As a seven-year-old living in Shiraz, Iran, Ari Honarvar stood on the rooftop of her home with her family one night, a "simmering terror brewing in her belly." Beholding the sky, she was aware that their electricity was just shut off, warning of an imminent attack. Missiles shot across the darkness. Sirens blared throughout the streets. Then, from a neighboring rooftop, Ari bore witness to a different kind of explosion:
Even if, from the sky, poison befalls all,
I'm still sweetness
wrapped in sweetness
wrapped in sweetness...
A verse from Rumi, a burst of joy! Then, joining in from another rooftop:
While others sing about love,
I am the Sultan of love!"
"I could feel the ecstasy of these verses in my heart, radiating to every cell of my being," Ari recalled of that moment amid the Iran-Iraq War that would last eight years and kill over a million people. "In an instant, my world not only became sane, but infinite and glorious. And what bomb could ever touch that?" When Ari's family sought to secure a visa out of Iran a few years after the war ended, it was also a poem that changed Ari's world -- this time, verses written by her mother to the Indian Embassy. After being granted passage to India, Ari would immigrate to the United States at 14 years of age.
Those bombs touched neither her body nor soul, and in fact, ignited in her a joyful resilience. Currently based in San Diego, California, Ari is an award-winning writer, speaker, artist, "dance-ivist," who seamlessly integrates the arts with social justice and community building. She is the founder of Rumi with a View, an organization building bridges across war-torn and conflict-ridden borders "through the enchanted medium of poetry," and using dance, the visual arts, and other modalities. Her projects span sending musical love letters from American musicians to the people of Iran, to Dance for Freedom, an initiative to garner global support for Iranian protesters, to Musical Ambassadors of Peace, a nonprofit she collaborates with, bringing music and dance to refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border and in Europe.
What does Ari-in-action look like? A few times a month, she drops off her son at school in San Diego and drives for an hour to Tijuana, Mexico, to serve as a "musical ambassador of peace." Her car is stocked with donations, food, drums, and a portable stereo. Along with two other musicians, Ari plays live music and cumbia songs on the stereo, popular among the Central American refugees. The children learn to drum and dance with partners, embodying a new rhythm by which to live -- and all of this done in time for Ari to drive back to San Diego to pick up her son when school lets out. Due to the program's success, she now offers a customized program to schools, nonprofits, and corporations committed to social justice.
Ari also sparks community closer to home. In 2021, the Washington Post ran her op-ed on Arranged Friendships, describing her experiment to arrange friendships similar to how marriages in Iran are arranged: "commitment first, then let everything fall into place." Arranged does not mean forced, she clarified. "Counterintuitively, this offers more freedom because you can customize your group based on your own needs and desires." She has since been interviewed by numerous podcasts and publications on the subject, including The Atlantic's Friendship Files, and is helping to facilitate other arranged friendship groups.
Ari's work has been featured in other outlets like The Guardian and New York Times. She is the author of Rumi's Gift, an oracle deck and book of Ari's original translations, meditations, stories, and the artistic collaboration with the renowned illustrator, Carmen Costello. Ari's critically acclaimed novel, A Girl Called Rumi, is based on Ari's experience growing up in post-revolution Iran. Ari also presents at conferences, universities, nonprofits, and other venues. She is a mentor at the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies at The University of Saskatchewan.
"Joy is such a sustainable fuel. It's sustainable energy that we tap into to help us with the challenges. Seeing how people build their own resilience in difficult situations has been a tremendous inspiration."
Please join Haleh Liza Gafori and Pavi Mehta in conversation with this activist-alchemist of verse and vibrations.