Bahá’í

Equality Is Fact. Now What?

“Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.”

So wrote Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, some 150 years ago. If you believe, as I do, that He was delivering the directions God wants us to follow for the next thousand years or so (more like 850, as of now), then that statement is a spiritual reality.

Anything that varies from that statement isn’t true and never has been. The notion that women were or are inferior is indicative of human failings, period. That doesn’t mean that women and men are the same. Each has different strengths and tendencies, both positive and negative. But in capacity, capability, and station, we are equal.

In fact, according to additional material from Bahá’u’lláh and explained by His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, any perceived inequity between men and women is largely due to unequal education and subsequent opportunity over time. (Which is one reason why Bahá’u’lláh calls for the equal education of sons and daughters. And if that’s not possible, He calls for the education of daughters.)

So, looking at the current world situation, what would happen if we changed our lens?

How would things be different if we didn’t look at equality as an aspiration, but a fact?

What if, at this moment, every human being recognized that equality has been true from time immemorial and will be true to time immemorial?

I have a feeling many people point to the eradication of wage gaps, more equitable leadership representation, more favorable prosecution of gender-based crime, etc. And I agree.

And … what about the elimination of preference for mothers in custody cases? What about the expectation of equal responsibility for actions in all circumstances? What about an equal requirement to register for the draft (already in place in some countries, but not in the U.S.)?

I realize this will not be a popular point to make, but I think it’s important for us to consider that the recognition of the reality of equality does not translate to men changing or giving things up while women remain the same or get things.

Instead, it requires a wholehearted and universal shift in our comprehension of our roles, behavior, and expectations as men and women.

Give it a go! Leave a comment to let me know how you think things would change, whether you like them or not. I’m curious to see your ideas!

What Do You Say on a Holy Day?

I get this question a lot. Because the Baha'i calendar and events are unfamiliar to many of my friends and colleagues, it's not always as easy as saying, "Happy Something!"

That's because, as in any religion, some holy days (holidays) are celebrations and some are commemorations.

About six of the holy days recognize the renewal of religion, which means that they are important dates related to the declarations of the missions of Baha'u'llah and His forerunner, who used the title The Bab, which means The Gate. Another two are birth dates. All of those can get "happy" greetings.

The remaining three are death dates. Not so much with the "happy."

Tomorrow is one of the death dates. It commemorates the 1850 execution of The Bab in Tabriz, Iran. The story is really quite fascinating. Imagine 750 soldiers firing three volleys at a stationary target, tied to a stone post ... and he disappears ... only to be found back in his cell, finishing the dictation he'd told you must be completed before he could be executed. 

This holy day is also one on which Baha'is suspend work. That's why this post is going up before sunset tonight. That's not to say we do nothing at all on a holy day! In fact, I'm planning to help friends clear out their family home.

And at noon, the very hour when those shots rang out so long ago, we will likely stop and say a prayer. And remember. 

Welcoming a New Day

The young woman waiting on our private party knelt down next to my chair, her brown hair and eyes catching the flickering light of the candles on the table. "What are you all celebrating?"

I could only imagine what she'd been watching all evening. A table of close to 20 friends with accents and skin tones across the spectrum, in a range of ages spanning more than 40 years. Heads thrown back. Eyes sparkling. Voices chattering away, first one way and then the other. 

We'd wrapped her up in the good cheer and good manners. She'd heard a part of our prayer. And between the vases of roses on the table and the decorated cakes waiting in the kitchen, she knew she was part of something special.

"We're members of the Baha'i Faith." I though best to start at the beginning.

"It's a religion like Christianity or Judaism or Islam. You can check it out online if you want, just go to bahai.org. We believe that religions are like chapters in a book, and that this is the newest one, with teachings that are especially intended for the world right now." She leaned closer, intent on learning something new.

"Our new year begins on the first day of spring. We call it Naw-Ruz, which is a Persian ... Iranian ... word for new day. So, the first new day of the year, on the first new day of spring. For the 19 days leading up to this, the last month of the Baha'i year, we fast from sunrise to sunset, so when we break the fast at Naw-Ruz, we often get together to share a meal. And that's what we're doing today, since the fast ended last night."

She smiled, testing the new words. "Baha'i ... Naw-Ruz ... new day. That's so beautiful!"

A few minutes later, as our hostess for the evening was trying to figure out how to get everyone in frame so she could snap a photo with her tablet, the waitress walked over to her. "You should be in the picture! I can take this!"

And, when we'd all shuffled into place, from behind the silver block she held up to face us and, as if she'd been saying the words all her life, she called out, "Happy Naw-Ruz!!" 

Her words and the surprised grins they sparked put the icing on the cake made up of these last few days.

After all, Mr. Khanjani and his colleague, Mr. Tizfahm, were released from prison over the weekend. That dear man whom I've come to know vicariously has (I understand) finally been able to offer prayers at the grave of his extraordinary wife, some eight years after her funeral, which he was not allowed to attend.

As for me, I am determined this year, as I said a year or so ago, that I will honor the holy days on which Baha'is are supposed to suspend work, because it is the smallest bit of solidarity I can show with my coreligionists who are punished for stopping work on these days. And of course, because I am sticking to this, this week has turned out to be exceptionally busy.

My best solution was to put my computer on my desk, my phone in my pocket, and my email on stun. Just before sunset last night, I took myself to the nearest Moe's and ordered a Homewrecker, chips, and queso, which I took home to enjoy along with the 2009 version of Emma on Amazon Prime. Upon checking my email one last time, I discovered a message that made my night. And when I woke this morning, I dawdled over a book before joining a rarely visited friend for a mid-day snack and an afternoon-long, wide-ranging conversation, before heading off to dinner.

On both the major and minor fronts, it does seem to be a bright new day. 

A Contrast of Continents

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." The words are needlepointed in cream thread, perfect lines on a strip of cadet blue burlap that's been tucked into my high school diploma folder for going on 24 years, pressed between a $2 bill and my valedictory address. 

My English teacher senior year had also been my English teacher in seventh grade. We were the first class she looped, and she told us all how special it was for her to have been with us the year we entered the building as well as the year we left it. She stitched a bookmark for each one of us (all 88 graduates, if I remember correctly). Each delicate gift bore a quote she'd selected just for that student. Mine was the excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail. 

