with the author of "Searching
April 15, 2005
of a thousand days must begin with a single step. -- Lao Tzu
The Ghassemi and Ward families are literally an ocean
apart, yet close in heart and spirit. In times of great change
for each respective country, the
part ways and reunite again even though their worlds are still shattered. Yet,
they embrace, remember, and cherish the moments.
This is the true story of
a family’s quest to find what they had and lost only to begin
a new journey: to find love and human dignity in a world where
at times it seems as though compassion
is an antiquated virtue. And yet there are those of us, like the late
John Paul II and the millions of people who attended his funeral, who have
not given up on the good will of people and humanity.
I had the
pleasure of meeting
for Hassan author Terence Ward while he was in Washington,
DC being honored at a gala function in March 2005/ Norouz 1384,
where Americans and Iranians
were awarded for
their achievements and contribution to the lives of both nations.
I put forth the
following questions to him. As usual, he replied with a passion
that is distinct with this
As a small American child growing up in Iran
behind the walls of a Tehran residence he was mentored by their
taught him everything from
poetry to cooking, from Rumi and Hafez to Sabzi khordan and the art of
drinking tea. It seemed like ages ago when fateful events separated
was far in the past but today brought those joyful memories back and
created many new ones.
They say miracles happen when you least expect them. The meeting of Ghassemis
and Wards was one of these miracles.
What made you write the book?
We had been given a gift as young children, by Hassan
Ghasemi, our cook and master storyteller in the extraordinary country of Iran.
My three brothers and I wept
when we said our goodbyes to him on our last day in 1969. After a long separation
of almost 30 years, many questions haunted us: the chaos of the Revolution,
the brutal Iraq War. So, our journey back to find Hassan, who had
injected so much love into our lives, was a complete miracle for us all. Searching
for Hassan is an attempt to repay, maybe that’s not the right word, I am trying to
honor the gift that we have been given. My wife and I are writers. We do not
seek stories, they find us.
And yes, this is a positive story, a story of
reaching across the divide, of going far beyond politics and negativity
on both sides and listening instead to the heart. It is simply saying that it
is possible for people to connect. And when our families were re-united I knew
something very powerful was happening. What the Ghasemi family gave us was
so precious, that our reunion turned out to be one of the most magical moments
of our lives. After 30 years, all of this separation, all of these haunted memories, all
these broken circles were healed and mended, and these two families
came together as one. All of us realized that this is the wave of the future.
We all know that this will inevitably take place
with our countries. It is inevitable. The question is when? In
honoring our re-connection, I was also very aware
how little Americans know about Iran. I know that United States of Amnesia has
almost no memory and the last 25 years has colored everyone's mind with only
one image of Iran. I also knew that there was a larger mission--to share
a different portrait with American readers which reached far beyond only the
last 25 years. I wanted to bring into focus Iran's rich civilization and
culture, to share 2,500 years of history and to show the connective tissue between
Iran and the West. Ultimately, I hoped to help Americans see beyond the one-dimensional
media portrayal that never focuses on the common humanity, that never listens
to the human heart that one hears over there in the many people like
In your book you mentioned that your mother was the force behind your decision
to go back to Iran after such a long time and you mentioned that she, unfortunately
passed away a year ago; tell us in detail what made her decide to go on this
I think all of us know that mothers tend to see the
world differently than rational Aristotelian boys and those who
follow science and facts. She knew
in her heart
that she would find them. She had been the most wounded by losing all contact
with the Ghasemi family, by worrying about them during the war. Where they
alive or dead? This was something that truly haunted her. As an eternal optimist,
she was somebody who went through life with a vision that was completely non-judgmental
and color blind. So when she knew there was a possibility that a visa for Iran
was possible, her decision was made quickly. As soon as her husband and four
boys heard she was going, she knew they would follow.
She was a strong woman,
Yes, my mother, Donna, was a very strong
woman, a powerful woman always. And she was a woman who worked with her intuition,
who knew she was right. We had no address, no phone number, no contact number
at all, in a country with over 2 million Hassans. But she would say, “Ah,
we do have a black and white photo taken from 1963!” Her sons were full
of doubts, but she would assure us, “I am sure we can find them.” In
the end she reminded us of the truth, “Love knows no geography and knows
no boundaries.” This truth is what we need today.
Everyone who goes to Iran
remarks on the strength of Iranian women and this young generation. Of course,
it is just a question of time, because the future will
soon be in their hands. Everybody wants it to happen, sooner rather than later.
