Writing Out Terror

Hammed Shahidian

© 1999

E-mail: hshahidian@hotmail.com

It can kill a man.

Wallace Stevens, "Poetry is a Destructive Force"

"Thanks for the e-mail about Mokhtari’s execution. It looks like Pouyandeh is also dead."

I receive this short message first thing in the morning. We were hoping Pouyandeh was only missing. We were hoping, though we knew deep down that it would turn out otherwise. We knew Pouyandeh would be yet another writer whose body would be found somewhere in the morgue of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And who knows how many others? Who knows how many more?

Prominent in my joyous memories dating back to childhood are memories of written words. All such recollections, though, are paradoxically dabbed in blood. Down my mind’s dark alleys, far back as I can go, I find fallen authors. Critical and uncompromising. Deemed "dangerous," censored, imprisoned, executed. Such a pleasant enlivening experience writing, yet so many of my favorite writers—my teachers of the past and still teachers as well as comrades of the present—had to give their lives for it.

I am barely nine when I first encounter such authors. Samad Behrangi, social critic and author of children’s stories with strong political undertones, presumed to have been drowned in the northern river Aras. That same year, 1968, a teacher in our town is imprisoned, who after his release writes a children’s storybook. I read, though I am no longer a child. My first face-to-face meeting with an author—and a former political prisoner…

In school, I read Ali Akbar Dihkhoda’s classic "Remember the extinct candle, remember." Dihkhoda sings of Mirza Jahangir Khan of Shiraz, co-editor of a progressive weekly, strangled by order of a Qajar Shah back in 1908. I am appalled—but learn in whispers from teachers and friends that throughout our history, many authors have suffered Jahangir Khan’s fate. Many others. And then many more.

I am a sixth grader when I receive my introduction to sociology through a short pamphlet about the history of society, signed "M. Bidsorkhi," a pseudonym. Nobody around me knows for whom exactly, but somebody dangerous. Later, I learn that he was Hamid Momeni, killed by the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK.

Within two years, the execution of poet and journalist Khosrow Golesorkhi and filmmaker and teacher Keramatullah Daneshian corresponds with my initial writings. Writing becomes my life—and, as history indicates, a liability.

"Did you hear, did you hear," a fellow book lover tells me, more times than I can count: "Such and Such is banned," "they arrested So and So." Written words picture prison horrors:

Though I burn in the fever of torture

I’ll raise suns from spilled blood.

And written words testify to hope:

You used to say, oh, beloved, "Nothing grows here."

Now before your eye:

gone with the pillage of the storm morning and night

and yet,

yet, they were not the last corn-poppies in this garden.

Towering intellectuals like Ahmad Shamlu and Gholamhossein Saedi, and minor figures published scantly are subject to the same inquisition, and respond with like tenacity. So many of those who have chosen the pen as their weapon and jeopardized their lives are mere names to me; I have not read them. But does that matter? Nothing they write warrants the denial of their freedom of speech. Nothing we write warrants the denial of our freedom of speech.

Reading is equally dangerous. We hear reports (and rumors) about people receiving prison sentences for having the "wrong" kind of books in their private collections. "White cover books," books no one knows where published and how distributed, fly from one corner of the town to another, from one city to the next, even across the borders, carefully tucked under the shirt, skillfully hidden amidst baby’s dirty diapers, or casually dispersed amongst everything else on the bookcase. We cover books with old newspaper to keep them hidden from unwelcome inquisitive eyes. We do not just discuss books; we also exchange recent techniques of disguising them. We do not just think about politics and culture; we also contemplate ways not to alarm untrustworthy others about our capability to think.

We keep reading and writing, nevertheless.

We shout our ideas uninhibitedly or whisper them subtly in metaphors and allegories. Write "rose" and read "revolution," "dawn" and read "uprising," "beloved" and read "freedom," "dog" and read "political police," "fence" and read "prison." Eminent writers as well as little peons like myself whose words never leave their privacy. Writers daring to express their thoughts, seasoned in expressing their ideas in ways evading censorship—or novices learning trade secrets. All experience something similar, however: the simultaneous durability and fragility of written words. We recognize the power of words in the fears they cause in the SAVAK, in how vulnerable they make us. And we see words’ fragility in how they are destroyed, either by the hands of censors, or by our own trembling hands, tearing or surrendering them to the bosom of a fire, destroying the evidence of thought, cleansing us of the guilt of thinking. Or perhaps even self-censoring, stifling words in the womb of one’s mind. Poems never published, stories never read. Poems destroyed, stories burned. And as written words become a liability, we see the vulnerability of our own lives as writers and readers.

