The Swallow and Her Butterflies

Walking in the city of Berlin on a very rainy day, I was looking for an address of an art gallery. I walked up and down the street where it was supposed to be until I found someone, a young American, who, after consulting his Blackberry, gave me the right street number. Soaked and tired, I put my umbrella down and entered the gallery. “Political Patterns” was the title of the exhibition it featured, containing numerous art works by Middle Eastern artists: art expressed in vivid color, mixing traditional patters with modernist motifs, making bold and anguished statements about war, peace and injustice.

In the corner of the gallery, I finally saw the paintings I had come to see -those by Parastou (whose name means swallow) Forouhar- the ones with the many butterflies and guns, as well as the chess tables. Next to the table where I sat to rest a bit before looking at each individual painting and sketch, I spotted a brochure about the artist. I then went over to the gallery attendant, a young man, and asked him, “Do you know what the story is behind these butterflies?” He said “No, but would you mind telling me?” So I did.

I told him that the word for butterfly in Persian was parvaneh and that once in the land of Cyrus the Great, the ruins of Persepolis and many ancient gardens and palaces, there lived a man, Darisuh and a woman whose name was Parvaneh, in a modest house in southern Tehran. They fought their entire lives for their country, which they loved, hoping that one day they would see the fruit of their labor and taste the sweetness of freedom even after they were sent to prison. But on a sad autumn day in November, their home was invaded, ransacked, and the elderly couple was bludgeoned to death. They were murdered savagely, with dozens of knife stabs. That day will never be forgotten, especially not by their son and daughter. Their parents’ death was the first of what came to be known as the serial murders of 1998, or qatlha-ye zanjireyeh.

Parastou Forouhar, the only daughter of Parvaneh and Dariush, not only has brought the memory of her parents alive with these drawings but also pays homage to other prisoners, men and women in Evin and other Iranian prisons. Inside the butterflies, you can see tiny sketches of prisoners-men and women, prison bars, knifes or daggers. She has also co-authored a book called “Art, life and Death in Iran.”

Her recent book, published in 2011 in Germany, and titled (In The Country in Which My Parents Were Murdered), chronicles the events following the death of her parents. She asks at the beginning of the book: “How can I still love my country where my parents were taken away from me?” Later, reminding her readers that Iran is not just a place where death and martyrdom have overtaken life, she writes: “Iran is not just a country ridden with violence and revenge.” There is more to Iran than what she and many have experienced. For the love of Iran, the country for which her parents lived and died, she still embraces the goodness embodied in its people and its soil. She is not about revenge but wants justice for her parents.

When I called her in Tehran a few days ago, she was at her parents’ house in Hedayat Street, the same house where Dariush and Parvaneh had been stabbed to death, not once, not twice, but 27 times. She is fearless and hopeful that by being there, in the same house where she and her brother Arash spent their childhood amidst tears of joy and of grief, of longing for their father who was in and out of prison for decades under two regimes, she can keep their memory alive.

This year marks the 13th anniversary of their murder.

During a recent visit to the U.S., I had asked Arash, “Is it getting any easier?” His reply was “No, never, it gets harder every year especially as we get closer to the anniversary of their death.”

The following is an excerpt of my interview with Parastou Forouhar:

“We were asked to go to the Ministry of Intelligence the other day and told that if we held any commemorative service in any shape or form, it would have repercussions. We cannot even mourn the death of my parents with friends. These pressures are the same as in previous years. They enforce a total ban and no one is allowed to come to express their condolences. In fact, as in earlier years, the streets leading to my parents’ home will be off-limits. The term they use is “quarantine.” On that day, we are in fact quarantined. Only my immediate family who are already here will remain with me. No one is allowed to enter or leave the house on that day. I have of course voiced my objections and have said repeatedly that this is unfair. It is our right, at the very least, to mourn the death of our loved ones. Their reasoning is that others will take advantage of the situation! That is how they justify it.

-I am not asking for vengeance. I want justice. That is different; my brother and I and my grandmother did not want qesas. We did not want blood for blood. The two people directly implicated in this crime were given life imprisonment and their accomplices received ten years. But I know that those with the ten- year sentence have been released by now (who knows, they may not have even served that long) and I don’t know if the other two are still in prison. But the dossier is now closed. In their view, the court adjourned. The sentences were handed down and the file was shut. That is called justice!

-The book that just came out is a narrative of my twenty-six trips to Iran since the death of my parents. In 200 pages it chronicles six of those trips, not just to try and find answers to my parents’ murder but also present the plight of others, of the many prisoners who are still in prison, even now. I also write about my experiences with the authorities, how I was treated, and my interaction with ordinary people who were sympathetic. I write about the many human rights defenders and lawyers who tried to help us follow the trail. I have tried to write my parents’ story but also the story of overall political repression and persecution in Iran.

-I just want people to remember my parents. In whatever way they can honor them, so that they are not forgotten. Their only crime was that they loved their country. I ask people to remember them on this day and be with us in spirit.

-I have many recollections of my parents. What can I say? Where do I begin? I remember the smile on my mother’s face, her laughter. I remember the tall stature of my father who was a handsome man, enthusiastic and courageous. I remember how our house was always full of people, coming in and out. The doors were always open to the public. They greeted everyone with a smile and with respect.

-I miss their presence and the love they bestowed upon us and their grandchildren.

I just miss them….”

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