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Pedram Moallemian with Ebrahim Nabavi (right).

No way back
Ebrahim Nabavi is confident about the reform movement

By Pedram Moallemian
May 3, 2000
The Iranian

This article was first published in listen to the audio, click here: (Part 1) (Part 2)

Whether you agree with his point of view or not, there is no doubt that Ebrahim Nabavi has single handedly brought back a long tradition of political satire to the Iranian print media.

His daily commentaries under various titles -- Sotoon-e Panjom, Sotoon-e Chaharom, Chehel Sotoon, Bi-Sotoon, to name a few -- in newspapers such as Toos, Neshat, Asr-e Azadegan (all now banned) are perhaps the most popular section of all these papers. His column sells loads of papers. And even outside Iran, his writings are widely read on the Internet.

Nabavi holds back no punches and shoots straight from the hip. Considering the limitations he faces, he gets away with much more than others by using comedy to discuss some very serious subjects. He is not vulgar or insulting, but finds humor in some of the most mundane events in Iranian political life and exposes the hypocrisy of those in power.

He quotes a fellow co-worker, "maybe a cartoonist", that a satirist should show the true face of politicians who so desperately try to portray a false image. He is vague on many details but has a good excuse for it: he has been brought to court many times, arrested and jailed. Now he says he can't comment on some things any further "because I'm flying back to Iran in 10 days or so."

When asked why he chose to write political satire, he was quick to point out that he always wonders why others don't write political satire also. After all, "how many countries can you name where the president is also the leader of the opposition?"

Ebrahim Nabavi was in Toronto in response to an invitation from Shahrvand publication and Vazhe cultural group. It was his first public appearance outside Iran. Even back home, he participated in a similar kind of meeting only once. The Canadian program was organized weeks before the recent closure of his current paper (Asr-e Azadegan) and the arrest of some of his colleagues, Akbar Ganji, Latif Safari and his Editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin.

Sunday night (April 30), he spoke in University of Toronto to a room packed with over 1,000 eager listeners. Probably more fire regulations had be broken to allow people to sit in every corner of the large auditorium and even on the corridor floor. Still, many were turned away disappointed, unable to get in. Organizers promised them a second "show" for Friday, May 16th.

The evening started with artists of the Vazhe group performing some of his sketches. After that Hassan Zerehi, the editor of Shahrvand introduced his guest. A small man with a grand moustache that reminds many of the 60's era radicals, Nabavi is sharp, funny, witty and calculating. He answered questions like a seasoned politician. He avoided sensitive subjects by either reminding that he is returning in to Iran, or by using his wonderful sense of humor to maneuver around touchy questions.

Nabavi said much more with his silence, body language and tone of voice than anyone can expect. He told the sound person who was adjusting the microphones that "if you add one more microphone, I'll look like Hashemi Rafsanjani." It was one of his many comments that caused a thunderous laugh from the audience. He also got several huge ovations.

The so-called leftist extremists who were proud to have disrupted the Berlin conference last month were also present. They even managed to bring in new faces from as far away as Sweden. Their presence was a non-issue to most. Many of them had to leave the room to show their frustrations outside the hall.

Many of the leftists who got a chance to ask questions chose instead to present passionate speeches that in one way or another ended in insulting the crowd, the speaker or his other colleagues. One after another they left the hall after the cold reception from the crowd.

After the program, I got a chance to talk with Nabavi one-on-one over a savory dinner at a Persian restaurant. It's hard not to like him, as he comes across as very humble, yet passionate, clever and sharp.

He showed me samples of his new book that will be published shortly in both French and English. It's a sample of some his best work put together in an attractive layout which combines his words with marvelous graphics done by a brilliant artist in Iran. He also has a web site under construction.

I asked if he was worried about returning to Iran since he could face arrest again. He was convinced that it was "his duty" to go back and write because people demand it. He is also convinced that the "2nd of Khordad" movement is such an enormous popular development that in no way could it be stopped or set back. "The purveyors of violence will try all they can; they will harass and issue warrants, but even they know their end is near."

A day earlier, someone in Montreal asked Nabavi if he was a religious man. He answered with a resounding YES! Then he added "I believe very strongly in a religion called Democracy." At the University of Toronto the questions were more general. Somebody asked if it is true that Rafsanjani is now known in Tehran as "Aghaa--si", or Mr. 30, referring to his 30th place finish in the last election. Nabavi just nodded his head in approval.

Perhaps most surprising was the lack of grave concern for the recent media crackdown. In Nabavi's analysis, "they" needed to conduct the second round of the elections without any "interference" from the outspoken press. In fact he believed the law they used in order to obtain temporary bans does not even apply to the press. He was certain that after the run-off Majlis elections and another expected setback for the hardliners, all papers will return.

He also said: "Besides, all the papers have a back-up license to publish another paper if these current licenses are removed." When pushed, he also acknowledged that in the worst-case scenario, the Internet can also be used more extensively to reach the people.

I asked him why was it that when Salam was closed last summer, the students took to the streets, but now it all seems much more quiet. He saw this as the "maturing" of the student movement. "They (hard liners) want disruption, they want chaos, they want to go to the outgoing Majlis and start an impeachment process because the president has showed he is unable to run the country," he said.

Nabavi added, "Our Asr-e Azadegan offices are probably 200 meters from Jame-Jam (state television building). One day we heard there was a demonstration planned to protest the role of state television in the current unrest. We knew it wasn't true. There was no demonstration planned by anyone. They started the rumor themselves hoping some will show up and then they can turn it into something other than what it was. They need the commotion to continue their hold on power, but we are much wiser now."

Nabavi is a staunch supporter of the current non-violent reform movement. He strongly believes that a government who comes to power by force will inevitably turn violent. He points to a history of political upheaval in Iran as proof. "Only through a process of dialogue and non-confrontational contest can true democracy be established," he said.

Perhaps the sad part is that due to the non-existence of any other democratic alternatives, his way is perhaps not only the best way but the only way.


Pedram Moallemian was the first Iranian nominated for a seat in Canada's Federal Parliament when he ran for New Democratic Party in a suburb of Toronto in 1997. A former President of the Iranian Community Association of Ontario, he currently works with many non-profit groups and is the volunteer director of CIRCLE (Canadian Iranian Centre for Liberty & Equality), an advocacy human rights organization.

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