Twisting the truth about Ebadi's speech in Maryland
By Ramin Takloo-Bighash
May 25, 2004
I am usually neither in the habit, nor in favor of,
writing notes such as this expressing my views on news. But sometimes,
to abandon old habits of being an armchair intellectual, and put
on war shields and head out to the battlefield to claim right what
has been made wrong.
Here is the story. On Thursday, May 13, somebody
forwarded to me an article that was published on the website of
Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran. The title
of the article was "Washington DC area's Iranian Community
Boycotts Nobel Peace Prize's Speech." The title referred
to Shirin Ebadi's speech at University of Maryland in College
Park a day earlier. Somewhat surprised, I read on...
"... Ebadi had to make her speech just for a selected
audience of 5,000 individuals filing only half of the Maryland
conference hall while the WDC area's Iranian community is estimated
to be strong of more than 100,000 souls. It's to note that many
of the Iranian participants were transferred by the so-called
Iranian or Iranian-American entities which are seeking to use
as a propaganda tool in line with their policy of legitimizing
the Islamic regime..."
I can do arithmetic and I remember some statistics from college
days. If we assume that of the 100,000 Iranians around DC, half
of them are children, we have about 50,000 adults of Iranian origin
who could have attended Ms Ebadi's speech. Of these, probably
50 percent do not care one way or another; leaving us with 25,000.
If we assume that 50% of the people who showed up to Ms Ebadi's
speech were non-Iranians, it is safe to conclude that 10% of all
eligible Iranians did in fact attend the lecture. Now this can
hardly be called a "boycott". Trying to ignore the
political comments made in the article, I read on...
"Despite the selection, tens of participants used the
occasion in order to show their opposition to the Islamic regime
by singing the banned National
Anthem, "Oh Iran..!" during Ebadi's speech while other asked
loud questions about her true agenda. The protest was made in reaction
to the policy of the
organizers to avoid live oral questions from the one labeled as being the
'voice of the Iranian people' but accused by many as being the 'mouthpiece
the Islamic republic's foreign policy'."
Now this was absolutely outrageous.
Speculation about one's political motives is one thing, but flat
out lie is a totally different issue. I was there. No-one
interrupted Ebadi's speech. No-one asked any loud questions. And no-one
sang any banned anthems during the speech.
That is about all I wanted to say, especially since I have been
warned by well-wishing friends against making this article long;
against making it
a stream of conscious
piece. I have been told that people do not read long articles; they do
not have the patience to read. I was given advice against using
such as these. Against long paragraphs. Against run-on sentences. Against
every little grammatical and non-grammatical rule important to English
professors. Oh brother! I cannot help it. This story needs to be
Last Wednesday, the 12th of May, we all went to College Park,
MD to listen to Shirin Ebadi's speech on Islam, Democracy and Human
report stated that the audience was selected. I suppose I must feel special
about being one of the selected 5000 who went to the speech. I should
about receiving a mass email from a half dozen different venues, each
having a couple of hundred email addresses on top, inviting me
to write to a particular
person at UMD and ask for a free ticket. Later I got an email announcing
that all one needed to do was to show up, and many people did just that.
The speech was organized by University of Maryland's Office of
they wanted to announce the founding of a Center for Persian Studies
at UMD. They must have thought that it might be a swell idea to make
out of it; give an honorary doctorate to Shirin Ebadi; have her give
a one hour speech in her native tongue; and well, as is always the case,
of the publicity gained for UMD by showing off "the first Muslim
woman Nobel laureate." I will not even attempt to talk about what
Ebadi had to say. For example, I will not even attempt to decipher the
hidden messages in her remarks about various topics of interest;
I will waste no time
on trying to speculate on what she might have said, had she not been
the person she is, or what I would have said if I were in her position.
Ebadi entered the huge arena, the COMCAST CENTER,
in the midst of people's applaud. She was introduced by the President
of UMD. And then
she gave what would have been a thirty minute speech had it not been
having to leave
room for the translator's translations, and the audience's enthusiastic
responses to her remarks, sixty-four ovations according to some report.
She got a standing ovation at the end. She was then presented the honorary
details, details. And then she left the arena.
I was excited. Very excited. I do not know what it was she said,
or what it was she did that really got to me. Those friends who
ever really get excited about anything, really excited. And she had
done it to me. Maybe it was the bashing of US foreign policy, or
-- I am one -- that got me excited. I am talking joy and hope; the
sort of thing that
has very little room in my depressed being. When she was leaving
-- I was still mesmerized by the majesty of this whole event --
in the background,
classical music, Bach perhaps; searching for the source, I saw a
string quintet in one corner of the arena.
Something felt extremely
there. The arena,
minus the quintet, felt like what Tehran was like back in 1993. One
of those nights, waiting for the bus to go home; one of those nights,
those steamy, loud poetry meetings at Sharif's Ebne Hayyaan Auditorium.
That is what it felt like. And then we sang. "Ey
Iran, ey marze por gohar..." Singing
"Ey Iran" was my idea; not an idea, an impulse. I suggested it to
my wife, and we sang it together, we started it. It was not during
was after she left the building, or while she was leaving. We started
it and others followed.
