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25 November 2011

Leyla Haidarian: Beyond King of the Mountain TED talk

When Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian came to Johannesburg, South Africa, she was confronted by a fascinating phenomenon: Ubuntu. It refers to a notion of collectivism or mutualism, a sense of togetherness. Roughly translated it can mean: “I am because we are”. Is it a motto of some tribes and therefore nothing else than a filler word? Ubuntu starts at the very beginning, and that’s what we have to do as well...

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I lost my prejudices
Added: Wednesday, 29 April 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

watch original V-Blog in German

The following is a translation of a letter from a German-speaking viewer of my v-blogs. I thought it was so candid and refreshingly inspiring, I'd share it with you all:

"Not long ago I was on a flight to go and see my family. I don't generally consider myself racist or prejudiced, since I am myself of Indian descent and know what it's like to be discriminated against, but I guess if we're really honest, we all are a little prejudiced at times. As I was waiting at the gate, I saw five Arab men who were praying in preparation for their flight. They were all dressed in traditional attire. I'm a woman and I suddenly felt uncomfortable around those men. Perhaps because I felt that they were looking at me or judging me for not being dressed like a Moslem woman should. I hoped that I would not be sitting next to them.

Of course I ended up right in the middle of them. The plane was pretty full and it was difficult to find another seat. One of them started praying again and I wondered why he had to do that next to me. I guess my body language betrayed the fact that I was feeling uncomfortable, because when I looked around for another seat, a white, German lady caught my eye and sympathetically said, "I know how you're feeling. I wouldn't want to sit next to these kinds of people either."

I found myself going red in the face. I was really ashamed that someone, whom I would consider racist, was 'bonding' with me. Had my discomfort been so obvious? Were my prejudices written all over my face? I kept thinking, that's not what I stand for.

When it was time to eat, they brought the food for the Moslem gentlemen first, as it was halaal. And then something happened that shook me up thoroughly. For some reason, the five men, who had been sitting next to and behind me, didn't open their dinner packs, but instead sat there and waited. At first I thought they might be fasting or praying. But then, 15 minutes later, when my food came, they all began eating with me. And it hit me – they had had the decency to wait for me to eat.

In that moment, as we sat together and ate dinner, I felt so connected to these gentlemen and so alienated from myself and the lady that had spoken to me earlier on. No word was every exchanged between me and the men next me, nothing was ever said, but that elegant and mannered gesture had spoken more than words and had impressed me beyond imagination.

I don't know. You told us to look for the good in people and this was an example of how I had looked for the negative, but in the end I realized how wrong I'd been. For the remainder of the flight I realized that none of these men had looked at me strangely or judgmentally. That the only one with judgmental eyes had been me. This experience has certainly changed me for the better."

Only as beautiful as you see me
Added: Thursday, 16 April 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

Austria is not Australia, Persian is not Arabic and Palestinians are also semites. Did you know? These things matter to some degree of course, but then do they really? Is my culture a skin color? A custom? A language? All of those? None of those? What about the anomalies in our cultures? The albinos? Or those who don't perform the customs; or those that don't speak their language? While there are many things I don't know about how culture is defined and why it's used to make some people feel better than others, there are some things I do know.

Culture is really only alive and truly beautiful in the context of diversity. I went to an intercultural, interracial, interreligious wedding last week and I sat and watched the bride perform the usual Persian cake cutting custom that I've seen so many times at Persian weddings. And most of my life I've found this custom to be silly and embarrassing. This time it was fun and special. And the reason, I found, was that because of the various cultures that framed the wedding, it stood out and went from being ordinary (in an all-Persian setting) to being extra-ordinary! Same for the African dances that followed.

There is something about diversity that makes us each special and beautiful. I've always felt this. In mono-cultural settings I always feel like a fish out of water. In multi-cultural settings I feel so at home! And the simplest metaphor is the garden metaphor. If every flower in a garden is red, it's no longer special. When each flower has its own unique color, shape and scent, each one stands out and mesmerizes. And oh how beautiful when two different flowers give birth to a whole new kind...

My world
Added: Saturday, 14 June 2008

watch original V-Blog in Persian

watch original V-Blog in German

Closely related to culture, language is an expression of who we are and what we value. It is, for example, very telling, that the word for 'education', 'culture' and 'religion' is one and the same in the Chinese tradition. Languages reflect the physical and spiritual reality we live in and they all evolve with time.

