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The wrong way
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, one has 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 SMCCDI, Student 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 College University's 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 Ebadi's speech 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 repetitive statements, 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 told.

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 Rights. SMCCDI's 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 feel special 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 the President; 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 a full-length ceremony 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, take advantage 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 not-so-carefully 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 Moute of UMD. And then she gave what would have been a thirty minute speech had it not been for 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 degree. Details, 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 know me well, know that I hardly 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 her praise for academics -- 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 -- I heard in the background, some classical music, Bach perhaps; searching for the source, I saw a string quintet in one corner of the arena.

Something felt extremely wrong 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, after one of 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 Ebadi's speech; it 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 you had 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 is capable of producing. 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 when one 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 not know.

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, and no-one 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 demonstrations ever happened. At some level, I wish there had been demonstrations. I would not have supported it, but at least I would have believed that the Iranian opposition is in fact well and alive, and consists of more than just a bunch of half-baked conspiracy theorists. I would have liked to see real emotion, real politics. I suppose this is the dichotomy of political passivism, as opposed to political activism.

A political passivist is one who is concerned about the treatment of animals, and stops eating meat and using all animal products. Political activist, in contrast, does not stop eating meat, but demands that animals are treated right. A political passivist stops shopping at those supermarkets which 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 favor of roll-up your sleeve 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 so-called Iranian-Americans 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 their theses. A review 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 interested 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 disappointed.

"door az to andisheye badaan,
paayande maanyo jaavedaan "

To access SMCCDI's full report see here.

Ramin Takloo-Bighash teaches mathematics at Princeton University. The author wishes to thank friends for comments on earlier drafts on this article.

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