Then comes the dah shab, the Ten Nights—ten nights of lecturing and poetry reading organized by the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) in the autumn of 1977. The first formal "public appearance" of the IWA whose legitimacy the government has so far refused to recognize. Toleration of IWA’s public appearance is supposed to signify a gentler state, more conscientious of human rights. The Ten Nights receive unprecedented welcome by the public. Secular intellectuals speak side by side religious authors, showing solidarity among opponents of censorship, opponents of the Shah. As "unity"—or, as we learn in retrospect, the illusion of unity—strengthens amongst the opposition, the hope of the Pahlavi regime to turn the event into a symbol of tolerance vanishes. Police clash with students, as, one after another, penners fiercely condemn censorship and the government’s suppression of freedoms. Poet Said Soltanpour, just released from prison, and other participants join students. The dress rehearsal of a gentler king turns into a dress rehearsal for revolution.

And then pours the vernal shower of the revolution in the winter of 1979.

A sigh of relief. No more censorship, no more prison, no more execution. No more writing in metaphors, no more deciphering codes. Writing as life should be—free and playful.

Alas! Spring is too weak to even arrive at its own doorstep. On 7 March 1979 (14 days before spring) comes the newly established Islamic Republic’s first attack on women’s rights. Shortly after, a full-scale war on the Iranian Kurds, then on the Turkamans, and then vandalizing bookstores and headquarters of political organizations... Here a bookseller is injured. There, a student selling newspapers on a street corner is beaten. Here, books are torn. There, a car carrying written words is bombed. Written words burn to ashes and with them, a little boy trapped in the car. The daily Kayhan whose autonomous policy the new regime cannot tolerate is "bought up" by a metal merchant supporter of Khomeini. Ayandegan is closed down by a zealot mob after Khomeini says he won’t read the irreverent paper. "Laws of journalism" are decreed, "according" freedoms of thought and expression "within the proper limits of Islam." Khomeini’s calculated guidance to his followers: "Break these pens!" And then the purging, injuring, and killing of students on university campuses, and the closing of universities for over a year—"cultural revolution" à la Islamic Republic.

The Islamic regime thusly from the outset shows hostility to the free expression of ideas. Book-burning, banning newspapers, prohibiting the publication of certain authors, accusing authors of "immoral conduct" or "affiliation with the West," imprisonment, torture, and execution of authors, paper rationing for magazines, attacking publishers and bookstores, all are an integral part of building the Islamic Republic. But we see many comrades-in-arms of old among the new executors of censorship. The more the Islamic project crystallizes, the more we realize the incompatibility of our secular, democratic agendas with their objective of creating an Islamic society.

Inside and outside Iran, we experience once again the simultaneous power and fragility of the written word, this time more vividly than ever before. "Break these pens!" becomes the single rule shaping our oppression and struggle under the Islamic state. More and more we feel the vulnerability of our words and our lives in a religio-political system that does not tolerate any "deviation," even when the "deviant" is one of them. Growing censorship, imprisonment, torture, murder. Ah, my disheveled memory. Who is the first victim? I don’t remember. Has it ever stopped? Can we at all talk about "the first victim," as in marking a new beginning? Or is it a continuum with no beginning and...no end?

In the chopped ice

in the morgue shine

two frozen flames of blood

a flame in the mouth

a flame in the eye.

The Hizbullah, the partisans of Allah, attack the Iranian Writers’ Association. Said Soltanpour, poet, playwright, director, a political prisoner of many years under the Shah, and Executive Secretary of the Writers’ Association, is incarcerated at his wedding ceremony. Charge: illegal exchange of foreign money. An endless nightmare from which we wake up to a more horrifying reality on a summer day.

20 June 1981. Confrontations between the Islamic regime and the opposition escalate. A brutal clampdown on a popular demonstration, followed by nationwide arrests. The next morning, Massoud’s phone call wakes me up. "They killed him. They killed him." Said Soltanpour executed. The picture of his holed chest, sleeping serenely, is etched forever in my memory.

This is the power of written words opposing tyranny (a new one, that is). The writers are no longer an elite group. Words are appropriated by many who write, print, and distribute at every street corner. The more widespread written words become, however, the more severe and widespread their reaction. Official, bureaucratically organized censorship (can censorship ever be "official," "organized," as in legal?) does not suffice. Mass scale suppression ensues. Earth-engendered words must not cast doubt upon divine words, according to the earthly guardians of divinity. Only one word is legitimate in the mind of Allah’s state men—Unity. "Unity of discourse," vahdat-e kalam: that is, "Unity" as they define it, as in repeating what they say. Words become fragile. But even more fragile become producers, distributors, and consumers of written words.

"Break these pens." Yet we keep writing.

