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.
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.
My life encompasses 3 decades so far. I spent the first decade waiting eagerly to be a teenager and adult. I spent the second decade waiting to finish school and study. I spent my third decade trying to figure out what will be my purpose and how I'll make my mark. With the exception of the first few years of my life, however, I've spent most of it waiting for something. And it's this sense of "one day..." that keeps getting worse:
"One day I'll be happy, have kids, be successful, rich..." – you fill in the blanks. We all have some vague sense of what we want and it comes down to this idea that whatever it is, it will make us happy and fill us up – "one day!"
But waiting is always tied to an outcome. You're waiting: for someone to come home, someone to grow up, someone to change, something to change; waiting to find your purpose, your dream partner, the dream life or house. And that's where things get ugly, because outcomes can disappoint – more often than not, they do. If we spend every day of our life constantly waiting for something to happen before we're happy, we'll spend the rest of our lives waiting for something to happen. Because even when they do happen, we realize that we're not fulfilled. Beyond every achievement or goal lies another horizon. It never ends and the sense of panic grows.
How about we begin today to just 'be' the happiness, the joy, we want in our life? Because these are the days of our lives! They're not growing in number, they're shrinking! If you were to be told that nothing were ever to change in your life from this day forward (externally), what would you need to work on acquiring; what virtue or strength would you need to develop in order to achieve happiness? Whatever that is, is what you should probably be focusing on. And maybe instead of 'waiting' we need to be 'patient'. Patience is not tied to an outcome. It is detached. It means that we try and we put ourselves out there, to be the best we can be, but that we find our fulfilment, our happiness, our elation today in exactly that effort and in nothing else.
If we're happy today, if we just start living and being who we want to be - today - and we start thinking and seeing the world we want to live in - today - then we will manifest that reality and things will change; our lives will change, Iran will change, Honduras will change, the housing market will change...you get the picture.
"Till Death Do Not Do Us Part" - That was the title of a little talk I gave the other night at a local university. We gathered in an informal venue at one of the residences and I opened with the question:
"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our relationships with one another, we can reach a state of unity?"
Most people thought about their girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses and said "Sure, once you solve the issues. But that's the challenge. Solving the issues...!"
I left it at that and then embarked on one of my infamous excursions into the (often unconscious) values and assumptions underlying our relationships whether they be interpersonal, institutional, political, sociological or ecological. Humanity does, after all, have a relationship with nature too – albeit a terrible one.
My deliberations concluded with the general proposition that, in a world that has literally become interdependent and one, we need to change the values and assumptions underlying our relationships and societal structures – and go from premising them on self-interest to learning how to premise them on mutualism, for lack of a better word in brevity.
And so we came back to my initial question:
"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our relationships with one another, we can reach a state of unity?" or:
"Do you believe that once we work on and solve the issues we have in our societies or in the world at large (such as poverty, inequality, exploitation, violence, crime etc), we can reach a state of unity and peace?"
Though hesitant this time round, most people gave me a half-hearted nod. They knew that what we had talk about probably suggested a different answer, but they didn't know what that would be, so I whipped out one of my favorite quotes of all times:
"The wellbeing of mankind, its peace and security are both unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."
And the consequence of this statement is that we won't ever solve our issues, whether they be in our inter-personal relationships with each other (as couples, siblings, children, parents or friends) or in our bigger relationships with one another (as communities, nations or interest-groups) until we create unity. It flips the entire equation around. We will be ailing until we tackle the underlying disease, which is lack of unity.
And we spent the last 10 minutes or more, as I now invite you to do with me, reflecting on just what this could mean in practice. What does it mean to build unity in a relationship and to solve our issues from the point of departure? What does it mean to be an institution, not two different people? What does it mean to be a rich, diversely made-up institution or entity and not a series of individuals with conflicting needs and wants? ...and finally - when will we get over our 'selves' and spend our days thinking less about 'me' and more about 'us'?
