Street Spirit Interview with Amir Soltani, Part Two
Interview by Terry Messman
Editor: Part One of this three-part interview with Amir Soltani appeared in the June issue of Street Spirit and focused on Soltani’s film documentary about poor and homeless shopping-cart recyclers in Oakland. Part Two (“Zahra’s Paradise: The Fate of the Disappeared”) and Part 3 of this interview (“The System of Repression Is a Disaster”) are both published in this July issue.
Street Spirit: As an American human rights activist born in Iran, you have been outspoken about the repression, arrests, executions and disappearances of dissidents in Iran. Why did your concern about human rights rise in the period after the disputed 2009 presidential election?
Amir Soltani: It was really an epic moment in 2009 when we saw the depths of the desire of the Iranian people for having their vote counted and having their presence respected. It was like seeing the face of Iran all over again, and seeing the energy of people — their hope, their optimism, their solidarity. It really was a very, very moving experience.
You could sense the dignity of the Iranian people after years and years of struggle. It was almost like a reunion. It was like the country was reclaiming its faith. The world was suddenly seeing Iran in a new light, after all these years when Iranians were viewed as terrorists and hostage-takers or fanatics and extremists, especially in the Western media.
You looked at the people who were demonstrating in the streets of Tehran, and you saw the true Iran. I think for a lot of Iranians, it was a moment where we caught a glimpse once again of what our country could be like and how united we could be and how creative we could be. There was a lot of dignity to it.
Iran’s Protests and the Arab Spring
Spirit: The Green Movement protests in Iran after the 2009 elections seemed to be very quickly reflected in the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Do you think that the Iranian demonstrations did, in fact, inspire people in those countries to demonstrate for their rights?
Soltani: Very much so. Very much so. It was people power! It was people power in the most powerful sense of the words! Khalil Bendib, the Algerian-American artist who was my partner for Zahra’s Paradise, was the one always telling me, “Amir, this will spread!” And it did. It spread to Tunisia, and to Egypt.
The whole concept of an Arab Spring was triggered in part by what Iranians were doing in defying and breaking away from the state. So it was a very, very rich moment. But one had a sense of foreboding about this, also.
Spirit: Why did you have a sense of foreboding? What were the warning signs as you saw them?
Soltani: First, because there were problems with the leadership of the Green Movement, and in some ways with their demands. And also because it’s just the nature of the Islamic Republic, which is a sort of theocracy/kleptocracy.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was chosen in 1989 after the death of Ayathollah Khomeini by the Assembly of Experts, which is kind of like a politburo of clerics. He basically was chosen as Supreme Leader of Iran by less than 60 votes! And he has been ruling Iran from 1989 without reference to the Iranian people’s will, and without respect for their presence — and in fact, by negating them.
So to have Iranian people in the streets demonstrating — especially the women who were at the forefront of the protests — was a very powerful moment.
Spirit: Along with the power of that moment, it must have been devastating to see the fury of repression — the arrests and beatings, the torture and rape of dissidents in prison, and the executions.
Soltani: What really triggered Zahra’s Paradise for me was watching an Iranian mother whose son had disappeared in the protests. A video clip of it on Youtube showed an image of an Iranian mother burying her son in Zahra’s Paradise. [The real-life Zahra’s Paradise is Iran’s largest cemetery, located in Tehran.]
It was like déjà vu for me. It was like, I’ve been there and I’ve seen this before. You saw it all on her face as she was burying her son. She was just revolting against everything that had happened, against the lies, against the treachery, against the cruelty — all of it.
So that really was what triggered Zahra’s Paradise for me: I understood what she was going through.
A Visionary Use of the Internet
Spirit: In your graphic novel, the mother Zahra is searching for her disappeared son, while her other son uses the Internet to expose the violent repression and disappearances in Iran. Is that a picture of what happened in real life when you and Kahlil quickly published your graphic novel on the web as an immediate response to the repression?
Soltani: Yes, we began the graphic novel very, very quickly. We worked with First Second, our publisher, and the editor there is a guy named Mark Siegel, who is a real visionary. He was very quick to support Zahra’s Paradise. What he did, and it really was his genius, is that he said, “Let’s not wait for you guys to finish the book. Let’s publish it in real time on the web.”
So he was the visionary in that. And because we were doing this on the web, it allowed us to be in constant contact with our audience, and our audience was building over time.
It was the power of the Internet. All the barriers that we normally face were gone. Barriers of space were gone. Barriers of time were gone. Even the barriers of language were gone.
