“I don’t think they feel any need to justify their silence. Those with power and authority rarely do, unless under severe pressure.” — Noam Chomsky
Harvard’s Human Cruelty
If Kafka’s The Trial is about the estrangement of man from his liberty and the de-humanization and criminalization of human spirit by the fiat of modern system of criminal justice, then the lesson to be drawn from my similar story of false arrest and imprisonment on purely fictitious and trumped up charges by the campus police at Harvard University is, indeed, how the net of this system has expanded since Kafka’s days, enveloping the larger institutions of civil society, including the academic institutions that, nominally, ought to reflect and nurture the essence of human spirit and, yet, as my case vividly demonstrates, are also apt to clamp down, oppress and repress it, by various methods, often through more subtle, softer and more gentle manners than the outright criminalization of dissent and the resort to vile, naked, and unbounded cruelty.
Reflecting on more than a decade of systematic violation of my civil and human rights by certain hands at Harvard, I have inevitably come to the conclusion that I have suffered and been victimized by a degree of cruelty in some ways worse than animal cruelty. Banned, blacklisted, publicly defamed and robbed of my reputation and human dignity, falsely accused and arrested and jailed and beaten up and brutalized, and then finally beaten in state and federal courts repeatedly after seven long and grueling years of struggling in vain for a token of justice against the perpetrators of incessant cruelty and inhumanity against me at Harvard, that destroyed my job and soon after that my family life, that threw me in abject poverty for years and used its tentacles everywhere to make sure that I am marginalized, etc., I have indeed very legitimate reasons to conclude that Harvard’s human or rather inhuman cruelty toward me is both comparable to and in some ways worse than animal cruelty, for I have been the recipient of a long ordeal of continuous pain and suffering, imposed by the powers that be at Harvard, that has not let up after so many years, an abominable sad story that is, in fact, emotionally difficult to recount and narrate on the paper, as if revisiting a slow-motion horror movie that happens to be real and not fiction, that is past and present, as if I am fated to endure it as long as I live in the United States of America, for the net of my oppression has been cast wide and over the years I have seen so many willing participants, accomplices, of Harvard’s regime of cruelty and oppression against me, that I am led to believe that there may in fact not be an exit from this on-going Kafkasque nightmare at all. It is as I put it in one of my poems, a war time feeling that limps and stumbles, and a heart that is dully bleeding – by the experience of repeat cycles of cruelty, inhumanity, and injustice visited upon me by the agents of that venerable institution and the halls of justice in America. Above all, it is the supremely bitter experience of forced marginalization and the brutal rape of my human dignity, considered a human rights by the UN Charter.
Thou shall not respect his human dignity, crucify him, that was the message delivered to Joseph K. in Kafka’s nightmarish story – that seems every bit relevant, similar or parallel to the ordeal I have suffered in the hands affiliated with Harvard years after years, both before and especially after my wrongful pre-dawn arrest in January 1996.
The complete dismantling of Kaveh Afrasiabi
Within days, weeks, and months that followed my arrest, I would witness a systematic dismantling of my universe and nearly everything that I cherished in my life – work, reputation, marriage, income, savings, a shelter above my head, etc. In a word, I would be reduced to naught, for all practical purposes destroyed and kicked to the curb for good. But, to be accurate about it, I should say there were hard “kicks,” in plural, since the blows came in rapid sequences, piling on top of each other, each one adding to the severity of the previous one, this one introducing infamy, that one homelessness, another the news that my newly-published book was suddenly “out of print” for obvious reasons, another outright pennilessness and the attendant misery of even hunger and starvation, and so on and so forth, inevitably making me feel like I had descended into the vortex of a Kafkasque nightmare, a dark and deep well of nothingness from which at times it seemed impossible to recover.
Labeled as a criminal “extortionist,” accused by a woman whom I had never seen or even heard of, who had nonetheless identified my photo available to them at Harvard’s Center For Middle East Studies since my days there as a post-doctoral research fellow, I took my place among the inmates at my new home, East Cambridge County Jail, initially like a temporary and unexpected glory, still hoping and expecting a quick end to this whole episode. I was up for a rude awakening.
“Hey you. Afrasiabi. You were just mentioned on TV. You’re famous,” a prison guard watching the local evening news from the watch room yelled within hours of my arrival.
“Really?! What did they say?” I asked.
“They said you’re an Iranian professor extorting and threatening to kill a girl at Harvard,” he answered with a grin on his face and then asked me, “that’s you, Kaveh Afrasiabi, rights?” As usual, every one had a tough time pronouncing my name.
”Yes, that’s my name. What station?”
