Arash Hejazi witnessed the shooting of Iranian student Soltan in Tehran in 2009. What he did next would rock the regime – and change his life for ever
The house is part of a bland new estate on the western edge of Oxford. In its sparsely furnished living room, the floor littered with toys, a young boy is playing computer games. His mother is making coffee, but his father, though physically present, is mentally a thousand miles away from this mundane scene. He is on his laptop, watching camera-phone footage of an event that has changed his life for ever, and may eventually be seen as the beginning of the end of one of the world’s most pernicious regimes.
The jerky, 47-second clip shows an attractive young woman wearing jeans and sneakers beneath a long black coat. She is outside on a street, and being lowered gently to the ground by two men. One has grey hair tied back in a ponytail. The other is younger and wears a white shirt and jeans.
As she lies on her back, the woman’s brown eyes swivel sideways towards the camera. “Don’t be afraid, Neda. Don’t be afraid,” the older man implores her. Suddenly a stream of dark red blood spurts from her mouth and runs down the side of her face. Then a second stream of blood gushes from her nose, drowning an eye.
There is panic in the voices of those around her. “Stay, Neda. Stay with me!” the first man cries. “Open her mouth. Open her airways,” yells the man in the white shirt as he presses on a wound in her chest in a desperate attempt to save her. Seconds later it is all over. The woman is dead. An onlooker holds out his hands, palms open, in apparent despair and bewilderment.
The woman was, of course, Neda Agha Soltan, the 27-year-old Iranian student shot dead during one of the massive street protests that rocked Tehran following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s blatantly rigged re-election in June 2009. The man with the ponytail was her music teacher, and the man in the white shirt is Arash Hejazi, 40, a doctor-turned-publisher who is now sitting in his rented house in Oxford watching the video clip.
This thoughtful, softly spoken Iranian has watched the footage 100 times before, and with good reason. He could so easily have left the scene, washed Soltan’s blood from his hands and kept silent. Instead he took a stand. He resolved to let the world know what the regime had done to Soltan, how evil had destroyed innocence. In a forthcoming book, The Gaze of the Gazelle, he reveals how he himself posted the video on the internet within an hour of her death. He recounts how, as the regime did its best to discredit the footage that had ricocheted around the planet and made Soltan a symbol of its barbarity, he fled to Britain and told the world how she had been shot by a government militiaman.
It was “the defining moment of my life”, Hejazi says. His courage cost him his country, his career, his security – everything he held dear except his wife and child. But it cost the fanatics who rule Iran much more. By exposing the regime’s willingness to butcher its own people to retain power, Hejazi shattered what remained of its legitimacy, its claims to champion human rights, the oppressed and Islamic values.
“It has never recovered,” he contends. “Neda’s death took away the mask the regime had been trying to wear for 30 years. It exposed the hidden face of one of the most violent and treacherous governments in the world, and they can never cover it up again.”
In a sense, all Hejazi’s life had been preparing him for that moment. The son of a respected academic, he was born just eight years before the Iranian revolution of 1979, which meant he grew up amid all the turmoil and repression of that momentous era.
His book recalls how an eight-year-old classmate was shot on the street in the days that followed the Shah’s departure. In the next few years, friends and relatives were purged, exiled or executed. At school he and his contemporaries were brainwashed, indoctrinated and taught how they had to enter lavatories left foot first. During the Eighties, teenagers like Hejazi were sent off to fight in the Iran-Iraq war and fully one third were killed, some when forced to run across Iraqi minefields in order to clear them. Hejazi himself had to do two years’ medical service with the Revolutionary Guard.
He quickly lost faith in the revolution. Dancing, alcohol, Western films and music, contact with the opposite sex and so much else were banned as the mullahs imposed on Iran an increasingly draconian and joyless Islamic orthodoxy. Women were forced to cover up. Aged 16 he acquired a girlfriend, but when her parents found out, they forced her to marry a much older man. His was a generation, he writes, that “dreaded its own shadow”.
