Tom Appleton

Bats Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand, a venue for progressive causes and experimental theatre for many decades, was home recently to a public meeting in support of Iranian Free Speech held under the aegis of PEN, the international writers‘ organisation. Attended by many “Kiwi” and Iranian residents of Wellington, the meeting was chaired by the current PEN NZ international rep, writer Nelson Wattie, and featured investigative journalist Nicky Hager, writer-historian and past PEN president Tony Simpson, French-Iranian writer Fariba Hachtroudi from Paris, as the evening’s guest of honour and star attraction, translator Sian Robyns , and local musicians John Rae and Al Campbell also taking the rostrum. The meeting, called by PEN NZ in conjunction with the Mohsen Hachtroudi Foundation of Paris, was billed as a press conference, although none of the mainstream media put in an appearance. The proceedings were, however, recorded in their entirety and aired by alternative radio Matrix 107.5 FM. The issues under discussion were the imprisonment, torture, rape and execution of writers, journalists and many others who had exercised their right to free speech in Iran. In particular, Ms Hachtroudi called for a minute of silence in commemoration of Arash RAHMANIPOUR and Mohammad Reza ALIZAMANI, two young men arbitrarily sentenced and hanged by a religious court in Iran just days earlier, for committing so-called “crimes against God.”

Mr Wattie stressed that these violent and repressive acts affect human beings everywhere, and that New Zealand people must show solidarity by raising their voices to join the worldwide protest against the mistreatment of people who have committed no crime. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iran and New Zealand are signatories, guarantees freedom of expression to all people. Mr Hager, while joining in the condemnation of these barbaric acts and calling for democratic change in Iran, cautioned against falling in with any moves to bring about an externally imposed regime change in that country, as Iran already had a long history of largely British and American interferences with its internal affairs. The first democratically elected Iranian government, Mr Hager reminded listeners, was levered out by a CIA-organised coup in 1953, and Iranians today would take a dim view of any attempt to repeat that exercise – a sentiment echoed and in fact fully underscored also by Ms Hachtroudi.  When the meeting was opened to the floor, a representative of the New Zealand Baha’i faith added his organisation’s support to the meeting’s goals, while also asking that the meeting issue a call for a stop to all persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Another member of the audience speaking from the floor compared the situation of Iran today with that of Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s and 40s, when New Zealand took in Jewish refugees whose lives were endangered in their home countries; suggesting also that New Zealand should open the way for designated victims of the Iranian death squads, such as the young people already executed and several others waiting in line, to be whisked away to a safe haven in faraway New Zealand, saving the Iranians the bother of having to hang their own people whose only sin was to be exercising their democratic right of expressing a personal opinion. The idea, the speaker said, should be easy to communicate to the New Zealand prime minister, Mr John Key, who, his neo-liberal politics notwithstanding, had a very personal experience of these matters, being himself the son of a British participant in the Spanish Civil war and an Austrian Jewish refugee mother.

Fariba Hachtroudi (Photo DR, France Soir)

Ms Hachtroudi, a French-Iranian novelist, essayist and human rights activist, was a resident at the Randell Cottage in Wellington. The Randell Cottage Trust offers fellowships alternately to New Zealand and French writers, with the support of the French government (as an ongoing goodwill gesture to restore the damage, including the death of one occupant, caused by the bombing of the “Rainbow Warrior” in 1985) and New Zealand authorities.

Ms Hachtroudi was born in 1951 in Tehran. She comes from a family of scholars and professors. Her paternal grand-father was a religious leader who supported the constitutionalists as far back as 1906, against other religious leaders who advocated for governance by Sharia law and the absolute rule of God as a monarchic authority.

Ms Hachtroudi received her doctorate (Ph.D.) in art and archaeology in Paris in 1978. She lived in Sri Lanka from 1981 to 1983, where for two years she taught at the University of Colombo while performing research into Teravada Buddhism. When she returned to France in 1983, Ms Hachtroudi began, as a journalist, to denounce Khomeinism. In 1985 / 1986, to understand the daily life of her compatriots, she travelled clandestinely to Iran by way of the desert of Baluchistan. L’exilée, Ms Hachtroudi’s first book, re-issued by Khomeini Express publishers in 2009, describes her haunting journey.