We would be working in English but people were coming on and translating it in real time into all these other languages — first Hungarian and Polish, and later French, German, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, Arabic, Korean, Finnish.
It was translated into 16 languages. And along with the Internet readership, Zahra’s Paradise was a best-selling book on the New York Times best seller’s list.
Spirit: So Zahra’s Paradise was put on the Internet so quickly that you could respond to events as they were taking place in Iran, and people inside Iran were writing back to you in real time?
Soltani: Yes, it was so powerful. It was like collaborative storytelling, in a way. I kind of had a very clear idea of where this story was going, but as we were sharing it on what pretty much had become a global platform, we could see so many people respond.
When you’re a human rights activist, a lot of the time you’re alone. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in Robben Island (an island prison off the coast of South Africa). He always said that the most important thing for him was knowing that people outside were fighting for his cause.
It’s that sense of isolation. If you break that sense of isolation, there’s no limit to what people can do together, and there’s no limit to the emotional solidarity that’s out there in the world. So one of the beauties of being able to work the way we did on Zahra’s Paradise was that our sense of isolation was broken.
Citizen Journalism and the Cell Phone
Spirit: You’ve said that when people went out into the streets of Tehran with cell phones to record the protests, it was a groundbreaking kind of citizen journalism. Your book’s cover shows a demonstrator using a cell phone to send video footage of the protests out to the whole world over the Internet.
Soltani: When you’re in a country like Iran, and the state is essentially stealing your history and stealing your rights, and the state’s media is stealing your image and your language, it’s kind of like a mirror in which you never see your own reflection.
And you have a political system which is designed to deny people the ability to have a voice. So the entire system is premised on misrepresentation. In that kind of context, it is so important when people are able to tell their own story.
In that place where people had no voice, suddenly people are using the cell phone almost like the pen, and in fact, as a much more powerful pen. They began documenting their own story and capturing each other’s reflections in these mirrors that were their phones. But in a sense, they were also their hearts and their souls.
Also, put all that in the context of Iran being essentially a dungeon for prisoners. Human Rights Watch once did a piece where they spoke of Iran as being “like the dead in their coffins,” because of the assault on journalism and the assault on independent media.
So after being in this world where you’re reflected in these distorted mirrors of the state, and you’re confined in this morgue, suddenly you have a way of reflecting your own life in your own language, and finding your own voice and your own vision. That was a very beautiful thing.
And in a culture as creative as Iran, it wasn’t just the technology. It was the people’s ability to convert almost every surface — from their currency, to their skin, to posters, to walls — every surface suddenly became a form of protest, a form of art, a form of sharing, a form of solidarity.
“Dust and Dirt”
Spirit: They turned walls and public spaces into an outcry against a government that was desperately trying to suppress everyone from speaking out. All of a sudden, there was a level of public dissent in Iran we had almost never seen.
Soltani: Yes, exactly. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran at the time, was stunned by the depth of the popular protest and he shamelessly called the millions of protesters who had poured into the street “dust and dirt.” That’s what he said!
Spirit: On June 15, 2013, CNN reported that the fictional Zahra of your graphic novel was “running a campaign” for the presidency of Iran based on human rights, democracy and the rights of women. CNN reported that Iranians were posting photos on the web of themselves holding a “Zahra for President” poster. How did that come about?
Soltani: It was one of the big joys of working on Zahra’s Paradise. The dream was always to create a human rights brand. In a sense, the whole academic approach hadn’t worked for me in terms of advancing human rights in Iran, and all the traditional ways of doing it hadn’t worked either — you know, petitioning the UN and all of that stuff. For me, it hadn’t worked.
But with Zahra, very quickly she became an icon for Iran and an icon for human rights. So Khalil and I always had this vision of doing more with her, so we joined forces with United for Iran, a human rights organization, during the 2013 election.
We said, “Look, the political space in Iran is controlled by the Council of Guardians, so there are no really authentic voices. They’re all excluded. So why don’t we create a virtual space?”
Women couldn’t even participate. The Council of Guardians had banned women from running for president. So we said, we’ll run Zahra for president and we’ll help her run on a human rights campaign. And because of the publicity around the book, and the fact that it was translated into all of these languages, it worked! She got coverage and people were very interested.
It was a way to say “No! There is this other flag and there is this other Iran!” And we stand with that other Iran: the Iran that people don’t see, the Iran that’s buried, in a way. The Iran that’s represented by Zahra’s son Mehdi, a protester who is killed. That’s where we stand. That’s where our Iran is.
