Friday, July 01, 2011

Book Review and Interview: Neda Ansari
The neat part of ISDC is meeting a lot of very smart people who share a passion for space exploration. Sometimes they’re old friends, sometimes complete strangers, sometimes people I’ve wanted to meet because I knew them online or I’ve admired something they’ve done. Neda Ansari is in that third category. She is a poet.

Neda came to ISDC 2011 as participant in the authors track. I missed that track (like most of the others) because I was working. I expressed a wish to read some more of her poetry, as I only glimpsed a bit in one of the thousands of emails that zipped through my inbox, and she agreed. More than agreed, she sent a hand-bound, self-published compilation of poetry, translations, and other writings.

The title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but what I found on the pages intrigued me. Here’s a random sample from a poem entitled “Hope,” which, as Neda notes, “was published on on April 29th, 2009, days before the Green Revolution in Iran broke.”

The light of sun was what I was after
Resonating with children’s laughter
From atop I saw a town
Filled with lights of its own
I was filled with much joy
Like a child with a new toy
Yes, I longed to see the light
To burn abyss with no fright

And this is probably the section that won me over on Neda’s work:

Free is the wind, is the air
Free are certain things with flair
Free are the stars in the night sky
And the occasional comets that go by
Free are the sparkles in people’s eyes
And their will to rebel, revolt and rise

I like the spirit in Neda’s poetry, the optimism. Her subjects range from scientific concepts (she studied chemistry) to freedom to general playfulness. What intrigued me, I must confess, were her connections to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the more recent “Green” Revolution. I have no idea where her family stood in 1979, though they did return to Iran from America after that revolution, and Neda spent some time under the cover of a burka. Neda’s stand in 2009 is obvious just by the tone of her writings—she believes in freedom, in aspiration, and people striving for something better. All good things.

A couple of the items in Neda’s collection were censored—presumably in Iran—and her blog is no longer online. Her response to the situation in Iran was sufficiently complicated that, for a while, she traveled under an alias in Facebook: Yeki Bood, Yeki Nabood, which is, she explained, roughly the Persian equivalent of “once upon a time.” However, directly translated, it would read more like “There once was, then there wasn’t,” which is a conversation-starter all to itself.

Neda is a director at the Space Renaissance Initiative, which is one of the few pro-space groups I haven’t joined because of its rather negative view of religion. These things happen. She also has posted her work in a variety of web sites related to issues in Iran. I think I first became aware of her when she started writing to a fellow Iranian (some prefer “Persian”) American, Anousheh Ansari, who joined a rather elite group of people who have been able to afford space tourism on the International Space Station. Neda is not, so far as I know, related to Anousheh. That’s rather like asking me if I’m related to any of a dozen “Leahys” from Ireland—odds are, the answer’s yes, but you’d have to go way back.

But really, when you read Neda’s poetry, it’s difficult to determine what exactly was being censored. How often does one encounter censorship anymore—and by that I mean the removal of all or portions of a work of art by a government entity—that is different from bad poetry that no one will buy or publish, the typical definition of “censorship” by snippy poets in America.

So I found myself asking questions. This lady who’s writing upbeat poetry that includes vague allusions to Cyrus the Great is dangerous or offensive enough to be censored? For gosh, sakes, why?

Some of this was answered in an interview by Michael Doornbos, my buddy at, but I had other questions, and Neda agreed to play along.


Hi, Neda! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. First, I’d like to know: what got you started on writing poetry?

Hello Mr. Leahy, and thanks for reviewing my book ever so kindly. The tongue twisting of the title, literally speaking, is of course, intentional. I hope it didn’t cause too much of a problem.

I’ve been a good writer in two languages since I was a child, but became a poet much like Hafez, the 14th Century Persian poet, overnight, in 2006. I wrote a piece and submitted for publication which was received so well that it encouraged me to write more. And then it was nonstop from there. At some point, I’d be listening to the radio while driving, or people talking, and the words and things they talked about would automatically turn into rhyme in my head. This was very exciting and frustrating at the same time. Exciting because I had found this new power, yet frustrating because sometimes I’d be tending to other activities, with no recorder, or paper and pen, to materialize my thoughts. I’d be watching the news, world events, anything on TV, while relating them to each other instantaneously and making rhyme at the same time. Interestingly, I started doing this with Persian too, which I hadn’t written in since I was 16, having moved to the U.S. permanently then. Eventually, I learned to control the ‘syndrome,’ now able to have a normal planned session, which has been the way I’ve been composing lately. I sit at the desk, put myself into meditation mode, and start writing.

