For the past few weeks, author and former Miss World Canada winner Nazanin Afshin-Jam has been telling the media that the young women who shares her name in Iran has gone missing.
Afshin-Jam attracted widespread media attention in North America, Europe, and the Middle East in 2006, when she launched a high-profile human-rights campaign to save a teenage Iranian girl named Nazanin Fatehi. Fatehi, who is a Kurd, was on death row in that country for stabbing a man who tried to rape her. While in prison, the Iranian girl was reportedly beaten.
The campaign by the former Vancouver resident succeeded when Fatehi was released from prison in 2007, and the two Nazanins became friendly with one another on the phone. But in the course of Afshin-Jam cowriting a new book—The Tale of Two Nazanins: A Teenager on Death Row in Iran and the Canadian Who Vowed to Save Her (HarperCollins)—the other Nazanin went missing.
“I tried contacting her through several channels,” Afshin-Jam and her coauthor, Susan McClelland, write in the book. “I got in touch with Iran’s most active Kurdish political parties, which have connections with the community. They could not find her. I offered reward money for anyone who could locate her family—none of them could be found.”
It turns out that Fatehi is alive.
In an interview in the Georgia Straight office, Afshin-Jam revealed that the young woman phoned her parents’ home twice over the past two weeks. The first call, according to Afshin-Jam, came at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Her mother answered the phone and questioned whether the caller was really Fatehi. A week later, the same woman called and Afshin-Jam’s father picked up the phone.
“My dad has spoken to her before, so he knows her voice,” Afshin-Jam said. “It’s her. Whether she was forced to make these calls, I don’t know. It’s strange. For a couple of years, we’ve been trying to look for her.”
Nazanin Afshin-Jam discusses her new book.
Afshin-Jam said she hasn’t spoken to Fatehi since writing the book, but she’s glad that she’s still alive.
The Tale of Two Nazanins juxtaposes in alternating chapters the life of Afshin-Jam with that of Fatehi. Afshin-Jam’s story is compelling. Her father, a former hotel executive in Iran, was tortured after the revolution that brought Ayotollah Ruholla Khomeini to power in the late 1970s.
Growing up in the Lower Mainland, Afshin-Jam noticed the scars on her dad’s back, but had no idea that he had been imprisoned until it was revealed to her by a friend at Sunday school. Her dad then sat her down and explained the circumstances.
“I’m sure it impacted me in terms of it being so close to home,” Afshin-Jam said, “and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this has happened to my own family. Why would this happen to my dad, who is such a good person? Why did we have to leave a country and leave behind my grandmother and my aunts, who I love so much?’ "
The story takes readers inside the Miss World pageant and then describes in detail how Afshin-Jam got so caught up in battling for human rights in Iran, even forming her own organization called Stop Child Executions.
One of the most dramatic moments in the book comes when she visits the UN with a petition bearing 170,000 names calling upon the Iranian government to commute Fatehi’s execution.
Afshin-Jam said that when she was growing up, she always thought the UN had some sort of magical power to fix the world’s problems. But she received a rude surprise when she visited the organization seeking help in freeing Fatehi.
“I think I was shocked when I came across the woman who was in charge of the empowerment of women and being kind of given the cold shoulder,” she recalled. “It was very disturbing, and just sad for me.”
Fortunately, the senior official in charge of human rights at the time, Louise Arbour, promised Afshin-Jam that she would take action on behalf of Fatehi, who was languishing in prison.
“The UN does great work in terms of development,” Afshin-Jam said. “Certain agencies are amazing. But when it comes to the Security Council or the UN Human Rights Council, it’s disappointing.”
She cited the example of Saeed Mortazavi, an Iranian prosecutor who was appointed to the UN Human Rights Council. She pointed out that this occurred after he was implicated in the death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
“These nations are represented by people that don’t represent the voices of the people,” Afshin-Jam said. “Sometimes, they’re given platforms and accolades when they should be behind bars.”
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