Politics & Policy

The Heart of Darkness

There is no word to describe the horror.

Another man has just been decapitated in Iraq and a video showing the horror posted online. In Tehran, the French ambassador recently met the head of the national-security and foreign-affairs committee of the Islamic Majlis (parliament), and the president of the Iranian-French Parliamentary Commission to discuss “the expansion of ties….” Did this meeting have anything to do with what took place in Paris last week? A meeting of the International Moral Court was held in the French capital September 23-25 to expose the crimes of the theocracy in Tehran. Having lived under religious fascism, I prepared myself psychologically for three days of horrific stories and images.

At the hotel where the event took place, I met Ali, a 23-year-old man in a family of nine. Ali came here eight months ago, fleeing persecution. “I have a high-school bachelor’s degree and I used to work as a mechanic in Islam-Shahr (Islam City).” Islam-Shahr–a poverty-ridden suburb that saw, back in the mid-1990s, the first popular anti-regime demonstrations–is located on the outskirt of Tehran, a world away from those chic quarters north of the city from which western reporters regularly speak of the bright horizons of reformism. Islam-Shahr is where Ali was born and lived until he left the country out of fear.

“When did it all start for you?” I asked my young compatriot, by then at ease in the conversation after a cup of coffee. “It started with the first student uprising [in 1999]. The whole city was turned upside down. Even in our neighborhood, far away from the main Tehran University campus, bassij [the Islamist militia] quarters were taken over by the people, their vehicles burned, their walls covered with anti-regime graffiti…I was identified by the denouncers and later summoned to Islamic court.”

The “denouncers,” as Ali calls them, are the shadowy figures behind the more visible agents of the bassij. While the latter are “known to all, in every neighborhood, the former are more pernicious, more difficult for us to keep an eye on.”

Ali continued, reciting his ordeal for the “umpteenth time,” as he sadly said. Later “my case became even thicker,” he related. “Why?” I enquired. “The local mullah [a Shia cleric], having seen my wife God knows where, started having a malicious eye on her. He wanted her and she was mine. So, he went after me, found out about my recent security troubles and managed to put his hands on my file. He then made it thicker than it already was. And that was the end of it. What followed was yet another summoning to Islamic courts, and, in absentia, I was notified of my charges: ‘Insult to His Sacred Leadership’s dress,’ ‘Insult to the System’s sanctities,’ and ‘Conspiracy against national security.’”

“What do you mean ‘His dress’?” I asked. “They all wear the same f***ing dress,” he replied, before adding, “Insulting one is insulting them all, and above them all, His Sacred Leadership.”

As we talked, the court went on. Following the administrative procedures a film was shown; smuggled out of Iran, it pictured scenes of despicable horror. We all watched the unwatchable: a man lay on a stretcher while another, bearded and looking like an official, read what seemed to be a court sentence. Then a man dressed in white comes in–presumably a physician–bends over the lying man and applies the sentence.

There is only one word to describe the horror of what I saw: horror. There is other word for the act of tearing out a living man’s eyes; there is no adjective to describe it. The whole assembly was plunged into a macabre silence. In the next scene, another man, lying alive and awake on a stretcher, watched his physician-torturer cut his fingers with a hand-mower. Next, a third man, or woman–there is no way of distinguishing the gender of someone wrapped up like a mummy–is buried, alive and awake, up to his chest, before being stoned to death. It barely takes a minute or two before the chest and head of the living mummy start circling around in a dance of death. What magnifies to near-infinite the evil of these scenes of barbarity is the unbearable accompanying cry, “Allah Akbar!”–”God is Great!”

“The situation becomes so explosive, every now and then, that they bring in their Lebanese commandos,” Ali told me, turning his head away from that sickening screen. “Lebanese?” I asked. “Yah, Lebanese. They run out of local hands to repress, so they rely on their network. These guys are physically huge and mentally sick. Speaking not a word of Persian, they just beat. A friend of mine got caught the other day by one of these patrols. The guy was so colossal that he sucked my friend in through the car’s window with just one hand. They laid him on the car’s floor and started beating him. I never saw him again. Seventeen of us disappeared like this in our hood alone. Eleven never came back. Those who did return, including one of my own childhood friends, were so profoundly disrupted psychologically that no one would ever talk of his ordeal.”

The projection is followed by testimonies of those who survived the heart of darkness. Coming back from death, a woman goes to the microphone, and, as she speaks, the room sinks into silence once again. A Kurdish sympathizer of an armed opposition group, she was arrested in her native Kurdistan in 1982. Hanged naked upside down–to “tear apart the self that is in every one of us,” she says–she was then raped, over and over again. Gang rape, rape with a bottle…

“We will never forgive our parents for having done this to us with their revolution,” says Ali, staring at nowhere. “My father said once that they did it because they thought they would get free oil at their door step. Can you believe that? Now, people won’t take to the streets anymore. I mean, what for? Every one saw what they did to Zahra Kazemi [a Canadian journalist killed while in the custody of the government in Tehran]. Did the Canadians do anything in outrage? Did the Canadian government take any significant retaliatory step? Every one knows that the mullahs have huge personal savings and investments in Canada. So why should we sacrifice ourselves by defying Lebanese mercenaries in our own neighborhoods? Is the world going to recognize that we exist? Has anyone among the Iranian expatriates supported us? Has any Iranian even come to the refugee camps to see in what miserable conditions we live? We hate the mullahs so much that we could hang every single one of them on every single tree in Tehran, but, so long as we, the Iranians, are only “I” and never “Us”–so long as the West is behind the mullahs–no one will take the matters to the streets any more.”

I leave the courtroom, sick of myself, sick of bearing my being. I retire to an adjacent room to write and forget. “Did Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times ever talk to Ali when he toured Iran a few months ago? He has never lived under fascism, has he? Mr. Kristoff doesn’t have to face the Lebanese Hezbollah in the streets of New York, does he? So why does he advocate reforming the theocracy and flooding it with American dollars? The “reform” movement is dead, Mr. Kristoff. The aspiration for liberty and a life without fear, for a life with dignity, is not.”

“We are 70 percent of the people,” said Ali before I left him. They are the most redoubtable weapon of mass destruction against the mullahs, I keep telling myself. They are the end of the tunnel, if only we could recognize that there is tunnel out there and not a dead-end–if only we decided to lend them our voice.

If only…

Ramin Parham, editor of Iran Institute for Democracy, is an independent commentator based in Paris.


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