Degradation (with or without killing, though the choice is not ours) is prescribed. The history of the Islamic Republic is filled with theatrical performances of oppositional individuals "confessing" to everything—from espionage for "East and West" to addiction, libation, fornication, pederasty, stealing... Intellectualism is deemed suspect in nature; intellectuals are by definition corrupt. There is hardly any mention of authors or artists without muddying their names. Towering intellectuals and little peons alike—the Islamic state is an equal opportunity mud slinger.

In the system of velayat-e faqih, the rule of jurist (the religious leader), people merely follow the religious Leader, the Imam. The Islamic project articulates itself in pronounced opposition to democracy. "The exact translation of democracy," writes an Islamist, "is the rule (velayat) of people that stands opposed to the rule of the jurist. The two cannot be mixed." "Intellectualism," which Islamists define in contradistinction with Islamism, follows a false path in promoting democracy. The rule of people requires their knowledge about everything, an impossibility considering the limitations of human intellect. "An intellectual is one who considers no limits in his thoughts and comments on everything, and critical comments at that. This has no compatibility with the essence of religious thinking that deems the human mind limited....The history of intellectualism in Iran is the history of ignorance and alienation."

The persecution is widespread. Months after the initial crackdown of 1981, newspapers print the list of the executed prisoners every day. Producers and consumers of the written word are on the run. Some go into hiding, some escape, some go into hiding before they escape. Everybody is concerned about the many faceless victims, as well as the better-known figures. Breathless, we follow the deafening footsteps of death.

Those of us abroad, cautiously seek the latest news, hoping to dodge disheartening discoveries. "How many more today?" "Any news about Shamlu?" "Do you think they would kill even people like Mahmood Doulatabadi, or Bagher Parham, or Dariush Ashouri?" "Saedi made it out. He is in Paris." "Homa Nategh is in Europe, too." "Esmail Khoi is in London." "What about Ne‘mat Mirzazadeh? Any news about what happened to Manouchehr Mahjoobi?" "Fereydoon Tonekabony is out, too." Many others. And then many more.

I remember around the same time Shamlu is nominated for an international award—the Nobel Prize, if I’m not mistaken. But many of us are more concerned about how the publicity might irritate the Islamic regime and jeopardize the poet’s life than happy about a well-deserved recognition for him and Persian literature.

Abroad, the pressure of living in exile displaces the sword of death—for the moment. Saedi finds exile unbearable—he goes to sleep in Le Pere Lachaise, in the neighborhood of Sadegh Hedayat, Balzac, and Moliere. And then humorist Mahjoobi rests in the London Cemetery, a few short steps away from his friend Karl Marx. As we mourn his death by cancer, we remember how his satirical Ahangar angered the Islamic authorities. Many others. And then many more.

"Break these pens." Yet we keep writing.

Wipe tears from our eyes, take a deep breath, and delve into the heart of darkness with the weapon of critique. Written words come to the rescue of life, set out to attest to the horrors of persecution, mass murder, and exile. Political analyses, short stories, poems, jokes, communiqués, and words of mouth: every possible means of communication are used to break the silence. Khoi writes fiery poems about the "Imam of the plague." Saedi writes about art production in the Islamic Republic and about exilic life. Pakdaman contrasts ruling mullahs to human beings.

In Iran, words sprout here and there.

To think

in silence.

The one who thinks

is compelled to keep silent

but when called

injured and innocent

to offer witness testimony

he’ll talk in a thousand tongues.

The literary monthly Mofid makes a short-lived appearance. Adineh and Donyay-e Sokhan follow. "Have you read Majid Danesh-Arasteh’s Breeze in the Desert? Magnificent." "Have you read Simin Behbahani’s new poem?" "Have you read Shamlu’s recent interview? He said as long as he has to write in allegory and metaphor, he’ll refuse to write." And we all know there is so much more hidden written work to surface. No way they would sit still, even if forced to hide their writings. Many others. And then many more.

Khomeini issues a death fetwa on 14 February 1989 on Salman Rushdie. Authors in Iran, themselves living under death shadow, obviously cannot denounce the edict. But they are well familiar with the tragicomedy of reason living in the wonderland of mullahs. Exiled writers show their solidarity with their fellow author. They face the wrath of the Islamic state, once again. Poets Nader Naderpour and Esmail Khoi become unmentionable names in Iran. Bookstores are wiped clean of their books. Khoi has been tried in absentia long before this punishment; he is already sentenced to death.

After the "blessing of the war" with Iraq concludes, political prisoners in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic are massacred in September 1989. Many of the old producers and consumers of written words (already released from prison, or still serving sentences for lesser charges) are rounded up and summarily executed. Power and fragility of written words—our quintessential experience as writers, as humans. A partial list compiled by Raynaldo Galindo Pohl, the former United Nations Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, includes 1879 victims. So many more—nobody knows exactly how many. We know, however, that even one is many, too many.