I remember being profoundly touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift. Although many of the friends I've made as an adult might not realize it (I have a reputation for logic, rational thought, and a calming presence), I am prone to being swamped by emotions. That was certainly the case as my rather extraordinary high school class approached our graduation day. Seeing the quote my teacher chose for me brought on the tears. What an honor!

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I think back to that quote and the fabric tucked away along with mementos from long ago. This year was far cry from the celebrations of African American culture and history that I remember attending during my youth. None of my friends were up for a gospel duo's concert marking efforts toward race unity (and the venue was small enough that I didn't feel right taking up a seat all by myself). Besides that event, the likelihood for speeches and comments to turn political (or personal), overtly or covertly, put me off public events. There's simply nothing constructive in that, no matter what position a person has taken.

Meanwhile, and from many miles away, the nightly news devoted its current zip-point-two minutes of international coverage to rough footage of the protests in Iran. For a nation that prides itself on the important role of journalism, they pretty much lost the lead. The story with some meat to it wasn't really the protests. It was the concentrated, systematic efforts to keep information about the protests from reaching the wider world. Just like the goal is to keep information about what happens to the Baha'is from reaching the rest of the world.

And just like the goal is to keep attention away from the Baha'i man in Yemen who was sentenced to execution last week, following the same pattern the Iranian government (which backs the Houthi faction in Yemen) used against the Baha'is in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. After four years in prison, under torture and duress, this man is condemned to die for the "crime" of being a Baha'i.

People ask me all the time why being a Baha'i is treated like being a criminal in some other countries. As Americans, we'd sum it up as, "He says different prayers." And everybody would kind of nod their heads and say, "You do you, dude."

After all, the U.S. was founded in some part by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they chose. In reality, it was 95 percent founded by people seeking riches and fame. But the 5-percent story of various English Puritan groups looking for a place to worship without persecution makes for a much more noble national lineage. Note that it was about English Christians of one stripe attempting to escape the yoke of English Christians of another stripe. We won't even mention the third major group of English Christians whom no one wanted on the boats or at home (I wonder if Plymouth still has stealth Catholics among its historical interpreters ... that was one of the most interesting parts of my visit there as a kid). 

The reason "you do you" isn't the response in Iran, or in an Iran-backed Yemeni court, is one of theology. Baha'is interpret a particular statement of the Prophet Muhammad in a way that really challenges a theocratic clergy's understanding of itself. That statement is that Muhammad was "The Seal of the Prophets." Among many Muslims, including those in positions of power in Iran, that title is taken to mean that God would never send another Messenger. Baha'is, instead, believe that Muhammad was the last in a now-completed cycle of Prophets that began with Adam ... and that Baha'u'llah was the first in a new cycle of messengers who will bring about universal peace, justice and unity over the next few thousand years.

To an American, the concept might be uncomfortable. Mostly because it has anything to do with religion at all. As a nation, we're not comfortable with large-scale issues of spiritual importance and the joining together of people whose prayers were revealed in unfamiliar languages (funny how we sort of blithely overlook the fact that even Christ spoke Aramaic, not English, ). I wonder sometimes what would happen if we asked, "Well, what if ...?" more often.

Perhaps it's that very unfamiliarity and discomfort with all things that don't fit neatly within the package of "America" stories that are passed down from generation to generation in school history books, that causes the general public to stay quiet and not look for details about what's happening to people in our own country or overseas.

On behalf of that Baha'i sentenced to die in Yemen, the international human rights community is sounding alarm bells in the halls of the UN and in the capitols of nearly every nation. But I have yet to see the name or the smiling face of Hamed bin Haydara in the national news here, with the exception of a short article in the Washington Post. This is a land where shining a spotlight on injustice is supposed to be in our national DNA ... despite that national DNA also bearing the marks of the still-unrecognized genocide that decimated our Native cultures, the still-expurgated slavery that outlasted that of other "civilized nations," the insidious aftermath of the Civil War that funneled the sentiments surrounding slavery into our national institutions, and the persistent tendency toward hatred for whichever immigrant group came after our own.

We have trouble comprehending injustice when it's directed toward people in shades and clothes and shapes that don't look like what we see in the mirror. When we do comprehend it, we frequently have no idea what to do about it in any practical way because injustice is one of those big words that stand for big ideas. And that require actual thought and curiosity to understand.

Said Dr. King: “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact ... that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters...”

So maybe we start small. Maybe it starts with noticing the people we see around us (smiling, waving and talking to our neighbors who seem alone and perhaps with the weight of the world on their shoulders ... especially if they don't look or sound like us).

Then, perhaps, doing something small to help correct the problems we see (the former coworker who frequently brought breakfast sandwiches to the homeless man roughing it on the street across from our office).

Maybe getting a little more systematic about it (helping out at a local senior center, homeless shelter, or other organization and actually getting to know those being served).

Maybe looking around a little father afield.

Maybe raising our voices on someone's behalf (we have a representative democracy, after all ... those folks have phones in their offices).

Maybe telling someone's story to our friends (do you know what's happening in...?)

Dr. King said: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But ... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 

Every great army moves forward on the individual steps of each of its soldiers. And when we're moving shoulder to shoulder for love and for good, we move the world. It doesn't matter whether the injustice we see is here or there. None is more or less unjust than the other. Each of us needs to find our place alongside our brothers and sisters and move things forward.

"We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother." Those are perhaps my favorites of all the words Dr. King said. Now, I just need to live up to them. We all need to live up to them. 

Do You Know Mr. Khanjani?

The time has come! I'm now scheduling interviews across the U.S. and Canada for late July through late September with people who knew Jamaloddin Khanjani. If that describes you, and you're willing to talk with me, please watch the video below and contact me.

If I can't meet you in person during my summer road trip, we can chat by Skype or Facetime. Please also share this post with your friends and family members who may have known Mr. Khanjani, and who are now living in countries where they are able to speak freely.

Curious about how I started writing about this particular man at this particular time? Watch Why Tell This Story? at the bottom of the book description.

(And if you don't know Mr. Khanjani personally and you don't speak Persian, you can still be involved! Watch How to Help for details.)

9 Years Behind Bars

Over this coming weekend, Mr. Khanjani will mark the ninth anniversary of his arrest, along with his colleagues. This week, I ask you to do something for them, so that maybe the atoms that surround us all will carry echoes of you into the halls of Rajai Shahr and Evin and, perhaps, they'll know they are not forgotten. 

