Egherman

"Let people be different"

Author: egherman (page 1 of 2)

Tradition! Tradition! Who Has the Right to Ritual

Who has the right to ritual? That’s a question my entire life is asking. Does someone who keeps kosher and the Sabbath have more of a claim on defining what is or is not Jewish than I do? Or is it enough that my bones hum with Jewish identity? Is it enough that when I was ten years old and caught a high fly ball to centerfield I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder what it would feel like to catch this ball if I wasn’t Jewish?”

The novel I am writing is filled with Jewish characters living complex lives that are both in harmony and in opposition to tradition.

In that sense, my characters are living out lives that are not all that different from others in the mid-1700s. Jewish life was changing. Recently passed laws limited land ownership and access to professions. Hasidism was on the rise. It was manifesting in diverse manners: from rule bound to mystical to imitations of royal courts. There was an explosion of new tradition and new myth-making. There was also opposition to the new ways of expressing Jewishness. Identities were formed as a result of the opposition.

What a time. Not so different from now.  Just take a look at all the ways that expression of Jewish identity is taking. It’s an exciting time to be a member of the tribe.

Writing this book, I became curious about the history of women scribes in the Jewish tradition. Women certainly copied many texts and worked on marriage certificate. The notion that a trans man might have written a Torah at some point is not out of the question. But it’s only recently that women have begun writing Torahs. There are not many of them. In this article on Tablet, Marjorie Ingall writes about “the women of the deerskin:”  a small group of women who are now writing Torahs. My favorite part of the article was when one of the women described how she sourced her own hides for the parchment:

She explained how she avoided the problems other women had in getting klaf, parchment, and supplies, which religious vendors wouldn’t sell to women. She didn’t want to send a male emissary to buy for her like the other women did; to her, it felt like starting a spiritual project on a note of inauthenticity. So she decided to tap the huge number of hunters who live near her to get skins so she could teach herself to make her own klaf. (My jaw was on the floor at this point.) “During deer season, bucks are plentiful, and where I live, everyone’s a hunter,” she said. “Skins are worthless; they just throw them in the woods. So, I put out the word that I wanted skins and I got so many. I’m impressed with the ethos of hunters; they don’t want anything to go to waste. I get all the hides I could want. I just throw them in the chest freezer in my garage and process them over the following year. That was after my kids were all, ‘Mom! You are not allowed to hang hides in the laundry room!’ ” She added serenely, “Hides do smell terrible.” *

The requirement for a hide used for the Torah is that it come from a kosher animal, not that it be ritually slaughtered. Dozens of hides are needed to create just one Torah. And kosher hunting is quite a challenge given the fact that the animal, hunted or not, needs to be ritually slaughtered in order for the meat to be considered kosher. This may account for the paucity of hunters in the Bible. There are just two: Jacob’s brother Esau and Nimrod who was a “mighty hunter…”

I’m learning all this because one of my characters is a time traveling hunter who provides hides for the writing of a Torah. Imagine a 21st century person going back to a time when the Holocaust is not a defining feature of Jewish life. That’s why she’s there, to observe a relatively peaceful time for Europe’s Jewish population, even in a time of upheaval and change.

That’s why I’m there too. Writing this book is as much an exploration of possibility as it is of plot. It’s a ritual. It’s a call to our ancestors. It’s a lost path.

More…

Just to prove I think about ritual quite often: Who Has the Right to Ritual

Here’s an interview with Julie Seltzer who is a scribe (sofer) and has created a Torah for the Contemporary Jewish Museum:

My friend Simon introduced me to the Emergence Magazine podcast. Breathtaking prose and big ideas. Start here: Mud and Antler Bone

Speaking of podcasts, cousin Jacob Siegel hosts a podcast with Phil Klay called Manifesto. I always feel the need to talk more about the ideas they discuss. Start anywhere: Manifesto

This past week I listened to an engaging episode of Jewish History Matters with David Biale, the co-author of Hasidism: A New History. I can’t wait to read the book in case anyone wants to buy me a gift.

From the series Connecting Memories by Kamran Ashtary

My partner Kamran Ashtary has been studying the Holocaust for the past nine years. Yes, he *is* a lot of fun at parties ;-). The artwork he is creating as a result is breathtaking. Please check it out: kamranashtary.com

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The Rhythm of Tragedy

When I was little I fell in love with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, rereading our copy of Zlateh the Goat dozens of times. Poor Zlateh was getting too old to give milk and the family that kept her was flailing financially. They needed to eat. A decision was made to sell Zlateh to the butcher so that the family could survive the winter. On the way to town a snowstorm trapped the goat and the young boy taking her to the butcher. Zlateh kept the boy warm through the storm and provided milk.

Spoiler alert: they survived the storm and turned back to the house where Zlateh lived out her life as a valued member of the family.

Don’t Let Me Read Miss Understood

When I needed more stories, I reached for the adult novels of Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I under-understood them, like so many of the other books I read as a child. I wasn’t ready for the layers of plot and emotion and character. I wasn’t ready for the way that the comic became tragic. I wasn’t ready for demons that weren’t harmless. What I was ready for was the rhythm of the sentences and the shape of the words. And that’s what I read for.

There is a rhythm to tragedy—especially Jewish tragedy—that feels comic. It begins with a set-up and ends with a punchline. This is the way that we pass our lore through the generations and relate our horrors to children without traumatizing them. The stories are four-dimensional, beginning with humor. With time, the stories unfold, revealing a new dimension of pain and tragedy. The stories unfold again, warning of coming harm and providing hints for survival. They unfold again, and the humor feels fresh and sparkling.

