The Temptation of “More”

Evin-Iran-PakravanWhat does it mean, to tell an unvarnished story? To describe our travails, our emotions, our pain or grief, as they are, without adding, without feeling that we need to enhance, turn on searchlights, say “but wait, there’s more,” bring in makeup and costume departments?

These are the thoughts that came to me watching the Arte TV channel presentation of a documentary, “Born in Evin” by German-Iranian director Maryam Zaree.The story is that of a quest so many people, no matter race, creed or country, go through at some point or other: who am I, where do I come from, what’s my story? There are so many narratives, so many pasts, so many ways to have lived through it and to relive it, that the process often remains interesting and even banal accounts can offer at least some nuggets that make us more aware, wiser perhaps, able to identify on some level with the story teller.

In this particular case, the director goes way back, to her birth in an Iranian prison in the Islamic Republic of Iran some thirty-nine years ago, when her parents were arrested because of their anti-regime activities. Later, Maryam Zaree and her mother emigrated to Germany where she was brought up but the past never ceased to intrigue and perhaps even haunt her, until, with the help of her mother and others, she reconstructs those times and what followed. It’s an interesting story, and also one rather different from the myriad ones told and retold ad nauseam by refugees and exiles in memoirs, films, novels.

Never mind that in this kind of narrative, after a while, no matter how original the material, things always become repetitive as we’ve turned the page of that book once too often. What bothers me more is the mental CGI. Much like the makeover apps allowing Chinese teenagers to enhance face and body for their social media followers, everyone who tells a story needs to make it stronger, prettier, more relatable.

Thus, in the presentation to this documentary, we hear that Maryam Rezee travelled to numerous destinations in order to hear the stories of people who have lived extreme situations in Iranian prisons or detention centers or more generally have gone through some kind of gruelling process. The people the director meets relate their experience, their memories of what they lived through or witnessed. Superfluous is the comment of the Arte channel, taken–or not– from the film I haven’t yet seen–that it was difficult to get people to speak as Iran is still the Islamic Republic and would retaliate against people critical of that regime. That is an absurd statement. Over the last forty years, I have met, known and written about countless Iranian exiles of all political persuasions and with memories covering a wide range of experiences. I have yet to see one refusing to talk for security reasons. On the contrary, they are often boringly eager to narrate their past, their experience, their problems, which every single one considers unique and never gone through by anyone else. Not one, ever, refuses to share. Saying that they talk under cover or have to be persuaded to give their own testimony may give it a thriller sheen (a genre, alas, more ubiquitous by the day) but it’s simply not true. We Iranians love to enhance not only our stories but history itself. We don’t mind lowering our voice to add that we may well be under surveillance, as the Iranian grocer in El Paso, Texas, or the university student in Heidelberg, Germany does when stating that they’re being followed for representing a threat to the Islamic Republic as they know secret facts that would sink the regime if revealed, etc.

The MEK, a shadowy exile group hated by Iranians inside and outside the country for their cult-like presence actively planning regime change

I see our myth-making capacity, a part of the Iranian psyche, as a failure of personality.  Not everone can be as rational as the philosophers of the French Enlightnment but falling into the exact opposite is not admirable, no matter what we think. Inventing facts or presenting vague hunches as life-threatening is not admirable. The Islamic Republic, repulsive as it is, is busy on many fronts keeping itself relevant or viable. I don’t believe it can, at the same time, plan the demise of the millions of Iranian exiles scattered in different parts of the globe who have a low opinion of the Tehran regime and are not shy about expressing their feelings. And no, they don’t court swift reprisal when they do so. We love to wrap ourselves in narratives, thus painting ourselves as worthy descendants of the heroes of Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings. But rewriting reality, whining about being perpetual victims of fate and the nefarious plans of the powers-that-be and, also, believing we are far more relevant than we actually are, prevents us from walking on the solid ground of the here and now. Enhancing reality casts it in shadows and prevents the actual story from being told–which, surely, it deserves.


Will you have blood on your hands, Ms. Pelosi?

