Roundball Diplomacy in Iran: A Documentary

Here’s another entry in the category of basketball diplomacy*. When director Till Schauder found Kevin Sheppard, a point guard from the US Virgin Islands, playing professionally in the Iranian Super League, he made him the focus of his documentary, The Iran Job. The film follows Sheppard’s season with his team, A.S. Shiraz, and his spirited interactions with the Iranian people. In particular, Sheppard forms a relationship with three women—who bravely face the cameras, remove their head coverings, and share their views about the current culture in Iran. Shauder writes:

Iran is often portrayed as a terrorist nation, a nuclear threat, and a charter member of the Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. But behind the headlines—and the aggressive rhetoric of Iran’s hard-line leaders—lies one of the most fascinating nations, as sensuous as it can be challenging, with a life-loving people. This film focuses on Iran’s people, rather than its government, and I hope it can challenge perceptions of Iran by providing an authentic perspective that may be crucial when choices are made between war and peace. It is probably safe to say that getting Iran “right” is as impossible as getting any culture “right.” Nonetheless, for their people and for ours, it should be a high priority. . . . More than a fish-out-of-water sports documentary this film focuses on social issues including women’s rights, political freedom and religious conflict, through the lens of a black American basketball player.

The Iran Job is being screened in selected US theaters, and DVDs are available at Kickstarter.

*For more examples of basketball diplomats, see my other posts on Stephon MarburyYao Ming, and Jeremy Lin.

[photo of a basketball goal in Varamin, Iran: “Retired hoop!” by Blake Amin Tabrizi, used under a Creative Commons license]


Aesha’s Complex Story: Fleeing the Taliban and “Spreading Her Wings”

Two years ago, Aesha Mohammadzai, came to the US from Afghanistan after having her nose and ears cut off by her Taliban husband and in-laws. Her face was on the cover of Time and became a symbol for the Taliban’s persecution of women. This past Thursday, the 22-year-old was admitted to  Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to begin the long process of reconstructive surgery.

As stated in the CNN video below, when Aesha arrived in the States, expecting surgery, she was “deemed too emotionally fragile to undergo the procedures.” Since then, her story has been of a young woman dealing with the trauma of her past, adjusting to life in a new culture, and preparing for a future that is far from what she could have imagined as a girl growing up in her home country. Watch “Saving Aesha: Life after Taliban Attack” to get a sense of where Aesha is now.

But stopping with the video will give you only part of the story. If you don’t remember seeing many reports about Aesha since the Time cover, you’d not be alone. That’s because Esther Hyneman, a 73-year-old volunteer with Women for Afghan Women who had become Aesha’s “unofficial guardian,” barred the media from filming, photographing, or interviewing her. This was an effort to protect Aesha from the pressures and harmful influence of fame. In a CNN article from May, Hyneman says,

We’re hoping she’ll spread her wings. But when you’re 20 years old, from a village in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan where you’ve never been to school and can’t read or write in your own language, and you’ve never heard of France or Italy or Canada, and you don’t speak the language in the country you’re living in, and you’ve been through hell—it’s a little hard to spread your wings, even if you want to do it.

The author of this in-depth article is journalist Jessica Ravitz, who had to interview those around Aesha to learn her story. Her opportunity to talk with Aesha directly came only after Aesha moved away from New York—and the influence of Women for Afghan Women—to live with an expat Afghan couple in Maryland.

When I first watched the video, attached to a story announcing the start of Aesha’s surgery, I was struck by the progress Aesha has made and the community of people who had gathered around her. I particularly enjoyed the scenes from her ESL classroom, scenes that should inspire anyone considering a future in teaching English. It made me want to find out more, and I’m glad I kept looking, otherwise I wouldn’t have found the earlier article that, while not denying the progress and inspiration, deals more with the complexity and difficulties of Aesha’s life in the US: the tantrums, the “psychologically induced faux seizures,” the borderline personality disorder, the manipulations from a victim who “hurts people before they can hurt her.”

The difficulties are sobering, but they shouldn’t be surprising. What a life of trauma and upheaval this woman has experienced. Now that Aesha’s surgery has begun (actually a series of surgeries that may take two years to complete), we are tempted to smile and move on, happy that she is finally “OK.” But it will take more time and more hard work and more help from wise and compassionate people before everything will be OK. I am grateful for Ravitz’s article. It shows that frustration, disagreement, and disappointment often accompany our best efforts to help others, especially those who have the greatest needs. It makes me glad to know that when we keep trying to make a difference in complex situations, when we do our best even though it’s not appreciated, and even when we loosen our grip to let others find their own way, we are walking on the same path as those who have stepped into Aesha’s life. Their stories, and Aesha’s story, are inspiring, not because they are simple and tidy but because they are complicated and messy and hopeful and real.