"Break these pens." Yet we keep writing.

Shahrnoush Parsipour, a prominent novelist, is imprisoned because in Women without Men, she refers to menstruation and virginity. Written words, guilty of breaking the code of silence, endangering "public morality." (When was that? How this nightmarish wakefulness ruins order in my memory of time and space!) So are many others subject to the rules of morality. Many are harassed in the streets for being with a member of the opposite sex, not freed until they either offer a bribe to the moral police (who know not their own enforcement), or produce evidence that they are legitimately related as father and daughter, brother and sister, cousins... Many are savagely stoned to death for committing "adultery." Luckier ones have to watch what they write! "Breast" is too provocative to mention. "Dance" must give way to "joyously jumping up and down." "Wine" ought to be deleted; no doubt "syrup" is a better substitute. (Hence the moral police engage in their own perverse—oh, how moral—symbolism.) Has the written word ever been so frightening for a ruling power? Has the written word ever been so fragile?

In her memoirs, Parsipour narrates her incarceration. Her book becomes an addition to an emerging genre in Persian literature: prison writing. People imprisoned for their love of writing paradoxically record their observations from their cells, in book-length manuscripts, short stories, articles, and poems. Mass imprisonment produces mass prison literature.

Many others. And then many more.

On 15 October 1994, 134 writers in Iran publish an open letter entitled "We Are the Writers!" They demand the abolition of censorship and call for the establishment of an autonomous writers’ association:

We are the writers! This means that we express and publish our emotions, imagination, ideas, and research in different forms. It is our natural, social, and civil right that our written work—be it poetry or novel, play or scenario, research or critique—as well as our translations of other writers in the world, reach our audience without any interference and impediment. No individual or institution, under no circumstance, has the right to hinder this process. Though all are welcome to judge and freely critique our work after publication.

The Islamic government reacts without hesitation. In a riposte in the daily Kayhan, diabolically entitled "We Are the Dead!" Hassan Khorassany lashes out on the undersigned as "excrement of the monarchical period who have always been the source of moral and intellectual corruption and whose circles are not different from a fly’s nest."

Literary scholar Ali-Akbar Saidi-Sirdjani, one of the signatories, "dies" of a mysterious heart attack in prison in November 1994. Ahmad Mir-Ala’i (a prominent translator of Conrad, Borges, Kundera, Whiting, Forster, and Green) gets kidnapped in October 1995. A few days later, his body is found in his hometown, Isfahan. On 14 August 1996, some twenty Iranian writers and journalists—many of whom were signatories of the open letter—become subjects of an unsuccessful assassination attempt on their way to neighboring Armenia. The driver of the bus tries to direct the bus into a ravine. One writer manages to control the bus. Skillfulness in using a pen in the Islamic state prepares him for maneuvering a runaway bus. The Islamic Republic Police later orders the passengers not to publicly discuss the "accident." The translator Ghaffar Hosseini, as we Iranians say, "is died" on 11 November 1996—he, too, falls victim to a mysterious heart attack.

Faraj Sarkuhi, the editor of Adineh, is imprisoned and brutalized. In a letter to his family made public, he writes:

I expect that at any moment information agents will come and arrest me, place me in prison once again, torture and finally kill me, masking their crime as a suicide.

A "senior official" tells him that he is to "pay for the others...so that the intellectuals are kept in their place."

Novelist and editor of the monthly Gardoon, Abbas Ma‘roofi, is sentenced to 6 months imprisonment, 20 lashes, and 2 years prohibition from journalistic activities, in a farcical trial... Many others. And then many more.

"Break these pens." Yet we keep writing.

Wave after wave, in each undulation

one thing is apparent only; much more, however, hidden:

To become over and over, appearing multifarious

in a way, though no one could see

How the open-mouthed have swallowed many of us!

like a tiny prey, ingested by the dragon.

Step by step, towards the world of death

you are moving

and at every step, your prey: one of us.

On February 1997, Ebrahim Zal-Zadeh, editor of Me‘yar, a monthly literary magazine, and owner of Ebtekar Publication, is arrested by members of the Information Ministry and is taken to a "safe house." Ministry officials tell his family not to reveal his arrest or he will be killed. A month later, his body is found half buried outside Tehran. Some hold that Zal-Zadeh is perhaps killed by mistake: he is not among the 134 signatories, but his fax machine was used to disseminate the communiqué.

