I was 14 years old in 1979 when my mother, brother, sister and I took to the streets of Tehran along with millions of other Iranians to welcome Ayatollah Khomeini back from exile. The cleric had overthrown the monarchy, and to the masses who were welcoming him, Khomeini was the hero who was going to save Iran.
Thirty years later, Iranians hit the streets again with the same zeal, hoping that another four years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mir Hossein Mousavi will be the answer to their prayers. It looks now like the hard-liner Ahmadenijad will get four more years. But it is time for Iranians to leave heroes to the realm of mythology and look for change from within themselves.
Centuries before the governments of Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Khatami, before the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranians were moved by the philosophy of poets — Rumi, Ferdowsi and Saadi. The teachings of these sages brought to us a powerful identity that is embedded in our veins — encouraging love, justice, moderation, perseverance and freedom.
In 1927, my American grandmother, Helen Jeffrey, fell in love with Iran and Persian culture in New York City after listening to my grandfather, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, recite poems from the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi's classic 10th century epic that has been compared to Homer's Odyssey. The Shahnameh recounts the journey of a nation of people who sought justice and freedom of expression. Its 50,000 rhymed couplets chronicle Iran's mythical and pre-Islamic historical rulers, its heroes and heroines. Helen loved the story of Zal — one of Iran's greatest mythical warriors. Sitting on a bench in New York's Central Park or at Coney Island, my grandfather Abol Ghassem mesmerized 22-year-old Helen with these stories.
Zal was a warrior who was considered old at birth because he was born with white hair. His father was afraid that his enemies would claim Zal was a child of a genie, so he ordered that Zal be taken to the base of the Alborz Mountains and left to die. As fate would have it, a mythical bird called Simorgh took pity on Zal and raised him as her own. Zal would grow up and eventually was recognized as one of Iran's heroes for his physical strength and moral character. Zal began to travel to distant lands. He went to Afghanistan, where he fell in love with Rudabeh, the daughter of the King of Kabul. They were married and Rudabeh gave birth to Rostam — the mythical hero of every Iranian.
Legend has it that Rostam wandered around Iran for some 300 years fighting injustice. The moral of the epic of the Shahnameh, handed down to me by my mother, is that the rule of each King of Iran marks a moment in time. As long as each ruler acts for the good of the people he serves and the God who gave him the divine right to rule, the people will not object. But if the ruler is ruthless, a hero will arise from the people to confront him.
Ferdowsi's message is that justice eclipses all other traits of a system of governance. If there is a monarchy and no justice, there is no monarchy. If there is a theocracy and no justice, there is no theocracy.
It's no different today than it was when Ferdowsi wrote the Shahnameh 11 centuries ago. Iranians are still in search of justice, and the freedom of a civil society. They still seek their Rostam, the hero who will save Iran. Whether they are ruled by a monarchy or a theocracy, Iranians look to their leaders to guide them. But perhaps the time has come for the people of Iran to look for new heroes and heroines among themselves. Iranians must create their own destiny and become part of the solution.
Change in Iran today comes among the women and the young who are at the forefront of civil society. We have reported on NPR that women's protests have gained momentum over the past couple of years in Iran. They fight Islamic laws that allow for the stoning of women and inequality in pay, child custody, divorce and inheritance. The price of their fight is stiff. Some are imprisoned, some are charged with violating national security, or with disseminating false propaganda against the state in interviews. In their search for justice they need only to turn to their own mythology.
The presidential election fever shows Iranians are yearning for a civil society. The Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, for example, is part of a larger, peaceful movement for more moderation within the Islamic world. At the heart of their battle for human rights in general and women's and children's rights in particular in Iran is their call to reinterpret Islamic law, using Islamic law itself to reform Iran's system.
In her 2004 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Ebadi cited the Quran in making her point that people who know their rights are more likely to be free. Islam, she said, is a religion in which the first divine address to the prophet begins with the command "to recite." The Quran then swears by the written word. Such an address and message cannot be in conflict with "awareness, knowledge, wisdom, freedom of opinion and expression and cultural pluralism," Ebadi said.
The women have gone on record demanding that Islamic laws be re-interpreted. They say the laws currently on the books are based on male patriarchal interpretations and need to be modified. "If human rights are not manifested in codified laws by the state," Ebadi says, "then human beings will be left with no other choice but to stage rebellion against tyranny and oppression."
As an Iranian, and as an American, I've always been interested in the civil society Iran has tried to build under both its monarchy and its theocracy. In each case, the laws of the courts were repressed, and those who would espouse the rights of individuals, or human rights, were and have been exiled, tortured, thrown in prison, or silenced. Iranians, who saw both the fall of the Shah and the rise of the first Islamic revolution 30 years ago, yearn today for more of a voice in their own destiny.
My grandfather Abol Ghassem often said he would live forever because Rostam, the hero of the Shahnameh, lived for hundreds of years. Before my grandfather died, his oldest daughter, Lailee, asked him where he wanted to be buried — he said he wished to rest in Tus, near the holy city of Mashad, where the Shahnameh's poet Ferdowsi is buried. When Lailee asked why, he said he'd had a dream that his molecules would mix with those of Ferdowsi, and a Rostam — a hero-warrior or Pahlavan — would then be born to save Iran.
Yes, on many occasions, the legendary Rostam stood in place of the divine balance of justice, but today the millions of Iranians thirsty for self-realization ought to just claim this balance of justice on their own. As the poet Rumi once said, "Beyond the wrongdoings and right doings, there is a field. Meet me there."