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Air Date: Week of
Yassir Chadly. (Courtesy of Yassir Chadly)

In the third segment of Living on Earth’s holiday special, Yassir Chadly tells the story of how he found the answer to a lifelong question in the waters off the coast of Morocco. And Afro-Persian musician Saeid Shanbehzadeh speaks his truth through the “neyanban,” an Iranian bagpipe.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. This week on our holiday special there’s no environmental news—just stories. Our guests today are storytellers who came from the Middle East and Africa and who now live in America. They speak a variety of languages, and share French as well as English. And we’ll turn now to Yassir Chadly for another story. Yassir, I understand this is a very personal story about seeking the answer to a question planted inside of you, back in your childhood in Morocco.

CHADLY: In my childhood the division between men and women was very clear. Women, they get with each other, men are with each other. And, the houses are ruled by women, and around mid-afternoon, all the ladies, they get together to have their café latte, their mint tea, and cookies, and they make themselves and they gather together like that. And, when the ladies came to my mother’s house, my mother once told me to show the ladies something funny so they can laugh.

Yassir Chadly. (Courtesy of Yassir Chadly)

So she said, ‘Yassir, where do you come from?’ And, I just respond proudly, ‘I come from my father,’ ‘and, where did your sister Najira - where did she come from?’ I say: ‘she comes from you,’ and then everybody laughs and I don’t know why they were laughing. I was so serious about it, because I knew I was going to be a man, I don’t know how, and I knew my sister was like my mother. And then years passed like that and my mother gave birth to my brother and I said, ‘oh, you’re the one who gave birth to me then,’ and then I asked her, ‘why don’t you ask me first, do you want to come to this world, yes or no, then leave the choice to me then I can chose to come here or not to come.’

And I was telling my mother, ‘if you ask me do you want to come here yes or no, I probably would be happier to say, ‘no, I don’t want to come here.’ I had this question, and the nagging question she said, ‘not me, ask Allah, I’m not… you came through me, but I didn’t… Allah brought you here.’

And, so, that changed my question. I’m focusing on why Allah brought me here--that question pops up when I was just eight, maybe nine, so I asked people and they think I was crazy to ask such questions, so I kept it with me. So, I used to go to the country to help my grandfather in his farm.

And my job there was to trim the hooves of the donkeys when they are young because the hooves keep on growing and growing if you don’t trim them. And then also I used to ride them bare back, so they can get used to carrying people. Of course, the teenager donkeys they never liked to have somebody on top of them. So the re-bail and we have this fight between each other and I was a teenager, the donkey was a teenager also, and at the end we become one, we become friends and stuff like that. And then I took my little donkey all the way down where there is nobody and I look around and I can see only the horizon all over the place.

And I say, ‘ok, now, I’m going to ask this question to Allah.’ And then I get down from my donkey and I spoke loud, I said, ‘why did you bring me here?’ Like that. And then I could hear the answer, very gentle, saying to me, ‘just to witness,’ that’s all. That’s a very simple answer. But I didn’t like that answer, it was too short and it didn’t have any point. I wanted to ask if I am here for a real purpose doing something, but to witness, what is that?

Then I kept that idea, or that answer in me, and I went back to Casablanca. And, near Casablanca, we have ocean that has nice waves and the water is warm and clear, so clean. And, I used to go there to do body surfing, just surf with the waves and I enjoyed doing that, and I enjoyed teaching that to all my neighbors, all the kids, I swim with the Moroccan National Team. And so, I was able to swim fast enough to catch the wave and then ride with the wave, it was such an enjoyable thing. And then one day I went there and the ocean was flat like a rug. There was no waves.

‘Ah,’ I say, I walked all this way I was there walking one hour to the beach there is no waves. What should I do? So I decided I am going to lay on my back and feel those little tiny waves going under my back, and enjoy that, so I floated on my back, and feel the water and listen to the vibration of the water sounds and I’m enjoying that position like that--with my arms way open, and my legs in a ‘V’ so I can float and look at the sky, and I close my eyes.

While I was doing that, I felt my body growing out of dimension. Rising and rising like yeast in the bread, growing and growing and I couldn’t stop my body from growing. It was growing, growing until it became as big as the whole Atlantic Ocean, and I couldn’t bring myself back from that. And I felt that the ocean and me were one. And then I realized the unity of everything- there is something that is similar with me and everything else--even the ocean.

At that time, those verses I was hearing made sense to me. When it says: [speaking in Arabic], it says everything is one. And I said, ‘ah, now I understand.’ And to witness means to look, this ocean is a treasure. Everything is a treasure and people are treasures also. And that’s what opened for me the wave towards Sufism--that’s the road for it. And that’s my story, thank you for listening.

