manipulative. Neighbors called him mr. president (all with lower case, I guess.) In addition to taking care of his sicknesses, we had to chip him so that he could be retrieved if lost, and also to neuter him. The veterinarian’s treatment bill reading “Bill Clinton neutered” could have made headlines!

Before long, all three got to know each other and their boundaries. Though he was much bigger and stronger and could impose his will upon them, he gave them the right to have the privilege of having everything first. He would stay away and let them drink first or grab the first piece of treats, or to come to us first when we came home. He was very protective of them and stayed behind the fence with his ears pricked when my husband would take the little ones out, and listen to their barking as if to make sure it was out of playfulness rather than pain. Plato was right after all to say we all should learn citizenship from dogs!

He very clearly did not like Mercutio (I think he was jealous of her being much smarter and more intelligent.) However, he liked Ginger, who was just cute and a sort of a beach bunny. Once, when I ran after Ginger to scold her (she was in the habit of tunneling under the fence to the neighbors house), clinton came and pushed me aside and guided Ginger to the kitchen under his bed and then, with pricked ears, stood in front of me very boldly, as if to say, “All right, any problem?”

His thoughtfulness and concern was not limited to those with whom he packed. Indeed, he was very gentle with children. One night when we had my husband’s little niece and nephew in our home, the kids insisted on feeding the dog everything including scallion and parsley. The dog liked neither of these bitter herbs, but to please them he ate whatever they gave him. He threw up later, but did not complain. However, once my husband’s thesis advisor, who happened to be an athlete, a professional mountain climber who had climbed Mount Washington, was our guest and by chance came to the kitchen to see one of my artifacts, clinton did not approve the visit; to our embarrassment, he jumped at him and ripped his trousers. I took it as statement: “Mount Washington is one thing, but this kitchen is mine!” I think the main reason was his strong huge body and his being too tall and healthy looking; Bill clinton did not like that kind of nature’s arrogance.

That day in the hospital, delighted with the Zen Master’s wisdom, and humoring the Americans for having quite a talent for commercializing everything, I noticed that I was not surprised by the message, as if I had heard it before. I have read only one of the Dalai Lama’s books and there was nothing of compassionate meditation in it. But it sounded very familiar, that ommm. It was bill clinton’s ommmm. Was it just a simple association or was clinton well-versed in the Zen Master’s recommended practice of love and peace?

Very often, whenever he was unhappy about something, when he was forced to stay in his small cozy den in the kitchen or wear his muzzle or wait and watch Mercutio and Ginger receive preferential treatment or watch us have those little ones in bed with us while he was not invited, he would repose and grump ommm. Then I would say, “What do you mean by ommm?” to which he would respond, ommm. We would play this game until we both would regain our humor and temper. It seemed he had enough wisdom to know that the moments of actual love and affection are but a very small portion of life and the rest is a big mass of enduring, patience, and sometimes even unhappiness. He knew better to love me not only during those brief periods of special care and attention, not only when I feed him or clean after him, or when I wrap his medicine in peanut butter or change his bedding or walk and talk with him or rub his belly, but those long uneventful hours, even those bitter times of scolding him. It seemed that he intuitively perceived the Zen Master’s message (or the Zen Master learned it from dogs!) and tried to connect to those “middle unhappy” fragments of his life.

A few years ago, at Frankfurt Airport, while waiting for my connecting flight to Strasburg I came across a copy of Dalai Lama’s book The Modern, Man Ancient Wisdom in a small newsstand. I bought the book and immediately started reading it. It was the treasure I was looking for. It was a manual for how to deal with the hassles of modern life and how to maintain sanity and be happy. While reading the book eagerly, I searched for a chapter or a page or even paragraph about how to prepare myself for the most dreadful unavoidable event which I would have ahead of me, the day I have to let go of those dogs. Alas, there was not even a reference to any dog, living or dead. His prime examples for pain and anguish consisted of getting old, being in need of others’ help, torture, solitary confinements, banishment, exile, poverty and sickness. These were among the hardship he imagined one needs to have extra strength to overcome. There were even chapters about human relationships as the main source of unhappiness in our time, but none about dogs and their loss. By the time I reached Strasburg, I had gone through almost the entire book with no answer as what to do when the time comes. How to prepare for that D-day? This was the question which had occupied my mind since we got our first dog Mercutio. I could not even imagine that one day holding one of these creatures in my arms and, while they expected me to help and nurture them, I would consent to have them put to sleep. How could I?

