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'My soul, like a homing bird'

An Iranian-American holds her breath as hundreds of thousands march for democracy in Iran.
By Parisa Parsa
6.22.09

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Election protest in Tehran, June 15, 2009 (©Ahmad Abbas/Getty Images)

Iranian supporters of defeated reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi demonstrate in the streets on June 15, 2009 in Tehran, Iran. (©Ahmad Abbas/Getty Images)

Where are the tidings of union? That I may arise—
Forth from the dust I will rise up to welcome thee!
My soul, like a homing bird, yearning for Paradise,
Shall arise and soar, from the snares of the world set free.

—Hafiz, translated by Gertrude Bell

History has an uncanny knack for offering up hope and suffering at the same moment. As I obsessively follow the twists and turns of information emerging from Iran since the disputed election of June 12, I yearn even more sharply than usual for some sense of divine connection. I want to know that there is some real power in the world that can weave together the complicated strands of history and belief that are torn apart, in the world and in me.

My American mother, two sisters, and I left Iran, the place of my birth, in the spring of 1979, just after the Islamic Revolution. We left my Iranian father behind, thinking things would blow over there and we would be able to return within a matter of months. A year later, my father joined us in the U.S., and none of us has returned there for an extended period since. My first and only visit since my childhood departure was in late 2003 and early 2004, a visit that confirmed my deep sense of belonging there as well as the grief of having become a stranger by circumstance.

The inner turmoil that has been a constant backdrop for my life as an Iranian-American through the political ups and downs of the last thirty years claims center stage again now, and makes it hard to lead this American life of mine. I rise in the morning, go to the gym, make breakfast, read headlines, follow through with the work that always consumes me, discuss parenting strategies and world events with my spouse, spend some quality time with my son each day. But I am not really here.

This week my heart has been torn by images of the beatings endured by peaceful protesters in Iran. My mind has been occupied by the thought of hundreds of thousands of people silently, peacefully marching in the streets for the right to have their votes counted. Their powerful witness, their solidarity, makes me ashamed of the countless times I have downplayed my own Iranianness in order to fit in as an American. The breath I normally devote to centering myself in prayer and meditation is suspended, held in waiting for what will come next.

Voices from inside Iran warn us not to draw too close a parallel with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. For those of us for whom a certain part of life froze in that memory, however, it's impossible not to take at least a glancing look back. People took to the streets thirty years ago, too. Some wished for liberalizing reforms that would bring about a fuller democracy in Iran; others were convinced that the only way for the people to be free from a tyrannical dictatorship was through the divine freedom to be found in Islamic law. To the great surprise of many Iranians (perhaps the majority), Islam won handily. There was no pretense of election then: it was the race for power among many interests in the midst of the chaos of revolution. The pain of the people at all levels under the Shah's dictatorship had reached its limit, and everyone took to the streets and to strategy-making, hoping for their own preferred new vision to come to power. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's network was simply more effective at achieving their goal, partly because the opposition so thoroughly underestimated them.

The people in the streets in Iran today are not asking for a completely revolutionary change in government. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the primary challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed election, has promised to offer modest reforms and more accountable government, but he still supports an Islamic Republic, the kind he had supported as a key orchestrator of Khomeini's rise to power many years ago. He may have more liberal understandings now, but he is not by any stretch what we in the U.S. would call liberal. The Iranian people are simply asking to have their votes counted, that they might be able to have a say in moving from what I would call worse to bad.

But seeing the people in the streets, the power of their silence and determination to keep peace in protest, awakens in me a hope for so much more.

As the world watches in wonder, I pray that the God in whom our Universalist ancestors would have looked for the final harmony of all souls might speak to and through all of our souls now. Just as homing birds yearn for Paradise, may we "arise and soar, from the snares of the world set free." The fact that none of us knows how a harmonious resolution might come to pass need not keep us from setting our sights on a wholeness that can redeem the pain and hope of this historic moment. May we learn to welcome to our table all those around the world who seek freedom, who thirst for justice, and who gather in peace.


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