How Tehran Became Tiananmen

Nicholas G. Hahn III
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Posted: Nov 16, 2007 12:06 PM
How Tehran Became Tiananmen

On June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square was red with blood. A destroyed paper-maiche monument to democracy lay in ruins. Over ten years later, students at Tehran University picked up the fallen Goddess of Democracy from Beijing and brought its spirit to Tehran. Spawned by the ever repressive Mullahs and the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam, students took to the streets and demanded an open society. The Basijs and police forces chased the students back to their dormitories. Students were taken, blindfolded, shot, and thrown off their dormitory balconies.

Amir Abbas Fakhravar founded the Confederation of Iranian Students and worked for regime change within the Islamic Republic. After exposing these atrocities at Tehran University in newspapers now banned in the Islamic Republic, Fakhravar spent over five years in jail and suffered brutal physical and emotional torture at the notorious Evin prison. His treatments have been described as the first known example of “white torture” by Amnesty International. He was placed in a completely soundless and colorless room. His clothes were white, his food, served on white plates, was also white. “After a while,” he told me, “you start to forget things, like what your mother’s face looked like.”

Fakhravar left prison to take a university exam, and never returned. Here he remembers watching President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2002: “The day President Bush announced on television that Iran, North Korea, and Iraq were the ‘Axis of Evil,’ I hugged my father in front of the television. And we both cried. I told him this was the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic. It gave us hope for the future.”

This story bears a striking resemblance to that of Natan Sharansky’s experience after reading President Ronald Reagan’s famous condemnation of the Soviet Union: “My Soviet jailers gave me the privilege of reading the latest copy of Pravda. Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of President Ronald Reagan for having the temerity to call the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’ Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth––a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”

After seeing this blaring similarity, I realized that history would speak of Fakhravar synonymously with Sharansky, Tehran akin to Tiananmen. At my invitation to participate in a forum examining the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Fakhravar spoke to the students of DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. This student leader from Tehran would make his return to the university campus, and this time he wouldn’t be imprisoned for his speech.

When I greeted Fakhravar at the airport baggage claim, I thought, and evidently hoped, that he would one day be able to greet me with the same exuberance at an airport in Tehran. I later discovered he was thinking the same thing––hoping to welcome his friends from the United States to a new, free, and prosperous Tehran.

Upon his arrival to Chicago, Fakhravar was adamant about touring DePaul’s Student Center, the main student gathering on campus. As he walked through the building, I saw that the excitement in him was racing. The flurry of activity––open discussions amongst students and between faculty, student-manned information tables, the mass amount of student computers connected to the world at state-of-the-art internet speeds––this all seemed to fill Fakhravar’s heart with joy.

Suddenly, he stopped in front of a bulletin board used to advertise student events. He turned and looked at me different from ever before and pointing to the flyers on the board, he said, “This is our dream in Iran.” The diversity of ideas on display lit up his eyes with a hopeful vision of the future for his country.

In my introduction for Fakhravar, I stressed that despite our differences in language and ethnicity, we as students are one. The student generation is always the generation of liberty because it is the generation of prosperity, progress, innovation, knowledge, and dreams. Fakhravar captivated the audience with his personal stories and then surprised them with a seemingly unexpected denunciation of war. “I don’t want war. No one wants war,” he explained, “but it is the Islamic Republic who does.” After Fakhravar was through, he received a standing ovation––as the Natan Sharansky of our time rightly deserves.

As I watched him absorb the admiration of the audience, I was reminded of a time I, too, was captivated by Fakhravar’s story.

Over the summer, he invited me to his apartment in Washington, D.C. I wore a tee-shirt with an image of the Statue of Liberty painted on it. I remember the smirk that shot to his face when I pointed it out to him. He remembered that when he saw the Statue for the first time, he was stunned by its beauty. As a student in Tehran, he had only seen it depicted with a blood drenched skull for a face.

During a delightful Iranian meal, I remember a joke he told me, one that is enjoyed amongst the people of Iran. A Mullah was found drowning in a pool. One man went to save him and said, “Here, give me your hand.” The Mullah gave no response and continued to flail his arms. Again, this time with more urgency, the man said, “Give me your hand!” Still, no response. Another man who had been watching this, called out to the man trying to save the Mullah: “Don’t you know that’s a Mullah? Don’t say ‘Give me your hand,’ tell the Mullah to take your hand!” It reminded me of the jokes those behind the Iron Curtain used to tell each other, just to keep from going insane.

Before the evening was through, I asked to see his written “confession” from prison. He smiled and fetched it out of his room. In the meantime, I was told by his friends that he wrote it not as a confession, but as an attempt to convince his torturers of the power of freedom. Fakhravar remembered that when he told his captors he had written a poem, one of them prepared to hit him, but on second thought, sat down and permitted him to read it. As Fakhravar read the multiple paged poem, complete with doodles, I noticed that he had returned to that very day at Evin prison. At times, Fakhravar’s Persian was so engaging and fluid that it became too difficult for his friends to translate for me.

Almost on cue, Fakhravar broke from the Farsi and began to read in English. He told me that the leaders of freedom in Iran, perhaps a reference to himself, are like shooting stars in the sky. They are stars which “all the stars in the sky could gather around and follow.”