—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Artwork by ZERO
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society."
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Artwork by ZERO
Many communities around the globe, including our Indigenous relatives, celebrate the transitions of seasons and their relationships to nature. December 21 is the longest and darkest night of this year, the winter solstice (known as 'Yaldā' in Persian). Iranic peoples (Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kurdistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, etc.) and diverse ethnic relatives call it 'Shab-e Yaldā' ('Yaldā night') or something similar and spend the night in celebration, storytelling, poetry reading, singing, eating, and other means of social connection.
Shab-e Yaldā or Shab-e Chelleh falls on the 20th or 21st of December, or the end of the ninth month (Azar) in the Iranian calendar. Iranic peoples stay up eating pomegranates, watermelons, nuts, drinking tea, and the like (usually remaining fruits from the summer), sitting under a heated table called a 'korsī.'
Persian speakers also practice bibliomancy (foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book) from Hafez's dīvān (book of poems). Each guest secretly makes a wish or asks a question they seek to find an answer to, and the reader(s) randomly select a poem from the dīvān for each person present to predict what their life has in store. The practice is called 'fāl-e hāfez.'
Yaldā marks the beginning of the first 40 nights of winter, hence its first name Shab-e Chelleh ('Fortieth Night'). Intervals of 40 days are significant in Iranic culture: Sufi tradition usually calls for 40-day seclusions, and relatives visit new ancestors 40 days after burial.
Chelleh began as a Zoroastrian practice. Zoroastrians believed that the Ahriman (evil spirit) was most active during the night, so they would stay awake with company during the longest night to stay safe, eating what remained of that year's harvest.
Chelleh took its second name 'Yaldā' in the first century when Christians settled in Persia to avoid religious persecution. The Christians celebrated Christmas, which they called 'Yaldā,' meaning birth in Syriac (cognate to the Arabic w-l-d).
Wishing all who celebrate this time of the year, in whatever form, a joyous Winter Solstice!
Back in the day, as a young one, when I first learned of the commonly-used Persian terms to describe Indigenous, ethnic, and racial peoples and groups, I was personally uncomfortable with and offended by them. We ended up consulting about it as a family, and we decided that we would commit to never using those terms within or beyond our household.
With the amplification of Black Lives Matter (BLM) support nationally and globally, I was delighted to notice that a number of BLM artwork and t-shirts have been designed in Persian showing long overdue solidarity and the recognition of Iran's/Persia's complicities in slavery, racism, and anti-Blackness.
When I showed my dad my own artistic rendering of the "Black Lives Matter" text in Persian I had found online, he reminded me, "We discussed that term was offensive, remember?"
Ashamedly, my Persian reading and writing is less than basic, so while I can get away with speaking colloquial Persian, I can hardly read or write in the language. So I didn't even notice (or consider a closer reading/paying attention) that the Persian term سیاه پوستان that literally translates to "Black skins" meant that the BLM translations I've found online in artwork and printed on t-shirts literally read as "Black skins' lives matter," which in English, is intended to translate to "Black Lives Matter." Our languages, traditions, and beliefs may be "socio-/cultural," and therefore, normalized, but that doesn't always make them just.
Upon catching this, in collaboration with and gratitude to Baba, I designed an alternative Persian translation that removes "skins" and pluralizes "Black" so that it still translates to "Black Lives Matter."
While a posture of critique seems to be the default setting nowadays, regardless, I'm grateful to know there's a heightened awareness, hunger to learn, and that discursive spaces are emerging from the diaspora! I know this isn't true of everyone, but I am grateful that the conscience of more and more people in the U.S. has stirred. We have been asleep for too long . . .
I had initially shared a link to high resolution images of the design here since people were inquiring about whether it would be printed and sold on a t-shirt/hat, and I did not have the resources to do so. Due to popular demand, however, and thanks to a collaboration with Created Noble, a Black family-owned business based in Atlanta, I am excited to announce that t-shirts and hoodies are now available for order with the golden yellow miniature accented "Black Lives Matter" in an English-Persian text combination ("miniature" is in reference to a style of small (i.e., "miniature") Persian paintings, characterized by vivid, intricate details. This design is comprised of flowers and birds). T-shirts and hoodies are available in four colors (beige, black, neon, and white) while supplies last.
Created Noble sells a variety of thought-provoking, socially-and-spiritually-conscious apparel, including their top selling "Black Lives Are Created Noble" t-shirts. Please help me support them, and help spread the word! You can follow them on Instagram/IG via @Bahais4BlackLives.