And despite all the pressures on the women, there is no doubt in anyone’s
mind--once you go to Iran--how powerful they are in so many ways. In my mother,
I saw her mirroring the strength of Iranian women who, like Fatimah, made so
many tremendous sacrifices.
But what is so beautiful was that when our families
met, we met as equals. And we were welcomed into their home with such incredible
Taarof, such heart-warming hospitality and generosity. In the end, this was
the final journey that my mother took before she passed away. Perhaps
she and my
father both knew that this would be their last great journey with our family
together; that soon they would be leaving their four boys behind. So, this
was much more than just a three week trip; this was a timeless
voyage into the past,
into the future.
What was the most valuable encounter or the best moment for you in this trip?
you imagine staring into the faces of people you hadn’t seen for 30
years and they look at you with the same spark in their eyes and your mouths
are open completely wide with joy and you realize that the most impossible miracle
has happened and that you are together again, and against all odds somehow you
found each other, there is nothing better.
What is your feeling about what is happening today? What do you say about
this talk, possible strikes and then the other side of the equation?
hard-line politicians in America and Iran embrace the politics of fear, and also
speak the same language. And, of course, they both need enemies.
Black needs white. So, they threaten each other, feed off each other, and use
each other to remain in power. In the end, they are mirrors of each other.
live in a rare moment, when the people of both countries are so united in their
mutual detachment from their politicians that perhaps now we share more with
each other than ever before. Yes, everyone is afraid is that there will be
some sort of air strike. I think that such an action will give
the ruling hardliners
in Tehran the biggest boost that they have had in a long while. And I think
it would be a grave mistake. Based upon how little the Pentagon
knows to plan and
to organize and to carry out actions, it’s clear that whatever is done
would be full of mistakes like we have seen in Iraq.
I have been touring the
United States on a speaking tour for eight weeks now. Every single community
I have visited, I have heard almost no Iranian-Americans saying, “I would
like a strike on my country.” Out of thousands of people I have met, very,
very few. Instead, everybody is desperately concerned of what would happen if
this kind of lunacy takes place. “Democracy can’t be exported with
bombs,” many have told me. Certainly, the Pentagon does not have the same
number of rooters like the Iraqi exiles before the invasion of Baghdad. That
is for sure. Whether it is Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize winner, or the Shah’s
son, everyone has come out saying, “We don’t need American generals
marching into Iran to teach us about democracy.”
You said there is an alternative
that may work. What is that?
Well, what would
really shock everybody is that if the US government actually recognized Iran
and the Iranian people--like Joe Klein advised in TIME magazine--
saying we accept you, unilaterally, and leave it at that, no pre-conditions.
For too long, Iran has been kept outside the community of nations. If this
was offered, immediately there would be such a sholough (chaotic
atmosphere) in Tehran
as people began discussing--do we agree or not, do we accept or not? And this
would create such a healthy debate inside the country.
The vast majority would
probably say, Thank God, we can get visas, travel to see relatives, attract
investments, do trade and business, go abroad for education; while
the other side who are
trying to keep to this politics of fear would say no. There would be a great
divide over the next step, and this would be positive. Unfortunately, our politicians
do not have the vision to do something like that. Another possibility for change
may occur if Iran reaches the World Cup quarterfinals. Many feel this would
create such an instant outburst of joy and public manifestations,
that the streets would
be filled with millions of celebrating kids, which could even create a Ukraine
I think there is a point that we are missing, that you are sort of underestimating
the present Iranian regime. For 26 years they have said no to the “Great
Satan” and have put people on guard. They will not budge that easily. Do
you think it would be so simple?
Well, they don’t have to budge, and, of
course, nothing is simple. What this recognition would do is to thrust the debate
in Iran over this question
and many reformists and the majority of the population will want to reach out--many
people who are unhappy with the economy, many who are unemployed, many in the
bazaari community and many who want relations restored. If there are choices,
people take a position. Now, neo-con strategists offer us no choice but confrontation.
They receive the same echo back from Tehran. And the rest of us, all of us, all
citizens are sitting aside torn from each other by all this politics.
families do we know that would love to go back and forth, that would love
to have stronger connections? How many would like to return to
live, or visit, or
even invest? Some are doing that now. But, in the lofty corridors of power,
the question remains--who should take the first step? Should we
make the first step?
Or should they make the first step? Should there be pre-conditions; if so,
which ones? Now, with this impasse, is recognition going to happen?