It was only five years later that I noticed the wisdom of His Holiness in not mentioning “how to prepare for that D day” in his book: Nothing whatsoever could possibly prepare one for such pain, nothing at all. It is very different from any kind of lose. The day Mercutio died, I thought, how did he know?

Ginger died just four months later and clinton did not last much longer; he died eight month later. In each farewell I realized how wrong people were to assume that pets take after their owners. It was I who took after them and become like them truly. I was delighted that to learn that, although I missed them very much, they are so alive inside me.

Neither of them lasted long enough to guide our bodies to the burial place, to drive away the Ahrimans, but I’m sure they will wait on Chinvat Bridge to welcome us with their bright eyes, to lead us to Heaven. I’m sure that, even though their moments of happiness were much shorter than those unhappy times, they were happy with us, thanks to compassionate meditation. (I assume that if bill clinton knew it, the other two knew it as well.)

If the Zen Master neglected to mention the virtue of being close to dogs, I’m sure that was to avoid repeating what was said before him by our prophet Zoroaster. If for Plato dogs were considered champion citizens, our Good Prophet considered dogs as a holy next to Ahura Mazda, even above the prophet himself, as the holiest creature. The dog is revered in our Good Religion for his moral qualities of its faithfulness, devotion and love. As in any ancient culture, it is the practice, not the intention, which leads us to perfection. Zoroastrianism, like Buddhism or Hinduism, guides human being to excellence through practice. The Zoroastrian sacrament of sheltering stray dogs and protecting them, and the duty to feed a dog at least once a day, is a simple practice of pure love, giving, and devotion without expecting any reward.

There is a special ritual and prayer of “uniting with the dog” in the high ceremony of Noshow, or purification, in our Good Religion. Every Zoraostrian has to perform it at least once in his/her life time. It takes place under the supervision of the mobad and it takes three days to perform. It is the cleansing ritual, inside as well as out. At the end of each day of fasting and prayer comes the ritual of ‘uniting with dog” as the highlight of each day. With a rope fasten to the dog, who is lead by those performing the ritual, one unites his/her soul with the dog. It is a pledge of faithfulness, devotion, steadfastness, love and purity. Nothing is above it.

My experience with bill clinton as stray dog, sick and needy, taught me the meaning of our ancient wisdom which fits into modern life as well. I learned that the best practice of love is for the sake of love, the best practice of recognizing our ability to love and to be good just for the sake of goodness. Days and nights of caring, nurturing and loving him, brought me the greatest joy, a joy I never thought existed, the joy of giving without expecting any return. It was through him and my unfailing devotion to him that I learned the meaning of kimiai-ist ajeeb bandegiye-pir-e-moghan.” کیمیائی است عجیب بندگی پیر مغان (What a strange magic, serving the tavern's wine seller). I learned the enjoyment of servitude.

When Mercutio, my first dog, died, devastated by grief, I stumbled over a burial place not only for her but for all of my loved ones. We all went to the lake in our nearby park. The weather was unusually warm that November 26, but there was no one in the park, just us. The sky was getting dark and the lights around the lake reflected over the calm water. The moon shone majestically over the lake. Two large swans appeared from behind the reeds. The scene was very picturesque indeed. We all cried, even Ginger was crying, and clinton was very subdued. We fed the ducks and geese and decided to leave, but the moon stared at us telling us something. I looked and I noticed that moon was walking with us. A thought passed through my mind. Why not bury him there in the moon? It would always be there and wherever I go, it would follow. And so I buried him there on the moon. I pictured him in the most beautiful memory I had from him and placed him on a chariot carried by thousands of white doves to the moon.

