When I saw pictures of you burning in raging orange flames, my heart ached. After pain pulsed in my body, I confess that I felt envy. Yes, I was envious of you. Why? Because when my soul, dignity, and hope, along with the ones of many other innocents, burned in Iran in the flames of manmade cruelty of torture and unjustified incarceration, my fellow countrymen and women did not gather to stand witness and sing hymns. Today, as, for example, Syria and Yemen burn, the world hardly takes notice. Not only that, all sorts of disturbing anti-refugee sentiments are growing against people who have lost so much.
I visited you in March 2008 when I was in Paris. It’s hard for me to believe that I actually know you in person. After two years, two months and twelve days in Evin prison in Iran as a teenage prisoner of conscious from 1982 to 1984, for a long while, it was like my soul had burnt to the ground; I had become a mere shell, which began to slowly struggle back to something that resembled life after I published my first memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, in 2007. When the book was translated into French, I visited Paris and came to see you. I don’t think you remember that day, but I do. I walked inside you and my eyes devoured your marvelous architecture, the high ceilings, and stained glass. But I was disappointed. I expected you to be much more. I am a Christian, and I wanted to feel something special, but I did not. There were people all around me, too many, looking, talking, and taking photos. Lots of noise and worldliness and distraction. In that moment, I felt sorry for you. I thought of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple in Jerusalem, chasing merchants and money exchangers out of the house of God. You know that passage in the Bible? “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. — Matthew 21:12–13” Boy, he was mad! But I didn’t feel angry, just sad, very sad that your beauty had drowned in superficiality. You certainly didn’t look like a place of prayer. You, without a fault of your own, made me feel like I was slipping away from God. So I had to run out to get some air.
Just outside your magnificent structure, on that spring day not long before Easter 2008, there were trees and flowers and the deep sky. The earth resurrected. Death leading to life. Winter to spring. I ran my fingers over the cool velvety grass and said a prayer for you. Your loneliness in the midst of the crowds made me grieve.
Now, after the fire, I’m sure you’ve heard that close to 1 billion dollars has been raised to rebuild you. But I am not jealous of you for that. No, not at all. Who am I to judge? Maybe all the bling and fancy stuff will make you happy. I only wish people would become active witnesses of human suffering that is all around us: war, torture, genocide, homelessness, poverty, hunger…and the list goes on and on. We have enough resources on our aching planet to make things better for fellow human beings, but we usually choose to turn a blind eye and busy ourselves with the frivolous. And when a famous cathedral like yourself accidentally burns down, sympathy pours in. Maybe someone should remind people that you’re made of stone. Maybe they need to be reminded that you don’t bleed or ache.
I pray for you, Notre Dame Cathedral, but I will not raise funds for you. Never. I felt closest to God when I prayed in a filthy, cold solitary confinement cell right after being tortured, when I thought I was about to die. I think if you could have prayed, you would have felt much closer to God now than when you were shiny and intact. I wish you had a voice and could tell the rich to spend their money more compassionately. But I don’t think they would listen to you even if you could speak.
Author of “Prisoner of Tehran” and “After Tehran”