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.

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.