Iranian in exile makes USM home

Posted on March 10, 2008 in Arts & Culture
By Jenna Howard

He’s published. He’s accomplished internationally. He has appeared on Oprah, and besides serving as an adjunct professor, he heads up projects that aim at uniting Southern Maine’s immigrant community and the university. His community outreach has spanned the last 20 years. Did I mention he’s in exile?

His name is Reza Jalali; he’s from Iran.

The women’s and gender studies department teamed up with Jalali and the Stonecoast MFA program last week to hold their annual International Women’s Day Dinner-this year on Iranian women’s poetry.

Jalali, the program coordinator for multicultural student affairs at Lewiston-Auburn College, approached planners of the event months in advance.

He wanted to educate attendees on women’s issues outside of Western cultures; women’s and gender studies wanted to showcase his experience abroad and his way with words.

The event, “Breaking the Silence: Feminism in Modern Iranian Poetry,” featured women from the local Iranian community reading poems by Forough Farokhzad and other Persian feminist poets, who were discussed by Jalali.

The evening’s program ended with a performance of Persian music from the Yaar Choir.

Jalali said he hoped to bridge the gap of understanding about Iran, and to humanize his home country through the recognition of our commonalities, specifically in the international art of poetry.

For Iranians like Jalali who call the United States their home, the message was important. For Americans who don’t know much about the country of Iran, the message was educational.

“I felt it was important to show that we’re just the same; we write poetry, we stand up for rights, we go skiing,” said Jalali.

He began his presentation with a slideshow of the country of Iran showing images of the natural beauty of the country; of highways and operas and ski slopes, of schoolchildren women protestors.

He explained that women’s movements are vibrant in Iran, as they have been for years.

This feminism, he explains, isn’t the same fight feminists in the West fight.

In Iran, men are the traditional economic breadwinners, thus poverty threatens feminists.

Many find fault with Western feminists, in that they have left behind their poor sisters around the globe.

Jalali aimed first to remove myths of Muslim women as silenced, secluded people in huts in the desert.

He showed images of them picketing in Tehran, the capital of Iran, marching for equality.

The evening was meant to give human faces to Iranians, and to show that music and poetry are universal.

From Kurdistan to USM

Jalali was born in Kurdistan, an Iranian province, and went into exile at an early age. His family feared for his safety, so he attended college in India.

Jalali said he was arrested for his attempts to uphold his national identity, including speaking Kurdish and writing Kurdish poetry. Eventually he was expelled from Iran.

After being a political prisoner whose case was advocated by Amnesty International, they lobbied for him to became a U.S. citizen.

He claimed the status of a political refugee in the United States in the 1980s and then began working for Amnesty International.

That is when he met southern Maine.

He went to graduate school at Antioch University in New Hampshire, commuting from Maine.

He got his MFA from USM’s Stonecoast Program, a program he raves about and with whom he has worked on projects such as last week’s event.

From there, he traveled the globe for Amnesty International, the London-based NGO. It was work that led Jalali to Bosnia during volatile times, where he was again arrested and put in jail – accused of arms-dealing because of his American passport.

The organization had to prove Jalali was a writer and humanitarian aid worker. He returned and began publishing essays in southern Maine newspapers.

In 2001 he traveled back to Iran, after 29 years of being away from the place he grew up.

Reformers had opened up the country again, and he finally felt safe to go back.

But a lot had changed.

“Leaving a place and then returning to it years later is like leaving a romantic relationship. And, of course things change, looks change, you just imagine things will be exactly as you left them. You think the person you loved will look just the same as when you left, ageless, even wearing the same shirt. Going back to Iran was like that, I was shocked when I didn’t know the place.”

Jalali represented New England for two terms as an elected member of the national board for Amnesty International.

He testified and presented papers at Second Human Rights Conference in Vienna, held by the UN.

He went to the White House. He met celebrities.

Then, back in Maine, he received his favorite honor yet: after starting a chapter of Amnesty at Greely High School, students nominated him for their yearly “Ordinary Hero” award. He won.

University without walls

Jalali works with the office of service learning and civic engagement to get students out in the community, and the community interacting with students.

“Service learning is huge. Good higher learning institutions should be an extension of the community. Community members should think of USM as their university. Every Mainer-Franco, Sudanese, 5th generation Mainer, and newcomer-young and old, must look at USM as an option.”

He went on to say that USM has not done a good job at being an extension-”We’re not there yet.”

In dealing with administration’s concerns, he considers himself a ‘myth-buster.’

“There is a misconception that someone will have to pay for immigrants to go through school, a silly thought that newcomers are helpless,” he says.

Jalali clears this myth up again and again.

Not only are they eligible for financial aid, their families often think highly of education and have looked to the U.S. as a place where it’s possible to get it.

He estimates that there are 120,000 refugees in southern Maine — more than ever. Many of them are dying to get here, but we need to reach out.

“We are on the way to becoming a university without walls. You visit a large university and the population is 45 percent immigrant. Our hope is to reflect 15 percent.” He hopes to diversify USM more each year.

“High school students would rather go to New York or Boston, where they can be exposed to different cultures, learn from others. Imagine,” he says, “a classroom where you’re beside four Africans, two South Pacific Asians, one Russian, one Israeli, rather than someone from Gorham and someone from Scarborough.”

Jalali has spent eight years with USM, in various rewarding positions, and says he is certainly committed to this institution.

Publishers and friends have been pushing Jalali to write a memoir, but with all his activities, goals and various projects, he says it is out of the question for now.

Now, it is more important that he gives voice to people who’s voices, he fears, are vanishing.