In his own small way, Hejazi fought the system and struggled, as he puts it, to “keep my individuality intact”. He grew his hair long. When his school library was purged of any remotely “subversive” books, he began his own – until his teacher closed it down. He pressed his father to buy him a VCR so he could watch bootleg American films. He learnt to moonwalk like Michael Jackson. As a medical student, he got into trouble by delivering a lecture entitled “The characteristics of a healthy personality” that used Western psychologists, not the Koran, as sources. Later, when he gave up medicine for his real passion, publishing, he controversially brought the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho to Iran – the first Western author to visit the Islamic republic. Nothing, however, tested Hejazi’s commitment to freedom and justice like the death of Soltan.
Under the relatively liberal presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Hejazi founded a publishing company, Caravan, and built it into one of the leading independent publishers in Iran, selling more than one million books a year.
In 2004, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. Over the next four years, thousands of books were banned, the censors ran amok and the private publishing industry was all but destroyed. In late 2008, close to a nervous breakdown, Hejazi moved to Britain with his wife and infant son while he took a one-year publishing course at Oxford Brookes University.
On June 12, 2009, the day of the next presidential election, he and his family went to London and joined hundreds of exuberant opposition supporters queuing to vote outside the Iranian Embassy. They picnicked in Hyde Park, certain that Mir Hossein Mousavi would win and “dreaming of the bright future of our country now that the people had decided to take control”. But when they returned to Oxford that night, they learnt that Ahmadinejad was claiming victory with 63 per cent of the vote.
Hejazi flew to Tehran the next day. “I have to be there,” he told his anxious wife. He found a capital convulsed by running battles between the security forces and hundreds of thousands of protesters.
A few days later, he was on a street near Caravan’s office in central Tehran watching police battling protesters with tear gas. He first noticed Soltan when she stepped forward and shouted, “Down with the dictator!” Then police on motorbikes charged the crowd and many of the protesters sought refuge in a side alley.
There was a sudden crack. Someone shouted, “She’s vomiting blood.” As Hejazi tells it, “I turned back and saw Neda bending over in astonishment, looking at the fountain of blood gushing out of her chest.” He and her ponytailed music teacher lay her down on the tarmac while his friend, Emad, filmed her final moments on his mobile.
Nearby the demonstrators had caught the man who had shot her. Some were ripping off his shirt and beating him. Others were trying to protect him. “I didn’t want to kill her,” he protested repeatedly. The crowd eventually let him go, but not before it found an identity card showing him to be a member of the Basij volunteer militia.
Hejazi and Emad hurried back to Caravan’s office, where he had to make his first momentous choice – whether to put the footage of Soltan’s death on the internet. Emad resisted. He urged Hejazi at least to blur his own face first. “There’s no time,” Hejazi told him. The regime was taking down the internet connection. It was slowing by the minute. “They don’t want the world to see what’s going on,” he said. “It’s our responsibility. We owe this to that innocent girl. You don’t want her blood to have been shed in vain.” He wrote an e-mail to friends in Europe, attached the video and pressed “Send”.
“I knew I was putting myself in grave danger,” he says. “Our vengeful government would not tolerate anyone who dared try to inform the world of its atrocities. But for how long could I stay silent?” Even he, however, could not have envisaged the impact the video would have.
By the time he returned to his parents’ home that evening, it was being broadcast on the BBC, CNN, al-Jazeera and almost every news channel in the world. Pictures of Soltan’s last moments appeared in newspapers around the globe. The footage went viral, and overnight she became a global icon of the opposition.
She was young, pretty and innocent. Beneath her black coat she was wearing modern Western clothes. She was “everywoman”, Hejazi says. A world that thought all Iranian women were ultra-conservative and wore hijabs “saw a very different face of Iran, one with which it could identify and understand why she was protesting”.
The regime’s reaction showed just how damaging the video was. Officials variously denounced it as a fake, claimed Soltan was alive and well in Greece, insisted that she had been shot by the CIA, or accused the BBC of staging her death for propaganda purposes.
Hejazi knew the regime would come after him. “It would force me to appear on TV and say that Neda had not been shot by anyone affiliated with the government,” he said. His terror was compounded when his friend, Paulo Coelho, inadvertently identified him on his blog.