Languages merge and fuse, they pick up expressions and words from other cultures and they progress to account for our rapidly changing world. Even within any given language meanings change. "Chatting" meant one thing in Elizabethan English, and something totally different in the age of 'Skype' and 'Yahoo IM'.

Languages are dynamic and alive. Yet some of us try to put them in a box, seal them, isolate them, and make them the cause of exclusion and distinction between "us" and "others" - thereby taking the very wind out of their wings.

In South Africa we have 11 official languages, and because a lot of people associate Afrikaans and English with the languages of the 'oppressor', they go back to looking for the roots of their own languages and cultures. But that in itself is a difficult if not impossible task, because at the root of anything we find only more roots and more offshoots. Iranians the world over are cleansing their language of Arabic, associating what they perceive to have been violent cultural imperialism with their inability to get a grip on their own current lives. By getting rid of Arabic, they feel, they can reclaim some of their old glory. But that glory lies in the past – and so they miss their pursuit of the now and of the future. And what lies at the root of 'pure Farsi' anyway? Sanscrit - and somehow that's again not quite Farsi....So what is an Iranian if he's not defined by his language!?

More important than what we say and how we say it, is what we do. We can preach love and unity in any language, but living it is the challenge. If only we were to define ourselves by our actions, and less by our vocabulary!

If languages are worlds, then we won't live in one common world with one common destiny and in brotherhood, unless we learn to communicate, both by heart and tongue, in one universal language that connects us as peoples and inhabitants of this world.

I often wonder if someone landed from another planet and asked me to take them around the world, how I would explain that I cannot communicate with most earthlings...!

Pride or prejudice?
Added: Wednesday, 2 April 2008

watch original V-Blog in Persian

Since the movie came out, the number '300' evokes some strong, angry feelings amongst Iranians of all religious or political backgrounds all over the world. We Persians might kill each other by day, call each other names and destroy each other's lives, but we're pretty unified about one thing: Iran's history is something we can all be proud of. And if you attack us, then we'll stand united against the onslaught. In that way, our psyche thrives on pride more than the Greeks'! Serious!

For a while I used to brush off the violent reactions of Persians who complained to me about the movie. Some of my Moslem Persian friends said, "I bet you the filmmaker was Jewish!" Ironically, Xerxes and his grandfather, Cyrus the Great, were defendants of the Jews and Jewish people all over the world honor them as righteous kings. Meanwhile my Jewish Persian friends accused the Greeks of being the real culprits behind this tasteless movie. All the while my rationale was that it's just a movie. And who cares? The Persians looked pretty tough anyway. I even went so far as to think: maybe we Persians need a kick in our behinds just to realize how rotten the rest of the world perceives us to be. Because rather than a historically accurate film (which it in no wise was), it was a reflection of the barbarism we've come to represent.

I held that view for a while. Until last night. I was having seafood dinner with some of my Persian friends and they explained to me the pain they were feeling over the movie. My friend, Shiva, told me how evolved the Persian civilization had been at the time. Cyrus the Great was the first figure in recorded human history to have articulated a human rights declaration. A declaration that is set in stone at the entrance of the United Nations office in New York and reminds us all of how world leaders should be treating their people. His buildings and cities and those of his grandson, Xerxes, were the only ones ever to be built not by slaves, but by a paid work force. In those days; unheard of! He had a policy of paying women equally to men. In fact women and men were treated equally. Not like they are today in Iran. You would think we've regressed. He made sure that the people had health insurance, that their children were educated and that they received shares in the work that they performed. In short ; his civilization was highly evolved and, well, 'civilized'. So for Xerxe's empire to appear barbaric, animalesque and backward is a serious blow in the stomach. And it was to me too, last night, hearing the explanation of my friend. It doesn't matter who you are, if something beautiful is misrepresented it hurts you. If someone misrepresents your religion (the way we see the Baha'i faith being portrayed in Iran), your family or anything else that is dear to you – it simply hurts. And it hurt me last night on a personal and also philosophical level.

