Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Jasmine Sans Peur

For Jasmine Jahanshahi (1990-2011)
UC Berkeley, Sciences Po-Paris
I am very grateful to our program administrator Shelby Marcus-Ocaña, who has been with UC Paris from the beginning and who has been an extraordinary help during this terrible period.  I also want to thank Sciences Po personnel for their serious work on behalf of all of us trying to understand what has happened, including Richard Descoings – thank you for the very kind message of sympathy on Saturday—and to Francis Verillaud, who spoke to the students at our UC commemoration yesterday and stayed all afternoon.
I am profoundly comforted by seeing you all here. I’m going to sing the praises of Jasmine, but in so doing I am singing yours. The American poet Walt Whitman started his most famous poem by writing,” I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume,  For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  This is quite true.  Jasmine’s strengths – Louise’s strengths, Grace’s strengths-- are your strengths.  To limit myself to Jasmine here, she has already passed them on to you.
That said, it must also be acknowledged that we are revolted by the blind, mad injustice of these injuries and these deaths. We walk across a field, climb the stairs or board a bus and the earth opens up and swallows us alive.  Why?  Why did it swallow Jasmine and her friends? We don’t know why.
Jasmine was raised in West Palm Beach, a supposed white-flight enclave in the racially stressed-out state of Florida, where Jasmine and her family showed their remarkable power to get beyond surface appearances to the real life of the place. She spoke Farsi at home and had straight-up Florida friends of every description.  Her Facebook page is flooded with comments from her high school crew, like this one: “You always knew how to make me laugh Jas, I love you more than you know. You'll be in my dreams and memories forever, RIP you little gooz.”  Some part of Jasmine never left Florida, and never will.
Jasmine had a similar impact here, and I cite one of her friend’s statement from Sciences Po:
j'ignore si c'est le lieu pour écrire cela, mais mes prières vont vers une camarade, une amie, une complice d'étude que j'ai connue trop peu longtemps, mais à laquelle j'ai été très attaché. Mes prières se destinent aussi à tous ceux qui ont aimé cette belle âme, qui ne peuvent que voir un gouffre sans fond dans leur vie et dans leur c oeur en ce moment de peine extrême. Mais j'espère que Jasmine nous aura appris quelque-chose pour notre vie entière : n'hésitons pas à montrer notre amour, notre amitié, nos sentiments à ceux à qui ils sont portés, en tout temps, en tout lieu et à chaque instant, car moi-même j'ai des regrets infinis envers cette amie, pour laquelle je n'ai jamais pris assez de temps....
Jasmine’s father grew up in Shiraz not too far from the Persian Gulf, speaking Farsi to his mother and Turkish to his father.  In my most recent meeting with Jasmine she was set to study Russian so she could understand the parallels between the post-Shah Middle East and post-Soviet Eastern Europe.  Jasmine knew that the broken pieces of our world had to be fit back together.  This was a major reason why she ended up at Sciences Po.
How did Jasmine know this? I spoke to her father yesterday for 45 minutes.  He told me at least 12 stories about Jasmine, who never stopped travelling, or wanting to help people.  She went to India when she was 17, finding her way to a village inhabited by the Boro people, of Sino-Tibetan origin, who were often not well liked by their Indian neighbors.  When she got home she said Daddy, I should have been there years ago – they needed me then.  “Yes,” her father thought , “I should have sent you to India by yourself when you were 12.”
Jasmine knew about the need to piece the world back together from travelling all over it. But as I spoke to her father I realized she also got much of this drive from her parents. Her father said, “She had wonderful friends – artists, musicians, dancers. The house was always open. I would make sushi or pizza and the kids would come in and out.  I wanted my house to be a place where no one ever had to leave.  I would wake up sometimes in the morning and hear Jasmine playing the piano, and someone would be laughing.”  She had the example of her parents, political exiles from Iran, set up their own open world in the middle of West Palm Beach.
Here in Paris, Jasmine could complain about Sciences Po’s procedures for an hour at a time. But she loved her classes here. I have a paper of hers on the Milosevic trial, another paper Cultivating Collective Identity and Crossing Borders with Cinema and Music in the Balkans, and an independent study she wrote for me. “Time and Memory in Chile.”  Noting that the Pinochet regime tried to separate Chileans from their own past, she writes,  “the beauty of memory is that it cannot be killed it can only be reconstructed. This reconfiguration of the past may be so utterly different than the truth that it may seem that the truth is lost forever; however, through activism, art, music and literature the passages of time can be re-opened.”  This is an essential feature of Jasmine’s outlook that I hope we can take with us—that the past that seems lost is lost, and is not lost.  Our memory of what is now missing, in the act of retaining it, turns us forward toward the future.
One class she mentioned often was the one she called “communisme au quotidien,” which I first heard about when she exclaimed, “the professor brought in all these shoes from the communist era in Czechoslovakia, and then we looked at our own shoes. We talked about David Bowie and the glam rock shoes of the 1970s. We spent an hour looking at communist shoes!” These shoes for her were the meeting point, the crystallization, of a political system with with the object world that people make.  The deep question for her in the course is how do we live our everyday lives within our cumbersome political systems? What other worlds in common do we have – that we make for each other?
My most recent academic meeting with Jasmine was on March 16th.  She told me, I’m glad I came to Paris because it’s shown me what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to stay in the US school system and go to law school. I’m meeting so many young people here who are travelling and doing research. This is what I’m going to keep doing. My research is social, she said. I will ask people, What do you do during the day? What is your life like? 
These are just two of the unstoppable questions of Jasmine.
On Jasmine’s page someone, I believe a relative, wrote this:
Khaleh this is not funny, please come home. I have not had a chance to tell you how much I love you. I did not tell you how special you are. You are smart, fearless, loving, and of course head strong. You can take what is left of my life and make it your own because I know with your determination you’d make a better use of it. Come and make a deal with me.”
I’ll make a deal with Jasmine, and the deal is this.  Jasmine gets to leave. And I stay. I work to right the world in the way she would have done, in the way that she is doing and will be doing through me – and through all of you.


  1. this is so beautiful. jasmine was such a unique soul, someone i tried to emulate and who was a role model for all humans. she seemed to know the secrets the rest of us are constantly searching for, and had an aura of warmth and grace that was unmatchable. she made an unforgettable impression on all who met her, and was destined to change the world for the better. all we can do is try to pick up where she left off. love you jasmine.

  2. Chris; thanks for writing this beautiful piece. Khaleh in Persian means aunti, so the post you are referencing might be from Jasmine's aunt, Golnaz.

  3. this is so beautiful. jasmine was such a unique soul, someone i tried to emulate and who was a role model for all humans. she seemed to know the secrets the rest of us are constantly searching for, and had an aura of warmth and grace that was unmatchable. she made an unforgettable impression on all who met her, and was destined to change the world for the better. all we can do is try to pick up where she left off. love you jeux de peur

  4. Hi Chris my name is William. I am an old friend of Jasmine's who has now gone on to study Chile at the graduate level. I never knew she had developed an interest in Chilean history prior to her death. It would mean so much to me if I could read her perspective on it. God knows I miss it. my email is williamskewescox at gmail dot com