Interview with Daryush Shokof

With my camera and dictaphone in my bag, I’m on my way to an interview with Daryush Shokof. I hope to get answers from him; answers about the uncertainties and doubts the people in this city – and especially the Iranian citizens – are confronted with.

It’s a warm and sunny day, and I’m caught up in a traffic jam for quite some time. During the ride I think of who might have been behind Shokof’s kidnapping or how many people might have been involved. And I think of the kidnappings carried through by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the 1980s and 1990s, when more than 100 followers of the Iranian opposition were kidnapped and murdered worldwide. We all remember the terrorist attacks on several Iranian oppositionists in the Mikonos Restaurant in Berlin. Or the attack on an Iranian pilot in Hamburg who was an opponent of the Tehran regime, and the murder of an Iranian artist in his apartment in Bonn.

I try to shake these thoughts off and move on to the last time I met the Iranian director Daryush Shokof at the Berlinale film festival in 2009. He was very spirited and spoke enthusiastically about Iranian cinema and was critical to the festival’s acceptance of the movies produced by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I arrive at the agreed place, it is a café in Porz-Markt in Cologne. Two plainclothes policemen are sitting at the table next to ours. Further bodyguards aren’t far.

I see Daryush, with a grey beard, weak and powerless. He is quiet and looks skinny. No sign at all of his former spirit, which I knew from the festival. He orders me a coffee and we start with the interview.

I say “Daryush, tell me what has happened. Where have you been? Do you remember?”

Before he answers to my question he gives sincere thanks for the support that was given to him worldwide during his kidnapping. He is deeply touched by the fact that – as he puts it – an “unimportant person” like him has received so much help. He especially thanks Germany for the protection he gets from German police and for the freedom and the human rights he has experienced.

Then Daryush begins to answer my question.

“Usually it’s hard for me to remember date and periods of time, but I do remember that it must have happened between seven and eight p.m. at the Friesenplatz in Cologne. I was sitting on a bench in a quiet spot. Some elderly gentleman was sitting at the other end of the bench. I was in thoughts. A few meters away from me an oriental looking young man was talking loudly into his mobile phone. I was waiting for a friend. A car approached and stopped across the street.

Shortly after that the young man approached and sat down next to me on the bench. He was speaking Arabic. Suddenly I felt a pointed object being pushed against me and I heard him say in German: “Mach mit!” (Join in!)

At first I thought this must have been a bad joke, because it was so unimaginable. But he kept pushing harder, so I realized that he was holding a weapon in his hand and he repeated, this time louder, that I should join in. I was pushed to the car. Two persons got out of the car, one of them was opening the door and I got in, the other one got in from the other side. I was sitting in the middle of them. They quickly blindfolded me and taped my mouth.”

Why didn’t you scream for help?

“It’s not comprehensible at all; it was like in a motion picture. It was just a few seconds and when you’re not prepared for something like this, you don’t believe what is happening. I think we were driving for about 40 minutes or maybe an hour and they took me to a place where I had to step down some stairs. I think it was something like a cellar. The elderly man was speaking English with an Arabic accent. He told me ‘Daryush, you have insulted us and Islam. You are against Islam and you made a film in which you insult Islam and Khomeini’.

I said ‘let me tell you that I am not against Islam. And what is happening in Iran is not Islamic and my film is not anti-Islamic, but dissident.’

We started to debate the matter, and he soon realized that I was neither fanatic, nor was I a dissident. Then he realized that I am advocating freedom and that I am against a regime which suppresses this freedom. We debated for quite a long time. Then they brought Pizza and asked me what I would like to drink. I thought water would be the most secure and best. So I said I would like some water. But the water tasted somehow sweet and bitter. And every time I drank the water, I got weak and fell asleep. Even the tea I drank had this taste, and I had the same symptoms.”

Who, in that moment, did you think these people were?

“I thought they were Arabs. Why would four Iranians talk Arabic, it wouldn’t have made any sense. They were talking on the phone all the time, obviously they were getting instructions.”

Were you blindfolded at that time?

“I was blindfolded all the time, until I was released.”

Did they torture or beat you?

