Iran and the Feather of the Simorgh
I would like to step back for a moment from the compelling drama occurring now in Iran to look at this drama with a long-view question in mind: what does it tell us about the evolution of human societies? What does the conflict in present-day Iran reveal about what is seeking to be born on a global scale in the way we humans relate to each other?
To aid us in this long-view, let us turn to a story that is told in Iran’s great national epic, the Shahnameh, written 1,000 years ago by Ferdowsi, the most beloved of all Persian poets.
The story goes like this: a baby was abandoned on a mountainside. His cries were heard by the Simorgh, the benevolent winged deity of vast powers, who raised the baby as her own. When the time came for the young man, now called Prince Zal, to rejoin the human world the Simorgh gifted the prince with three feathers which he was to use if he ever needed her help.
And so it happened upon returning to his kingdom that Prince Zal fell in love and married the beautiful Rudaba. When the time arrived for their first child to be born, Rudaba’s labor was prolonged and terrible. She was near death when Prince Zal summoned the Simorgh for help. The Simorgh appeared and instructed Zal to trace one of the feathers across Rudaba’s belly. He did so and thus saved Rudaba and the child, and the child grew up to become the greatest of all Persian heroes, Rostam—“the world brightening one.”
I trust Ferdowsi will forgive me for suggesting that the story of the birth of Rostam may serve as a parable for what is occurring in Iran—and indeed throughout the world—in this period of human history.
Rudaba’s—and Iran’s—long labor will not come to an end until the cycle of human violence comes to an end—the cycle that reacts to violence and injustice with more violence and injustice. For thousands of years this cycle has recurred, preventing the birth of that which we long for: the possibility of living together in kindness, tolerance, and peace. This possibility is “the world brightening one.” It is humanity’s Rostam: no longer a singular male hero battling injustice, our Rostam is no less than the birth of the capacity to relate to one another with open minds and open hearts rather than from rigid positions.
The seas of people now marching in Iran are seeking to end the long agony of Rudaba’s labor. They are responding to the regime’s oppression not with violence but with nonviolent civil disobedience, and, in many cases, in silence. This kind of profound nonviolent action is the Simorgh’s feather being traced on Rudaba’s tormented belly. Its inherent gentleness is the only response that can release her from her long labor.
It takes enormous courage to face oppression with kindness, to put a flower in the muzzle of a gun. If Iranians can maintain this courage they will change the course of history, joining the recent nonviolent movements that have toppled dictatorships in places like the Philippines, Serbia, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Nepal, and elsewhere. A recent study has shown that of the 67 transitions from authoritarian regimes to more democratic governments over the past few decades, these changes “were catalyzed not through foreign invasion, and only rarely through armed revolt or voluntary elite-driven reforms, but overwhelmingly by democratic civil society organizations utilizing nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance, such as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests.” (Stephen Zunes)
The Simorgh’s feather: resilient and tender, its magical touch is the heart of the Golden Rule, the heart of the activism of Gandhi, King, and Mandela, and the heart of the teachings of all the great prophets of humanity. It is the refusal to react to violence with violence.
What Can We Do?
Two months ago during our journey through Iran we met a man named Ali working in a bazaar in the city of Shiraz. Ali was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, intensely proud of Iran and its central place in human history.
“We have been an important part of the growth of civilization,” he said, “but now we are stranded. Our minds are stranded. We cannot communicate with or travel freely in the world. People think we are terrorists—look around you, do you see terrorists? We are stranded, and no one knows who we are.”
I think of Ali and wonder if he feels less stranded at the moment, with so much of the world’s attention turned toward the events in Iran. TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook—in countless thousands of ways people around the world are taking part in the touch of the Simorgh’s feather as we bear witness to the nonviolent actions in Iran.
Just as it is for every nonviolent movement, the role of the witness is crucial. “The whole world is watching!” we cry, calling forth the power of shame that is heaped upon the perpetrator when an injustice is witnessed. This shaming is a curious thing, since it gets its power from an innate ethic within us—the British were shamed by having the world witness them beating Gandhi’s salt marchers, just as America was shamed by the publication of the photos from Abu Ghraib. The ruling clerics in Iran know that when they are seen butchering protesters any claim the Islamic Revolution has of benevolence becomes a lie.
So what can we do, far from Iran? We can pay attention. We can be at the other end of the tweets and the YouTube videos. We can be the watching world as the Iranians marching in the streets silently confront the guns of the military. In this way we can act in solidarity with all Iranians—the protesters and the ruling clerics and the Ahmadinejad supporters and the military—helping all of us come to the aid of “the world brightening one” that is being born.Email This Post