The imp in the novel I am writing is desperate to warn of coming harm. But does anyone listen? Of course not. Who listens to warnings? Not even the characters in my stories listen. See:

 “We’ve had it up to here with the warnings. Everything is a warning with you. And nothing can be changed. Fires come when they come. Hunger comes when it comes. Sickness comes to the hail. We run and run and run and still Death finds us all. Who knows what to do with warnings?”

If fictional characters won’t listen, who will?

An Epitaph

Everything I come across during the research for the novel makes me wish to be a small part of a big community that can make the world laugh.  On my worst days, I am afraid that humor numbs us and keeps us from acting or taking danger seriously. On those days I treat myself to a few episodes of Brooklyn 99, and then I go back to the work of trying to repair the tiniest cracks in the world. I remind myself that there are other ways to communicate and that humor renews us.

This brings me to Sholem Aleichem’s grave and the epitaph he composed for himself:

Do ligt a Id a pashutier – Here lies a Jew a simple-one,
Geschrieben Idish-Daitch fur weiber – Wrote Yiddish-German (translations) for women
Un faren prosten falk hot er gewein a humorist a schreiber
– and for the regular folk, was a writer of humor
Die ganze lieben umgelozt geschlogen mit der welt kapures
-His whole life he slaughtered ritual chickens together with the crowd,
(He didn’t care too much for this world)
Die ganze welt hot gutt gemacht – the whole world does good,
Un ehr – ohoy vey – gewehn oif zuress – and he, oh my, is in trouble.
Un davka de mohl gewehn der oilom hot gelacht
– but exactly when the world is laughing
gecklutched un flegg zich flehen – clapping and hitting their lap,
Dought er gekrenkt dos weis nor gott – he cries – only God knows this
Besod, az keyner zohl nit zeiyen – in secret, so no-one sees.

Oh how fortunate he was to have died before the world burned.

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Using Personas to Gain Understanding and Focus

What’s next for Global Voices?

How Can Global Voices Use Personas to Move Forward?

View this on Medium, please…

Global Voices is asking its community to engage in defining its future path. Are we a community? Are we news? Are we media? All of the three? Something we have not yet imagined? The community council brings together a range of people with deep roots in Global Voices, including some of the founding members. It also brings together more recent members, without in-depth knowledge of the organization’s history and mission.

One way to look at the future, may be to employ design practices pioneered by Alan Cooper and the interaction design team (UX, Human Centered Design, whatever you call the discipline today) at Cooper Interaction Design. Those practices bring together research, communication, persona development, and design. As an early member of the Cooper team, I saw how powerful and prescient the process was. I have done my best to employ the process in communication work since then.

tldr:

No one can design for everyone. Specificity is what makes a product or service appealing. Taking time for research and persona development can ensure that what you want to offer is specific enough to be interesting. This article discusses the process further.

Personas bring the mission to life

The pressing questions facing Global Voices are what and who. What will we be in ten years and who are we trying to reach? What can we do best and who are we?

Developing personas can help answer these questions.

Personas are fictional characters that represent segments of the target audience. They help to better communicate an understanding of the audience. Personas are not averages, but archetypes. There is just enough detail in persona descriptions to make them seem like real people, but not so much that they are quirky.

Even when working in a new domain, it is possible to develop a deep understanding of the people involved by combining research and persona development. I’ve seen this time and time again. I’ve worked on projects with audiences as specific as chemical buyers for the paint and coatings industry to as wide as people who use online photo services. In each case, the clients were surprised by the depth of knowledge of their audience that the personas revealed.

What can the success of rollaway suitcases teach us about design?

What do Rollaway Suitcases, a Moby Song, and Denim Jeans have in Common?

Hint: they were all created with someone in mind.

Understanding the target audience well and specific people who make up that audience produces surprisingly effective results. This is repeated time and again. For instance, roll-away suitcases were designed specifically for flight crews, but it turns out that we all can use them. Denim jeans were designed for gold prospectors, but that does not stop us from wearing them. Moby writes songs with one specific person in mind, and his music is among some of the highest selling music of all time.

Here is what Moby had to say about his process in the March 17, 2002 issue of the NYT magazine:

“It’s weird, maybe, but every song I write, I imagine this specific kind of person who is listening to it alone, always alone, sitting by himself or herself,’’ he said. ‘’I have written a song where I imagine it’s being listened to by a woman who’s just come home from a hard day’s work and finally has a moment to herself. I’ve written a song where it’s a student in Germany on a train, coming home from school for the holidays.’’

Knowing who will eventually use the product being designed whether it is a website, a software application, a song, or a physical product keeps teams focused and productive. A clear understanding of the target audience helps to build consensus quickly.

So how do we start?

Start with Empathy and Understanding

Frankly, not everyone is cut out to develop personas. Here are some characteristics that could lead to creating good personas:

  • Listening without judgment
  • A love for fiction and reading
  • Experience writing fictional characters or actual biographies
  • Multi-generational life experience
  • An ability to set aside your own personality to understand others
  • Curiosity

Continue with Research

One of my favorite design research stories illustrates that people often cannot verbalize what they need. A product development company asked people with limited mobility how their walkers could be improved. No one had any ideas. Yet, nearly all of them had made modifications to their own walkers:

Yet when the group members were excused and got up to leave, the researchers saw that several participants had rigged home-made carrying pouches to their walkers, ranging from a bicycle basket tied with shoe strings to an automotive cupholder. A good researcher lets the information tell a story instead of imposing a story on the information. This is a key difference and not as simple or as clear cut as it sounds. (From: When sparks fly: Igniting creativity in groups)

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

Although most of us won’t ever be as good at observation as Sherlock Holmes, there are things we can do to improve our research skills. This includes reading, interviewing, and observing.Research with design in mind means combining skepticism and innocence. It demands listening to what people do and do not say.