September 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi

For when the country finally crumbles and dies, its blood will indeed be on your hands. As the only adult in the room, you will be solely responsible if the ugly specimen that calls itself President is reelected in 2020. As he will be, no doubt, given the intellectual challenges of the segment of the population that will vote for him no matter what. Also, cheating will occur once more, given the unfortunate loopholes left by the Founding Fathers, as well as terrible errors such as the establishment of an electoral college instead of the sensible “one person, one vote” practised in functioning democracies, Read more…

Notre-Dame de Paris, Point Zero

April 20, 2019 2 comments

(Version française ci-après)

Our lives are filled with moment after moment of routine or happening or boredom, of bright days offset by dull or disappointing ones, of times great and not so great.

tca-pakravan-notredameThen there are those events that from the instant they occur dig deep into our psyche and will remain there forever. Whenever something brings them back to mind, we find them intact, stored minute by minute, emotion by emotion, the flow of events, should we wish to recall them, intact as on day they occurred. There are personal, striking ones, then there are universal ones, often tragic as we seem to recall tragedy more than happiness. In 2019, most people except the very young remember September 11. Older generations will not forget the Kennedy assassination, how they heard the stunning news, what happened in the moments, hours, days, after the first shock. Now, with the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, we have another extraordinary event that we will never forget. Read more…

What I lost forty years ago : the idea of a country

February 12, 2019 4 comments

saideh-pakravan-tcaThe Islamic revolution took place on     February 12, 1979, forty years ago today. I was already living in Paris at the time, Paris where I had traveled when I was five years old, had lived in off and on, studied , and had now been living in for a number of years. Born to a French-speaking family with complicated roots and history, I was of French culture and felt so. But I was an Iranian national and I equally felt so.

The revolution occurred not long after the return to Iran of Khomeiny from the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château where he had been welcomed and allowed to shoot his revolutionary messages to Iran, the general public seeing in him the wisdom and serenity of a new Gandhi. That’s how  he was perceived by the West, always a pushover for imported spirituality and sold on pretty Disney products as long as the colors are pastel and the decorations shine bright.

In Tehran, on this date forty years ago, the riots of the cadets of an air base were the last nails in the coffin of the Shah’s fallen regime, after months of troubles more or less justified, more or less created wholesale throughout the country. The street followed, with a nonstop flood of unfamiliar characters, dishevelled, spewing Islamist hatred, their fists tight as they chanted slogans about revenge and retribution and promised those brighter tomorrows that become the first line of any discourse in times of power grabs and upheavals. The government, already shaky, could no longer be operative ; Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister appointed by the Shah, went into hiding ; blood started flowing that would never stop.


Unaware that my own family would soon be hit directly by the turn of events, I was, like everyone else, stunned, transfixed. From one day to the next, I found myself stateless, my Iranian passport no longer valid, jobless as I had been the librarian of the Iranian cultural center in Paris, and bereft of Iran, this country which, though not typically and unconditionally belonging to it, I was fond of, at least on principle as one must belong to a corner of this planet we live on.

After a few years of a fight with dim prospects to help rid Iran of the Islamic muck that now covered it, I grew away from it, so gradually that I wasn’t aware of the day when it faded in my mind, the vague changes it underwent scarcely interested me, and its future was no longer my concern.

Nothing tied me any longer to this country now fallen to the level of the least acceptable ones. What had been a grand civilization over centuries and even millenia was now one of the most reviled. The philosophical, mystical, spiritual thought that had influenced the world of reflexion since ancient times had been transformed into incomprehensible gibberish by various « doctors of the law » in turbans, their followers fanatical men as well as a number of women hidden, not always forcibly, under black veils, The war with Irak took place, the repression and the violence in place since day one of the revolution continued, the number of executions became the highest in the world, along with China’s, and shiite Islam which had been or had seemed relatively benevolent turned out to be a formidable tool of hatred and threatening propaganda.

What about today? Iranians who are smart as well as gifted have not allowed themselves to be manipulated back into the dark ages as much as the system would have wished. The arts are thriving, so are talents, Women flock to the university as well as to all professions, including those where they are no longer welcome.

People struggle in the midst of material hardship increased a hundredfold by economic sanctions, unemployment and out-of-control inflation but hold on and ignore the regime or mock it more than they fear it, except when they find themselves under arrest, tortured and even hanged in public depending on the whim of this judge or that religious authority.

As for me, I rarely follow what takes place there. I have no ties left to Iran, the past melts into the mists of time. But we can never eradicate our entire history. It occasionally happens that, as if in a dream, images of what I loved in Iran  surge back unexpectedly. A beautiful farm in north Tehran that belonged to friends of my parents. Other gardens, with century-old trees, countryside landscapes, gurgling mountain streams, and also long drives for hundreds of miles in the deserts in the center of the country. Under deep blue skies, the uniformly beige earth would stop at the walls of a village, fruit trees whispered in the breeze, travellers were greeted with the typical wide smiles of Iranians for whom every guest is honored. In the middle of modest homes would rise the turquoise dome of a mosque belonging to times when religious faith was not an instrument of hatred.

