Exiled artist Forouhar: 'A country in turmoil'
"Exiles are the true ambassadors of their countries": thus said Sven Tetzlaff last September in his speech on the Day of Exile at the German National Library in Frankfurt am Main. His remark touched me. I took it with me on my last trip to Iran and made it my mission. The following report is based on this statement and my reflections on it.
12 November 2022 saw me travelling to Tehran to commemorate my parents Parvaneh and Dariush Forouhar, well-known opposition politicians murdered in 1998 by agents of the Islamic Republic's secret service, one of a number of political assassinations of dissidents. To mark the anniversary of their deaths on 22 November, I wanted to try – as I do every year – to hold a memorial service at their home and call for an investigation into the political killings in Iran.
The occasion coincided with a changed socio-political situation. On the one hand, there was the ongoing revolutionary uprising that continues to this day, with those involved standing up for equality and democracy with vehemence and steadfastness. More courageously and resolutely than ever, they are demanding the overthrow of the regime. On the other hand, the level of repression has intensified exponentially. Thousands have already been arrested and hundreds brutally killed.
Making the decision to embark on this journey was not easy. I was worried for myself and my loved ones who share in my fate. It is impossible to describe how afraid you can be of your own country, the country where you were born and to which you are inextricably linked. It is important, dear reader, to understand this fear, shared by all people on the run as well as those in exile, as a message.
Your first contact with the state is always at passport control. This time, a young officer in civilian clothes had positioned himself a few paces away and was observing me discreetly. As soon as I passed the checkpoint, he called me over. First I had to hand him my passport, then follow him to baggage reclaim. Afterwards, I accompanied him with my suitcase to a room I already knew, where short interrogations were conducted and written summonses for further sessions handed out.
There, another officer was sitting behind a desk, also young and dressed in civilian clothes. They both informed me that my luggage needed to be searched – orders from above. They were meticulous. The atmosphere in the room was one of bustling bureaucracy. Slowly, a pile of my unpacked personal belongings, carefully sorted, grew on the desk. They consisted of paper, all labelled: a book, the last novel by Elif Shafak in German.
A tattered old address book in which I had written down the telephone numbers of relatives and friends of my parents years ago. And finally, a small stack of business cards from the tradesmen I was supposed to contact about upcoming repairs in my parents' house. When I complained that there was nothing wrong with contacting my parents' old relatives, I was allowed to copy the relevant numbers from the address book before it was confiscated. Looking through the pages, it saddened me to discover how many of the people listed there had died in recent years.
It was simply absurd. A senseless order carried out to the letter to demonstrate authority. None of the confiscated items were of political relevance. The comedy of the situation amused me and annoyed the young officers at the same time. Finally, I was issued with a receipt for the confiscated items.
Unveiled women, slogans, courage
I left the interrogation room relieved: my passport had not been confiscated, something I had been counting on.
In the arrivals hall, my gaze swept over the heads of those assembled to greet other passengers. Here and there I caught sight of the hair of unveiled women. There they were, those first signs of the much-cited change that now I was seeing with my own eyes. How wonderful that this change was manifesting itself in women's hair!
— Dr. (PhD) Ali Fathollah-Nejad (@AFathollahNejad) January 25, 2023
The drive to my parents' house passed through the south of Tehran. On the way, too, I spotted traces of change: walls sprayed with slogans against the regime and torn propaganda banners. In one underpass, I read the slogan "Down with dictatorship, death to Khamenei". The fear that had been creeping over me in the last few weeks gave way to a feeling of inner satisfaction as I contemplated these images.
When I travel to Tehran, I usually spend the first few days there walking around the city: I wander through the neighbourhoods where I grew up. Here, too, the change was unmistakable. A young salesman in a mobile phone shop criticised the restricted Internet access, ordered by the state since the beginning of the uprising.
In the same breath, he pronounced loudly and unashamedly that the mullahs could go to hell. One taxi driver described his job as fighting a losing battle with inflation on a daily basis. He compared the regime to a cancerous growth that needed excising: then "we" would finally be better off. A young street vendor of hijabs was now advertising them as ordinary scarves.
He told me mischievously that first, we would send the hijabs to hell, then the mullahs. "But what would you do then?," I asked him. "Live, just live," he replied, his eyes shining. As I walked on, he called after me loudly, "Zan, Zendegi, Azadi: woman, life, freedom!"
Time and again cars would drive by, playing the now-famous song Baraye, ballad of the uprising, at full blast. And repeatedly I noticed the presence of unveiled women who crossed my path with confidence, cockily defiant, their hair unveiled.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes
Tehran appears to be in a hybrid state in which everyday life and revolution have entered into surprising synchronicity, dancing together, forming a shrill symbiosis that is creating new processes and rituals. This includes shouting slogans of the uprising from the windows and across the rooftops of the city every night at 9 pm. This nightly chorus reinforces the cohesion and confidence of those involved.
