An Experience In My Public Service
by Taghi Razavian
We make a living by what we get.
We make a life by what we give.
It is 6 o’clock (local time) in the evening of September 21, 1998. I am just back home after a tough day of teaching, meeting with some students and discussing their research projects, attending one of those boring department meetings, waiting in a long line to catch a cab and arguing with the driver over fare. I go straight to the kitchen. Fortunately, the tea pot is hot on top of the boiling water kettle. A good custom in that part of the world is to have hot tea ready all through the day. I pour myself a cup, which we like to drink with cube sugar, come to the living room, turn on television, put down my heavy book-loaded briefcase on the table (amazingly I have been carrying it along in the kitchen).
I throw myself on my favorite sofa, stretch my legs and try to concentrate on a question one of the students asked me today; why are we called a rogue nation? Aren’t we proud to be one of the oldest civilizations on earth? Haven’t we always been renown for our hospitality? A rogue nation? Didn’t we make a revolution which meant to overthrow a regime abusing human rights and suppressing its people (according to then US president Jimmy Carter).
I am trying to find an answer or rather an explanation. I, myself, have heard on different occasions “rogue country” in some seminars and conferences I’d attended in different countries. Fortunately the student raised his question in the last minutes of class and I had the excuse to buy some time before I come up with an answer. Students think you have an answer for everything and they expect it right away. Actually I could have answered him but I needed time to think.
I look up. The wall clock still is about six. All is passed is only two minutes. My wife hasn’t got home from work (maybe she is caught in the traffic). My son was playing football (soccer) with his friends in front of our house when I came in. I can still hear their voices. Football here is air, blood, the whole life-line of the people. There is no use calling him upstairs. They don’t give up before dark, when they can’t see the ball anymore.
A rogue nation. I still have to come up with an answer. It is still 6 and a few minutes in the evening of September 21, 1998. The tea is still too hot. I try to sip from other side of the cup but at no avail. It burns my lips. Why is she not home yet, it is getting too late? Has he scored a goal, you should see his eyes if he did. What would be a good answer to the “rogue nation” question? And what is the fastest solution to drink that hot tea?
Suddenly a news break on television interrupts my thoughts. The reporter is talking from New York. Behind him is the UN building and flags of all countries moving in the air. The C.E.O. of the country, where I lived and worked as an academic, was addressing the General Assembly, proposing his doctrine of promoting dialogue among nations and civilizations (perhaps in response to Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory) proposing “that the United Nations, as a first step, designate the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations."
It is 6:30 pm local time (10 am New York time). The C.E.O. of a world renown rogue country (later to be named a member of the Axis of Evil) is standing in front of the world representatives and calling them to promote dialogue and use it as an instrument to prevent wars and confrontations. Nineteen years after a bloody anti-western-civilization revolution that rocked the region and the world, the most popular figure of the revolutionary regime demonstrates his will to come back to the world arena and asks for peace and dialogue.
I am stuck to the screen. Maybe I found the answer for that student. Or maybe not. Can he deliver his proposal at home? Should we, the scholars, help him to deliver? Suddenly a mountain of questions is in front of myself (not to mention my student).
The tea has gotten too cold now and needs to be changed.
I started working when I was thirteen. We were a large family and my father, a teacher with a low-figured monthly pay-check, would welcome it if I could get a job. One of the relatives who owned a small jewelry shop downtown was going to Mecca for pilgrimage. He had a couple of apprentices who would run the business in his absence. He asked my father if I could go to the shop after school, count the daily sale and write the amount on the calendar he used as his business record book. It was a favor he was requesting from my father. No salary. In traditional societies it is hard to say no to people who ask you for favors. And my father agreed and ordered me to go. It was for one month, during which I learned a lot – not only about bracelets and necklaces but about working for the sake of work not for profit. My next experience was a year later. During the school summer holiday a cousin of my father who run a local newspaper asked if I wanted to work in the archives. And I did (for 10 dollars a month).
From that point on and except for a few intervals, I continuously worked and supported my life. From that local newspaper to the largest in the country. From that small jewelry shop to a large corporation.
I worked and studied. I got a Ph.D. and began my academic profession in the most prestigious university of the country. They called me a workaholic. Besides teaching, for which I was paid a salary, I had a lust for extra activity. I was never satisfied with one job. I also traveled frequently. It was my best hobby to go around and meet different people and communities. I even left my regular employment for some years and lived in Europe, in the United States and in the Middle East. I needed to find out how other people live, work, pray, run their day-to-day life and socialize with themselves and with others. The essence of dialogue.
It was a cold day in the winter of 1999 (a few months after September, 21, 1998) when somebody called to ask me if we could meet over lunch. He mentioned the project Dialogue Among Civilizations and wondered if I would be willing to join the team to develop the idea. We met several times during which I found that in response to the proposal made by the President, the United Nations' General Assembly has declared 2001 as the year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. The government subsequently founded the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations (ICDAC) in February 1999. It was said in the charter that ICDAC is primarily an organization to promote the concept of a global structure based on mutual understanding and tolerance. To achieve that goal, the Center set forth its mission statement as:
- To promote dialogue among civilizations and cultures on an international scale as a means of advancing the interpretation of the UN Charter and of improving human well-being.
