The American Dream, Stories from the Heart of Our Nation. Dan Rather. William Morrow & Company, 2001. Pages ?-?.
Abstract, partly taken from Amazon.com:
Despite years of reporting on tragedies around the world, Dan Rather is
clearly an optimist. His take on the American dream, as personified by more
than 30 Americans, is an inspiring reminder that the ideals the nation was
founded upon are still alive and well. Rather first looked at how Americans
pursued the American dream in a yearlong feature for his CBS Evening News
show. His book takes off where the series ended, with more in-depth stories
of those successfully pursuing their version of the dream. Nosrat Scott came
to the U.S. in search of freedom of religion. She was so persecuted for her
Bahá'í Faith in Iran that she was moved to tears when she realized she could
speak openly of her religion in her English as a Second Language class. "E
pluribus unum isn't just something Nosrat has read on the back of a
quarter," Rather writes. "It's her conviction and her way of life."
The First American Dream was one of religious freedom, the Mayflower Pilgrims searching for a place where they could worship as their faith commanded. And when our Founding Fathers penned the Bill of Rights, they guaranteed that future generations of Americans would be able to worship God as they chose--or not at all--by separating church and state. It seems both remarkable and logical that this original dream was not only embodied in our rights but, indeed, took the lead.
Today's debates over prayer at football games or city-sponsored religious displays boil down to whether some individuals are being coerced or left out. Civil libertarians fight to preserve personal choice. But we tend to forget that, when the First Amendment was written, separation of church and state was also about peace. The large-scale religious wars in Europe were as fresh in the memories of the Founding Fathers as the wars in the Balkans are to all of us today. Our first lawmakers feared the potential consequence of religious intolerance joining with political and military might--that the United States would be torn apart.
Some of you reading this may well find it odd that a book about the American dream would begin with someone who is originally from a country which, for at least the past twenty years, has had a deep and lasting enmity with ours. But that's just it--so many of us are one nationality by birth, and Americans by choice. And Nosrat Scott, who fled religious persecution in her native Iran, knows well and firsthand how important is freedom, especially the protection of individual faith from the power of the state. In Iran, she knew no peace; now she sees its fruits every day in her work as president of the Interfaith Council of Greater Hollywood in Florida. "Nosrat Scott is of the Bahá'í Faith. She and other Bahá'ís believe all the world's major religions play a role in the evolution of humankind, directed toward the formation of a universal human family. Nosrat personally believes this will happen first here, in her adopted country. "The United States," she says, "is going to be the first true spiritual leader of the world." This is her dream.
The Bahá'í have been persecuted from their beginnings. In 1844, a Persian merchant now known to the faithful as the Bab proclaimed that God had told him to prepare the world for a divine messenger. When the Bab and his message began to attract a following, they were set upon by extremist followers of the Muslim clergy. In 1850, they killed the Bab. Thirteen years later, a surviving disciple, Bahá'u'lláh, revealed that he was the one of whom the Bab had foretold.
Bahá'u'lláh taught, to put it in simple terms, that God is too great for any one religion to fully contain. Each, however, has contributed to humankind's understanding and progress. To the Bahá'í the teachings of Abraham, Moses, the Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Krishna, and Mohammed are all pieces of a vast universal puzzle. All have made equal contributions to morality and civilization, and all are studied closely by Bahá'í. In fact, when Nosrat's local hospital cannot fill a patient's request for a rabbi, they call Nosrat. If they cannot find a priest, they call Nosrat. If they cannot find a mullah, they call Nosrat. The passages all these patients need to hear are one's she knows by heart, and she shares the conviction that these are all God's words.
