″Pinning our hopes on a murderer″

When the news of repeated break-ins at her parents′ house reached Parastou Forouhar in January, the artist, who lives in Germany, travelled to Iran to deal with the situation in person. The house that had belonged to her parents, political activists Daryoush Forouhar and Parvaneh Eskandari, before they were murdered by the secret service, had been completely vandalised. An account by Parastou Forouhar

By Parastou Forouhar

There was a huge padlock on the front gate, put there just recently by my aunt to prevent the house from being broken into again. The gate was damaged. The chipped paint showed where the burglars had struck it with a hammer.

 "When we came here after the break-in, a lot of things were lying around in the garden," my aunt told me. "Clothes, bags, a radio and the rug with your mother′s bloodstains on it – which they had thrown into the corner of the flower bed." The house had obviously been looted. The emptiness left by stolen objects leapt out at me.

″You have to feel the hardness of the fist to really understand where you live″

An old party comrade of my parents told me an anecdote as he carefully gathered up papers from the floor. In the 70s he went to visit Gholam-Hossein Saedi – a gifted writer and courageous regime opponent – in hospital. Saedi, who had been attacked and beaten by an "unknown" gang of thugs, said: "Sometimes you have to feel the hardness of the fist to really understand where you live." These words stayed with me throughout my stay in Tehran.

When I opened the house to visitors on Thursday afternoon, as usual, the atmosphere was emotional, heated. "They′ve stolen the people from this place, as well as the objects," said a friend.

Devastation following the break-in in Tehran (photo: private)
When the news of repeated break-ins at her parents′ house reached Parastou Forouhar, the artist, who lives in Germany, travelled to Iran to deal with the situation in person. Her parents were regime dissidents who were murdered in Tehran in 1998. Since then their daughter Parastou Forouhar has fought using every means at her disposal – legal and artistic – for a full investigation of the contract killing

Some of the guests, visibly affected, thought I should have cleared out the house after the first break-in, taking away the mementos and hiding them in a safe place: "Don′t leave the house open to this process of looting."

Can you rent out the site of a murder?

Others thought I should rent the house out until better times arrived. Can you rent out the site of a murder? Should you erase your memory in order to protect a place? Wouldn′t that make the insistence on having the political crimes that took place there investigated lose some of its reality? And: how can you even hope for better times to come, if you give up hope in the here and now?

"If I took the chair my father was sitting on when he was killed and hid it between other chairs in the cellar, wouldn′t I be silencing the history of this object and creating a sense of indifference towards what happened? What′s the difference between looting and hiding, when both mean that the memory vanishes?" I asked my guests. Some replied that the looting was a reaction to my many years of stubbornness. And I wonder if my giving in wouldn′t mean that those who did not give in would be forgotten.

At the police station

Parastou Forouhar′s exhibition ″Written Room″ in Saarbrucken City Gallery 2011 (photo: Parastou Forouhar)
Parastou Forouhar came to Germany from Iran to study art. Her world fell apart as she learnt of the death of her parents, political activists Daryoush Forouhar und Parvaneh Eskandari. It took ten years for her to get her own life back. Yet traces of the terrible events that unfolded in her homeland at the end of the nineties can still be found today in her art and in her actions

It was a Saturday when I first went down to the police station on Baharestan Square, to follow up on the complaint that my aunt had submitted. But I found the usual atmosphere inside the building: a jostling, wailing, angry crowd.

My aunt′s complaint, as well as the report by the policeman who had collected evidence after the break-in, had vanished. There was just a file number in the archive to prove the break-in had been registered. I had to submit another complaint, go to the judicial authorities, present myself in various offices, give an account of what had happened and answer questions over and over again, before I could submit the file to the criminal investigation office responsible.

The conditions there reflected my old friend′s brilliant anecdote. You meet a lot of people in detention being taken to interrogations. These men wear pyjama-like prison uniforms and are chained hand and foot. Some are even chained together. When they pass down the corridors, the chains rattle. They aren′t allowed to sit down while waiting outside an office. When they enter the criminal investigators′ office, a large hall filled with rows of desks, the chained men have to squat on the floor in front of these desks. For other visitors, there are shabby chairs. I can′t think of any word for this but apartheid.

After I had left the office, I drove to a travel agent′s to postpone my return flight. It was raining and there was little traffic on the streets of Tehran. The office was in one of the newly-built skyscrapers which have taken over Tehran′s skyline with breath-taking speed over the last few years.

The lift was mirrored and flooded with light. The travel agent′s was staffed by friendly young women, perfectly made up, sitting behind high-tech equipment. Each was wearing a silk scarf over her head to match her elegant uniform.

The woman who served me was competent and the matter was taken care of quickly. I was confused. Saedi′s words echoed in my head, even if this time the fist was wearing a lot of jewellery. I can′t find the words to describe the stark contrast between the different worlds that exist alongside each other in Tehran – as though in this case, language would obfuscate reality rather than representing it.

A shocking election billboard

I was sitting in a taxi when the sight of a huge election billboard so mesmerised me that I had to get out. The poster was of an ex-secret service minister, publically known to have overseen numerous human rights abuses and political murders.

He was pictured against a colourful background, with a friendly smile and his right hand stretched out invitingly towards the viewer. His campaign slogan was: "A competent parliament, unity and solidarity". I was staring at it aghast when an enthusiastic young man pressed a flyer into my hand. It said: "Coalition of Hope, 30+16".

It was the campaign flyer for the reformists. There was the name of an ex-secret-service minister on this, too: Dorri Najafabadi, who ordered the political murders of autumn ′98 – who also ordered the murder of my parents. Despite concrete evidence of his guilt, he was never brought to justice.