10 years later, in 1995, the author, who appeared much more pessimistic than others, already predicting change and revival “slowly and from within Iran”, decided again to approach the issue by creating a humanitarian association free of political affiliations: MoHa, the association for the foundation of Mohsen Hachtroudi. Ms Hachtroudi’s father, Mohsen Hachtroudi, had been a learned scholar, sometimes referred to as the “Omar Khayyam” of contemporary Iran. As a well known French-educated mathematician, philosopher and poet, Mr Hachtroudi was considered to be a moral authority for generations of Iranians. Mr Hachtroudi fought his entire life for the promotion of democracy, social justice (most notably women’s rights) and secularism. The author’s mother, Robab Hachtroudi, was a professor of humanities and Persian literature. The Mohsen Hachtroudi Foundation or MoHa for short, focuses its work on education and secularism – conditions essential for the respect of women’s rights and the promotion of democracy. MoHa helps Iranian refugees wherever they are. After her last trip to Iran (2006 and 2009) Ms Hachtroudi hopes to be able to register her foundation in Iran in order to help young people, and artists in particular, inside the country, as was the goal of her father.

At the Bats Theatre meeting, selections from Ms Hachtroudi’s Les rives du sang (Rivers of Blood) translated by Jean Anderson, and from Le 12 Imam est une femme (The 12th Imam Is a Woman) translated by Sian Robyns, were also read by Ms Anderson, while the musicians, Mr Rae and Mr Campbell, performed a composition created expressly for this occasion, with lyrics by the author provided in an English translation.

Iranian Embassy, Hataitai, New Zealand

Iranian Embassy, Hataitai, New Zealand

February 12th a day late, to make up for the peculiarity of the New Zealand calendar, which rushes a day ahead of the rest of the world – saw demonstrators gathering early in the morning opposite the Iranian embassy at 151 Te Anau Road, Hataitai. The building, which lacks the bunker-like fear-of-terrorist-attack protective layers of the American or German embassies, is perched like an eagle’s eyrie at a top real estate location, more suggestive of shah-era haughtiness than the embattled Islamic revolution’s spirit of more recent times, overlooking some of the finest bays at the heart of Wellington’s harbour area. Not surprisingly, there is little space on the other side of the road for demonstrators to gather. Also, with the exception of a few stray neighbours, there was barely anyone there to take notice of the demonstrators’ message. The embassy staff was clearly in attendance, as witnessed by occasional traces of movement behind the curtains, but did not feel fit to engage in any communication with their compatriots. A busload of Iranians had taken the 650-kilometer, nine-hour drive down from Auckland, some had come in their own cars, to be present here at this time and attend the almost daylong vigil.

Protesters in front of IRI Embassy, New Zealand

Fortunately, a large rubbish container was parked on the road right in front of the embassy gate, and the demonstrators were able to use it as a public display device, sticking photos and slogans on it to explain why they were there. In addition, they held up a great number of placards and kept up an almost uninterrupted concert of slogans and songs for many hours. The atmosphere among the demonstrators, despite the seriousness of the occasion, was cheerful and optimistic; it was clearly evident that these were people of a number of different political persuasions and from various walks of life exercising their democratic right to express their views on an issue they felt strongly about – a right granted to every person living in New Zealand, whether native born or immigrant, citizen or resident. The police, while present, kept well to one side, only advising people to keep off the road if they were likely to cause problems for passing traffic.

Protesters in front of IRI Embassy, Hataitai, NZ

State-owned Television New Zealand, woefully understaffed since commercialisation, sent one reporter and cameraperson from TV1, who interviewed New Zealand Green Party parliamentarian Keith Locke, but dropped him from the news later in the day in favour of a South Island murder story. Locke told those present that the Green Party had introduced a resolution supporting the Democracy Movement in Iran, which had been unanimously passed by the New Zealand parliament. This was greeted with cheers.

Nelson Wattie and Fariba Hachtroudi

Around midday, Ms Hachtroudi and Mr Wattie arrived, and contacted the media again. This time, private TV3 sent a sole cameraperson, its mere two (!) reporters for the Wellington area being otherwise engaged. Mr Wattie, on camera, expressed the same sentiments he had uttered at Bats Theatre, to the cheers of those present. Ms Hachtroudi, in perfect English, made her case plain. Again the crowd cheered. But again none of the statements made it to the news. At some point, Mr Wattie and Ms. Hachtroudi rang the bell of the embassy, asking to be let in to meet with the ambassador. This was filmed, but since the embassy chose to ignore the move, it once more failed to make the news.

Protesters in front of IRI Embassy, Hataitai, NZ

The day was spent in the spirit of a great Iranian celebration, with brilliant sunshine (and some light rain), sailboats in the bay, and people sharing fruit and cups of instant coffee. It seemed strange that the embassy refused to open its gates to these people who were so obviously lovely, sincere, and good Iranians. It became apparent that none of the people cooped up in that building with its nose up in the air were prepared to cross the picket line, or even offer anybody a simple cup of tea. It felt not like a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy. It felt like a demonstration outside the embassy of some alien country, Fascist Chile or Apartheid South Africa.