The Flight of the Patriot
By Yadi Sharifirad. Thomas Allen, 265 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Death to the Dictator!
By Afsaneh Moqadam. Sarah Crichton Books, 160 pp, $22, hardcover
Don’t try suggesting to Vancouver resident Yadi Sharifirad that there are any moderate politicians in Iran.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in a West End Starbucks, the former Iranian fighter pilot scoffs at the idea.
“I believe it’s a game,” Sharifirad says of last year’s power struggle between Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief opponent, Mir-Hossain Mousavi. “I don’t believe any of them.”
The author of The Flight of the Patriot: Escape from Revolutionary Iran has come to discuss his autobiography in advance of the Saturday (June 12) anniversary of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which launched a wave of street protests.
They came amid accusations that the country’s Guardian Council—comprised of six religious leaders and six judges—had rigged the results in favour of Ahmadinejad.
For a man who has suffered indescribable hardship, Sharifirad seems remarkably upbeat, laughing about how he became a national hero in the early 1980s after surviving a plane crash on his 40th mission in his country’s war against Iraq.
From 1983 to 1986, he served as the military attaché at the Iranian embassy in Pakistan, working alongside Mousavi’s younger brother, who was the ambassador.
After Sharifirad returned to Tehran, his life took an abrupt turn. As The Flight of the Patriot describes, he was scooped off the street for no apparent reason on December 30, 1987, by plainclothes security officials, blindfolded in the back of a car, and taken to prison.
He ended up in a disgusting, two-square-metre cell, where he was often allowed bathroom privileges only twice a day. Mousavi was Iran’s prime minister during this period.
In his book, Sharifirad states that early in his incarceration he was taken to a room, ordered to sit at a desk, and confess in writing to his links with the CIA.
A fanatically religious prison guard made no secret of his contempt for Sharifirad, an articulate, well-mannered member of the Iranian elite.
Not long after, the torture began. He describes it vividly, as if it happened just last week.
“I can’t explain how painful it is,” Sharifirad says. “You can’t even count the number of floggings that you feel.”
The first beatings came on the soles of his feet while his guards accused him of being an American spy.
Later, his entire body was thrashed. He thinks he survived only out of love for his family.
“Many, many times I wanted to die,” Sharifirad admits.
He’ll never forget being tossed back into solitary confinement, knowing there would be another torture session coming soon.
“You have to imagine yourself in that situation to understand how painful it is,” he adds.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released less than a year later. He remained under constant surveillance as his family fled to Canada.
In 1993, Sharifirad crossed the border into Turkey and was allowed to immigrate to Vancouver.
Of course, tales of torture in Iran are nothing new. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s 2006 memoir, Iran Awakening: From Prison to Peace Prize—One Woman’s Struggle at the Crossroads of History (Vintage Canada), describes how the judiciary perverts Islamic teaching to justify repression.
Ebadi, a lawyer, represented the family of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died after being taken into custody in Tehran in 2003, presumably after being tortured.
Here in Vancouver, human-rights activist and former beauty queen Nazanin Afshin-Jam has documented Iran’s appalling record of child executions.
Mousavi, prime minister under Ayatollah Khomeini from 1981 to 1989, is routinely described by reporters around the world as the moderate in last June’s election.
He was backed by former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who have been characterized as more pragmatic Iranian politicians than Ahmadinejad.
U.S. Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Ray Takeyh, author of Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford University Press, 2009), writes that Khatami, in particular, achieved “momentous” successes in moderating Iran’s foreign policy.
Sharifirad, however, rejects any notion that Mousavi, Rafsanjani, and Khatami have a benevolent streak.
“If they wanted to serve people, they had a lot of time to do that,” Sharifirad says of their lengthy periods in office. “Why now? Because they lost power.”
He maintains that if Iran, which is headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, develops nuclear weapons, it will pose a serious threat to the entire world.
“They are ruthless,” Sharifirad says of Iran’s rulers. “They don’t care about their own people when they (the citizens) say something against them.”
That point is also driven home in a new book by Afsaneh Moqadam called Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts His Vote in Iran’s Historic 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price.
“Afsaneh Moqadam” is a pseudonym for an anonymous author, who also changes the names of people in this story of government terror following last year’s election.
There’s a ring of truth to the book’s account of a young man in his 20s, whom Moqadam calls Mohsen Abbaspour. He votes for the first time for Mousavi and later participates in street protests against the awarding of the election to Ahmadinejad.
The author, who claims to have witnessed many of the events, portrays Abbaspour as an articulate and courageous activist. The tale of what happened in the streets is supplemented by trenchant observations of the nation’s political turmoil.
Eventually, Abbaspour is captured, taken to prison, savagely tortured, and later sodomized by his guards.
The description of Abbaspour’s forced written confession bears a remarkable similarity to Sharifirad’s, suggesting that not much has changed in Iran since the 1980s.
In the end, the young man reveals that he has betrayed his friends, which will leave some readers wondering if the real author is Abbaspour himself.
Former fighter pilot Yadi Sharifirad explains why he decided to leave Iran.
In February, the New York–based Human Rights Watch issued a report describing the postelection repression in Iran, mentioning that the worst abuses against ordinary protesters may have taken place at the Kahrizak detention centre outside Tehran.
An Iranian government panel dismissed claims of sexual abuse, but acknowledged widespread human-rights violations. At that point, nobody had been prosecuted, according to Human Rights Watch.
More than two decades ago, Canadian journalist Carole Jerome declared in her landmark book about the Iranian theocracy, The Man in the Mirror: A True Story of Love, Revolution and Treachery in Iran (Key Porter, 1987), that there were no moderate politicians of any influence left in that country because they were all dead or in exile.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the 2009 election, the theocrats and thugs are still in charge.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.