ZAH Library’s Annual Gala

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Date(s) - 09/10/2015 - 11/10/2015
All Day

Zarathushti Heritage and Cultural Center

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ZAH Library’s Annual Gala Tackles Significant Issue

The ZAH Library (Home of FIRES) hosted its 3-day annual event in Houston starting on Friday, October 9, 2015.  The theme: “Survival of Zoroastrians in North America:  Potential for a Positive Outlook” addressed a burning issue that is also hotly debated these days in India.  The dwindling population of Parsis in India has raised serious concerns, leading to “Jiyo Parsi” − a scheme supported by the Government of India to arrest the population decline of the Parsi Zoroastrian community there.  The ZAH seminar’s focus, however, was primarily on how the diaspora in North America can thrive and remain a vibrant force in the coming decades.

Two outstanding experts, who have studied the issues and presented viable alternatives, were featured: Dr. Rashna Writer from France, and Roshan Rivetna from Chicago.

Friday evening was a meet-and-greet opportunity for the community, organized mainly for the speakers to introduce themselves.  They gave the audience a glimpse of their background and what they were going to cover the next day.  Rohintan Rivetna gave a short presentation on FEZANA’s Infrastructure Project, followed by a gala pot-luck dinner.

Saturday morning began with the introduction of the first speaker Roshan Rivetna.  Roshan, who is a nuclear physicist and computer engineer by training, is well-known in the community for her tireless service, her stewardship of the FEZANA Journal for 15 years, her several publications, and her extensive research on Zoroastrian demographics spanning several years.

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The title of Roshan’s talk was: Demographics Determines Destiny.  She presented fascinating, but alarming, statistics on worldwide Zoroastrian population trends, births, deaths, fertility rates, conversions and immigration patterns.  As most of us are well aware, the worldwide Zoroastrian population has been declining for several years, due to substantial declines in India, in spite of growth in the U.S. and Canada.  Even in the West, the fertility rate is only 1.9, short of the 2.1 needed for replacement.  Zoroastrians marrying non-Zoroastrian spouses have doubled in India (from 20% to 40% since 1991) and tripled in North America (from 20% to 60% since 1991).

Roshan’s demographic study has been presented in detail in the Fall 2013 issue of The FEZANA Journal.  Based on all this data, Roshan posed the question:  “Are we transforming our faith and traditions with thought, or through carelessness?”

She noted several points:

  1. Our customs have changed a lot. We have given up our food, dress, language, and traditions like ses, toran, chalk.  These items identified us as a community in India and should not be lightly discarded.  After 1000 years of separation, Zoroastrians from Iran and the Indian sub-continent are together in North America.  Rather than giving up beautiful customs from both cultures, we should blend them and evolve new traditions here.
  2. There is a decline in religious practice. The first generation wanted to stay together and built Centers where we could meet to socialize.  Now we need to address our need for places of spiritual solace.  Houston is taking the lead on the building of a stand-alone Atash Kadeh.
  3. Are religious teachings and core beliefs the only things that matter? Some people think that the Tadjiks or some other group will emerge to keep those beliefs alive.  The challenge is to find a balance between keeping only core beliefs and maintaining traditions.

Roshan observed that today “community is not a priority”, and we need to reverse the “negative effects of assimilation, disinterest, disengagement, and apathy”.  Comments and suggestions to stabilize or reverse the declining trends came from over 70 first and second-generation Zoroastrians through a survey.  These have also been published in the addendum to the Fall 2013 issue of The FEZANA Journal.  They reveal diverse thoughts and opinions from an interested cross-section of our community, and are worth reading.

Roshan urged the Zoroastrian Association of Houston to accept a leadership role in this effort and involve other Zoroastrian Associations across North America.

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The second speaker, Dr. Rashna Writer, was introduced as the author of several books, with her latest book interestingly titled: The Reshaping of Iran from Zoroastrian to Muslim.  She has participated in international conferences and lectured extensively in the UK, USA and India on Iranian history.  A political scientist by training, she has acted as risk advisor to major English, Austrian and German companies on war and terrorism risks, and has garnered a long list of awards.

