Looking at Modern-Day Iran Through the Eyes of an Exile
Photo by Grey Hutton
At 21 years old, instead of shotgunning beers and flirting with the idea of a career in bedroom production, Hesam Misaghi was riding a horse through a mountain pass with a bunch of smugglers who were trying to help him escape Iran. “We fled to Turkey over the mountains,” Hesam told me. “I fell off the horse six or seven times, and it was freezing. I never thought it would be that exhausting.”
Hesam is now 24 and, after leaving Iran via Turkey in 2010, was granted asylum in Germany. At the time of his escape, he was being persecuted and threatened with a lifetime prison sentence by the Iranian authorities for demanding his right to study at university.
If you ever go to Tehran, be prepared to question why it's seen as the capital of theocratic, oppressive regimes in the Middle East. The city is full of high-rise buildings, coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, and everything else a modern metropolis is supposed to have. The women might be covered up (headgear is a must), but they also wear modern and slim-fit clothing. Often the headscarf will only be symbolically attached to the ponytail.
But appearances can be deceiving. With the next presidential election a few months away, the men in power don’t want to take any risks, so reform supporters are being radically oppressed.
And so was Hesam. After the failed Green Revolution of 2009, the government went on an aggressive hunt for antiregime supporters. “The oppression got a lot stronger, because the government noticed that people really wanted to change something,” Hesam explained to me through his thick accent. His family is of the Bahá'í Faith, a religious group that, for obvious reasons, the Iranian government isn't a massive fan of. This was apparently the cause of Hesam's being banned from pursuing his English studies in 2007. “That’s when I started to fight for my right to education,” he told me.
Along with other students who had also been banned from attending university, Hesam founded a protest movement for the right to academic studies and the protection of religious and sexual minorities. Soon, the group joined other human rights movements, imposing a growing threat to the government.
Hesam’s activism was part of a public resentment in the country, which led to a revolution after the presidential election of 2009. Back then, the election resulted in two candidates going neck-to-neck. One of them was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative demagogue, and the other, Mir-Hussein Musawi, a politician of the old revolutionary elite, who was also affiliated with reformists inside the government. When the election results were announced, and Ahmadinejad was the clear winner (even though polls suggested otherwise), people felt betrayed and poured into the streets to protest. The government struck back. Musawi was sentenced to house arrest, where he remains today, while the wave of protests climaxed when a girl was shot by security officers in broad daylight.
The police arrested Hesam’s best friend, threw him in jail, and, like Musawi, he's still being held today. Hesam went into hiding for a month and lived in constant fear. He had no contact with his family during that time. In order to escape imprisonment, he decided to flee the country.
Three years later, things don't seem to have changed one bit. Just recently, two prisoners were publicly hung, a relic from the time following the 1979 revolution, when so-called reactionaries hung from street lanterns all over Tehran. While it was an accepted punishment at the time, in today’s Iran, something like this causes an outcry on social networks. “There are photos of people crying and screaming in protest,” Hesam says.
The election, set for June 14 of this year, hardly provides an alternative to the current regime. Ahmadinejad won’t run again because he's coming to the end of the eight-year term that's allowed, but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the head of state and successor to Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution, is going to pick candidates for the election.
“I’m positive that we will have four or five candidates who will think and act according to Khamenei and the government. A revolution would only be possible if Mousawi or Karrubi [the two reformists who are both under house arrest] call out for a revolution. I think that something has to happen to motivate people for a new protest, like in the Arab countries when a man set himself on fire in the street. The government intimidates people before the elections, leaving hardly any room for opposing voices to be heard."
Regardless, things are starting to change in the country, but on a rather inconspicuous and intellectual level: “We read a lot, especially on Facebook and sites for human rights.”
Hesam is too far away from home now and has sort of lost touch with the issues in his country. He feels like he's different from “older,” exiled Iranians. “When I was still in Iran, and read these articles about people in political asylum who'd be abroad for 30 years, it felt a little weird. It seems like they were stuck in 1980.” Fighting his battle in exile is not the same as when he was still living in Iran. “You notice that you lose contact with home quite quickly,” he says. “The language changes. I don’t understand some of the slang anymore when I talk to friends over the internet.”
Hesam wants to concentrate on his own life in Germany now, where he's allowed to study, and no longer wants to live in the past. “I should be happy. In Iran, I would be in jail right now,” he says. He’s made friends in Berlin who partially also come from Iran and is looking to study politics and communication.
“If I was able to go back, I would. But until then, I’m going to start a new life. I’m not the nostalgic type.”
Follow Franziska on Twitter: @fra_ziska
More from Iran: