SOLIDARITY. Amir Soltani and his fictional heroine Zahra stand up for human rights in Iran.


Street Spirit Interview with Amir Soltani, Part 3

Interview by Terry Messman

Street Spirit: Zahra’s Paradise is very powerful in describing the clampdown by the courts and the prison system. It’s like a nightmare to see how badly people are treated just because they’re seeking their missing loved ones, and how they even risk the same fate simply for trying to find them.
Amir Soltani: Exactly! That’s what I wanted to say! The system of repression is a disaster. And yet, the depth of the love and the resistance and the solidarity and the strength that keeps people going in the face of this horror is really incredible. In Iran, and in Eastern Europe and Poland and South Africa, even with all the horrors and the violence that the state inflicts on people, still there is something about the human spirit that doesn’t surrender.
I think that for a lot of us, the 2009 protests were exactly that: People did not surrender. They did not give up. But the 2009 protests didn’t happen overnight. The 2009 protests were happening every day; they happened in the schools and in the military. The resistance is there.
Even in the recent 2017 election, we could see that the force of people’s demands and desires for freedom pushed the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who comes out of a security background, to adopt the language of freedom and to speak to that. The reason that is happening is because of the presence of this resistance. It’s not something that was crushed in 2009. It’s actually very vibrant and it’s really there, and it will surprise people when it makes itself felt.
Spirit: Zahra’s Paradise was more than just a criticism of the regime and its police-state repression. It was almost a love letter to the people and culture of Iran. It’s a beautiful depiction of the courage of the people and their long tradition of poets and the long history of people speaking out for human rights.
Soltani: Yes, thank you, Terry. You know, Iranians had their constitutional revolution in 1906. So the struggle for democracy and justice in Iran is now over a century old. And of course, all of Shi’ism is also about the tradition of protest, and that’s also very old and beautiful. Shi’ism [also known as Shi’a Islam, a branch of Islam] is a tradition of a religious minority that was subjected to a lot of injustice and cruelty and oppression. So the ideals of justice and the protection of the innocent were very deeply held by them.
Part of what made the whole thing so joyful for me is that a lot of the language that went into Zahra’s Paradise is actually Khalil’s language, his visual language, his art, which was the creation not of an Iranian, but of an Algerian-American, Kahlil Bendib. That was one of the great joys of working on this project because Khalil understood and brought the Arab and the Algerian and the American experience into what we were doing.
I mean, I could write as much as I wanted to, but when he would start to draw, and then send it back to me, it was almost always better than what I imagined it.

The Question of Military Intervention

Spirit: You book is clearly born out of your love for Iran, and it shows the Iranian people and culture in such a positive light. But has anyone questioned whether your heavy criticism of Iran’s repressive leaders can be used to justify U.S. sanctions or intervention?
Soltani: You know, I’ve never worried about that and I honestly don’t feel it’s true. There is the sort of notion that if you are critical of your culture because of its treatment of ethnic minorities, or because of the treatment of women or gays or other minorities — if you are critical of your culture, there is this notion that by devaluing your culture, you are giving excuses and opportunities for cultural assault and so on.
Iran’s supreme leader actually is a master at this. His whole cocoon that protects him, in a sense, is this notion that any criticism leveled at the Islamic Republic is originating in imperialism and “Western domination” and so on. I don’t think that’s the case at all.
I actually think that a lot of this comes from within the human spirit. I don’t think that the principle of justice or wanting equality or dignity or respect for women is in fact a Western invention. I think it has deep roots in Iran.
So absolutely not, I don’t see criticisms of Iran in that light. If we were to believe that, wherever there is dissent in any Third World country, we can delegitimize it by saying that people who are dissidents are instruments of foreign powers. I don’t think that’s the case at all.
The other side of it is that you can’t ignore the context for things. Iran has been invaded by the Russians and occupied by the Brits (the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran occurred in 1941) and you’ve got the coup of 1953. So one can’t ignore the fact that this is a very rich country and foreign powers have often had designs on it.
But again, as human rights activists, we can be just as critical of things like torture by American forces in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and things like that. You dish it out both ways. It’s not like you’re exempting America at all.