CURWOOD: Thank you Yassir Chadly. Now, we’re speaking with Yassir Chadly, he’s an Imam, a musician, a storyteller from Berkley, California, and also on the line is Firoozeh Dumas, she’s an Iranian-American writer of very funny books, and Firoozeh, when you heard this story about him not wanting to come here and trying to figure out why it is that we’re put here on earth- what did you think of?

DUMAS: Well, as a writer, I have a very strong sense of destiny, because when I go and I speak to people about what I do, I mean, I mainly try to spread the idea of shared humanity through humor. And, wherever I go, and I travel quite a bit in the United States, I always feel like I was meant to be there saying what it is that I’m saying. Now, do I think that everybody asks themselves ‘why am I here?’- no. In fact, I wish more people asked themselves that question, because I think that there are a lot of people living their lives without any introspection.

CURWOOD: Now, Mamadou, what about this notion of ‘why are we here?’

MAMADOU: Yeah, I think it’s a question that everybody asks themselves- you know- you live, you grow, you learn and you know. That’s why he felt the unity. Me, not coming in the same part of the world, even though we’re coming in the different parts of the world, we’re still united by something.

CHADLY: We share French together.


MAMADOU: That’s true.

CHADLY: We can speak French to each other. That’s the benefit for being colonized by the French- we have this language.

MAMADOU: Yeah, that’s true.

CURWOOD: And, Firoozeh, you’ve gone French through the altar, I guess.

DUMAS: Well, my husband is French. Unfortunately, he’s not related to Alexandre Dumas, that would have been a great marketing hook for me, but no, alas, no relation.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Let me ask you, Firoozeh, I imagine getting used to the holidays here in America, it must have been somewhat confusing to an Iranian family new to the U.S., and you have a story celebrating the humor in that confusion as Persian culture meets American culture, could you tell us that right now?

DUMAS: Ok, so when we came to America in 1972, holidays like Halloween for instance, weren’t what they are today- it was much more low-key. And, we actually came to America I believe it was late September. So, when our first Halloween rolled around, we had no idea what it was. And, I was in second grade, and I remember one morning, Heather Hensley’s mom showed up and she had a costume for me, because lo and behold there was a Halloween parade that day at school and she had figured out that I was going to be the only kid without a costume.

So, the next thing I knew she put this handkerchief around my head, she put a bunch of bracelets on my wrist, she gave me this sort of flowing outfit and she says, ‘you’re a gypsy.’ Which I realize now is just politically incorrect, but at the time, it was a very, very kind thing that she did for me, because I would have been horrified to have been the only kid without a costume. So anyways, I marched around the basketball court with all the other kids, and I just assumed that was the extent of Halloween.

So, that night we’re in our home and somebody knocked on our door. And, up to that time, no body had ever visited us in the evening. And so we all answered the door and it was a bunch of kids in costumes. And they all said something and we didn’t quite understand what they said, so we just kind of stood there and they said it again, and so, one of the kids said something about wanting candy. And, we were very confused, we didn’t have any candy in the house, and we said, you know, we’re sorry. And we shut the door, and a few minutes later somebody again knocks on the door, we open it.

It was a different group of kids dressed up as ghosts and hobos and, again, they said that phrase that we couldn’t catch, and they said that they wanted candy. And so, at this point, we said, well, hold on, we don’t have candy but we have something else. Now, Iranians, always have fruit in our house, so we went and we got the bowl of fruit that we have in the living room, so we started giving out apples and oranges and bananas, and after awhile we actually ran out of the fruit, so my mother went to the fridge, and one thing that we Iranians always have in our house--and I can say that right now in my fridge I have two pounds of this- is pickling cucumbers. So, we just started handing out pickling cucumbers.

CURWOOD: [Laughs]

DUMAS: And, then we ran out of those. And so we turned our porch light off, and when kids knocked we just didn’t even answer it. But it wasn’t until years later when I thought about that and I thought: ‘you know, those kids who came to our house that night must have thought that we were the worst house on the block.’ I mean, who would give out pickling cucumbers and apples and oranges and bananas, so I just want to apologize to any kids that actually trick-or-treated in 1972 at our house, because no body had told us that we had to buy candy. But, having said that, I think have the habits that I have developed in this country, I think that if my mother had bought candy, I probably would have eaten it before Halloween, so…

CURWOOD: Firoozeh, how did you deal with this waistline ultimately?

DUMAS: [Laughs] Well, ultimately, I grew up and I stopped eating junk food and I ate the way I used to in Iran.

CURWOOD: Ah, well, maybe I should try that. Maybe that would help.

