New layers of realization

I woke up on the second day of the workshop at the University full of ideas and inspiration, and ready to really deepen what had surfaced the day before. With this renewed sense of clarity about what I wanted to present, and what I thought we could achieve, I was vibrating with anticipation as I sipped my tea in the lunch room and waited for Eva and Kamran to arrive. When they did, I shared briefly an outline of my plan with Eva, who seemed willing to go along on whatever ride I wanted to offer.

When we finally started--this time in a new room that was much smaller and more comfortable than the gymnasium the day before--everything went incredibly smoothly. We talked about some real, tangible examples of applying a needs-based approach to projects, and we drew lessons from stories. We practiced receiving the life in another person, and expressing the pain that was deep in our hearts. By lunch time, the group felt incredibly close and connected, and I was happy to move into the afternoon, when we would talk about taking action on our own projects. But first, I wanted create an experience that would uncover some of our underlying assumptions about power dynamics.

Of course, any time we fantasize about doing something new in a training situation, it goes perfectly in our dreams. Of course, much of the time, that fantasy does not match reality. While the idea of the offering in the afternoon was certainly to create tension and discomfort, I continue to second-guess whether it was the right choice for that moment. I was particularly frustrated that we didn't have the time to fully deconstruct what had happened, and I'm still not sure if anything was gained from that uncomfortable hour. I was also sad to notice that I lost some connection with Eva in the midst of the process, which led to a real sense of loneliness and self-judgment that certainly did not contribute to creating an atmosphere where learning could happen effectively. Still, I'm incredibly grateful for having tried this experiment in uncovering the power relations in the room, and ultimately it was a great segue into the last portion of the training. By the end of the day, we had made plans to take action toward creating two new projects--one to broaden the NVC community in Iran, and one to create a forum for dialogue between Iranians and Americans at the grassroots level--so in my mind we achieved the goal of supporting a space where the formal workshop was only one of many steps in our learning process.

That evening, I finally took a moment to breathe and to celebrate a bit; perhaps for the first time since our plane left Atlanta weeks before, I really let myself relax and have fun. I went to dinner with Naghmeh, Helia (with whose family I was staying), and Nazanin (who had participated in the workshop). We drove up into the mountains and parked just down the road from a sea of light and movement. We walked further up the hill, past shops and restaurants and stands selling sweets, and up stone steps until we reached a restaurant at the top. The chilly air kept us from sitting outside, so we climbed into a space enclosed by clear plastic walls, where we found a small lamp with an open flame. We took off our shoes to sit on the platform, covered by a beautiful Persian rug. I leaned back to rest on the pillows, and smiled at the realization of where I was. For the first time, I was taking the chance to really appreciate that I was in a very new place, surrounded by beautiful, friendly people, speaking a language that was starting to sound familiar to my ears. There was a deep sense of peace as they ordered the food, and we laughed together. I had the conscious sense that we could have been anywhere in the world as we talked and joked with ease.

After eating a delicious assortment of traditional Iranian food, we sat back and relaxed against the pillows. All of a sudden, we seemed to be ambushed by giggles, laughing at what seemed like nothing in particular, and completely unable to stop. My sides ached. Tears streamed down all of our faces as we shifted in our seats and almost desperately gasped for air. And then we were laughing at our laughing! On and on, until we collapsed with exhaustion to catch our breath. And the little giggles still bubbled to the surfaces, erupting first in little pops, until we were all laughing and crying together again, this time uncaring about where it all came from, and completely uninhibited by the thought of who might be watching.

Eventually, we regained our composure and ordered some sheesha from the waiter. As we waited, now in silence (afraid that the first to make a sound would push us all back into uncontrollable laughter), I looked up and noticed again--yet in a way for the first time--that all three women with whom I was with, each of them in their early 20's and completely fluent in English, was wearing a scarf covering her head. Somehow a new level of the magnitude of that fact hit me in that moment. That we could be talking like that, sharing food like that (eating off of each others' plates and dipping out of the same bowls), laughing like that; it had reminded me of being with my friends at home. Except for the scarves. Somehow, even with the intimacy and connection that we were surely all experiencing, there was this wall. This symbol of the oppression that permeates the air on every street and in every public place, felt so present in that moment to me. In that moment a new sense of the gravity of the situation dawned on me. I new that if we were all sitting in a house or an apartment, those scarves wouldn't be there. Yet sitting on the top of a mountain, in a private cubicle in a small restaurant late at night, they had to stay on. Everyone still had to keep a perfect hijab. A small shiver went through me at the layers of heaviness that were the burden on these shoulders; the thought that anyone could be watching at any moment slowly crept into my awareness.

Beneath that short moment of fear was a deep mourning. Certainly I understand the importance of culture and tradition, and I've always been careful to separate my own judgment from the context in which I view things. Generally, I take no issue with the choice to wear the hijab or even some of the more extreme body coverings. I can see how these choices meet needs for safety and for respect, for integrity and for expression. Yet in that moment, the mourning for me was that it seemed to block a certain depth of connection that is so dear to my heart. Later I would have a chance to confront the idea of choice in this situation more directly, but in that moment is was really about celebrating my connection to these women, to these other human beings. And somehow that seemed distant, all of a sudden. I noticed that I was sitting by myself, that even if I wanted to I wouldn't be able to reach out and touch one of their shoulders. We couldn't share a hug to celebrate our friendship or our happiness to be in each others' presence. Touch seems so inseparable from our experience of being alive, and the completely supress that seems more than counterproductive for creating a safe, peaceful society. These boundaries are born of fear, and any time decisions are made from fear they are far less likely to be life-serving than if decisions are made from clarity and abundance. My mourning was a deep longing to just take a moment and to look at those decisions, and to check and see that they are not serving the life that we are intending to serve. And then from that intention, to make new boundaries, and to open new doors to a shared reality.

In this moment what's most alive is just to mention that although that experience contained a realization about the culture in which I was sitting, I want to be very clear that the power relations that were present there exist here as well. And just as deeply. Perhaps the rules about wearing the hijab are just a bit more honest than our own attempts to sweep gender (and other) inequalities under the rug. These are conflicts that will not go away; these are conflicts that we have to continually address in each moment, at each manifestation. And I'm so grateful for that opportunity! How much learning we can find by really being aware that there is this deep conflict! We can start in this moment to create a culture of reconciliation--a culture where everyone's experience matters. A culture where we are aware of each person's truth, even if their expression sounds different from our own. We can find beauty in that. We can celebrate that.

But we have to be willing to look at the differences and the conflicts that arise first. Honestly, without sweeping it all under the rug.  And we have to be willing to address it, and all of the pain that might come with it, too.