War: The Ultimate Form of Human Destruction

Spirit: What has been your response to those calling for a military strike against Iran or its nuclear program? Have you spoken out against the idea of military actions against Iran?
Soltani: Oh yes, I have, for sure, during George Bush’s administration when they had their eyes on Iran and there was a lot of talk about bombing Iran. When we look at what the Iran-Iraq War did to both countries, wars have a way of fueling extremism and creating disasters on a scale that are very difficult to contain. And they go on to harm the next generation.
Almost all Iranians who are critical of the Islamic Republic for its human rights violations do not support any form of military offensive or war against Iran. When I was working with Omid for Iran, we spent three years looking at the human consequences of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear installations when there was a lot of talk in America about attacking Iran’s nuclear program.
The whole thrust of the work we did at Omid for Iran was to make people aware of the human casualties that would follow as a result of the radiation that would be released in an attack on the nuclear reactors. We looked at the Chernobyl disaster, for instance, and the impact that it had on the firefighters that were sent in to secure the reactor, many of whom died of radiation sickness.
One of the great tragedies of what has been going on in Iran is that we think of the military in the abstract; but when you look at it, they’re kids, they’re people’s children. So protecting them is important.
I have an American friend who served in Iraq and you see the consequences of war. You see the trauma of it all. More than 700,000 American veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are now on disability.
So these are disastrous decisions with great moral consequences and great economic consequences. And they’re almost always the dumbest decisions, too, because they almost never generate the kind of change that people assume that wars can bring about.
I think that you can’t even be a human rights activist and ignore the fact that war is the ultimate form of human destruction.

CNN reported that Zahra was seen as such a courageous defender of human rights that Iranian activists posted photographs of themselves supporting Zahra for president, even though women were prevented from running for Iran’s presidency.


Lots of Nelson Mandelas in Iran

Spirit: What is your reaction to those who want to impose sanctions on Iran?
Soltani: Well, when you look at what sanctions have done to civilians in Iraq, they were a disaster. What sanctions meant in Iraq was that the most vulnerable members of the country are the ones who are subjected to the most severe scarcity, just in terms of their basic needs for water, food, medicine and so forth. And the elites are almost shielded and protected from sanctions. So most sanctions, I think, are very crude and can be very destructive.
I do think there’s something to be said for “smart sanctions” which target human rights violators and restrict their travel and put the focus on the actual human rights violations.
The other side of the sanctions question is the European approach. Rather than using the stick, the European approach to the Islamic Republic has been the carrot. So no matter what human rights violations the Islamic Republic has done, the Europeans have, in general, said, “Let’s forgive and forget and let’s reform.”
I think that’s also very dangerous because you normalize the human rights violations. It becomes a collaboration. In the name of supposedly defending ideals such as democracy and all of that, you actually end up profiting from collaboration with a government that is very destructive and harmful.
So these are complex policy questions. I don’t think there is a simple answer to them, except that the most important thing for me as an Iranian-American human rights activist, is that you don’t just focus on what’s wrong about a situation or a people. You focus on what is right about a people. And there is a lot about the Iranian people that, in my view, is actually phenomenal and truly great.

What’s the Point of Another War?

Spirit: Do you see your role as speaking out for human rights, but also speaking out against war?
Soltani: I see my role as a human rights activist is to act in solidarity with the really great leaders and change-makers in Iran, the great human rights activists like Majid Tavakoli and Narges Mohammadi and Abdolfattah Soltani. There are lots of Nelson Mandelas in Iran right now.
I think our job is to strengthen Iran’s civil society as much as possible — and war is the surest way of destroying that civil society. War and terrorist attacks play into the hands of the state’s security apparatus, just like 9/11 did here. Then, in the name of security, liberties of all kinds are destroyed.
As human rights activists, I think we’ve seen what the war on terror has done to America, and we’ve seen what the Iraq War has done to Iraq. And we’ve seen what war has done in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So what’s the basis for having faith in any kind of war? What’s the point of another war in the Middle East?
Spirit: You and Khalil have spoken out so strongly against repression in Iran that you were once asked if you had gone into hiding when Zahra’s Paradise was first published. Do you feel you’re running a risk in speaking out to this extent?
Soltani: You know, Terry, compared to people in Iran, I’m an American citizen with the right to the freedom of speech and I have a brother who is at the ACLU, and I have a Dad and I come from a family where people always speak their minds.
So initially, when we were first coming out with Zahra’s Paradise, it seemed like the intelligent thing to do was to be cautious. But I don’t think that Khalil has censored himself and I didn’t censor myself. But it is very hard to live and to work and to internalize fear. It’s like a death; it’s already a form of death.
So I try not to be fear-based. I try to be love-based. That’s how my constitution works anyway. I grew up in a very safe world and I’m very grateful for a lot of it. But the force in my life has been love, not fear. I didn’t grow up in fear. You know what I mean, Terry?