The splendid meadow in the moon now is the eternal home to all the loved ones who left us since then, and also many who had left us before. Shortly after Mercutio’s death, Ginger left us; and clinton followed not much later. We buried them all there in the same fashion. As a matter of fact, many of my friends and relative liked the convenience of the happy meadow up there as well as the idea of looking up and thinking their beloved is up there and looking down on them. It is difficult to look at the beautiful moon and not to smile or think of those loved one without joy.

They are with me everywhere, in New York, Paris, Strasburg, or Tehran. All I need is to wait for night to come and wish for a clear sky, and just look up to see their smiling faces.

Sometimes when I come home late, I look up and see the moon; I know they are up there looking after me, walking me home.

Two weeks before clinton died, another dog walked into our life. He is called Omar Khayyam, a beautiful mixed golden retriever and border collie. God bless him, he is a savage. I hope the miracle of love works before we take after him, but meanwhile, we rely on leash and muzzle.
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Friday, February 08, 2008


Here is an interview with my nephew Barzin, who has his unique fusion of Iranian and Canadian sensibility in rock/blues/folk.
Listen as his quiet, enigmatic music seduces and charms...
Visit him and get to know him.
And... a video of his music

... and of his collaboration with the incomparable Kiosk.
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Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Reform

When in 1997 President Khatami was elected president of Iran, reform was somehow implicit in his very short campaign promises. It was later on that his presidency and his followers were labeled “reformist.” This being an “Islamic” republic, based on Islamic laws, I concluded that any reform, even if it were directed towards the social or political system, would necessarily mean religious reform. Khatami, however, never used this expression. He emphasized on civil society and the rule of law, though he never said which law; and he referred many times to those invisible "unnamables" that are obstacle in achieving a true civil society.

Khatami’s opponents inside Iran criticized him and his government for corrupting the Islamic system of government, while his followers criticized him for not being assertive enough. They are still angry that while he was president, even with the majority of seats in the parliament during his first term, he remained ineffective.

Opposition groups and individuals outside the country are his biggest enemy. I have read many articles attacking him and the reformists in general, even now that none of the reformists have any responsibilities in the government. Even the journalists who work for the pro-reformist newspapers are not immune of their harsh criticisms.

And in between, there are two groups which are hard to pigeonhole. One consisted of ordinary, apolitical Iranians. I recall a relative, a housewife, a mother of two teenagers, who blamed Khatami for raising expectations in people which could not be realistically fulfilled. She said, “He talks about civil society and law and lawfulness and democracy. Our kids believe it and outside the home they become disappointed and frustrated not meeting any of these institutions.”

The other group is the most interesting. They grin and say, “Reform is dead.” They do not even bother to argue or explain what they mean by “reform” or “dead.” They just grin. Their grin is most bitter these days, with the election crises in Iran, when reform and the reformists are breathing their last while we watch them, obsessively worrying for their very survival.

The dictionary definition for reform says 1- to improve by correcting errors or removing defects; 2-to abolish abuse or malpractice; 3-to give up harmful or immoral practices. Knowing Khatami as too good a  thinker to not have foreseen the paradoxical nature of this term, I think the term was imposed on him by his wishful followers, and even by some clever faction of government expecting to have some pragmatic advantage, just as when “moderate” became the permanent descriptor for Rafsanjani.

The term, which united those dissatisfied by the Islamic Republic who viewed Khatami’s campaign as a window of hope, placed Khatami in the paradoxical position of aiming to correct “errors, defects, abuse, or malpractices” within the very system of which he himself had been one of the founders, and to which he has a firm commitment to its survival and its principles. The situation has even become embarrassing when he had to keep his alliance to the office of the Valiye Faghih, who is solely responsible for appointing those very individuals who created whatever Khatami objects to.

In a historical context, reform remains a neglected and unexamined phenomenon. As the ambiguity and lack of precision is an invitation to abuse, violation, and manipulation, the reform movement was destined to be harassed and brutally crushed, and it seemed totally wiped out. Khatami recently, after almost all the reformists were barred from being candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections, admitted, “It was a very strange clean up!” Nevertheless, there was no attempt to establish a firm and legitimate foundation for the movement to prevent this disastrous blow beyond a weak reference to Imam Khomeini expressing the importance of the “people’s will,” which, it seems, not so many have ever believed him meaning anything but just a word.