Ask Yourself Questions

Working with a partner and sharing observations can make the process go even faster. At the end of every day spent on research answer the following questions together:

  • What recommendations would we make based on what we learned today?
  • What do we need to know more about?
  • What questions can we ask that will help us discover more?
  • What’s missing?

Look for Patterns and Outliers

Patterns, patterns, everywhere

Researching for design can use traditional methods of narrative research, surveys, observation, and literature reviews. In the analysis it’s important to look for patterns and for the outliers that break the patterns. Outliers are particularly important when it comes to design. They can show the way forward.

Patterns are part of everything we do and build. When we do research, we look for similarities in what we hear, observe, and read. What is connected to what?

Codes are a way of visualizing the patterns and turning patterns into statistics. This requires an initial identification of the patterns and then naming these patterns. The coding process requires at least 2 people. It requires several reviews of the material to be sure you have the fewest named codes necessary to describe the patterns without ignoring anything.

When something doesn’t fit a pattern, it may be an outlier. Outliers fall far outside of the statistical norm. For design, outliers can be more important than the norm.

For more information on research practices for design, please read: Extracting Meaning from Research.

Create a Mental Model

Where do the strings go?

Have you seen the elaborate models some fictional detectives use to visualize and put together evidence? Images, articles, strings crossing from wall to wall and picture to picture? I love those.

When you are doing research for personas, it’s useful to learn to do this inside your own head. Ask yourself how the research is helping you understand the people and imagine the future. How is it helping you re-imagine the end product? This is very important and very difficult.

You can practice your mental modeling skills by imagining something you know very well. Take it apart and put it together using your brain alone. Practice as much as you can!

The science fiction writer and mathematician Rudy Rucker has all sorts of stories of using mental models/imagination to imagine four-dimensional spaces. His book, The Fourth Dimension, is online for free.

Turn all this into a persona

Who are your personas?

Write a persona like a character. Think about these things when making your sketch:

  • Demographic info: i.e., gender, age, nationality, education, etc
  • What characteristics are salient for the particular project? For instance what about this persona is interesting for Global Voices to know?
  • What does the persona hope to achieve?
  • How does Global Voices help the persona?
  • Why would the persona interact (or not) with Global Voices?
  • What does this persona want to do with the interaction?
  • A picture and a name: these are helpful.

When I worked at Cooper Interaction Design, we employed a method called Goal-Directed Design. Essentially, each persona had a set of goals. We would design for one persona with one set of goals. When the goals of the personas differed, we knew that different designs were necessary. This is a very powerful tool.

Let me give an example from a project I worked on for a new pharmaceutical. From our research, we knew that people with chronic diseases would become as expert — or even more expert — than trained healthcare professionals. They learned the language. They read the research. Their goals were the same as healthcare professionals. As a result, they would seek out the same information. There was no need to create two sites with two different sets of information for caregivers and people with chronic diseases. One was enough. On the other hand, people newly diagnosed and those caring for them (family/friends) needed a completely different interaction with different information.

Don’t Forget to Share

Make sure to share personas with the team

It’s not enough to go through the motions of creating personas. The personas won’t work if the logic for creating them is not communicated to the team. They won’t work if their descriptions are not shared with and embraced by the team.

In the best cases, the team has a poster of the personas pinned to the wall by their desk. They are continually reminded of who they are creating content for, who they are designing for, and why they are doing it.

Many might feel uncomfortable and awkward using personas at first. Some may resist the use of personas completely. But if people can make a small effort, a tiny leap of faith, then personas can be a great tool. They streamline conversations and focus ideas. Using them gives diverse teams common ground.

In conclusion, don’t just develop personas, use them and share them.

Ask me questions about anything unclear.

I’d love to hear from you.

Resources:

Egherman, T., & Anderson, G. (2018, March 21). Extracting Meaning From Research. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@etori/extracting-meaning-from-research-1cb4304d22b7

Kraus, C. (n.d.). Inside Goal-Directed Design: A Two-Part Conversation With Alan Cooper. Retrieved from https://www.cooper.com/journal/2014/04/inside-goal-directed-design-a-two-part-conversation-with-alan-cooper

Leonard, D. A., & Swap, W. C. (2005). When sparks fly: Igniting creativity in groups. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Marzorati, G. (2002, March 17). All by Himself. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/17/magazine/all-by-himself.html

Rucker, R. (n.d.). The Fourth Dimension. Retrieved from http://www.rudyrucker.com/thefourthdimension/

Big announcement: I am writing a novel

Well, it’s about time, right? It’s not as though I haven’t wanted to write a novel since I first took pen to paper way back when I was seven years old. So what’s taken me so long? Where do I even begin to answer that question? Maybe with this list:

  • I started so many novels just because I had good ideas, but they lacked heart, and I lacked the perseverance to muddle through
  • I didn’t trust myself enough
  • I was never compelled to write the way others are: now the demand is greater
  • Every word I typed was like drawing blood.

So what changed? Essentially, I changed. The biggest part of me that changed was the corniest part, the part realists will laugh at, and that is this: I finally allowed my ancestors to start helping me. It’s not like we hadn’t been in conversation for decades. We had been. We’d been talking, quietly, since I was four.

When I was four and my great-grandmother died, my mother explained that people live on in our memories. I was a completely literal child and took that to mean that I was responsible for remembering my ancestors, even if I didn’t know them. From that day on, I began a memory project with imagined ancestors. I imagined the grandfather who died when I was two as Colonel Sanders. I imagined my great-grandmother the way she was photographed in a hat and wool coat. I imagined people I knew and people I didn’t. I still feel responsible for the memories of the dead and now there is a cacophony of voices in my head. It includes friends and loved ones who died of cancer and car accidents, old age and heart disease, suddenly and slowly. They all live in me. They are me.