When Nosrat was seven, one of her Bahá'í teachers showed her class a collection of postcards. The teacher had pictures of Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, and other peoples of the Middle and Far East. "We were just kids then," Nosrat says, "laughing and looking. And when she collected those things she asked us, 'Do you know any of them?' " The children were surprised. Why should they? They were living in Yazd, in southern Iran. They hadn't seen or known much else. "We said no," Nosrat remembers. "And she said, "They're all you're brothers and sisters.' "
The lesson is one learned by all Bahá'í, and it is one they take seriously. Their faith asks them to work toward eliminating prejudice of all kinds. Women and men are equals in Bahá'í families, or as Nosrat poetically puts it, "Man and woman are two wings of the bird of humanity. If one wing is weaker, the bird cannot fly." Bahá'í are encouraged to promote their religion but to avoid proselytizing in any way that would infringe on the privacy or rights of others. Each Bahá'í is expected to obey the laws of the country in which he or she lives and to serve the needs of his or her community. They are instructed to avoid partisan politics and do not accept political appointments.
Essentially, Bahá'í do not pose a threat to any religion or to any of the more than 250 nations and territories in which they live. They are not revolutionaries. They are, however, committed to changing the world through faith and education. Because they are peaceful and unobtrusive, it can be difficult to understand why they have been singled out for persecution in Iran. Even after Nosrat explains the political and theological reasons behind the persecutions, it's hard to see it as boiling down to anything more than hatred. And that's something that's tough for fair-minded people to fully grasp.
During the nineteenth century, an estimated twenty thousand Bahá'í were killed for their faith in what is now Iran. Nosrat's great uncle was one of them. The twentieth century saw no end to the executions, denial of rights, beatings, and jailings. Since the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978, more than two hundred Bahá'í have been executed by the state. We don't know how many have been killed by citizens acting on their own in remote regions. As of this writing, four Bahá'í are on death row in Iran for practicing their faith or for possessing Bahá'í literature. Many Bahá'í and human rights workers believe only frequent condemnation by the international community and the United Nations has prevented a much larger and systematic pogrom against the three hundred thousand Iranian Bahá'í.
Nosrat was born in 1937 in Yazd, which in 1903 was the site of a particularly vicious massacre of Bahá'í incited by a local mullah. Nosrat's father, like many Bahá'í, was denied employment because of his faith and supported his family by becoming a merchant. When the family's five daughters neared the age when they would be expected to don a chador, the traditional head-to-toe dress required by fundamentalist Islam and rejected by Bahá'í, Nosrat's father realized that raising his family in Yazd would be too dangerous. The family moved to an undeveloped section of Tehran that had been settled by Christians, Jews, Americans, and Europeans. If their new home lacked electricity and running water, Nosrat's family also hoped it would deliver them from some of the sharper edges of persecution.
This hope was not entirely fulfilled. And sometimes the challenges came from within Nosrat's own extended family. As she entered high school, her Muslim relatives openly criticized Nosrat's father for treating his daughters as the equal of his sons. To Nosrat, he had to explain that not everyone had learned the lessons of tolerance imparted by her Bahá'í teachers. When she went to school, Nosrat's father warned her that "they going to curse you, they going to run after you, they going to throw water at you, mud, whatever. You just pretend you didn't hear what they are saying, don't get angry, don't react, don't run, don't answer, just go. . .. .. Believe that they don't know what they're doing. Otherwise they wouldn't do it."
Her father and mother told her that this kind of hatred went just as strongly against the Koran as it did against Bahá'í teachings. Nosrat came to believe this herself as she read the Koran in school and at home. But she also saw the futility of trying to explain this to her classmates. When she was in the ninth grade, she heard two girls arguing behind her. "One was saying, 'I'm gonna kill her.' And the other one said, 'No, I won't let you, because I'm going to kill her.'" Nosrat sat still. She says there was nothing she could do. "If I scream something back," she remembers thinking, "they're going to come with fists. I don't know how to use fists. If I do, they're going to come with guns." At a summer vacation spot, they came for her brother with shovels and hammers. "They almost killed him. He came home with a broken ankle and a bleeding head."
