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Social justice
Reflecting on a unique gathering in San Diego

September 7, 2004

It is a rare event to find Iranians of diverse trades, different religions, and groups who seem to have little in common gather for a conference and exchange ideas. The required skills for such a peaceful gathering are uncharacteristic of us. Skills such as organization, cooperation and tolerance can only come from a lifetime of practice. Although poeple who have a higher education have attended conventions related to their fields, a gathering among Iranians of all walks of life is unique. 

There are many groups of Iranian-Americans who organize meetings. These meetings empower us to be in touch and to learn more about a culture that continues to nourish our souls regardless of where we live. But of the conferences that I have attended, the one I participated in this past weekend stands out. 

In its second year, this seminar was organized last year by the Mehrgan Foundation of San Diego ( over the Labor Day weekend. A proud man from Azarbaijan, Mr. Firoozi not only established this cultural and charitable organization, but he had the insight to recognize the Iranian's thirst for more knowledge and, disregarding the painstaking efforts it would involve, with some help from family and friends, he organized the much sought after series of lectures to further educate us about the roots of our culture.

A rather new venture, this meeting is organized with skill and it is greeted with open arms. Some of our best scholars from around the country are invited to speak and, thanks to Mr. Firoozi's jolly personality and sincere passion, they all seem happy to oblige.

Last year's conference was titled "Freedom", and this year the subject extended into "Social Justice". Some may believe that if you leave three Iranians in a room with such topics, it will end in a quarrel. What a pleasure it was to find close to a thousand participants who not only shared peaceful discussions, but developed a feeling of camaraderie. Indeed we have come a long way from the days of "ME" and are well on our way to form "US."

I must say, for a meager seventy-five dollars registration fee, I did not expect much. But knowing I would have paid much more just to listen to someone like Dr. Karimi Hakkak, I decided I would learn enough to justify any shortcomings.

At a first glance, it seemed as if we were too concerned with our appearances. I noticed how most of us forgot to bring a pad and pencil, while in the women's lounge we produced bagfuls of beauty supplies for a touch up. It didn't take long to realize that beneath the vanity lay a deep desire for answers to important questions and a thirst for knowledge, not to mention unity.

To a writer, a crowd is a learning institution in itself. After the initial formalities, we gathered in the conference hall. Once again I was reminded of my own lack of listening skills. I fidgeted in my seat and took notes only of the points I could disagree with, things I didn't like, or any odd criticism I could come up with. But soon what I was hearing glued me to my seat. I forgot the pen and gave my undivided attention to the world of knowledge standing before me.

That modest registration fee, not only brought the best lecturers to the podium, it also gave us a chance to enjoy live performances by local musicians and, on the last night, an entertaining play by Mr. Kardan. We danced the night away to the music of a good DJ and forgot about diets in exchange for complementary snacks during the breaks. We reluctantly paid a dollar for coffee or tea, but many of us guarded that cup to use for refills for the rest of our lives!

Mr. Firoozi, whose people's skills and unique sense of humor make him an ideal Master of Ceremony, asked people, time and again, to fill the survey forms and let him know of any changes they'd like to see made for the next year. Not having any suggestions of my own, I decided to ask around.

The greatest complaint in my informal poll seemed to be that while we had heard much about justice, we had done nothing to solve the existing social problems. It seems as if when we Iranians hear "Justice", we remember all the injustice done to us at home and throughout history. In particular, we tend to associate it with some of the contemporary issues.

By nature, we are a melancholic people who enjoy sympathy, like children in need of reassurance, or the wounded in search of a healer. To those of us who had not bothered to read the smaller print on the pamphlets, the title, "Social Justice" had promised talks of injustice. Furthermore, it may have created the hope to provide the means for a resolution. "A meeting is supposed to solve the problem, not just discuss it," a man said.

I couldn't help wondering if he had ignored the fact that these discussions and the awareness that such conferences bring about may in turn increase the chances of a resolve. Wouldn't such awareness shed light to the dark roads we have traveled through for centuries? However, no matter what people complained about, the praises I heard outweighed them by a large margin.

By the second day, I began to realize that this conference dealt more with the history and analogy of social justice rather than what it means to us as a nation. Once this became clear, I settled back into my chair and listened for more.

Hearing scholars, such as Dr. Ahmad Karimi Hakkak and Dr. Abbas Milani, is not unlike looking at a monument. You wonder how much time and hard work -- not to mention genius -- has gone into what stands before you. My second grade teacher would not have believed it, but the words of Dr. Farzaneh Milani kept me in my seat for well over an hour! It is impossible to mention all the great speakers in a short article, but let me just say that for four consecutive days, there were no lectures I would have wanted to miss. 

If the pamphlet's explanation was too obscure, or the print too small, one might think they should have told us precisely what kind of discussions to expect. Then again, who would have listened? Did they not tell us time and again to be prompt, or to "PLEASE turn off your cell phones?" Did it work? In fact, I heard more new tunes during this conference than I had imagined possible for such a small gadget. And, some people enjoyed the tune enough to let it go on.

I reflect on the past few days and realize what a great experience it has been. The Firoozi family of San Diego and the numerous volunteers who turned this dream into a reality are not your average Iranians. Only two years into these lecture series, they have provided San Diego with one of the best Iranian-American events. One that expands our knowledge of history, literature, philosophy and culture. And, the only one that gathers a thousand of us under one roof and sets a great example of teamwork. 

No doubt these conferences will grow bigger and better with each passing year. With the help of those who are willing to share their knowledge, we shall be better informed as a society and gather the strength we need to pass our rich heritage to the next generation.

Such a large gathering welcomes new ideas for its growth. Constructive criticism is one way to achieve that, but participation is even more effective. Such a great event may have been the idea of one person, but it would not have happened without the many others who each brought their time, energy and talent to the table. We can only help by being there. As for those who never made it past the endless tea and delicious pastries, there's always the food committee!

The best lesson I walked away with was the realization of how little I know and how much there is to learn. That alone is enough reason to return next year.

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a freelance writer, poet and artist. She lives in San Diego, California.

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