Are you writing anything at present?

Yes, I am currently editing one of my works, a project which I hope to turn into a musical piece. It’s an old Iranian anthem I translated from Persian to English in 2007.

Are you still active on Iran-related web sites, or would you not prefer to say?

When talking about Iranian-related websites, it is important to recognize between those run by the government in Iran, and those that are completely independent. I haven’t been publishing frequently on Iranian websites in general, since submitting a couple of pieces two years ago. One of my favorites is, where some really great writers have been productive for a long time. The website publishes both in English and in Persian, and was instrumental in the Presidential elections of 2008, comparable to Huffington Post and CNN. The editor/publisher is Jahanshah Javid, who comes from a family background of journalism on a national level in Iran.

What, specifically, attracts you to rocketry and space travel?

My academic and career backgrounds are in science and engineering. I studied chemical engineering, very much involved in the academic/theoretical side of rocket-building and launch. Then, as a science instructor, involved in rocketry experiments for kids. Currently, as an active member of team Synergy Moon of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, I’m highly vested, of course, as we’re sending rockets to the moon. I work with my team on promotional and educational bases relating to all things space and rockets.

What did Anousheh (Ansari)’s flight into space mean to you?

The entire story of Anousheh Ansari going to space, from my perspective, is very unique, very inspirational, and something I will always cherish. Many people felt elated reading her blog, but for me, it was more. I was able to connect in an unprecedented way in human history – no exaggeration – this was a spiritual effect to the maximum extent. We come from different backgrounds, but to this day, some of the similarities of her life and mine are still unbelievable, though the more I delve now, the more I realize what a perfectly designed plan of cosmic order it was.

I was contacted by her office via e-mail in August 2006. They let me know of her blog and trip. And then I started commenting, of course. At that time I felt an enormous responsibility to chaperone and watch out for her. It’s like a mother wanting to protect their child, and to know they’re making history. Then it escalated very quickly to the international level. All the while, when Anousheh was blogging and thousands of people were commenting, I was processing the information and the one thing that went through my mind, through and through, was promoting peace, the best way I knew how. The atmosphere of 5 years ago, with substantially fewer numbers of people in social media was very different from today. Facebook and Twitter weren’t even mainstream then. Her space-blog to a general audience was the first-ever, groundbreaking in every sense of the word. I was happy to see her reflect the same, promotion of peace, so amazingly well on her blog and later in her book, and of course, I’ve been in touch since. Later I found out she’s actually older than me!

I’ve read the two or three items you sent me that you described as “censored.” If it won’t cause you too much trouble, could you explain who was doing the censoring and why?

I should re-state the word censored as ‘repressed.’ That, it certainly was. Several of the pieces I had submitted for publication were not published at all. I gave up sending my work after that. The editors, for a fact, found substantial commercial value in them, as it was expressed later, but at the time, I was more interested in getting my work published, for obvious reasons, at least to myself. People wanted to see more, I certainly felt it, especially after seeing the revolutions break in the Middle East. I finally decided to publish the work on a personal blog in summer 2010 when soon after the National Space Society and ISDC contacted me. Finally, I published a few copies in print for the Authors Track of the conference, and here I am now, doing this interview with you as a result of that.

What was the ISDC experience like for you?

I had been to several space-related meetings prior to this ISDC, including the very popular Space UP’s, which were envisioned and pioneered in San Diego. Going to the ISDC in Huntsville was something else. It really was an unbelievable experience, being under the roof with so many visionaries, and veterans in the space industry. I met you, Rick Tumlinson, Dr. Zubrin, Tim Pickens, Michael Doornbos, the kids who won the NSS-NASA space settlement design contest, other competitors in GLXP which I was really looking forward to meet, such as the Part-Time Scientists, my NASA friends on Facebook, Dennis Stone, and many more, some on the board of Space Renaissance, with whom I’ve had contact via its forum and past online meetings. By the way, I did reflect your apprehension about Space Renaissance’s stance on religion, and gathered several board members’ insight. We’re sorry you’ve got that impression, Bart. SRI’s overall stance as an international entity, is that it doesn’t support one particular religion over another. [Thanks! I’ll reread your manifesto and give the matter some more thought. /b]

What are your hopes for Iran and its people?

