The second and third days that I was in Tehran I spent most of my time at the University of Tehran in the faculty of social sciences. There, a two day training on nonviolence and social change had been organized; though it is a topic that is very important in my work, one can guess at my (and Eva and Kamran) discomfort with the title! Especially considering my difficulties entering the country in the first place, it didn't seem to be the best idea to have an American come to Iran to teach about social change. Still, I was excited to be at the university, and to see who would show up.
I decided to approach the training as if the topic was peacebuilding, and designed the program based on my own path to this work. The idea was that the first day we would spend most of our time introducing and deepening the paradigm shift from domination to partnership, from scarcity to abundance, from blame and criticism to human needs. For me, that shift has been most apparent in my consciousness of needs. In other words, to make that shift is like becoming literate in the language of human needs. That literacy can help us not only to understand our own experience, but to more compassionately receive the life in another person, even in the most difficult of situations. And even more importantly, when we can read the world through the lens of needs, we can act in the world to meet needs.
Yes, the second time I landed in Tehran, I was allowed to stay more than a couple of hours. I entered the country with relative ease--this time the agent was almost apologetic about the finger-printing--found my bag, and met Naghmeh all within the span of about 15 minutes. Lessons learned about entering a country that my own is threatening with sanctions and bombs: 1) make sure that you have ALL information for where you are staying, including names, addresses, and phone numbers, all in the local language; 2) make sure that the people who issued your visa knows exactly which flight on which you are flying so that they can notify those on duty in the visa services office; and 3) lots and lots of patience.
A little more tha an hour after arriving, my taxi pulled up to what would be my new home for the next 10 days. Entering the huge metal doors, my jaw dropped at the extravegance of the apartment building's lobby, complete with fountains, marble floors, statues, and a model of the building enclosed in glass. Four flights up in the elevator, and I was greeted by a smiling face and shown to my room, which was, for all intents and purposes, a separate apartment in itself. After dropping my bag off, I was invited into the main house and fed a delicious meal of grilled chicken, rice, and salad, and then settled in for the night to write a few emails to let my family know I was safe and then heading to bed.
As we began our initial descent into Tehran, I noticed that the excitement in my body felt more like fear than anything else. It was like when you've just gotten onto a rollercoaster and the bar comes down and locks. No turning back now. I tried to breathe deeply, tried to calm myself. Yet each time I blinked I saw in my mind's eye they faces of the men who had surrounded me days earlier, the first time I had made this descent. I looked out the window to see the ground whizzing by below, the shadow of our airplane rambling over the dirt on the outskirts of the city. I wondered if I would ever get to set foot on that ground. I pushed the thought that I may not set foot outside again out of my mind. I took another deep breath.
Days earlier I had made the same descent, though then the sky through which we flew was dark. Then, I felt excited and hopeful, encouraged by my conversation with an Iranian man sitting next to me, who had told me of his dreams of moving to Canada to market the meditation technique he had developed. He said it had taken 10 years off his appearance. He said people in Iran would love me.
I waited in line, conscious that I was probably the only one holding an American passport, yet still felt confident that soon I would see my friends. The woman behind the glass-enclosure took my passport, sighed, and shook her head. She filled out some extra forms and then exited her little cubicle to escort me over to a table where a man in a green shirt and a black vest was sitting. Within minutes there were 5 more standing around me. None of them spoke English.
Sitting here in Atlanta, I've finally gotten a moment to let all of what has happened in my life over the last 2 weeks settle and integrate. I have more gratitude than words could possibly express to more people than I could hope to give due credit right now; each and every person who supported me with words of encouragement, emotional support, or financial contributions have given me one of the most precious gifts of my life. My partners in this work--whose numbers have grown in the past month--contributed to my ease, growth, and inspiration at each step of the way. I'm filled with excitement that these first steps have happened in so many new relationships and projects, and I look forward to the next steps as they manifest in each of our hearts.
Yet what is most present in my mind and heart right now is my gratitude for the Iranian people I met over the last two weeks. In the 10 days that I was in Tehran and Qazvin, I presented to nearly 250 people (ranging from PhD.'s to kindergarteners), met many others informally, and was overwhelmed not only by how welcome and safe I felt, but also by the enthusiasm and authenticity with which seemingly everyone dove into this work. I was met with countless handshakes and warm smiles, with eager questions, requests, and messages for me to take back to my friends and family in the States. I can only guess at the fear beneath all of this, imagining the thought that their next experience with Americans might ducking for cover or running for their lives because of political decisions that ignore the value of their needs.
I've finally arrived in Tehran, 4 days later than originally planned. After being turned away at the border on Sunday, I spent most of the week sorting out whether I was going to try to come back. I'm glad I did, and this time, with all of the lessons learned about what preparations I needed to have (besides the visa), the whole process went relatively smoothly.
Though I missed the first few days of the trainings, I'll be joining Eva and the others tomorrow morning to sit in on the last day of the three day "advanced" training in Nonviolent Communication. In this moment, I'm wondering what role I will play, and looking forward to absorbing as much as possible from all of the participants and from Eva. If it turns out that I can offer any support, I'm excited to do that, also. It will mostly be good to just find some ground here after all that has happened in the last week. I hope that being with the group tomorrow will help me both to arrive here in Iran and integrate pieces of my experience in Afghanistan and its hectic aftermath.