Every word has a specific meaning to each one of us. For one person the word 'freedom' means security and community and for another it means breaking norms and societal restrictions. For some 'religion' is a dirty word and for others it is the essence of all things good. When I hear the word "Vietnam" I think of "Apocalypse Now", war veterans in old age homes and bloodshed. It will take a few more decades before "Vietnam" is washed of its connotations.
Words signify concepts that are somewhat different from person to person and particularly different from culture to culture. That's because every concept has a specific set of values underlying it. For example, in what we broadly call "the West", the concept of "love" is often romantic. Movies, soap-operas and novels suggest that for every person there is that one special someone out there. The young couple falls in love and wants to be together. They don't really investigate each other's characters or care if they have compatible personalities. Rather, they are swept off their feet and defy all odds. They rise up against their disapproving parents, society and any other obstacles in their path.
As a result, when we talk about love while sitting on the Champs-Elysees, sipping Espresso, the values underlying our concept of love will be very different to someone sitting in Karachi, at the local fabric shop. In much of the Middle East, the concept of "love" might have somewhat of a different connotation. Love is seen, perhaps, as a far more practical bond between two people who are building a life with each other. Money and education play a role, the consent from both sets of parents plays a role, and certainly, the lovers do not defy, but rather want to be an integral part of the society in which they live.
And while love is love no matter where in the world you are, there is always a different set of values and assumptions informing our understanding of it. Politics is another word that means different things to different people. While the word "democracy" often has a positive connotation, the term "politics" doesn't necessarily. With democracy, people think of "freedom, brotherhood and equality". With politics they think of "manipulation, self interest and competition". This is interesting, bearing in mind that politics in the West is, after all, primarily experienced through democracy.
I think that's because democracy is an "idea" or "ideal", which many people support. The reality of democracy on the other hand and its day-to-day workings are often thought of in terms of "politics", which conjures up images of "manipulation, dishonesty and cheating"! In our heads then, we seem to resolve the paradox nature of democracy by using different words to describe the "idea(l)" of democracy on the one hand and it's practical every day application on the other.
But in its original sense, democracy means nothing more than "rule by the people for the people". The "how" of it all, is left open. In today's world, democratic governance comes in many forms. But it seems to have developed an adversarial character where power is achieved and managed through competition. This might have to do with the fact that 400 years ago, when our current democratic models were being formed, philosophers and thinkers, like Thomas Hobbes, proposed that man's nature was that of a war of all against all and that people were naturally brutish. Our world was very different from the way it is today. Societies, their realities and economies were far more isolated than they are now.
Perhaps it was the somewhat disjointed reality of our world that made us assume competition would be the best way to organize our various different interests and affairs. And so our culture perpetuates this notion that for some to win and get ahead others have to lose. But in recent decades, we are experiencing some fundamental challenges with this application of the democratic notion. Our world has changed from the way it was when Thomas Hobbes was around. Nations, interest groups and people have gone from having relatively isolated realities to being very interdependent. Our lives have become tightly intermingled and the woman in the fabric store Karachi is directly affected by the couple sipping Espresso on the Champs-Elysees.
Maybe all of this has to do with why Baha'is are said to shy away from politics, something they are criticized for all the time. In a world that is ailing, people ask themselves how this community of 6 million can seemingly stand on the sidelines and not engage? The recent events in Iran are only one example where Baha'is were scrutinized for not marching, rallying or expressing their opinion in political terms. But it's not that Baha'is are not political – quite the contrary. It's the underlying assumptions, the notions, the values that our current political landscape is based on that we believe is not sustainable. So long as "politics" is based on a set of dog-eat-dog values that might have held true half a century ago, we're not political. Instead, Baha'is are trying to encourage others to join them in performing a system upgrade of sorts on "politics". Because – like any science – societal concepts need to evolve and embrace assumptions and values that speak to the needs of the age in which we live! If seen in that way, Baha'is are in the forefront POLITICAL! I'm just curious to see which word transforms first, "Vietnam" or "politics"...