"Maybe my optimism is exaggerated. Maybe I just want to indulge in this sudden confidence because I have yearned for it for so long," said a political comrade of my parents who visited me three days after my arrival. He belongs to the politically-minded community I grew up in and is one of the few from its ranks still alive. A retired professor and surgeon, he remains socially active despite his age.
I had last seen him on the previous anniversary of my parents' death. In the interim, he had grown noticeably older: his back was hunched, his gait lagged behind his walking stick. He recalled the times gone by and the struggle for democracy that has consistently flared up over the years. He drew comparisons with the current situation, talking incessantly, laughing heartily now and then, while his gaze shone with hope. "I would so like to see it, the change, the fall of this regime."
"For my comrades too, who, despite their great commitment, took this wish with them to the grave," he explained. Full of enthusiasm, he speaks of the young women's uprising. "Like a phoenix, they have risen from the ashes. For years, they have defied the all-encompassing and incessant humiliations conjured up by the regime. They have empowered themselves, and now they are simply tired of being patronised further. They will liberate us – us men who have not valued them enough and have not stood by them," he said.
Then he said of my mother: "Parvaneh was a rare jewel in our party, in our generation. We – her comrades – did not rate her highly enough. We were not as far along as she was. Were she alive today, she would have been so happy."
Tearing the turbans from the mullahs' heads
The euphoria that has accompanied this uprising, and which resonates in various conversations, also has a tragic flip side. In the face of the perfidious violence used by the regime to crush the uprising, you experience unbridled anger, horror, even hatred. The air is not only suffused with confidence, but also with sheer rage.
The "security squads" have mutated into criminal thugs. They shoot and beat defenceless people, even children; they riot in streets and alleys where the calls for freedom are loudest; they destroy parked cars and motorbikes, attack building facades and smash windows.
There are repeated reports of abuse and rape being ordered as punitive measures against young insurgents, of those arrested being given drugs that cause mental breakdowns. At the sight of these hooded, armoured figures representing the state, lashing out wildly and manically, but also at the expressions on the faces of the grey-bearded clerics attempting to defame the protesters with their base and vulgar arguments, I am increasingly reminded of the undead fallen out of time.
As I walk through our neighbourhood on Tuesday afternoon after visiting my parents' old friend, euphoria grips me again. It is the first day of a three-day strike; all the shops are closed.
At its core, the issue is not this or that crisis faced by the regime; the real issue is that their entire rule is in crisis. Yes, this crisis is the crisis of overthrow. And the prospect of overthrow will never abandon this regime#Iran #IranRegimeChange pic.twitter.com/fBlcjkZL3L
— Maryam Rajavi (@Maryam_Rajavi) January 23, 2023
When I am in Tehran, I open the door of my parents' house to visitors every Thursday afternoon. Over the years, this ritual has created a community that fills the house with life on this occasion. They are critics of the regime, relatives of executed people from past decades, ex-prisoners, women's rights activists, journalists and cultural workers who are under constant observation by the organs of the state.
They come in large numbers and there is real need for discussion. Besides the continuing enthusiasm for the uprising and Generation X as its driving force, differences and concerns are also raised and discussed.
What do people think of the young insurgents in the street battles who, unlike their predecessors, are fighting back against the security forces? What stand should we take regarding the various obscene slurs that are becoming increasingly popular as political slogans? And what about the trend in tearing turbans off mullahs' heads?
Will such radical tendencies propel the uprising into a spiral of violence? How do people view the role of the exile broadcasters and exile oppositionists when it comes to determining the representation of the uprising to a global public? Is there a danger of them profiling themselves as leaders of the movement, hijacking the valuable process underway in the country in order to misuse it for their own political ends?
Opinions differed widely. At the same time, there was a clear sense of cohesion, a strong sense of "we", a unity against the regime. When I was there, I had the impression that this cohesion made no attempt to conceal or negate the differences. Rather the opposite: the diversity of this "we" was appreciated, even protected.
When I asked the group about the possibility of getting together on the anniversary of my parents' death, I did not get a straight answer. They assured me they would all come, permitted or forbidden.
The anticipated interrogation
Early Saturday morning. I posted the invitation to the planned Tuesday afternoon memorial gathering on the Internet. It spread like wildfire. Barely two hours later I got a call from an anonymous number. The caller, formal and polite without introducing himself personally, summoned me to one of the security forces' offices for questioning the next day.
It came as no surprise: such summonses have long since become routine during my trips to Iran. Two officers generally conduct the session. These change frequently. Nevertheless, every time those taking part are extremely well-informed about my life. The interrogation follows a recurring pattern in which certain key phrases are used frequently and deliberately.
"Nezam (Engl. "system", a term pronounced reverently to mean the regime) regrets the incident with your parents. Everywhere in the world such incidents happen. Nezam has, however, already acted accordingly according to its own moral standards and prosecuted the perpetrators".
