April 6, 2012

Azadi Means Freedom

Without fear there is no risk. Your are only as free and brave as the size of the risks you are willing to take.

There is a short story in this post, the one which I will start with, but then there is a much longer one, submerged just a bit beneath the surface. We will get to that one soon, but first let us start with the details.

Last week a friend shared this video on her Facebook page-

I knew I had to do this. I followed the link to the stencil: print, cut, ready. I joined the Facebook group and was ready to paint!

Sorry, let me slow down. The short story is already almost over, and I am not yet ready to begin the longer one. Let us back up and spend some time in this photograph.

Kaia, my five-and-a-half year-old daughter and I,  were at hanging-out in my classroom after school, preparing the stencils, when we had the following conversation:

Me: Do you know why we are making these?
Kaia: No daddy.
Me: We want to show others that we know that people in Iran are not being treated nicely. Do you know where Iran is?
Kaia: That is where Grandma Mahin and Grandpa Mehran are from right?
Me: Yes, and me too, I was born there too. It is where I am from. But the government there, the people who are supposed to help the people are not very nice. They don't allow the people to be free.
Kaia: What does that mean daddy?
Me: Means that the people cannot do what they want. They cannot say what they think, or dress how they want. They cannot watch what they want or read what they want. The girls must cover their hair and are not treated the same as the boys.
Kaia: This poster will change that?
Me: Well, probably not, but this poster will show that we know what is happening. We will share it on the Internet, so that the people in Iran will know that they are not alone. Sometimes, when you are not free, you feel very lonely and scared. It is nice to know people care about you.
Kaia: Will the mean people in Iran see these too? If they see that we know they are being mean, maybe they will stop.
Me: That would be great. Yeah, maybe they will see that they should let the people be free. Do you know what Azadi means?
Kaia: shakes head no.
Me: It means freedom.
Kaia: I hope this helps. Because people should be free to be who they want to be.
Me: You are really smart. You know that?

Carving out the stencil was difficult for her, but I manged to make one. I was ready to paint...

The only problem was that I was scared. I could already hear my wife deriding my careless risk taking. What if I got caught or fined or arrested? We are living in a foreign country and perhaps, spray painting political art on the walls would not be the best idea. This fear got me thinking. The rest of this post, the longer part is about this fear.

Before I was married, before I had kids, before I had a great job, before I had to worry about anyone but myself, I would have painted this stencil anywhere I damn where pleased. I would have lurked in the shadows of the night and painted it on the walls of the Iranian embassy. The risk would have been less, because I back then I had less to lose. I had nothing to lose, but now--now I have so much to lose.

What does this fear mean of losing security mean in terms of political action? What does it say about society, hell what does it say about me, that when we reach a certain level of comfort and stability, the idea of taking risks for those who are oppressed is too scary? Let's be honest, spray painting a poster isn't that much of a risk at all. People in Iran are rotting in jails and hanging from nooses, while I am afraid to perform a symbolic act, because I might lose my job? There is no risk to my life, just my livelihood. This fear is enough to shame me and douse me with guilt. 

I have read about this phenomenon somewhere-- shudder I am the petit-bourgeoisie, and so are you most likely. I started to think: Can we, the petit-bourgeoisie, ever really do fight for the oppressed? We can raise awareness through Slactivist online campaigns, that is if we can even muster up enough courage for that, but really if we are not willing to sacrifice our own comfort, what are we doing?

Maybe only the oppressed can fight for the oppressed. A true revolutionary cannot have anything to lose, because when he/she does have something to lose, he/she will always think of him/herself first. When you think of your own safety and needs before the needs of the cause for which you are fighting, then you are not a true revolutionary, you are a reformer. You are interested in protecting the needs of the petit-bourgeoisie, your own needs. This realization sucks.

For my own sanity, I knew that I had to paint this stencil somewhere. Even if my action was only symbolic, I needed it.  Like every petit-bourgeois reformer, (I ain't no Banksy) I hatched a safe plan. Calculated risk. What a cop-out! I waited until dark and headed to the wall and rusted box I had scoped out the day before in my gated housing compound. I know embarrassing right? Can of paint in my pocket, rolled up stencil, walking in the darkness, I couldn't believe I felt adrenaline, but I did, and my mind was racing.

I was thinking of school and my students. We teach them, or at least we talk about teaching them to be principled and risk takers, but here I was afraid to share a project like this with them. We recently finished a unit on The Wall, in which we discussed the role of art in totalitarian societies. What better extension than to actually encourage kids to create art onto a wall to defy totalitarianism?

Most people would champion raising awareness about the plight of people in Iran. Most people would frown and shake their heads when discussing the hundreds of executions in the country since the 2010 Green Movement. Most people can pepper their conversations with gibberish like Axis of Evil and Islamofacists, but if they heard that you were  considering telling young people to do something that was illegal, however small or trivial, they would admonish you for subverting the youth.

Does the youth need subverting? Is it fair to teach kids to be principled risk takers through a petit-bourgeois mentality without giving them a chance to be revolutionaries? If we truly want change in Iran, in the world, in our schools, can we afford to remain calculated risk takers? At some point, don't we need to do some things that might upset the status quo? Shouldn't we spray paint walls to show that we are here?  That we know. That we see. That we exist. That we care.

I quickly painted the stencil onto two walls:


Now what? So what? What have I done? Not much, I know. I am not delusion enough to think that this superficial act will do anything, for anyone, anywhere, but the process I went through, the one which I have discussed in this post has been a great learning experience. An experience, I am sure not enough students or teachers are having.  

Seeing this little stencil, however impotent, everyday in my housing complex is an empowering reminder that sometimes we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort level. Radicalization, however insignificant, comes from facing our fear and risking more than our own needs. What else can justice be?

So put down that iPad, finish your latte and walk out of Starbucks. Grab a stencil, find a wall (however safe it may be) and remind someone, somewhere that people in Iran are not as free as you at this moment. They would be killed for doing what you are about to do. If you were living in an oppressed society, wouldn't you want the people who have freedom to use it for you?

If you do paint a wall, take a picture and add it as a comment below. Then add it to the Facebook page to help the campaign. I know it isn't much, but it is something? Right? How do you deal with action, petit-bourgeoisie guilt, and the subversion of the youth for the sake of global justice?

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