Other moments come to mind. The sound of the ebb and flow of Caspian waves, the light complaint of the musical ney,  the smell of-just watered flowerbeds, all the sounds and scents that the Islamic republic cannot destroy.

It was yesterday or the day before, it was a long time ago.

Dear Jamal,

October 20, 2018 6 comments

You are in my thoughts more than I can express. Everything I read regarding your torture and your terrible murder burns me and makes my heart pound as though it had happened to someone very close, not a person whose existence I wasn’t even aware of until a short while ago.


I suppose it’s only natural. In a world gone completely crazy since the 2016 election of that dangerous clown to the presidency of the U.S., as though the ugly, corrupt and brutal strongmen and women (including Aung San Suu Kyi, alas, yet another illustration that if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely) weren’t enough to commit mass murder, spew racist and bigoted rants, make us doubt our own senses as we follow the news, there were and still are people like you, stalwart, honest, intent on finding and sharing facts. Though aware of the risks of your profession as a journalist when it is exercised with the intention to tell the truth about the vileness overtaking the world, when you find it indispensable to search for truth and see it as your sworn duty to eschew nothing and stress the importance of freedom of speech and expression, you continued, doggedly, on and on.

You knew these people and groups as an insider, from close and direct contact–the ugly piece of work dubbed MBS and, in earlier years, the raving, dangerous Muslim Brotherhood, the murderous Al-Qaeda. You stepped into this mess with eyes wide open, aware of courting disaster every day but still making sure your voice was heard. The journalist in you, bemoaning the lack of freedom in Muslim countries, as you wrote in your columns for the Washington Post, the Arab in you, wishing that Arab countries would some day understand the importance of openness and the right to express oneself, the Muslim in you not giving up the hope that centuries-old mechanisms could be reversed and thought frozen in dogma could open up, led you to bravely continue to openly criticize and offer sane and generous recipes to counter all that poison.

You were so wrong, Jamal, and you suffered so terribly for imagining that hopeless, power-mad individuals and regimes can eventually be susceptible to logic and reason. Or did you think it worth trying despite knowing their exact nature?

Every day, new details emerge of what you went through before dying for your ideals, ideals in retrospect almost ridiculous in view of the ugliness of the world today. But it was not for nothing. I hope it was not for nothing. You soldiered on, you fought, you died for what you believed, as all the brave journalists murdered these last years, knowing the risks and not giving up. Their names should be remembered and honored, from Anna Politkovskaya to Daniel Pearl to James Foley to Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and so many—too many–others.

Myself and people like me, who believe that one day these sacrifices will bear fruit, that not only admirable journalists such as yourself are remembered and vindicated but that you will have contributed to brushing off the world scene scum such as Trump or MBS or others of their ilk, miss you and thank you.

The Lessons of Berlin

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 18.57.27

Not far from the bunker where Hitler and his cronies, Eva Braun, Goebbbels etc. all these hideous nightmarish figures, committed suicide, not far from the German chancery, rises in the Berlin sky a wrought-iron profile of Georg Elser, the young carpenter who in 1939, foreseeing the destruction caused by the war that had just started, made an ill-fated attempt to assassinate Hitler. (Hitler didn’t die, Elser was caught and sent to Dachau where he was shot in 1945, for some reason spared until then.)

Under the avalanche of horrible news–the unconscionable tearing apart of families in the United States, the turning away on European shores of migrants fleeing impossible conditions in their own countries, the reelection of Erdogan whose unlimited new powers can truly crush the Turks and definitely do away with Ataturk’s legacy,  the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy to be replaced by who knows which Trump flunky, corrupt power-crazed strongmen coming to power in too many places we thought safe from extremism, we can only draw comfort from the “this too shall pass” thought. For me, indignant at the start of each day with the news, nothing good or consoling comes to mind as much as a recent visit to Berlin–my first, I’m ashamed to say. Read more…


For a woman, surely, there can’t be many life experiences as dreadful as rape. Even so- called “consensual” sex can be hard to bear when, for work-related or other reasons a woman has to give in to a man in whom she has no interest, in the best of cases, or by whom she is repulsed, in the worse. Think creepy, porcine Weinstein.
But rape, sexual harrasment, abuse, payScreen Shot 2018-05-29 at 10.30.47 inequality, when pay there is–and you can no doubt add to the list–are only some of the indignities or the appalling situations women go through. We have come a long way, I know, we truly have. In most developped countries, mainly in the last century and the present one, the revolting unfairness of many women’s lives has slowly and gradually given way to more awareness, driven the more egregious and untenable sins against women of men and the society on the whole into oblivion or, at the very least, underground. Read more…

Categories: #metoo, Feminism, Science, Society Tags:
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