Thursday November 09, 2017

Payam Akhavan stopped working in war zones. But death and destruction followed him

Payam Akhavan's fourth Massey Lecture focuses on how the world can move forward after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Afghanistan and the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Payam Akhavan's fourth Massey Lecture focuses on how the world can move forward after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Afghanistan and the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks. (CBC)

Listen to Full Episode 1:08:36

CBC Massey Lecture 4: The Oneness of Humankind


As a former UN worker, Payam Akhavan had seen death, grief and devastation firsthand, on the streets of Sarajevo and in post-genocide Rwanda. But it's something he never expected to follow him to New York.

That changed on Sept. 11, 2001.

The human rights lawyer (and this year's Massey lecturer) was living in New York at the time with his wife and their two-year-old son. The two of them, along with his in-laws, were supposed to be visiting the World Trade Centre (WTC) the morning of the attacks.

Payam Akhavan on the collapse of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Afghanistan and 9/11 attacks.2:00

And as the attacks unfolded, phone lines went down. That meant Akhavan, at work in his office, couldn't get in touch with his family. He feared the worst.

"Now it was my own family that was missing. I couldn't just get on the UN airlift and leave the suffering behind," as he could in Sarajevo.

However, his son was being fussy that morning and the family took a later train into Manhattan. If they had stuck to their plan, they would have been at the WTC when the planes struck.

SEPT 11 2001 NYC

Smoke, flames and debris erupts from one of the World Trade Center towers as a plane strikes it on September 11, 2001. Akhavan's wife and son were supposed to be there the morning of the attacks. (Chao Soi Cheong/Associated Press)

"The randomness of life and death was humbling," he told the crowd during the fourth of his lectures, delivered earlier this year in St. John's.

"The irony of my predicament was that I had left the UN to escape the toll that war and violence had taken on my family life. I had traded bullets and bombs for an office in a sleek skyscraper in Manhattan."

Sept. 11, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the implosion of Afghanistan — these were all defining moments as Akhavan continued his foray into human rights.

He details each in his fourth lecture, exploring how we can move beyond hatred and division into making a better world.

"The unification of all peoples into a world commonwealth is not only possible; it is inevitable," Akhavan explains. "The only question is whether we will achieve it by vision and volition, or after unimaginable calamities leave us with no other choice."


Key quotes in Akhavan's fourth lecture

  • "In the eyes of the Muslim masses, Osama [Bin Laden] was different. Hailing from one of the richest families, he had given up a life of privilege to wage jihad from the desolate caves of Afghanistan. For those on the Arab street in search of purpose and power, he instilled confidence that faith alone could bring an evil superpower to its knees."
Payam quote card 7

This is the fourth of Akhavan's five lectures. The series is called In Search of a Better World, something he reflects on many times over the lectures. (McGill University)

  • "The purveyors of political mirages have preyed on base instincts of fear, avarice, and hatred among the masses. They have demonized, dominated, and destroyed others to promote the supremacy of a particular class, nation, race, or creed."
Payam quote card 8

(Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

All five parts of Payam Akhavan's Massey Lectures air on IDEAS November 6 to 10 at 9 p.m./9:30 NT on Radio One. And you can listen online:

The lectures are also published in book form by House of Anansi.