TitleIranian hopes and dreams deserve more attention

The astonishing light of optimism

21 Dec 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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In November, a Belgian TV station broadcast the documentary The Red Card about the trial against Shahla Jahed, the mistress of famous Iranian soccer player Nasser Mohammad Khani who was accused of murdering her lover’s wife in 2002. I had heard about the plight of Shahla Jahed, but getting to know her full story in The Red Card made me hold my breath in amazement for one hour and kept me speechless for hours afterward. I was – obviously – outraged by the injustice of the Iranian legal system, but what striked me even more was the way in which Shahla Jahed defended herself in court. She had no lawyer and pleaded her own case. I was dumbfounded, realizing while watching her speak and stay silent, cry and laugh, ask and answer that I had again witnessed the extraordinary braveness of Iranian women.

Some weeks later, on December 1st, I had a lecture in the Belgian city of Antwerp and planned to show a part of The Red Card, taking the fighting spirit of Shahla Jahed as an example of how Iranian women are trying to defy a system that systematically wants to turn them into victims. And then, the evening before that lecture and in a coincidence that sent shivers down my spine, I saw some Iranian friends on Facebook change their profile picture into that of Shahla Jahed, as Iran’s judiciary had announced that she would be executed in the early morning of December 1st. If I had believed in God, I would have prayed for it not to happen, but I don’t, so I just went to bed that night hoping that it would not be true, that the regime would change its mind, that it was just once again using one of its scaring tactics, that maybe international pressure could stop this cruelty from happening. But my hope was in vain. When I put on my computer on December 1st, I heard Shahla’s last words coming out of my speakers. It was snowing outside, and it started raining in my heart.

That evening, talking in Antwerp about Shahla made me feel very sad for some minutes. But I did not give in to those dark feelings because it would have been a dishonor to how I will remember Shahla Jahed after having seen The Red Card: a brave woman who spoke out for herself. After refusing to talk for 11 months, she confessed to the murder of Laleh Saharkhizan, but later repeatedly retracted her confession at her public trial. Nevertheless, she was hanged in Evin Prison; in Iran, people rarely get a second chance. Still, Shahla may have lost in court, but The Red Card will always remind us that she was the verbal and moral winner of her case. The Iranian regime judged her for being a woman, but that didn’t stop her from showing her femininity. She for instance defied all Islamic conventions by wearing make-up during the court sessions. Shahla also managed to make a fool of the judge: sometimes she flirted with him, visibly throwing him off his feet and showing us which one the real powerful sex in court was. In her brave defense, in her defiance of rules and her determination to keep fighting against the injustice she was faced with, Shahla Jahed shows us that Iranian women are, yes, victims, but also born fighters the regime can no longer deny. Shahla Jahed is dead, but she is alive in those millions of Iranian women who, filled with hope, stand up to oppression and do so the loudest because they are the ones being hit the hardest in a dictatorship where every human being’s dignity is destroyed.

Iranian women are born fighters the regime can no longer deny

I added this element of hope when I talked about Shahla Jahed in Antwerp, and I always add hope when I talk about Iran in general because I believe, as philosopher Karl Popper said, that ‘optimism is our moral duty’. ‘So we have a duty’, Popper added, ‘instead of predicting something bad, to support the things that may lead to a better future’. I for one see this as my duty, not only as a human being but also and especially as writer. Of course, we have to be outraged and keep talking about the cruelty of the Iranian regime. But as a writer with a passion for Iran, I want to share with my readers my belief that there is always room for optimism, which is exactly what can help people in Iran who are daily struggling for their future. Why always put so much emphasis on only the bad things that are happening? It sometimes seems we have become so spoiled in the West that complaining is our new hobby. When the Persian-Dutch author Kader Abdolah – he himself a non-believer – translated the Quran two years ago, wanting to pay tribute to ‘the book of his father’, he stressed the beauty of the Quran, calling it bad as a book of law but marvelous as a literary work. Some journalists and Islam specialists blamed Abdolah for not talking enough about the terror the Quran has led to. First, that was not true as he called the Quran not valuable as a book of law, and second, what is wrong with trying to show another side of Islam? What is wrong with showing people in the West that there is great beauty in the book they seem to have become so afraid of – great beauty even for those who do not believe in Allah or any other God? I admire Abdolah for his brave stance in bringing this message of optimism, because it leads to more understanding, which is what we very much need at a time when people in the West have become scared of people whose culture they don’t even try to understand better.

I refuse to bring a message of pessimism to my audience, whether they are readers or people coming to listen to my lectures. When talking about Europe and Iran, I never only mention the sanctions and the nuclear program. I also refer to the three Iranian diplomats in Europe who have defected and joined the Green Movement. The surprise of people coming to tell me afterwards that they did not know about these hopeful signs coming from Iran is my greatest satisfaction.

I refuse to bring a message of pessimism

Last year, a librarian from a small town invited me to come and give a lecture on the occasion of my book being published. To my astonishment, she said she found the title of my book, Thousand-and-one dreams, ‘a very bad one because things are so terrible in Iran that it is very naïve of you to suggest that people have dreams over there’. I had rarely been spoken to with such dumb arrogance, but it confirmed my belief that talking about Iranian dreams and hopes is even more important than talking about Iranian nightmares and tragedies.

This evening, Iranian people throughout the world will celebrate the longest night of the Iranian calendar year, Yalda, in a tradition welcoming the birthday of the Zoroastrian god of light, Mitra. 
Reading poems of Hafez is one of the most familiar activities on Yalda night. I know which verse I will read tonight, thinking about the hope and dreams of Iran: “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”

Showing my readers the astonishing light of Iranian people is my wish for this Yalda.

Tehran Review
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  1. سال نو مبارک, Gelukkig Nieuwjaar! « Ann De Craemer says:

    [...] dromen, zoals ik het al verwoordde in mijn meest recente column voor TehranReview, die zowel in het Engels als in het Farsi verscheen. Het jaar begint op de Nederlandse televisie al meteen Perzisch: op [...]

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