Even some of their own Muslim relatives treated them like untouchables. Nosrat remembers the time an aunt visited and joined her mother for tea. Before the aunt left, she washed her hands and rinsed out her mouth. Nosrat fetched her a towel, which she refused. "She wiped her mouth with her own veil. And after she left, my mother told me, 'She's rinsing her mouth because of our tea, Bahá'í tea. Now you are giving her a Bahá'í towel?' " Nosrat finishes her story with a sad laugh.
Nosrat also recalls official persecution, often, she says, stirred up by local mullahs. Searches of Bahá'í homes were common. They would leave the copies of the Koran they found, but always took the Bahá'í books. "We hoped they read them--not that they're going to be Bahá'í, but that they'll know what we read." Her uncle was in his late eighties when he was arrested and sentenced to receive fifty lashes for allegedly possessing revolutionary materials. If not for the intervention of his Muslim son-in-law after ten lashes had fallen on his back, Nosrat believes, he would not have survived. "Determined to work and become independent, Nosrat finished high school in Tehran and went on to teachers college. This amounted to stepping into the lion's den. Being a Bahá'í was bad enough; by becoming a Bahá'í educator she opened herself to accusations that she was corrupting the youth. After she graduated, she was sent to, "one of the worst schools in the south of Tehran .. . . in a very fanatic area." It was also very poor. "Those kids didn't have shoes or food. I was coming home crying for my mother, and I wouldn't eat. She would say, they don't eat because they don't have. But you have to eat something." Then the head of the school board for her area asked her about a blank space on her teacher registration form.
For any sort of government job--and teaching in Iran was a government job--Iranian applicants must specify their religion. Bahá'í typically leave this question blank rather than call attention to themselves. The authorities know this, as did Nosrat's boss. " 'Okay,' he said, 'you're Bahá'í. You go there, and the fathers of these kids, they're going to kill you.' " He asked her to sign the form, declaring that she was a Muslim. She refused.
Nosrat believes that her evident commitment to the children and a severe teacher shortage saved her job and perhaps her life. "After two years, they realized I have the ability to do things. I always wanted to do things, to change everything for the better." Remarkably, she was made principal of a middle school with nine hundred students--a school with no electricity, no running water, broken windows and doors. "But," she says with pride, "I took care of it."
Here again, she was reminded that her life was always in danger. "I was doing all these good things, that probably no one else would do, but I was still threatened that they're going to do something, harm me." The parents of the children she taught did not know she was Bahá'í, but administrators and other teachers did, and some of them threatened to expose her. "I was not ashamed," she is quick to point out, but neither did she wish to announce the fact.
Nosrat was thirty-two when she decided she'd had enough. "It was constant," she says. "It was day and night. It was every second. At work, on the street, at home with relatives. I really got tired of it, especially because I was sure I was not doing something wrong. I was sure I didn't believe in something wrong." One of her brothers was in Germany, and she had a sister in France, but Nosrat was drawn to America. She left Iran in 1969. It was not a departure made without regret. "I don't hate Iran," she tells me, "I love it. I love all my Muslim friends and relatives. All I'm begging them is 'Open your eyes.' "
When she landed at New York's Kennedy Airport, alone and with almost no English, Nosrat sat for twelve hours wondering what to do. Finally, a kind soul directed her to the YWCA, where she stayed the night and called the Bahá'í center in New York. They picked her up and set her up with a job as a seamstress and found her an American Bahá'í roommate in Yonkers, just north of New York City. There are only five million Bahá'í worldwide, but they are a true international community. Nosrat still continues to pay back the favors done her by American Bahá'í by coming to the aid of other Bahá'í who have made it out of Iran. Recently, she says, she helped two brothers whose father was killed in Shiraz. Each had been jailed three times. They are in America now and learning English, but their mother and siblings remain in Iran.
Nosrat has a tip for all immigrants trying to learn English, one of which this reporter heartily approves: listen to the twenty-four-hour news radio stations. "They keep repeating the same things," she points out, "and they have good pronunciation. I recommend it for all newcomers!" One might think that it would be frustrating for a woman who once ran a school to wind up sewing clothes, but Nosrat took a patient approach to the long road ahead. Her thinking was, "Go to school, learn little by little. Take baby steps." That's all she could do, so she perfected it.
