Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: March 2009 (page 2 of 3)

In Memoriam: Omidreza Mirsayafi

On Wednesday, I got the news that Omidreza Mirsayafi, Iranian blogger and new friend of mine, had passed away in prison in Iran.  He was arrested last April, tried last November, and detained in February following an interrogation.  On December 21, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Blogging in Iran: A Dangerous Prospect.” Two days later, Omidreza e-mailed me, beginning an all too brief friendship through e-mail. His e-mail was short and sweet. He thanked me for caring: “When I see your post on the mentiond [sic] website, I became so happy that a journalist in other corner of world writes about the situations of Iranians journalist & bloggers and is concerned about us.” He invited me to “have a dialogue” with him.

Omidreza Mirsayafi was you.  He was me.  He would send me articles on things like Iran’s Environmental Arts Festival, or the rituals of the Kurds in Iran. We only chatted a few times, mostly about his sadness. He wanted me to help him with media coverage. I tried, and I didn’t really succeed; for one, few Western outlets were interested, and for another, after consulting with friends more experienced in such matters, they felt that too much coverage might do damage to his case. In the end, he was called in for interrogation anyway and imprisoned without explanation. On February 6, the day before he was taken in, he tried chatting me up; I was away from my desk, or busy, I didn’t respond. That will forever haunt me, as will the thought that I didn’t do all I could. In fear of looking like I was playing hero, I instead laid low, hoping that silence was the key to not aggravating the powers that be. In the end, I was probably wrong.

But this isn’t about me, and as I’ve been reminded so much over the past few days, I was not the only one who remained silent. But first they come for the Iranian bloggers…

It wasn’t the first time he’d been imprisoned; In 2000 he spent twenty days in the infamous Evin Prison, a twenty days which he said felt like twenty years. Three years ago, he wrote in his own blog (translated from the original Persian):

In stead of bending and unbending in prayers for a God dwelling cozily in the seventh heaven
I learned to be an insignificant meek person who for the entire world would not take a whit worth of dirty money. I learned that I am the creator and the created. I learned that the salvation is not achieved by wandering through the primrose path of sticking to the dogmas and the preordained codes. But it is in having faith in the dignity, nobility and liberty of the human beings. I learned that humans are not a bunch of weak slaves or debilitated beings, but they are commanding and free agents who can create whatever they wish. I learned that I have to learn in order to set myself free. I learned to unlearn whatever I had learned earlier in my life and found my thoughts on a firm and correct base from the scratch. I learned I had been moving on the wrong track for 20 years. I learned I could be born again in any way I’d want to.

Omidreza was you. He was me. He was each one of us who dares speak our minds. He simply was born in the wrong country, at the wrong time, and chose the wrong day to write about something he believed in.

The world has lost one genuine soul, one true believer. We must stand together to prevent this from ever happening again.


Just three days ago I woke up in Damascus for the last time (for now). It doesn’t seem possible, sitting here in my Cambridge office, looking out the window at a still mid-winter sky, that exactly this time last week I was watching the sun set on the road between Homs and Damascus. It doesn’t quite seem real to have been half a world away.

And yet such are the woes of my generation: as Rebekah Heacock and I have mused, we are indeed “the first globals” whether we like it or not. We are caught up in this world where borders seem thinner than they really are, friends in faraway places can become real with just a few clicks of the keyboard, a visa application, and a trip to the local airport (okay, perhaps it isn’t always that easy, but you get my drift). In the past year, I have met over fifty people that were previously only avatars and blog URLs, but who have become best friends and loved ones. Becoming attached to people so far away can hurt desperately; it can also demonstrate the true power of this new world we live in. It can also change your life.

But this post is supposed to be about Syria. Syria, just the name of which causes raised eyebrows where I’m from. Syria, which people assume to be this country on the axis of evil, this dark place hidden away from the world. Syria, which causes people to somehow forget thousands of years of history in remembrance of the past fifty or so.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

In reality? I loved it. Along with Prague, it’s the best place I’ve ever traveled, only better, because the people match the beauty of the place (not the case in the city of a hundred spires). And having gone in with no real magical expectations (I admittedly did most of my reading on Wikipedia, which is fine, because I know who authored most of Syria’s Wikipedia entries), any that I did have were far exceeded.