Here are some ideas:

  • If you're a U.S. citizen, take five minutes this Friday, May 12 to call your Representative and your Senators in their Washington, D.C., offices. Ask them to support Iran’s Bahá’ís by cosponsoring House Resolution 274 or Senate Resolution 139 if they haven't already done so (or thank them, if they have). To learn about the resolutions and how to reach your elected officials, visit the Office of Public Affairs website for the Bahá’ís of the United States. Share with your friends and hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you're a writer, write a blog post about the important things that you've done in the last nine years and what you would have missed if you'd been put in prison for believing whatever you believe. Explain why you're posting it now. Hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you're a musician, spend five minutes listening to "Forgotten" by Grant Hinden Miller and let it inspire you to write or compose or perform your own message of encouragement. Share it around and tell people why you're doing it. Hashtag it: #ReleaseBahai7Now
  • If you pray to a higher power or meditate in a more humanist approach, add Iran’s Bahá’ís to your prayers or your heart's intentions. Light a candle. Write a prayer request.
  • If you have two minutes free in your day, wherever you are, step out into the open air, feel the sun and breeze against your skin, turn toward Iran, and speak their names with love and hope: Mahvash. Fariba. Vahid. Afif. Saeid. Behrouz. Jamal.

You may not think they can hear you. That behind prison walls, they'll never know your heart is beating in time with theirs. But they will. It's amazing how far a little bit of love can reach.

Mr. Khanjani (Jamal) taught me that a long time ago. And he doesn't even know it. 

'With Fire We Test the Gold'

Fire has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because my neighbors have been burning leaves and I've been wondering when an errant spark will bring down the entire pine-encrusted neighborhood. That idea never occurred. No, I've been thinking about fire in a figurative sense. 

That is, fire as a metaphor. Over the last couple of years, as I started taking bigger and bigger risks, I realized that I've come to relish the times when I might get burned. They're not always pleasant. In fact, they can be scary and make me question what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, who it's serving, and whether I've gotten myself in over my head. 

They're a lot like the sessions when my trainer bumps up the intensity of my workouts. I suddenly find myself doing shoulder presses with a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand and struggling to push through 10 reps on the fifth circuit. Or I'm holding a low plank position and shaking like mad by the time 40 seconds has passed. In those moments, the signs of weakness show me that I'm building strength.

It's the same way with spiritual, emotional, educational, professional, financial, or other types of tests. Sometimes, I've found, it's actually best to light a fire and just see how I handle it.  

The title of this post comes from a Baha'i quote: "With fire We test the gold, and with gold We test our servants." It's a metaphor for the relationship between spiritual and material realities. In a physical sense, fire is used to test and refine the purity of gold as a precious metal. In a spiritual sense, this material life is used to test and purify the character of a human soul. In both senses, as I understand it, the goal is to emerge from the test stronger.

That perspective gives the process of facing challenges such purpose that I find it hard to get bogged down by difficult things. Acknowledging they're difficult is fine. But staying stuck in that place holds no allure. Everywhere I look, it seems I'm finding confirmation that it's time to press onward, whether in this fire analogy, in the metaphor of a gardener pruning plants to improve their growth and future yield, or in real world acceptances, rejections, and communications.

Standing in the fire is a very good place to be.

PS: Funny coincidence, but if you're looking for an actual fire-related thing this week, bookmark Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir, launching this fall. The author, Aaron Williams, has a direct, wry voice that is sure to make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. No tangents of unnecessary literary decoration. Just straight-up, solid writing about real people doing real things in the real world. Aaron's been my classmate in the University of King's College MFA program these last two years, so I'm super excited to see this hit the shelves!

I Have No Haft-Sin

No, the correct response to that title is not gesundheit. Bear with me and I'll explain. Sunset on Sunday evening marked the end of the 19-day fast and the coming of Naw-Ruz. In Persian, that means "new day," but it's actually the start of a new year. Lots of Baha'is and friends from around my area, just like our counterparts all over the world, got together to celebrate, break the fast together, and enjoy good company.

I'm always a little amused by Naw-Ruz. The celebration dates back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion. Over a couple thousand years, in Iran, it's become largely a secular, cultural event. Then, a little shy of two centuries ago, Baha'u'llah reinvested the holiday with spiritual significance. In fact, the Baha'i calendar used worldwide marks the new year according to the spring equinox in Tehran. (This makes perfect sense to those of us in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, it means that the new year starts at the beginning of fall.)

It's no wonder that folks get discombobulated. I've been especially aware of that this year. Given the social climate in the United States, many people are showing a renewed interest in learning about different countries and cultures, with Iran at or near the top of the list. For the last week or two, my social feeds have been inundated with articles and videos describing the Persian cultural holiday and its Zoroastrian roots, from the fire-jumping a few days in advance to cleanse away the old year, to the traditional herb-laden foods, to the visiting of relatives and friends.

And then there is the haft-sin, a charming, but ultra-specific, cultural tradition. If you speak Persian, then it all makes sense: a tabletop display of seven items, all beginning with the Persian letter sin, that represent characteristics and wishes associated with the new year. Sprouts growing in a dish for rebirth. Wheat germ pudding for fertility. Dried olives for love or coins for wealth. Garlic for health. Apple for beauty. Sumac for sunrise or hyacinth for spring. Vinegar for patience. Thank you, Wikipedia and NPR.

But that's not all. Oh no. Depending on your preferences, you might add to the display. A holy book of your choice. A book of Persian poetry. Goldfish (for life; just keep swimming). A mirror (for creation). Fire or a lamp. Candles or photos of loved ones or ancestors to remember. Cypress or pine. Painted eggs. Pomegranate. Wheat (in or out of bread). Water (possibly housing the goldfish). Sweets (could be nuts, could be candy, could be double-chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles ... I'm just saying ...).

Martha Stewart and her ilk have nothing on Persians constructing a haft-sin. Multi-level. Rustic. Refined. Colorful. Muted. Minimalist. Extravagant. These are annual works of art, days or weeks in the planning.

As far as the Baha'i celebration of Naw-Ruz goes, the spiritual one that we all celebrate, all over the world? None of the above applies. By design, the Baha'i Faith is free of rituals and ingrained traditions. The closest things we have to "rituals," in my opinion, are a marriage vow, a prayer for the dead, postures associated with daily obligatory prayers, and two attitudes of respect at the shrines in the Holy Land. All of those can easily be practiced, regardless of culture. I can hear you now: Really? Yes, really. But my Persian friends who are Baha'is... Did you hear what you just said?