Once she felt comfortable with her English, Nosrat went on to earn an M.A. in economics, and started on her Ph.D. in the same subject. Her interest stems from her conviction, which she shares with many experts in international relations, that economic inequality is a fundamental obstacle to peace. But most of her learning--or more exactly, unlearning-- experiences took place outside of school. It took time, for example, before she discovered that she was free to practice her faith. " When I received my first American Bahá'í," she says, referring to the religion's newsletter in the United States, "I sat down and said, 'God. These people are not careful. What are they doing? Why do they mail this without any envelope? That's dangerous.' " In Iran, she explains, a man on a bicycle delivered the Bahá'í papers, but only after knocking on "every door in every alley," and only after he made absolutely sure that he was putting the paper in Bahá'í hands. "Because," she says, "we know the consequences. When I saw the difference, I couldn't believe there was so much freedom. I said 'God, these people are doing wrong things. I have to inform them not to do that!' "
Nosrat had not expected harsh persecution in America, but true freedom was beyond her comprehension. "You hear 'freedom,' " she says, "but you really don't know the limits. I thought they, for example, weren't going to kill me--they were going to beat me up, or they're going to take my book and throw it out. But this much freedom, I could not believe it. Sometimes still I don't." Her father had a similar experience--but from a merchant's perspective--when he immigrated in 1975 with Nosrat's mother. To the day he died, sadly only two years later, he was convinced that had he immigrated sooner, he would have become a wealthy man
Even after Nosrat gained the courage to take a Bahá'í book on the subway, she had to suppress an urge to cover it with her notebook. Finally, she learned that no one cared. People on the subway were going about their own business. If anything, she found people who were curious, but never angry. At home, she started decorating her walls with symbols of her faith--prayers, photographs of her spiritual leaders, and even the masthead of the paper she couldn't believe was openly delivered. This is something she would never have dared to do in Iran. "I always sighed for that. Then I started having them in my house in New York. I was overdoing it even! I said 'I'm not even going to see the walls.' "
For a time, she carried her caution to her English classes at New York University. One assignment troubled her: she was expected to give a presentation in front of the class on anything, anything she wanted: "Of course, I wanted to talk about the Bahá'í faith! But I knew I couldn't." She asked her teacher if she could. Of course, she could, the teacher answered. Hadn't the teacher said "anything, anything at all"? Nosrat was thoroughly addled. "I couldn't believe that. I went to her a second time. I said, 'You mean if I'm a Bahá'í and I want to talk about Bahá'í faith, I can?' " Same answer, same disbelief on Nosrat's part. "So I went to her for the third time, because I thought maybe she doesn't understand." This time the teacher looked her in the eyes, and said, curtly, "Why do you keep asking me? You can talk about anything you want!" It may seem as if Nosrat was being dense, but this is what state oppression can do to a person. I have seen such reactions before, in people who managed to leave totalitarian states such as the former Soviet Union and Cultural Revolution-era China. For those who have known nothing but fear, freedom can perhaps be assimilated on an intellectual level, but a gut understanding of it can take much longer. Nosrat explained to her class that during the entire time she was at university in Iran, she never once mentioned the word Bahá'í. Then she started to cry as she said, "And here I am standing before you, talking about Bahá'í faith." I, personally, can think of no more ringing endorsement of America.
I won't say anything negative about this country," Nosrat said several times. Well, what about our ongoing racial intolerance? What about what seems to be a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic attacks? They are there, there's no doubt they have happened, but Nosrat always compares the tolerance she found in this country with what she experienced in her homeland, where it seemed everyone was against her, all the time. Here, she says, she can openly fight intolerance. In Iran, she could only hide and hope.
