One of the worlds most enduring poets is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, a Persian sufi mystic who died in the 13th Century. The world remembers him as Rumi.
Rumi is famous for powerful quotes like the one above. And when i saw this on Facebook, i recognized it and took issue with it. I have seen many activist and organizers drop out of political work to pursue spiritual paths or personal growth and the like. This leaves those of us foolish enough to “stay behind” with even more work.
Gandhi’s famous quote is a bridge between these two paths “Be the change you wish to see in the world” [Tho Gandhi probably never said this.] One can even argue that you must start by cleaning up your own stuff, before you can be effective in influence the world. But the world is in desperate need of concerted attention and it is in no way wise to focus on yourself instead.
Jakub and i went out together in Prague the other night. Jakub was one of the founders (with Honza Beranek) of Hnuti DUHA, the Czech dark green environmental group i worked with for nearly 7 years. i had a wonderful time, both meeting new activists and retelling stories of these glory days.
When reasonable people had gone to sleep, Jakub and i kept talking. We went to the home of his friend, a night owl and independent film maker, Vit Janecek. “So you are the spiritual father of Hnuti DUHA” Vit said to me and i was quite taken a back. I never considered myself to have such a significant role, but as Jakub described it i could see how someone might think this. I was touched and flattered.
Jakub was 19 when we started working together, i was 36. The first time we did a march at nuclear power plant there were perhaps 50 protesters. At one point there was something of a stand off between the armed security guards of the plant and the protesters. I turned to Jakub and said “in the west this is when we would start chanting or singing”. Jakub grabbed the bullhorn and lead the chants. The security stepped back, and the protesters celebrated a small victory. It was 1991, there was virtually no protest movement history, other than the revolution itself in the Czech Republic. The little i knew was useful.
And i was a peculiar character in the DUHA office, not only older, but i could barely count in Czech, i slept in the office often, tangled my complex finances with those of the organization, had strange anarchist friends who visited and too many girlfriends for some of the members to be comfortable.
At one point a member of DUHA came to Jakub and said
“I think Paxus works for the CIA”
Jakub replied “Get Langley on the phone – i want 5 more just like him”
Seventeen years ago Veronika and i had an argument. Which was more than i was capable of with anyone else around us at the time. Some background will clarify.
Between 1991 and 1997 I worked for the Czech chapter of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, which was called Hnuti DUHA (“the rainbow movement” in English). I was working to stop the construction of nuclear power plants in eastern Europe and especially the new ones proposed be completed in southern Bohemia called Temelin. And for several summers we organized incredible actions at Temelin, actions where hundreds of activists came from across Europe and we closed down construction of the plant for some days.
To close this site, we needed to block multiple gates and we needed dozens of people at each gate we wanted to block and there were about ten different gates around the plant. As one of the more experienced activists (and one of the very few people over 30) I was chosen to be a gate leader. Except I could not speak Czech or Russian or any of the languages most likely to be in sue at my gate. So Veronika, a promising Czech activists lead the gate with me and facilitated what ever translation was needed. We were there for several days and since she was the only person I could talk with directly, we spoke a lot.
Veronika is smart. Besides being conversational in English, she was thoughtful about the world around her. She was touched by her countries revolution in 1989 and felt a responsibility to be politically active and oppose this terrible project. She was vegetarian at the time and lived a very low impact life style, as all the folks from DUHA did. It was a dark green ecological movement.
One of the things we talked about was feminism. Veronika was anti-feminism. It was destructive to the family in specific and the social order in general, she believed. We talked about it a lot. She found it strange that I identified as a feminist. I found it hard that this clever, independent, empowered young woman was rejecting it for reasons which did not completely make sense to me. We talked a lot on those three rainy nights at Temelin gate 7 and on this we never agreed.
Fast forward a dozen years. I am living comfortably at Twin Oaks and I get an email from Veronika who I have not heard from since the gates of Temelin. She talked some about how her life had changed, but what inspired her to write was that she had read some old journals of hers about our arguments so many years before and she wanted to let me know she had changed her mind and she thought I was right about feminism now. Which I had to admit was quite gratifying.
I had a salad with Veronika on my recent stop in Brno. She wants to start a community. She feels like peoples experience of life is to individualistic and too focused on making money to support life styles they are ultimately unhappy with. She has two kids and she wants a better life for them and thinks community is part of that. I hear Veronika’s story often as I travel. I am going to try to help her a bit with her dreams. Only this time we are in complete agreement.
I spoke with many revolutionaries in Egypt, and heard several fascinating tales. But the ones which haunt me I heard for Gihan. They were the tales of her experience in Tahrir square and afterward. Of the extraordinary temporary community which was created and how the act of revolution changed peoples lives. And very specifically hers.
She recalls when she was first in Tahrir Square she held up a sign so it was in front of her face, so she would not have to be seen. And with time she dropped the sign lower, chatted with the people passing by and the media, inviting them in – to be part of what was become more inevitably their revolution as well.
Gihan tells of her experience of cat calling [this is the verbal harassment many people – mostly women – get from men they dont know on the street. Frequently, but not exclusively about their appearance]. Before Tahrir Square she would just walk away from this type of harassment, feeling it was ubiquitous and hopeless to change.
After the revolution she found herself doing something else. When someone cat called her, she would turn and face them and ask “Were we together in Tahrir Square?” Millions of people from Cairo and other places participated in this popular revolution at least for part of it. Everyone she asks says “yes”
“What you just did hurt me and I know you would have never done that in Tahrir Square.” And then she turns to walk away – but every cat caller, asks her to stop and apologizes. And I think more importantly, they likely retire from this type of harassment.
The courage it takes to tear down a dictatorship not only changes the political landscape of the country, it empowers and emboldens the people who make it happen to take on other cultural injustices which surround them.