They ignore my counter-argument that my parents were victims of a political crime and that it was by no means an "incident"; that the instigators of the murders, named in the investigation file, such as the current minister of information, have not been prosecuted. "This is not a topic for this meeting, but a task for the judiciary, which follows Islamic rules and laws".
Another pattern of argumentation emerges regarding the question of responsibility. Every year I am told that I will be held responsible for any escalation issuing from the memorial gathering, whether in the house or even in the adjoining streets, and that I will be prosecuted for it. The officers allege that dubious characters intent on misusing the occasion for their own counter-revolutionary aims and to foment unrest are bound to attend.
"Nezam cannot tolerate this", they repeat over and over again. My attempts to clarify the matter and to question what would constitute an escalation, what they consider dubious and who could be counterrevolutionary, are consistently ignored. The process to which I am subjected is gruelling. How long such interrogations last and how much pressure is exerted depends on the political climate prevailing in the country at the time. Given the explosive nature of the current situation, the session lasts longer than in previous years.
Woman, Life, Freedom
Towards the end, I am handed a piece of paper to set down in writing the purpose of the meeting and how it was conducted. A routine protocol, with standard components as to why, where and when. This time, however, I was keen to record in black and white that calls for freedom would be part of our assembly. As would the slogan: "Zan Zendegi Azadi – Woman Life Freedom". The presiding civil servant felt the need to challenge this. He remarked that in accordance with Islamic values, Nezam respected and valued women and freedom.
At the end of the meeting, the civil servant, who had attended the proceedings more as an observer, pronounced by way of conclusion, "Ms. Forouhar, you are being very unfair". When I looked up at him in surprise, he added that I was portraying everything in a negative light and that I was behaving unfairly towards Nezam. Once again, this statement was in keeping with a well-worn tactic: Nezam and co. never assume responsibility, preferring instead to cast themselves as the victims.
On the way home, I drive past several banners depicting nine-year-old Kian, recently killed during a protest in the town of Ize. The car in which Kian and his family were sitting had come under fire. His father had been seriously injured. His mother spoke out on social media, naming a uniformed security detail as the perpetrators.
Nezam, however, claimed the attack had been carried out by IS terrorists. According to this interpretation, the nine-year-old has been callously declared a martyr of the Islamic Republic. The banners show him smiling, dressed in a suit. Next to it the slogan: "Refigh e Shahidam", meaning "My martyred comrade".
A tree bears "fruit" after 24 years
On the anniversary of my parents' death, I, along with a small group of relatives and friends, prepared the house for the impending memorial. Since the early morning, plain-clothes stooges sent by the Nezam had already been dispersing in front of my parents' house, lining up along our lane. My anxiety was great: fear of escalation, of an attack by the thugs, fear for my guests who might be beaten, for the house that might become the scene of angry rioting, fear for my aged aunts who radiated bravado.
The tall magnolia planted decades ago by my mother in our garden, which had slowly died over the last few years, was hung with small slips of paper on which was written: "Zan Zendegi Azadi; Woman Life Freedom". Pictures of the tree later went viral on social media. Under one, someone wrote: "Twenty-four years after her murder, the tree planted decades ago by Parvaneh is now bearing our country's most beautiful fruit."
Even before the gathering was scheduled to begin, the house and courtyard were packed with participants. An atmosphere of determination and mindfulness prevailed, coupled with the joy of being together. It felt to me as if the people and the house had grown together into one huge entity, radiating dignity. The crowd was young, possibly the youngest the house had received to date.
Iran - Zeinab Molaeirad, mother of Kian Pirfalak, 9 y/o killed Nov 16 by IR forces in Izeh when they opened fire on his father’s car, has been suspended from work. IR Education Dept. has banned her from going to school she works at until further notice. #IRGCterrorists @hrw @CNN pic.twitter.com/NeMo5eUCEZ
— Ali Javanmardi (@Javanmardi75) January 21, 2023
During the event, hooded representatives of the regime walked up and down our alley, filming and photographing everyone who approached the house with oversized cameras, warning them of consequences, instilling fear and anxiety.
My own heavy burden of fear and insecurity, which I had carried before and during my journey, fell away when I found myself in the company of those present, singing the old forbidden hymn that my parents loved so much together, chanting aloud the slogan of our time, "Zan Zendegi Azadi".
I left Iran a few days later. No one tried to stop me from leaving. By the time I arrived home in Germany, however, three of my friends present at the memorial had already been arrested, all of them young poets and members of the Writers' Union. According to reports, the arrests were violent.
They had told me about a meeting they were organising in memory of two murdered writers, Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh. These men had been abducted and killed by the Islamic Republic's secret service in the autumn of 1998, two weeks after my parents.
As I reach the end of this report, I feel the need to speak their names: Alireza Adineh, Ayda Amidi and Ruzbeh Sohani – they stand for the 15,000+ people now imprisoned as a result of the current wave of repression in Iran. They also stand for the many trapped in the Islamic Republic, who may well flee to save their lives.
Exile has many faces and names, origins and fates. But it is always born of such moments.