Visual Art and Nonviolent Movements

Spirit: Your use of visual art in Zahra’s Paradise and also in the Dogtown Redemption film has given nonviolent movements an eye-opening way of exposing injustice.  Zahra’s Paradise shows us vivid images of the massive prison system and police violence in Iran, along with pictures of a mother’s heartache in searching for her child.
Soltani: I think one of the frustrations I have is that I’m actually a visual person but I don’t know how to draw and I don’t know how to film. But my imagination is there. So part of making change is about imagination, isn’t it? It’s about being able to see something in a different way. And words and images and photographs and cartoons are all ways of shifting perception.
That is what really matters to me. Both with Zahra’s Paradise and with Dogtown Redemption, at the heart of it is a desire to shift perception — because if you can shift perception, policy changes and other things follow.
In both cases, I was also very lucky with the collaborations because Khalil is a master of the art form. His ability to conjure up emotions through art and through gesture, and through his particular kind of theatricality, and through his sense of politics and his interpretation of Iranian culture — really that was so vital. I knew where the story needed to go but he is the person who could visualize it.
I think the same was true with Dogtown Redemption and Chihiro’s camera work. There was a tendency to Chihiro’s eye that made the film what it was. I think it comes down to witnessing. And then it doesn’t really matter how you witness, whether it’s with words or with visuals or whatever.
What also really matters is the ability to reach a larger audience than I would just through writing. The academic world that I was coming out of felt inadequate to the kinds of changes I wanted to see in the world. When the medium is inadequate you have to search for a new way.
Finding the right medium is so important. Different situations lend themselves to different visual language. For something as traumatic as Zahra’s Paradise, the graphic novel took people into that experience.
Spirit: In your efforts to reach new people in the struggle for human rights, has the graphic novel form, and your use of the Internet to distribute it, enabled you to reach a younger generation?
Soltani: Definitely. And also because it’s the cheapest form of communication. If you want to make a film about what happened in Iran, it would have been impossible. But within the span of a couple days, Khalil could draw a crowd representing three million people.
All you really needed to make it was a pencil, and then all you really needed to do was put it up on the Internet and it’s available to a very large community.

The Global Street Corner

Spirit: It’s a way of reaching so many people at once, and almost instantly.
Soltani: In the French Revolution, you see the importance of the pamphlet. You see the importance of being able to communicate ideas quickly in ways that spread fast. So every technological development has brought with it social change.
Spirit: The American Revolution was also spurred by Thomas Paine’s pamphlets distributed on street corners. Now the corner where Paine’s pamphlets were sold is on a global street — the Internet.
Soltani: Yeah! Exactly.
Spirit: You also mentioned that the regime can crush cameras and obstruct entire film crews. But how do they prevent somebody making a pencil drawing for the Internet?
Soltani: Exactly. That’s the joy of it. Some of Iran’s great cartoonists have done more with a single cartoon than anybody else could. A single cartoon depicting the Ayatollah as an alligator — it’s like even a kid can understand and interpret that.
Getting back to academia, once knowledge becomes the domain of experts, it’s divorced from people. It doesn’t mean that it’s not valid. But if you’re coming from a world of social change and human rights, and the language is so abstract and so expert, people are excluded from it.

This brilliant, two-page artwork by Khalil Bendib shows political prisoners falling victim to the repressive machinery of the Islamic Judiciary. Art from Zahra’s Paradise.