Nobel Laureates Support Zahra
Spirit: Several prominent human rights activists have praised both Zahra’s Paradise and your recent web series on the human rights of gays and lesbians in Iran. Shirin Ebadi, an internationally renowned Iranian human rights advocate and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, praised your graphic novels for standing up for tolerance and diversity and human rights. It’s kind of stunning.
Soltani: It was really beautiful. Also, Shirin Ebadi had supported Zahra’s presidential campaign. And the Nobel women laureates supported the Zahra presidential campaign.
When we were working with United for Iran, she endorsed the campaign, and was one of the people who publicly voted for Zahra. And then she got all the Nobel women’s laureates to back the Zahra presidential campaign.
Spirit: The entire international group of Nobel prize-winning women all supported Zahra’s presidential campaign?
Soltani: Yes. The women who have received the Nobel Peace Prize have an organization of their own, the Nobel Women’s Initiative. They backed the Zahra campaign.
[Editor’s note: The Nobel Women’s Initiative was established by Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Wangari Maathai, Rogoberta Menchu and Betty Williams as a united effort to work for peace, justice and equality, and to use the visibility of the Nobel prize to strengthen feminist efforts to promote nonviolent solutions to war, violence and militarism.]
Spirit: So these Nobel laureates supported a campaign by your fictional heroine who stands up against terrifying odds in seeking justice for her son. And these are women who have taken such brave stands in real life!
A Revolution Led by Women
Soltani: Well, Shirin Ebadi herself is a kind of a Zahra. The people who are at the cutting edge of a lot of the human rights work going on related to Iran are women. Narges Mohammadi, who is in Evin Prison right now, is another Zahra.
Iran is on the brink of one of the most extraordinary and beautiful feminist revolutions anywhere. So I think that the fact that we had a female presidential candidate, that meant a lot to people.
It’s incredible, the notion that you cannot run for president because you’re a woman. The Council of Guardians in Iran has always disqualified all women candidates from running for president.
Just imagine the impact on everyone of institutionalizing the notion that half your population cannot run for office, especially when you consider the fact that there are so many prominent women leaders in the Islamic world.
When you look at the fact that an Iranian woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, won the Fields Medal in mathematics, the highest award of all, or that another Iranian woman, Ahousheh Ansari, was the first Iranian and one of the first women to go into space, this notion that Iranian women are somehow limited or incapable of anything is nonsense.
I think that part of the appeal of Zahra in Iran is that it spoke to what women can be and can do — not what they can’t be and can’t do.
Spirit: Was making a woman the hero of your book a kind of symbolic rebellion against the suppression of women’s voices in real life?
Soltani: You know in the American context, when you talk about slavery or indentured servitude, there was this notion that people were only three-fifths of a human being. Well, there is this profoundly inhuman attitude that legalized an extremely hostile and denigrating treatment of women in Iran.
It is very much a part of this fundamentalist world-view that really negates women and puts women at an extraordinary disadvantage. Part of the reason why I feel what is going on in Iran is so important is because, at a very fundamental level, it’s about the reclamation of the female voice and the female body and spirit out of this dungeon. So it was very important and powerful for me to have a mother at the center of the book.
So much of my world and my ideas of religion were shaped by these very strong, generous women, both my grandmother and my mom. Six months before the 2009 protests happened, I saw my mom lose her son — my brother — and I saw the damage it inflicted on her, but also the dignity and courage and generosity that remained.
Part of writing Zahra’s Paradise for me was a way of celebrating my mom, and celebrating Iranian women, because they held our families together through thick and thin after the revolution, and continue to do so. So much of Iranian culture actually revolves around them. Contrary to what people may think, in the framework of the family, Iranians are not misogynist. At least in the world that I grew up in, women were the creators.
Spirit: It seems very significant that Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel laureate, has spoken out in support of your work for human rights.
Soltani: She backed us up on the Zahra presidential campaign. I had met her on a couple of occasions, and then she also wrote the foreword to our graphic novel, “Yousef and Farhad.” She has also done a lot for children’s rights in Iran. So she is acutely aware of not only what happens to gay kids in Iran, but all the abuse of children. Shirin Ebadi and a lot of other people have fought for human rights in the trenches and at great risk, and people who fought along with her are now in prison.
So many people in Iran face discrimination. All women in Iran face discrimination. And part of everything that we have to do is to reclaim the power and the majesty and the dignity of the feminine. Because the intellectual constructs are built around gender and around division and the separation of the sexes and the construction of inequality around gender.
