Iranian bloodshed harks back to an earlier atrocity
The images we’ve been seeing of rioting and bloodshed in Tehran take me back almost three decades, to the northern spring of 1980, and the weeks of living dangerously in what was then still a revolutionary situation in Iran.
It was May the first of 1980 when I learned that my translator had been murdered. His name was Bahram Dehqani-Tafti. He was a poet in his mid twenties, a graduate in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, bilingual from birth because his mother was English and his father was the Anglican bishop of Esfahan.
Bahram himself showed no signs of following in his father’s footsteps; he was a secular, literary, somewhat westernised character, and I am often reminded of him by the cosmopolitan, western-oriented youth who blog in such numbers from Iran today.
The previous week, Bahram had accompanied me, cameraman Les Seymour, and the BBC Tehran stringer, Alex Brodie, on a trip to the country’s north-west, and into the rebel province of Kurdistan.
There we found, in stark contrast to what was then the unpredictable, car-bomb-blighted, atmosphere of post-revolutionary Tehran, a regimented, tidy, disciplined Kurdish mini-State, which Ayatollah Khomeini’s army was, slowly but successfully, trying to smash.
After interviewing the Kurdish political leader, Dr Qassemlou, (assassinated in Vienna, 1989), we drove towards the front lines. Our progress was halted when survivors of a convoy that had left just ahead of us began returning, many badly wounded, and bearing dozens of dead. Bahram translated for us throughout all this without turning a hair, so when, back in Tehran on the 30th April, he turned up looking pale and terrified, I knew it must be serious.
Bahram’s parents were already outside the country – they were representatives of Christianity, and therefore subjects of deep suspicion to the Imams of Esfahan, where they had lived. There had been attempts on their lives, and on the lives of people close to them.
Bahram was shaking because someone had tried to enter his top-floor flat through the door from the rooftop. It was held only by a fairly flimsy padlock, and he and his girlfriend Elizabeth had made a run for it. Alex Brodie and I advised him to lie low and try to get out of the country: he didn’t want to leave because his sisters were still in Iran, and he was their only protector. He agreed to stay at Alex’s place that night, but insisted on going to work as usual, teaching at a girl’s school, the next day.
So it was, on May the first, that I was waiting in my hotel room for him to finish work and drop by to finish off some translations from our Kurdistan trip. He never arrived.
By the time he was an hour late, we began a search. It was a driver for NBC (for whom he’d also worked) who found his car, forced off the road, evidently in some kind of carjacking. It was not, however, till hours later that they found his body, riddled with bullets, outside the walls of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Why remember Bahram now?
Because he was one of so many who died in those early months and years of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.
They died in so many ways and for so many reasons.
Because, too, he was initially a supporter of the Revolution: one of the millions who believed that the Shah’s repressive regime was so rotten that it had to go, but who also made the mistake of trusting the revolutionary leaders (like Prime Minister Bani-Sadr, exiled in Paris, still in fear of Iranian hit-squads, and Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, executed by the regime,1982), when they said that a relatively tolerant and pluralistic future was still possible under the Shah.
Those were times, like today, when the youth were on the streets. I myself was in the waiting room of an office on Tehran University when, out of nowhere, the building was surrounded by a big crowd of stone-throwing fundamentalists. And they were times when Revolutionary Courts could still try, judge and execute a person in the space of an afternoon.
So many died for the revolution. You can read some of their stories here.
It is the memories of the early years, as well as of the hundreds of thousands who died in the Iran-Iraq war, that have prevented many Iranians from protesting more strongly before now. The riots this weekend seem to be proof that the younger generation is no longer prepared to be so cautious. I fear for them.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who I saw on my first day in Tehran preaching a sermon with a Kalashnikov in his hand, is not a merciful man. The secret police are the true heirs of the Shah’s Savak, and the Revolutionary Guards are well-armed and highly trained.
Even before the vote, the regime was saying there would be ‘no velvet revolution’ in Tehran. They may go to any lengths, again, to crush resistance.
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