Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Race Unfinished

Monday was the annual running of the Boston Marathon, a central event in Boston life.  It falls on Patriots Day, a Boston-area holiday commemorating “the shot heard ‘round the world” in Lexington in 1775, the subsequent victory over the British at Concord, and the de facto start of the American Revolution.  It is a holiday that begins with a Red Sox baseball game in the morning, the running of the 26 mile race along a course lined the with thousands of well-wishing spectators, and great festive celebrations at the finish line in the Back Bay heart of Boston.  The race includes many top-professional runners, followed by a hoard of amateurs fulfilling personal challenges or raising money for their charities.  It is always an inspiring day in Boston where unity, joy, and sharing is paramount.

But this year’s race was different.  For some unknown reason, a person(s) filled with hate and irrationality decided to break apart this universal coming together by setting off two bombs among innocent well-wishing spectators at the finish line.  3 dead; 50 critically/seriously wounded; over a hundred more with other injuries.  Overwhelming acts of ensuing heroism and inspiring help from runners, spectators, and emergency responders could not take away the horror and inexplicability of this act.  Most responsible journalists, commentators and law enforcement officials pleaded against speculating about the perpetrator(s), to let the investigation run its course until the facts could be determined.  It is a very wise cautionary pleading to us all.

In my own way, I immediately felt a personal kinship to this tragedy, even from this distance.  I spent the first couple of decades of my personal/professional life in Boston’s Back Bay, on Boylston Street, where this violent tragedy occurred.  And a couple of more decades thereafter in/out of Boston.  It is a marvelous city that still holds many memories and friendships, connections loosened over time but still existent.  And so some of the concern and suffering is personal.  My heart may go out to the disturbed individual(s) who came to do this act.  But I confess that my heart goes out even more to the victims.

But isn’t, or shouldn’t, all such instances be personal to us?  An insult to our supposed humanity, a backward step in our path to being civilized, a wake-up call to live better in harmony with God, nature and our contemporary human beings?

This incident in Boston, and my past/present connection to it, made me recall many other such “connected” events in my life.  I am a deep student of history, as is known to my friends and likely obvious to readers of this blog.  For whatever larger reason, I seem to have had personal contact with various altering events through my life’s passage.

I was born two weeks after the end of World War II and the dawn of this age of American and world transformation.  I grew up in Arkansas, where the violent upheaval of the modern civil rights movement began with the integration of the Little Rock schools in the mid-1950s.  That connection came full circle when I lived in Boston during its school busing violence in the 1970s.

In the mid-1980s I made my first trip out of the country, to Haiti, arriving just weeks after the overthrow of its long-term father/son dictatorship.  The joy and future promise of the people surrounded me.  When the massive earthquake hit there a few years ago, I could easily picture and relate to the people living in renewed squalor and pain.

In 1997 I went to Scotland and Ireland on a family history pursuit of my ancestors.  The night I arrived in London, I turned on the TV to hear the first reports of Princess Diana’s death.  A week of public grieving and ceremony surrounded my wandering trip.  But that trip also included a stop in Northern Ireland on the opening day of reconciliation talks between the IRA and the British that ultimately resulted in the Easter Accords, a fragile peace still in place today.

In 1999, I fulfilled a life-long dream by journeying to Tibet, bookended by sightseeing in China.  The unexpected 50th anniversary celebration of the People’s Republic of China resulted in my having a private guided tour of Tibet.  It gave me a personal understanding of the problem of self-determination for these most gentle people.  My heart continues to suffer over each violent event or self-immolation that occurs there today.

In the summer of 2001, I attended a Buddhist conference in New York City.  The meeting site was at the Sheraton Hotel, located in the plaza adjacent to the Twin Towers.  Two months later, the hotel I had stayed in, and the plaza I had walked in, were all completely gone due to the violent work of 18 Arab traitors to Islam.

But in 2005, I made several trips to the Middle East, to Lebanon specifically, and fell in love with the people there.  I arrived just a few days after the assassination of their Prime Minister.  After years of civil war, thus began Lebanon’s march to independence from Syrian domination – a freedom march which surrounded all my subsequent visits.  The experience allowed me to better understand the Middle East issue that remains still so intractable today.

And so Boston renews my sense of connectedness not just to world events, but to the world’s people.  Humanity moves, lurches from event to event.  Yet movement is continuous, and in the end the people are still all connected to one another.  The events of this world are not just newspaper headlines, or pundit pontifications.  They are the people and their individual stories that create their outcomes – outcomes affecting both them and me if I open up to them.  They are the stories that bring us together, and remind us once again that all things connect all people into one universal community.  It can be easy to hate who you do not know.  That is why we must work to know – to make hating a little bit harder.

As I sit here on the porch of my spiritual home in the mountains, the clouds are moving in over the peaks of the multiple mountain ranges in view.  They provide an increasing cover of darkness over the valley below, and soon the fog will completely envelop me, and my view will become very limited.  And then the rain will come.  But I will be reminded that the rain will give gentle nourishment to all life that lies below the dark clouds.  Then the clouds will eventually lift and the longer view will be seen and understood once again.  And the light of the sun will come out once more.