I have a long-standing affection for Iran and Iranians. Having been born into a family that took Iran and its interests very seriously, I was conditioned as such from early on. One thing that is very unique about Iran, is that the country is made up of many ethnicities, cultures, and spoken languages. Persian, or Farsi, is the predominant language, also the unifying force of the people. During the past thirty-two years since the Islamic revolution, the government has been fiercely implementing Arabic. Though I’m a proponent of learning different languages, in Iran’s instance, in this day and age, it has been difficult to watch a language and culture being forced onto people. I think if they were left free to choose, they might pick it up since much literature is written in Arabic, including the Quran, but again, it is force that I have problems with, especially with a religion that is predominantly male-oriented.

On the flipside of the coin, when I came to the U.S., I fell in love with this country. I thought to use the freedoms afforded to women and people in general here, to do something useful for the Iranian people, and that pursuit has been relentless for many years. I was privileged in the sense that there was little difference in raising me vs. my brother, except for minor mishaps here and there. In fact, my own family has always, as long as I remember, been promoting women’s rights by example. My grandmother, Tajolmoluk Behrouz was on the board of the Rastakheez Society, a very well-known charity organization, for many years during the Pahlavi era. Her mother, my great-grandmother, was a pioneering business-woman, a single mother who supported herself and raised 4 successful children. My mom on the other hand, has been the captain of the debate team in undergraduate school in Iran, an entrepreneur, and a college professor, while raising 4 kids herself. I was extremely lucky to have been able to show my appreciation for the rich Persian culture and extend it in such an unprecedented way, as to reach millions myself.

I hope to see Iranians prosper and reach their goals in due time.

In our discussions, I believe you mentioned something about your older family members being Sufi Muslims, or “Dervishes” as they’re known in the West, who tend to be more ecstatic or spiritual in their approach to Islam. Would you say that that tradition affects your poetry? If not Sufism, did you take inspiration from Persian poets or others?

Yes, my grandfather, a Boroumand Khan (similar to Lords of England), who was a judge throughout Iran for more than 30 years, and the district attorney in the city of Isfahan where he currently resides with my grandmother, is a leader of a sect of Darvishes, the Khaksars. This is a group which is highly literate in various disciplines, including medicine, law, etc. They’re Muslim, within the context of Suffism, with some practices that date back many centuries, to the pre-Islam era. Poetry is the cornerstone of their life. In fact, in the past, when I would call my grandfather on the phone, he’d reply back in poetic verse, leaving me perplexed. I would keep repeating whether he was OK, and he would reply in verse to that even. Wilhelm Eilers,, a researcher and a friend of my grandparents, did some extensive studies and published a book on the similarity of European languages to those spoken by my grandfather’s ancestors, which is comparable to the ancient Pahlavi language. So to answer your question directly, that part of my life has definitely had an influence on my work. I also have been influenced by my favorite poet, Hafez, a great deal.

But again, I became a poet in 2006, where I believe the void of my father and the Ansari side of the family, due to divorce of my parents in my childhood, and me subsequently being raised by my mom, was filled with the X PRIZE and Anousheh’s ascent to space. That effect was so enormous, that it made me a poet. It might be of interest that the day President Obama was sworn in, I wrote a letter to the X PRIZE Foundation, saying I was trying to figure out via quantum physics how this had happened – there must have been sub-atomic particles in effect, causing this very unusual symptom in me. A pleasant side effect was being able to relate to my maternal grandfather on a whole new level – we understood one another perfectly well then. This goes back to a time when at age 10, I took a book from his library, without asking. The title was “The Eyes,” by a well-known writer, Bozorg Alavi. My grandfather has this keen sense of recognizing certain emotions in people, of course, due to years of practice in the law field, and dealing with people in general. He hadn’t been home all day, but when he got back, even though I considered myself a good actress, one look and he’d figured I was up to something. I’m getting into poetic mode now…

What are you doing with yourself now? Where do you go from here?
The next chapter of my life is being written by opportunities unbounded, as to a large extent I have been the creator of my own destiny, but I also believe there are people you could trust who will make the whole human experience worth living.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for extending this invitation to interview me. Your work with the National Space Society, which I now am a proud member of, and your pioneering of Science Cheerleaders* are very commendable.
Thanks for taking the time, Neda! I’m sure I’ll see you at other space-related events in the future!

[*Note: I am the “Cheer Operations Ninja” for Science Cheerleader. The real pioneer there is Darlene Cavalier, who’s the founder and very much the brains of the outfit. I’ve been fortunate to play along.]

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