(Jessica Ravitz, “Saving Aesha,” CNN, May 2012)

Got a Couple Hours? Take Time for Cairo

When it comes to movies, I’m often late to the game, as I usually catch them on DVD well after they’ve been released in the theaters. So only last week did I bring Cairo Time (2009) home from the library and watch it with my wife. I had not heard about it before and only picked it out because of the title and synopsis on the case. Sometimes that leads to disappointment, but this time, it paid off.

Cario Time is directed by Ruba Nadda, an Arab-Canadian, and stars Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. Clarkson plays Juliette, the wife of a UN worker who travels to Egypt to meet her husband for a long-awaited vacation. When she arrives, her husband is unable to leave his work in Gaza, so his friend, Tareq (Siddig) picks her up at the airport and introduces her to the city. Tareq is a dashing gentleman, and he and Juliette develop a relationship over the next several days. As several reviewers mention, Cairo is another major character in the story, as Juliette is swept off her feet by a city that also frustrates her. In a way, her relationship with Tareq mirrors how she feels about Cairo, enchanted yet perplexed by her own feelings . . . infatuated by the exotic newness while drawn back by her own “culture.”

Included on the DVD is a “Making Of” segment, in which Nadda says that the reason she became a filmmaker was because she “was desperate to shed light on the common misconceptions the West has of the Middle East.” The segment also includes behind-the-scenes footage from a “very Islamic, very religious” part of Egypt where they filmed a scene. The director was warned not to go there, but they did anyway, and she says it turned out being “one of the best days of [her] life.” They met a poor family there who welcomed them, gave them sodas, and asked about Seinfeld. With accompanying footage, Nadda tells this story:

The man’s wife, she’s veiled, she said “I need to be validated, I need to show the world what I look like.” And she began to unveil. And I was like, “But you’re going to be on camera. The West will see you.” And she said, “I don’t care. I want to show people that I exist.”

Cairo Time is not a fast-paced movie. Rather it moves at a deliberate, thoughtful pace. As Clarkson says in “Toronto Q & A” (also on in the “Bonus” section of the DVD), the director “had the courage to let there be silence.” Nadda adds,

I wanted to show a story that wasn’t about immediate gratification, you know, which is, I find, sometimes, a bit North American. It was “Cairo time.” . . . Cairo is so crazy and chaotic and beautiful, bustling, but it’s also an assault to the senses, and that chips away at your guard and it forces you to slow down whether you like it or not.

[photo: “Pyramids,” by Wilhelm Joys Andersen, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Globesity Epidemic

Several news outlets, including The Washington Post, have recently cited a study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, on obesity in the US. It predicts that the number of obese Americans will rise from the current 34% of the population to 42% by the year 2030. This is less than the 51% that was predicted in another study four years ago, but the new figures still show a worrying trend, one that is expected to add over half a trillion dollars to health-care costs.

Here’s where I’d planned on segueing to a discussion of the growth of obesity around the globe with something like “While the US is the global leader in the overweight category, the obesity epidemic is truly global.” I thought that America’s status as the fattest country was a given, but it’s actually not true. In fact, according to an article published in The Lancet (as reported in LiveScience), the US comes in at about #20. Behind places like Nauru (#1, where over 80% are obese), Samoa, and other island nations in Oceania, as well as Middle Eastern countries, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Turns out that when we heard that the US was the most obese, that was referring to industrialized countries. But now that the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have climbed up the list, America is no longer tops even in that category.

Anyway, back to “the obesity epidemic is truly global” . . . .

The Harvard School of Public Health reports that worldwide, about 500 million people are obese, with another one billion considered overweight. We now live in a world where there are more overweight than underweight people. And the number of obese in the world is expected to double by 2030.

Fed by globalization, the “globesity epidemic” has several causes affecting low- and middle-income countries:

  • Free trade brings cheaper food and greater access to processed foods.
  • Rising global wealth brings about habits that lead to obesity—including reduced levels of activity, eating outside the home, and buying more processed foods.
  • Urbanization and technological advances lead to a decrease in activity and more sedentary lifestyles.
  • The spread of advertising, on TV and in other media, is pushing the products and eating habits of the West.
  • And increased industrialization produces higher levels of stress and reduced sleep, two factors that are associated with obesity.

Even though the trends are set in place, the Harvard School of Public Health believes that there is room for hope. Education and smart policies can slow the momentum. Low- and middle-income countries need to “learn from the mistakes of higher income countries, which did not recognize the health consequences of modernization until they were already taking a greater toll.” But that would require the ability to distinguish excesses from successes, something that the West has not been very good at.

(David Brown, “Study Predicts 42 Percent of Americans Will Be Obese in 2030,” The Washington Post, May 7, 2012; Christopher Wanjek, “US Loses Its Fat Supremacy,LiveScience, February 8, 2011; “The Obesity Prevention Source: Globalization,” The Harvard School of Public Health)

[photo: “Obesity in the US,” by Global X, used under a Creative Commons license]

Octopi, Jellyfish, Cross-Cultural Partnerships, and Making Plans

An article in Wired discusses lessons we can learn from the octopus. One of them touches on cross-cultural partnerships, formed when sometimes antagonistic groups come together to combat immediate problems:

Some life-forms engage in symbiotic partnerships with other organisms. An octopus may provide shelter for toxic bacteria, which then give the octopus yet another tool in its arsenal—the ability, found in certain species, to inflict a deadly bite.