- To promote and expand the culture of dialogue at the national level.
- To promote the culture of peace in order to foster peaceful coexistence and prevent human rights violations.
- To help establish and broaden the international civil society through cultural interaction among nations.
- To strengthen spiritual, moral and religious culture.
- To conduct research on the significance and different interpretations of dialogue among civilizations and to release the findings nationally and internationally.
There was no money involved, but work for the betterment of the people, the country and the world. It seemed an ideal opportunity for someone who’d always liked to work for a cause he believed in. You could call it a real public (in its general framework) service.
So I stepped in, first as vice president for education and later as executive V.P. It was a great opportunity to put forward all my past experiences and satisfy my aptitude to work hard. I created a small administrative machine which could accept big responsibilities and perform in its utmost. The goal was to develop the new theory into practice. In the course of two years we brought hundreds of scholars, politicians, philosophers, historians, artists, writers, etc., from all walks of life, to the scene to confer with each other and with other people to provide a basis for dialogue and understanding.
Everything was going on perfectly. I was so enthusiast that a fifteen hour working day seemed un-exhaustive. The tea in most cases was too cold to drink. But who cared. I was running at full speed to achieve what I believed was necessary to face-lift a rogue nation. I traveled inside and outside the country trying to reach people and deliver the new message. More than frequent if I mentioned these words:
entered the third millennium with the hope of achieving permanent peace on earth, sustainable
development and equality for all human beings. Frustrated by all the miseries
of the 20th century,
he opened the gates of the twenty first century by naming the year 2001, as the Year of Dialogue
Among Civilizations, an idea that was unanimously approved by members of the
United Nations. According to the new theory, dialogue and mutual understanding
replaces confrontations and wars and global development would be materialized
by accepting and appreciating individual beliefs, cultures and different
civilizations. Emphasis should be put more on finding commonalities than
differences. Believing in “otherness” rather than sole “self”.
I attended meetings, participated in conferences and seminars, delivered speeches, arranged classes and workshops, made films, plays, music festivals, art exhibitions, used my experience of journalism and wrote regularly and so forth, all to convince people of the importance of new theory. I had a dream to materialize; a change of attitude and look. I remembered I was a young boy when Martin Luther King Jr addressed the massed millions in the Mall and in front of Lincoln’s Memorial with “I have a dream”. He achieved his goals and I thought I too can achieve my goal. A new look from inside to the outside world and a change of view for outsiders towards the people of one of the oldest civilizations on earth. I believed I had a historic mission to accomplish. A golden opportunity to serve your people and country and perhaps the world.
Two years passed, however, before I found I was over-enthusiast. I had forgotten the facts of life; where you are living, whom you are talking to, who is controlling thoughts and behaviors. I was so engulfed in my dreams that I’d almost forgotten the terms “developing country”, “revolutionary regime”, “rogue nation”.
Hard politics began to interfere. Social development, image building, civil society and intellectualism were no longer a priority. Authoritative policy was coming to the front. A new figure was appointed to run the office. He had problems in his previous posts and after forced resignation was sent to a place to be away from his opposing forces. His first decision was to stop all those activities which so effortlessly had tried to institutionalize the culture of peace and mutual understanding in a community which was only taught hater and disregard. ICDAC was to become a low profile, stalled, quiet, typical third world bureaucracy where productive work is seldom and the whole mechanism is to serve interests of an individual or a certain group in political hierarchy. The new boss started with putting his own security service and personal guards in administrative positions. Our workplace, a cultural building was turned into a fortress with twenty-four- hour armed guards, handguns and grenades in a safe box, installed security cameras and heavily checked visitors and attendees. It became more than a secured government building. No more exhibitions, no more classes, no more a place for ordinary people to come and go but just a few hand-picked trusted figures. It became a fortress for the new boss to serve his personal wills and affairs. It grew in size not in mind. An elephant with the brain of a sparrow.
It was against my understanding of a public, not-for-profit, cultural institution. It was not what I thought would serve the nation and improve its image internationally. I warned that we are going the wrong way. Wrong from the mission we chartered at the beginning and wrong from the policy of confidence-building that we had so much propagated and worked for its success.
But I had forgotten, for a moment, what one of my past college professors, an English lady, used to tell us in the class that “in developing countries everything is politicized (and in most cases militarized) and remains so as long as the ruling clan is determined to hold its authoritarian grip over the country and its people”. I must have known right from the beginning that I was swimming against the main current. Open dialogue is a paradox. It is against the theory of authoritarian ruling systems. It was natural to happen and I should have been amazed that it even lasted for a couple of years.
I was told to sit back, cool off, apply the brake and put aside all what I had planned for months and years to come. Just join the mainstream of the silent administrative board. Attend the once-a-month meetings and otherwise stay away. The architect of the theory of Dialogue Among Civilizations himself is under pressure to give up his ideas. It just doesn’t work in that system and even creates backlashes.
So I sat back. I realized facts that overshadow ideals. I should have realized it before; the fact that public service is interpreted differently by different people. If you want to serve your people do it within the context of realities not according to your own ideals.
A cup of hot tea tastes much better than a cold one.