Suffering and the Future of Iran

TEHRAN, IRAN:  An Iranian woman stands in front of a Palestinian flag during a protest outside the UN building in Tehran, 17
TEHRAN, IRAN: An Iranian woman stands in front of a Palestinian flag during a protest outside the UN building in Tehran, 17 May 2005. Some 150 Iranian cleric students protested to denounce attempts by Jewish extremists to enter Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

It is said that if we want to know the future, we must first know the past. A man with amnesia wanders the streets aimlessly. He has no recollection of who he is and no idea where he must go. On the other hand, a man trapped in the past, takes the same wrong turn every day. He walks around in circles, but feels safe in a self-constructed cage of routine and familiarity. We must neither forget the past, nor dwell on it. Instead, we must understand the forces that have shaped us so we can chart the future. In that sense, history is a map of the past that we draw to guide our journey into the future.   There is no single historical truth.  There may be objective facts. But what matters is how we interpret them. For example, if we write about the reign of Nasser-al-din Shah, does it matter if it is the account of Amir Kabir rather than one of his many concubines? How would they record their experiences differently? What about the Islamic cleric? Or the merchant? Or the peasant toiling in the fields? Or the Babi survivor of massacres?  How did the world look to each of them at the time?  Was there a shared experience that transcended their widely divergent realities?  And who are we likely to identify with as we gauge our own condition in the present?   If there is no single historical truth, how can we learn from the past?  We can surmise that if there were two Iranians in a single room, they would have 10 different opinions about our history. The Islamist would say that Khomeini is a hero and Reza Shah a villain. The monarchist would vehemently argue the exact opposite. The nationalist would hail Mossadeq as the hero, but the leftist would glorify Mirza Kuchik Khan. The feminist would denounce all these figures as symbols of male patriarchy and celebrate Forough Farrokhzad instead.    The problem with this scenario is not that there is disagreement. The problem is that everybody is shouting, and nobody is listening. Without listening, speaking does not heal our ills. In order to start building a better future, what we need is a national dialogue based on recognition of human dignity.   If there is one undeniable historical truth, it is the reality of suffering. We have suffered as a nation. Many thousands of our fellow innocent Iranians have been executed. Many more have been tortured or languished in prison. Many have been exiled. There is a story behind each tragedy. Behind every victim there is a name, a father and mother, a brother and sister, a childhood friend or schoolmate. Nobody is spared from this denial of humanity, not even the torturer.   If there is one thing about our past that we must agree upon, it is to understand how suffering has shaped our national consciousness. It is elementary psychology that a child that has been abused must receive therapy in order to heal. When someone is broken, the purpose of healing is to make them whole again. Listening is empathy -- it is feeling someone else's pain. It creates a space in which we can reclaim our humanity, and define a different future. Given how much violence we have experienced as a nation -- whether as victims, perpetrators or by-standers -- we need collective therapy, we need a national healing, so there can be justice and reconciliation rather than endless cycles of vengeance and violence.   What does this reality of suffering mean for the future of Iran? Where is its promise and power in the face of hatred and violence? The answer comes from the simple voice of a grieving mother that has lost her children. The Mothers of Khavaran, the Mothers of Laleh Park, remind us of a different conception of power, like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who demanded answers from the Argentine military dictatorship for their "disappeared" children. What power can stand in the way of a mourning mother?   Consider the story of Esmat Vatanparast. She was one of the approximately 100 witnesses before the Iran People's Tribunal -- an unprecedented truth commission held in London and The Hague in 2012, at the request of the Mothers of Khavaran. Its purpose was to ensure that the stories of the victims could be told to the Iranian nation and to the world so we learn from the past and build a better future. 

