By Bachi Karkaria
27 October 2010
It's a quiet late afternoon in Hamburg. We walk through streets that have known many phantoms, but they have faded long ago like the autumn leaves at our feet. Blond children cycle home from school and gulls wheel in shrill circles. The lulling ambience shows no sign of the storm from which my companion has fled. Nooshabeh's story echoes the flawed freedom of every exile. Safe haven is no substitute for home.
Her heart is still in 'Teh-ron’ not in Paris where she now lives. Her journalist husband was condemned to death for his leftist writing. The accusation of sedition is not an academic luxury in less liberal climes. After six horrific years in jail, he was inexplicably freed - only to be dragged back for an additional two weeks.
"That was the worst fortnight of my life," says Nooshabeh. The uncertainty was more terrifying than the absence, more even than the shadow of execution. The couple went into self exile in France. "What option did we have? My husband was banned for life from practising his profession."
My tenuous Persian connection draws me to Nooshabeh at the annual World Editors Forum in Hamburg earlier this month. The recipient of the 2010 Golden Pen of Freedom is another fearless Iranian journalist, Ahmad Zeid-Abadi. Since he's in jail, the gleaming trophy is received by Akbar Ganji, himself a survivor of the notorious Evin prison and recipient of the 2006 Golden Pen. The ceremony concludes with a haunting performance by Gitti Khosravi, the throaty Iranian opera singer reinforcing Shelley's lament that 'our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought'.
As we walk back from the editors conference, Nooshabeh softly unburdens her own tale, and I can't help thinking of how cruelly it conforms to the 5Ws +1H of journalism's routine formula.
Her report on the post-Ayatollah Iran has scary questions and no answers. Who will knock at the door, and when? Where could they be taken? 'Why are you spreading hatred against the President and the cultural revolution council?' the accusers ask if you say anything. If you don't speak, they scream, ‘Why are you silent? Are you quietly hatching a conspiracy?' There's nowhere to hide from the sinister SAVAMA, the Iranian acronym for the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, which replaced SAVAK, the dethroned Shah's secret police. Which brings Nooshabeh to the '1H': How long can we keep denouncing our friends as whores and spies to save our own skin?
A fellow dissident developed his own 'internal interrogation', obsessively questioning himself, 'What have I not remembered to confess? What have I forgotten to say I saw - a foreigner on the other side of the pavement two years ago?' Nooshabeh was even summoned before a religious court to answer why she had 'such a non-Islamic name'.
Yet, breathing free is suffocating. In her French refuge, the exile gasps for her rich mythology and native ethos, the energizing oxygen of friends and family. "I miss the smell of the markets, the features of my old house, and most of all the surrounding hum of my native tongue. There, if said one word in Farsi, a whole volume would be understood."
We reach our bland German hotel, a planet away from either of our cultures. As we part, Nooshabeh tells me about the 'ahar', a small Iranian flower of many hues. As a child, she planted a whole patch of them, but only one survived, bravely turning its face to the sun. She later wrote a story about it, titled, 'Az Ishq, Az Umeed' -- From Love, From Hope. In her own life, both are now closer to fiction.