Thursday, September 30, 2010

50 Great Voices

National Public Radio (NPR) started a series in January of this year called “50 Great Voices, a year devoted to 50 of the most acclaimed singers from around the world.” I have listened to this program and have known some of these great voices.

One voice was the voice the great Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum. She is, perhaps, the most famous singer of the 20th century in the Middle East. She sang in Arabic. Although we speak Persian in Iran, she was still famous and was listened to by Iranians. She has a soul stirring voice and way of singing.

Another singer celebrated on the program was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He has been referred to as The Voice of Pakistan. I first heard his voice about 13 years ago on the sound track of the movie “Dead Man Walking”. It was a great voice. He was chanting in Urdu. I loved the way he sang. I do like classical Indian and Pakistani music. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music often has a meditative quality to it.

Another familiar voice featured on this program was the voice of the American singer Roy Orbison. I have listened to this program throughout the year wondering whose voice will be featured next. I have been impressed with the effort that has been put into discovering these voices globally.

Monday morning, as I was driving to work and listening to NPR this program came on. I heard the words “… Mohammad Reza Shajarian may be the most famous singer in Iran. Shajarian is the latest singer we are featuring in our year long series 50 great voices…”. As I heard these totally unexpected words, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. Tears rolled down my face as I listened to the program explaining the qualities that make him the greatest Iranian classical singer while his songs were being played in the background.

On the program, Iranian-American scholar Abbas Milani talked about Shajarian’s voice. He said, "When I still hear it, I get a chill to my bone and think that this is not the voice of a mere mortal — this is the gods speaking to us." What he said, totally, resonated with me. I heard Shajarian’s music throughout my childhood. I came to appreciate classical Persian music and specifically Shajarian’s voice and style of singing as a teenager and have listened to him my entire adult life. His music has always made me feel close to the Divine and has helped me find that quiet and peaceful place within my heart. It has nurtured my soul and has helped me transcend this material world. It has put me in touch with that which is noble and sanctified within me. This is the power of art. Baha’i writings state that art is the ladder of the soul, and its existence is necessary for achieving exaltation and progress in the world. In a talk given by the Baha’i painter, Otto Donald Rogers, he describes art as “our human response to a voice on high”. Art gives sustenance to our lives, without it life would not be bearable.

There were other reasons for my emotional reaction to the program that day. When you are an ex-pat living in a foreign country any sign of what you have left behind makes you homesick and nostalgic. When I hear Persian music, when I inhale a fragrant that often permeated the air of where I lived, when I eat certain foods, when I see a building that is similar in some way to the Persian architecture, when I see a plant or flower that was common at home and so on, I am taken back to my childhood and life in Iran. For example, the smell of burnt wood always takes me back to my mother’s ancestral village as it was present in the air most of the time. When it rains gently, I’m always reminded of my hometown as the rain was always very gentle and quiet there; vivid memories come to surface by these little reminders with a strong sense of longing. Hearing Shajarian’s voice had the same effect on me.

Another reason for my reaction was the mere shock of this program choosing someone from Iran and further realization of the contribution of this artist to enriching a culture, which is mine and very close to my heart.

In an era, which almost all the news that comes out of Iran is about the cruelty and inhumanity inflicted on the people of Iran by the Islamic Republic of Iran, a government, which has been in power for the last 31 years; In a country, where people’s basic rights to live, believe, think, read, write and express have been taken away from them; At a time, when people of the Baha’i faith, the most persecuted religious minority in Iran, are denied the most basic human rights; In a place where Baha’is are put in prison, tortured, executed, their properties confiscated and their youth are prevented from attending colleges and universities solely because of their religious beliefs; At a time, when Iranian women are stoned to death for committing adultery; And when women receive 100 lashes for showing their hair in public; In a land, where the life of a woman is worth half of that of a man; In a place, where if a man is murdered the punishment of the murderer can be death, but if a woman is murdered, merely, paying a sum of money is sufficient punishment, because a woman’s life is less valuable than that of a man; In a country, where it is legal for a man to have 4 permanent wives and many temporary ones; In a place, where participating in a political demonstration will get you years in prison, raped, viciously tortured and killed; At a time, perhaps the darkest period of the Iranian history, when so much has been done by the fundamentalist Islamic regime to suffocate a nation; At a time and place where evil reigns, humanity is still alive. The violence inflected on the people has not been able to extinguish what is sublime and beautiful. It has not quenched the light of the soul of a nation. The human spirit is amazingly powerful and resilient. It is a sign of God’s mercy to mankind. It is a sign of God’s marvelous creation. It is a reflection of God in this physical world. It is beautiful.