Reform’s history is as old as Creation. The first reformists were Adam and Eve, who did not obey God and did what they were told not to do. They did what they thought was better, both in the Biblical version, where they ate from the Tree of Knowledge (and I still do not know why God forbade it; what was wrong with knowledge?) or the Koranic version of eating wheat and making a mess in Heaven. Well, they wanted to do it their own way and paid a price for it; God deported them from Heaven. In fact, the punishment was not harsh at all; God created another heaven for them, the earthly kingdom, with milder and gentler rules supervised by his emissaries, the prophets.

As a matter of fact, even the prophets were reformists in their own way. The first one was Abraham, who, answering God’s call testing his piety, took his son, Isaac, to be sacrificed. Being a God-fearing man, Abraham “stepped over his heart” and took his son to the appointed place with a dagger to kill him. He did not listen to his wife’s cry, nor took notice of his innocent son’s horror. He just listened to God. He fastened his son to the stone, took his dagger and raised it high, though that dagger never came down. An angel told Abraham not to sacrifice the child and he “raised his eyes” and saw a lamb, sacrificing it instead. Not only Isaac was saved, but God appeared as merciful, giving up his demand for Abraham to prove his loyalty and grants life to Isaac. However, the most important was that it was the Abraham who did not kill his son. According to the Reform movement in Judaism, this story is a God’s blessing for Reform. The Rabbis found enough in the Torah to appeal to and to argue that Reform is the original point of the religion and their arguments founded on such a firm ground, their holy book, that the movement won the majority of believers. It is worth noting that, Reform Judaism was never persecuted by Jewish orthodoxy.

In one of my trips to Iran, in the autumn of 2003, I heard so many people influenced by Abdol-Karim Soroush and even Ali Shariati talking about a reform, a sort of Islamic Protestantism. I heard this from various people in various stations, accountants of small offices, owners of some small industry, merchants in the bazaar, and workers in a tourist spot in Yazd. I heard it from housewives, government employees and students, all in a very casual tone: “Something like what Calvin did, or what Soroush says.” The expression on their faces and their language was so casual and so ordinary that I did not dare get involved into arguments with them. It was not only their simplicity and the legitimacy of their demands which stopped me from quarreling, nothing ever does, but the fact that I did not want to destroy their peace and naivety. I could not imagine where they had learned about Protestantism that they made it sound so simple. It is true that the Reformation was initiated by a “call” by Calvin and Luther, who argued against the authority and hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but it was never settled by that call alone. Unfortunately, Protestants did not have it as easy as Reformed Jews, who took their mandate from the Torah. It took centuries of pain, bloodshed, martyrdom, migrations, executions, torture, and hardship to establish itself as a legitimate branch of Christianity.

Aside from religious reform, there are social, political and economical reforms in history as well. Our epic, the Shahnameh, has enough reform-seeking stories in it; heroes, Siavash, Sohrab and, to a great extend, Esfandyar bear reformist ideas, as well as the theme of some stories such as that of Kaikavus and the Seven Divs of Mazandaran.

Pre-Islamic Iran bears witness to several reform-seeking kings. Among the Achamenids, kings Cyrus the Great and Xerxes are the most associated with reform. But most reformism appeared in Sassanid Iran, of which we have better recorded history. In this period, there were reforms done by rulers, Anushirvan for example, which were carried out successfully, although like most of reforms of this nature were more geared to strengthen and centralize their political powers; and those which were demanded by opposition forces who were resisting the establishment, at least partially, such as those of Mazdak and Mani. The first one failed and was suppressed brutally; the second fared rather better; due to its advance and progressive nature. Traces of its tenets are observed not only in Iranian culture, but in Christianity as well.

