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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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Things I'm thankful for this Naw Ruz
Added: Saturday, 20 March 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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.”


Things I'm thankful for this Naw Ruz
Added: Tuesday, 16 March 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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.

Things I'm thankful for this Naw Ruz
Added: Saturday, 13 March 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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.

Things I'm thankful for this Naw Ruz
Added: Thursday, 11 March 2010

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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.

And why I light firecrackers in March
Added: Thursday, 11 March 2010

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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 (, 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.

On genocide
Added: Sunday, 1 March 2009

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Dear Christiane,
You are currently investigating the reason why the world repeats its cycle of genocide again and again and again. As a member of a community that is on the brink of experiencing genocide right now, this minute, let me share with you one reason why I think these things are able to happen again and again and again. Our global media has failed to adequately pick up on dangerous societal trends before they fester into full-blown genocide.

Several months ago, 7 Baha'is were imprisoned in Iran. The Baha'i Faith is Iran's largest religious minority and it has been persecuted since its inception, but most viciously in the last 30 years by the current Iranian government. Baha'is have been denied the right to attend tertiary institutions, their properties have been confiscated, their graves desecrated, their pensions withheld, their children vilified in schools and thousands of Baha'is have disappeared or been killed.

When those specific 7 Baha'is were arrested last year, I was one of many who went around to the media in my own country, South Africa, asking them to report on this situation and draw attention to the plight of the 7 Baha'is. They had been arrested without warrants and without communication to the outside world. They disappeared for months and their lawyer, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, did not have access to their case files. She still does not have access to them and faces her own problems in Iran.

CNN and other news channels in the world have been reporting on these developments - on their websites, largely. Thank you. But I have yet to see an actual, big news story on the issue. In my own South Africa, news stations, newspapers and other media have said to me that it's not worth their time to report on these events, unless something newsworthy happens – in other words, unless they are executed. Then and only then, might they begin to report on what is happening.

Now today, those 7 women and men stand to be tried in Iran before the revolutionary court. Their charges are espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic republic. These charges are completely manufactured and such charges have been used in the past to kill Baha'is. So what will probably happen is that Iran will, in the absence of a proper, internationally monitored trial and in the absence of their lawyer Shirin Ebadi, withhold a proper trial from these Bahai's. They will probably say to the world that these Baha'is have admitted to their charges and they will go so far as to execute them. And they will do that quietly, when the world media is not looking. Because we don't find things newsworthy until they become big enough – and bad enough.

And even if Iran doesn't execute them (God knows what they doing to them right now) – the quiet and systematic strangulation of the Baha'i community in Iran can already be called a genocide. Because when your life becomes unlivable, there is nothing left for you but to die a slow, social death.

My call to you is to publicize this story – more than ever. The world needs to know about what is happening to the Baha'is in Iran. The world's spotlight needs to be on this case so that we can prevent yet another genocide.

We as media people, filmmakers, journalists need to talk about dangerous trends all over the world – so that we don't turn around later say why didn't the world do anything about it? Here is a chance to do something right now.

Help prevent a Baha'i genocide in Iran.

Read the Baha'i International Community's letter to the Prosecutor General of Iran.

Please visit ireport to watch this video and leave your comments

An apology to my son
Added: Tuesday, 10 February 2009

watch original V-Blog in Persian

watch original V-Blog in German

A while ago I talked about a local journalist, a news department head, who decided not to run a story about a recent wave of persecutions against Bahais in Iran, because he said 'minorities' were not interesting. Much less in Iran.

For the most part the news reports of the persecutions of the Baha'is in Iran have been very subdued. But recently the open letter of apology that was directed at the Baha'is of Iran by Iranians all over the world, has been reported on quite a lot. And I have to say it makes me very happy and thankful.

Yes it's a small step for Iranians, but it's a big step for humanity. As Iranians, we're finding common ground and we're celebrating our diversity, by expressing this open apology. I think it's brilliant. Thank you, Iranians!

And it once again reminds me of how we are in fact noble. We are essentially good and selfless, and don't have to be selfish. We have the capacity to reach out as human beings and we have to nurture that side of our nature. This is a major theme in the Baha'i faith:

"O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting."

I've been a mom for several months and when I look into the eyes of my little baby boy I see that nobility. In his smile I recognize, on a very profound level, the purity and nobility of humanity. He makes me want to melt. And it reminds me to look for that spark of nobility, even in the most unlikely of people. Because we were all created noble.

I want to apologize to him for the world that he's inheriting from us. And I pray that he may rise up to the challenge and be an agent of change.

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

watch original V-Blog in Persian

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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."

Who cares about Iran?
Added: Thursday, 27 November 2008

watch original V-Blog in Persian

watch original V-Blog in German

In connection to my last v-blog where I spoke about our responsibility as 'media makers' towards the social and cultural environment that we help create and sustain, I have a story to share that highlights some of the dilemmas we face as journalists in the world today.

It was in May of this year when several news agencies all over the world reported on the wave of arrests that happened to 7 leaders of the Baha'i community in Iran. The men and women were arrested without trial or the possibility of contacting their families for a long time. They are still being held today and their fate remains unclear.

When I related the happenings to a station chief at one of the TV stations that had not picked up on the story yet, I was asked to produced a 5-minute piece on the subject and run it by the news desk for approval. 2 days later I was in the office of the news editor, informing him of the recent arrests and handing him a DVD of the news story. Before taking even so much as a look at what had been cut, I was told two things: Firstly, "Who really cares about minorities?" and secondly "Who cares about minorities in Iran of all places?"

Pause. I stared right back at him and collected my thoughts. Of course I acknowledged the irreverent journalistic lingo he was using and it wasn't 'how' he was saying it that offended me. It was 'what' he was implying. Because what he was implying was that human rights violations against minorities are not newsworthy – not until there were, quite frankly, gruesome things to report.

I asked him about the Zimbabweans in South Africa. Foreigners, among them mostly Zimbabweans, had just been subjected to a wave of persecutions in South Africa. Were they not news worthy? Well according to this fellow they were, except that they had gone up in flames, been tortured and killed. That was newsworthy!

Okay, so how about Iran? I asked. Iran is not exactly an obscure subject, but even if it were, even if these persecutions had been taking place in the Sandwich Islands, were they not newsworthy? Nobody here is interested in Iran right now was his answer.

Of course I disagreed. But his mind had been made up and the story was not going through. I pondered long and hard on his response and it led me to ask myself so many questions about our role as reporters, as journalists. And these questions, among many others gathered through the experiences of countless media people, will certainly have to be explored. We need to think about our moral responsibility towards society and start by asking such questions as:

- When is something newsworthy? Once the ulcer festers and erupts? Once thousands, maybe even millions of people must die? Like they had to in Rwanda? Or can we, as journalists, identify and report on dangerous, alarming trends and happenings around the world before they warp into a fully-fledged genocide? Can we not, in the case of Baha'is, prevent an impending genocide from taking on massive proportions by alarming the world of the very things that could lead to that? Is it not our responsibility? Or are we simply reporters of fires and sensational stories, not worried about society or human life until it reaches spectacular proportions?
- And what is to interest us? Should we only care about what happens in our own country or in countries that directly influence our own lives? Or should we care about every human suffering, share and learn from the experiences of our brothers and sisters no matter where they live? And who decides what is "interesting" and what isn't anyway? Aren't we the ones who dictate which images and voices are broadcast and which are silenced? Aren't we the ones that create the interest in the first place?

Shocked as I am about my experience, I hope it will provide the inspiration for a much-needed forum, where media people like myself can share, exchange and actively work to change the nature of our work.

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