 Disappearances: A Universal Tragedy

Spirit: Zahra’s Paradise focuses very closely on the disappearance of one person — Zahra’s son Medhi. You have said that you were also remembering the massacres and disappearances of dissidents in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Spain, and that the problem of political dissidents vanishing is a universal one. How did that awareness shape Zahra’s Paradise?
Soltani: Right from the start of our working on Zahra’s Paradise, Kahlil would always say that what we’re doing has a universal dimension. Kahlil is from Algeria and his family had experienced disappearances in Algeria, and he saw the universality of it.
The whole concept of habeas corpus is the most fundamental legal building block. Our basic concept of law comes down to habeas corpus, which means presenting the body. In so many ways, that is broken in our world. Look at the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program and all these forms of kidnapping that the United States is involved in, or all the disappearances in Russia and China.
It’s a general plague and it happens everywhere because in a very basic way, human beings seek to eliminate their enemies because we haven’t developed the ability to live together. Also, the whole concept of dungeons where somebody is removed from the visual realm and the community and we no longer see them.
I think there is something fundamentally flawed in our conception of prisons. They’re kind of coffins in which we bury people in time, and time becomes an instrument of punishment. All these legal systems and these constitutional protections are about making sure people don’t end up in these coffins and vanish. Once those protections are eroded, as they have been in America and other countries, then it’s a real challenge.
In the face of disappearances, memory becomes extremely important — remembering and witnessing, whether it’s the Holocaust or it’s people buried in mass graves in Iraq. Memory becomes a source of life and a form of resistance. It reclaims the people that have disappeared into Iran’s Evin Prison.

Fundamentalism and State Repression

Spirit: Just as Gandhi had resisted being under the yoke of the British Empire, you said, “Iran is under the yoke of the perversion of our religion by the state, and it takes courage to stand up against it.” Can you explain how religious fundamentalism becomes part of the repressive apparatus of the state?
Soltani: For one thing, fundamentalism idolizes and glorifies the state, whereas religion in its traditional form is very much based in a concept of the community, and not the state. So in a lot of ways, fundamentalism is actually a modern invention, and it’s an invention that is focused on acquiring power, often through violence.
In the case of Iran, it creates a caste system where clergy, by virtue of their knowledge, are endowed with the right to rule everybody else. Now, that is colonialism. They are abusing their status to institutionalize violence on many levels and then sanctify it in the name of religion. In that way, religion loses everything that gives it value.
Spirit: In an interview with Amnesty International, you said, “Love is ultimately the force that conquers death. Love is where the resistance comes from. If we love one another, then we will help one another.” It’s unusual for an activist to place such a high priority on love as the most important value in the tough fight against injustice and repression. Yet, in many social-change movements, love is what inspires resistance.
Soltani: What is the bond that holds us together as friends, as family, as people, even as a football team? What is the force that holds humanity together? It’s not death. It’s love. It’s just love. I mean, why do we care about our children? Why do we care about our elders? It’s love. Why do we even enjoy each other’s company?
So I think that love is the source of joy, and love is what connects us and breaks down all kinds of barriers and all of that stuff. I don’t think of it as an abstraction, but as a very real energy. And when people are lucky enough to tap into it, it’s brilliant and powerful, and when they are detached from it, it’s a disaster.
So many of these political systems and so many of these religious systems are founded on coercion, and the instant you take those coercive capabilities out, those systems crumble. But that’s not the case in relationships and communities where there is love.

Love and Faith

Spirit: Love is also a spiritual value, and you’ve talked about it as the deepest religious value. Are you of the Islamic faith yourself?
Soltani: I grew up in a Muslim household. My grandmother would pray, and she would fast on Ramadan, and do all the things that Muslims do, and feed people and all of those things. But I also went to a kindergarten where we did the Christmas play about Christ’s birth, and they dressed me up as Joseph. My grandmother had a book about the lives of the prophets next to her bed and the Quran.
At a certain level, Terry, I don’t want to be a Muslim if it means I can’t also be a Christian. And I don’t want to be a Christian if it means I can’t be Jewish. I don’t want to belong if our identities can limit us and narrow us.
Spirit: In our interview last month about Dogtown Redemption, when you were talking about the Christian faith of the recyclers, you really understood it, and you had such a deep feeling for what their faith meant to them. So, as someone raised in the Muslim faith, how do you conceive the value of other spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity?
Soltani: I think the Sufis get it right. All these religions ultimately are pathways towards the deeper truths. And those deeper truths are all ultimately grounded in love. That’s what Sufism is about. So if I had to say what is my religion, it’s some sort of mystical combination of all these.
Part of the joy of being a wanderer and being a stranger and moving around the world and going to all these places is that you kind of realize that it’s great to have an identity but it’s also boring. Part of the joy is to move through things, including one’s own identity.