The young man spoke of his hope for reforms, of our right to vote and the national duty to make use of this right. I stood with my head bowed to hide my tears from him, wondering what sort of interaction was possible between those close to people who had been murdered and those electing their murderers out of a sense of hope?

It′s the word "hope" that divides and estranges us. If you had put fear or desperation in its place, interaction would have been possible. If the "reformists" mounting this election campaign hadn′t taken words like "hope", "right" and "reform" to such absurd extremes, there would be some kind of reality to argue over.

Now the elections are over. And it wasn′t just that young man: many of my friends and acquaintances, many dissenters close to the reformists voted for the "30+16" list. And I wonder if their votes are the equivalent of an acquittal for past crimes.

Symbolic of the persecuted opposition

Election day fell on the first Friday of the month. That day, I went to the forbidden Khavaran cemetery on the outskirts of the city of Tehran. At first glance it looks like waste ground, but Khavaran hides the mass graves of executed dissidents. A place that serves as a symbol for the systematic extermination of the Iranian opposition in the 1980s, where no gravestone is permitted to stand and no plant allowed to grow. But on the first Friday of the month, relatives of those executed visit the cemetery.

I sat at the edge of the cemetery and watched women poking flowers into thorn bushes, lovingly placing markers here and there. These small, unobtrusive arrangements of branches, stones and pine cones always remind me of birds′ nests.

Khavaran cemetery – a mass grave of regime opponents (photo: Shokkofe Montazari)
Khavaran cemetery: at first glance it looks like waste ground, but Khavaran hides the mass graves of executed dissidents. A place that serves as a symbol for the systematic extermination of the Iranian opposition in the 1980s

An uncertain police officer

It was Tuesday when I went to the criminal investigations office for the last time, to meet the officer to whom the file had been assigned. "What do you want? Where was the break-in? What was stolen?" he asked in a loud, aggressive voice, without raising his eyes from the desk.

When I replied that this information was contained in the file in front of him, he raised his voice even further. "Go and sit outside until I call you," he instructed me, and showed me the door. I left the office with the remark that I would send in my lawyer to shout at him until there was no breath left in his body.

Filled with shame for those who are subjected to such chicaneries without being able to defend themselves, I left the building. Shortly afterwards, the officer phoned me and asked in a conciliatory voice: "Why did you leave, Ms Forouhar? I asked you to wait. Do come back, I beg you."

I let him ask a few times and then turned round. When I arrived he was like a different man. He spoke in a placatory, familiar tone and claimed I was the one who had been rude. He addressed the file with exaggerated care and showered me with questions. It made me think of Saedi′s words again. The way aggression and hypocrisy had come together here to form a picture puzzle of capriciousness.  

A calendar of suicide scenes

Before my departure, I had prepared an artistic publication that I wanted to present in Tehran. It was an art calendar consisting of twelve digital drawings. They showed suicide scenes: women in idyllic, domestic and miniature-like surroundings; at once depicting and masking the contents.

I had arranged for the calendar to be presented at a gallery I worked with. Just hours after the event was announced on the gallery′s website, there was a harsh reaction from the security police. The gallerist and the owner of the printers were issued with summons and interrogated. A ban was placed on the event – ignoring it would result not only in the closure of the gallery and the printers, but the arrest of their proprietors.

Iran′s former prime minister Dr Mohammad Mossadegh (source: Tarikhirani.ir)
Icon of the Iranian democracy movement, symbol of freedom and of Iranian patriotism: Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was prime minister of Iran at the beginning of the nineteen fifties and stood for democracy, the rule of law and national sovereignty. He was deposed by a putsch masterminded by the American and British secret services

Since I was entirely left out of this process by the security services, I was denied any opportunity to protest. Shortly before the gallery announced the cancellation of the event, I got a call from a journalist who worked for a critical newspaper close to the reformists. When I informed her of the ban, she expressed her regret and said goodbye. I understood that even in the current "moderate, liberal era", the critical press were only allowed to report on permitted activities. They still don′t mention bans.

The ban gave me a free afternoon, which I used to visit a memorial erected in a former prison building to the fight for freedom against the Shah′s dictatorial regime. I have many memories of this place, where my father was detained for years as an opponent of the Shah, and where I went to visit him when I was growing up.

The place reflects the representation of history in Iran today: falsified content and decorative surfaces. Ideal for filming TV series, for attractive info panels, recounting the censored version of history in kitschy language, with photos of a selection of former prisoners who are now part of, or close to, the current regime.

My father, like numerous other dissidents, has been written out of the story. When I approached the friendly attendants about it, they assured me in a placatory tone: "It could just be a simple mistake. No need to be suspicious." Only the sight of the old pine trees matched my memory of this place.

A historic house

Shortly before my departure I visited Ahmadabad, a small village far away from Tehran, where my parents′ political idol Mohammad Mosaddegh is buried. He was Iran′s prime minister in the early 1950s and stood for democracy, the rule of law and the sovereignty of the country. He was ousted in a putsch whose puppet-masters were the English and American secret services. After that, Mosaddegh lived in Ahmadabad under arrest and house arrest until his death. He was buried in a room of his house.

It was the day before the 49th anniversary of Mosaddegh′s death when I travelled to Ahmadabad with a small group of older gentlemen from the opposition, accompanied by Mosaddegh′s grandson. The visit had been kept secret and we took a round-about route to avoid attracting attention.

In this place which has become a symbol for the continuity of Iranian freedom fighting, where decades of protest campaigns took place, I felt the absence of an oppositional stance most clearly. The visit was deeply unpolitical act on a political occasion; an act of remembering that does not equate to a stance in the present day.

Parastou Forouhar

© Iran Journal 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin