After the Paris attacks, connecting with each other and ourselves

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A Persian Conversation

Arian Zand is a first-year UBC student from Iran. I was preparing to give a short talk on the positive implications of the Iran nuclear deal as part of my ongoing Neutron Trail dialogue project when Arian volunteered to talk with me about Iran and the climate there.

Arian told me that, in learning English, he’s been grappling with the cultural divide between us.

It’s more than vocabulary. In his culture, it is normal, even in formal writing, to be non-linear and to include, for example, poetic references and circuitous lines of thought. Arian came to our first conversation assuming it would be linear, Western-style.

Arian’s first question to me was, “What do you know of Iran besides the nuclear deal?” I shared my love of Rumi, the Persian poet, and said that I see Persian culture as part of the wellspring of human civilization.

It was a test question, and apparently I passed. We talked, much of the time walking, for two and a half hours, about his culture and the situation in Iran.

I asked him about his dream job, and his aims with his studies. From there, we were off on an engaging tangent about Iranian culture.

It was only at the end of our time that Arian told me how surprised he was that his preparations for our meeting were so off base. Beforehand, he read the entire Iran deal and summarized key sections to discuss with me, only to discover that my interest was multi–disciplinary and multi–faceted. And that was when Arian told me we’d had a Persian conversation.

Writing this post has helped me cope with my confusion and sorrow over these attacks. What are they telling us? What do we need to do? Connecting with myself and with others, like Arian, Noriko and Steve, helps me make sense of our relationship to what’s happening with and behind the attacks. It’s not a linear process, it’s more like a Persian conversation.

Arian’s dream is to become a peace negotiator in the Middle East. Five days after the Paris attacks, I was on the SkyTrain talking with him by phone about a traditional teaching story he’d told me during a second Persian conversation we’d shared a few weeks earlier.

In Persia, and what is now Afghanistan and Iran, teaching stories was, and is, a way to highlight the gap between our unconscious, often harmful actions, and a broader, deeper wisdom. Often, the stories are set up with one or more people who are confused or spreading harm, with a Sufi (wise man) providing some insight.

The stories don’t typically have tidy endings. They are purposely left with a bit of mystery — open to interpretation on many levels, personal, social and universal. 

Each time a story is told, it is moulded to the current situation. These stories are so embedded in local Persian culture that even a one-sentence reference is meaningful to the listener. The stories serve as a bridge, just like a dream story, from the events we need to make sense of in the outer world to our gut feelings, our heart’s desire to make sense of, in this case, random acts of violence.

Deep in the middle of our conversation, I was walking out of the Lougheed Skytrain station and walking to the bus loop. Arian exclaimed, “You’re at Lougheed? So am I!”

In the next moment, he saw me and we spoke face to face for a few minutes, before my bus arrived, about the ISIS attacks, about the hidden cultural references in the story and about the story itself. Here's one story: 

A villager in an ancient time is sitting on a traditional red clay wall throwing chunks of it at passersby. It’s hard to tell if the man perched on the wall is purposefully trying to hit people in the square, which he sometimes does, or if he is more engaged in his wild display, simply throwing clods in every direction to attract attention.

People do what is normal to them. A few momentarily stop to angrily raise a fist and throw insults back at him. Most ignore him and walk quickly by, pretending he is not there.

But there is someone else, watching from the haven of some trees a short distance away. He is a Sufi teacher, as anyone walking by the lunatic throwing clumps of adobe could tell you at a glance. People go to him as to a priest or rabbi with their problems. Sometimes he volunteers his advice.

Eventually, as a crowd begins to gather in frustration around the offender, the Sufi approaches the scene. He says to the man, “But what are you telling us? You are throwing away the wall that supports you!”

I ask myself whether the story refers to the ISIS attackers destroying their foundation or to the Western nations, including France, that sell arms to the Middle East. Or to both? There are lots of other ways to look at it.

To me, as a Westerner, a wall creates separation and structure — keeping people in or out. Arian tells me that in Persian culture, walls are associated with serenity. He says, “The presence of my family in Canada is like a wall to me. I can rely on my parents. I know that if anything happens to me, if I become sick or injured, there is a wall that I can lean on. That wall gives me peace.”

A week after the Paris attacks, I asked Noriko, “How is it there now?”

She wrote back:

“I know people are scared inside, but they have to live their everyday life.” She said the mood in Paris, even with the heightened police presence, is more composed now.

“I feel people realize ordinary life is quite precious,” she wrote. 

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