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Making a hero
Heroes are neither self-selected nor eternal

By Ali Akbar Mahdi
November 27, 2000
The Iranian

The trials of Akbar Ganji and Ebrahim Nabavi in the Islamic Republic of Iran have caused many Iranians to reflect on the political and personal characters of these two political prisoners. Numerous articles have surfaced in the Iranian press abroad, including two features in The Iranian, "Dictators create heroes","Defiance vs.regret".

Such articles concentrate our attention on the implications of these trials for the reformist movement, the future of reform in Iran, and the personalities and modalities of resistence by political activists. In his "mea culpa," Nabavi denounces his writings as unfair and angry characterization of individuals and institutions in the Islamic Republic and expresses the desire not to be viewed as a "hero", since Iran "does not need heroes" anymore. He expresses the desire to be a good citizen dedicated to the revolution, the Velayat-e Faqih (the rule of supreme jurisprudent), the regime, and Islam.

Several writers, including the authors of the two articles in The Iranian, have come to the conclusion that Nabavi and Mohammad Quchani have broken down under pressure during their incarceration and have changed their political views. Comparing Nabavi and Ganji's appearances in the courtroom, Amirali Baniasadi argues that Nabavi's humorous appearance "seems to rule out any chances of depression and confusion on his part." Thus, he concludes that Nabavi "abandoned his assumed position as a 'hero.'"

While these comparisons and contrasts are worthwhile and helpful in understanding the dynamics involved here, they do not account for the subtleties involved in political activism and social change. Certainly, the circumstances and forces shaping these trials will have serious implications for the reformist movement, historical trends, and any historiography of Iranian heroes and villains. However, Nabavi's confession and Quchani's remorseful statements should not diminish the value of their contributions in exposing the dark side of the Islamic Republic. If they ever were anybody's heroes, they need not be dropped from the list simply because of their so-called confessions.

Heroes are neither self-selected nor eternal. Extraordinary behavior or posturing may bring someone quick recognition as a hero. However, such an honor may be taken away as quickly as it was granted. Being a hero is an ephemeral reality. It is a quality defined by and residing in the minds of others, rather than by and with the hero himself/herself. One may wish to be a hero but there is no office to which one applies. Neither is there a central authority with the power to take away such a status if granted by public opinion.

Surely, communication technology and mass media have become important tools for shaping public opinion and helping someone's cause and fortune in the eyes of the public. Such manipulation of the public mind can be successful when there are enough grievances and issues of concern.

Making a hero out of Gholamreza Karbaschi was a case in point. Karbaschi was persecuted because he had helped President Khatami's election, thus challenging the clerical establishment. The public sided with him because he was seen as a victim. His defiance, helped by the well-orchestrated machinery of the Second Khordaad Front, brought him a short-lived heroic status. Such a conditional status lasted as long as those conditions that gave rise to that status remained in effect. Once the machinery and those conditions were gone, so was the status.

Until two weeks ago, when Ebrahim Nabavi's penance note was published in Kayhan, no official source had declared him a hero. The publication of that note and the fact that his captors forced him to pen those specific words, trying to discourage the Iranian youth from heroic activism, indicate that in fact people like Nabavi and Ganji have acquired heroic status in public mind. That is why those captors set themselves the task of undoing that stature.

As long as Nabavi and his friends fought for democracy, exposed the inadequacy and inconsistency of the regime's conservative policies, and championed the people's interests, the Iranian people might have regarded them as heroes. Their heroism served as a threat to those authorities against whom these journalists gained notoriety and recognition. In order words, public recognition of Nabavi or Ganji as heroes remains conditional on their actions and perceived principles.

The fact that Nabavi and Quchani have shown remorse and are trying to free themselves from further debilitating prison conditions does not change anything in this affair. Individuals have a right to choose their battles as much as we have a right to judge their performance or view them as we wish.

Still, I see all three individuals engaging in activism of a higher order - actions that involve life and death decisions and cause tremendous pain to themselves and their families. Certainly, their reactions to imprisonment are quite different from one another. But do not quickly write off Nabavi's or Quchani's public activism.

Nabavi gained popularity as a result of his satirical writings, in which he exposed the contradictions of both the ideology and practices of the conservative faction in the Islamic Republic. His latest "confession" is a second act and is not the end of his political activism. Did forced confessions by Reza Barahani and Ali Shariati during the Pahlavi period end their political activism, and our respect for their fight against dictatorship? These confessions should be viewed in light of a long resistance process and as a sign of the regime's further brutality rather than its victims' weak resolve.

Furthermore, reading the accounts of Nabavi's trials, I have come to the conclusion quite the opposite of his secular critics. Some see Nabavi as a remorseful prisoner giving up his ideals for freedom and writing his own political obituary. However, I see Nabavi's letter to Kayhan as a typical penance note ("Gohkhordam Naameh" or "Naameh-ye Ghalatkardam" as it is commonly known among political prisoners and activists) written by a tortured political prisoner.

The fact that this letter is written by a person in prison is sufficient evidence to disqualify it as a genuine repentance. Certainly Nabavi decided to go along with his captors and write a statement denouncing his past deeds and thoughts in order to reduce his pain and gain freedom from torture, solitary confinement, and an intellectual mortification. But he has done so under duress, and in extremely harsh prison conditions. The fact that Kayhan, whose affiliation with the country's security apparatus is well known, printed this note is enough evidence that the same people who obtained confessions from former political prisoners in the 1980s have also orchestrated this affair.

