PART VII: We are not dirt and dust, we are the nation of Iran

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Two days later, when the video had already travelled across the world and its seven seas, I received an email from Paulo.

Dear Arash

I need to know where you stand if things that I am watching/reading are true. Then I can take a position too—depending on your advice, of course.


He had seen the video and he wanted to make sure that it was I who was trying to save Neda. I broke my silence for the first time and wrote back.

Dearest Paulo,
I am now in Tehran. The video of Neda’s murder was taken by my friend and you can recognize me in the video. I was the doctor who tried to save her and failed. She died in my arms. I am writing with tears in my eyes. The government is massacring people who only want their basic rights. Please support us. The bloodshed is unbearable. Please don’t remain silent against this cruelty, this bloodshed. We have nothing more to lose. Please don’t mention my name.
I’ll contact you with more details soon.

I trusted him and I knew he would keep the secret. The smallest hint of it being me in the video would put my life in danger. Having grown up with this government, I knew that it would come after me; it would force me to appear on TV and say that Neda had not been shot by anyone affiliated with the government. I would also confess under torture that I was the one who uploaded the video; I would perhaps even reveal Emad’s name. They had already tried to discredit the footage. The head of National TV had declared it a fake, while Fars News, an agency affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, claimed that Neda was alive and in Greece. The ambassador of Iran in Mexico said she had been shot by the CIA, and other authorities said her death had been staged by the BBC correspondent in Iran.

I was suffocating from not being able to tell the truth. But I had to remain silent for now. There was a time for everything.

Then I received another email from Paulo.

Dear Arash

The post in Twitter and on my blog has begun to spread with incredible speed. Please send me news. Your name is never mentioned.


P.S. At this stage, I don’t know whether it is safe for you to receive my emails. Please let me know.

What post in his blog? I looked it up and was aghast at what I read.

My best friend in Iran, a doctor who showed me its beautiful culture when I visited Teheran in 2000, who fought a war in the name of the Islamic Republic, who always stood by real human values, is seen here trying to resuscitate Neda—hit in her heart. 

Oh my god! Paulo thought no one would recognize me with that description. But everyone in Iran knew I was Paulo’s best friend in the country, that I was his editor and publisher, that I was also a doctor and that it was I who had invited him to Iran in 2000. A simple search on the Internet would reveal all the information to the secret service. I understood what Paulo was trying to do. He thought that acknowledging his relationship with the person in the video would lend me a visibility that would in turn help protect me. Just as it had when The Zahir was banned. But this time was different. He has no idea how far they were ready to go for power.

I was petrified and trying desperately to think of a way to save myself. I didn’t tell anyone about the blog post in order to prevent panic and chaos. The Internet was shut down for the rest of the day and I couldn’t get back to Paulo. The next day I received another email from him.

Dear Arash,

So far, no news from you. After I published the video in my blog, it seems that it spread worldwide, including posts in NY Times, Guardian, National Review, etc. Therefore, my main concern now is about you. You NEED to answer this email, saying that you are all right and the name of the person with whom we spent New Year’s Eve in 2001, just to be sure that it really is you answering this email . . .

If you don’t do that, I may leak your name to the press, in order to protect you—visibility is the only protection at this point. I know this because I am a former prisoner of conscience. If you do that, unless instructed otherwise by you, I will stop the pressure for the moment. My main concern now is you and your family.


P.S. There are several trusted friends in blind copy here.

Things were getting out of hand. The Ministry of Intelligence had already begun to enquire about the source of the video. It was a matter of time before I was identified. My main fear was: if they arrest me now, I’ll never see Kay and Maryam. The pain of that thought made me call the travel agency and ask for the next flight out of Iran. Yes, there was a seat left on the BMI flight to the UK at 8 a.m. tomorrow. I booked it and then replied to Paulo’s email.

Dearest Paulo,

Trying to leave the country tomorrow morning. If I don’t arrive in London at 2 p.m. something has happened to me. Till then, wait. My wife and my son are in Oxford.

Please wait till tomorrow. If something happens to me, please take care of Maryam and Kay, they are there, alone, and have no one else in the world.

Much love, it was an honour having you as a friend.

I landed at Heathrow safely, although after an emergency stop in Georgia so that the crew could be changed. Because of the intense situation in Iran, the crew was not allowed to stay in Tehran overnight.

I was still at the airport when I called Paulo to assure him that I had left Iran safely, at which point he told me that he had promised the readers of his blog to reveal my identity as soon as he was sure I was safe. I was in such an emotional state that I said it was all right without giving it much thought. Then I picked up my small suitcase and took the bus to Oxford.

I had barely reached Oxford and met Maryam and Kay when my phone began to ring. Paulo had identified me on his blog and hundreds of reporters wanted to get hold of me.

