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Negotiating courage
Meeting an old friend & going to the event in Berkeley

August 28, 2002
The Iranian

The open window on the passenger side of his dark green Volvo framed his smiling face, topped by a crop of dark hair yielding begrudgingly to a few gray strands crowding the temples. After thirty-one years, he looked, sounded, and felt the same as I had seen him last.

I opened the car door and got in. We shook hands and began where we had left off on the day we had said farewell in 1971, parting ways before eventually coming to America. This friendship, as all others that come about in boarding schools, owed its durability to the fact that it was forged at the time when Tamir and I were young and our lives where not as yet influenced by considerations that define, distinguish, or divide us as grown-ups. It is ultimately that uncomplicated and basic connection which sustains the present relationship.

The perfunctory inquiries about one's family's health and so-and-so's present whereabouts stirred up the molecular core of a rapport that had been frozen deep and in the distant past. Recounting of memories thawed the time and let out the very essence of this cryogenically-preserved amity. Characteristically, there was no barrier to conversation: Questions were direct, answers were equally to the point. All was bared, without a stitch of reserve. There was no judging, only understanding. There was no advice, only cheering on. This friendship operated then as does today like an ideal car -- low maintenance, high performance.

In the comfort of Tamir's tastefully-appointed modest home in Union City, we began to plot the evening. Teniz, an Othmanli Turk who speaks seven languages, including fluent Farsi, joined us for dinner in Palo Alto and contributed handsomely to the effort at theorizing about the common paths that so many of us had travelled on our own. What struck me the most was that in 1971 we as a group were let out in front of a supermarket and each of us chose by design or blunder his own course in life. Thirty years later, we had arrived by serendipity at the same checkout counter, each with a grocery cart in tow, chuckfull of stuff, now comparing experiences.

Parenting late in life and Tamir's marital travails of the past few years coincidentally mirrored the dysfunction experienced by most of our mutual acquaintances who attended boarding schools in their early years. The culprit, we concluded, was in the inability to learn how to communicate effectively over a range of political and emotional issues for any sustainable period of time, or to be able to negotiate one's differences with others in a social context. In boarding school, the rules were dictated, behavior was controlled, even differences were prone to cookie-cutter resolutions imposed from above. There was no need to communicate beyond expressing daily functions; there was nothing to negotiate.

No doubt, it took an act of courage to place one's child in boarding school, to give him something that by someone's standard could not obtain at home. It was even a greater act of courage on the part of the child to see through the days of exile, even though he has had no conscious recollection of being abandoned.

Tamir's tale of divorce was particularly painful to the ear, because it involved the custody of a child, whom he adored to no end. Knowing how much he loved the little one, as any parent does a child, it was no little act of courage for him to take upon himself the strain of an inner turmoil, to separate from the one he sought to protect, to accord him the modicum of peace and tranquility by exiting from a tempest-tossed stormy marriage. For, you see, Tamir's parents had stuck it out for his sake, in an act of sacrifice, perhaps, but also one of a requited cowardice.

Next day, Tamir and I drove up to Berkeley to attend the 2nd fundraiser held in that sleepy summer-stricken town. A large crowd had gathered about the Julia Morgan Centers, named after the famed social activist and architect. The foyer was packed, with barely any room left to breath, or to hide from the inquisitive eyes seeking to decipher the faces they did not recognize as familiar. Two complimentary tickets awaited us at the counter: We paid full fare and on the agreed premise that it is not polite to sponge when at a fundraiser.

I have not been inside a Shakespearean playhouse. If I were to draw one, I would have it be a simple square cube, box-like, with comfortable seats anchored to a sloping floor, with dark brown wood panels all around, capped by a high ceiling defined by criss-crossing wooden trestle beams, with good acoustics, and a simple stage in the foreground, connecting to the two wide exit doors by three roomy aisles.

The curtain call was delayed, but not for more than what I had experienced a week earlier at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Hershey Felder had to scrap his entire one-man act due to technical difficulties with electricity and instead put on an abbreviated version of his "George Gershwin Alone". Good entertainment should not be hurried, for much of the fun is in the waiting.

When the moment arrived, the promoter-producer-emcee, Jahanshah Javid, introduced the first act, which consisted of two short-subject films by Hamid Rahmanian, one entitled "Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport," and the other called "Shahrbanoo". The first film was gritty in its texture, disjointed in its narrative, with frames and sound bites overlaid in a chaotic juxtaposition of faint questions and even fainter answers.

The form was the perfect metaphor for the mess that the viewer thought must reign in the mind of Sir Alfred, an indivdual stranded in a Paris airport, whence there is no exit for him, largely because the self to which he could return is no longer. While the film is superior, the subject is made pathetic by virtue of exacting cheap laughs on the part of the audience like would a demented circus act. While the media has applauded Sir Alfred into celebrity, the man remains in dire need of psychiatric help, not publicity.

Compared with the heavy-sledding of "Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport," the other screening, "Shahrbanoo," was home-spun, even though it had a few moments of great revelation. The acquaintance that is made between a self-avowed feminist from New York and a traditional Iranian woman, in her won way also a feminist, never developed into a relationship, as the cultural forces far greater than the goodwill between them quickly relegated their interaction to the realm of a simple entretien. The basic tensions between them are not resolved, not even understood.