I don’t think
so soon. But I think if it did, it would disrupt the status quo in both countries.
for Hassan after September 11, and obviously you have received hundreds
of emails. How do you think your book has inspired people?
I was actually stunned
by the flood of emotional and heart-felt emails that arrived. I wrote the book
primarily for an American audience to share with them the human
face of Iran far beyond the US media. The dark clerics, the dark robes, the
word terrorist, these are what everyone perceives when they hear
news about Iran.
Instead, I wanted to show the humanity and culture that we witnessed when we
journeyed across Iran.
What really surprised me was the poignant nerve that
the book touched in the Iranian American community. Later, I realized that
so many of the questions that
were inside our heads when we went back to Iran were also felt by the community
at large. Many families had been separated. Many families have not been back
for twenty years. Many were wondering what happened to those they left behind.
Many hadn’t seen Tehran since the revolution. Or their old homes and gardens.
They asked themselves all the same questions we had asked. Should I go? Shouldn’t
I go? What will we find? Will it be safe? Will anyone follow us? Will memories
survive all the change? There was a lot of identification with the story when
people read about humanity rather than politics.
In this literary journey,
I wrote about the rich history, the cultural legacy of the Persian Empire,
the beautiful architecture of Isfahan. I wrote about the
breakthroughs of Iranian civilization, the high poetry of Hafez and Maulana,
the gardens of Shiraz, the influence of Persian classical music. Above all,
I tried to weave these points into the story--how Western culture
from what happened in the plateau of Iran over 3000 years. I think this also
registered with the younger Iranian American generation that haven’t been
back or are thinking of going back.
Many told me that after reading Searching
they decided to return. One was this friend in Tehrangeles (referring to Los
Angeles’ large Iranian community) who told me, “I read your book
when I went back. I was so worried because I’m Jewish and I brought my
movie camera along. First, I filmed my family and friends and asked them questions.
Then I began filming the taxi drivers, people in the markets and the streets.
Finally, I had a collection of interviews and I decided to make a film.” I
asked him what he was going to name it. ‘These Are My People,’ he
said. This is only one example of the inspiration that happens hen you return.
And, everyone who has gone back has made some kind of human connection.
we all know the other side of the story: the tragedies, the deaths, the losses,
the upheaval, the deep sadness. We all know the full story of the
Revolution and the war. Yes, we have heard it all over the years. But, wherever
there is darkness, we have to also search for the light. That is what I tried
to focus on -- the light of an eternal Iran. Perhaps this is why the book
resonated so deeply with many readers.
You were a youngster when you were in Iran and then you returned as an
adult. What did you see different in the atmosphere that had changed? Especially
regards to people’s frustrations, lack of hope, not being able to see a
better future for themselves? Did you see that when you were walking in the streets?
journey was special because we went there just after President Khatami had
been first elected in 1997. We arrived there at a unique moment
when people were
very excited and hopeful. Yes, there was a ray of hope. Journalists described
the mood as “Tehran Spring.” Many told us Khatami might stand up
against the hardliners and really begin a reform process. All the young kids
said, “Maybe he will be our Gorbachev, but we hope he doesn’t become
our JFK.” There was open criticism of the government everywhere, in the
streets, newspapers, markets and taxis; many jokes filled the conversations.
Of course, this was followed by a big crackdown and
broad disillusion by the failure
of President Khatami’s reform program. But people were very
outspoken then, and also two years later when I returned with my wife to visit
the Ghasemis again. It seemed as if people had lost a fear that I had been
so familiar with when I grew up in Tehran years ago. I remember then that whenever
the word Shah was spoken, people would stop talking. It was simply a taboo.
today’s Iran, the young generation remains outspoken and very critical.
They are equipped with intelligence and courage, and one realizes rather quickly
that the future belongs to them.
Also, we were met with something rather
stunning when we visited the Ghasemi family. Hassan and Fatima had never gone
to school. At the age of 6, they began
working. He was a shepherd and Fatima was a young rug weaver. These are people
who never had time or the luxury to go to school. But, one Iranian obsession
has always been how do I educate my children so that they will have a better
Well, now all Hassan’s children are university educated. Their son,
Mehdi, has a master’s in electrical engineering from Tehran University
and is running all the telecommunications at Iran’s largest steel plant
in Isfahan. Their daughter Maryam, is a graduate from Isfahan University and
is a teacher who lectures regularly to two or three hundred women at a time.
