Friday, July 17, 2009

A Simple Dream or Maybe Just Wishful Thinking

This past week I traveled across Bangladesh to seven remote villages in order to interview some of the incoming students of the Access Academy of the Asian University for Women in Chittagong. I got a chance to go and see some of these bright young women in their homes which was quite an experience and a very rare opportunity. During my trip I stopped by a few high schools just to get a feel of how they function in small villages.

In one of these high schools, many students gathered around us as soon as they realized a foreigner is visiting their school. At first I was very nervous and did not know what to really say or do. Then I saw a few teachers coming our way and I just stood still in the middle of the school yard and thought they are going to scold us or something. To my surprise, the teachers had come to simply greet me and to welcome me to their school. They showed me around, introduced some of the students to me and allowed me to explore some of the different classrooms.

The English teacher insisted to take me to the Islamic History class. The teachers took me to a classroom where an obviously highly religious teacher was at the blackboard, pointing to some things that he had scribbled on the board that were probably about Islam. As soon as the students saw us they all began to giggle and make noises. I really did not want to interrupt the class and kept asking the English teacher and others that I do not want to interrupt. But the Islamic History teacher came forward and welcomed me to his class. They told him that I am an Iranian-American researcher or something like that.All I could gather from the Bangla that they were speaking was “Irani”, “America” and “Musalman or something like that”…..He said, “Salam Wa Alaikom” to me and asked me to go to the podium and talk about my knowledge of the foundations of Islamic History and the importance of Islamic principles. I got very nervous and tense. I really just wanted to escape at that point. Looking at the teachers and the students, I felt there was no way out of this situation.

Eventually I nervously walked up to the podium and only said my name, thanked them for having let me to their school and having been very hospitable and wished them all best of luck. The students clapped and so did the teachers; although I believe that the Islamic History teacher and the English teacher were not all that content for I did not say anything about the foundations of Islam.I mean what did I really have to say?They already know more than I do!

Very soon after I stepped on the podium I observed something that it was very unique and commendable for me. Having grown up in Iran, I carry a big baggage of judgment and presumptions about things and people who look strictly Muslim or fond of Islamic principles. I have tried to change this about me. But, I believe, the fear, suspicion and the distrust that many of us lived with as children in Iran make it hard for us to free our minds of tensions of this nature. This means, I still feel vulnerable and nervous when I am put in settings that require me to “pretend” the level of my commitment to my own religion and my own god. Immediately, my defense mechanism begins to escalate and I begin to censor myself, my smiles, my thoughts and my words… I stop looking at those around me in the eye as I am afraid that the more religious Muslim men would get offended if I make eye contact with them or that the women would judge me for my liberal ways of socializing. These are all the souvenirs of the life that we lived in my country.

Despite my fear and presumptions, when I stepped on that podium of that humble school of a village in Bangladesh, I saw the snapshot of my dream for Iran in front of my eyes. I saw a snapshot of many girls and boys sitting on their benches and staring at me. Girls were sitting next to boys on one bench. Some girls had covered their hair and face, some others had covered only their hair and some did not have a veil.This, to me, is a dream for Iran. I am not saying that what I saw was perfect. No, poverty rules millions of people’s lives in Bangladesh and also I am sure there is still much work to be done in removing some of the very conservative taboos that exist in this country. However, despite all these imperfections, what I saw in front of my eyes was what I have always dreamed for Iran…the simple idea of having the permission to at least decide whether or not you want to cover your hair or not and to respectfully coexist with others even if they are different from you.Who has ordered us all to be the same, to wear the same things and to have identical beliefs?

The reason I did not have much to say on that podium was not because I was too nervous to talk or to express myself.I was too occupied observing the students as it seemed like a dream that had found a way to crawl into the reality. It was not what they were wearing that seemed like a dream to me. It was the idea that even if you dress differently you could still sit in a classroom with others to learn and to become friends with them.

Here is a photo that I took of what I faced as I was looking at the students on the podium.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

What Makes My Life More Significant than Hers?

I dedicate this quick reflection to Samiya who came to my room last night and very sincerely spoke with me about the urge that she feels to do something about the poverty that she witnesses in her country everyday....