At a low point not too long ago, I was talking to a friend who sensed that I wasn’t paying attention to my ancestors. He counseled me to light a candle and ask for help. I did.

Yeah, yeah I know half of you think this is ridiculous. I used to be you and that was exactly my problem. I no longer see any value at all in denying a connection to the past or in silencing a kind of genetic memory that has been undeniably part of me since childhood. I wonder now why I did so much work to suppress my connection to the past. Who did I impress by rejecting the magic inside me? Who benefited?

I’m done with that part of my life.  And now I’m writing. I will be blogging about the process here. If you’d like to be part of the conversation, sign up for the newsletter:

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Who Has the Right to Ritual

Who has the right to ritual, to define what is and what isn’t appropriate or appropriated, to declare themselves as a member of the tribe?

Grave marker at a small dilapidated Jewish cemetery at Babi Yar

Grave marker at a small dilapidated Jewish cemetery at Babi Yar

Mourning the more than 33,000 Jews executed at Babi Yar isn’t the only reason I am collecting recordings of Kaddish. I am also trying to claim tradition and ritual and to grapple with a religion I’ve loved and hated, but never quite shed.

The right to ritual isn’t something I’ve come to contemplate only recently. It’s just that now, I am realizing that I can stake a claim to a tradition that isn’t always, or even often, friendly to me or people like me.

Who am I? I’m a rootless mongrel like so many of you. How far back do my Jewish roots go? I used to care, but no longer do. Who cares? What I know is that right below the center of my breastbone is something that is and always has been physically and psychically connected to centuries of Jews that came before me. It is undeniable and unshakeable.

Yet, walking into a synagogue fills me with anxiety. I feel unrecognized and unwelcomed when I stray from the congregation I grew up with. I feel judged for the decisions I’ve made, for the love I’ve chosen, for the laws I flout and for those I’ve forgotten or never known.

I’m bored by impersonal rituals that lack heart and services that seem to be more for entertainment than for participation.

I’m more scared by rejection from the community than by threats of terrorism that the bag checkers and security guards pretend to protect me from.

What has made the synagogue feel unsafe to me is not outside its walls. It’s inside.

I understand that we are a threatened community. This makes us want to diligently protect our borders. It makes us want to protect our traditions. Yet that protection can go too far. It can become like an auto-immune disease that kills off exactly what it needs to be healthy. (Full disclosure: allergy sufferer and asthmatic speaking)

I say it’s time we let down our guard more than a bit and find ways to welcome strays and mongrels like me. There are more than a few of us.

Here’s my first challenge to you who are part of active Jewish communities. Find a way to welcome newcomers and strangers. Assign the extroverts among you the task of being friendly. Give some space to loners. Try it. Tell me if it works.

And please send me a recording of Kaddish. Instructions are here: Prayers for Mourning

Thanks.

 

 

Prayers for Mourning

Kaddish

Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for mourners. It’s said every day for eleven months after the death of a family member. After that it is repeated yearly on the anniversary of the death.

It marks a completion. Its meaning is unimportant. The sound of the words, spoken in ancient Aramaic, is what is important. The rhythm. The melody. The comfort of the words.

In Night Elie Wiesel wrote of men reciting Kaddish for themselves as they approached their deaths. He wrote about his anger with G-d. Why should he sanctify a G-d who allowed the crematoria? Still the prayer rose inside him.

As it rises in many of us.

I need your help

I am collecting recordings of people saying and chanting the Kaddish for a soundscape.

Make a sound recording or video of you, your friends, your minion, your congregation, your family saying Kaddish. You can use the microphone on your phone. You can use a better microphone if you have one. It’s okay to send me video files even. Whatever you can do is welcome.

Sending your files to me

You can send me files from your computer or smartphone using the following link:

https://www.dropbox.com/request/8abXNn6Gj6CGxT540xku

Use Dropbox to share your prayersRecord your reading from your telephone

You can also make a recording of your prayers of Kaddish using your telephone. Here’s how to record your message:

1) Call LifeOnRecord, +1-800-437-3009 by May 1, 2017
2) When prompted, enter your Invitation Number: 33848
3) Record your message after the tone. When finished you can either hang up or press the # key. If you press the # key you’ll be given options to listen to your recording, accept your recording, or re-record it.

If you are not in the US and Canada, find a local number here: http://www.lifeonrecord.com/faqs.htm#countries

The flower burning in the Day—and what comes after…

Babi Yar (Babin Yar) 2016. Nineteen years before I was born 33,700 Jews were killed in a massacre 2 miles from the center of Kiev in a wooded area called Babi Yar.

A few days after the Germans took Kiev on September 11, 1941, signs began appearing ordering Jews to appear near the site of the Jewish cemetery.

Failure to do so, the signs read, would result in being shot on sight.

The Jews thought it was for resettlement. Another resettlement. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Eighteen days after the Germans took Kiev, the massacre began.

This was one of the first huge mass executions of Jews by the Nazis. It was the beginning of the Final Solution.

The killing continued throughout the war. An uncounted number of Roma and Ukrainians were also killed there.

Who was killed at Babi Yar and how many exactly, may remain a mystery. When whole families are wiped out, there is no one left to count them.

Towards the end of World War II, the bodies were dug up. The bones smashed. What was left, burned. The history of the place was repressed first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Still, it would not remain a secret.

Today it is a rambling park. Construction crews work to reshape it. Kitsch sculptures mark the locations where Jews were killed. A menorah. A child with a headless doll. A stack of heroic bodies.

A highway borders the site. There is no west or east. No south or north.

Broken tombstones from a small Jewish cemetery in Babi Yar

Broken tombstones from a small Jewish cemetery in Babi Yar. Taken July 13, 2016.