It is a kind of apartheid in Iran. It’s just not based on race.
Spirit: You’re saying it’s a gender apartheid?
Soltani: A gender apartheid, yeah. So with the sort of battle that gays and lesbians are fighting in Iran, we need to challenge the notion of the supremacy of the masculine. Especially when you look at the disastrous links between the concepts of manhood and masculinity, and violence and war. We have to embrace the feminine as a way of confronting these catastrophic constructs of masculinity.
Honoring the Executed and Disappeared
Spirit: At the end of Zahra’s Paradise, you printed the names of the 16,901 people who were executed, killed during protests or assassinated since the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. (The number is now more than 18,000.) Why did you decide to publish the names of all these thousands of victims in your graphic novel?
Soltani: The reason was twofold. The first was to show that the graphic novel is fiction, but it is a reality that, sadly, many people have faced — the reality of disappearances and executions.
Second, a big part of any religious tradition is bearing witness to the dead. And I felt that what the human rights organization, the Boroumand Foundation, has done over the years in terms of documenting the stories and honoring the lives of the people who have been killed in Iran is an extraordinary monument. So we approached them and they agreed to allow us to include these names in the back of the book. I think that so much of any religious tradition is about honoring the dead.
Spirit: And a central part of any human rights movement is enshrining the victims of oppression and persecution.
Soltani: Yes, and it was a dream come true to publish these names. There are two sisters, Roya and Ladan Boroumand, who started the Boroumand Foundation and they did it because their father was one of the people killed by the Islamic Republic. They have been shining lights for me forever — their courage, their dignity, their research, their scholarship, their grit. So I also wanted to honor their dedication.
Spirit: Is it true that Zahra’s Paradise connected you to many people in Iran and around the world working for human rights, whereas you felt isolated in the university?
Soltani: I went to Harvard as a grad student with the sense that the more of this history that I learned, the more that I could do. But the more I stayed at Harvard, the more I realized that the academic world is divorced from reality.
I remember in 1999, when there were huge crackdowns on students in Iran, I went to my advisers and said, “Look at what’s going on.” Their response was, go write your paper on it, or whatever. That just felt so wrong. It felt that knowledge is divorced from love, and knowledge is divorced from life.
Spirit: I had that same sense in college and seminary, that the isolation of the academic world often kept people from being involved in the most vital issues of all.
Soltani: Well, I really floundered. In many ways, Harvard was a great intellectual experience but it was very depressing for me as an activist. I really felt stymied there. So to be able to find a language of my own in the graphic novel — where I don’t have to quote a thousand authorities, and where I can put all the history and literature and everything that I’d learned to work in a way that connects back to the life of the world that I care about — that was phenomenal. There are aspects of activism that are about art, there are aspects about activism that are about technology and about history, and all of these were coming together in Zahra’s Paradise.
The Language of Violence and Genocide
Spirit: A two-page image in Zahra’s Paradise shows huge numbers of demonstrators marching in the streets calling for democratic elections, and Iran’s president dismisses them all as “dust and dirt.” What did you mean when you said the president was “crossing the line” by saying that?
Soltani: Ahmadinejad had used language that was violent and genocidal. Once you call your own people “dust and dirt,” you’re essentially eliminating them from history. You’re eliminating their dreams and you’re eliminating them. You’re exterminating them.
Here’s this guy who denies the Holocaust and incites violence in all directions. And then he turns all that animus that he was directing at Jews and he turns it on his own people. It really is, for me, a genocidal mentality. I mean, if you call all those people “dust and dirt,” what does it matter if you kill them? What does it matter if they’re corpses? They’re just dust and dirt.
Spirit: So the president called three million people dirt — and dirt should be swept away from human history.
Soltani: Exactly. Dirt is filth, and so much of this language that they use is this language of purity versus impurity, goodness versus evil. It’s this Manichean language that is all about division. For me, language is about connection, not division. Language is what holds us together. Language is what binds us to each other. Language is the ultimate gift.
The Poetic Spirit of a People
Spirit: Speaking of language as a gift, you quoted the classic Persian poets Rumi and Hafez and Omar Khayam in Zahra’s Paradise, and said that you grew up in an Iran that was “a land of love and life,” expressed in their poetry. You asked how the country that created such beauty could now use the language of state executions and have as its symbol the gigantic cranes where dissidents are hanged.