I know more than anyone that Persians don't look very good right now. '300' reflected that. Or maybe it was just a "harmless" fun movie with no deep meaning or attempt to portray something accurate. But I know how Persians feel. They feel like they're in a straight jacket with masking tape around their mouths. They can't explain to you why they're so messed up and lunatic-looking right now, but they wish they could scream and shout to you about how great they were before. - - - If only they could sit at one table and figure out how they can become great once again.

Happy birthday
Added: Thursday, 20 March 2008

watch original V-Blog in Persian

A few decades or so ago a little baby was born in the then booming city of Tehran, Iran. It was spring equinox, known as Naw Ruz, and my young, stylish grandma and grandpa were the lucky parents. Yes, it was my mommy who was born that night at midnight. Sure, in those days there were many challenges. Life was not perfect, as it rarely is. But little did my family know that those were to be, despite everything, the most carefree years of their life; a life that was to become increasingly harder and more traumatic.

When I look at my family's black and white and then Kodak-brown photos of Iran, I see youth, energy, beauty. In all their photos, my family seemed to look toward their future with a sparkle and yet a wisdom or slight foreboding they could not have consciously anticipated then.

Things didn't come as they had perhaps expected. When the revolution took its course, my family ended up with my great-parents, who had settled in Austria in the 1950s. Their wisdom crystallized in time, but as a result of much hardship and pain. Yet no matter what turn the rollercoaster of life has taken them, they rode along in it, as strong and dignified as they humanly could – always holding on to their Faith in God. Knowing some of the things my family has been through, and yet thinking of their strong, broad and heart-melting smiles as they defy some of life's ugliest facets infuses me with great strength.

"Were it not for the cold, how would the heat of thy words prevail?..." it says in the Fire Tablet. This sentence has accompanied me for as long as I have known this Prayer. In this cold world, my mother has been a beacon of light and warmth, a gentle, kind and above all compassionate human being. Her compassion is so great, that it has the power to lift a person's suffering as she completely absorbs it into herself. When I think of my mom I think of sunshine and flowers. And the irony is, that she thinks so little of herself.

One of her many gifts was to pass onto me the sweet and passionate Persian language and a love and 'sense' of Iran. My grandma, who was my other mother really, would often sit at night and read with me stories of rabbits and hedge-hogs, of snow-men and children, of everything that Persian children would read about in the books they had somehow salvaged. It was a tedious process for them to teach me Persian in Austria, back then, a very xenophobic country. But they did it anyway. And their stories of the Tajreesh bridge, of the fruit seller who would come around on his donkey, the stories of the various different neighborhoods, the romantic villages and villagers, the bazaars, the stories of the crazy Terooni drivers, of the mosques of Isfahan, of Chatanooga Café and the impressive Radiocity Cinema...all these things colored my childhood fantasy. I soaked it up and went there with them, to a place that they wanted to pass onto me, if only in spirit.

They've done a great job. It's my mom's birthday and I thank God for the blessing of her. It is because of her labor that I can even open my mouth and say anything coherent. Happy Naw Ruz mother – it's a new day. And as cold and dark as the world may feel, it is the light of your likes that shows us the way.

A journey from black and white to technicolor
Added: Monday, 26 November 2007

watch original V-Blog in Persian

Yesterday I had coffee with a journalist. He asked me about the Persian language. I told him what a delicate, fine and refined language it was, expressing such nuances that I couldn't imagine communicating in any other tongue. I told him, for example, the meaning of "ghorbunet beram" – which translates into "may my life be a sacrifice to yours", a phrase that sounds much more natural in Persian and which we use as casually as "see you soon!" He was fascinated by my accounts of how compassionate and poetic our culture and heritage is. He then paused to ask me something that I was not prepared for. He asked, "with such compassion and love in their veins, why then, do Iranians treat Baha'is so badly?"

I looked at him and admitted that I had no sufficient answer for this. But his question reverberated in my head the whole day. Of course there were many answers: any nation and people is capable of great good and great bad. Pick any nation, including South Africa, and you see in it a microcosm of both man's capacity to destroy and his capacity to nurture. Another answer might lie in theology, another in politics. Yet another answer might lie in the incredible power of ignorance that is born of backbiting and lies and is spread by a few and accepted by many. But none of these were really sufficient in my heart. Because deep down I am touched by the warmth and selfless attitude of my Persian friends, regardless of their religious background, and it is hard for me to understand why such a great people can be so petty.