P.S. I know that the style of the last paragraph is different. It has been written in a Persian literary style. I have received comments about it from different people saying that it doesn't fit the English paradigm well. I was aware of it. This is how it came out. May consider revising later.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Picture

This picture was taken 3 days ago.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A First Impression

As I walked along the Las Vegas Strip at 2:00 AM the night I arrived, there were too many lights, too many tacky imitations of world’s architecture, too many people walking on the streets with drinks in their hands. The imitation Eiffel Tower, the fake Egyptian structures, in fact, all the fake facade looked so gaudy and cheap. The pavement was littered with flyers for places dedicated to the satisfaction of carnal desires.

My hotel lobby was filled with middle-aged gamblers sitting at slot machines and card tables, concentrating intensely. They seemed unaware of their surrounding, deeply involved in pushing the buttons and flipping their cards as though they were in a semiconscious state of being. Heads were down, eyes were focused, serious expressions were on the faces. The smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke filled the air.

Young and mostly over-weight women were wearing very short and revealing dresses, flaunting fat and cellulite, young men, all with drinks in hand, were happy and loud. Looking around, almost everyone was fat and out of shape. Everyone seemed totally happy, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. This was the picture of happiness. Fat Americans enjoying a city entirely dedicated to the pleasure of the senses. The place was devoid of what makes life worth living for me. It had no soul.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Calamity (Part 2)

Continuation of the previous piece:

I told Soudi, in the gentlest possible way, that Firuz was in the hospital, he was OK, but there was a tumor in his chest. Then I said that they have done a biopsy, and it may be cancer. Soudi started saying, “Oh my God, oh my God…” Then she asked, ”Is it cancer?” And I said, “Yes, it is cancer, but he is in a very good hospital with very good doctors.” At that point, Soudi started to sob painfully. She dropped the phone. I listened to her sob for a few minutes. She was unable to speak. My sister Azi picked up the phone and told me to hang up. I hung up the phone, while I could still hear Soudi’s cry. Feeling horrible about the bad news that I had just delivered, I laid in bed imagining the atmosphere of Soudi’s house and what she and her husband were experiencing, perhaps, the most painful moments of their lives. I felt like the executioner who has just delivered the final blow. Life had changed for them forever. I will never forget the sound of Soudi’s cry; it still resonates in my ears. An hour later, I called again. I talked to Soudi for a few minutes. She was still crying, but managed to ask a few questions. I kept telling her that I will do whatever I can to help Firuz, and he is not alone.

Firuz has been doing his best to cope with his situation. At times, he has cried and has found life unbearable and his future dark, and at other times he has been determined to fight the cancer and has had hope for the future. He has started chemotherapy, and is no longer in the hospital.

When I was with Firuz in Aug., one day he was told that his cancer had not responded to the chemo and was now in stage 4. The tumor had grown to 12 centimeters. His oncologist told him that once the tumor gets to be longer than 10 centimeters the cancer is in stage 4. They would have to modify his chemo treatments. On that day, future seemed even bleaker for him. He took the news the best way possible. I was impressed with his calm and resolve. During the 3rd week after his first chemo treatment, he started to lose his hair in handfuls. He shaved his head so that he would not have to see the hair coming out in bunches. Most of the time, he had pain, extreme night sweats, which is one of the signs of this kind of cancer and difficulty breathing. He was also trying to recover from 4 operations. He was very weak.

Soudi is now with Firuz in Nevada. She has lost so much weight in the last 6 weeks. She tries to stay strong for her son, but she is in terrible emotional pain. She cries every time I talk to her on the phone.

No one knows what things will be like a year from now. Life has been terribly unfair and difficult for Firuz. The worry is constant. We all wonder how he will overcome stage 4 cancer. And if he beats it will it come back again? It is painful to see him weak, sick and in pain. What breaks my heart is to see someone so young in this situation. He hasn’t really lived life yet. His dreams and aspirations may never come to fruition. Will he be able to pursue them with an illness that may never really be cured?

I am sure of one thing; Firuz is a very strong person. He has handled this situation with so much grace. He has been tested to the core. He has accepted his fate and has come to terms with it. At times, he has comforted me when I couldn’t hold it together. If he can overcome this, he will become a much stronger person. My dream is to see him and his parents happy one day.

I, continually, ask for God’s mercy. I have worried for Firuz for many years. I have fervently prayed to God for his wellbeing for many years given the difficult to manage illness that he was already fighting. But things got worse for him instead of better. This has been a test of faith for me.

In my personal life as well, for a long time now, the harder I have tried to achieve what I want the further away I have gotten from it. I have struggled with no positive results for so many years, it seems as though the doors have been shut and will never be opened. Life for the most part has been an ugly and unpleasant struggle. The disappointments have been many and great. I have lost my faith in people and am constantly working on detachment from all that pertains to this life. I used to think that opportunities were unlimited and my fate was in my hand. Now, I feel powerless, unable to change my fate, neglected by God, resigned to accept my defeats in life, knowing that the only thing that I truly have in life is me and me alone. I am the only person I can depend on and trust.