Mehregan conference in San Diego left us with an even greater
thirst for knowledge than the one that drove us there to begin with
September 6, 2005
This year I spent Labor Day weekend exactly as I
did last year, attending the annual Mehregan
seminar in San Diego.
The topic of this year’s seminar was “Reflections
of Iranian Identity Through Time”. The lectures ended last night and the
conference officially came to a close Monday. However for those of us who
the discussion has only just begun.
In the tradition of great conferences, this one consisted of
an incredible amount of knowledge, interpretation, theory and information
packed into 4 days. But most importantly the conference left us
with an even greater thirst for knowledge than the one that drove
us there to begin with. That, in my opinion is a testament to its
Iranian Identity as a topic is one that spans across so many
fields and is dependent on so many variables, that it is difficult
for anyone to offer a universal answer or explanation. Iranian
Identity in Farsi, is referred to as “Hoveyat-e Irani”.
I am embarrassed to say that before this conference, I did not
know what “hoveyat” meant, nor had I really thought
about my own identity in the same way that I started to when I
left this seminar. In fact ever since I left the seminar last night,
I have been preoccupied with processing all that I absorbed in
the previous 3 days.
This year unlike last year, I was the only member of my family
that could attend, nevertheless, I decided that I would go. I got
ready and left my house Friday afternoon, giving myself 45 minutes
to arrive at the hotel and register before the start of the seminar.
I arrived at the Mission Beach Hyatt at exactly 6PM and was
pleasantly surprised to find tons of free parking. I went inside
searching for the conference room. After 20 minutes of walking
the entire hotel and speaking to numerous confused hotel employees,
I was informed that I am at the WRONG HYATT. Great! 20 minutes
later, (with some phone assistance), I arrived at the San Diego
Hyatt in downtown. I parked my car and hurried inside, upset that
I missed the opening with “Ey Iran”.
I must admit that attending any large event alone is a little
strange, and if it is an Iranian event, then even more so. However,
I was surprised at how comfortable I felt. I was so eager to hear
the speakers that I truly did not care about the socializing during
the tea breaks.
I am not sure if I would have reacted the same
way a few years ago, therefore, I take this as a sign of my own
changing and growing identity and the significance that these
events have for me now. It turned out to be a very interesting
because it is only when we stop talking that we can really observe
and listen to our surroundings and I did a lot of that.
The first speaker on Friday night was Dr. Abbas Milani. His speech
was scheduled to be delivered in English. It was listed on the
Mehregan website and also clearly written in the program pamphlet
(in Farsi) that everyone received upon registering. When Dr. Milani
came to the podium and began speaking in English, several members
of the audience interrupted him to voice their apparent surprise
and opposition. They insisted that he disregard prior plans and
speak in Farsi.
Dr. Milani replied by simply saying “mehmoon
khareh saheb-khooneh hast”, and that he had been asked by
Mr. Firouzi, the organizer of the event, to deliver this speech
in English and that is what he did. As he began speaking, many
people rose from their seats, and walked out of the room.
He interrupted his speech again and asked them to stay; promising
that he would translate for them, but this plea fell on deaf ears.
I sat there shocked and truly embarrassed to be part of such
an insensitive and disrespectful crowd. I could not understand
they were sitting there to begin with. There was no surprise.
This was part of the program and it was clearly written in the
in FARSI. If they had any objections they should have voiced
that to the people in charge PRIOR to the event, instead of sitting
in the room and causing a scene. It looked like the road to finding
our Iranian Identity was off to a rocky start!
Already feeling tense from an afternoon of driving around lost
and rushing and now this unexpected scene, I sat in my chair and
thought finally the drama is over and I can listen to Dr. Milani.
Apparently the two ladies sitting in the row behind me did not
share the same plan.
At first I ignored it. The whispering, the
moving around and chit chat, but when they started laughing,
my blood was boiling. I could not concentrate on the lecture and
showed no signs of stopping. I turned around and looked at them
a couple of times which did not change a thing. I could not understand
why they were there, but they were starting to make the people
who walked out look good in comparison.
Seminars, unlike elementary schools, are not mandatory. People
attend because they genuinely are interested in what the lecturers
have to say and would like to hear it, but the women behind me
did not realize that. I could not understand why they would pay
$100 for seminar tickets, along with $200-$300 a night for hotel
and $25 daily parking and all the money spent on food and transportation
to come to this event only to sit and chit chat and giggle. Another
negative mark for our Iranian Identity, I thought. Yes we have
a civilization of over 2,500 years but when it comes to common
courtesy and etiquette in these situations we are still in
Speaking of etiquette, how hard is it to turn off a cell phone?