The prayers you share are for them. They will be part of a soundscape (like a landscape painting, but made of sound) that I am creating specifically for the site.

Thank you for participating.

Please share with others.

Iran Talks Give Peace a Chance

A perspective on the nuclear talks with Iran and what it means for Iranian people, human rights, and peace. This post originally appeared on Harry’s Place

“Nuclear energy is our indisputable right”

Eight years ago when I last lived in Iran, the slogan: “Nuclear energy is our indisputable right” had become the punchline to a joke. When I shopped for fish at a popular market on Jordan Street in Tehran, the staff greeted me by chanting it in a friendly manner. On a trip to Kermanshah a Kurdish family asked me: “Is nuclear energy only your indisputable right, or is it also ours?” When then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the provinces, he was met by people chanting, “A public swimming pool is our indisputable right.” During the 2009 election campaigns, people sent text messages to each other that read: “Sorry I woke you up at this time of night. It’s nothing special – I just wanted to say that nuclear energy is our indisputable right.”

Taken by Tori Egherman. Share-and-share alike with attribution.

The woman with the video camera is asking me about the right to nuclear energy. Image provided by author.

Framework agreement

On April 2, as Iranians were celebrating the closing day of their two-week New Year’s holidays, the news broke that negotiators had at last come to an understanding about the framework for a nuclear agreement. That framework includes replacing the core at the Arak heavy water plant and decreasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 95%, as well as intensive inspections. It also means that Iran won’t leave the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Vocal hardliners have been quick to point out the framework’s weaknesses, with some in the US and Israel arguing that it is too soft and those in Iran claiming the country is surrendering. Some have interpreted the celebration of Iranians as meaning that the P5+1 negotiating team cut a bad deal. This shows a lack of understanding of Iran. People there take to the streets to celebrate World Cup losses. Any opportunity for public celebration is welcomed.

What many in Iran seem to particularly long for is rapprochement with the West and with the United States in particular. According to an article by Narges Bajoghli, the majority of those in Iran’s Basij and Revolutionary Guards also look forward better ties to the West. She writes:

In over nine years of on-the-ground research with different factions of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij, I have found that an underlying concern for many, regardless of political leaning, is a desire to create an Iran with more opportunities for their children, and that means the removal of sanctions and better relations with the world.

The role of sanctions

Tough sanctions may have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but what kept them there was the knowledge that the people of Iran wanted engagement with the West. This was made clear in 2009 in the wake of the disputed and flawed presidential elections and again with the election of current president Rouhani. Iranian voters overwhelmingly rejected the candidate seen as representing the Supreme Leader’s foreign policy, then nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Jalili ran for office specifically on his record of standing firm on Iran’s right to its nuclear program.

There is a strong sense of nationhood and national pride among most Iranians inside and outside the country. The nuclear program, which has been a cause of so much pain and deprivation in Iran, represents accomplishment and security even to those who would seem to be its natural detractors. For a final agreement to be successful, the people of Iran need to have some evidence that their suffering under the sanctions regime was not for nothing. This means lifting sanctions that hurt them the most and making sure to do it with great fanfare. For instance lifting the sanctions on refined petroleum, which have contributed to a dramatic increase in pollution in cities like Tehran, may immediately contribute to cleaner air.

Sanctions also camouflage corruption. They allow profiteers to drive up prices on items such as medicines and create false shortages. They give power to the corrupt and dangerous in society. I saw this every day when I lived in Iran. I saw how poorly the US and Europe communicated both the scope of and the reason for the sanctions to the Iranian people.

Human rights

While most human rights advocates and Iran’s civil society welcome a negotiated agreement, there is concern that hardliners will seek to establish their control by increasing oppressive measures. Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says:

Iran could be roiled in political tension in the wake of the agreement, and even more so if a more permanent agreement is reached in June. Hardliners will push to maintain political relevancy, while pent up demand for basic rights, long frozen as Iran locked horns with the West, will rise to the surface.

The Iranian government’s record on human rights is disastrous. Ethnic minorities face severe discrimination and suppression of their rights. The rate of execution per capita is the highest in the world. Religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i, suffer. The Baha’i face arrest, harassment, and barriers to education. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, stated that pressure on Iran is especially important: “Iran is the country in the region with the biggest gap between potential [for respect for human rights] and reality.” People in Iran are ready to claim their own rights and are chipping away at the structure that limits them. As one Tehran professor recently wrote in an open letter to the spokeswoman for Iran’s foreign ministry, defending Dr. Shaheed:

The fact is, even if in all of the almost 200 member states of the UN, human rights are violated, and Western countries keep silent against all of them, violations of human rights in the 201st country are still unjustifiable.

A successful agreement that relieves the state of near-war means that civil society and human rights defenders will gain more space. The state of conflict with other powers and the isolation of the country are often used as excuses for tamping down dissent and arresting human rights defenders. They face charges such as “compromising national security” and “spreading propaganda against the state.” With a final agreement, these spurious charges will become more and more ridiculous and harder to defend. A successful agreement also means that human rights defenders can lobby other powers for support without hearing the response: “All we care about is a nuclear agreement.”

Give peace a chance

Some of you may think I’ve been “irantoxified” as a result of my four-year stay in Iran. I can tell you that I was, indeed, fundamentally changed by the experience. I felt real oppression for the first time in my life. I had to learn to control myself emotionally, physically and verbally. I also became passionate about human rights, not just in oppressive countries like Iran, but in free countries like the United States and the Netherlands. I saw what war does to family and friends and watched as my sister-in-law trembled uncontrollably at the news that American warships were in the Persian Gulf. I met Basiji who valued democracy, a judge who opposed the nuclear program, observant women who railed against forced hijab, a transgender man who read tea leaves, and ruthless profiteers. I was met with kindness and hospitality that were both unexpected and comforting. I buried people I loved there. I left the country wanting nothing less than the best possible future for the people who had welcomed me so unabashedly.