It would turn out that the local CBS-affiliate television and radio station was the only one broadcasting the news of my arrest several times all day. The print media followed suit the next day, and both the city’s main newspapers, Boston Globe and Boston Herald, featured reports about “Iranian professor charged with extortion.” In both cases, my story had been assigned to the “news brief” section, which summarized in a few essential words the following: that I had been arrested by Harvard police pursuant to a warrant citing five counts of extortion and making death threats, that I was “alleged” to have extorted $250 from a girl at Harvard, unidentified, on two occasions, and that I was being kept in jail without bail until further hearing.
Funny thing, a few months later, when I was cleared of any wrongdoing and all the charges were dropped against me, both newspapers would demote me to student and in their news brief section write that “extortion charges dropped on Iranian student.” Between the two, I was more upset at Boston Globe, which had published several oped articles by me prior to my arrest and, naturally, because of that and the paper’s “liberal” credential, I expected a modicum of objectivity and lack of bias on their part, more than the more conservative and right-wing Boston Herald. That was not to be, and three years later, when I was on the offensive and brought the culprits to a jury trial in the federal court in Boston, to my dismay I would find Boston Globe completely on the side of the defendants, so much so that after the trial I was forced to institute a law suit against the Boston Globe and dropped it only after the editors agreed to write a “correction” about their inaccurate report of the “Harvard trial” more than six months later! Indeed, such was, and still is, the nature of my Kafkasque experience in the Harvard ‘country’ that is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that deals with not only Harvard but also nearly all the major institutions and branches of government in this state including the media, the legislative branch, etc.
Back in January 1996, when I was getting acquainted with the state’s penal system, I would taste Harvard’s cruelty indirectly as well as directly, in the excessively rude, rough, physical behavior of the guards who seemed every bit instructed to make life miserable on me, in one case beating me when I refused to go to the initial bail hearing as long as they would not give me my suit that Sylvia had dropped off for me, and forcing me constantly to do menial work in the toilette and the kitchen. They were on a mission to break my spirit inside while the Harvard detective and his partners at Harvard’s general counsel’s office worked feverishly to achieve this from the outside – with breakneck speed and, sad to say, success.
“Man charged with extortion”
This was the headline of Harvard Crimson on January 18th, next to an oversize photo of a Harvard police cruiser. More elaborate than the news briefs in Boston Globe or Herald, the front page report of “serious threat to kill by Afrasiabi” who had “several aliases and numerous addresses” was aptly calculated to inflict the maximum damage. It quoted a Harvard spokesperson congratulating the Harvard police their “professionalism” and a Harvard police officer stating that “this was a cloak and dagger investigation that took several months….he had numerous aliases and several addresses.” No mention that I was a college professor or a former post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, simply a “man,” a criminal on the loose who had conveniently sent a letter to his victim and apologized for extorting from her, call it self-incrimination.
Of course it was all lies and later, when I would put detective Mederos under two days of video-deposition and then a day and a half of cross-examination in the federal court, in my civil rights action, Afrasiabi versus Harvard University, et all, the cocky detective would openly admit that he had my address, where I had lived continuously for the previous five years, from day one of his “investigation.” The trial transcript reflects that I asked Mederos how he got my address and he answered that he went to the Center For Middle East Studies and they had it “in their record.” “And what address did they give you?” “10 Chase street in Newton.” He couldn’t lie. I had done diligent discovery and that was the address in a form at the Harvard center.
“So you had Afrasiabi’s home address from day one of your investigation, am I correct?”
”Can you then explain why you told Harvard Crimson that the investigation took several months because Afrasiabi had “several addresses” and it was a “cloak and dagger investigation?”
”I don’t know why.”
”Isn’t the real reason sir, because you were out to get Afrasiabi at any price and you wanted to smear him as best as you could, isn’t that the real reason?” Naturally he would deny that. He would also deny that he had written the extortion and death threat notes attributed to me, even though two hand-writing experts had matched the two writings, his notes of the “investigation” with the extortion notes, and had put their findings in a letter to the court, which initially allowed and then excluded their testimony and finding as this would “blow the case apart,” to quote the federal judge’s initial reaction recorded in the trial transcript. Harvard was not to be blemished, no matter how serious its transgressions. The sacred institution was for all practical purposes above law, what a travesty.
Someone had dropped off a copy of Harvard Crimson for me and, reading it in my cell the first time, I tried to imagine the festive atmosphere at Harvard police and the impending ceremony of bestowing decorations and, who knows, even promotions for detective Mederos and his friends involved in the “investigation.” It turned out I was right and despite being cleared of all charges, and irrespective of the fact that Mederos and other Harvard police officers would go to a jury trail in a federal court, competently charged with conspiracy to frame me with trumped up charges, they would all receive promotions, as if none of the stigma of their trial by a pro se attorney, me, or the damning evidence that they had concocted the whole crime story to destroy me mattered the least to the higher ups at Harvard. In a Kafkasque universe the villains who squeeze the life out of their helpless individual victims are the wheels, the clubs and repressive arms, of the system, ripping the reward of their hierarchy that acknowledges efficiency.