“Without education, you're not going anywhere in this world.” ―Malcolm X
“Sahar, I have to tell you something,” my mother told me as she hovered within the doorway of my bedroom. Despite her looking away, I still managed to notice the flood of tears streaming down her face. Contagiously so, pools of water started welling up in my eyes, not even knowing why. Whatever it was she was about to tell me, I knew that it was not going to be something I wanted to hear . . . but what I did not know, was that it would be a moment that would eventually transform both my inner and outer perception of education and the purpose it would serve in my life (and most importantly, the effect it could and should have on the lives of others).
“Fardad is dead,” she said. My mother broke the news to me that my cousin Fardad, along with 18 other Iranian youth, were indiscriminately targeted by a missile attack, and consequently, they all tragically perished. Apparently, they were riding in a truck at the time, approaching the Turkish border. To this day, nobody knows why the missiles were even fired in the first place. In the midst of a climate of ethnic conflict between the Kurds and the Turks in the eastern part of Turkey—a region far too familiar with violence and conflict as memories of the Armenian genocide of the Ottoman empire still mark the site, however, any root cause could have been "plausible" (yet unjustified). The truck was just a few kilometers away from the UN refugee camp, where the youth would have temporarily settled in the hopes of eventually finding a university that would admit them for study. I was 17 years old when this was all recalled to me, and Fardad was 19 on the day of his untimely death.
My cousin Fardad and his companions were all followers of the Bahá’í Faith, and because of their self-declared identification as Bahá’ís, they were denied access to every Iranian higher education institution by the state; if they were admitted, they would be expelled once it was discovered they were Bahá’ís. This obstacle, however, did not deter any of them from pursuing their aspirations for higher learning. After all, they were traveling hundreds of miles, on their way to an unfamiliar region solely to eventually gain access to a university that would admit them. Although he may have not been cognizant of the fate that would befall him and his companions, Fardad and his friends sacrificed their physical lives in pursuit of higher education, and comprehending that was initially shameful, because my privilege as a U.S.-born "citizen" residing in Southern California obscured my perceptions of educational inequality and its relationship to and intersections with other forms of inequality. It was my parents decision to grant me that privilege from birth. Obviously, I had no choice in the matter. My Iranian immigrant mother and Azeri immigrant father chose this privilege for me, sacrificing all that was familiar and oppressive for all that was unfamiliar and ambiguous. Fardad's parents didn't make that decision for him. Nevertheless, I sincerely believe the decisions that were made were grounded upon a foundation of endless, selfless love, and therefore, there's no such thing as a "wrong" decision or choice.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Fardad, but from what I learned of him from my mother and father and his mother and father, he had an amazing, selfless spirit. I learned he never smiled in photographs, even as a child, which explains the solemn expression on his face in the photo above. I only “knew” him through photographs that were sent to us in Long Beach, California from Tehran. I can't even recall if we had ever spoken to each other by telephone (in spite of my self-conscious “American accent” that surfaced whenever I spoke Persian to family members living in Iran, whom I had never met except through the exchange of decorated Persian colloquialisms and phrases). Whether or not I ever spoke to Fardad, however, didn't really matter. It wasn't relevant, because I “heard” him through his actions. Years later, I learned from his mother that Fardad was actually admitted to university after successfully passing the national entrance exam, the concours, required of all students in Iran who wanted to attend university. However, since most of his Bahá’í friends were denied admission or being expelled in the midst of their university studies, he refused to pursue higher education that denied him and his peers access solely on the unfounded basis of religious identity. Fardad’s actions and consequent death transformed my perceptions of the meaning and implications of education, particularly by questioning my own motives for pursuing any level of formal education.
Just as I had noticed in Fardad, faith is one of the most vital qualities that has deeply rooted and strengthened the Iranian Bahá’í community, which comprises the largest religious minority in the country with approximately 300,000 adherents. For over 30 years, members of the Bahá’í community in Iran have experienced inexplicable persecution by the government. One of the state’s most ongoing attempts in thwarting the progress and stifling the development of the Bahá’í community, has been through the methodical barring of higher education to Bahá’í students and faculty throughout the country.
Although Bahá’í students and faculty were expelled from universities as early as the mid-1980s, the systematic exclusion of Iranian Bahá’ís from accessing higher education was actually revealed in a confidential memorandum drafted by the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council (ISRCC) in 1991. The primary purpose of the memorandum was to emphasize an intentional treatment of Bahá’ís so that “their progress and development are blocked.” The memorandum also states that “[t]hey must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís.”