Of course Baha'is who are Persian often bring their cultural traditions to Naw-Ruz celebrations. I eagerly waited for a dear friend to post photos of her haft-sin this year, since she always designs something inventive, beautiful, and multidimensional. Like most of my friends who create their own displays, there is often a twist that reflects her Baha'i identity as much as her Persian roots. The seven central items are the same. But the holy book might be the Kitab-i-Aqdas or the Hidden Words, or a simple prayer book. The book of poetry is as likely to be by Tahirih, or by Mahvash Sabet, as it is by Hafez. The photos might be of Abdu'l-Baha or Mirza Mihdi. 

Baha'is who are not Persian? Not so much with the Naw-Ruz revels. Instead, other cultural traditions turn up at different times of the year. Making and frosting cookies or gingerbread structures at Ayyam-i-Ha. Or, as my mother does, leaving up white twinkly lights to enjoy during the early mornings of the Fast. People celebrate in ways that are true both to their faith and their culture or personal preferences.

So. I have no haft-sin. But I do wish you and yours a very happy Naw-Ruz! May all good things come your way in the new year!

'Your Friends Have Weird Names'

Over pad thai and sushi one night last week, I caught up with a couple of friends for the first time in ages. As we do, we swapped stories about work, and house renovations, and whatever else was new. If we told our stories well enough, we could get the most elegant of the crew to snort with laughter. Everyone has to have a goal.

In any case, while my friends devoured a salmon, cream cheese, and scallion roll, I filled them in on an event I attended recently. Between fits of giggles and demands to see video evidence, one of them blurted, "Your friends have weird names," and then proceeded to list two or three I'd just mentioned. She wasn't being at all judgmental, just expressing her honest perspective: my friends' names are ones that don't categorize neatly for her. 

It's not the first time a friend with a common European name has said exactly that. But it always reminds me of two things. First, as a Baha'i, I've always been surrounded by people from many different backgrounds. And second, even within my own overlapping circles, people can go years without ever meeting someone whose culture is distinct from their own. 

I think, depending on a person's experiences, it's easy to think of names following certain protocols. That's even more true in languages where traditional names take masculine and feminine forms. Trying to apply the standards of one culture to the names in another culture is where the "weirdness" comes into play. It's something that worries me a bit about the book. Will people be able to get past the unfamiliar names? Or will they be too intimidated to see the fullness of the story?

Let's have some fun with this. When I hear Reza or Nima, I expect to meet men, but Taeko and Chiho? I expect to see women. Sanam is one of my favorite feisty little girls, but in a subtle twist, my friend Saman is a guy. Most of my friends named Leila pronounce it Laila, but one friend's daughter, Laila, sounds like Lila, and another friend's daughter, Lila, sounds like Leela. My cousin Alia sounds like Aleea, but my friend Aliea sounds like Ali-a. A friend's dog, Ruairidh, sounds like my cousin Rory. My friend Jiaer, a girl, sounds like a jar, the same way a friend's son, Cash, sounds like ... cash. My cousin Nathanael sounds like Nathaniel, but an acquaintance named Israel is Is-rye-el. These days, James could be a man or a woman, and Ashley shifted from a male name to a female one years ago.

Most of the men named John that I know say, "it's a family name," but at some point in time, the first John in their family was probably named after either John the Baptist or the apostle John, who is presumed to have written the gospel bearing the same name. In a similar way, every Tahirih I know can trace her name back to the mid-19th century Persian feminist and poet who was executed for following The Bab. And every woman named Lua I know is in some way named after the early American Baha'i, Lua Getsinger, an intrepid heroine whose nickname was a shortening of Louise Aurora. My friend Eric might think his name is normal, but at some point, a Viking had to explain his name to a Scot. I'll skip the phonetic spellings except to say that no one named Shyanne would have that name if the Cheyenne hadn't made their home on the Plains.

To me, a name is the same as a face. Each one is unique (even if a name is shared, it's still unique when attached to a person). Weird? Only if you think you're normal.

When Is Dinner in Australia?

"I'm fine most of the time during the Fast. I just can't do very creative things." A numbers-oriented professor friend lobbed this into the conversation over a potluck serving table a couple weeks ago. The chatter had turned to the ways various Bahá'ís dealt with the upcoming 19 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset. As his hand reached for the serving spoon to move a crunchy piece of tahdig from platter to plate, he looked up and met my glare ... I mean stare. "Oh. That's probably everything you do ..."

Perhaps it's not everything I do. But with the exception of some strategy work and a bit of editing, most of what I do falls into the creative side of things. While I, too, am usually fine during the Fast, the timing does present some interesting challenges to my usual routine.

My biggest hurdle isn't food. I'm a very light breakfast eater anyway, so it's hard for me to get up super early and inhale a feast before sunrise. Instead, I choose a specific morning menu of small amounts of protein-rich foods and plenty of water, and I stick to the same meal for the duration. Do I get hungry? A little. But no more than if I'd skipped lunch at one of my old office jobs.

No, my challenge is sleep. And this is where the creative issue comes into play. I normally head for bed between 11 and midnight, and get up between 7 and 8 a.m. During the Fast, I rarely get to sleep much earlier, but my alarm goes off between 5 and 5:30 a.m. I can try to stay awake and pound through all of my work early in the morning, but then my energy is used up by afternoon, when I still need it. I can eat quickly and try to catch another hour or two of sleep before really getting up for the day, but that pushes my day later. Or I can split my day into a morning shift and an evening shift, cutting short my night's sleep and trying to catch a nap in the afternoon if my schedule allows.

Throwing a wrench into things is the fact that I'm in the last month of my MFA studies, which means I would have been writing at night and in between professional assignments anyway.

All of this leads me to days like today. It's been dark and pouring rain since before sunrise. I'm up to my eyeballs in my book's sample chapters. Some portion of my core is staging a mutiny after yesterday's workout. I'm operating on too little sleep. And my uncertain schedule as a freelancer remains a constant.

This is definitely when I think to myself: terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And I think I'll move to Australia.

But then I wonder what time sunset is there and start dreaming of cheeseburgers with guacamole, and decide perhaps I do have enough creative gumption to just get on with things. Which I'll be doing right now.

