Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tehran: A city transformed by love and silenced by force.

Before my baby brother, Kasra ,was born, and before I fell in love with the English language, leafing through a small dark-blue Oxford English dictionary; and actually, long before my family moved to Norway and I became acclimated to a different climate and culture, I spent my days on my grandmother's kitchen floor in the Yousef Abad neighborhood of Tehran, waiting for a taste of her divine fereni simmered perfectly, and flavored with rose water and pistachios.

The radio was always on, as I remember it, perhaps to drown out the din of the streets outside.

My heart skipped a beat every time I heard the radio announce: "Inja Tehran Ast. Radio Iran" ("This is Tehran. Iranian Radio Broadcasting") as if that next hour would be the defining one in my tiny life. I remember that I loved Persian music very much. The little turntable- gramophone I carried around everywhere, along with a handful of singles, played my favorite tunes over and over, until it drove the whole household up the wall. I loved Haji Firooz who came around sometime around the Persian new year, Naw Ruz. The Muharram ceremonies were captivating to me, too, if they were allowed by the Pahlavi regime, and if I was allowed, by my parents, to go outside and watch them on the streets of Yousef Abad.

Tehran, the city of my childhood, is a city I cannot recognize from the cry of the roof-top poet who asks "Inja kojast?" ("Where is this place?"). Tehran is a transformed city. A city transformed by love and silenced by force.

As I listen to the fleeting cries of Allah-o-Akbar from the roofs and balconies of the city of my birth on YouTube, I am reminded, that this fleeting call, this ephemeral voice, though etched in tradition, has the power to transfom our consciousness and call us to action in a different way worldwide, in part because of the digital structure of a world that connects.

I learned the lesson of the transformative power of the digital and ephemeral from the arts and the tromp l'oel movement of light on a structure, captured in this video and posted to Facebook by one of my friends.

This week, in the aftermath of the Iranian 2009 elections, another fleeting image of young Iranian student protesters helping a beat officer to safety (at 2 mins into this
video)--a fleeting image captured on an ephemeral online video with an Italian voice-over-- changed the way I saw Tehran, forever. I realized in a flash and amidst a pool of tears, that these courageous men and women, whose phone-camera videos and pictures we continue to click and forward, whose cries we hear from the rooftops and the city-scapes of cities unknown to most of us; these courageous ones, are brothers and sisters --comrades --who shared the same bread and cheese, who were trained in the same schools, who studied the same books, who received their military training in the same army, who slept in the same barracks, who listened to the same music and who called to a power greater than themselves with the same sigh rising from the depths of a heart wanting to be free.

It was in this fleeting moment of comeraderie, a moment of love, steeped in the tethers of the old (that bread, those barracks, those school books) and the words Allah-o-Akbar, that I realized that one thing and one thing alone will bring about the freedom and change that the city of my birth is calling into being. And that one thing is love.

Another work of art, a
ceramic piece that my friend Leili Towfigh made, taught me an important lesson
about our efforts to create in the world. I learned from it and from her blog that what we want to see in the world has to match what we hold in our hearts and minds. The inside and the outside must match.

If we fail, no, if we fail at that, what we end up creating, Will. Crack.

In the world of ceramics, it's called "dunting". In the world that we are fabricating breath by breath from the weave of our lives, anything less than love, anything less than a conscious return to the loadestone of justice, respect, and collaboration is doomed for failure.

For there to be love --for there to be justice--for there to be peace--for there to be freedom in this, my world-- I declare myself into being as that love.

And so, for that vision, I sew these words into the fabric of my being:

"You should be the change that you want to see in the world." ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Human beings are members of a whole, In creation of one essence and soul, If one member is afflicted with pain, Other members uneasy will remain." ~Sa'adi

"When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall - think of it, always." ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

UPDATE: I just received this file. A video from Kerman, Iran. Protesters bringing flowers to the police. Such sweetness. Such love. Where is this place, Iran?

She returns on June 20th to wake God up: Listen Closely

(For captions click on the bottom right corner)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

We are afterall, humanbeings first, not humandoings.

I have been, of late, exploring a conceptual framework for action within my own disciplinary boundaries. In doing so, I have come realize that one of my "unshakeable" beliefs-- a framework out of which I act -- is that every human being is born a contribution to the planet. Something like a spiritual principle, this notion of "human being as contribution," governs my views on Web 2.0 and collaborative learning as the core of my work in the college classroom.

Yet, as I foreground this principle and my reliance on a mechanism by which I bring the principle to life, I want to make a distinction between what makes up an initiative and what constitutes a vision.

As new media initiatives are being introduced into the educational environment in the Humanities, my colleagues at Duke University are slowly warming up to the possibilities that these technologies provide. The much publicized iPod initiative at Duke garnered faculty involvement, as did the Duke Digital Initiative. While the digital initiatives have clearly generated interest in Duke as an institution and have produced inter- and intra-institutional collaborations, I feel moved to ask the following:

Where is the people factor here? Where is “the who” that is in collaboration? How are people interacting and how are they bringing about changes? If collaboration is important, is collaboration being applied as a model throughout the system, or is part of the system, of change in particular, moving forward in an adversarial or confrontational or monopolistic manner? (These are some of the most provocative questions asked by Michael Karlberg in Beyond the Culture of Contest.)

As I see it, it is the competitive nature of grading in the educational system (for students) and the accolades that accrue in doing research and writing as individual scholars (for faculty) in the Humanities that often force members of academic Humanities to shy away from collaborative work. (The defeat at the University of Maryland of the vote to institute an open access policy for research by its faculty is an instance of this resistance to open collaboration).

So let me ask: Bottom line: What does it mean to collaborate?

To collaborate is to be in relationship. It is to place consultation at the core of our interconnectedness. To collaborate is not about the doingness of a project, but the being. It is the attitude, the vision of interconnectedness that we bring to the process, first and foremost.

We are afterall, humanbeings first, not humandoings.

It is in consultation, within a dialogic back and forth of reflection, discussion, and application, and repeated reevaluation --a consultation in relationship between the individuals involved-- that we as individuals and our institutions gain in identity, grow, learn and generate knowledge. Within projects, consultation is the basis for collective growth and the safe-guard for justice in human relations. Consultation also protects knowledge from the orthodoxy of any truth. For any discourse that establishes itself as an orthodoxy is stagnant and dangerous.

As I see it, no one institution, and no one individual scholar is self-sustaining. Establishing greater networks of consultation for academic institutions supports a vision that says that we envision the world as a place where we gain new levels of consciousness, together, in an interconnected way. As Isaac Newton once said: "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

New technologies are presently available to generate a conversation on a grand scale that would allow us to think as a global community about any local or global concern, especially those that might impact and address the future of humanity, its knowledges, its cultures and its well-being. As a recent Time article on Twitter suggests, “We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up, application developers are releasing their latest builds, and ordinary users are figuring out all the ingenious ways to put these tools to use. There's a kind of resilience here that is worth savoring. The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.”

Much of this kind of work, this interconnection and constant consultation takes place as a necessity in the Sciences, but in the Humanities, we cling firmly to old and outworn traditions of scholarship and teaching, refusing to include both our students and scholars at other institutions in our day to day work, to involve them in our research, our thinking, our applications, our questions, our writing and our teaching. Also, truth be told, don't we work with the assumption that all scholarly contribution has its beginnings and finds its end-point in the academic institution itself?

What would happen if we provide for mechanisms that allow for an open exchange of ideas to whoever wants to be involved in the evolution of knowledge? What would happen to Humanities scholarship then? How would we change as scholars? Who would we be? And who would we become?

What are we really afraid of?