But of course a country seems perfect when you’re only there for eight days. I don’t want to give some magical perception of the place, because I realize that I barely dug beneath the surface. I spent all of my time with the inimitable Anas Qtiesh of Global Voices, and we were often joined by the lovely Sarah, and occasionally by the beautiful Razan. I ate fetteh and cherry kabobs (which my dear Syrian Bostonian friend told me this morning are not in fact an Aleppine tradition at all), and drank countless glasses of the lemon-and-mint-smoothie that is polo. I rode on the nicest train I’ve ever been on in my life (only the German route from Munich to Prague remotely compares), countless incredible Syrian buses (including once in a VIP section in the back that reminded me of the mob), and plenty of taxis and services (microbuses). I visited the Citadel of Aleppo, the Khan Asad Pasha and Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Mediterranean coast in Tartous, and the ruins at Bosra. I drank countless cups of strong black coffee, plenty of Barada beers, and copious amounts of homemade Syrian wine out of a gasoline can.

People keep asking me how my trip was – some with amazement that I went there at all, others with the same curiosity as if I’d just returned from Paris or California. Others still ask “why on earth would you want to go there?” Still others are surprised I managed to return at all. I don’t really know how to answer these questions – If I say it was incredibly safe, I was never bothered once, and it felt like home, they either don’t believe me or are shocked. If I say things seem to run so smoothly and everyone is perfectly kind, I feel like I’m betraying Syria’s reality (which is to say that of course it’s not perfect, but a tourist can’t see below the surface). So when anyone asks, I just say I had the time of my life.

(Photos are mine and Creative Commons except the one of me, which is CC but by Anas Qtiesh)

From Amman

I arrived without incident, the 12-hour plane ride which had caused me so much anxiety turned out to be rather simple – you stay awake long enough for dinner, pop a sleeping aid of some kind, knock yourself out for six or so hours and wake up with enough time left to watch a movie or chat with the person next to you…who in my case, turned out to be one of the more interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lately. She was wearing niqaab, something which I’m afraid I still always judge – not in the way you might think, rather, when I order a glass of wine, I assume the judgement is on myself.

Mind you, I’m quite used to hijab and have friends on a varying spectrum of piety who wear it. But that’s precisely the thing – there’s wide-ranging variance, whereas when a woman covers her entire face, you assume automatically that religion is #1 in her life. It most likely is – but I need to learn not to assume that religion being #1 implies judgement on others. Oddly enough, I think this prejudice comes more from being around fundamental Christians than Muslims. Muslims, in my personal experience, are less likely to judge outsiders – being just that, outsiders, whereas the more extreme Christians just don’t get why Jesus isn’t my savior.

Eventually, food arrived, and she asked me for sugar – which is when I realized she was American. African-American specifically, which was only notable in our later discussion. As it turns out, she and her five children were moving to Yemen for the year…and it was their first time out of the United States, ever.

Every day, I learn something about putting aside my own prejudices and judgements. In this case, my judgement was that she would judge me, but as it turns out, we ended up having a great two-hour conversation about American misconceptions of Islam, moving abroad, the daily things you get to know and put up with when moving to another country for the first time. She asked me all sorts of questions that reminded me of things that I loved about living in Morocco. I shared the many things I loved and the many things I didn’t. And we discussed why Yemen of all places. Saudi was too strict, too racist, North Africa never even came up, the Emirates too rich. Yemen seemed traditional, slow-paced, a good wholesome place to raise children.

She impressed me. I have pre- and mis-conceptions like everyone else, and I guess what I can’t see through a veil I often disregard, but that conversation, and the woman I met because of it, remind me of why you just have to live your life for what you want. I understand her wanderlust – we are closer as people because of that, our differences diminished by our shared mentality.

After we got off the plane, I lost track of her and her lovely family. But every person you meet, every kindred spirit, is a reminder of how small this world really is. On to Dimashq!

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