I'm deeply grateful to all of the people who have been supporting me over the last few days. There have been times when I was ready to give up--not only on this project, but on this work in general, to be honest--and I found such strength from my connections around the world. I'm especially grateful to Catherine and Jesse for holding me so dear in your hearts and walking on this sometimes seemingly treacherous path, helping me to make mindful decisions. And to Naghmeh for your willingness to push forward when it seemed like there were no more options, often at the risk of your own wellbeing. Finally to Justin and Mohamed, for giving me a safe space to land and to think as we sorted this thing out. There are so many others whose words of encouragement and support have helped me too.......
Still in Dubai, 2 days after being turned away from Iran at the border. We're still working on figuring out whether it will be possible for me to return for the last part of the trainings. I'm disappointed, but still optimistic in this moment. The trainings have been going on without me, and with Eva at the helm, I'm confident that they are going well.
I'm hoping that this will all be resolved by tomorrow or the next day, and everything will be able to proceed more smoothly...
As I sit here, in the last few minutes of my stay here in Kabul, I can hear the sounds of birds singing and people chatting in the courtyard. The sun is shining brightly on this clear day, and afternoon's shadows frame the courtyard just outside of my window. I feel content and relaxed, with a small pang of sadness that my time here was so short. Yet that pang echoes with hope that next time I set foot on this soil, Kabul will be an even safer, more peaceful place than it is now. I celebrate all of the work that Khan and others are doing here, and trust that the more projects are created by the hands of Afghan people themselves, the more likely reconstruction and reconciliation will take place.
One of my sadnesses about this place is the realization that so much of the money that is pouring into reconstruction efforts here from all over the world is simply being sucked right back out and redistributed back in Europe and the US. Within each project and each program funded by the many well wishing donors and funding agencies are contractors who have subcontracted to other contractors and down the line until the last meager drops are actually used to make the small amounts of progress that we see here. Surely the "international community" has a role here; but I'm not convinced that that role is to take full responsibility for teaching and rebuilding this country--a land of people with such a dynamic identity itself--in the image of the "West". Meeting the people here that I have, I can see why this blend of cultures has managed to be so resilient over the centuries of outsiders trying come in and conquer. Perhaps we should step back for a second and check to see if there is more that we might learn from these beautiful people than we could possibly manage to teach...
As Badshah Khan, the Pashtun leader at Gandhi's side, said of his people:
Feeling sleepy on this last night in Kabul, looking forward to a few days of rest before heading to Iran. My passport is now equiped with a fancy Iranian visa, just opposite the Afghan one. That should be a fun moment for the American passport control agent. I can just imagine his face when, after flipping through pages and pages of European and Central American stamps, he stumbles upon those two visas, back to back! Well, I'm sure the weather in the Caribbean is nice this time of year...
I can't believe how quickly our time here has past. And today was another full of gratitude and celebration about all of the learning that has taken place for all of us. It sounds like some of these projects will actually move forward with what we've shared. Not only will many of the participants offer their own version of our training to their own organizations, but many have also let us know that they will implement the restorative circle process in their peace work and in their homes. One woman already told us a story of resolving an old conflict between her sister and her sister's husband!
I won't even begin to go into all the details of the beautiful feedback we received today. Perhaps there will be more space and more energy for that tomorrow. In this moment, I feel such deep gratitude for this experience, and for the connections that I've made. Though I'm sad to be leaving tomorrow, I'm confident that I will be back here to see these faces again. As they say here...Inshallah.....
Note: we've decided to wait to post photos of this training after it is over, out of respect for the process and the participants....
Standing around, smiling, laughing and talking together after the training day had officially ended, I was struck by this thought: How could anyone, including myself, think that our work here in Afghanistan would really look any different than it has anywhere else? What would make Afghans that unique, that they wouldn't be interested, receptive, excited, and passionate about living life in the service of human needs?
As I stood there, joking with two women whose words I could not comprehend, I felt a rush of warmth connected to a deep sense of trust; hearing that next time I should know Pashto so profoundly let me know that we are contributing here. What excites me most about the people that I've met here is that their openness and eagerness to receive what we have to offer is perhaps only surpassed by their willingness to morph it, change it, adapt it, and make it their own. I've been treated with such respect, such friendship, and such care since I've been here. I feel deeply grateful to all of the people who have crossed my path here, and to all of those who supported me to get here.
Breathe in.....and breathe out.
Feel the tension constricting my shoulders, and release it. Feel the vibration in my chest, and let the warmth shift and move throughout my core. Breathe in...and breathe out. Feel the shudder run down my leg, feel my right side pulled, feel the light pushing from inside my chest, pulling upward, softening in my lower back, throbbing with a gentle ache.
Find this present moment, beneath the sounds of the words I don't understand. Be with the presence of so much life in this small room. Feel the heat of it, radiating from each one of us. It's there, whether we name it or not. Let me take it in.
Breathing in, taking in all of the pain, all of the trauma that is in this circle, in this room. Breathing out, radiating love. Breathing in, absorbing the suffering that is alive in this moment. Breathing out, reaching out to embrace each being, each point of light. Breathing in, pulling each of you, all of you, close in my embrace.
I'll meet you, and you, and you, and all of you, and I'll hold your pain, even if it's just for a moment. I can help ease your load. That's why I'm here. It can all enter me, can pass through me.
Breathing in, feeling the suffering in my shoulders, and release it. Feel the suffering in my chest, and let the warmth shfit and move throughout my core. Feel the tingle of energy, the passion and the grief that is there, just below the surface. In this present moment, just let it pass through me...