Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Khomeini's visit

This morning, I listened to a fascinating interview of Mohsen Sazegara by Fergal Keane on BBC4.  Sazegara was at the heart of Ayatollah Khomeini's regime from the moment the spiritual leader returned to Iran from exile.
Throughout the 1970s, he had been a student activist agitating for the overthrow of the Shah. In 1979 he became Khomeini's press attaché. He also helped found the now feared Revolutionary Guard, originally established as a defence force against possible attack from Israel or the United States.
As the Islamic state was established, dissenters were executed in their hundreds. But then factions within the regime began to turn against Sazegara who was pressing for greater co-operation with opposition groups.
It was a path that would lead to his imprisonment - and eventually to exile in the West. But not before he witnessed for himself what really happened inside Tehran's Evin prison, as he explains to Fergal Keane in Taking a Stand.

The programme made me think of a powerful epic poem I've read recently. The poem, called "Khomeini's visit", vividly describes some of the events Sazegara talked about in his interview and more generally, the history of Iran over the past four decades. It is written by the Iranian poet Majid Naficy. He too was active against the Shah’s regime in the 1970s. After the 1979 Revolution, as the new regime began to suppress the opposition, his first wife Ezzat Tabaian and his brother Sa’id were amongst the many to be executed. He fled Iran in 1983, eventually settling in Los Angeles with his son Azad.

The poem is very long, but try to read all of it (click on "read more") . It is well worth it!

Khomeini's Visit

                     by Majid Naficy

My father never told us

That Khomeini had visited him

For medical treatment many years ago

When Khomeini was only a "Khomeini"

And not yet the Deputy of God. (1)

The patient, perhaps, complained of heart palpations

The father looked at his tongue and eyes

Took his pulse and listened to his heart.

The patient removed his black turban and amber sandals

And took out his light cloak and long tunic. 

He laid down on the bed unmasked

And surrendered himself to a competent physician.

Did the father ask about Journeys written by Sadra of Shiraz (2)

And the patient about Commentary by Nafis, son of Evaz? (3)

Did the patient recite some of his own mystical ghazals,

And the father from free verses of his own son?

Did the patient speak of raising the banner of religion

And the father of kindling the lamp of reason?

No! No! The doctor's office is not a place for chitchat

With so many patients waiting behind the door.

The patient put on his clothing

The father handed him a prescription

And walked him to the door.

Ten years later, in the seventies

When my younger brother Said

Was in the Shah's prison for two years,

Because he had read a pamphlet,

And Khomeini was in exile, in Iraq

I listened to "Voice of the Revolution" in the basement.

One evening, the father came down the stairs

To listen to his old patient

Who spoke of the Shah's torture chambers

And foretold the day of justice.

At that time, no one knew that he

In less than five years,

After the uprising of home-builders in "off-limit" zones

And gathering of intellectuals at Goethe's nights of poetry

After marches of the clergy in Qum, and bazaaris in Tabriz

Strikes of petroleum workers and newspapers

And rallying cries from rooftops at night,

With rising fists and slogans

And falling fears and statues

And the hand-over of prisons and garrisons

Would sit on the throne of the "divine" state;

And after driving out the nationalists from the stage 

He would wrestle with the "Great Satan"

Amidst the hoorays of a Soviet-led left

And the boos of an independent left

Behind the walls of the American embassy,

And with the "export of revolution" to Iraqi Shiites

Saddam's invasion of Iranian land

And the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war

He would energize with "war blessings"

And gather the "flock" behind the "shepherd";

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Run for Congo - follow up

As a freelance journalist, I don’t often receive feedbacks about my stories, but my last piece for the Guardian about Chris’s running to raise awareness of the brutal conflict in the DRC seemed to have resonated with readers.  Many said they had no idea there was even a war there; many were so touched by Generose’s story and by Chris’ dedication that they circulated the story on Twitter, Facebook and donated money. Helen Ashley of Women for Women International said that in just three days readers had donated £2000 to help support women in their programme in the Congo. Amnesty International also said the article generated money and the story was picked up by publications all over the world.

Chris’s last marathon in Luton was cancelled last weekend because of bad weather, so he is now trying to figure out where else to run and what else he could do to keep the issue in people’s minds and on the political agenda. He is thinking of running the marathon des sables in April.

I also got a note from a thriving group of Congolese women in London who are well-organized and desperate to get the right sort of publicity for their cause - not just 'oh the poor victims', but a more active approach, trying to publicize the role of the Western multinationals and Governments who are exacerbating the situation. So I am planning to meet up with them. Stay tuned…

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Congo - Because Saying Sorry Was Not Enough

Chris running in the Congo/Fjona Hill

I spent an evening in a bar a couple of weeks ago, listening to Chris Jackson explaining why he felt compelled to run 12 marathons in 12 months – including one in the Congo, one of the most dangerous places on earth.  He was running, he said, because “saying sorry was not enough”. He had met a woman who had been violently raped in a refugee camp in Goma, eastern Congo, and all he could tell her was “sorry.”  He knew she was just one of thousands of women being routinely raped, tortured and killed in this region. He felt he couldn’t just walk away and do nothing. So he did the only thing he could think of: running.  

 “Running 12 marathons in 12 months was a conversation-starter. I wanted to do something that made people sit up and take notice so that more people were aware of the Congo and those who have and continue to suffer in silence.”   

More than 5.4 people have been killed in the brutal conflict in eastern Congo and more than 2 million people have been displaced. Sexual violence in the Congo is the worst in the world, according to the UN.

While running in the Congo, Chris met women who had been attacked by soldiers and rebels, as well as men who had raped, and recorded their stories on his blog and Twitter, and they formed the basis for a BBC World Service report and Channel 4 documentary.
 I had been trying to place stories about the atrocities in the DRC for a long time, but editors were not too keen: it was not something many readers wanted to read and, because the war has been raging there for so many years, the story was not topical enough. Chris’s challenge provided a way to engage the readers. And the fact that he is running his 12th and last marathon this Sunday, offered editors a perfect news hook for the story.

I approached The Guardian as they were the most likely to want the story. The editor was interested, but had reservations. “He isn’t Eddie Izzard, is he?”  the editor said.  But to me, the story is stronger precisely because Chris isn't a celebrity. He is just an ordinary guy who was so touched by a woman’s plight on the other side of the world, that he was willing to put his life on hold and push his body to the extremes. I find this incredibly beautiful and inspiring. And it gives me so much hope.

 The Guardian did commission the story and gave it nice play on Friday (Dec 3). You can read it here.

To read Chris’s blog, click here or/and donate to a programme helping women in the Congo rebuild their lives and regain their dignity, click here. For more information, click here