Each week for the next eight weeks we will be releasing another episode until our first season of nine is complete.
Dr. Elham is the story of a medical student from Iran who ends up in South Africa to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor. From the moment she arrives she realizes that things are never as they seem and an adventure starts that takes her to a place she never dreamed of.
While it’s the story of an Iranian Baha’i it’s also the story of any Iranian or any person in the world for that matter. Elham is like you and me. She has hopes and dreams she wants to reach out for and challenges and fears she must overcome. She’s definitely imperfect and we hope very likeable. Along the way she meets a host of Iranian and African characters who help her along on her journey - sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
What has been the most rewarding for us as a production team is the level of deprivation we’ve had in creating and shooting the series. This deprivation has led to a great amount of creativity and thinking on our feet.
With no budget at our disposal, this series was shot with no real gear, paid cast or crew. Except for the two filmmakers nobody’s a professional and all our actors generously volunteered their time and went out of their way to meet our filming schedules.
Sometimes we’d plan a scene and one person couldn’t attend it last minute, which would throw us back by weeks until we could find another mutual time to shoot the scene and access the location.
But all in all it has been an incredibly rewarding and educational experience. We hope you feel our joy and passion through the series as you follow our weekly episodes and share the links with as many people as you can.
South Africa is busy launching a charter of religious rights and freedoms. It’s amazing, really, what this country does in terms of innovations on human rights and concepts of mutualism. Try and sit down a bunch of religious heads anywhere in the world and have them work out what they agree on! South Africa manages it! Incredible.
As someone who focuses on Iranian society and transformation, it makes me chuckle. I know that a lot of Iranians have superiority feelings towards other cultures and for them to see an African country beat them to it when it comes to progressive paradigms and systems must be quite a blow. Let us not forget that despite all political love affairs there still exists a considerable amount of racism for Africans and black people in Iran.
But Iran could do better. It’s the birth-place not only of Cyrus the Great and the first human rights charter, it’s the cradle of a very recent philosophy that originated in 1844 and proposes the equality of women and men, the harmony of science and religion, the eradication of extremes of wealth and poverty, universal education, the unity of religions and the oneness of humanity; a philosophy that provides the blue-print for a mutualistic democracy that safeguards the interests and affairs of all peoples of the world, not just a privileged few. But this philosophy, born in Shiraz and nurtured by a Persian Siyyid was quickly banished out of Iran and into Palestine, which is now Israel. And now Iranians call it a British invention! Which can only flatter the British.
So according to some people's bookkeeping:
Equality of women and men, universal education, progressive revelation, oneness of humanity, mutualistic democracy, human rights = British invention
Suppression of woman, suppression and persecution of minorities and majorities, the inherent division of humanity into good and bad, human rights abuses = Iranian
Hmmm…I guess at the end of the day you have to make up your own mind. But let it not be said that there is no choice. You don’t have to be a Baha’i to be proud of the fact that this movement originated on your soil. Why is it so hard to just celebrate the awesomeness of this rich philosophy and take ownership of it? And of Kurds, and of Sunnis, Jews, Christians and of atheists and of Shi’ih majorities who want to lovingly build a great society and blog about it?
The day Iran produces and owns a charter of religious rights and freedoms like the one in South Africa – that’s the day I’ll be buying my ticket to go home.
Finally I am thankful to Iranians for stirring my soul with their green human rights movement. I grew up apologizing for being Iranian. Now I am proud to say that I am. The other day I was sick, so I went to see a doctor who was wearing a yamurka. He read my name and asked me where I was from. I said “IRAN!” We both looked at each other and then cracked up. He said, “I like Iranians” – and it made me smile. I know that in the future the Middle East will be a place of light, beauty and unity. And I know that the conflict in the Holy Land will not be solved by tolerance. It can only be solved through love. No matter how long it takes, it is the only way forward. But it will happen sooner than we all think, for the world is darkest just before dawn.
