مگر مگر تو بشویی، سیاهی از همه جا را
باران تو ببار
جاودان به نسیم سحر سوگند
شادمان به تو پیوسته هستم
تا تو شوی آباد، ای ایران
تو بخندی شاد، ای ایران
چون نسیم سحرگه
“Today’s human is consumed by a desire to find meaning in life”. Psychologist Farzaneh Sabetan had the attention of her 1,200 strong audience attending the four-day conference on “Social Transformation in Today’s World” in Toronto. “She has found no convincing answer in life,” Sabetan offered, “and this has become the cause for her state of confusion (parishani)”. In the slightly darker than expected conference hall of the Sheraton Skyline Hotel, the participants seemed to be, for a moment, standing above the harrowing news headlines related to Iran. “We therefore see two states in today’s world… those of agitation and protest, on the one hand, and maturity and unity, on the other — akin to a teenager who is coming of age,” the gentle psychologist said.
An impressive range of activists and scholars, artists and well-wishers had turned the venue into a Mecca to explore various nuances of change and its preludes from 18 to 21 May 2012. The discourses of the inaugural conference of the Society for Studies in Persian Culture and History ran the gamut. They ranged from health and literature to human rights and media. The conveners, performers and panelists included homeopathic doctors, poets, specialist in Islamic studies, television producers and rappers. Such a wide spectrum did not appear to break the conference proceedings into fragmented pieces or stand alone silos; it encouraged cross-pollination between thoughts and concepts.
Notwithstanding the diversity of the topics, the conference had recurring motifs that imparted coherence to one’s experience. MPP Reza Moridi, from Richmond Hill, spoke eloquently of the prejudice meted out to Iran’s ethnic groups and religious minorities over the centuries, and called for an end to such practices. Hassan Zerehi, Editor-in-Chief of Shahrvand, in his discussion of democracy and media, mentioned a 1991 article in his long-standing publication which in no uncertain terms expressed shame for the mistreatment of the Baha’is. This seminal paper, in the fullness of time, may prove to have a special place in Iran’s attempt to recall its past and strengthen the nation’s collective memory. “The lie has collapsed in Iran,” uttered historian Douglas Martin, “the lie that has separated Baha’is from their co-citizens.” In this vein, presentation after presentation, unity and the elimination of prejudice gradually turned into non-negotiable, immutable tenants germane to a prosperous Iran, not by design but through a seamless shared understanding that the attendees were expressing and reaching together.
The individual, whose consciousness is thus raised, has an undeniable role in bringing about change, in the estimation of scholar Vahid Rafati. In his novel analysis, scholar Vahid Rafati asserted the place of individual in social transformation. He posited that the position of the charismatic leaders who have brought about change throughout history, in this day and age, is devolved to the individual as the protagonist of transformation. This is the time for all to develop the capacity to be charismatic leaders, seems to be Rafati’s message to the conference. Referring to our patriarchal past, activist Gloria Yazdani spoke passionately of female pioneers Forough Faroukzad and Harriet Tubman. One, a Persian poetess who challenged the literati and the boundaries of love, learning and desire; and the other, a tortured slave who sublimated above her milieu to reinvent herself and her environment. The former became the unacknowledged poet laurie of her time, albeit briefly; and the latter, led many slaves to Canada to be free.
The arts, from theater to rap, were conspicuously present at the conference. They were not intended as interludes and fillers. Pegah Yazdani’s piano recitals, with her fine selection from the east and the west, nudged us into the morning sessions. The Chakavak Band wove the past and present with their selection of lyrics, from the censored to the celebrated, from the Bab’i poetess Tahirih to modernist Feraydon Moshiri. Their presentation of Moshiri’s Baran (rain), brimmed with joy and anticipated change. It was a gift.
“Hope” was firmly present in the discourses. It was at the heart of Sabetan’s presentation. By drawing parallels between the stages of development of an individual and the society, Sabetan in fact presented a reassuring outlook of Iran and the world. In her opinion, similar to an individual, who advances through the stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence and maturity to become an adult, the society progresses in the same fashion. The world, in its state of turmoil and agitation, is like the thirteen- or fourteen-year old who doubts and questions, she said. In this positive landscape, soft-speaking Sabetan seems to believe that the painful pangs of growth that the world, and perhaps by extension Iran, grapples with will in the fullness of time bear fruits, as the world reaches the stage of adulthood and maturity. Although she herself did not articulate it, it is not far-fetched to consider that we, as Iranians or those who are concerned about its challenges, are witnessing the coming of age of Iran as it too begins to fully realize its capabilities. This process has entailed much suffering in particular during the last thirty years. “Social transformation does not come about without pain and suffering,” one facilitator opined.
Denial of access to learning is increasingly recognized as a severest form of oppression. The right to education was a theme explored during an entire afternoon. The documentary Education Under Fire, which decries the denial of education to members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran and the closure of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), was screened and received the attention of panelists. The message of the panel was clear: there ought to be provisions in place to ensure that all can learn and all can develop capacity.
Beyond the individual, the health panel offered the opportunity to discuss family health and the role of the family as a unit in contributing to transformation. Various aspects of individual health such as physical, mental and spiritual were explored by a group of experts. The panel appeared to have a consensus that a family is considered to be healthy when all its members enjoy healthy relationships in a space where unity and its preservation is a pervasive concern of all. In a healthy family, consultation as well as mutual respect are essential to this state of well-being, and are not merely pleasant add-ons. A follow-up panel on the role of community, made up of families, could advance the discussion further.
The conference appeared to have been organized not so much as an event meant to be attended, applauded for and forgotten, but as a place to share learning and to take action. The sessions strived to contribute to a process of transformation intended to encourage further reflection and action. Musicians Nabil & Karim – with their mix of rap and song, wit and improvised verse – underscored the complementarity of being and doing. “I am the change that I want to see” they asked the audience to chant, who were symbolically asked to stand up and move.