Characters in Zahra’s Paradise discuss the real-life arrest and murder of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photographer who was arrested outside Evin Prison while taking photographs of family members searching for student demonstrators that were missing.


Plight of Gays and Lesbians

Spirit: You recently collaborated again with Khalil Bendib to create a web-based series titled “Yousef and Farhad” that depicts the intolerance faced by gay and lesbian people in Iran. How did you become involved with Outright Action International in creating this web series?
Soltani: We did Zahra’s Paradise with a view towards advancing human rights in Iran. So Outright International approached us and asked if we’d be willing to do a story to help educate people inside Iran about the plight of gay and lesbian youth. So it was a no-brainer. Khalil and I both said yes, for sure. It was a pleasure to do. It was a way of using the graphic novel as a way of challenging perceptions and reframing issues.
Spirit: Didn’t you let people download this web series for free?
Soltani: The Outright International people are a nonprofit, so the whole idea was to make it as accessible as possible. How else are people going to be able to read it? That’s pretty much what we did with Zahra’s Paradise too. It was available for free on the Internet. These are not major profit-making operations.
Spirit: The political conscience rarely is. I always say that prophets don’t make profits.
Soltani: Exactly. Exactly. It’s true. But along with the Internet download, they actually published the comic book, so it’s available for anyone who contacts them. They can make it available.
Spirit: So you can buy a physical copy of the comic book?
Soltani: No, I think they give it for free.
Spirit: How would you describe the situation for gay and lesbian people in Iran?
Soltani: There is a high level of intolerance, and they face a lot of persecution. Many of the kids who have been fleeing Iran are, in fact, gay and lesbian, and they have fled to Turkey. It’s a serious issue.
Historically, Iranians have actually been quite a tolerant people. In medieval poetry, the concepts of gender are much more fluid. The ultimate expression of that is Rumi, whose poetry was one long love letter to his beloved, who was Shams. It’s an epic story of love between two men, which in the Sufi tradition, is a channel of love for God. And you see the same thing in Attar’s poem, “The Conference of the Birds,” and in many, many other pieces of poetry.
That said, today the condition of gays and lesbians in Iran is very, very difficult because they are, along with other groups, stigmatized and attacked as being un-Islamic. You see that a lot — persecution and even hangings. So their situation in Iran is not good. They can’t express their love or assume their identity in public.
But then, the political identity of most Iranians is suppressed. Many groups can’t form or organize on a political basis to rally and mobilize for change.