Besides, has anyone heard of “VIBRATE”? I really find
it ironic that a thousand Iranians come together to learn and discuss
such profound issues as Freedom, Social Justice and now Iranian
Identity, showing seemingly great intellectual interest, and yet
they can not comprehend the simple concept that the sound of a
ringing cell phone is RUDE. It is disrespectful to the speaker,
it is disrespectful to the audience and it is disruptive to everyone
present. Not to mention that it is the equivalent of a screaming
declaration of ignorance.
Every time a cell phone rang, I jumped in my seat just as embarrassed
as if it were my own. Surprisingly, the owners of those ringing
cell phones did not show as much embarrassment as that which I
felt. One woman calmly stood up and walked to a corner to take
her call and then just as calmly returned to her seat to continue
listening to the lecture. She was not affected by the fact that
Mr. Moshiri, interrupted his speech and poked fun at her jubilant
ring-tone by saying “In ke dareh sheypoor mizaneh”,
followed by laughter from the audience. If I had been that woman,
I would have died of embarrassment. I imagined this same situation
in an American conference and reaffirmed my original belief that
our community indeed does need a lot of work. What wasn’t
clear to me at that point of frustration was that my own perception,
understanding and reaction to this community also needed some work.
Every community has its shortcomings. The situations I described
so far are examples of our shortcomings as Iranians. There are
others, such as our sense of racial and cultural superiority, raised
by Dr. Milani. Another reality, very eloquently explained by Mr.
Firouzi was the Iranian individual described as a candle which
lights up its surroundings. He used the example of how Iranians,
wherever they live always take care of their neighbors. He then
contrasted that by pointing out that for some unknown reason when
these same individual candles all gather together; they tend to
burn each other out. This comment is so true in so many different
ways. So, why do we act so poorly in large crowds? Where do we
go from here? How can we change?
Finding fault and criticism is the easiest part of the equation.
The loud whispering, the ringing cell phones, the untimely and
unruly objections and even the people who know you and would rather
pretend they don’t than to say hi, are all obvious problems
that any one of us can observe. The real talent is recognizing
how to deal with these problems. I witnessed the answer to my question
this weekend and I was really surprised by the simplicity of it.
First of all, we can not fix every issue at once. It is therefore
important to know how to pick our battles, and also know when to
bend. My frustration was justified, but my prioritization was off.
This seminar had much greater goals to reach for, and a bunch of
ringing cell phones were not going to stand in the way. Instead
of reprimanding those who disrupted the program, the organizers
tried to serve and please everyone.
The idea is simple. If the attendees enjoy themselves and leave
happy, they will return again next year. The more seminars we attend,
the more knowledge we will amass and the more experience we will
gain regarding these events. Only through this increased exposure
and knowledge can we then improve ourselves. Therefore, since the
long term goal was to encourage learning, the organizers really
acted as wonderful and forgiving hosts.
Creating a social movement is a lot like planting a seed and
ensuring that it will one day bloom into something beautiful. This
is how I began to view these annual seminars.
Planting The Seed: (Opportunity)
If we see an element lacking from our society, it is up to us
to create it. The organizers of Mehregan, have done exactly that.
They realized that in this culture of rich and successful Iranians,
we are short of scholars and short in our intellectual development.
To remedy this deficiency, they created a platform for discussion
and ideological exchange that would engage every mind. The seed
was knowledge and the seminars became the fertile earth that would
Watering The Seed: (Perseverance)
Great things don’t happen overnight. Every year, the Mehregan
committee has suffered significant financial loss, but they have
persevered. This perseverance stems from the realization of both
the significance and necessity of these events for our community’s
growth. It takes a great deal of work to bring a conference of
this magnitude to fruition. The efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Firouzi
and all the other contributing members of the Mehregan
Foundation are an investment in our common future as Iranian Americans.
As I mentioned before, tackling the subject of Iranian Identity
is very difficult because it is inclusive of every subject and
element that is considered Iranian. Food, music, history, art,
economics, politics, culture, customs, dress, all can fall under
defining categories of our identity. If we were to simplify this
however, we would focus on that which makes us proud. A college
professor of mine once told me that the purpose of a university
education is not to hand out degrees to young experts. Rather it
was to teach us how to think and give us the tools to pursue a
lifetime of education.