Tonight I celebrated Naw Ruz with my African friends. We had Iranian and Italian food, enjoyed my "haft-seen" and sang and danced to Congolese tunes! What a world.
“The Earth is but One Country and Mankind its Citizens.”
HAPPY NEW YEAR! HAPPY NEW DAY!
I’m thankful to be discovering the fast in a whole new way. I have not been able to fast this year. It’s been bittersweet, because I miss the sense of strength and freedom that fasting gives me. But I suppose having to eat has made me realize that we are sometimes still “attached” to food, even by not eating. The trick is to be in the same “fasting” state of mind whether you are eating or not. It’s a journey for me and the best part of the day is sunrise. I’ve never been one for sunsets – they pierce my heart and bring me sadness. Sunrise fills me with joy and reminds me of the light that is filling this world in this age of transition.
Here's some food for thought on the fast:
"Some people lay stress on fasting. They affirm that in augmenting the weakness of the body they develop a spiritual sensibility and thus they think to approach God.
"Weakening one's self physically does not necessarily contribute to spiritual progress. Humility, kindness, resignation, and all these spiritual attributes emanating from great physical strength are acceptable to God. That an enfeebled man cannot fight is not accounted a virtue. Were physical weakness a virtue the dead would be perfect, for they can do nothing.
"If a man be just, kind, humble and merciful and his qualities are acquired through the will-power -- this is Godlike. A child cannot kill a man; but a Bonaparte can abstain from war, from shedding blood, from devastating countries. A dumb person will not speak ill of any one, a paralyzed hand cannot strike; but a strong arm can refrain from striking. Justice, love and kindness must be the instruments of strength, not of weakness.
"Exaggerated fasting destroys the divine forces. God has created man in a way that cannot be surpassed; we must not try to change his creation. Strive to attain nearness to reality through the acquisition of strength of character, through morality, through good works and helping the poor, through being consumed with the fire of the love of God and in discovering each day new spiritual mysteries. This is the path of intimate approach."
Abdu'l-Baha, "Divine Philosophy," p. 98
As the countdown to Naw Ruz continues, I'm counting my blessings. Number 4 on my list (which is in no particular order) is my son's happy disposition. I am thankful that he is filled with so much light and so many smiles. He gives me strength. Having a kid was a difficult decision for me. I have always felt that I don’t want to be vulnerable and love something so much over which I have no control. And in this day and age it seems that you have control over nothing except your own choices and thoughts. He has given me faith, where I thought I had to give him faith. I am learning that he is my trust, not my possession. It can be super hard, but it’s also rewarding. In his face I see my Creator and in everyone I meet I see my son. So this Hidden Word by Baha'u'llah has found new meaning for me:
O Son of Man! Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.
In the spirit of Naw Ruz, I'm counting my blessings this year. Another thing I'm thankful for is being alive in this day and age. A dear friend of mine says that we live in the best times. It’s just that news travels so fast and has become so immediate that it seems that things have never been worse! I think he’s right. I think that our hearts have never been more filled with love and light and that is precisely why we cringe and hurt when we hear of the darkness that still exists. It’s almost as if that darkness seems more dark, because we have come to appreciate the light so much. We are so interconnected that the life stories of others impact us deeply. On my phone I am connected to the world via telephony, text messages, instant messages, the internet, Twitter and Facebook. In an instant I may hear of a young girl getting crushed underneath a building or of a young man being tortured to death in an Iranian prison. I hear of him before I hear my own child waking up in the room next door! That is the level of connectivity we have in this day and age. And that is the level of connectivity we must arise to achieve spiritually. And it doesn’t take power or money to do this important task. We each have a great contribution to make in bringing together this human family. I truly believe that if we each explore the light within us and learn to develop the senses that guide us to the best life that we can live, we can find that happy place where nothing intimidates us, where there is no failure and where nobody is more or less beautiful than we are.
