Eye-witness on Iran protestsExiled 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!
Extensive comments for @AFP’s @Stuart_JW about the state of the #IranRevolution process 4 months into the #IranProtests.@ifi_aub https://t.co/NwgfdOfQvZ
— 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.