We will once again go about our daily lives, hopefully with a somewhat altered and better view.  The Boston Marathon was not competed this year.  Our work towards humanity and love is another race not yet complete.  As I finish this writing, the rain is ending and the sun is now peeking through.  May that sunlight illuminate, and make ever more clear to us, the long marathon course we must still travel.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Letter To Nephew Abdullah

My Dear Nephew Abdullah,

I was so glad to get your recent letter telling of all the good fortunes happening to you in America.  Clearly the opportunities to pursue your science are proving to be much greater than possible in our native Iran.  So I am very happy you chose to make this move with your family.  1000 years ago our Persian people led the world in scientific leadership and accomplishments.  Your recent achievements in mathematics and astronomy serve as a good testament to that legacy.

I am also happy to hear of the many new friends you have made in America who have made you feel welcome into their society.  (Though we can still tell in your letters that not all Americans have been so welcoming to you.)  We were originally quite worried about your safety and acceptance by the Americans, given the tensions that continue between the two governments.  It is good that any hostile treatment towards you and your family is at a minimum.  The American reputation of friendliness and opportunity to many diverse immigrants seems to be true.

Yet I am saddened to hear of the many misperceptions, and lack of knowledge, you have encountered that Americans have about our country, our way of life, our people, and what drives our thinking.  It seems as if the world does not want to recognize our modern and sophisticated Iran.  The truth of our prosperous middle class, 80% literacy rate, and half of our university classes and many social leadership positions comprised of women seems to be unacknowledged outside our borders.  Instead, the developed  nations seem to see us only as another “backward,” middle-eastern narrow-minded country like so many of our neighbors.

Unlike most nations, America is such a young country, having started from scratch only 400 years ago.  So they do not seem to appreciate a country like Iran whose known history can be traced back to agricultural societies 10,000 years ago.  Traced to our first city of Susa 6000 years ago.  Or to our first royal dynasty 4800 years ago.  Our Persian history is long and glorious, providing a pride that still beats in Iranian hearts.

Yet like many European and Asian nations, ours is a long history filled with invasions, overthrows, and rebellions for dominance over our land.  So we have always been forced to defend ourselves against outsiders.  Even after the Arabs invaded and brought the wonder of Islam to us in the 7th century, it took only a hundred years later that we separated ourselves from Arab culture and restored our Persian heritage.  That cultural separation, and our adoption of Shi’ite rather than Sunni Islam, helped to fuel the lasting antagonism of the Arab countries toward us.  But the wisdom of that restoration was demonstrated 500 years later as the European nations lay culturally stymied in their Dark Ages, while Persian culture led the world in literature, arts, science and medicine.  It was even thanks to our efforts that much of the Greek/Roman culture now so important to the Western heritage was saved by educated Persian hands.  It is that leadership among nations, that respect, that we even now seek to restore and honor.

Yet as you know, Abdullah, the threats of invasion and outside domination continued into each century, from all directions and all manners of despots and the national ambitions of others.  In our modern times, in World War I the British and Russians occupied our proud land.  In World War II, they once again took possession of our country.  On their own they threw out our first Shah who had ruled for 20 years, and replaced him with his son Riza Pahlavi as their puppet Shah.  Our country, and our government, continued to be dictated to by outsiders.  You might remind your new American friends that in 1951 we first attempted western-style democracy and elected our own Prime Minister.  Yet two years later, in order to protect their control of our oil, the British and American governments conspired with the Shah to have the Prime Minister thrown out of his legally-elected office and arrested.  After which, our British/Russian-installed Shah became increasingly dictatorial, spreading fear and torture against our people and suppressing opposition.  As you know, Abdullah, it is from this overthrow of our elected Prime Minister, and the subsequent oppression inflicted upon us from the false Shah, that our distrust and anger towards America really began.

No wonder we revolted against the Shah and his repression in 1978, following the Ayatollah Khomeini as the only available outspoken opposition to the Shah.  And no wonder that, when the Americans chose to give the hated Shah asylum in their country, our anger would be extended towards all Americans.  In retrospect, when my compatriots and I seized the American Embassy and captured its employees, I can understand the disbelief and anger that Americans felt toward us at that time.  But when one has lived under such ruthlessness, and after having lost both my father and my brother to the Shah’s secret police, my anger towards his benefactors needs to also be understood.

Do Americans remember that when Iraq’s evil Saddam Hussein started his unprovoked war against us in 1980 –  once again a threat to our safety and independence – America took his side in the conflict against us and gave him military arms to fight us?  This was the same Saddam Hussein that America herself would later turn around and fight twice – briefly in Kuwait, and then for 10 long years in Iraq itself.  We lost almost a million of our countrymen in our war with Iraq, including 95,000 lost as child soldiers.  You know that this included the young life of my first son – your dead cousin Hassan.  As a result, today more than 2/3rds of our country is under 30, owing in large part to the many Iranian lives lost in that war who would now be middle-aged.  All of this interference in our sovereign affairs.  All of these past attempts to defeat or control our country.  Yet your new friends wonder why we do not trust America?

Perhaps, dear nephew, you can help in some small way to bridge the misunderstandings between America and our country.  Two countries, each with an admirable past, both caught in a current turbulence of internal difficult change and external mutual distrust.  Internal changes that are so similar in many ways when one looks closely in each other’s mirror.  How do we change that destructive relationship into a positive one for the betterment of all?  Perhaps, dear Abdullah, it can be with many more efforts such as yours: individual to individual.  But can they who have long opposed us and been our enemy now be our friend?  Can we who have resisted them now be able to feel secure?  Removing the past angers; learning to trust one another instead.  Can the leaders in each country put the past behind us, and achieve peace and understanding for all of us?

Your most loving uncle, Samir