In 1992, four dissidents, three of them leaders of the Iranian Democratic Party of Kurdistan were assassinated in Berlin in an Iranian restaurant, the Mykonos. German authorities arrested and tried four Iranian and Lebanese terrorists in connection with these murders. During the trial, the existence of a Special Operations Committee, chaired by the Ayatollah Khamenehii, is confirmed. The verdict finally comes in the spring of 1997. The court finds that Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenehii, and then President Hashemi Rafsanjani had personally ordered the killings. These men are also implicated in other terrorist attempts on exiled Iranians. This comes as no news to us. We have been crying for years that the Islamic state does not leave us alone even in exile. Nor are we surprised that the Mykonos verdict has no impact on relations between European governments and the Islamic Republic of Iran. What is a few fallen struggling lives before the Almighty Capitalist Market? And a few Third Worldly lives at that—"the less dead."

And then comes the people’s showdown with the Islamic government in June 1997. Mohammad Khatami is elected president, despite the clear message from the religious leadership that they favor his opponent. Many Iranians, suffocated under the pressure of Muslim fanatics, find Khatami’s liberal rhetoric attractive. Even so, it seems the people vote primarily against the regime rather than for Khatami. The long-existing divisions within the Islamic state widen. Khatami expresses a desire to relax the censorship, to enhance the tolerance of the Islamic regime. Orthodox guardians of Islam, however, do not allow any leniency.

But the government is incapable of imposing order. In the months following Khatami’s election, strikes and demonstrations permeate Iran: oil workers, students, spectators of a soccer match.... Activists demand improvement in economic conditions of toiling workers, freedom of expression, the end of public surveillance on private lives, the end of daily harassment by the moral police, and the abolition of velayat-e faqih, the rule of the supreme religious leader as the shepherd of the people.

Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the commander of the Pasdaran, the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, states in April 1998 at a meeting of the Guardians’ Naval Force: "Some people must be beheaded. Our tongue is our sword….We threw a rock in the nest of the venomous snakes injured by the revolution. We gave them all a chance to come out of their nest. This was our tactic to better identify them." He diabolically promises his follower a(nother) coming massacre: "This fruit is not ripe yet. When it is ready, we’ll pick it with your assistance." Hossein Allah-Karam, the hizbullah commander, promises the same barbarism. He states in a lecture at Gilan University that to implement Islamic law, he needs no one’s permission. He only follows the Leaders—Khomeini and Khamenehii. "We’ll do it again and again." His followers proudly declare: "We have sticks, not brains." Many others. And then many more.

In May 1998, after nearly one year of detention, Morteza Firouzi, the founder and editor of the English-language daily Iran News is sentenced to death for adultery and espionage. He is their guy, but illicit relations with the wife of a high-ranking official make his loyalty seriously questionable.

"We’ll cut off heads, break hands." And they do.

Around the same time, Jame‘eh newspaper is closed down. Tous replaces Jame‘eh with the same editorial collective and staff. Jame‘eh-ye Salem is another victim. Akbar Ganji, editor-in-chief of Rah-e Nou is detained and tried, the monthly is banned. Zanan, a woman’s magazine, is taken to court. In the city of Kerman, the body of Hamid Hajizadeh, poet, scholar, and high school teacher, along with that of his 9 year-old son, is found in bed on the last day of summer, the day before the beginning of the school year. He is murdered with 38 stab wounds. Many others. And then many more. Fear encroaches upon the country.

This nightmare produces a collage in my mind—memories lose their chronological order. Was Jame‘eh banned before Iranian News? So many names, so many. How can they be redeemed in our historical memory as other than yet-other-examples in the bleak record of the ruling Islamists? The more I try to maintain an order of events, the more I flounder. Names get mixed up, dates mingle. So many detentions, then releases, then detentions again. So many suspensions, then temporarily permissions to reappear, then suspensions again. An author in Tehran, many others in provincial cities. A magazine in a metropolitan city, many more in Tehran. So widespread this suppression that its volume becomes a factor in assessing its form and content. Names re- and recur, becoming "just another name" beside their own names. Yet memory must honor those silenced by terror, I tell myself. They must be remembered.

"Break these pens. Some people must be beheaded." Yet we keep writing.

The autumn of the Islamic Republic is painted in the muddy colors of suppression. On 15 September, Ayatollah Khamenehii, the Supreme Leader, calls on authorities to chastise magazines that "abuse" freedom. The next day, a revolutionary court shuts down Tous and arrest warrants are issued for the editor, Mahmoud Shams-ol-Va‘ezin, the publishing manager, Hamidreza Jala’ipour, a leading columnist, Ebrahim Nabavi, and a journalist, Mohammad Sadeq Javadi-Hesar. They are to be tried as "enemies of god." On 23 September, Ataollah Mohajerani, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance (the censorship office), supports the actions against Tous and its staff. In President Khatami’s Islamic civil society, there is no room for magazines suspected of "being a mouthpiece" for the opposition. Four days later, the Press Supervisory Board (a body operating under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) puts the final nail on Tous’ coffin for "insulting" Khomeini.