In the spirit of the Persian and Baha'i New Year, I'm counting my blessings this year. The second thing I'm thankful for, is that I have been able to reconnect with a lot of long lost family members this year. One of them is the award-winning actress Shabnam Tolouie. We go back to one great-grandmother. In this age of Facebook I have been lucky to be able to reach out to a lot of family members who have been separated through the Iranian diaspora and this connection gives me a sense of unity and a foundation for my son, who is the youngest generation of us all. I have traced us back about 7 or 8 generations and have drawn a family tree for my son on his wall with colorful chalk. It’s there to remind him how we are all connected. If the wall were large enough, it would surely encompass every individual in this world. In fact, our helper is on his wall too. She’s Zimbabwean and not directly "blood related", but she impacts him more than many of our blood relatives do and this just goes to show you that we are first and foremost spiritual beings and our true connections and identity are not of the flesh.
March 21 marks the Persian New Year, Naw Ruz. You can Google or Wikipedia it and read up about the history of this festival. But what’s more significant is that the Baha’i Faith (www.bahai.org), which is like quantum physics of religions, has really rendered this Persian festival global. Members of the Baha'i Faith live in more than 100,000 localities and come from nearly every nation, ethnic group, culture, profession, and social or economic background and they all celebrate Naw Ruz. It marks the end of the Baha’i fast - the spiritual and physical detox period - and the beginning of the new calendar year.
This year I’ve set up a traditional “haft seen” table. This has nothing to do with the Baha’i faith, but it’s a Persian tradition and lots of fun. On the table you’ll find things like lentil sprouts, dried oleaster, garlic, apples, sumac, vinegar, hyacinths, coins, candles, a mirror, some decorated (easter-like) eggs, a goldfish, some rosewater, a Holy Book relevant to the household religion and some Iranian colors – this year I’ve focused on “green”. They all have meanings, but for me it’s a way of remembering how the message of universal love came from Iran and has spread to the rest of the world.
There are many things I’m thankful for this year. I've chosen six to to focus on in the countdown till Naw Ruz. One of these is the fact that the United Nations has recognized Naw Ruz as an international holiday. The UN is far from being the institution it could be. It favors some countries over others and has a long way to go in realizing the value of the human family, but I think we must be grateful that we live in an age that has given birth to this institution and its underlying idea. Up until 160 years ago, we lived in world that was relatively isolated. Populations did not think in terms of being citizens of one world. Nationalism was our grandest sense of identy/unity. But suddenly, with the birth of the industrial revolution our world rapidly came together and we created global institutions to try and manage the challenges of a world that was becoming interdependent in terms of its social, economic and environmental realities. The United Nations is one child of that era. The Baha’i faith was born in that same era and offers the spiritual guidance and teachings for a world that is effectively one. The nexus at which Naw Ruz becomes global is an exciting one, because for me it signifies that spiritual fertility for the idea that we are the fruits of one tree and the waves of one sea.
So this friend of a friend’s arrives from Iran. It’s his first time out of the country and from the moment he arrives he’s blown away by everything that is different to what he had imagined. First of all, he mentions the beauty and cleanliness of what is an incredible infrastructure. We call and book a hotel in advance and he wonders how it is possible for us to do this without having big-shot connections in the town we’re visiting. We visit the town and he comments again on the incredible beauty. We go to an art exhibition and it takes him half an hour to get over the fact that Black people are artists too. We go to the bank to draw money and he’s stunned that banks are privatized and that they give you credit! How on earth would they trust that you’d ever pay them back? And how on earth do you trust them with what’s yours?
In fact, the whole issue of honesty and trust is a huge revelation for him. He can’t believe we get through a day without bribing anyone or without being jipped. But the issue he comes back to again and again is how amazing our infrastructure is. The roads, the public places, the buildings. Everything is clean and nice. And people throw their garbage in the designated containers (most of the time).