“No, not at all. But the younger men were aggressive and I think if the older one hadn’t been there, they would have killed me. There were always two people present and I had to sleep on the ground. These two people always slept on a bench. But after a while one of them let me sleep on the bench and slept on the ground himself.”

How come they released you?

“They brought me to the car and gave me that water. I was blindfolded and my mouth was taped again. I think we were riding on the highway, because the car was driving straight all the time and didn’t turn left or right or brake. We were riding for like an hour, and then they stopped somewhere and pulled me out. I walked a few minutes on solid ground. Then the man asked me for the last time, if I had understood what he wanted from me. ‘If you publish “Iran Zendan” (Iran’s Prison), we will kill you. If you have understood, then nod.” I nodded. Then he told the others that they should take me. One of them led me to a spot which seemed to me like a hill, next to a river. Then he removed the tape from my mouth and said he would throw me into the water. Then he took off the blindfold and immediately threw me into the water.”

Was the water deep?

“I was intoxicated by whatever it was they gave me. When I was thrown into the water my feet touched the ground so I knew it couldn’t have been too deep. I swam and got to this hill which was two or three meters high. Then I waited a few minutes and went along something like a dark forest track. I walked a few minutes and then I saw a light. I veered toward the light. There was a building and I heard voices. I went up to the building. When I climbed two or three steps, I fainted.”

And then you called for help in English, is that correct?

“Yes, I told the people there in English my name was Shokof and that I had been kidnapped. Then the ones who had heard me called the police and I was brought into a hospital, where I am still under medical treatment. Four days I was in hospital. I have stomach problems and I suffer from sickness.”

What did the checkup show?

“They don’t know which kind of poison they gave me, yet. I’m not allowed to cut my hair until they can find out through hair analysis what kind of poison it was.”

Daryush, who do you think is behind this kidnapping? Could it be the secret service of the Islamic Republic?

“I cannot tell, but it’s possible that they were followers of the regime or Islamic fanatics. Even today there are quarters in Berlin, where a woman can’t go out safely without a headscarf. Those people have created situations like these. You can’t criticize Islamic fanaticism and you can’t conduct a dialogue with a young Islamic fanatic in Berlin. You just can’t talk to these people.”

What did you experience during that time?

“I would like to tell you two nice experiences I have made in that bitter time: In the last four days I found out that during my kidnapping over 500 million people from different countries were worried about my well-being, although I am just a small person working in the cultural field. But if those faces of the Islamic Republic who consider themselves big and strong vanished for only 14 minutes, then, believe me, 80 million Iranians would be joyful for the next 14.000 years. And nobody would miss them.”

“These things make us stronger and confirm we’re doing the right thing. I am planning to give the whole film “Iran Zendan” to the institute “Schutz für Daryush Shokof” (Protection for Daryush Shokof) for free; and I want them to publish it on their website, so that all the people in the world can watch it.”

What do you expect from the German government to do for the Iranian opposition?

“I am forever thankful for what the German government has done for me, for the freedom and the humane system, which really cares for its people. I don’t have any problems with the German government, but I always had problems with the cinema system. It is from the political system in Germany that I have learned to understand and pursuit freedom. I beg and wish from the German government to support exiled Iranian oppositionists and take the side of the people instead of a criminal regime like Iran’s. In Iran people get killed because of their desire of freedom, and their murderers travel grinning into the west and are even cordially received.”

Don’t you plan to film your kidnapping?

“Interesting indeed you’re mentioning it now. My friends proposed that as well. I am thinking about it and it could become a good and enlightening work, but first I need to gain some distance to what actually happened.”

What happened to your mobile phone and your documents you were carrying with you?

“They took everything from me. I don’t have them anymore.”

As we are coming to an end, is there anything you would like to comment?

“I want to thank everyone sincerely who supported me. Tomorrow, at the anniversary of the Iranian liberation movement I greet my fellow countrymen who stand up for freedom and peace, and I really regret that I am not able to take part in the demonstration in Cologne. But I greet everybody and my heart is with all the Nedas and Sohrabs.”

Thank you very much for the interview.

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