DUMAS: [Laughs]

CURWOOD: I understand now that you just moved to southern California from the Bay Area, and I imagine it’s not so hard to find Persian food around L.A., huh?

DUMAS: Are you kidding? It’s hard to find American food down here now.

CURWOOD: Uh huh!

DUMAS: There’s great ethnic food down here--some questionable driving skills though- but I have to say, half of those are my relatives, ok. So…

CURWOOD: [Laughs] And, as I understand it, there’s a Persian specialty store there?

DUMAS: Well, there’s actually several Persian markets but there’s one near my house. And every single morning, my French husband goes to buy sangek, which is this large flatbread. My husband grew up, ironically, having fresh baguettes in Paris, and now it’s just two sangeks later, he is completely converted.

CURWOOD: I want to try one, I’ve never had one.

DUMAS: I’ll Fed-Ex you one if you want.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Oh, ok! Thank you. And what about those Persian pastries, where do you get those?

DUMAS: They’re (laughs), there’s a story here, which is called Assal, which is honey, it’s Assal, so it’s A-S-S-A-L. So, which, I probably would not have named it that, if it were my store, because I think anytime you have ‘ass’ in a name, it’s not good. But, hey, it’s crowded all the time- so that has not kept the customers away.

CURWOOD: Okay. Quick round table, we’re just about out of time here. I’m going to start with you, um, Yassir. Why tell stories?

CHADLY: That has many, many answers in this one. Stories could be to shorten the road of somebody traveling in this journey. If they are in a dark tunnel, you can shorten the tunnel by giving them a story to get them out from that ego tunnel. And, some stories are good for taking depression out from the heart. You know sometimes when somebody is sick and you give them only water, and you tell them, ‘this is some kind of medicine,’ and they drink it believing it’s a medicine and you cure them- I don’t know the name for that idea-

CURWOOD: Oh, well, the technical name is placebo, but I think the real name is love.

CHADLY: Love, yes. Some stories can be a placebo, as an art form that can break the dividing walls between people.

CURWOOD: Mamadou, why tell stories?

MAMADOU: In the past, telling stories was a way to bring people together in the village. Because, every night, like the parents would call all the kids, put them together, and tell them stories, and I think there’s another way, there’s a way to bridge a gap between the past and the new generation. Because, you gotta know exactly where you come from to be able to know where you are going and where you’re at.

CURWOOD: Firoozeh?

DUMAS: Well, stories reveal our shared humanity. And, we need to be reminded of that. Especially these days, because so often people just know other cultures through what they see on the evening news, and of course, only bad news is news. So, we sometimes forget that people from other cultures are human just like us and have the same sadnesses and joys. And as an Iranian, I feel it is very important to tell stories because most Americans just associate bearded men and hostages and pretty much that’s about it when it comes to my native country, and for me it is very important that people see that there is so much more. There is so much shared humanity, so I really look at storytelling as an instrument of peace.

CURWOOD: Well, I wish we could keep on swapping stories, but unfortunately we’re out of time. So, I’d like to thank all of our storytellers today for sharing the warmth of their stories and memories with Living on Earth. Yassir Chadly…

CHADLY: Thank you and goodbye!

CURWOOD: Firoozeh Dumas…

DUMAS: Well, thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: And, Mamadou and Sana Ndiaye…

SANA NDIAYE: Thank you for letting us be part of this.

MAMADOU: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Well since Firoozeh didn’t play any music for us today, we thought we’d leave you this week with the music and voice of a talented musician from her homeland. His name is Saeid Shanbehzadeh, and he plays traditional folk music from the southwestern coast of Iran, which blends the sounds from his Persian, African, and Arabic roots. His specialty is the Iranian bagpipe, or neyanban.


Saeid Shanebehzadeh playing the "neyanban." (Shanbehzadeh Ensemble)

SHANBEHZADEH: My name is Saeid Shanbehzadeh. I come from southwest of Iran from a city called Bushehr.


SHANBEHZADEH: In our city we have a very rich culture with music and dance. You know, in the different ceremonies, we use the music. In the funeral, in the wedding, during the work- I readapt the ceremony on the stage. This music it is- it’s coming from the people- I did not made it, this songs- it is the sound of the people. I am neyanban player, the one kind of the bagpipe, the bagpipe of South Iran. The ‘ney’ it is the material- it is the bamboo- and the ney says two things- he can say the reality and the people they can discover something if they listen to it.


SHANBEHZADEH: When we play, I try to be real and say the reality. And the reality really it is this: this music, literature, poesy, architecture, all of this, this is the reality of our nature. And, I’m too happy to share this part of our reality to the world.




Shanbehzadeh Ensemble

Firoozeh Dumas

Gokh-Bi System

Yassir Chadly


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