As a matter of fact, reform never has come in an easy way. One has to pay for it. I wish life would have been as easy like what Shariati and Soroush thought it was, that one can say, “I think, therefore let it be so,” but alas it is not. In every stage of human life, when a reform is called for, there is a hazardous road ahead. Every year for three days, the Shia observes the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Indeed, it was a bloody event in Islamic history. The gist of the matter is that Imam Hussein wanted to resist the corruption of Islam. He thought that his way, either the just way, or better way, or God’s intended way, was not his opponent’s way. However, willful that he was, he lost the battle and made the ultimate sacrifice for what he wanted to do. He stood for his belief, he bore witness to history, and Shia Muslims of the world still observe his testimony, his martyrdom.

Since several year before revolution when some intellectuals tried to use religion instrumentally for their own ends, Imam Hussein’s martyrdom was  referred to, conveniently, as a revolution rather than a reform, just to fit into a model for the Iranian opposition and meanwhile capture that minority of religious people who up to that time did not have a real place in the opposition to Shah. Today, this revolutionary reading of Ashura still remains as such to the Islamisists of Iran, while to a layman it could be viewed as a reform. Imam Hussein did not change or overthrow the whole system of Islam, he simply wanted to change the existing injustices of the ruling caliphs.

Indeed, Iranian history, as we studied it at school, never referred to any movement as reform or revolution. Instead, the word qiam was used to indicate that people took the lead to change. Only the Constitutional Movement was referred otherwise. Amir Kabir, Nizam ol-Molk, Sani od-Doleh, Mossadegh, Mohammad Ali Bab, and Kasravi were just a few of those who were simply blamed or praised for what they did, but never referred to as reformers. They all were killed or banished, indiscriminately, but the kind of reform they wanted to bring in the Iranian somehow survived. Each one came out boldly and courageously with a definite idea and a clear target to strike, as well as a willingness to pay the price. Today, when we look back, we should thank them all for the price they paid.

Khatami’s reform movement, however, is a totally different matter. While Iranian reformists have a mandate for reform and it is given to them by God, the holy book, history, tradition, people’s votes, and, more importantly, by that vaunted rationality, upon which Shiism claims to be based, their torch bearer refrains from committing his reform to any of the essentials of the reform. The very crucial position of reformists requires some clarity and purposefulness which is missing here. Judging from its ten year history, it seems that reform in its true sense had never been intended; rather, it was just an instrumental use of the institution by the Islamic Republic to unite the people with the government to buy time to regroup its forces. Khatami as a reformer (not a president—he remains the best we ever had) appeared as a trinity of Abraham, Isaac, and Lamb all in one. In a few swift, whirling moves, he changed from the reformer Abraham to a sacrificial Isaac and then to a sacrificial Lamb and then in a magical move everything changed. Poor Iranians who followed him turned out to be those who were really sacrificed. Khatami survived, though sadly defeated, embarrassed, disgraced, and bewildered as how to all this. “A strange swap” was the way I heard him put it most recently.

I read the news everyday to see how he will emerge from this new situation. He is buying time; he is waiting for the Guardian Council decision to save a few reformist candidates and then what? More lamentations? And that is all, the end of a legacy, reform movement!

The bitter grin of the oppositions who say that “reform is dead” is coming true after all, though for a different reason. Reform died. It died in its cradle due to its lack of identity, been born out of nothing, out of no background, with no precise message and aim. The movement died since it has no umbilical cord.

After ten years we still do not know what is it that Khatami wanted to correct or abolish. We do not know his opponents and their issues. We do not know with what means he wants to reform them. We do not know where he receives his mandate—the people, God, the constitution or what? In none of his talks does he ever refer to the Constitution, which must be above anything else, he never holds any one responsible, he never referred to any institution as corrupt or harmful. He never referred to any other reform movement to set a precedent to his reform movement. His reform movement is devoid of any history, any identity, any meaning. His reform in nothing but a name, something that cannot withstand even a blow.

His reform will die, but fortunately he himself will survive. He will see old age, he will hopefully live to see his great grandchildren. One day in the future, one on his grandchildren might come to him and ask “Grandpa, why did not you divide your love and goodness to all equally, a little for God, some for us, and some for all those people who loved you and trusted you and stood behind you and were looking up to you to do something for them, you the emissary of God who were to provide a peaceful government on earth, modeled after Heaven, the same as God did for Adam and Eve. Why did not you do that?” I hope he would have a better answer than just another sweet smile.
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