Rather than arise in disobedience or protest against the government, the Iranian Bahá’í community responded with what a New York Times article described as “an elaborate act of communal preservation” and what the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) referred to as “remarkably creative—and entirely non-violent”—the establishment of its own higher education institution to serve the needs of Bahá’í students who aspired to pursue a university education. This institution—currently identified as the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE)—was created in 1987, and since 1996, its supporters have endured occasional government raids, arrests, incarceration, torture, destruction of equipment, and the vandalism of offices and homes, where BIHE courses are often held. I think Michael Karlberg said it best when he referred to the BIHE as a “non-adversarial model” that wholeheartedly characterizes “constructive resilience.”
May 21, 2011 marked the most recent in a series of (discovered) events in which the government again interfered with BIHE activities, raiding 33 homes and arresting 16 individuals and interrogating eight others—all due to their involvement with the BIHE. The goal of the government, in making these arrests, was to shut down the functioning of the BIHE and to prevent the development and progress of the Iranian Bahá’í community, as indicated in this news story. Administrators at the BIHE were accused of using the BIHE as a front for spreading Bahá’í teachings or “false propaganda.”
Despite what some might assume or understand regarding the motives behind the BIHE, the purpose of the institution is solely to provide an education equivalent to the national standards of the country. The only difference is that it is not accredited, because it is not recognized by the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology (MSRT), the ministry that oversees most of higher education throughout the country. Over 1,000 students have already “graduated” from the BIHE (as no formal degrees are conferred), where 18 programs in various disciplines—at the undergraduate and graduate levels—are offered, and all courses are taught by faculty members on a completely voluntary basis.
Just a few days ago—more than 15 years after Fardad’s passing, I was on my way to the university campus to meet with my advisor/dissertation chair to discuss preparations for my upcoming final doctoral oral examination (which has mysteriously evolved into being called a "dissertation defense" (for the sake of brevity, perhaps)). I think the solitude of driving in my car accommodated the flow of emotions that immediately consumed me. As I turned onto Campus Drive, I started feeling my face scrunch up as thoughts of my cousin Fardad quickly surfaced. Again those tears welled up in my eyes, but this time, I was “self-lecturing,” telling myself (loudly) how fortunate and privileged I am to have reached this stage in formal education, a point that I had longed for and worked towards for so many years. It had finally hit me. Moving along Campus Drive, as I attempted to hide my sadness from those walking around the campus within sight, I realized that I was only days away from belonging to an unfortunate statistic (that is, if I pass, of course). According to U.S. Census Bureau reports on educational attainment in 2014, only 1.77% of people in the U.S. have a doctorate. This figure is solely based on a representative sample of census data, so its generalizability and accuracy is not guaranteed, but it’s still a very near approximation to the actual percentage, and it moved me.
Are doctorate degrees untouchable, unfathomable, unreachable, unpredictable . . . or are they just plain unappealing? I think Ph.D. degrees can easily be all of these things, depending on who you “are” and where you “come from” in spite of who and where you aspire to be. Fardad, for example, had a ZERO percent chance of receiving a Ph.D. in Iran, let alone a bachelor’s degree. The fate of Fardad and his companions' wasn't an isolated incident, however. There are countless cases in which systematic and unmethodical barriers prevent peoples and groups all over the world from equally and equitably accessing higher education (and the U.S. is definitely not an exception). Meanwhile, here I am, contemplating the trivial matters that accompany the doctoral degree at a "flagship" research institution based in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States: Why does it cost $220.98 to rent doctoral regalia and $964.98 to buy it? . . . Even in preparation for my upcoming dissertation defense, I am entranced by the subtle yet smack-you-in-the-face irony of my research topic. Its visual implications are reflected on the title page I chose for my PowerPoint presentation, and for the first time, I "see" myself in relation to those arms that are reaching, extending, aspiring.
Growing up, I was fortunate to learn (at home—not at school) to honor the acquisition and sharing of knowledge, of education, as a collective, cooperative, and unifying process. Due to the grave disparities we have, however, access to (quality) "education" has become a privilege. This privilege is fostered by the neoliberal human capitalist/"survival of the fittest" notion that education is solely a tool for economic gain, to maintain classism, to become highly competitive in the "global" market, and therefore, specific fields of study and degrees are valued and praised above others. Ironically, this posture results in the devalorization of education. "We" live in a country governed by some who believe "we have to out-educate the world" . . . No wonder "we're" struggling education-wise (and consequently, in so many other areas/sectors). We've forgotten what EDUCATION is. I think the same is evident in the actions of the Iranian government towards its Bahá’í minority. By denying Bahá’ís access to higher education, the state is denying itself of its greater capacity. “Real education,” as Nancy Astor coined it, should educate us out of self . . . into a selflessness which links us with all humanity.”
More information about the BIHE and the systematic exclusion of Bahá’í s from accessing higher education in Iran is available in a special report published by the BIC entitled Closed Doors: Iran’s Campaign to Deny Higher Education to Bahá’ís.