The Season of Restraint

The shaker bottle of berry-scented green sludge next to my desk just caught a flash of sunlight. That's one sight I won't see for the next 19 days. The light on food, I mean. The green sludge will still be around.

At sunset tonight, the nineteenth and last month of the Bahá’í year begins. This is when we fast from sunrise to sunset each day, abstaining from both food and drink. Instead, we turn our attention to prayer, meditation, and the love of God. Then, at the end of the Fast, we celebrate the coming of the new year, which corresponds to the beginning of spring.

Fasting isn't always easy. And there are plenty of exemptions for people who should not fast for one reason or another, ranging from travel, age, and manual labor, to illness and pregnancy, among others. The point of the Fast isn't to punish yourself or make yourself sick. It's about reflecting a spiritual reality in the physical world.

There's something really beautiful about waking up in the half-light before sunrise to fix and eat breakfast and drink plenty of water. In my neighborhood, that means being up and moving around 5:30 a.m. for the first half of the Fast, and then around 6:30 a.m. for the second half, after daylight savings time starts. I tend to eat breakfast while leaning against the kitchen counter, so it may not be the most relaxing morning routine, but it's still thoughtful and dreamy.

Sunsets are more beautiful, too. Some days, that's because hunger has taken hold with a vengeance. Most days, though, it's because I have a greater awareness of the quality of the light and the gentle slide into darkness than I do at any other time of the year. It's pretty common for me to reach sunset and be past the point of hunger, so I don't care if I eat right way. 

For a long time, this has been one of my favorite times of the year. It started because it's incredibly clear that I'm a Bahá’í during the Fast, since I have to plan around social conventions in a way I don't, normally. Lunch meetings? Not so much. Early dinner with friends? Nope. Chat over coffee? No thanks. Then it was because I had a gang of friends nearby who were all fasting and would arrange to meet up and break the fast together with potluck dinners and prayers on Fridays or Saturdays.

Ten years ago, I spent the Fast overflowing with fragile, happy anticipation, dazzled and surprised. The events of that Fast, and that spring, set off a chain of events that continues today, from apartment and travel experiments to career opportunities and financial choices. 

Five years ago, as part of that chain, I spent the last half of the Fast on pilgrimage to the Bahá’í shrines in northern Israel. Pilgrims don't fast, which felt very odd. Instead, I spent a lot of time praying and wandering around the gardens. I let my mind and heart wander, considered who else had walked the same paths, and came back lighter and more focused. Within weeks of my return to the U.S., I was flying back and forth to San Francisco every few months for work and catching up with friends and family out west. After a little more than a year, I changed jobs and opened more doors for myself. A little more than two years after that, I went freelance, started my MFA, and started researching and writing the book. 

Which brings me to now. I'm thinking ahead again. Maybe "feeling" ahead is a better expression. It's time for focus. And prayer. And intuition. And action. 

Why 'Love Lessons'?

A couple of weeks ago, while I was deep in the process of (yet again) adjusting the book's structure, I had to think about chapter titles. This is one of those things writers do, knowing full well that everything about the book could change multiple times more before publication.

We do it anyway. In part because agents and editors expect to see a chapter outline that gives a sense of the story. In part because chapter titles sometimes help us organize our writing into coherent chunks. And in part because it gives us a sense of accomplishing something, when research and writing turn into a bit of a slog. (For the non-writers: Really, it all seems very glamorous and creative until you're reworking the same material for the fifth time.) 

In my case, the slog was due to the issue of tension. That is, a story needs both outer tension, which is what moves the action and interest along, and inner tension, which is what gets a reader invested. The source of external tension in Mr. Khánjání’s Roses: My Love Lessons from an Iranian Prisoner has always been clear: the specific conditions faced by Mr. Khánjání and the Bahá'ís in Iran. The internal tension was hazy, since it needed to stem from me and what I learned or wanted to learn. And I really couldn't have told you what that was.

The more I contemplated that question, the more stuck I became and the more isolated I felt. And the more alone I felt, the more I realized that five stories always rescued me in those moments:

  • The Valley of Search in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, when Bahá'u'lláh explains, "One must judge of search by the standard of the Majnún of Love," a character taunted for seeking his love, Layli, in the dust, when she is of pure spirit. He responds that he will seek her everywhere.
  • The Valley of Knowledge in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, in which a different lover is chased through the streets by a watchman, only to hop a wall, find his lost love on the other side, and see that he should have blessed the watchman from the start instead of complaining. 
  • The Alchemist, in which Santiago not only finds his love (in the sweetest scenes ever), but finds that the power of universal love inspires: "When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too."
  • A Little Princess, especially the scene when Sara finds a fourpence in the muddy street, buys warm buns from the baker, and then gives all but one of them to a child even hungrier than herself, which inspires the baker to start doing good turns of her own.
  • The historical accounts of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, when he was still incarcerated in the former prison city of Akka (Acre), distributing sweets to the children in the streets. He had little of his own, but somehow, he kept giving more to others. When I visited Akka on market day a few years ago, a candy seller was pushing his massive cart through the narrow streets. Hot pink and yellow Turkish delight, slabs of nut candies, and logs of chocolate-covered halvah formed a pool of color against the rough tan walls and grey stone alleyways. I could almost picture an aging man in a serviceable aba being swarmed by children. 

Eventually, I realized that the internal tension in the book really goes back to the qualities that I'm seeing in the people I'm meeting and hearing about. They're qualities that are themes in my "rescue stories," as I've come to think of them, too. Sacrifice. Sincerity. Humility. Courage. Service. Hope. Just to name a few.

All of those qualities are aspects of love, whether for family, for a partner, or for humanity. They are also all qualities that I need to work on. Each one stands out now and again, but only when they're wrapped into one person or one story do they shine for what they really are: lessons in how to love unreservedly. 

And that is why my subtitle is what it is: Love Lessons From an Iranian Prisoner

Mr. Khánjání's Roses

What better day than Valentine's Day to share the new title of the book? And, of course, the fact that the story is coming back to where it started: the inspiration an 8-year-old girl took from a bouquet of roses she spied across a crowded room and what she learned years later when she went searching for their source.

Mr. Khánjání's Roses: My Love Lessons From an Iranian Prisoner is still a narrative nonfiction book, with all of the history and analysis of events that requires. But it's closer to the heart. A little more adventurous. A little more colorful. A lot more me, in other words. 