Were we thinking of it as an objection to
Ebadi's speech? If
anything, it was excitement that brought those words out; it was
total oneness, absolute identification. It was hearing that which
always wanted to say,
but had not. It was a moment, one of those moments that you are
proud of who you are, you are proud of humanity, of what humanity
It was one of those moments that you think of Mossadeq, Qha'em
Maqam, all the heroes who have made the motherland proud. That's
sings. I discovered
us singing it. Not humming; literally singing. Our voice was joined
by other voices. Maybe we did overshadow the classical quintet,
maybe we did not; I do
We did not sing a banned song. "Ey
Iran" has never been banned, neither
has it ever been the national anthem. I had it on tape in Iran;
it had been re-published back when I was in Iran, in 1994. The
album was a nice collection of pieces by
the late Maestro Khaleqi, "Meye Naab," with Kaveh Deylami's
voice and the excellent leadership of Golnoosh Khaleqi. Ey Iran
was there -- the vocalist
for this particular song was not Deylami; his voice is not strong
enough for the piece. Khaaleqi had composed it for Banaan's voice,
has done it
right since. And that particular tape had the logo of that organization
which oversaw cultural and Islamic propaganda. We sang it when
we went camping. My
sisters and friends sang it at Shamlu's funeral. People sang it
when they elected Khatami president.
SMCCDI's report also said that there had been demonstrations
at other speeches that Ms Ebadi had given. Now I doubt that such
At some level, I wish there had been demonstrations. I would not
have supported it, but at least I would have believed that the
fact well and alive, and consists of more than just a bunch of
theorists. I would have liked to see real emotion, real politics.
I suppose this is the dichotomy of political passivism, as opposed
political passivist is one who is concerned about the treatment
of animals, and stops eating meat and using all animal products.
does not stop eating meat, but demands that animals are treated
right. A political passivist stops shopping at those supermarkets
have self-checkout lines
when a political activist shops at those markets, but demands to
be served by a human being. I am in favor of activism. I am in
kind of action. If you have a problem with Ebadi's speech, you
should go there; hold up a banner; go to the speech, and scream "Traitor!" off
the top of your lungs. Granted, this is not the civilized way to
activism, but at least it is not dreaming up lies and posting them
on the web.
SMCCDI's article ends with remarks about Ebadi's political career.
They describe her career as cowardly. They say she is just trying
to protect "her
precious life." How easy it is to talk. It is quite simple to sit in my
air-conditioned office in New Jersey, and talk about what Ebadi should do. It
is easy to talk about what it means to be an Iranian in this age and time. Being
a real Iranian is hard business. I, for one, consider myself half-Iranian. Talk
Farsi, write Farsi, love Iranian food, like Iranian traditional music. All of
that is the easy part.
Then, there are those who live in Iran, work in Iran,
and some day die in Iran. I do not have the courage to be one of
them. I do not have the backbone for it. I am not Iranian enough
for it. Shirin Ebadi is an
Iranian. She has the guts to be one. She is not like me; a refugee
with no homeland; a refugee who deserves no grave. Her roots are
solid in Earth. What she does
is her democratic right. And whether, I, a deserter, like it or
not, has very little relevance. She does what she can.
If we, the
did as much as any of those people in Iran did, of whom Ebadi is
admittedly a modest representative, things would be different.
Let us not talk politics. Let
us talk truth. It is easy to be in Washington, or New York, or
wherever else and expect her to risk her life. It is easy to hold
on to our American passports;
travel to Iran on Iranian passport; buy pistachio and carpets;
sit back and show off to our poor Iranian, real Iranian, cousins
our American bills, and expect
Ebadi to risk her life. It is easy to sip wine, and smoke cigars
and talk politics. It is easy to sing "doshman ar to sange khaarei man aahanam, jaane man
fadaaye khaake paake mihanam", but has it ever occurred to any
one of us to think about what it is we are singing.
Thursday, the day I got that evil article, had been just another
fine day. Back to work; end of semester stuff. Two students defending
session for an upcoming exam. Communicating with a colleague about a new
project to work on. And there it was. Somehow in academics we get used
to the idea
of not lying about what we observe. Then there is the rude awakening of
such a report.
The editorial staff at SMCCDI certainly has the right to criticize
Ebadi's political actions. They have the right to criticize what
I have written
here. They have no right to twist the truth, and lie about what
I did, and what
I witnessed. They might have a worthy cause, but they are going about
it the wrong way. By
doing what they are doing, they are losing credibility among the few
who would have otherwise listened to their views. I, personally,
am no longer
in receiving their emails. I do not subscribe to any one political school
of thought. I believe in truth. And in this case, I have been deeply
"door az to andisheye badaan,
paayande maanyo jaavedaan "
To access SMCCDI's full report see
Ramin Takloo-Bighash teaches mathematics at Princeton University.
The author wishes to thank friends for comments on earlier drafts
on this article.
May is Mamnoon
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