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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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When Iranians flatter the British
Added: Tuesday, 13 April 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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.

And the freedom to play my notes, not yours
Added: Friday, 26 February 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

In my son’s children’s prayer book, there is a sentence that has always baffled me: “…bestow Thou freedom while in a state of childhood…”

I thought he was already pretty “free”: free to get naked and play in the dirt; free to eat rice with his hands and then throw half of it on the floor; free to roll around in the grass without a worry…

In an incredibly inspiring and unlikely speech at Harvard University, author JK Rowling recently shed some light on the subject for me, as she spoke about the value of crisis or the “fringe benefits of failure” as she put it. She described that when she hit rock bottom in her life; when all her fears of poverty and failure had come true, there was nowhere else for her to hide. It was in her absolute outer poverty that she discovered the true nobility of who she really was. There were no more material or worldly possessions, titles or “hype” to hide behind. She was “free” to be who she really was and rock bottom provided a solid foundation for her to build and meet her highest destiny.

So on one level freedom is a state of mind and means to be free from “earthly things”. It can also mean detachment from societal or cultural expectations, from material belongings, ego and idle fancy. And curiously, it is often in a state of outer “poverty” and “restriction” that we can find our true inner freedom.

In the “West” we often think of ourselves as already being free. We look at places such as Iran and think because freedom of speech is restricted, basic human rights are abused, the internet is censored and satellite programs are intercepted, we can call ourselves free and that this freedom is something worth “bringing” to places like Iran. Sure it is. But in the process of pushing these valuable societal freedoms, we often forget to humble ourselves before the “inner freedoms” that so many people in places like Iran have already achieved.

It isn’t our societal freedoms, but what we do with our societal freedoms that often points to our deep, underlying enslavement to self and ego. Those whose voices are silenced and who perish in the prisons of the Middle-East and elsewhere are often far more “liberated” than we are!

Inner freedom can be absolute, societal freedom can only ever be relative. Because if I infringe on your freedom by expressing my own, I am hurting not only you, but the greater organism of life that encompasses me. Indulge me for a second and visualize this organism as a piano: In parts of the Middle East, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are so bad that there are only three or four notes that are allowed to be played. The rest are silenced and muted. The tunes that emerge from this piano are dull and depressing. The piano as a whole is deprived.

In the “West”, every note is “free” - free to play and bang and sound whenever it wants. As a result it sounds like my one-year old, when he bangs on his keyboard. It’s a cacophony of brutal notes, each trying to sound louder than the other and each trying to win ascendancy over the other. It is equally dull and depressing and equally deprived of meeting its highest potential.

What we need for our own limitless spiritual freedom to be realized is a situation where each note can find its own best expression and sound at precisely the right time, without infringing on another’s turn and without sacrificing its own beauty. None of us can ever be heard unless we find that balance of a beautiful symphony and come together in a dance of notes. That is true unity and freedom. It is only when we find that balance, that each of us will find his or her best expression and that diversity will reach its highest expression.

As we strive for greater societal freedoms in the “East” and for an understanding of our spiritual freedoms and responsibilities in the “West”, let us learn from each other to cultivate ultimate freedom for our ever-advancing civilization.

Please visit and support - a movement dedicated to releasing imprisoned bloggers and promoting freedom of speech in the Middle East.

A crisis of faith
Added: Monday, 25 January 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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…!!!

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28 December 2009

Beyond King of the Mountain

Watch Beyond King of the Mountain on its own dedicated site.

Beyond our culture of contest lies a different kind of democracy: gentle, just and... inevitable.

Beyond King of the Mountain is a documentary short about the evolution and future of democratic governance.

Featuring Gordon Brown, Nelson Mandela and interviews with: Iraj Abedian, Nick Binedell, Gregory Dahl, Adam Habib, Michael Karlberg and Xolela Mangcu.

For more information, to buy the DVD, to watch it or to download the study guide visit

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The mathematics of love
Added: Wednesday, 22 July 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

"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'?

I bet you didn't think of Pho
Added: Wednesday, 15 July 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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"...

The birth of something new
Added: Wednesday, 17 June 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

In 1979 my mother had to cross the border from Austria to Germany or Switzerland to place a long-distance call to her parents in Iran. A revolution had broken out and she wanted to know how and where they were. Things were going crazy. There was mayhem. And in my mother's stomach I lay, feeling the anxiety of an unsure future.

30 years later and my son is born. He is barely 6 months old and yet he has to share my attention with Twitter, Facebook and CNN because once again, a revolution is breaking out in Iran. In the short term, who knows what will come out of the commotion that was born on Saturday? In the long term, however, we all know that Iran will never be the same again.