So we’re sitting and enjoying our pasta in one of these marvelous places when the waiter brings the bill. Our friend looks at it and realizes there’s an item called “tax”.
“You’re not really going to pay that, are you?” he laughs? ….
Yes. This man had never made the connection between paying taxes and getting quality of life in return. Because in the society he lives in, nobody trusts anybody for anything – least of all the government.
It’s a complicated society, this Iranian society. People are marching for change, but it better be well thought out and carefully planned. Because democracy without a level of trust - or rather “faith” - in the system and in others will turn out dismal. And we in the “West” know all too well what it means to have a crisis of faith in politics. Because some of us will read all the above and say: you can’t trust banks, and people don’t throw their garbage in the bins; I paid a bribe to a cop just yesterday and to get the best hotel rooms you do need connections…!
But it’s all relative, isn’t it? Seeing our society through his eyes made me appreciate what we do have and the fact that we can voice our concerns and demand transparency. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it’s the best thing we’ve experienced so far. For more thoughts on how we could “improve” the democratic notion, please watch our latest little film, Beyond King of the Mountain. I think that the ideas expressed are as exciting for the Iranians as they are for us or Haitians…!!!
It’s amazing to see the world responding to what is going on in Haiti. Even if you’re a cynic, you have to admit that this kind of reaction is unprecedented in the history of humankind. Never before have we been this exposed to the most personal and immediate stories from people on the other side of the world. We “feel” for perfect strangers more tangibly than ever before. Some of my friends based in the United States are flying to Haiti to lend a hand. Others in places like Bahrain are raising money and say that the city mosques are continuously singing prayers for the wounded and affected. Yes in many ways these are the end-times. But those who “perish” are not those who are dying. What perishes in this fire is our old way of thinking and “humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior”. Love is the pillar of our salvation and unity is the arch that will shelter us. I see a tremendous shift in the right direction in these days of hardship.
In all of this heart-wrenching chaos a friend of mine, for whom Haiti occupies a special place in his heart, is frustrated with how major news networks report of “looting” in Haiti. He says it’s just wrong for “Western” media to report on people’s desperation in that way, when the West has spent a life-time looting Haiti. From a place of compassion and emotion for the individual circumstances of people I completely agree with him. It really feels insensitive and out of place to use those terms. From a place of “principle” perhaps, it raises another interesting question – independent of the given circumstance:
How do our principles and deepest convictions pan out in times of adversity? Do we always try and live by our convictions or only when things are relatively balanced? Because in my mind, it’s precisely when the going gets rough that our principles matter the most. If you’re never exposed to another, highly attractive and intelligent woman, you’re probably going to be faithful to your wife. If you’ve always got enough food on the table, chances are, you’re not going to break into someone’s house, put a gun to their head and ask them for their cash. People who commit “transgressions” are always under some kind of pressure. It can be survival, it can be lust, it can be greed, it can be desperation. My point is: our principles are what carry us through the rough times, not the good. They are what matter most when everything else falls apart. Wouldn’t you say?
Even if we employ compassion and understanding in individual circumstances, shouldn’t we strive to hold our principles dear on a collective and societal level - as a compass that directs our course?
The subject is very close to my heart, because while people are sending money and prayers and flying in to help the people of Haiti, there are things we need to do on a day to day basis, that can change the world on a profound level. Let us not think that giving money and sending a check, but then living our lives the way we’ve always done will do any good. Change needs to happen regardless of whether there is an earthquake or not. And the question of having principles, values and laws as the foundation of any functioning society or institution is one of the most relevant ones to ask ourselves as we try and build a new world.
The trial of the 7 Baha’i leaders in Iran has begun. Baha’is have been subjected to human rights violations for over a century. Even though their government does not respect them or their rights (or the rights of their own citizens); even though their government will bend its own rules and ignore international conventions, to which it is a signatory, Iranian Baha’is choose to obey the law of their country as a matter of principle.
What do you think about principles and their relationship to our lives?