Reza Baraheni, tireless Iranian dissident and former President of Canada’s PEN (2001-03), has died in Toronto at the age of 86.
He was known as “Iran’s Solzhenitsyn”. “A chronicler of his country’s torture industry.” “Iran’s finest living poet.”
He had the unique honor and misfortune of being imprisoned and tortured by both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution. He went into exile twice – in the United States for five years in the 1970s and then in 1997 in Canada, where he settled.
He and Canada were made for each other. In no other country would a newcomer, even of his stature, be so readily accepted and elevated to President of a leading center of PEN, the group of writers with chapters in more than 100 countries.
A human rights activist and fierce defender of freedom of expression, Baraheni has consistently protested the persecution of writers, intellectuals and ethnic minorities in his home country. To know him was to know the agony of Iran today.
A prodigious author in English and Persian, he left a treasure trove of more than 60 books of essays, literary criticism, fiction and poetry. His works have been translated into a dozen languages.
When he recited his poems or those of Rumi or Hafez, he would captivate audiences, including those of us who are only vaguely familiar with Farsi.
He was a good storyteller. I remember his description of the horrors he endured.
Born into an Azerbaijani Turkish family in Tabriz, he grew up in abject poverty. He was the second Iranian to earn a Ph.D. in English – the first became a court poet to the Shah, while Baraheni took the path of dissidents.
As a lecturer at Tehran University, he campaigned for non-Persian minorities whose linguistic, ethnic and cultural identity was oppressed. He was arrested by the Shah’s police.
“My long beard was pulled out piece by piece,” he told me in 2005, recalling day 1 of his 102 days in captivity. “Then I was dragged into a torturer’s room. “Tell me, who told you to write this article?” he asked, hugging me from both sides. “I wrote it myself,” I said. “Tell me, tell me,” he kept urging.
“Then he started kicking me in the stomach, groin and testicles. i fell down Others joined the beating. I was stretched out on a torture bed with my hands and feet tied. I received 75 hits on the soles of my feet with a barbed wire whip. I fainted.
“When I came to, the interrogator picked me up, put a pistol to my temple and pulled the trigger. I went down… Later, a guard told me that one of the torturers imitated the sound of gunshots.
“I was told that if I didn’t confess, my wife and 13-year-old daughter would be raped in front of me.”
He was released after strong protests from prominent American academics and writers, including novelists Jerzy Kosinski and EL Doctorow.
Baraheni defected to the United States. Testifying before Congress, he rallied Arthur Miller, Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Berrigan, Pete Seeger, Susan Sontag and others to question Washington’s blind support of the dictatorial Shah.
In December 1978, he and Allen Ginsberg were among hundreds who demonstrated outside the White House against Jimmy Carter, who was hosting the King.
Two months later came the Islamic revolution. Baraheni returned to Iran, trading the tranquility of his full professorship at the University of Maryland for a taste of promised freedom in his homeland.
Fighting raged in the streets of Tehran, with the Shah’s palace guards putting up a last stand. On one such night, Baraheni dodged bullets and found himself in front of a mosque, where the guard let him in. He lay down next to others in the yard. He pulled the hood of his parka up to his eyes and dozed off.
Awoken by raindrops, he saw the others still asleep. He closed his eyes. But the drizzle didn’t let up. He sat up and looked around. Nobody moved. “They were all dead. I rushed to the dozing guard and asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
“‘You didn’t ask.’ ”
He resumed teaching at Tehran University, but was soon convicted as a counter-revolutionary and imprisoned for 84 days, the last 48 days in the notorious Evin prison, where nearly a quarter-century later Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was murdered.
Baraheni was kept in solitary confinement and often blindfolded during interrogations. Returning disoriented from one such night session, he found himself shoved into a long line of prisoners marching uphill.
“Where are you taking us?” he asked.
“We’ve all been sentenced to death,” said the man behind him. “Didn’t you go to court?”
“Don’t you have a mark on your sole?”
“You’d better yell and tell them.”
But the guards ignored Baraheni.
“Keep screaming, keep screaming.”
Someone finally pointed a torch at the soles of his feet, only to yell that Baraheni was also marked for the death squad.
“I was held in a room waiting for someone to show up with the tracer. Then, miraculously, they found the convict. I was spared. Minutes later I heard the shots.”
After his release, Baraheni was dismissed from the university.
In 1994, at secret meetings of the Writers’ Union, Baraheni and others wrote a charter calling for “freedom of expression without restrictions or exceptions.” They called it the Text of 134, in reference to Vaclav Havel’s charter of 77 in communist Czechoslovakia. He translated it into English and had it smuggled to Arthur Miller, who read it at the 1994 International PEN Congress in Prague.
Retaliation came swiftly. Many were imprisoned, blackmailed or murdered. Baraheni’s name appeared on a hit list in the fall of 1995. He fled to Sweden, from where he came to Canada.
His vision was not limited to Iran.
He was instrumental in changing the wording of PEN International’s charter to make it more universal. Her first words used to be: “Literature, however national, knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among the people, despite political or international upheavals.” He suggested deleting the words “national though original”. This simple but profound change was adopted at the 2003 PEN Congress in Mexico City, the first change to the document since it was drafted in 1948. The revised charter now reads: “Literature knows no frontiers…”
After the American invasion of Iraq, Baraheni was dismayed that the Baghdad Museum and the Iraqi National Library had been looted and destroyed. He wrote, “It would only have taken two soldiers and a tank” to protect these great treasures, but the Americans had instead prioritized guarding Iraq’s oil wells and oil ministry in Baghdad.
He was a polarizing figure who evoked strong reactions, for and against. This was a function of his passionate advocacy, as well as a reflection of deeply divided Iranian society, in Iran and in the diaspora – first, pro-Shah royalists and the Islamic revolutionaries; Marxist Mujahideen-e-Khalq and law-abiding secularists; and currently the many factions within the Islamic regime that are widely divided between supreme leader Ayatollah Syed Khamenei and the hardliners on the one hand and liberal-minded clerics on the other.
The latter tried unsuccessfully to soften and democratize the polity, including former presidents Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). When Khatami in particular raised high hopes, Baraheni told me emphatically, “Khatami won’t make much of a difference even if he’s in power for 25 years.” Baraheni knew the situation in his country.
Baraheni died on March 24th. He is survived by his wife Sanaz Sehhati of Toronto; daughter Aleca of Fairfax, Virginia; sons Oktay from Tehran and Toronto; and Arsalan Esfandiar of Toronto.
A funeral is scheduled for Saturday April 9 at 1pm at Elgin Mills Cemetery in Richmond Hill.
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