Many others. And then many more.

"Break these pens. Some people must be beheaded." Yet we keep writing.

Iranian authors’ efforts to organize themselves continue. A provisional committee of six is to plan the first general assembly of the Iranian Writers Association: Mohammad Mokhtari, Mohammad Ja‘far Pouyandeh, Hooshang Golshiri, Ali Ashraf Darvishian, Kazem Kordavani, and Mansour Koushan. They are summoned to Tehran Public Prosecutor’s office in October and questioned about the Association’s activities. They are not released until they sign a promissory not to organize the general assembly.

On 21 November 1998, the murdered bodies of opposition figures Dariush Forouhar, and his wife, Parvaneh Eskandari-Foruhar, are found in their house. Their house and phone have been under surveillance. The authorities of the Islamic Republic know that their killers entered their house as guests, bearing gifts, but they claim not to know who they are. Thousands of people attend their funeral.

The fruit is ripe. Swords are put to work. Heads fall.

The condition emerging with Khatami’s election did indeed encourage many to stick out their necks. Khatami’s promise of the rule of law, of the establishment of civil society, of a farewell to terror and suppression revived the stifled cultural and political atmosphere. Many broke the silence, expecting protection, only to discover that the "order of law" in the Islamic state broke pens and beheaded. Incapable of keeping his promises, Khatami squirms under pressures. During the "Question and Answer" period on 7 December 1998 (The University Day), Khatami directs frustrated students to "be patient"; and to the self-righteous hizbullah—the same people who have sticks, not brains—he admonishes, "obey the law." That same day, two female and one male student who participated in the exchange disappear.

Khatami’s hollow words are uttered about a month after a new round of terror has caused the nation to shiver with astonishment and fear. Many more magazines are banned; Piruz Davani a political activist is "executed" by the notorious Feda’iyan of Islam; dissident writer Majid Sharif is found dead under suspicious circumstances; Mokhtari and Pouyandeh have disappeared; Mohsen Said-Zadeh, a cleric known for his revisionist approach to Islam, has been defrocked by the Clerical Special Tribunal; the persecution of Bahaiis has increased; more alleged "adulterers" are stoned to death...

What about freedom of speech? What about the fate of written word? No problem, Khatami says, any newspaper or publication accused of illegality will be charged in an open court, before a jury and lawyers. This is what makes this president "liberal" in the eyes of his supporters: legalized, ordered, and "democratic" censorship. He is lauded for "relaxing criteria" while he was the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Yet I find the argument farcical. "Tight" or "relaxed," censorship is censorship. Is "a little censorship" better than "a lot"? Undoubtedly. But writers and readers, as well as the general public wishing to express their opinion, remain vulnerable to the will and whims of those in office. "Relaxed censorship" in Khatami’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, or his promises of a more tolerant political atmosphere, stem more from pressure from below than from compatibility of the Islamic state with democracy and freedom. I do not deny that Khatami does not genuinely believe that the people he replaced at the Ministry had gone too far. Perhaps he does. In fact I assume that he does. But that is exactly what I find problematic about Khatami: his intention to maintain the structure of the Islamic state while adjusting its parameters. You cannot carve a democratic order out of a political structure based on systematic exploitation, sex discrimination, suppression of freedom. Worse yet, you cannot carve a democratic order that opts to uphold the Islam of the Islamic Republic. It is, then, no surprise that when Assadollah Ladjevardi, responsible for the murder of countless political prisoners, is assassinated in the autumn of 1998 by an outraged dissident, Khatami joins other IRI authorities in praising Ladjevardi as a martyr of Islam, a dedicated servant of the Islamic government.

Khatami’s imperative of affording the Islamic state a gentler face has given rise to a minimalist politics among some Iranian intellectuals, a politics happy at the slightest ease in the governmental choke. A mood of self-censorship prevails among many who hold that they should be careful not to sink the boat. Yet Khatami’s promised freedom is always "freedom with limitations." Khatami refers to "legal opposition," those who can be tolerated in the Islamic order. Notwithstanding the promised tolerance, no "legal opponent" of the regime is granted permission to act publicly. Many books are still denied publication or banned and destroyed after publication. Khatami’s is a dangerous promise to take seriously because of its immediate implications—the perpetuation of living under the rule of Islam. It is dangerous also in a broader respect. Unfortunately, many of our otherwise very radical and progressive intellectuals believe that "freedom must come with limitations," believe that there must be freedom for espousing certain, i.e. their, ideals, not others. In considering freedom, we too eagerly jump to a discussion of freedom’s limit, often before we even define what freedom must entail. We must therefore frame our critique of Khatami’s halfhearted reference to freedom, on two levels: one vis-à-vis the President of the Islamic Republic; the other vis-à-vis those opting for a better society at some point in the future.