He booked a flight to London early the next morning. He sent Coelho an e-mail urging him to look after his wife, Maryam, and four-year-old son, Kay, if he was stopped from leaving because “they are there, alone, and have no one else in the world”. His parents drove him to the airport and he checked in with his heart in his mouth, keeping his mobile on all the time so they would know instantly if he was arrested. “I was so overwhelmed with fear… that I didn’t even think I might never see my country again,” he wrote.
He reached Britain safely, but his ordeal was still not over. The regime’s formidable propaganda machine was working flat out to discredit the video. Back in Oxford, he soon realised that only he could prove it was authentic and tell the world how a “Basiji” shot Soltan. His wife urged him to stay quiet; he had already done his bit. Coelho told him he was “at the crossroads of history” and pressed him to speak out. Finally he gave explosive interviews to The Timesand the BBC. Had he not done so, had he shirked that ultimate test, he would have “died inside”, he said.
Hejazi and his family have paid a terrible price for that decision. The regime denounced him and effectively charged him with treason, meaning he must now live in exile. “It’s bitter. Despite all its problems, Iran is still our country and we love it,” says Hejazi, who has been granted political asylum in Britain.
The couple have lost all their possessions. The regime raided, then closed, Caravan. It banned Hejazi’s books, even those he merely translated. His wife has forfeited her well-paid job as a company manager in Tehran. Formerly prosperous, the couple now scrape by on Hejazi’s salary from a scientific journal in London.
He has received dozens of death threats, and for a while his house had an alarm system linked directly to the nearest police station. His father was interrogated twice, at length, and has been banned from teaching at his university. “Teaching was his life. He dreamt of dying in the classroom,” says his son. He cannot talk openly to his parents because he is sure their telephone is tapped.
Even today Hejazi cannot reveal the true identity of his friend Emad (a pseudonym). “He would be arrested, tortured and forced to ‘confess’ that he was employed by the CIA, MI6, Mossad or all three to murder the girl and blame it on the government,” he said.
Hejazi has no regrets, however. “In every person’s life there are moments of truth that determine the sort of person you are, that test your beliefs and values. For me, Neda’s death and speaking out was that moment, and I think I was true to myself,” he says. “Everything I’ve lost I can gradually rebuild, but I could not have regained my soul had I lost it that day.” He was particularly touched to receive, months later, an e-mail from Soltan’s family, thanking him for his courage.
By telling the world Soltan’s story, Hejazi ensured that she did not die in vain, that her death served a much larger purpose. “I would like to say it was the start of the demise of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he says as he goes into his unkempt back garden for a cigarette. “You don’t have to be Che Guevara to change the world. These little steps change the world. It had a huge impact and the regime has never recovered… It could no longer pretend it was a righteous government supported by its people.”
Book extract: The Gaze of the Gazelle by Arash Hejazi
I have seen this stare before…
“DON’T BE AFRAID, NEDA! Don’t be afraid!”
What I see in those brown eyes staring at me is far from being fear or pain. I know this, I’ve seen it somewhere. I press harder on the wound on her chest, below the neck, where the blood is gushing out like lava erupting from an angry volcano.
It’s her aorta! S***!
As if disappointed at my lack of response, her dark and lovely eyes turn towards the lens of Emad’s new camera phone, about which he has been bragging for a long time, trying to convince me that this piece of technology is worth owning.
“Stay, Neda! STAY WITH ME!” cries the old man who has been with her all the time.
She is not going to stay with anyone; she is leaving, that’s for sure. I have ears trained to hear the familiar sound of the breath of Death.
Another sign of departure – blood is pouring from her mouth and nose. “Turn her head!” I shout in response to the cries of the old man with ponytail in the blue striped T-shirt, begging those curious eyes not to be afraid.
“Open her mouth! Open the airways!” I command him.
Her father, I guess, though later I am going to find out he is her music teacher and “vocal trainer”, teaching her how to sing, how to have a voice, despite singing being banned for women in Iran.
The speed of the blood flow is decreasing. Her body is slowly being drained of blood.
“Somebody take her to a hospital!” I cry out, although I know even if she was shot in her aorta in the operation room, no one would be able to save her.