And efficient they were, perhaps exceeding themselves in their effort to accomplish a complete, fundamental, uprooting and destruction of my name, my reputation in the community, academia and beyond, a mission they pursued with zeal and energy and without a moment’s waste.
“Two Harvard gentlemen from their police department were here this morning and asked about you.” That was from an associate dean at my university the very next day, who called me in jail and instantly added, “they were just inquiring if you taught here and I told them you were, you are, that’s all.” I could see that his slip to the past tense was not entirely accidental. They, Mederos and company, were “inquiring” all right. In addition to University of Massachusetts, they had also gone to Boston University and Northeastern University, i.e., places I had taught at in the past, ostensibly to “inquire” about me, a convenient veneer to spread their venom and to defame me by letting every one know that I was rutting in jail as an ‘extortionist,” a serious crime that could put me in jail for several years.
”This is really not good Dr. Afrasiabi. While we are sure you are innocent and this misunderstanding will be cleared soon, we are nonetheless concerned about the students and the dean has decided to give your courses to another instructor,” the associate dean dropped the bombshell on me and then threw in the comforter that I would be paid for the whole semester. Hanging up the phone, I had tears in my eyes.
And then came the news from our landlord who, sure enough, had been visited by Harvard police, who simply wanted to “inquire” about me, letting him know that “five, six police cruisers were at the house” according to the landlord, who was adamant that we were in violation of our lease and needed to move out by the end of the month. We didn’t, couldn’t, which only meant a couple of months delay as he went to court and procured an eviction order against us. “What are we going to do Kaveh?” I watched tears falling down Sylvia’s eyes just about each time she came to visit me in jail, each time being the bearer of more bad news.
One that was particularly agonizing for me was an abrupt letter by an editor at the University of Texas Press informing me that they were no longer interested in publishing my doctoral dissertation, on state and populism in the Middle East. That brief one liner had the effect of being like the straw that broke a camel’s back, aggravating my already despairing mood into a new depth of anger and frustration; after all, the editor’s previous letter had congratulated me for the glowing reaction of two outside readers, one being the historian Feroz Ahmad, who had heartily recommended that my 500 plus pages dissertation should see the light of publication. The news of my disgrace to the bottom of the pit had traveled fast and piling on top of this awful news would soon be an equally devastating news, from my publisher at Westview Books, declaring “out of print” my recently published book on Iran’s foreign policy (favorably reviewed in both the Middle East Journal and International Journal of Middle East Studies).
Once out of the jail on a bail, I made it a top priority to contact the Westview and plead with them to reconsider their decision but to no avail. I was told that “someone” had faxed them the newspaper articles about my arrest, even though the editor who worked with me insisted that their decision to call the book “out of print” had nothing to do with it. I then wanted to know if I could receive some copies of the book for my personal use and she told me no, that they were “out of stock” and whatever book they had on their shelf had been “removed.”
“Please, I beg you to reconsider. You don’t know how much this hurts me. I spent a solid four years on that book and you read the glowing reviews, didn’t you?” It was futile. Much as she liked me and my scholarly style, the Westview editor also knew that in light of the scandalous arrest on serious criminal charges I had become a liability to them and it was best for the publishing house to cut all ties with me.
“I hope you always remember this conversation and remember that I asked you not to cater to my unconscionable enemies at Harvard who have subjected me to a vicious character assassination. But I promise you there is justice in this country and I will get justice.”
”I hope so Kaveh – for every one’s sake,” those were her final words. She would never bother to call me back again, knowing too well that I was persisting with asking her for an impossible request — from an academic pariah, who was equally shunned by fellow colleagues in Middle East studies.
Thus the comparison between my presence at the 1996 annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association with the previous year, when I was part of two high-profile sessions and widely praised by a number of scholars for my new “pioneering” book on Iran’s foreign policy, which back cover carried a blurb by the well-known historian, Ervand Abrahamian, praising it as a “must read for scholar and policy-makers.” But, at the 1996 conference, Abrahamian would not even acknowledge my friendly hello when we saw each other at a book exhibit and treat me like a complete persona non grata; sadly, he was not alone, and I was the recipient of similar cold shoulders by a number of other Iranian and Middle East scholars, who were regular guest speakers at Harvard’s Middle East center.