I do not pronounce a judgement that Khatami and his men are directly involved in the recent wave of violence. Maybe they are, maybe not. Evidence indicates that Iranian dissidents have become the sacrificial lambs of the fights among different factions of the Islamic government, and that the butchers are the opponents of Khatami who warned earlier that they would break arms and behead. But again, it is not out of mind that each group tries to pin the murders on the other, thereby exonerate not only itself, but also the IRI in its entirety. And that is what we must bear in mind regarding the recent murders: no matter who builds the gallows, the IRI, in its entirety, is culpable. Suppression of oppositional voices might at this time also assist one faction in its fight against another, yet suppression has been an integral part of the Islamic state since inception. As president of the Islamic Republic, Khatami, whether or not an engineer of the recent killings, is implicated in what transpires in Iran under the aegis of a system he pledges to rescue. I want to underline that the latest killings of oppositional intellectuals are not isolated and aberrant "incidents." They are social events that become meaningful in relation to the structure of the Islamic Republic, and as such, the entire system of the IRI must be put on trial. Khatami’s opponents are acting within the confines of the very system that legitimates his socio-political presence, a system built on repression and terror. Khatami’s attempt to bring "order" to that system is too little, too late.

I also think it equally vital that we cast the terrorism of the Islamic Republic within a broader context of killing as a means of settling political disputes. Gradually among the Iranian opposition (both inside and outside the country) voices are raised against capital punishment as a denial of human rights. But hatred and anger towards the Islamic authorities directly responsible for imprisonment, torture, and murder at times makes adherence to this principle quite challenging. Some opposition groups, for instance, condone Ladjevardi’s assassination; many refrain from publicly questioning the merits of such a tactic. No doubt that Ladjevaradi was a ruthless butcher, and no doubt that it is emotionally soothing to hear the news about his assassination. But I think we should clearly make the point that we are against killing as a form of settling political and ideological differences. We need to emphasize that as long as we, explicitly or implicitly, condone such actions, we make not only ourselves vulnerable, but our dedication to democratic principles suspect.

"Break these pens. Some people must be beheaded." Yet we keep writing.

Mohammad Mokhtari disappears on 1 December. About a week later, his family identifies his strangulated body in the morgue. As his body is found, Mohammad Pouyandeh is reported missing. A few days later, when Mokhtari’s relatives and friends put his body in the hearse, Mrs. Mokhtari steps forward, puts a pen in his coffin, and says, "I see him off with his weapon." At the end of the memorial service, Doulatabadi announces the funeral procession route. Mrs. Pouyandeh asks him to announce that her beloved husband’s memorial will be held same place, the following week. Pouyandeh’s body has been found on the rails, in a southern neighborhood in Tehran. Pouyandeh is also strangled. During Pouyandeh’s memorial service, Ali Ashraf Darvishian gives a fiery speech, brings his neck forward, and addresses an omnipresent enemy: "Now, here is my neck, here is your noose." The hizbullah is upset because the caskets of the two fallen authors are not wrapped in the official flag of the Islamic Republic—an obvious sign that the slain authors are secular.

Dariush Ashouri declares that "ruthless intellectual war is underway both in Iran and in the Islamic world between everything that stands for intellectualism, enlightenment, and progress, and all things dark, backward, reactionary, and fundamentalist. Just look at what is going on in Iran, in Algeria, or in Afghanistan." Golshiri sketches a similarly gloomy picture: "Now all those wielding a pencil as a tool are in danger of death, a well prepared death by a very well oiled machine. The killers are members of the regime, they are those who intended to send the bus load of intellectuals into the ravine."

Many others. And then many more.

"Break these pens. Some people must be beheaded." Yet we keep writing.

More than 60 authors and secular intellectuals gather at the journalist Firouz Gouran’s house to draft an open letter. None makes the trip alone—and wisely so. The host reportedly says, "I, too, may disappear soon." The authors state that Mokhtari and Pouyandeh were children of the earth, "independence, freedom, and happiness for the masses were their only preoccupation. They wished for kindness and justice not only for Iran, but also for the world at large." The petitioners sue Khatami and Khamenehii for protection as those "in charge of ensuring the safety of all citizens, of ending this horrible situation by any means." Signatories include well-known intellectuals, some of whom are reportedly included in a death list that contains up to 60 names: Shirin Ebadi, Mehrangiz Kar, Simin Behbahani, Ali Ashraf Darvishian, Fariborz Re’iss-Dana, Javad Mojabi, Mahmood Doulatabadi, Ahmad Shamlu, Mohammad Reza Bateni, Dariush Ashouri, Babak Ahmadi.... Whatever the merits of appealing that authorities investigate and persecute criminals among them, the most obvious suspects of these heinous crimes have gone unchecked so far: members of the Special Operations Committee, including Khamenehii and former president Rafsanjani, Head of the Islamic Judiciary Mohammad Yazdi, Speaker of the Islamic Majlis Nateq Nouri, and generals Mohsem Reza’i and Yahya Rahim-Safavi, former and present commanders of the revolutionary guards.