What the 8 lecturers of this conference provided us with was
just a glimpse into who we are. This glimpse is enough to spark
our interest, awaken our curiosity and re-affirm our pride. Year
after year, they take time from their busy lives to speak at this
conference. While it is impossible for these scholars to transfer
even 1% of their lifetime of acquired knowledge to us in 1 or 2
hours of a lecture, they do transfer their insight.
to teach us and make us feel enormously proud to be Iranians,
than these men and women who have devoted their entire lives to
a deeper understanding of these precise issues? This pride is
derived both from the material as well as the eloquent sources
it. We are proud to call these scholars our own, and privileged
that they share their own inspiration with us. Under their sunshine,
we feel our own passions taking life.
There is no doubt that the struggle for defining our identity
in exile is exceptionally challenging because many of those defining
elements are not at our reach. In order to continue enjoying our
culture and heritage, we have to actively pursue it. A child born
in Iran is not under any threat of not learning Farsi, or not understanding
Norouz, because she is emerged in it. In Iran, the responsibility
of passing on our heritage is shared by the entire community, while
here in the US, the burden is placed entirely on the family.
The only weapon of hope that these Iranian parents have of passing
on an Iranian identity to their children is by instilling in
them a great sense of pride. This pride comes from our own understanding
and appreciation of our history and culture. This pride is what
I refer to as sunshine and the sunshine of this conference came
from the speakers.
The Flower: (The fusion of heart and mind)
During the course of our daily lives, we are rewarded for efficiency,
practicality, expertise, and skills. We seldom break the rhythm
of our day to question our emotional satisfaction. The expression
or discussion of emotion is often times viewed as a sign of weakness
in our society. It is impossible, however, to attend the Mehregan
seminar and not get emotional at one point or another.
it is the lectures, the music, the dance, a few lines of a poem
or Mr. Firouzi’s very genuine and insightful discussions,
we gain awareness of our emotional ties to Iran and more broadly
of our own humanity. In this realization we begin to melt into
one and we realize why we are all here this weekend.
In understanding those elements that trigger our emotions, we
discover our common identity. We can feel our “Iranian Identity” even
if we still are not sure how to describe it. We all sense a renewed
passion and appreciation for our culture and each other and this
inspires us to pursue this journey beyond these 4 days.
It is my belief that without the heart, the mind is a waist.
Every example of greatness I have witnessed in my lifetime was
built on the foundation of a passion. We all went to this weekend’s
conference to feed our mind, but it was really our hearts that
carried us there. This quality is what drives each of the speakers
and proves that the only explanation for their lifelong devotion
and accomplishment in their fields is the incredible passion they
feel for Iran. They brought that passion to San Diego this weekend
and shared it with us.
This is the blooming season, the flower, and the ultimate mark
of success of this seminar. This is the time when the organizers
sigh deeply and realize that although they have lost some money
in putting this event together, they have gained so much more by
moving their community forward. Their success is measured by the
self-awareness the audience has gained in those 4 days or as Mr.
Firouzi said it is measured by that “good feeling” that
we walk away with.
I have learned a lesson from the patience, humor and humanity
that Mr. Firouzi and the lecturers used to battle the issues that
had made me so angry. The charm and class he exudes, guarantees
that, we, his guests, all leave feeling wonderful and look forward
to returning next year. This is the quality of great leaders, who
overlook our shortcomings and encourage us to improve ourselves.
It is easy to complain about the symptoms of our social disease,
but a far trickier task to diligently work towards the complete
removal of the contributory tumor. It is easy to disconnect ourselves
from fellow Iranians when we are living in exile, but also far
more rewarding to embrace them.
As for my own Iranian Identity, I realized how ignorant I am
about my country. It was at times difficult to sit in that room
and listen to some of the lectures. The vocabulary of the speakers
was obviously representative of their highly developed Farsi which
I enjoyed, regardless of whether I could make sense of it all or
not. Perhaps this is why there were very few people of my age there.
Nevertheless, I sat through the lectures, I took what I could from
them and when I encountered words I did not understand, I vowed
that it was time I change that.
I agree with Mr. Moshiri, who in his lecture emphasized the importance
our language plays in the formation of our Identity. I am grateful
to my mother for never speaking to me in anything other than Farsi.
She gave me a huge piece of my Iranian Identity by giving me my
mother tongue without any excuses even though I have lived most
of my life outside of Iran. Without this gift of Farsi, I would
not have enjoyed this conference as much as I did.
I think it would
be wonderful to include more English sections in this seminar
so that those Iranians who are not fluent in Farsi can also have
opportunity to gain the same self-awareness and most importantly
the pride and motivation to make Iran a bigger part of their
Identity.My gratitude goes out to the Mehregan Foundation and to
the 8 lecturers
who are the real role models for my generation and beyond. Thank
you for nourishing the Iranian seed in all of us.