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Part 17: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
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Sima Nahan
July 29, 2006

With their mission of destruction

Prophets came to our century.

Ceaseless explosions

And noxious clouds,

Are these echoes of sacred texts?

When you reach the moon --

my friend, my brother, my blood-tie --

Write the history of the massacre of flowers.

Forough Farrokhzad wrote these lines in 1966.

On Sunday, Sept. 20, 1987, Neusha Farrahi, 31, poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire. The act was in protest of the visit of the president of Iran to the United Nations, and occurred in Los Angeles at demonstration against the Iran-Iraq war.

I went to elementary school with Neusha. I remember him as a passionate and conflicted little boy. I remember looking away from him whenever he fixed his knotted gaze at me from behind his blond curls. I never saw him as an adult but knew he had become a left-leaning writer. I suspect that his historical materialism fought a losing battle with his first-hand experience of the way in which history changes nothing. After the fire he was unable to speak and I did not write to him, knowing that he was surrounded with love and attention. I was thinking of his long, painful, and possibly lonely recovery and how his friends’ support would be most useful then. Two weeks later he died.

The picture of Neusha's charred body was on the cover of the New York Post the day after his immolation. This was no serene image of a Buddhist monk in flames, protesting in Vietnam. Neusha lay on the pavement like a crumpled piece of paper. The Los Angeles Times reported the incident with the obscure headline: "Man sets self on fire to protest Iranian's visit." Other "serious" newspapers did not cover the incident, nor the many similar anti-war protests that took place around the country.

Around the same time the captured Iranian sailors on board the Iran Air which was caught laying mines in the Persian Gulf were returned by American authorities to Iran -- despite their cooperation with the Americans in locating the mines, and despite their request for asylum in light of their uncertain fate in Iran after that cooperation. This incident did not capture more than a passing mention tucked away far from the front page in any major newspaper either.

Iran, in spite of all efforts, however desperate or ill-fated, is persistently portrayed via the images that the Islamic Republic determines: blindfolded American hostages, masses of zealous, slogan-spouting "believers," and the dark and mesmerizing eyes of the Imam peering from beneath his permanent frown.

One of the anti-war demonstrations was organized in New York City a week before the visit of the president of Iran to the UN. This was a small, ad-hoc group comprised of opposition activists of the Shah era. With a strong visual impact their only means of capturing a split-second of much-hoped-for television news coverage, the group discussed producing two images: one of an effigy of Khomeini set on fire, and second, a copy of the Koran in flames. The second idea was naturally very controversial. There was fear of offending "true" believers. Although the primary receivers of this image would ideally and realistically be the American public (via the media) and a limited number of people in Iran (via word of mouth) it was difficult to assess the reaction that it would evoke.

But an even more important consideration was the question: "Given the strong bond between the idea of fascism and the image of book-burning, do we think we have the power to sever this connection and link our own book-burning to a message of struggle against Islamic fascism?" Having reached no decision, the group carried both an effigy of Khomeini and a voluminous edition of the Koran to the demonstration. I joined them on that day.

On Sept. 23, while Neusha lay sedated but fully conscious in intensive care, fire was foremost on many of our minds. The idea of book burning, however, finally ruled out, the large Koran sat on the sidewalk in its fluorescent green cover. The plan was to burn the effigy of Khomeini as the pro-Khomeini demonstrators marched down First Avenue past our small group hiding behind makeshift paper face masks. A few minutes before the march New York police informed us that it was not prepared to give us protection against the "seven hundred animals" -- the supporters of the Islamic Republic -- coming our way. With the Hezbollah once again in the spotlight -- this time by managing to bully NYPD -- it was our demonstration permit that was revoked.

Sticks, switch-blades, and broken bottles are the weapons of the Hezbollah in street confrontations. We don't carry these things. We did not stay. THE END
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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