I'm feeling good about this evolution of things. The chapter outline feels better and the path the rest of my research needs to take seems more clear. And I'm even more confident about which teaser pieces I'll send out next and to whom I'll send them.

In fact, today I complemented my everyday jeans with a bright red sweater, bright red socks with white hearts, and carved-bone heart earrings to make this announcement. This despite my Valentine's Day consisting of revisions to client projects, writing a legal/contract paper, and not driving 10 miles in search of extravagantly frosted baked goods and Starbucks' finest chocolate-espresso-sugar concoction.

This is my treat for myself today. And for you.

Quick Bits of Inspiration

In the last week of the second-to-last term working toward my MFA, with freelance assignments moving through, too, I hope I can be forgiven for a little inattention to blog-y things. That doesn't mean my mind's completely gone right now, though. My quest for inspiring ideas continues!

Later this week, a couple friends and I will attend a local TEDx annual event. In part just to break out of our day-to-day ruts, in part because some of the talks sound interesting, and in part because there's a good chance I'll be pitching a talk for this event next year (so seeing this year's talks in person should help me prepare).

In the meantime, I found myself cruising through Not a Crime videos recently. They document the works of street art around the world that are highlighting the denial of higher education, and sometimes even basic education, to Bahá’ís in Iran. The largest number of these massive murals are located in Harlem, where I hope I might get to see them when I'm in NYC after the holidays. The video that I most enjoy, though, chronicles the work of artists in Sydney, Australia. Have a look and have a think:

  

 

The Closing of 100 Doors

Just two weeks ago, I wrote a post about what I anticipated would happen to Bahá’í business owners in Iran following the celebration of the two holy days at the beginning of this month. 

Days later, Iran Press Watch published a translated article that listed the names of more than 100 small business owners who saw their shops closed. Because they are Bahá’ís. Because they closed their shops on days when their Faith calls them to spend their time in prayer and commemoration.

It's clear from the list that there are connections among the people. For example, the number of eyeglass and optometry stores in some cities is unlikely to be a coincidence. All but two of the locales are in the fairly small confines of Mazandaran, a province known for its beauty, its striking position between the mountains and the sea, and its historical significance. It's a place where legends dawned, long before the Persian Empire reached its zenith.

Of the remaining two cities, one is in the neighboring province and the other is the well-recognized southern port of Bandar Abbas. A few are county or provincial seats. A few have just about the same population as the nearest cities to me, here in the U.S.

It's easy to imagine walking down a familiar shopping street and seeing groups of police and plainclothes agents removing the customers, probably shouting at the shopowners, and chaining and padlocking the doors. Something like that wouldn't go unnoticed by passers-by on the sidewalk.

Take a look at the names on that list. Most are men. A few, I suspect, are women (based on first names shared with people I know). Take a look at their trades, one by one. Picture what happens when a carpenter's shop is closed. Or a mechanic's garage. Think about the chatter you have at the dress shop when you're looking at the new season's display, or the banter during a makeover on your way to a special dinner. Imagine those stores dark and cold, the cheerful voices silenced.

Most of all, picture the smiling faces who greet your children at their favorite toy store. The bright colors and careful displays, assembled just so to enchant a tiny tot with sparkling eyes. The soft plush of a new bear. The delicate whorl and scallop of a pint-sized tea set. Remember the soft laughter and the gentle voices teasing a young one out of their shell.

Check the list. That's number 6 in Qaemshahr.

Pray for America, Act for the World

Today's post is pointed. Not just because it's November and I'm up to my eyeballs in end-of-term assignments and end-of-year work projects. Nope. It's also the day of the presidential election here in the United States, and it's unlikely that most Americans (or, I understand, a sizable number of individuals around the globe) have anything other than that event on their minds. 

A year ago, I wrote about why I practice political noninvolvement. Today was a general election, though, so I could vote. Still, for me, the day isn't about who "wins" or "loses," or about parties, policies, platforms, or popularity contests. It's about a deep and heartfelt concern that our country has lost its compass someplace along the way.

The U.S. is older than the Bahá’í Faith. So it shouldn't be any surprise that there were tablets and letters written specifically about this country. And in fact, the son of the Faith's founder visited the U.S. and Canada a little more than 100 years ago, traveling from coast to coast and back, meeting with people from all walks of life.

At an event in Chicago in 1912, while on that trip, 'Abdu'l-Bahá spoke the following words, which strike me as just as relevant today as they were then. (A heads-up: "just government," in this context, means a duly constituted government; it doesn't have to do with the carriage of justice.) At first glance, this might seem a celebration of our national accomplishments, but a deeper look reveals the places we need to do some work. So, if you're looking for a prayer, this one is there for you:

O Thou kind Lord! This gathering is turning to Thee. These hearts are radiant with Thy love. These minds and spirits are exhilarated by the message of Thy glad-tidings. O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. O God! This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy. Make it precious and near to Thee through Thy bounty and bestowal.

I have one more thought today, and it goes back to that lost compass I mentioned. This is the first election I can remember where our country's relations with other nations didn't make the domestic news (or even make it into the national discussion) in any meaningful way. That seems to me further indication of the compass either going missing or pulling a Captain Jack Sparrow on us, simply swinging wildly about depending upon who's holding it. Neither seems like a positive option.

And that brings me to the other quote I've been thinking about, drawn from a reply 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to some Bahá’í women who had contacted him with news of goings-on around them in that same 1911 or 1912 timeframe. The whole letter hangs above my desk, because it's relevant to the work I'm doing. But this part ... this part gives me hope that we can look beyond our borders and live as part of a global society, if not as a nation, then one person at a time, compass by compass:

Each one must sacrifice his life and possessions to the other and each person be loving to all the inhabitants of the world, rending asunder the curtain of foreignness and consorting with all the people with union and accord. They must be faithful to the traitors and benevolent to the tyrant. They must recognize the enemies as friends, the unknown as known. ... consort with all the people with the utmost joy and happiness ... Become ye not sad on account of any calamity, neither be ye broken-hearted by any trials. Be ye firm and steadfast...

A Strange Kind of Celebration

Tonight marks the beginning of the second of two consecutive Bahá’í holy days. We don't have what others might consider "high" holy days, but if we did, I venture that these would be two of them. These are the birthdays of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith and His immediate Forerunner.

All around the world, Bahá’ís close their businesses, stay home from work or school, and spend these days commemorating and celebrating those events. Sometimes alone, sometimes with family and friends, and sometimes among whole communities, with events open to anyone who wants to join in the spiritual festival.