Nabavi's court behavior leaves no doubt that he is engaged in a theatrical resistance to his captors by trying to make the whole affair look like a farce. His sarcasm and sharp tongue break the rigidity of the court rituals and penetrates into his captors' convoluted minds. Reports indicate that everyone in the court, even the judge and prosecutor, were in laughter as Nabavi talked. Evoking laughter in dreadful places, as these courts are, is not an easy task and was not done with a vain purpose. Nabavi made a mockery of the court by changing the discourse and getting his captors to laugh at the rules they had set for him. Read these accounts and judge them yourself (*):

Nabavi at the start of his defense:

"First, I am thankful for the tolerance and leniency shown to me by the prosecutor. If you had appointed me as my own prosecutor, I would have dealt with this misguided Nabavi in such a way that he would leave the prison for Beheshte Zahraa [cemetery] with all his hairs gone, his beard turned gray, and a wooden cane in his hand. I congratulate the Judiciary for this tolerance and leniency and hope that the Almighty will forgive all my sins. It is interesting that we were searching for tolerance and leniency in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, while it could be found in the Judiciary."

Further, he elaborates what has happened to him and how he has come to the conclusions he had stated in his penance note:

"Moral Conclusion: People, specially satirists, try to blame others for their troubles. But, then we were imprisoned. In prison, I had been treated very well by my interrogators and guards. Of course, to my knowledge prison conditions have improved a lot, as previous prisoners have stated this. I, as a traitor to the people, alienated, debased, rejected, and so on state fully that I have not been treated violently. And of course, the responsibility is with the messenger [the last sentence was stated in Arabic].

In the prison, I had a lot of time for assessing my self, my behaviors, and my writings. I had meetings with several thoughtful interrogators and experts who knew a lot about politics and history. I had many dialogues with them and learned a great deal from them. Of course, I have heard people say that my [latest] statement was issued under pressure. I do not see this to be correct and reject it. Hereby, I, Ebrahim Nabavi, do not accept anything that I do not see as reasonable and right, as this can be testified by my relatives; and I do not hesitate to express my regrets, if I find the truth. Yes, this is what I am! [baleh, een maa-eem!] For your information, I should point out that since I am a "seyed" of Azari origin, I do not give into coercion, even if it is a mighty coercion."

Asked why he is wearing a prison uniform, Nabavi replied:

"In order to come to the court, I had to leave the prison. Apparently, according to the Article 93 of Prison Rules, wearing the prison uniform is mandatory for all prisoners. So, while it is true that I could enter the court without a uniform, I could not leave the prison without one! Since the conditions of departure precede the conditions of arrival, I had to enter the court with a uniform! ... I am wearing this as a sign of respect for financial prisoners who are less sinful than me! ... If I had come to the court with my personal cloths, I might had been labeled 'Soosool Khan', 'Hooshang Khan', and the like. That would have not been appropriate... Since we are not in the park, we follow prison rules."

Further, his satirical statements reveal much of what has happened to him and what he is trying to imply about the prisons in the Islamic Republic:

"Point Number Eight: Finally, Nabavi was incarcerated and, unfortunately, for the second time. One reason I was incarcerated for the second time had to do with the fact that at the end of the first imprisonment I asked my prosecutor to let me keep my uniform so that I preserve it as a reminder at home. He rejected my request on the basis of prison rules and laws. That is why I declare now that it is not me who is solely responsible for my imprisonment. If Mr. Ganji is so upset with his prison uniform, I am ready to take his uniform home after my release so that I do not engage in actions worthy of imprisonment. Therefore, I suggest to the respectful prison officials to give prisoners, in addition to one uniform at arrival, a second one at the time of their release so that they remain careful about their behaviors."

When asked by Judge Mortazavi how he wants to defend himself, with or without his lawyer, he replied:

"I am capable of defending Mr. Ahmadi [his attorney] too!"

When the judge disagreed with his lawyer's questioning of the court's legitimacy and asked Nabavi about this, he turned to his lawyer and politely asked him not to question this court's legitimacy. Then, he said:

"I accept the legitimacy of this court and Mr. Ahmadi is expressing his own personal and legal opinions."

When apologizing to those who claim to have been hurt by his writings, he reveals why he is saying what he is saying. He does not want to become a martyr. He wants to live and continue to be an effective writer:

"And I should say that for this writer what is important more than anything else is to be alive so he can write, or saying it more accurately, to write so he can live."

Finally, he ends his defense this way:

"The last statement I would like to make is about the nature of my work which has to do with satire and humor. Several years ago Mr. Nateq Nouri used this same phrase during one of the squabbles on the floor of the parliament: Gentlemen, my job is humor and satire. We joke and ask you guys not to take them too seriously."

In conclusion, these trials and confessions are orchestrated by the Islamic regime in order to break the resolve of Islamic reformists, coerce them into compromise with the conservative faction, and scare off youths and secular activists who oppose the clerical rule.

They certainly will have a slowing effect on the train of change in Iran but are not going to change anyone's minds about the brutality of prison policies and the monopolistic nature of clerical politics in Iran. They may dampen the political morale of people who saw these activists as their leaders but will not eliminate the underlying motivations that gave rise to their activism. They may force moderation on weaker agents of change but they will not eradicate the harsh image of the clerical rule in the country.

Resistance to oppression takes many forms, goes through many stages, and generates many heroes, some with a more enduring character and some with less. Aauthritarian regimes can not impose heroes on a movement, though they do prepare the ground for their emergence. Nabavi did not choose to be a hero by himself and the Islamic Republic will not be able to dethrone him if the people have already made him one.

(*) All quotations from Nabavi are translated from his defense printed in Kayhan, November 15, 2000. Persian text here Page ONE - Page TWO


Ali Akbar Mahdi is chair and associate professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio Wesleyan University.

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