“How can these intellectuals justify their silence?” I once asked Noam Chomsky and he wrote back: “I don’t think they feel any need to justify their silence. Those with power and authority rarely do, unless under severe pressure.”
”It is not fair to blame a victim and mistreat me like this,” I finally protested to a couple of them, again to no avail. But at least one of them professor Mohsen Milani, who once shared office with me at Harvard, had the decency of coming forward and saying hello and expressing regret about the bad news, at the same time letting me know that I had to be realistic and understand that my career as a political scientist “is over.”
“Thank you for your concern. I beg to differ however.” But I could not help at least pausing on Mohsen’s other comment that “these people from Harvard are like snakes with a long reach, and anywhere you go to work they will come and poison you, just watch, sorry to break it to you.”
It would turn out that somehow he knew more about these things than I did, as I would soon discover yet another dimension of this ‘twilight zone’, that is, the rapid spread of the poisonous cloud of smear and controversy hovering my head that would terminate a number of chances I came to have to recuperate academically, one being at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., where its vice-president, David Mack, a graduate of Harvard’s Center for Middle East Studies and a personal friend of my chief nemesis there, would unilaterally cancel my one-year scholarship only a week before I was to commence my duties there as a visiting scholar, when I had already gone through the chore of finding and relocating to an apartment in the capital city. In exchange for a pitiful sum to cover the moving expenses, I signed a paper with the Institute promising not to apply for a position there or step foot inside it, a promise I would keep even though I would go on and publish a seminal article in their flag journal, on the environmental movement in Iran, shortly thereafter. Like Harvard, the Middle East Institute would prove incapable of my intellectual entry simply by banning me physically.
Recently, per my request, professors Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn wrote letters of concern to the Middle East Institute and asked for clarification for the grounds on which I had been denied the scholarship and banned from there.
Chomsky’s letter reads as follows:
” I am writing to express my concern about the abrupt withdrawal of Dr. Kaveh Afrasiabi’s Fellowship at the Institute. I have followed Dr. Afrasiabi’s work for some years, with interest and appreciation. His commentaries appear regularly in major media. He has published many informative articles and reviews, including some in the Middle East Journal. I understand that he has also lectured at the Institute. His expert knowledge of Iran is particularly pertinent at the present moment, needless to say. I know that there have been past conflicts involving Dr. Afrasiabi and the Middle East department at Harvard, but whatever the issues may have been, I presume it would be agreed that they have no bearing on the MEI Fellowship. I hope the decision to rescind the Fellowship will be reconsidered, and that Dr. Afrasiabi will be able to pursue his work at the Institute.
Institute Professor (emeritus)
Historian Howard Zinn’s letter to the Middle East Institute, under the title “fairness,” is as follows:
“I’ve learned from Kaveh Afrasiabi that his Fellowship to the Middle East Institute was withdrawn a week before it was to begin. It seems that the reason for withdrawal has nothing to do with his qualifications but rather his past conflict with Harvard. If true, this seems to me a grossly unfair action. Dr. Afrasiabi is an accomplished scholar, widely published, and he deserves to be judged on his merits. Any extraneous factors should not be allowed to interfere. I would appeal to you to reconsider the decision, and to reinstitute his Fellowship.
Professor Emeitus, Boston University”
Neither the Institute’s president nor its vice-president, David Mack, would bother to acknowledge their email and send any response. And, indeed, what could they say in their own defense? Yes, we have banned Afrasiabi and reversed our decision on the scholarship because it happens that Afrasiabi’s ardent enemy at Harvard, Roy Mottahedeh, is on the Institute’s advisory board? I doubted that even the Harvardite Mack would find that “ethical” and “proper.” In a Kafkasque universe there is, after all, an imposing façade of doing things according to the rules, of being “proper,” and, yet, this as a thinly-disguised veil for a regime of intimidation (of dissent) and homogenization and conformism.
The setback at the Middle East Institute, which leadership chose to renege on their written notice of scholarship with me and risk even a legal backlash than to open their door to me, was simply yet another item on an ever growing list of negative short and long-term fallouts from my false arrest, altogether convincing me that unless I was able to bring the perpetrators of the unconscionable crime to court and to expose their malicious violation of my human rights, I would be digging my own grave in the professional and academic world. This was not an easy decision and would mean several years of sacrifice, hardship, and endurance, only to be matched by a ceaseless double standard in prejudicial courts — where I would wound up as a complainant and detective Mederos, professor Mottahedeh, and his two subordinates, Alavi and Shobhana Rana, as defendants. But, before I was able to turn the table on Harvard and to dig an exit from the Kafkasque nightmare they had hatched for me, the first step was to overcome the unenviable ordeal of jail and to steer clear of the outrageous charges they had pinned on me with utmost cruelty >>> Chapter 4