When the Leader finally and reluctantly comments on these events, however, he merely repeats his usual diatribe. "Enemies" are at work. The "enemies" kill these people to tarnish the reputation of the Islamic Republic. Who are the "enemies"? The Leader never specifies. "Foreigners"? Perhaps. They are certainly among the usual suspects. He has, nevertheless, on numerous occasions pointed his accusatory finger at persons of the pen. It is the intellectuals, then, who kill each other to sully Islam. Years ago, when pressured to comment about widespread torture in the prisons of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini also said that prisoners torture themselves to dishonor Islam. Some things never change.

Akbar Ganji, the editor of the recently banned Rah-i Nou states in a meeting that if his body is found in the outskirts of Tehran, do not look far for the assassin. And he points at the editor of Shalamcheh, a pro-Khamenehii newspaper. The hizbullah replies: "Mr. Ganji, do you really think you are worth killing?" Ganji escapes a possible attempt on his life a few days later, on 13 December 1998. Two unknown men approach him as he leaves his office, and ask the whereabouts of Mr. Ganji. Fortunately, Ganji does not identify himself and after a brief exchange, the men run away.

Many others. And then many more.

If the dominant system of a society fails to accept the active presence of such democratic institutions as associations of writers and journalists and autonomous publications, it clearly manifests a gap between its words and deeds. It has concealed its true nature. It envisions a future for the people that does not rise from the masses. It conflicts with the people’s demands and objectives. It opposes freedom, independence, international conventions and human rights.

I tremble at these lines, authored by Koushan. Who is next? I wonder. Word of mouth has it that they have made a list of 50 to 60 people that "must be beheaded." Even as I review this piece prior to submitting it, I hear the news about two more murders: Jamshid Partovi, a surgeon, and Mohammad Taqi Zehtabi, an expert on Azari literature and an advocate of Turskih cultural and linguistic autonomy in Azerbaijan province. Koushan seeks asylum from Norway.

The italicized sentence was added between 31 December 1998 and 8 January 1999. By this time, what I had thought a final draft sent to friends and colleagues, was outdated. My New Year began with this e-mail correspondence: a friend’s transcription of remarks by Hooshang Golshiri:

The signatories of that letter ["We Are the Writers"] faced a lot of pressure after that; Abbas Zaryab-Khoi died because of the pressure; Mir-Ala’i died also, under suspicious circumstances in November 1995. His body was found and (it was revealed) that alcohol had been injected into his blood which caused heart failure.

Then we saw the strange detention of Faraj Sarkuhi. On November 11, 1996, came the suspicious murder of Hussein Ghaffari, and Tafazolli’s death on January 14, 1997, followed. His body was found at a place far distant from his home; he had been hit on the head by a crowbar and a car had run over his leg. On February 24, Zal-Zadeh was reported missing, and on March 29 his body was found in Yaftabad (southern Tehran). So far, of the seven members of the general assembly of the Writers Association, Pouyandeh and Mokhtari were murdered, and Doulatabadi went to Germany. Only Koushan, Kordavani, Darvishian, and I have remained.

Last Sunday when Simin Behbahani and I were returning from a meeting, we realized that we were being followed. We had to spend the night at Behbahani’s home.

Many others. And then many more.

Dead and alive, authors of past and present roam my mind. Mokhtari brings his head close and articulates the preoccupying question:

Now where are the lips that rest

Only after making restless?

Where now is the world peaceful, huh?

Who next? Who?

I call Shahrzad after I learn about Mokhtari’s assassination. She says: "I am sick of this—death everywhere. After I heard the news, I went to my room. When my husband came to tell me, I said I already knew. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he said. I said because I didn’t want to give another news about death." I call Said. He has an update from home: "Pouyandeh’s wife was called to the morgue yesterday to check a corpse, but she said that wasn’t him." "Maybe they won’t find the opportunity to kill him," we wish. I get into my car, drive around the city aimlessly, and sob uncontrollably behind the wheel. I write to record those lives and these tears, I write to remember. Yet I don’t want to wrench your hearts with the pain that squeezes ours, but I—we—want you to listen to us with your passion for social justice, your belief in freedom, and your commitment to humanity. And tell others. Listen to us; we are suffocated. Let our voice be heard; we won’t be silenced.

All we demand is your solidarity—or is that asking too much?

8 January 1999