Their other son, Ali, is a commander in the navy. So, when we finally met again,
as contemporaries, we met as equals in every sense. That was something that we
didn’t expect at all.
So, whenever someone asks me about the future
of Iran, I tell them look at the new generation. They hold the key and the
answers for the future. Obviously,
this younger generation will shape a more representative government to respond
to the will and desires of the people. And remember that although this is a
country that is cut off from the rest of the world, Stanford University’s Dean
of Electrical Engineering said that the finest undergraduate university for electrical
engineering on earth is Sharif University in Tehran. This is the information
that the American public should know. All hi-tech engineers know this fact. But,
the people in Washington should know that this generation in Iran is as highly
educated, potent and politically aware of any I have seen in the world.
around America you see oceans of young, glazed-eyed shoppers and only a few
kids under 25 who can express a politically mature thought. They
to have care. There is a profound emptiness and I’m very disappointed about
their lack of awareness. Contrast this with talking to 16-year-olds in Tehran
who were passionately discussing Jeffersonian democracy, de Toqueville, keeping
corruption out of politics, etc. And they are internet-savvy, not only plugged
into their computers, they are busy writing blogs. I was shocked to find out
that after English, the second most used blogging language is Farsi. Who would
have imagined that? When I arrived in 1998, there were only two internet cafes
in all of Tehran. What a change!
You said there is a good chance that your book will be made into a film. When
At the moment there is a strong possibility of a co-production that would
be filmed in Iran, hopefully with an Iranian director next year. But, I want
keep this confidential for the moment. Such a film would give American audiences
their first chance to see Takht-e Jamshid (Persepolis), the turquoise domes
of Isfahan, the gardens of Shiraz, all the great wonders of the country during
search for Hassan.
A few years ago when I spoke with Lee Hamilton--the
director of the Wilson Center in Washington, who once chaired the
House Foreign Relations--he
said, I want you to come to Washington and speak here because when the
word Iran is mentioned on Capital Hill, everybody goes hysterical,
there’s no debate,
just noise. In times like this, only personal stories like yours can point the
I think there is a consensus among the Iranian American
community is that culture unites, and politics divides. People-to-people
contacts are what are
And everybody welcomes it. If I can talk to a hundred people here who have
never imagined a different impression of Iran, it will be a positive
when I’m asked, “You mean they’re just like us?” I
believe we’ve been reduced to that level. But, if I can change these
perceptions, I know Hassan and my mother would be greatly pleased. How can
the picture? Give different faces and shed some light.
we share the same
values of friendship and family. And we can meet on that universal field
of humanity. To my Americans friends I say, if you want to know
more about Iran, go see some
of the award-winning Iranian films. These films convey a sense of intimacy
that brings viewers face to face with ordinary life. They brim
with humanity and connect
at the level of the emotions. These directors are Iran’s unappointed
you had a message to give to GW Bush and Khamenei what would you say to them?
God. What would I say? I would say open your hearts. And please accept that
ideology doesn’t have all the answers. To Bush, I would ask him to heed
President Eisenhower’s words: "The greatest danger facing the American
people,” he once warned, “was the military industrial complex." I
would also advise them to read some poetry of Hafez and pull us back from this
mad journey of confrontation. To both, I would repeat the words of Molana,
“Out beyond the idea
of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field, I’ll meet you there.”
Read these poets, I would
say, then sit back in your chair before you make the next decision with the
great Molana by your side as your guide!
When I asked Ward what his next project was,
he said: “My wife,
Idanna and I have produced a documentary film, Eugenia of Patagonia, about
a heroic woman pioneer who, against all odds, founded a town
at the end of the
world set in southern Chile with 30 orphan children. It is a story of idealism,
driven by ecological vision to create a new humanity. It was just premiered
at the Festival des Femmes in Paris two weeks ago.” He
is also finishing a book set in Naples about a Caravaggio painting and
Ward said he is in constant
contact with Hassan Ghassemi. Hassan excitedly
told him that he had also finished writing his own story. Terence would like
to help him publish it in Iran.
In the midst of political overtures from both
sides, there is always the story of people who come together in
times of distress to find solace in
one another; it is those people who will finally bring empathy
and harmony to all of us. Terence Ward and his family, Hassan and his family
making this journey possible. As our beloved Rumi so rightfully said:
is full of men like Jesus,
Not a place for doubt and Sorrow.
Why allow salt water to rust your heart,
When the world is brimming with pure sweet water..”