Ever since I joined NIAC as Outreach Director six months ago, and as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC)’s Third Annual Fall Leadership Conference fast approaches, thoughts of birds cloud my mind. To avoid sparking concern that NIAC’s latest hire has gone off the deep end, I’ll be more specific: the birds on my mind are those from Farid ud-Din Attar’s famous 12th century epic poem, The Conference of the Birds (منطق الطیر).
I believe Attar’s classic Persian story can teach the Iranian-American community a lot about the principles of vision, participation, and collective leadership we must embody in order to build an influential political role here in the US. The fact that our community has often struggled to live out these values is particularly disheartening given the abundance of Iranian-American role models with great talent, drive, depth, and intellectual sophistication. After all, Iranian Americans rank as the most highly educated and affluent diaspora community in the US. And yet somehow – as we have heard countless times before – we remain among the nation’s least politically engaged groups. In this context, a reflection on The Conference of the Birds is instructive.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick summary:
The tale begins with a time of chaos in a society of birds. The birds see that other animal groups have clear leaders, and grow concerned that they do not have a leader of their own. One bird, the Hoopoe (هدهد), assures his community that he knows of a leader named the Simorgh (سیمرغ). Hoopoe offers to take the birds on a journey to meet their future leader – and yet, many resist, offering various excuses. But the savvy Hoopoe identifies each bird’s interests, negotiates, and eventually thousands of birds head off to find Simorgh.
Along the journey the birds face such difficult obstacles and challenges, that when they eventually arrive at Simorgh’s palace, only thirty remain. With great anticipation, the remaining thirty enter the palace to meet their leader, only to find an empty room with a pool of water. Upon looking at their own reflection, the birds realize that it is they who are the si - morgh (سی - مرغ) – two words that translate in Persian as “thirty birds” and comprise perhaps the most famous pun in Persian history.
In this classic organizing narrative, the Hoopoe acted as an expert community organizer much like the modern leaders involved in the US Civil Rights and Farm Worker movements. After first identifying the talent in his community, the Hoopoe motivated each bird by considering its unique hesitations and strengths. The Hoopoe also knew that not every bird would have the energy, commitment, or interest to reach the finish line. Even so, the Hoopoe understood that in order to succeed in their venture, the birds would need to unite at the outset.
When their journey began, the birds could not imagine where it would lead. The endgame of a political victory is often outside of the frame of imagination of the leaders involved – particularly when embarking on a quest for the first time. An organizer’s role is to guide leaders on the journey, requiring a strong element of trust, shared hope, and perhaps even a leap of faith.
Before discussing Iranian Americans’ future political journey, we must reflect on how we arrived where we are today. The reasons for our political disengagement and lack of success in public life are complex and hotly debated, yet I consistently hear two primary explanations.
First, a diverse range of Iranian Americans point to our community’s long history of political and social fragmentation and our deeply rooted distrust of institutions. Our community’s historical memory is long and traumatic, and the horror stories of curtailed personal and political freedoms in Iran continue to this day.
The second narrative, particularly widely held among those who have participated in Iranian-American civic and philanthropic efforts, focuses on our community’s challenges with collective leadership. I hear countless stories of frustration, territorialism, and ego battles from talented, thoughtful Iranian Americans with proven track records of professional achievement. Unfortunately, many of these community leaders, burned by their personal experiences, believe that perhaps Iranian Americans have insurmountable cultural barriers to effective civic engagement.
There is no doubt that these two broadly held narratives are rooted in real wounds and experiences. However, these narratives also risk unintentionally quashing the hope our community needs in order to strengthen its political voice. As Hoopoe might tell us, while we have limitations that hold us back, we also have gifts that should propel us forward.
I believe Attar provides a direct refutation of our community’s cynicism and hopelessness. Reclaiming those values of collective leadership and vision highlighted in The Conference of the Birds can help strengthen our community, giving Iranian Americans a common language through which to relate to one another. After all, the universal values expressed by the story of Simorgh also underlie the core tenets of the American democratic tradition that are essential to our Iranian American identity.
As a window of opportunity has opened for improved US-Iran relations and NIAC’s October Leadership Conference fast approaches, there is no time more urgent for our community to invest in training a strong and diverse collective of leaders to become our Simorgh. Just like members of Attar’s bird society, Iranian Americans across the country who may be skeptical or cynical must take the leap of faith to invest in themselves as leaders. I hope that NIAC’s fall conference will serve as one step in building the foundation required to become a true, sustainable political force to be reckoned with. I look forward to seeing you there.
Yasmin Radjy joined the National Iranian American Council as Community Outreach Director in February 2013, directing NIAC’s efforts to train and mobilize Iranian Americans nationwide to effect concrete political change on the issues that matter most to them. Radjy is based in San Francisco, CA where she is launching NIAC’s West Coast field presence. Previously, Radjy served as a volunteer NIAC Ambassador in the Bay Area. She also worked as a Field Organizer on the 2008 Obama Campaign in Ohio, and then worked for the nation's oldest organizing group, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), in Iowa and Texas.