There will not be a linear path to reform and an opening of society. There never is anywhere. Iranians will have high expectations that an agreement will solve their economic and social woes. This is true even as they make jokes about expectations of buying whiskey in supermarkets and going into the streets in shorts.

In summation, if this agreement is to work and if the government of Iran is to be persuaded to permanently give up any efforts to build a bomb, the people of Iran need to be convinced they’ve made the best of all possible agreements. In the wake of the agreement, sanctions need to be lifted quickly and loudly. By publicly clarifying what is no longer sanctioned, the US and Europeans can give the people of Iran the information they need to hold their own government accountable for economic malaise. The sanctions will no longer be cover. The benefits of being part of the international community must be made clear to the people of Iran. They are certainly aware of the suffering that comes from isolation.

Trauma Can be Passed Down in Our Genes

Below is a post I wrote for TEDxAmsterdam. Reproduced in full:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is something we are now accustomed to attributing to the effects of war. We used to call it “shell shock.” Today we know that trauma is not only experienced individually, but shared through generations as well. Researchers have known for awhile that trauma experienced by mothers during pregnancy can affect children and even alter the way DNA is expressed without changing its sequencing. A recent study shows that it can also alter microRNA in the sperm of mice, causing anxiety and depression in offspring. The experiences of your parents and grandparents may influence the person you are today.

Speakers Dr. Megan McElheran and Annie Murphy Paul

Speakers Dr. Megan McElheran and Annie Murphy Paul

You can inherit memories

Scientists Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf have proven that the experiences of female rats could change the DNA passed on to children without altering its sequencing. Now scientists in Zurich have shown that the father also contributes to passing on the effects of trauma to his offspring.

A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience conducted by neuroscientist Isabelle Mansuy and her colleagues at the University of Zurich in Switzerland showed that the offspring of mice who experienced high levels of trauma experienced high levels of stress and depression. The sperm of traumatized mice had a higher expression of microRNA (small RNA) linked to anxiety, depression, and stress. The scientists showed that the stress and depression were passed on genetically, rather than socially, by injecting sperm into mice who had not undergone trauma.

The notion that traumatic experiences influence the children of survivors is not entirely new. Writing in Nature, Virginia Hughes notes that:

People who were traumatized during the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia tended to have children with depression and anxiety, for example, and children of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War have higher rates of suicide than the general population.

Post 9-11 Babies Pre-Disposed to PTSD

Annie Murphy Paul

In a 2011 TED talk, Annie Murphy Paul, who investigates what we learn in the womb and how it shapes who we become, stated:

About a year after 9/11, researchers examined a group of women who were pregnant when they were exposed to the World Trade Center attack. In the babies of those women who developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, following their ordeal, researchers discovered a biological marker of susceptibility to PTSD — an effect that was most pronounced in infants whose mothers experienced the catastrophe in their third trimester. In other words, the mothers with post-traumatic stress syndrome had passed on a vulnerability to the condition to their children while they were still in utero.

“Trauma is a great equalizer”

In a talk given at TEDxYYC, Dr. Megan McElheran discussed her experiences dealing with veterans returning to Canada from war in Afghanistan. She warned against the current flirtation with what she calls the “happiness myth,” stating that it leads to increased alienation because of the notion that “…if you are not happy there is something wrong with you…”

She finds it important to understand the full range of human experience. “We are all capable of anything,” she stated. She urged us all to operate with empathy:

If, on a day-to-day basis, we as individuals and as members participating in our communities are better able to operate from a position where all experience is valued, I think we will be healthier and better able to address the challenges in our lives from a place of being willing and able to have an experience whatever those challenges should entail.

Can PTSD also be contagious?

As the family members of veterans with PTSD increasingly show signs of the disorder themselves, researchers are asking if PTSD is contagious. In an article in Mother Jones, writes:

“Trauma is really not something that happens to an individual,” says Robert Motta, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Hofstra University who wrote a few of the many medical-journal articles about secondary trauma in Vietnam vets’ families. “Trauma is a contagious disease; it affects everyone that has close contact with a traumatized person” in some form or another, to varying degrees and for different lengths of time. “Everyone” includes children…

Trauma is not only experienced individually, but shared in families and through generations.

#Recipe: My Grandmother’s Chocolate Cake

My grandmother was famous for her chocolate cake. Some relatives joked that the secret ingredient was cigarette ashes, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.

When she died, many of her loved ones still had her cakes stowed away in the freezer. One passover, my sister found what she thought was the recipe hand written inside a haggadah. It turned out to be a grocery list.

Recently one of my cousins shared the recipe with us. I admit I was a bit scared to make it the first time. I was afraid it would not live up to the memory. There was nothing for me to fear. The very act of making the cake was enough to bring my grandmother back to life. It didn’t matter whether it was delicious or not.

Those of you heard the KFJC discussion between me and DJ Ruthie might be interested in the chocolate cake we talked about.

The cake (all the measurements are American style):

1 cup butter (I use about 3/4 of a block of butter for this)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 cups self-rising cake flour (I find it’s best when I replace one cup of flour with one cup of cocoa powder — yum)
1 large bar (or a little more) of good quality dark chocolate — melted (about 7 ounces–more for chocolate lovers)
5 eggs — separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 mashed bananas (when I make layers, I use 3 mashed bananas and put one between the layers)

Cream together the butter and sugar
add melted chocolate (I put a little bit of olive oil in a bowl and then put in the chocolate and microwave it)
Add the buttermilk and flour
Beat the eggs separately add the yolks
Fold in the whites

Bake at 180 C/350 F

Bake a deep cake about 45 minutes
If you are making layers, 30 minutes

I am not a huge frosting fan, so I don’t add any. It’s delicious with raspberries or powdered sugar on top.