It is now close to three weeks that I am here in Chittagong, Bangladesh. At first, every hour felt like three days. I felt someone was stretching my days and nights here. I was anxious to return to the U.S. (or even Iran) and just be in a place where life is more comfortable. Whenever I leave the United States and start to miss “home”, I realize that the U.S. has become home for me after all. My time here has been a very fascinating chapter of my life. I find it hard to verbalize my observations and encounters in Bangladesh. It is either because I am still experiencing it or that life is simply different here and hard to describe with words that are all loaded with presumptions and connotation of all kinds. I feel the best way for me to appreciate my surroundings in Bangladesh has been to shut down any comparative perception or supposition that I might have of this place. It is one of those environments where you are just better off to take things for what they are and be flexible with what you expect and what you think should be expected of you.

Being flexible….The students of the Asian University for Women have often talked with me about “flexibility” and about how at this university they have learned to be flexible and cooperative under tough circumstances. They tell me that now that they have an opportunity to get a good education, they should be appreciative and responsible rather than demanding. I think a country like Bangladesh really does teach you some very important lessons.

The truth is that I have been thinking a lot here about the person that I have become in the United States in the past few years. Looking back, I realize that I have achieved many wonderful things in life and can proudly say that I could live and survive on my own. But, I also have forgotten many things in the past few years. I have forgotten the importance of the environment in which I live and the kinds of freedoms and opportunities that it has given me. I have forgotten the level of unconditional care, love and attention that I have received all throughout my life and that I am still receiving. Even if you are a brilliant author, artist, actress or scientist and you know that you have the potential to grow, the chances of you achieving professional and personal goals are very low if the society and your loved ones do not cooperate with you.

Sadly, I seem to have forgotten many of these wonderful opportunities and individuals who have made the beautiful life that I have possible for me. It is not that I do not remember or appreciate them…I do…It is just that in my private moments, I only seem to admire myself for the person that I am becoming. And this is sad! The truth is that many have faced many challenges and hardships for me to be where I am and that my success and my happiness belong to them, those who could benefit from my knowledge and capabilities and of course, myself.

Many talented individuals in the world have the desire, intelligence and vision to succeed and yet they have no real support to help them flourish. And those of us who do have the opportunity to live prosperous lives sometimes tend to forget that many other human beings in the world could have well been in our place.

Let me speak for myself and not others….I, for instance, sometimes cherish the struggles I have overcome and assure myself that I deserve what I have in life. But, my trip to Bangladesh has reminded me that, in fact, I am one of the most fortunate women in the world to live the life that I live and to be able to make decisions for my life….I mean, seriously, I live the life that many of the people that I have met here could only dream of. Whether or not we think that we live happy lives, many individuals in the world run their imagination wild and dream of the lives that we live, the things that we do, the places to which we travel, the food that we eat, the way we fall in love and the independence that we are allowed to obtain. In their dreams they replace you and I with themselves and enjoy the surreal images that pass through their eyes in disbelief.

I look around me here and keep thinking and wondering, “Azadeh, what makes you and your life more significant than this child whose bones are deformed due to malnutrition and who is banging against the window of your car and begging for your money? What makes your future more important than hers? Who decided that her life was going to be a million times harder than yours? Who decided that she should wash herself in some of the dirtiest gutters of Bangladesh and that you should shower with clean water? What motivates her to smile at smaller things in life and what makes happiness so damn difficult for you? When exactly did the world decide that you could live the life that she can’t even dream of and that she should live the life that is way worse than your worst nightmare?”

I don’t really know….All I know is that the life that I live is bigger than even the fluffiest dreams of millions in this world. What could I do other than swallowing my tears and looking away so that my eyes do not meet the eyes of that child? She and I both know that somewhere, somehow and for some odd reason someone in the world decided that my life is more significant than hers...that my wellbeing, comfort and future are more "important" than hers and that I am "better" than her….But why? Really why?

Note: Please do not assume that I am implying that poverty only exists in Bangladesh or that everyone in Bangladesh live miserable lives. All I am trying to say is that in a country like Bangladesh where poverty is more widespread and visible, you begin to remember the reality of other people's life that you have conviniently forgotten...that's all!

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