‘No way!’ exclaimed Maryam, ‘You’ve done more than enough already! This will put you in even greater danger!’

I turned off my phone. I had just arrived and was in no mood for more adventure. I just wanted to enjoy playing with Kay. I wanted to relax for a few hours. I had to make a decision with a clear mind. Paulo called me and we had a long discussion. He, too, believed that I was at the crossroads and any decision I made meant going beyond the point of no return.

‘Arash, you were caught at the crossroads of history. Think! Either speak or remain silent. But the government of Iran claims that this video is fake. If you feel that your testimony will change anything, speak up.’

Yes, I had to make a decision. But not today.

The next day I decided to reply to the email from BBC reporter, Rachel Harvey, who had been trying to get hold of me for the past 24 hours. But first I shared my decision with Maryam.

‘I hope you know what you’re doing,’ she said.

‘I haven’t got the slightest idea, Maryam.’

‘So what’s the rush?’

‘I’ll die if I don’t speak out.’

‘And you’ll die if you do.’

‘I’m not so sure about that. I thought everything through last night. If I don’t speak up, the government of Iran will try to distort the truth. Soon they’ll find someone and force him to confess that the girl was shot by an opposition member or something like that. She looked into my eyes before she died. I have a responsibility.’

‘You’ve already shared her story. The world already knows.’

‘I’m fed up with watching and staying silent. If our parents had said something when their friends were hanged perhaps Neda wouldn’t have had to die. If I don’t speak up now, this vicious cycle will never stop. Someday Kay will have to pay for my cowardice.’

‘Haven’t we suffered enough?’

‘That’s why I have to speak now, because of that suffering. She is dead. If I don’t speak, they’ll continue to shoot people on the streets. Maybe, just maybe, this can stop the violence. The government must know that there’s always someone watching.’ I invited Rachel Harvey to interview me the same afternoon, 25 June. I gave another interview to Martin Fletcher of the Times. The BBC interview echoed around the world but the Times interview was overshadowed by the sudden death of Michael Jackson.

Two days later it happened. The chief of police in Tehran announced that I was being prosecuted for poisoning the Western media against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The intelligence agents raided my office in Tehran. They interrogated my father for several hours, threatened him, asked him to force me to shut up.

Done. I had crossed the point of no return. My son had lost his chance to grow up in his homeland. Was it worth it? Over the next few months, the Ministry of Culture cancelled Caravan’s licence and banned all its books. My life’s work was gone. We were left alone, in the UK, penniless. No job or security. And death threats. All the time.

Yet it was worth it. I have lost many things but an immense calm fills me within. The pain is gone. The very fact that the government of Iran was trying so hard to discredit my story proves the power of the blow. It could no longer pretend that it was a righteous government, supported by its people. No. In the eyes of the world, it was a government that shot unarmed civilians on the streets. It was over. It was the beginning of its end.

And I am alive. I will find my way. In the end.

Nearly 60 years ago, Sadeq Hedayat, the famous Iranian writer, wrote: ‘There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.’

When I first saw Emad showing off his new phone, I asked him why people needed a camera in their phones. The technology was never as good as in a regular camera and the phone itself was disturbance enough.

‘Life doesn’t provide us with a lot of memorable moments,’ he answered with a grin. ‘I want to cherish all the happy moments in my life. I can’t carry a camera all the time but the mobile phone is something we are doomed to.’

Alas, I’m not allowed to describe Emad nor give any details about him. It would betray his identity. So he is not going to be acknowledged for his achievement in recording those 47 seconds, an extraordinary and defining moment. Not a happy moment but one that was destined to seize the attention of millions and to haunt me for the rest of my life. Memory fades over time until one is left with only a blurred image. The impact of a tragedy lessens day by day and lets you heal. It will leave scars on your soul, of course, but time makes sure those scars fade, too. Until only a faint reminiscence is all that survives; the memory has left its mark but no longer enchains your soul.

The camera-phone is fine for recording crucial moments but not very helpful with the aftermath. Then again, camera phones are performing miracles now. Foreign reporters are expelled from Iran, domestic reporters are either in prison or prisoners of their fears, leaving no one to record current events. Perhaps for the first time since their invention, these gadgets have taken on a new role, a new responsibility: they are bearing witness to the untold history of a nation.

As the last 47 seconds of life drifting away from young Neda was shown on every news channel in the world, millions of people shed tears for her innocent death. But I had to follow another destiny. I decided to bear witness to her death. I have had to watch that video hundreds of times. It’s recorded, it’s there. On 20 June 2009, at least 20 other people were shot—in their chests, eyes, foreheads, necks—but there was no camera to record their slaughter. The more I watch those 47 seconds, the more sure I am that their eyes, too, had the same final enquiring gaze.