Prayer Goes Out; Food Goes In: Plum Chicken with Bibi Kasrai

The day I spoke with the author of The Spice Whisperer, Bibi Kasrai, she was busy with her new enterprise, a cooking camp for children. She had left a career as a corporate executive to do what she loves: cooking and teaching.

That day the children were making hummus, croque-monsieurs, and popsicles. It’s this mix of cultures that makes Bibi and her cooking special. As she describes in her book, her journey from Iran to the United States took her all over the world, learning to cook, falling in love, and encountering a wide range of cultures.

Five years after the revolution in Iran, when Bibi was a teenager, her family went into hiding. An arrest warrant had been issued for her father, the well-known and well-loved poet Siavosh Kasrai. The family moved from house to house, not wishing to put friends and supporters in danger.

“My family had helped the Jews, the Baha’is and royalist friends escape, but now it was our turn,” she writes in The Spice Whisperer. “My mother came up with a plan to hire smugglers that would hopefully take us to France where all our European dreams would come true; except we ended up in Moscow via Afghanistan.”

Before they left Iran, as a last refuge when they had nowhere else to hide, her maternal grandmother took them in, saying, “If they are going to take you, let them take all of us.”

“My grandma was comfort,” Bibi recalls. “She was pure love…. Even when she wanted to teach a lesson, she was mild. Like she would say to me, ‘Bibi, you have a hot temper. When you get really angry take a glass of water and hold it in your mouth.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because when water is in your mouth, you cannot say anything.’”

Read the entire article on The Guardian

Plum Chicken photographed by Sanam Salehian

Iran Elections: Celebration Now, A Long and Unpredictable Path Ahead

Photo from Instagram user alirezamalihi of celebrations in Tehran

This is an excerpt of my latest piece on Global Voices.

In the past few days there have been threats against the families of BBC reporters. The Internet in Iran was slowed to a crawl. The Iranian Cyber Army launched botnet attacks against a number of media sites including BBC, Radio Farda, and Radio Zamaneh. Pundits predicted a win for Saeed Jalili, calling him the Supreme Leader’s favorite. Others predicted a run-off between the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf and the most moderate candidate Hassan Rouhani.

VOA reporter Negar Mortazavi tweeted:

Which prompted this response from the director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center Gissou Nia:

Well…no one was more surprised than Iranians themselves by the results (except for Gissou Nia). Today, Hassan Rouhani was declared president with more than 50% of the votes. The Internet is back on and images and videos are flooding out of Iran.

Financial Times Journalist, Borzou Daraghi writes on Facebook that hardliners had so thoroughly convinced themselves that they really “won” 2009’s elections that they were completely caught by surprise:

When you begin to believe your own lies, you become extremely vulnerable.

Khabar City shares images of voters on their blog along with this tidbit:

به گزارش خبرنگار خبرگزاری فارس از شهرستان ساری، مردم ایران بار دیگر با نشان دادن شناسنامه و حضور در انتخابات لرزه بر اندام دشمنان انداختند. 90 درصد مردم مازندران در انتخابات شرکت کردند.

The Fars News stringer reporting from the city of Sari said that just by voting, the people of Iran have made their enemies shake in their boots. 90% of voters in Mazandaran cast their votes.

Read the rest on Global Voices.

Bare Bones Overview of Iran’s Election System

jalili
Here is a bare bones overview of the structure of Iran’s election system that I am presenting in Amsterdam on June 14, 2013. Hope you all enjoy it.

Taste of Iran: Lari Kebab Made as a Stew

I loved the concise flavors of this dish, but learned that in order to replicate them I had to have the best ingredients.

Taste of Iran: Lari kebab recipe

Iranian student in Italy recreates a traditional dish – with a twist

Lari kebab
Lari kebab served with salad and jasminebasmati rice. Photograph: Tori Egherman

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is lit against the night sky, the square empty save for a couple walking hand in hand and a man with a dog by his side. In a top-floor apartment a few blocks away, Peyman Majidzadeh is putting the finishing touches on his favorite dish, Lari kebab, made on the stove instead of the grill and with chicken instead of lamb. It might be a stretch to call it Lari kebab, but that’s what Peyman calls it and so will I.

During the four years I lived in Iran, not only did I never eat Lari kebab, I had never even heard of Lar, the county seat of Larestan in Fars province. Four hundred kilometres from Shiraz, the province’s best known city, it’s not one of the more visited corners of Iran.

Larestan sits in the desert, close to the other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. It has its own dialect, but it has no oil and little in the way of other mineral resources. It has no sites of particular interest to tourists or pilgrims. Very few Iranians from elsewhere in the country have ever been to Lar. Any who do go are likely to be surprised by the small city’s wealth and the fact that it is served by an international airport and a six-lane highway.

Read the rest on The Guardian

Blast from the Past: Thoughts on Rafsanjani’s 2005 Campaign

I wrote this piece in 2005 when the elections for Iran’s next president were in full swing. During the campaigns, I walked through my neighborhood with my headscarf around my shoulders. Music blared from black SUVs. A three-story banner of former president Rafsanjani graced the corner building that housed some of his campaign staff. It was a strange time and a bit of a break from the relentlessness of the Islamic Republic. You’ll note I don’t even mention Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His campaign was nearly invisible in Tehran. It wasn’t until the run-offs that I noticed his candidacy. This was originally published on Marketing Profs.

The Hashemi Brand in Iran’s 2005 Elections

The elections in Iran are in full force, with only a few days left until the Friday ballot. Iranian television is filled with interviews with the candidates, sound bytes and advertisements about the vote. Movies are interrupted every few minutes by voting reminder message; in the middle of intense emotional scenes, bells ring and an animated ballot dances across the screen.