The blood pouring out of her nose and mouth is covering one of her eyes. The eye is disappearing alongside the fountain of life I’ve seen there, minutes ago. I can see Emad’s knees shaking while still trying to record the calmness replacing the stare in those eyes.
The heart has given up. No more blood to pump out. The gaze is covered under blood and 30 years of a nation’s pain.
My friend Hassan runs towards me.
“What does she need?” he asks, panting with horrified eyes. “What can I do to help?”
“She’s dead, Hassan.”
I saw Neda there for the first time while shouting to Hassan. “Don’t leave my side, you fool!”
She was standing beside the old man with the ponytail, wearing a typical long black coat. She had tied her headscarf at the back of her head, either trying to expel the summer heat or simply enjoying the minimal opportunity that the protests had provided for her to free herself from the obligation of tying the knot in front of her neck to prevent men from seeing her bare neck. She was also wearing a visor to protect her eyes from the summer sun. The old man tried to keep her away from the crowd, although he was as successful as I was in keeping Hassan by my side.
“Let’s go! It’s enough!” I shouted.
The girl stepped forward among the crowd and shouted. “Down with the dictator! Ahmadinejad betrays us, the Leader supports him!” The old man pulled her back.
An anti-riot officer shot a tear gas canister. Apparently, he hadn’t received sufficient training since the canister, instead of landing among the protesting crowd, flew high and entered an open window of a building in the corner. An old woman appeared at the window in distress and shouted amid the cloud of smoke leaving her window, “You idiots! At least aim right! I am suffocating!”
Everybody started laughing while a few young boys and girls rushed towards the house to take her out and baptise her in the smoke from the small fire in the middle of the street.
“Welcome to the club, grandma!” a young girl said, laughing.
And then, everything changed. Someone shouted, “They’re coming! Run!”
“Go into the office NOW!” I shouted towards Hassan. “Or I will sack you on the spot!”
Then we suddenly heard a blast.
“What was that? Was it a bullet?” I asked Hassan.
“I don’t think so,” said Emad who had brought out his camera phone, trying to record everything he could. “I’ve heard that they are using plastic bullets to frighten people.”
“Go into the office Hassan,” I repeated.
“No buts! Now!”
“She is vomiting blood…”
I turned back and saw her bending over her chest in astonishment, looking at the fountain of blood gushing out of her chest.
“She’s not vomiting, she’s shot!” I shouted, rushing towards her.
“What does she need?” asks Hassan with horrified eyes, after I leave her dead body. “What can I do to help?”
“She’s dead Hassan,” I answer in a calm voice.
No matter how hard I try to stop it, I am now overwhelmed by fear. She was standing three feet away from me when she was shot.
It could have been me. It could have been Hassan. And then I try to push the thought aside, embarrassed, try to replace it with, “It should have been me,” when I hear someone shouting, “I didn’t want to kill her!”
Apparently people have caught someone. Emad tries to run his camera phone again, but it is out of battery, as if the impact of the scene that the phone has just recorded has consumed all its energy.
He’s a robust sort of man, with the typical “four-square” moustache on his upper lip. People have taken off his shirt and are beating him, while he keeps begging, “I didn’t want to kill her.” I see too many scars on his back.
A few men try to pull him out from under the feet of the angry mob: “Wait, we are not like them, don’t hurt him.” Another one, holding up the man’s wallet and his ID cards, shouts, “See? He is from the Basij! This son of a bitch is the murderer of that innocent girl!”
But then, reality. People don’t know what to do. There’s no use handing him to the police since they themselves would be arrested for illegal demonstration. They cannot hurt the man because they “are not like them”. There’s nothing left to do but to let him go and keep his ID card.
There’s nothing left for us to do either. We slowly walk back towards our office, while I am trying to help Emad who is nearly fainting. He has never seen so much blood.
© Arash Hejazi, 2011. Extracted from The Gaze of the Gazelle: the Story of a Generation (£14), published by Seagull Books on August 2 and distributed in the UK by John Wiley. It is available for £12.99 (RRP £14), free p&p, on 0845 2712134; thetimes.co.uk/bookshop