There was one moment when all understood the power of empathy to heal us as a nation. As Mother Esmat told the unspeakably terrible story of the many family members she had lost in the mass-executions of 1988, tears streamed from her eyes. Almost everybody in the large audience was crying along with her -- green reformists,  monarchists, leftists, nationalists, Kurds and Arabs, Muslims and Baha'is, and so on. The entire Iranian nation was represented in that room and and all were feeling the pain of Mother Esmat. Nobody asked if her 11-year-old nephew, who was hanged together with his father, was of this or that ideology or religion.   There was silence in the room. There was only the grief of a mother. That moment was painful, but it was also beautiful. It was a moment of shared humanity, a glimpse of our future. We all forgot our differences.    Our future is not built on oil or uranium enrichment. Our liberation will not come because of a savior descending from the sky. Our wealth, our power, our liberation, is found in the discovery that we are one nation, one people, sharing a common destiny, inextricably interdependent, part of a greater humanity. We have suffered as a nation. But that suffering is also a reminder of our human essence. In listening to the cry of Mother Esmat, in feeling her pain, we are reminded of who we are as a people, of the past that we must put behind, and the future that we must build.

To understand the power of suffering, we should consider the story of a man who for many years languished in prison because of his ideals of justice and human dignity.  He wrote in his memoirs, "The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others -- qualities which are within easy reach of every soul -- are the foundation of one's spiritual life."   And when he was released from prison after 27 bitter years, he wrote, "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." 

This man was a great man. He was a powerful man because he allowed his suffering to make him a leader among his people, a leader among nations, whose leadership was built on his exemplary humanity rather than wealth or status or violence. This man was Nelson Mandela.  He was a champion that ushered in a better and once unimaginable future for South Africa because of his refusal to let suffering suffocate his humanity.

Let us also look at our own champions such as Nasrin Sotoudeh. She wrote to her little girl from prison with confidence that the pain we "have had to endure over the past few years is not in vain."

"Justice arrives exactly at a time when most have given up hope," she continued. "It arrives when we least expect it ... If you are upset with the interrogators and judges ...  bestow peace and tranquility upon them with your childlike melody so that as a result we too can achieve much deserved tranquillity and peace of mind."   We must pause and ask: Who has the greater power? Nasrin Sotoudeh or her torturers?   Consider also Mrs. Sotoudeh's fellow prisoners, the seven Baha'i Yaran, who are still in prison after six years of unjust imprisonment. In their letter to President Rouhani on the proposed Charter of Citizen's Rights, they speak confidently of "a moral duty towards our homeland" and "a deep concern for the youth of our country" and seek to add their voice to the national dialogue on human rights.   

Who is the real prisoner?  The Yaran that still yearn to serve their country with love despite their oppression? Or their oppressors that are filled with hatred?  Who is courageous and powerful, and who is cowardly and weak?   As we reflect on our past and re-define what it means to be a citizen of the Iranian nation, let us be inspired by these examples of how suffering can transform human beings for the better.  Let us imagine a future in which power and leadership belong to those that have refused to surrender their humanity.  History is like a white canvas painted by many artists, each with their own image of art, each with their own dream of the future. As we paint this canvas, let us imagine the new Iran where the likes of Nasrin Sotoudeh and the Baha'i Yaran are our moral leaders because their spirit triumphs over the will of the torturer. Let us see the power of forgiveness and healing when the likes of Nourizad kiss the feet of a four-year old Baha'i child whose parents are imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. Let us imagine a new Iran in which a freely elected woman president goes to the Khavaran cemetery with a bundle of flowers and apologizes to the mourning mothers on behalf of the nation. Let us imagine that Evin prison becomes Evin museum, where school children go to learn about the dark past that Iranians have left behind. Let us imagine the Basiji prison guard expressing remorse before a national truth commission for harming his Iranian brothers and sisters. 

All of these seemingly incredible events have come to pass elsewhere.  They are all within the realm of possibility. But they must first become part of our national dialogue and how we imagine our own future.   When, in my childhood, our loved ones were killed because they were Baha'is, my parents reminded me of these words of Abdu'l-Baha, who suffered 40 years of exile and imprisonment with his father from his childhood onwards: "The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is plowed, the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be."

Let us then use our past suffering to nourish the seeds of compassion and humanity in our midst, and let us look forward to a rich harvest that will make ours a just and prosperous people, a leader among nations.   Abdu'l-Baha's vision was that through this transformation: "Iran shall become a focal center of divine splendors. Her darksome soil will become luminous and her land will shine resplendent."