Candidates’ Web sites tout the politicians’ credentials and attributes, while blogs debate who is genuinely democratic-minded–or, conversely, true to the tenets of the Islamic Revolution.

The presidential campaign in Iran is short: about one month. There are a lot of rumors and discussions before the official start of the campaign season, but it really goes into gear once the Supreme Council announces the list of approved candidates. This year there are six.

One of the candidates, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (www.hashemirafsanjani.ir), has done more than the others to market his particular presidential brand. In this brief article, I discuss the tools that his campaign has used to create the Hashemi brand.

Guerilla Marketing

Jay Conrad Levinson is often called the father of guerilla marketing. He defines it this way: “It is a body of unconventional ways of pursuing conventional goals. It is a proven method of achieving profits with minimum money.”

While I cannot speak for the actual costs of the Rafsanjani campaign, the methods that the campaign is using are, indeed, unconventional. They are particularly unconventional for post-revolutionary Iran.

The Rafsanjani campaign has employed Iran’s hip youth as its army of unpaid campaign workers. They wrap themselves in Hashemi stickers, tape his poster on their backs, celebrate soccer success in his name, attend performances at the candidate’s Tehran headquarters and participate in skating events. They wear Rafsanjani campaign materials like fashion accessories.

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This army of hip youth may be politically apathetic in large part, but that does not really matter. The Rafsanjani campaign has grabbed the image of youth and energy for itself. You might say that the Rafsanjani generation and the Pepsi generation are one. In other words, it may not matter to Pepsi whether the Pepsi generation drinks Pepsi, as long as Pepsi’s sales are robust; similarly, as long as Rafsanjani wins the election, who cares who voted for him.

The Graphic Image

Rafsanjani is his own brand. Because of his uncommon looks, he is, arguably, the most recognized cleric in the world. As with every other candidate in Iran’s presidential election, his image covers entire walls.

The campaign puts forth several images of Rafsanjani: the official site features a photo album [no longer available] that highlights his revolutionary achievements, while the popular photo-sharing site Flickr displays a very different view of the candidate.

The posters with his image are conservative and traditional, while the popular Hashemi sticker is really quite radical. On it, the Iranian flag is reduced to an abstract mark. His name, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is reduced to Hashemi.

Hashemi

In a country where wives often call their husbands by formal names like Engineer (Mohandes) or Mister (Agha) and young girls are often called Little Miss (Dokhtar Khanum), the use of a name other than the surname is more than familiar: it is intimate.

With the plastering Hashemi stickers on ankles, across foreheads and on motorcycle windscreens, the Rafsanjani brand has come to mean that it is offering intimacy and friendship.

Will It Work?
ELECTION FUN NIGHT

Only time will tell how truly effective the Rafsanjani campaign has been. One thing is for certain: Political campaigns in Iran have changed. The Rafsanjani campaign is just one of the many signs of that change. (Check out the Flickr photo tag Election84 for a sense of this visual election.)

The campaign of former police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, who is number two or three in the running, also targets the youth. With his casual and stylish clothes, chic glasses, and sponsors such as Efes Zero Alcohol beer, the Qalibaf campaign directly competes with the Rafsanjani campaign for the hearts of Iran’s youthful population.

The biggest difference between the two marketing styles is this: Rafsanjani’s campaign is fueled by the images of teenagers and 20-somethings wrapped in Hashemi accessories, while Qalibaf’s marketing team has chosen to make the candidate himself the symbol of youth with his new fashionable outfits and attractive image.

We’ll Be Watching

It isn’t just the presidential candidates who are seeking to brand and re-brand themselves–it’s the entire country of Iran.

Plans are in the works for a tourism campaign that will target CNN’s international audience. Payvand News reports that the country is ready for foreign tourists and investors.

Well, we’ll be watching.

Why I Love Facebook

Facebook is like that friend you tell your deepest, darkest secrets too who blabs them to everyone and anyone after one glass of wine. (Oh wait, that’s me…) “then pimps you out and sells all that information to the local hustlers.”(1) It’s a privacy nightmare — a deep pit of despair for people who need to protect their own identity and the identity of others. I think of this all the time because of my work with activists. It makes the identification of networks as simple as a smart Facebook graph search and endangers those seduced by the simplicity of sharing information with so many others. Even (or should I say: especially) your “likes” give you away, as an article in The Guardian points out.

And yet, I am irresistibly drawn to Facebook, like a moth to the flame. Oh I know it could burn me, but the light is so very pretty.

While many complain about Facebook feeding our (not-so) latent narcissistic tendencies, its time-sucking prowess, and its utter inanity, I find those features charming. I want to know what you ate for breakfast. I want to read about the conversation you overheard in the diner. I want to see pictures of your dog and your baby (yes even those!). I want to hear the bad joke you heard today.

As someone who lives far away from so many of the people I love, the mundane rewards of casual conversation and the constant, often meaningless updates allow me to feel closer than I ever could when I was limited to letters and telephone conversations. When every communication was fraught with meaning and import, the connection I felt to those I loved diminished. At times, I was made even more lonely by it rather than less so.

Facebook solves this. I get to share in the lives of my far-away family and friends. Like Santa, I know when they are naughty or nice. I know when they wake up depressed. I can share the little and the day-to-day — the things that make us complete human beings.

So for everyone who writes about the damage Facebook is doing to our society and how they and their friends are busy committing Facebook suicide and re-connecting in the physical world, I say good for you. You have the luxury of living near the people you love. Must be nice. For the rest of us, there is Facebook.

(1) Thanks to my real friend Hollis for articulating the obvious so well.

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