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 attended, 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 success.
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 and began 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 experience 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 why they were sitting there to begin with. There was no surprise. This was part of the program and it was clearly written in the schedule, 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 they 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 cave days.
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 shelter it.
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.
Who better to teach us and make us feel enormously proud to be Iranians, than these men and women who have devoted their entire lives to gaining a deeper understanding of these precise issues? This pride is derived both from the material as well as the eloquent sources delivering 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.
Whether 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 the 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.