And often this pettiness is all that people see. I thought of myself growing up in Austria. I was always Austrian on the one hand, but darker, more ethnic on the other. And when people asked me what my background was, I couldn't say "Persian" and much less "Iranian" with the same kind of pride that my other friends would say "Spanish!" or "Japanese"! It was so much easier to be from those countries. On top of that I was a Baha'i, "a what?" a Baha'i. It was so much easier to say "Roman Catholic". After all, every second building in Austria was a breath-taking cathedral.

And yet I knew, in my heart, how amazing, unparalleled, great and cool Iran really was. I knew how grand its history was, how delicate its art and literature were, I knew how beautiful and divine its mosques were, how blessed its soil was. And the inability to relay that to my friends hurt me a lot growing up. All they ever saw of Iran was people with beards, dressed in black, looking very angry and protesting in the streets - chaos and dust all around them. This was not Iran.

I was born in 1979 and grew up in Europe in the 80s at a time when most people did not see any bright sides to Iran. But I am almost 30 now and in my relative and limited wisdom I believe that any pettiness or ugliness coming out of my home country comes as a result of not knowing its worth. Iran had not yet recognized the glory and grandeur, which is hers. She is resorting to fundamentalism and materialism out of a sheer lack of vision.

But my vision for Iran is bright. I was raised to learn about her past, but more importantly about her future! Iran's future will be glorious, colorful and I am happy to say that I have a Persian, Iranian heritage. In one my earlier blogs I mentioned that culture is an illusion in so far as it is not a static, absolute entity, but an ever-evolving process of relativity. In His book, The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu'l-Baha praises Iran's history and points to its glorious future, while illustrating the reasons nations rise and fall and highlighting how important the dynamic process of progress is for any people. I recommend this as an important read for anyone who has experienced ambiguity about their Iranian heritage and is keen to understand more about humanity and its evolution in general.

The illusion of cultural identity
Added: Sunday, 25 March 2007

watch original V-Blog in Persian

On South African TV there is a show, which celebrates African culture. I was invited to join in for a discussion around a new book, which has just been released and captures some of the unique and beautiful traditions that you find in South Africa. When it was my turn to give my impressions I was asked to say what I think about the book from an "outsider's" perspective. I thought about this for a while and then said that I'm not really an "outsider" as such. After all I chose to come to South Africa and make it my home. In many ways I am South African – by choice. My mother is Iranian, my father is Austrian, Italian and Hungarian and I've lived on many continents. So I'm not sure what I am.

The interviewer cleared her throat and asked me to give my impression from a world citizen's point of view then. I said that my view on the subject is that, while we all have different cultures and traditions, we are first and foremost human. Our roots are spiritual, not physical. And that anything, which keeps us apart from each other is detrimental to our progress and anything, which celebrates our diversity without jeopardizing our oneness is worth keeping. I told her that I'm not so attached to any one of my cultures really.

This threw the whole concept of the show off, as we had been there to emphasize the need to rid ourselves of anything that was not from our own culture. So she asked me, "but isn't it important to know your roots, to have an identity? To know who you are?" And I answered, "I'm human, I'm not defined by my culture, I'm defined by my values and principles, my actions. Weather I wear a feather in my head or a around my neck is secondary to who I am. It is a an enrichment of my life, but not essential."

I then suggested that there is no such thing as "roots". Take the Zulu culture for example. What does it mean to return to your Zulu roots, when the Zulu culture was based on many different tribes that were forcefully united through Shaka Zulu? Was he not also a globalizer? Any root you pursue, you find more and more roots that come from it. Our process of coming together started from the beginning of time and is now becoming the center of attention, because our world has become so small.

There has never been a pure, physical "essence" that we sprung from. We are humans, that's our essence and since the beginning of time, culture has been a dynamic process. Wars have been fought, people have progressed, things have always been changing and nothing has ever been stagnant. Every culture has evolved and so has our global culture. So the notion of cultural roots, to me, is an illusion. If I were orphaned and raised by a Spanish family, I'd have a Spanish culture. This proves that culture is not in our blood, it doesn't define us, although people everywhere in the world are looking to find themselves in their culture.

I believe our roots are spiritual, and with that, we share a common humanity. Never mind what color skin, eyes, hair or clothes we wear. Those things are beautiful, but to me, they don't make us who we are.

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