I found myself in an odd spot this year. Nothing particular seemed to be happening among the nearby Bahá’ís. Plus, this week unexpectedly became the only time several work projects could be completed. And it's prime time for graduate study, too. So as much as I would like to say that I am taking these days off, as I should be, I'm not.

That doesn't sit well with me. In fact, I feel guilty.

In a matter of days, I expect that my routine checks of various sites will show that more Bahá’í businesses in Iran have been closed. It's a familiar pattern. As I understand it, Bahá’ís are allowed to support themselves as long as they don't identify themselves as Bahá’ís. Closing their shops on Bahá’í holy days is an automatic identifier. Days or weeks later, authorities arrive and shutter or even seize the businesses for a short time, a long time, or forever. 

My decision to press on will come back to me when I see the lists of shop closures. People are facing a choice between following the same religious practices I take for granted and losing their livelihoods. Meanwhile, I'm simply forging ahead as if these days are the same as any others.

I have a duty to those who are brave enough to face certain hardship. Next time, I will let a verse from a poem written by Mahvash Sabet guide me:

If they cut open our veins, red tulips will blush
like blood in the fields.
If they padlock our lips, the mouths of a thousand
spring buds are unsealed.

Why Don't They Just Leave?

A week or so ago, I read that Mahvash Sabet was released from Evin Prison on a five-day furlough after eight years behind bars. Photos showed her straight gray hair and luminous skin, her shadowed eyes, and her radiant smile above the bouquet of lilies she held. Ms. Sabet was the first of the seven Iranian Bahá’í leaders captured in 2008, some two months before Mr. Khánjání and the others.

She was on my mind as I sat in a newly renovated Starbucks with a friend, swinging my feet from the rungs of the barstool and sipping a tall plastic cup of iced tea. I explained the news and my friend asked two questions. What do you mean, "furlough"? And, why doesn't she just pack up and disappear?

The first is an easy one. We all assume that our prison system and penal code is like everyone else's. Not so much. In Iran, the penal code allows for limited furloughs on a regular basis, after every certain amount of time served, or for certain humanitarian reasons. However, Bahá’ís exist outside the system. Authorities may or may not grant them benefits that are, in fact, written into the code as prisoners' rights. Ms. Sabet and her colleagues were all due multiple furloughs throughout the years. This is just the second of two that have been granted. 

The second question is harder to answer. It would be dangerous, if not impossible. Not to mention illegal. But beyond that, it would break the hearts of Bahá’ís all over the country. Not because she might escape a situation that others cannot, but because there is a strong sense that the Bahá’ís are working for a better nation and a better world. Even from the depths of Evin and Rajai Shahr, they're striving to bring peace, compassion, and a unifying sense of humanity to everyone they touch. If that means sacrificing their years, their health, the comfort of their families, and even their lives ... so be it.

That's no easy decision, no simple task. To read Ms. Sabet's poetry, adapted into English in her book, Prison Poems, is to catch a glimpse of the despair she's felt. It's also, for one moment, to see absolute love in the midst of abasement. Why not leave? She answers in this one small verse from "The Imaginary Garden":

You need just one flower -
that’s all it takes -
to open the windows of sight.
A single verse
is quite enough
to illumine the eyes with light.

Apples and Attorneys

I was reminded again this week of the benefits we have as Americans. That's because Monday, the New York Times reported that journalist Jason Rezaian is suing the Iranian government for "hostage-taking, torture and terrorism." If you recall, he is the former Washington Post Tehran bureau chief who was imprisoned in Iran for about 18 months and released around the time of the nuclear treaty talks between Iran and the international community, including the U.S.

I am very interested in the details laid out in the 68-page filing. Not because I enjoy reading about torture. I don't. In fact, it tends to leave me nauseated or sleeping with the lights on. However, I've found it hard to find detailed, English descriptions of the insides of Iran's prisons and the actions that take place there. That's particularly true of the sections reserved for individuals most often brought up on "security charges," like journalists and Bahá’ís. So reading Mr. Rezaian's case documents may allow me to write more effectively about the conditions facing other prisoners, including Mr. Khánjání.

It's also fascinating to me that the act of filing a lawsuit (against a nation with a history of disregarding similar suits) is reported pretty prominently here in my homeland. What gets reported and what doesn't?

Nearly every other day, I learn about Iranian Bahá’ís being arrested, expelled from university, or closed out of their shops. But those stories do not make the news here or nearly anywhere. Is Iran's lack of free press to blame? In part. But the government's ability to intimidate is more so. Because it's not just domestic press that is quashed. It's foreign press, too. No journalist wants to endure what Mr. Rezaian did. No media outlet wants to be banned from covering stories in Iran.  

So the human right stories, particularly about Bahá’ís, seem to make it out of Iran in a convoluted game of telephone. All that's missing is a couple of tin cans and a really long string. Someone's family member or a human rights activist passes the news along in Farsi via social media, website, phone, or smoke signals, another person or group picks it up, does a rough translation into English, posts it on another human rights or special-interest site, and there it sits. No formal reporting. No identified sources, lest they become the next chapter in the story. No details about anything at all.

Just in the last few days, a minor amount of digging showed that 14 Bahá’ís were arrested in Shiraz last week, four more Bahá’í-owned shops have been closed in Karaj, and in Semnan over the last month or so, 80 families have been evicted and the province's largest apple orchard destroyed. That last bit? It was a cooperative venture among both Bahá’ís and their neighbors in which Mr. Khánjání is a stakeholder. I have a feeling that he may be sitting in his prison cell, more concerned about the well-being of his evicted neighbors than about his own likely losses.

The whole means of gathering information makes for a nonfiction author's nightmare. I'm finding it nearly impossible to gather any details or to verify anything according to journalistic standards. Even though the U.N.Secretary-General just this week said he was "deeply troubled" by the state of human rights in Iran and pointed to the Bahá’ís as the country's "most severely persecuted religious minority." Even though it's all clearly true, in other words.

So think for a minute about wasted apples in a broken orchard halfway around the world. Let yourself feel the warm sun pouring down on your back. The same back that ached every day when you planted those trees. Look across the crushed trunks and limbs. Remember how you walked the rows during last year's harvest, pulling down the fruit one by one. Feel the ultra-sweet stench of acres of rotting fruit saturate the air you take in your next breath.

