Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Namesake


With a sun-splashed spring evening in full strut outside, those who gathered within Southminster United Church for the first post-festival event could be forgiven for missing the patio. For they were more than compensated by the regal, radiant Nazanin Afshin-Jam; here to promote her book The Tale of Two Nazanins , which she co-wrote with the esteemed writer and journalist, Susan McClelland.


While her profile is outsize – she is after all a former Miss Canada and a recording artist – it is her efforts to be a humanitarian, tinted with earnestness, which really sustains her listeners' receptivity. Nazanin begins by sharing the all-too-familiar story of the flight of Iranian dissidents after that country's Islamic Revolution of 1979, with all its ensuing disappointments. Having a father who managed Tehran's Sheraton, what with all its mingling, boozing and fun, did little to bestow any favours from the new theocratic regime and its imposed morals. It was only the twist of fate, whereby her tortured, impisoned father's executor met with a car accident; allow a window of opportunity for Nazanin's family to flee Iran to Canada, by way of Spain.


“A senstive child”, Nazanin displayed early signs of activism and empathy. She undertook a political science and international relations degree, in her adopted home of Vancouver, at UBC. Lucky the person to whom it falls a clear clarion call to pursue justice. Nazanin's involvement with her namesake in Iran – the Kurdish teenager Nazanin Fatehi – began with a chance reading of an e-mail from a stranger (whose message apparently and thankfully got through the spam filter) who shared the story of this young girl's tragic entanglement.


Nazanin Fatehi's lot was to be born in a culture where women face the stark alternatives of being a hidden, voiceless womb or a dishonorable whore; the judgement solely and sternly asserted by the men in their lives. As it happened, the 17 year old and her 15 year old niece were strolling in a park when a gang of three thuggish men harrased and attempted to rape the young girls. In the ensuing struggle, Fatehi managed to stab one of her assailants, leading to his death. For the alleged 'crime' of self-defence, the still teenaged Nazanin Fatehi, was sentenced to death for murder.


Under international law – to which Iran is a signatory – the execution of any person(s) under the age of 18 is illegal. However, Islamic law as applied by the state of Iran supersedes any “man-made” laws. This wrong-hearted judiciary system not only holds a girl of 9 criminally responsible, it also adds insult to injury by alloting half-weight to the testimony of a woman. To corroborate a woman's accusation of rape, the testimony of four men of good standing is mandatory (leading one to wonder what men of “good standing” were doing in idly observing a rape occur in the first place). The suffocating, shallow strain of shame and honour deeply distorts the worldview of many – savaging the lives of both women and men.


Nazanin immediately felt drawn to get involved and help Fatehi from prison. There is a type of boldness in taking on a powerful regime which is commendable. Nazanin did face anonymous threats regarding her campaign to free Fatehi. Nazanin pressed on: a petition to force the government of Iran to grant a stay on the execution, netted over 350,000 signatures. Engaging the European Parliament and the United Nations to place pressure resulted in exoneration of Fatehi of murder charges; but not before a bail of $40,ooo had to be paid. Apparently, two out of five judges did completely clear Fatehi sans bail; a glimmer of a humaneness that exists even within Iran's legal system. Descriptions of Fatehi's treatment in prison brought to the fore jarring images from the film Incendies . A now liberated Fatehi, kept in touch with Nazanin in the ensuing years before vanishing without a trace. Mixed endings populate our experience more so than happy ones. While Nazanin hopes that Fatehi is alive and well somwhere, she can never know for certain.


Nazanin firmly opposes external military intervention to effect regime change in Iran. She believes that the use of targeted sanctions and the freezing of assets will be effective in allowing the youthful Iranian population (70% under the age of 30) to eventually form a more democratic and liberal government. Even in this wished-for renewed nation (as one of her interlocutor's pointed out) there is also the necessity of a plural state to make room for its conservative, religious population – of which in Iran there are legion. A challenging tension in every society.


While the dominating issue with Iran has been its nuclear program and its tit for tat against Israel, Nazanin feels that this sadly distracts from human rights issues within Iran. While Nazanin cites the many examples of counter-revolutions that have been successful, the tense, unfinished unfolding of revolutions in places like Egypt and Ukraine into illiberal directions, paired with the heavy suppression in places like Syria and China, dims hope.


Then I remember the extraordinary if imperfect changes in Burma. Nazanin's book and her message seeks to emphasize, in Bismarck's words, “the art of the possible.” Nazanin's lifestory and work embody these very possibilities, however circumscribed.