Iran, Fire Amid Ashes
The persecution and resistance of Iranian campaigners for democracy are part of an enduring experience that is personal and familial as well as national, says Nasrin Alavi.
A daughter dies at the funeral of her father during a confrontation between mourners and security forces. A beloved friend follows days later after going on hunger-strike in protest at the earlier death.
It is easy to pass over such information with a shrug: it is sad, but not all together shocking; after all this is Iran, the middle east, and it’s merely business as usual.... Perhaps even easier to allow the cruel if murky details of their end to engulf the influential lives once lived.
The imprisoned 51-year-old journalist and activist Reza Hoda Saber is said to have died after a ten-day hunger-strike in protest over the death of fellow opposition activist, the 54-year-old Haleh Sahabi, at her father’s funeral. In a signed letter, sixty-four of Saber’s fellow inmates at Evin prison have given an account of the brutal beating he endured before his death.
Saber will be remembered as one of the leading journalists of his generation and a passionate advocate of social justice who lived out his beliefs. In recent years he had been working in Sistan and Baluchestan (the latter one of the most violent and deprived provinces of Iran, and a major drug-trafficking route from neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan). Saber’s engagement with local people, including an employability-training programme, aimed to help over a thousand underprivileged young people escape the poverty of backgrounds pervaded by the drug-trade.
Saber’s social activism and journalism earned him several spells of imprisonment. His friends describe a gentle, athletic and profoundly spiritual man who could be found praying alone, often barefoot, be it in the prison courtyard or amid a vast scorched rural landscape.
The student leader Keyvan Ansari writes of Saber: “It was September and I was still in jail. As my wife was about to leave our home she caught a glimpse of that familiar face [waiting outside]... he had come many times before to fill up the fridge for my family who had no other source of income and to offer words of hope that these hard times shall pass.” On that day Saber had come to accompany Ansari’s daughter on her first day to school.
A family saga
Both Reza Hoda Saber and Haleh Sahabi were imprisoned in the aftermath of the stolen presidential election of 12 June 2009. Haleh was arrested in front of the parliament during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inauguration holding a big placard that read: “The Shah heard the cry of the people’s revolution far too late”.
Haleh regularly spurned invitations to women’s-group conferences abroad, telling friends “here in Iran there is so much work to do.” Even in prison she is described as having actively watched over the younger prisoners, amongst them Iran’s leading female student activists Bahareh Hedayat and Mahdiyeh Golroo.
She was granted temporary released from a two-year sentence after her father went into a coma. Her family and friends describe her as a Quranic feminist scholar and lifelong non-violent activist. They recall the warmth of someone who obsessively avoided the limelight, her passion for classical poetry and love of the pre-revolutionary pop-diva Googoosh, whose songs she would sing for her fellow inmates. They recount instances of her bravery during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), when she tended to wounded soldiers on the frontline; and more recently, shielding a member of the basij militia from attack by an angry crowd of street-protesters.
The Sahabi family name is inextricably linked with generations of democratic struggle in Iran. Haleh’s grandfather Yadollah Sahabi was part of a band of educated activists born at turn of the 20th century who in early adulthood were fired by a mission to transform their society. The elder Sahabi earned a doctorate from the University of Lille, and later set up the geology department at the University of Tehran. He became a key ally of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, supporting the movement for the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry which provoked the joint American-British coup in 1953 which toppled Mossadegh’s democratically-elected government.
Haleh’s father Ezatollah Sahabi, a young journalist at the time, was imprisoned within days of the coup. A generation later, the revolution of 1978-79 included many of those who had fought to realise the ideals of freedom and democracy on Iranian soil, and paid the price (Sahabi spent years in prison under the Shah). Their voices continued to be influential for a time: even the early post-revolution government under Ayatollah Khomeini was dominated by liberal figures such as Sahabi and Mehdi Bazargan (who had been deputy prime minister to Mossadegh). Bazargan’s government resigned twenty-four hours after the seizure on 4 November 1979 of the American embassy and the taking of hostages.
Amid the heady days of the revolution, Sahabi had been one of the first activists to make a public speech against the proposed constitution that was designed to grant a supreme religious leader (Ayatollah Khomeini) near-absolutist powers; its logic resembled that of an age when sovereigns were considered executors of the divine will.
Sahabi remained a dissident, and was again imprisoned (fifteen years of his life were lived inside, before and after the revolution). In 1992, he launched a political magazine - Iran-Farda - with renowned editors such as Hoda Saber and Reza Alijani. After a dozen years of war and national siege, here was a publication supporting ideas that were invisible in most public-media outlets: women’s rights, Islamic reformation, civil society. The magazine was banned in 2000.
The student leader Mehdi Arabshahi, in an online eulogy, described Sahabi as “a man who for sixty years struggled for freedom, justice, democracy and human rights"; he added that “politics began for me with Iran-Farda”. A survey commissioned by the intelligence ministry in 2000 (widely leaked to the reformist press of the time) revealed that Sahabi was the most popular political figure among students. This boded ill for him. At the age of 73, Sahabi was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for well over a year. He was charged with conspiring to overthrow the regime with the help of Ali Afshari, the elected head of the student group Tahkim Vahdat, at the time the largest nationwide union.
A sweet ramble
The political purges and onslaught on civil liberties that Iran has witnessed over the last decade have provoked ever greater social unrest, culminated in the nationwide protests of the “green movement”. The taunting comment of a blogger who wrote "Mr Dictator, Salam... remember we were all born on the 12 June" expresses the sentiments of many more.
On the second anniversary of the 12 June 2009 election, the opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s “Council of the Green Path of Hope” had called for a silent protest rally in pre-designated areas around Iran. A number of eyewitnesses described Vali’asr - the destination of the Tehran rally - as being “as busy as on the eve of Eid” (that is, when Iranian families swarm into the shopping-district for their new-year purchases). Most shops, including the two big cinemas, were closed down from 6-8pm, the duration of the silent ramble.
Mehdi Khazali, a dissident and the son of a prominent conservative cleric, writes that "the city’s face has taken on the appearance of martial law; Vali-asr Square is swamped with anti-riot forces. They have closed the shops on Vali-asr! This is emblematic. For the last two years they have shut down the country. Everything is closed, with a heavy dust of recession settled on the market.”
An eyewitness reports “People were walking up and down. As they faced others they would offer smiles of recognition”; another says that "many had come, just like the first days when we still had hope"; another dismisses the “chanting [of] slogans and all that it was good to see that we still exist".
Divanesara, a prominent blogger, reports: "there were smiles, chitchat, gestures and winks. We walked shoulder to shoulder reviewing the basij battalions. This silence had seemingly turned into a secure shield". He adds that the security forces "did not know how to break our heavy silence and were getting taunted and distressed by the second. They would roam around and holler on their bikes but it was pointless". He ends the triumphal post with a quote from Mir-Hossein Mousavi: “You are fighting with shadows in the streets while your parapets are collapsing, one by one, in the national conscience.”
Many of the quiet protesters had learned of Saber’s death on the morning of the rally. A participant described “a sweet ramble... that turned the anger and despair after Hoda Saber’s death into a spirit to press on”.
In their arduous walk to freedom, Iranians know from experience that democracy does not come through a barrel of a gun, or from the toppling of statues of dictators. At the same time, the balance of this struggle cannot be assessed only by public battles; defined by the corpses of heroes; or understood, as the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi once put, by those who “think that the shadow is the substance.”