Rashna Writer’s talk was titled: Decades Hence: Whither North America’s Zoroastrians.  She noted that the challenge before the community was daunting, and Zoroastrianism could lose its identity in the multi-religious, multi-cultural society of North America. She drew comparisons between early Zoroastrian settlements in China that died due to a hostile setting, but flourished in India due to a more tolerant political and social environment.  After India – the first major Zoroastrian diaspora − Zoroastrians settling in America is the second major diaspora in the Western world.  Using the Indian experience as a template, we have a good building block for survival in North America.  For example, Zoroastrians in Calcutta, where Rashna grew up, flourished with a strong infrastructure, even though they were a miniscule minority of 500 inside a city of 14 million.

British rule favored Parsis who created tremendous wealth.  The wealthy Parsi families had a sense of obligation to the community.  Panchayats were formed so the community could rule itself.  Although the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP) administered them, the seed capital for the various Parsi properties, such as funeral structures and residential baugs, was raised from within the community.  Karachi and other cities replicated the Mumbai story.

But we cannot and should not aim to replicate the Indian experience in the USA or Canada.  Rashna urged listeners to analyze the subject from a micro and a macro perspective.  She praised the Zoroastrian community in Houston as being exemplary at the micro or local level.  Home provides the important beginning of the Zoroastrian identity, with the child imbibing Zoroastrian values through osmosis.  But it consolidates and thrives with the support and involvement of the outside community.  Rashna cited the role played by recreational centers for Parsi youths to gather, along the lines of the Parsi clubs in Calcutta and Bombay.

At the macro level, a regional as well as a global structure of governance is essential if the dispersed Zoroastrian groups are to avert the problem of atomization.  The transformation of the Zoroastrian identity is already under way, and there is a palpable fear of total assimilation.  Rashna charged us with “keeping a miniscule community intact and remaining distinct and distinguishable”.  Inter-marriages are becoming a fact of life, and whether one accepts it or not, “you cannot put that genie back in the bottle”.  It is not unusual for British, Indian and American Zoroastrian members to be in the same family.  Widespread dispersal of Zoroastrians in a dynamic and mobile North American society will lead to atomization that will enfeeble the diaspora.  Ties at the wider global level and “a global mindset” will prevent that from happening, and help to chart a healthy future for Zoroastrians everywhere.

An audience of over 100 attendees filled the main hall of the Zarathushti Center of Houston to hear the presentations by Roshan Rivetna and Rashna Writer.  The involvement of the listeners was evident from the spirited and insightful questions that they posed to the speakers.

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After lunch, the group gathered again to hear from a panel of three younger members of our community.  The panelists, Zia Anklesaria, Nozer Dungor, and Tannaz Macchi, shared with us their perspective of the future of Zoroastrianism in North America.  Married, with children, the panelists were carefully chosen to represent a cross-section of youngsters in their age group.  One was born and raised in the U.S.  Two had Zoroastrian spouses, the children were of different ages, and they had had varying levels of involvement in community affairs.  The audience was fascinated and impressed with the varied viewpoints and the suggestions made to enhance the experience of people in their age group in the community.  All three panelists are bringing their children up with awareness and practice of the religion.  Suggestions included:  home environment and examples set by parents are very important, Zoroastrian Associations in college campuses, if organized, would continue to keep college-bound kids in touch with other community members, virtual connections through a Facebook page of young Zoroastrians along the lines of the one for New York, and behavior that welcomes and accepts non-Zoroastrian spouses during ZAH events.

The third day of the event was a 2-hour informal discussion with Rashna Writer.  Rashna began the discussion by noting that loss of certain traditions and rituals leads to what she called “reductionism”, or a gradual lessening of the ties that bind.  She further stressed that for Zoroastrianism to thrive in North America, it is vital to keep the second-generation immigrants (grown children of first-generation immigrants) involved in the community.  Without them, all is lost, and survival of Zoroastrianism would be impossible.  Animated discussion among the attendees followed, with personal experiences related, failed attempts to have religion education classes for adults, and various strategies proposed to get younger people involved after they leave for college, often outside the state.  There are no easy answers, and follow-up actions have been assigned.  This issue will continue to be addressed at a broader ZAH level rather than by the ZAH Library which has a more narrow charter.

The three-day event was an unqualified success, with very positive feedback from those who attended.  The importance of the topic is well recognized, and this seminar provided the first serious attempt to start serious discussions and initiate action.

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