The world is hearing a nation wailing for change. Whatever happened on Saturday, it opened a pandora's box of emotions and energy. But above and beyond the noise and the violence, I hope that Iranians will find the love and peace they seek. And my prayer is that they find it with as little bloodshed as possible. Sustainable change takes hard work, and a lot of love and patience.

Maybe my son, Jonah Caspian, can be a participant in that great nation's future.

The burden of a filmmaker
Added: Wednesday, 28 January 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

watch original V-Blog in German

Together with my husband, we're in the final stage of completing our documentary about the evolution of democratic governance. It's an exciting topic and I've enjoyed researching and understanding the subject, but have felt extremely challenged at the same time. How does one create a compelling documentary that captivates average viewers when the subject is quite brainy?

Well, some of the most successful "commercial" documentary filmmakers, such as Michael Moore, use techniques like telling stories of people, which give a face to subjects like the health care system. You find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster between shock and sadness, anger and compassion. His latest film, SICKO, is a great example of a great, persuasive piece of filmmaking.

As filmmakers who are trying to navigate by certain principles, however, we've found that we're exploring new terrain. For example, we've decided that we don't want to point fingers and put any individual politician, party or person on the spot. We don't want to 'expose' scandals, but rather take a positive approach that shows the achievements of our democracies and yet their systemic shortcomings in the face of an ever-changing world. We want to show what the next stage of evolution could be for this system of governance. Can we make a film that is captivating, yet without falling into the trappings of demonizing people and institutions?

It's very hard because people love the hype of popular culture. For example, with all due appreciation for the current US President, it is very hard right now to talk about the systemic challenges facing our democratic systems when people treat him like he's the messiah and all the problems in the world will now miraculously be solved. It's hard to make a film that shows how democracy, as we know it, is captive to market forces without pointing fingers at individual politicians the way some filmmakers do.

Now some will ask – why not point fingers? Moore, for example, would say that freedom of speech is what makes our societies stronger and pointing fingers is a healthy way of creating debate. But that stance is not unproblematic. On the one hand, freedom of speech is clearly valuable and sets us apart from other societies that restrict freedom. On the other hand, this freedom is so easily abused, causes schism and infringes on other people's freedom of expression. For example, a Canadian filmmaker made a documentary about Michael Moore called MANUFACTURING DISSENT, in which she exposes what she finds to be Michael Moore's dubious techniques, such as taking soundbites out of context and manipulating them to make his point. Or staging certain events or bending the truth. Whether you agree with the Canadian filmmaker or not, watching both Moore's documentaries and then hers, you start to realize that things are never as they seem and "truth" is nothing more than a fabrication of the filmmaker's intention.

And what is more, how can I point fingers and demonize individual people, when the real problem is systemic and requires collective action? We're all part of the problem (and the solution)! In other words, filmmakers often simplify the complexity of our societal challenges when they blame everything on one cause (such as the previous US president).

As filmmakers we all know how easy it is to make someone say something they didn't say. So when I give people release forms, the signing of which gives me the power to use their soundbites any which way I want, I have a huge responsibility not to abuse their trust. As we edit away on our next cut of this documentary we're constantly aware of the fact that we're presenting a subjective view (no documentary is objective), but we're also trying to do so "ethically."

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25 August 2008

The Evolution of Democratic Governance (promo)

Our world is currently operating on a win/lose paradigm. One man's victory is another's loss. One country's sovereignty is another's oppression. One religion's triumph is another's damnation. Whether we watch CNN, Survivor or The Apprentice, our world is all about getting ahead at the expense of others. Politics is one such sphere of adversarialism. Even within our own, 'mature' democracies, one party's win is another's loss; one empty promise beats another. And yet, the prospect of democracy is commonly thought to bear the promise of freedom and liberation for any country that is struggling with an oppressive regime. It is the magic word that is said to free humanity from the shackles of theocracy, autocracy and communism!

But is it all that it is made out to be? If having a winner means that there must always be a loser, then what is the fate of those who lose? And is it then desirable to keep some people or countries disempowered? A closer look at some democracies, both young and old will suggest that democracy's true potential lies in the evolution of some of its underlying paradigms. It will suggest that it is possible to operate on a win/win paradigm and that this transition need not threaten our democratic beliefs, but rather enrich them as we strive to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world...

This film is a work in progress. If you are interested in being involved in the production of it, you can do so by supporting the project financially. The film has a high production value and includes costs such as international air travel and the licensing of archival footage. For this reason we extend an invitation to our viewers to executive produce this documentary. For inquiries and more information please send us a message or feel free to donate towards the production directly.

A Film by - Leyla & Ryan Haidarian

Interviewees - Nick Binedell, Xolela Mangcu, Iraj Abedian, Greg Dahl, John Perkins...

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