Rahmanian skillfully suffuses this simple tale of a cross-cultural encounter with two complicated subtexts. As the film opens, so does the arms of Shahrbanoo who welcomes Melissa into her world, with much gaiety and famed Iranian hospitality. By the close of the film, however, Shahrbanoo's patience has run thin with the interloper from America, as she dishes out matrimonial advice to Melissa and her husband, the filmmaker. One of the men in Shahrbanoo's household, who worked for the national news agency, too, weighs in with his curiosity about American women and subjects Melissa to an interrogation bordering on inquisition.

The other subtext propounded by Rahmanian relates to the place where the Iran-Iraq War of the '80s holds in the Iranian psyche. The scenes of Beheshtzahra and the tales of the martyrs are specially poignant. Through it all, it comes louder and clearer, and rightfully, that there is much resentment by the Iranians toward the United States government for supporting Iraq and enabling Saddam Hussein to gas the Iranians during the war which was prolonged by the lousy policies of the U.S. government.

"Shahrbanoo" does not propose or resolve any grand mystery. It is in a way a humble homage to a lukewarm attempt by citizens of two countries and cultures, very much apart, wanting to seek "meaning" in a world driven by madness. The futility of their quest is best symbolized in the search one morning around the kitchen for the English term for aloo. Nobody could tell and the dictionary at hand would not provide the answer either. Aloo or gojeh may be both plum, but anyone who has ever had aloo or gojeh will disagree.

Following a brief "Q & A" with the filmmaker, the audience took advantage of the brief intermission and then returned as spectators. The "fun" part of the evening was about to begin. The poetess-with-a-guitar Shadi Ziaei took center stage, backed by three accompanists, one percussionist and two string guitarists. The occasion marked her very first public performance, a musical debut, and she passed with flying colors. Her set of three poem-songs riveted, not only by the rhyme she strummed but also by the syncopation of the words she spoke.

The melancholy of her songs evoked memories of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel-type lyrics; sometimes I could hear the raspy sound of Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman, delivered with a post-punk rhythm consisting of short heartbeats and gasping breaths. Ziaei has arrived and where she ends up will depend entirely on her courage.

The courageous, five-foot-two-inche bundle of energy, Shappi Khorsandi, who would be comic if she came from any culture, was next on the program. Aided by notes and a bottle of water as crutch, she combined the endearing gift of the gab of anyone's sister with routine observations about Iranians being caught in the act of being themselves, Iranians, and in English.

Her shtick contained a few hilarious pieces -- among them, the routine in which her father reported to school one morning in London in order to enlist his daughter, thirty-past-three, and his son, quarter-to-four, in age. The other piece had to do with a child's naive greeting of early arrivals at her parent's dinner party. While her performance at Julia Morgan resonated with the predominantly Farsi-speaking audience, for her to garner universal acclaim she would have to speak to the broader human experience, in English still, for which she is well poised and eminently qualified.

In many ways, each of the acts at Julia Morgan -- Rahmanian, Ziaei, and Khorsandi -- represented little acts of individual courage: to come before a by-nature critical audience and bare his/her soul, to be Iranian in English no less, even if the adulation for and reception of these artists were in the hands and hearts of a friendly and approving crowd. That night, content mattered less to me than the courage of these youngsters to come before their own on the way to where they would be for all the world to enjoy.

Tamir and I capped the night with kabob at a local Persian burger joint. The next night we drove up to San Francisco, where we dined at the sumptuous Cafe de Paris, L'Entrecote on Union Street, next door to Prego, a very fine Italian restaurant where I had been more than a decade ago.

Tamir took the next day off. So did Teniz and we all drove up to the vineyards of Sonoma, to be present at the wedding of our high school friend, Tac. This would be Tac's second marriage, and this would be Tellie's second marriage, too. Under a small chuppa adorned with flowers and voile, the dear beloved stood before an officiating minister and after the exchange of vows, with tears streaming down their faces, the betrothed turned to the groom's brother, who officiated the Iranian/Islamic portion of the ceremony. With children of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad looking on, the bride and groom melted in the heart of the throng of well-wishers. For these two, taking the nuptial plunge for the second time was no little act of courage.

The drive back from Sonoma retaught me why I so loved Northern California -- the topography. In the East where I live, my horizon is flat and punctuated by ugly edifices. Here, one looked out the widow or drove for some short distance and saw hills rise in the horizon or the horizon dip into water. In the salt flats and marshes, the bridges undulated like snakes or suspended in midair like an indeterminate soaring eagle.

The flight home to the flatland of daily life was long and uninspiring. As the plane approached the clear moonlit skies over Boston I tried to frame my own experience of the past few days in terms of an act of courage. I resolved that spending three days with friends who loved to smoke, drink, and eat and for me not fall prey to any of the like temptations that surrounded me was a little act of courage too.

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By Guive Mirfendereski

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The human side
I tried to show the evolution that is taking place within families like Shahrbanoo's all over the country
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