Bias Against Both Women and Gays

Spirit: That bias has been expressed in other ways, too. Majid Tavakoli is a courageous Iranian activist and a prisoner of conscience, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But after he was arrested, Iranian security forces forced him to be photographed wearing women’s clothing as a way of denigrating him — and also casting women as lesser beings.
Soltani: That’s very true. They were expressing their concept of women as both weak and cowardly. And if there is anything that guy is not, it’s weak and cowardly. As you said, he is very, very courageous. And he’s a very important figure in the history of the Iran student movement and, as a matter of fact, in the history of Iran’s human rights movement in this century.
The response to that was that thousands of men wore women’s clothing (and posted their photos on the Internet), both in solidarity with him and with women. What is often condemned is the feminine position. It’s the weak position. So there’s a lot of bigotry, but it is not just towards gays. It’s towards women, it’s towards religious minorities. It really cuts in all directions.
Spirit: What other kinds of discrimination do gay and lesbian people face?
Soltani: There have been cases of public hangings that have been quite brutal. And it’s also discrimination at the level of the family and the society. But another of the things that has happened since the establishment of the Islamic Republic is the reduction of the age of marriage for children back to ridiculously young ages.
So there is this condemnation of homosexuality, on the one hand, but on the other hand, there’s this sort of legalization of sexual relations with what we would consider as children. In Evin Prison, guards were being encouraged to rape young girls who were about to be executed for political reasons, in order to deny them entrance into heaven as virgins.
Spirit: The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi, spoke out powerfully about how “Yousef and Farhad” had portrayed the prejudice and pain of LGBT people in Iran. She praised your work very highly for supporting the rights of all people to “live their lives differently from others.”
Soltani: Oh, we were thrilled that she supported the project, and thrilled that we have such great allies in our work. She’s a real force. I think the point is that you can’t have human rights for some people and not for others. You really can’t. You can’t say, “Oh yes, everybody has to have human rights — except this religious group, or except this sexual group, or except this ethnic group.”
I think that when any group’s humanity is assaulted — either because of sexuality, race, religion, or whatever — that sets the stage for assaults on everybody else. If we don’t protect the rights of the most vulnerable minority in a country and stand with them, we invariably provide an opening for the most bigoted and dangerous elements. So if you don’t defend, let’s say, the Baha’i, then the attacks on them will begin, and once violence is sanctified against one group, it can spread to others. If you let the wolf in one door, it will do its best to get at other people through other doors.

The Very Heart of Human Rights

Spirit: So in that way, your defense of the rights of gay and lesbian people in Iran goes to the very heart of your concept of human rights?
Soltani: Human rights work is based on the principle of this: We are one. It’s all or nothing. So that, for me, is a pillar of human rights work. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. It’s indivisible.
Love is the most fundamental and creative and sacred force in the universe. Perhaps there’s no greater example of its creative beauty and power than Rumi’s work. So I think the other side of defending gay and lesbian people in Iran and elsewhere, is it is actually defending love.
If we deny people the ability to live and act and be loving, then the game is lost. Romeo and Juliet and all of the great love stories are also ultimately about triumphs over the divisions of clan and tribe and race and religion. That’s the power of love. Where better for such a battle than Iran, which is a country that has love built into the fabric of the language and culture?
Spirit: Can you explain how women and religious minorities and gay and lesbian people and political dissidents in Iran are trying to place limits on the state’s ability to suppress their rights and freedoms?
Soltani: What you have in Iran is a system in which the state and its guardians claim to be the embodiment of virtue. So they have expanded the power of the state to conduct surveillance and incriminate people and erode privacy. So what you drink, what you wear in public, who you touch, where you sleep, all of these things have become issues that the state meddles in.
What is repulsive about this whole thing is that in most cultures, there are limits placed on the power of the state to intervene and interfere in the lives of people. Yet in Iran, from clothes to shoes to make-up to political protest, they interfere with it. So that needs to stop.
In Evin Prison, the opposition leader Karoubi spoke of boys and men and women being raped. Evin Prison has become a shrine of sexual abuse and criminal abuse. That is what needs to be looked at, and sadly, that is what they’re using religion and law to cover up. Part of turning the conversation around in Iran hinges on shifting the assumptions of criminality away from the people and back on the guardians of the state. There are corruption cases in the billions of dollars, and meanwhile unemployed kids who are addicts are hanged.
Spirit: What kind of corruption cases are you talking about?
Soltani: If you look at the financial and economic conduct in Iran, you come up across corruption cases that are in the billions of dollars. The state conceals this because these supposedly virtuous people at the very top of the state are benefiting from billions of dollars of theft, while millions of Iranians are condemned to poverty.
Yet the entire conversation revolves around sexuality and women covering their hair and so on, and it has become a distraction from the brutal truth, which is that Iran is a theocracy that has turned into a kleptocracy. The way the kleptocracy preserves itself is by sanctifying the state and criminalizing so many people.
So part of the whole battle in defense of gay and lesbian people is in fact about saying, “How can you hang gay kids while you give the green light to millions of dollars of theft by the sons of former presidents and ministers?” Those are the big battles that we have ahead of us in Iran.