Even during the Iran hostage crisis, when Nosrat was living in conservative Orange County, California, she found acceptance. She'd moved to California in 1977 to escape the cold New York winters, but after extremists captured the American embassy in Tehran, she could see that things were getting "really hot" for Southern California's Iranian immigrants. She called her mother, who had settled in Florida, to tell her she was going to visit her neighbors. She "wanted them to know . . . I'm not that type." Nosrat went to their doors and said, "I don't want you to be scared of me." Only one person on her block was concerned enough to ask exactly how different she was. "I'm so different," she replied, "that if I was there they would kill me." And she told all of them "that I believe in peace."
Nosrat was happy with multiethnic Southern California and found plenty of work teaching Persian at various colleges. But, in 1984, shortly after she married an American Bahá'í from Birmingham, Alabama, she realized other communities could benefit more from her dedicated volunteer work. Nosrat, who was helping to organize race unity celebrations that she hoped would take place across the country, says her husband told her "that if one city on this earth needs a race unity celebration, it's Birmingham." They moved there the same year they married, and Nosrat saw her efforts pay off in a successful event. She even got a proclamation of support from Governor George Wallace.
Two years later, the job market took them to Florida, where they settled into a comfortable life of steady work and dedicated service. But when her mother fell ill, she turned her attentions to her family. For two years, she took time off from work to care for her ailing mother. After Nosrat's mother passed away in 1998, Nosrat's husband helped her dreams come true. They had learned how to survive on one paycheck, he explained to her, and they could continue to do so. Her efforts could now be devoted to unpaid volunteer work. "This was always my dream," Nosrat continues, "and he said, 'Now you're going to have your dream life!' " Nosrat has since volunteered at the local hospital, worked with Iranian immigrants, and helped organize unity events with the city. But the work that speaks most directly to her past and her beliefs is with the Interfaith Council of Greater Hollywood.
She went to the council with a few proposals for educating children and bringing in representatives from more diverse faiths. "I wanted to pick it up, or pull it up, to the stars," is how she puts it. In six months, the council made her its vice president of programming. She organized meetings that included leaders of the Native American, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Bahá'í communities as a way of "opening eyes and softening hearts. She paid special attention to the Muslim community, which was then keeping a low profile. "Because of all these negative publicities about Muslims," she explains, "they were not really attending. They were probably not comfortable." To a local Muslim leader from the Caribbean she said, "Don't only come yourself, bring others. Let them see Muslims. Let them see that 'Muslim' does not mean 'war.' " When Nosrat was made president of the Interfaith Council the following year, she asked this man to serve as vice president. Her other vice president is a rabbi. Nosrat then reached out to Buddhists and Hindus, and now she's casting a net for Zoroastrians and Sikhs--"Anybody," she says, "Why not?" Each faith, in Nosrat's view, believes in the same God, and all have the same goals. By pooling their community services, they can reach more people in need. By praying together, they can deepen their respect for other faiths and see their own in a new light.
Nosrat's life continues to resonate with the lesson she learned so long ago from her Bahá'í teacher back in Iran, when she showed her class those pictures of faraway people. "I'm seeing more of my sisters and brothers," she says, "learning about them, and with them. And this is the beauty of life." Her Interfaith Council has been visited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Her neighbors in Pembroke Pines, Florida, are from Greece, Japan, South America, and the Caribbean. Her local school district claims to have students from more than 150 countries. E pluribus unum isn't just something Nosrat has read on the back of a quarter; it's her conviction and her way of life.
When Nosrat first read the First Amendment in classes she took for her citizenship exam, it was another occasion for tears. Those words--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"--might not seem to carry much emotional weight, but Nosrat saw them not only as an embrace of humanity and a call for peace, but also as a political reflection of God's law: accept one another, love one another. We Americans, in our history, may not have always followed this higher law, but we have enshrined the idea that any religion or ethnic group will have a chance to call this country home . . . as Nosrat did when she learned how high her faith could fly in America. Home is more to her than simply where she lives, "Home," she says, "is where you are free."