In the U.S., someone would be filing a lawsuit.

8 Years for the Yaran

This time of year is always poignant. That's because May 14, 2008, was the day when the informal leaders of Iran's Bahá’í community were rounded up on false charges during dawn raids and bundled off to prison, where they remain today. Each year, there is an international public awareness campaign designed in equal measure to highlight the injustice and to remind Iranian government leaders that their actions, though conducted in the dark, will not stay in the dark.

Yesterday marked a related anniversary for me. Last year, I had just been accepted into my MFA program. In my application, I'd offered two or three true stories that I might use as the focus of the nonfiction book I'd be writing as the core work of my graduate career (and, with luck, my entry into the publishing world). In a call with the faculty director for the class of 2017, it became apparent that the faculty committee was particularly interested in my proposal to write about the persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran. But, Stephen advised, his voice jovial and encouraging even from a time zone away, the story would be so much richer if I could identify someone whose experiences I could use as a narrative through-line for the book. 

I was well into that enormous task when the 2015 awareness campaign started, with each day for a week spotlighting one of the two imprisoned women and five imprisoned men who had made up the Yaran ("friends"), the informal leaders who tended the basic needs of Iran's Bahá’í community. It's worth noting that all of the formal Bahá’í leadership structures that exist in most of the rest of the world were outlawed in Iran in 1983. Many Baha'is around the globe hosted gatherings for prayers in honor of one of the prisoners that week. I chose the Saturday and teamed prayers with a picnic. As I set to work selecting music and readings for the event, I also started trying to learn as much as I could about the man who was being spotlighted that day: Jamálu’d-Dín Khánjání, the eldest of the prisoners at about 83. The program I selected was this:

The more I learned about Mr. Khánjání, the more I realized that there was no better subject for my book. Despite having only scraps of information available, I was enchanted by the bits of information I gleaned about his character, his generosity, and his steadfastness in the face of a lifetime of adversity.

Now, nearly half of the first (and dare I say, very rough) draft of the book is written and sitting with the Office of Public Affairs, one of the offices of the U.S. Baha'i National Center, for a mandatory review. To most writers, that might seem like censorship. It's not. The fact is, because I'm a Bahá’í, some of the people I interview share lots of information that makes for a great story here in the land of the free and the home of the brave ... but it could cause a lot of harm to individual Bahá’ís in Iran without me having a clue. The Office of Public Affairs review is essentially a security check on their behalf, and I'm grateful for it. 

The lag time caused by those reviews, however, makes it difficult to share work in progress. In honor of this anniversary, though, I hope you'll enjoy this carefully selected (and slightly edited) excerpt.

From what is currently Chapter 11/Prison ("Kamiar" is Dr. Kamiar Alaei, a world-renowned HIV/AIDS public health expert who was arrested for his work and imprisoned in the same cell unit with three of the Bahá’í men for several months in 2009):

A week or so before my visit with Kamiar, I stopped in to see Ferida in her rambling farmhouse on the Maine coast, intending to ask her about her father’s condition and what he had to say about Rajai Shahr. She sipped breakfast tea and munched on toast first thing on a Saturday morning, a red-and-black buffalo plaid flannel shirt half-buttoned over her white t-shirt and black jeans, looking like any working mother whose elementary school daughter had been on break all week. After peeling a hard-boiled egg and then addressing me with “avocado … onion,” which I took to be other things someone might peel, Mei bopped out to the living room—a happy kid in search of her Legos and books, warm and cozy in thick grey tights, a turtleneck, and a corduroy jumper. 

“About the conditions he’s in,” Ferida began. In the early stages, at Evin and when her father first arrived at Rajai Shahr, she worried about his physical condition and that of the men with him. Some people told her the prisons were cold, others said they were fine. From China, she tried to send a set of long johns, but her family said her dad was okay. She called her sister, wondering if her father’s cell had a window. “My brother-in-law was overhearing. He was in prison two or three times actually himself … and he was behind her, saying ‘Yes, tell her when they went in, [the guards] asked them if they wanted the mountain view or the ocean view.’” Ferida erupted in belly laughs and I couldn’t help but join her. She gasped for air as she thought of her own question. “So he said, ‘Ferida, it's a prison, not a hotel.’ I learned later, they had a window high on the wall that let light in.”

By the time of our chat, Ferida explained, she knew the men could go out into the prison yard for two hours each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, although those allowances changed all the time. “You can see the yard where they are. I Googled it.” As she often did, Ferida veered sideways in her story. “The son of Mr. Naeimi—he came to China with very bad back problems. He couldn’t walk and was in bed for three months, and then apparently his dad and my dad, in prison, decided for him to come to China [so I could treat him].” She gave in to more laughter as she rolled her eyes about the way this all made perfect sense to the dads. “He showed me the yard on Google.”

Directly, Ferida didn’t receive much information from her father. “He never complains. Even they go to the prison and my father is saying, ‘The condition we are in, it’s okay. What can you expect? It’s not a hotel!’” Ferida repeated herself. “He never complains, but you can see the pictures online, of the corridor and basically stalls.” There were two people housed in each cell, and Jamál and Behrouz were sharing. They had access to a bathroom and shower, although Ferida wasn’t sure how many people the facilities accommodated—whether it was the six or eight who shared meals together, or more.

A week later, when I mentioned my conversation with Ferida to Kamiar, he nodded. “It’s good from one side they are together. They are more comfortable. On the other side, it’s not good because they used to have greater access to the general population, which could remove a lot of misunderstandings and beliefs about Bahá’ís.”

Kamiar’s voice and face both dropped. “I can’t forget the time that I was with him. So I always pray if he and his group…” His words caught in his throat and he collected himself. “Even in that situation, they tried to help other prisoners even while they were suffering the same way. A lot of people, when they get to prison, get selfish. ‘Why should I care about others?’ But for them to first, overcome this feeling, and second, serve other people as their neighbors, even if [those people] didn’t know them, respect them, or appreciate their religion, is amazing.”

As I stood up to leave his office, Kamiar thanked me for my work, giving a slight courtly bow from the waist with his hand to his heart, a gesture so familiar to me from my Persian friends, yet always a reminder of the formality lacking in my everyday life. His words were humbling. I am just telling the story, I mused. It was almost as though he heard the thought. “I hope he gets out so you can get the last part of the story from him.” Kamiar’s sunny smile returned. “And I’d like to give him a hug.”