Soltani: Life and death begin, for me, at the level of language, at the level of words. And the Persian language is an extraordinarily beautiful language, and so much of it is infused with and carries forward the spirit of Hafez and Rumi. That’s Iran’s constitution. That is its language of love and life and oneness. So when language is reduced into a political instrument for negating the essence of the civilization and the future of this people, then you’re in serious trouble.
Part of what has always informed my activism has been a love of Persian culture. And seeing that culture under assault, and seeing all these ways in which language gets appropriated and turned into an instrument of control — that is deadly. It’s almost worse than the physical acts of repression.
Spirit: In your book, protesters use cell phones and the Internet to spread the word with modern technology. Why did you mingle the up-to-the-minute street voices with the age-old poetic voices of Iran?
Soltani: I think tradition anchors a people, and these giants give us a sense of who we are. They are in many ways our moral and aesthetic compass. What’s also fascinating about language is the mechanism through which language and images move, the media through which we communicate. The other part of it is the Iranian people’s culture, which is very rich. In a way, the genius of Iranian civilization has always been its ability to integrate on multiple planes and work with paradox and regenerate itself.
This is a country that, by any measure, in many ways, should not exist. It was conquered by the Mongols, the Greeks, the Arabs, and invaded by Britain and Russia. Yet it regenerates, and it regenerates through language. What holds Iran together at some level is language and poetry and culture. When the Mongols invaded Iran [in 1219], they truly destroyed much of the country. And in a sense, I think that I experienced the Islamic Republic [in 1979] as an invasion, and also as an Inquisition. It’s essentially a way of using religion as a tool for colonizing, conquering and stealing people’s identity.
Judicial Murder by the State
Spirit: In an interview with Amnesty International, you said something very striking: “In Iran, you can just about be abducted at any point, almost by anyone. And you don’t even know where people vanish, you don’t know how to find them. There is no file number. You don’t know where to go. It is the kind of panic and terror of the highest kind when someone that you love disappears.” How did that awareness affect your work as an activist?
Soltani: The Boroumand Foundation, an Iranian human rights organization, has a memorial site called the Omid Memorial, and on that site they list the names and document the cases of, by now, more than 18,000 people who have been killed in Iran by the state — judicial and extrajudicial murder by the state.
Just about anyone who goes out into the streets in Iran, especially in times when the political tension is high, can be arrested for just about anything. Girls in Iran are constantly snatched off the street because of their hair or their make-up or their clothes. The Iranian people do not just sit at home in fear. People do take great risks and do defy the government, and when they do, there is often repression. Even right now, for instance, there is a brilliant human rights activist named Narges Mohammadi who is in prison, and another human rights lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, is in prison.
[Editor: Narges Mohammadi is a human rights activist and advocate for the abolition of the death penalty who was sentenced by the revolutionary court in Tehran to a 16-year prison term in Evin Prison for her nonviolent activism. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned Mohammadi’s 16-year prison sentence. Amnesty International called her a prisoner of conscience and demanded her unconditional release. Abdolfattah Soltani, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who co-founded the Center for Human Rights Defenders with Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, was sentenced to 13 years in prison by an Iranian court. Amnesty International stated, “Abdolfattah Soltani is one of the bravest human rights defenders in Iran.”]
Spirit: These lengthy prison sentences are an attempt to create a climate of fear and suppress dissent. It’s amazing that people still find the courage to speak out.
Soltani: The state has tried to create a climate of terror, and every once in a while there are these crackdowns, and people are sent to Evin prison. The Iranian judiciary is a total disgrace and it’s been a disgrace from the very first day. After taking power, Khomeini issued a command to a hanging judge named Sadegh Khalkhali, telling him to dispatch prisoners at very great speed. There was a murderous mentality that was there at the creation of the Iranian judiciary, and it’s still at work. It really is a den for the most grotesque violations of human rights.
Everything that we tried to do in Zahra’s Paradise was, in fact, to show how perverse Iran’s judiciary is. The battle for the future of Iran is, in part, a battle over this judiciary. For me, both as an Iranian and a Muslim, the Iranian judiciary is a total abomination. It negates just about every principle both of international human rights law and Islamic law.
Spirit: Why do you say that the very future of Iran is bound up in this struggle over the Iranian judiciary?
Soltani: In everything that Iranian human rights activists are doing, the beast that we’re confronting is the Iranian judiciary. There are a lot of rights that Iranians have on paper, but in practice what is happening is that our judiciary is a lot worse than at Guantanamo Bay. There has been all this attention on human rights at Guantanamo and on Abu Ghraib, but there needs to be as much attention on Evin Prison.