This skill, too, can translate to the man-made world. Symbiosis is at the heart of a remarkable partnership between Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian health practitioners who are sharing technology, databases, medicines, and knowledge to identify and reduce the threat of infectious diseases regardless of where they appear. These symbioses work not because they are perfect, all-encompassing solutions but because they solve immediate problems. The doctors in this coalition didn’t set out to create peace in the Middle East, but if peace does break out there, it will undoubtedly owe some credit to symbiotic relationships like this one.

And this isn’t the only place where these partnerships have born fruit:

[T]he facilitators of this Middle Eastern infectious-disease consortium have replicated their success in the mutually hostile southeast Asian countries bordering the Mekong River and are now bringing the model to southern Africa.

This reminds me of a book I’ve read that has found a place on my “favorites” bookshelf—Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story about God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables. In it, Phil Vischer tells how he founded Big Idea Productions, home of Veggie Tales, and built it into a major producer of Christian entertainment, only to see his dreams and his ministry end in bankruptcy. After having his grand plan, his “big idea,” fail, Vischer decided to imitate another sea creature . . . the jellyfish. He explained this approach in an interview with In Touch Magazine:

[M]y new company is called Jellyfish Labs—very intentionally, because jellyfish can’t choose their own course. They can’t locomote. They are carried by the current. And they have to trust the current will take them where they need to be and keep them alive.

I went off the track with Big Idea when I started making 20-year plans. I was like, “Okay, God, this is what I’m going to do for You in the next 20 years. Now, all You need to do is just bless it.” When we do this, we don’t have to listen anymore, because we’ve already figured out what we’re going to do. God is in some sort of subservient role where He gets to sit in the back seat and hand out the credit card when we need resources.

But for a jellyfish to make a 20-year plan—it’s humorous. It’s lunatic. I had viewed myself as a big macho barracuda in the ocean of life. In reality, I was a jellyfish—basically a spineless bag of goo that has no form.

. . . . 

In reality, if I’ve given Christ lordship of my life, and if I understand the concept of lordship, where I am in 20 years is really none of my business. It’s my business to say, “Okay, God, what have You called me to do today?”

Expats, repats, TCKs, ATCKs, missionaries, ex-missionaries, and others who face life-changing transitions can find it hard to make, and keep, long-term plans. What does the future hold? Will my transitions define my life? Where am I headed? Who have I become? There is a time for making big plans and for having big ideas, but thanks to Phil Vischer for reminding us that even though the jellyfish doesn’t control the currents, it still gets where it needs to go.

(Rafe Sagarin, “When Catastrophe Strikes, Emulate the Octopus,” Wired, March 21, 2012; Tonya Stoneman, “Mighty like a Jellyfish,” InTouch Ministries)

[top photo: “Octopus at Mothra,” by Neptune Canada, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Jellyfish” by CodyHanson, used under a Creative Commons license]

Stories on a Bus

When we ride public transportation, we are simultaneously moving and stuck. As an American traveling in Israel, I have started to use this time to become unstuck—to understand more about the people living there instead of relying on stereotypes.

So begins a wonderfully written article by Ariel Katz, an American now living in England, who previously worked in Israel for three years in Israel-Arab relations. She tells about her conversation with a young Israeli military captain sitting next to her on the bus to Tel Aviv, and then with an older man who next claimed the seat. Words between the two men told Katz that the second man had “a story to tell about his relationship to the army, one of gratitude and guilt.” “Now I am determined to unearth the story of the man sitting next to me,” she writes. His answers to her questions revealed that his name was Roni, he was an ex-soldier, his father was a Syrian-born Jew, and his mother’s parents were from Iran. As a university student, his major had been Middle Eastern studies (the same as Katz), and he had later served as a Hebrew/Arabic translator in Taba, Egypt. Katz calls Roni “a living bridge between the two cultures.” “In him, Arabness and Jewishness resided respectfully.” She closes the article with the following thought, one that each of us could personalize by substituting Arab-Jewish with the names of people from other cultures, people with whom we often walk past but rarely rub shoulders.

I wonder if we relied less on conventional narratives of Arab-Jewish relations, and instead became interested in the person sitting next to us on the bus or train, that we might also move forward together metaphorically to arrive at our desired destinations.

I also learned a phrase from Roni, a phrase that I’d like to use someday in conversation. When Katz asked him his thoughts on the topic of Arabs in Israel, he replied with what she calls “the classic diplomatic Israeli answer”: “We are all sons of Adam,” he said. “We are all human.”

(Ariel Katz, “A Conversation Creates a Bridge between Arabs and Jews,” Common Ground News Service, March 20, 2012)

[photo: “Traveling by Egged Bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv” by David King, used under a Creative Commons license]