Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Back From the Rome Conference

I have just come back from the 'Struggle for Democracy in the Islamic World' conference held in Rome, where I had the pleasure of interpreting for my friend, Amir Abbas (Siavash) Fakhravar.

On Sunday Fakhravar had an interview with the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera. Just before the interview began, Fakhravar remembered the very first time a reporter from Corriere della Sera had contacted him. It was during one of his leave from prison periods before Ahmadi-Nejad became the president. The reporter had asked Fakhravar's prediction and was surprised to hear Fakhravar predict "Ahmadi-Nejad".

Ahmadi-Nejad was so unknown at the time, that the reporter had concluded Fakhravar was out of touch and "crazy". When Ahmadi-Nejad and Rafsanjani were put through to the second round however, the same reporter contacted Fakhravar again and this time called him a genius and asked how he had made the correct prediction? Fakhravar's reply was "the so-called Iran experts you rely on, are those who come to Iran for a few days, meet government officials, talk to a few hand picked and planted people, read a couple of books on Iran on top of that and think they know it all. We on the other hand live within the system, we know the internal power struggles, we understand the psychology of the regime officials better and we become aware when millions of duplicate ID cards are issued to the Baseej and they are told who to vote for, because we know this system inside out we can make the right predictions."

I have not had the text of the interview, that was printed in the paper yesterday, translated to me line by line yet, but in particular I liked Fakhravar's answer to the question "wouldn't more comprehensive sanctions bring more hardship on the Iranian people?"
Fakhravar's reply was "The oil prices in 1998 dropped down to $11 to $12 per barrel, and now they are over $90 per barrel. Do you think the Iranian people are any better off now than in 1998? Do you think the Iranian people benefit from the oil income? Iran's economy is controlled by and divided amongst the "Sons of Clerics". More effective sanctions will mean THEY will lose income and less money will be available to the regime to spend on sponsoring terrorism around the world."

After the interview we worked a bit on Fakhravar's part for next day's agenda and still had some time to wonder around Rome and see some of its famous land marks and magnificent monuments before joining with the other dissidents to eat in an Egyptian restaurant in Rome.

I must say, there were some amazing people who were invited by the conference. The likes of Bassem Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group a non-partisan organisation dedicated to exposing human rights violations by both the Israelis and Palestinians , or the likes of Saad Eddine Ibrahim, the Egyptian dissident sociologist, who was imprisoned in 2000 for allegedly defaming Egypt's image abroad (sounds like familiar charges? dictatorship are so similar :)

It really was a privilege for me to be dining and talking to these men whose resolve was never broken despite all the hardships they had suffered. The occasion reminded me again of my favourite quote, "Evil only prevails when good men stay silent" and here I was amongst these very good people who had not remained silent and had stood up to evil.

The next day the conference started with introducing the invited dissidents. They briefly talked about their experiences and each carried a message to those who enjoy the privileges of living in a free world. Fakhravar talked in Persian, I translated into English and a professional Italian translator then told his words to the audience in Italian. I was nervous, I felt an enormous responsibility not to miss a single word Fakhravar said, not to miss a single word when he talked about the students recently arrested in Iran, not to miss a single word when he pleaded to the free world to remember those who are detained in solitary confinements in Iran, and yet as always Fakhravar was shooting out the words as fast as a machine gun and with the force that comes from his abundant inner strength when he talks about freedom. I was struggling to keep up.

Afterwards, the TV camera crews surrounded the dissidents for interviews. The humility and modesty of these great men who suddenly found themselves surrounded by the Italian media cameras, brought an admiring smile to my face. Their shyness and reservation from being the centre of the attention made me like them even more. I helped Fakhravar with two TV interviews. Interpreting in front of a camera was harder than interpreting for a newspaper. Even though the interviews were not live, I felt I couldn't make a mistake and it seemed there was just less time to give answers. The TV crew wanted quick short sound bites and yet some of their questions needed a long detailed reply and clarification.

One of the reporters referred to the 1999 student uprising, she said "We know the 1999 student uprising during the reformist president Khatami failed and the people of Iran did not support the students and the intellectuals because the US spoke in support of the protests, what do you think should be avoided if there is another uprising on that scale?"

I translated the question to Fakhravar, our eyes locked into each other and I just know we were both saying inside our heads, "what the hell is this woman talking about?" Again inside my head I was pleading with Fakhravar "Please put this woman in her place Siavash, please!" and when Fakhravar delivered his reply, with full confidence I turned to the interviewer and repeated Fakhravar's words "Your premise in the question is not correct at all. The 1999 student uprising in fact failed because precisely we did not receive the international support that we needed and the international media failed to give accurate coverage of what was going on. The people of Iran did support the students and joined in the protests, It was the intellectuals and the reformists led by president Khatami who stabbed us in the back."
The interviewer was so shocked at Fakhravar's reply in not joining her in blaming America, that she nearly dropped the microphone!

In the evening another dinner was arranged, much more formal than the friendly and relaxed one we had amongst ourselves the day before. This time there were Italian politicians, senators and deputies and notable business people whom we did not know.

I was told Natan Sharansky would be there and will give the opening dinner speech. I remember clearly the TV pictures when Natan Sharansky was released to the West. He was a short man made to look even shorter in the middle of two huge KGB agents that were surrounding him, and it seemed the Soviet authorities had deliberately given him a pair of larger than waist size trousers that he was struggling to hold up. It was all so obvious that they wanted to humiliate this dissident in front of the world, but in fact they were humiliating themselves. For the greatness of the man who was being released was not in his tall stature or broad shoulders or in his difficulty to keep his trousers up, it was in his spirit of courage and determination.

I kept my eyes open to see Sharansky. I wanted to tell him my recollections, and when he did arrive, I pounced on him, introduced myself and told him my recollections of his release. Sharansky was overcome with laughter when I told him how I remembered his release, and in his gritty Russian accent said "Yes you are right" and asked me how old I was when that happened and where I was at the time. I wanted to talk to him more but there were so many others who wanted to grab his attention too.

In his speech, Sharansky said, "There are many things common in what happened to me and what has happened to these dissidents who are here today, but there is one fundamental difference. Neither I, nor Sakharov, nor Vaclev Havel or any other dissident in the Soviet bloc ever doubted that the West would forget us or not apply pressure for our release. It would have been unthinkable for us to imagine that the West would negotiate with them and say OK you give us this and we will forget about this or that dissident. Yet this is what is happening today. A dissident's worst nightmare is thinking that he is forgotten and abandoned"

I thought about our own comrades, Arya (Abolfazl) Ajorloo, Ali (Mahan) Alemzadeh, Mojtaba Vatanpoor, and Alireza Ranjbar abandoned and forgotten in Irbil. Amongst the audience were some deputies from the Iraqi Kurdistan, it was time Fakhravar and I told them about the hopelessness of the four and solicited their help.

I am a bit tired from the travelling and the lack of sleep over the last 48 hours, perhaps I write some more tomorrow and post some of the pictures, but before I finish this post, I have to mention the wonderful young volunteers at the Magna Carta Foundation, one of the sponsors of this conference. I can not thank these volunteers enough, they worked so hard as well as being great company for us during our free time. They provided us with an unforgettable Italian hospitality which I hope I can one day return.

13 comments:

Winston said...

Very good. I am so happy you did the job of translating for Siavash becuz his translator back in the States sucks so bad. I am sure you did a magnificent job. Awesome!

I'll link to this on digg.com

would you write in Persian about this some where?

Shahin said...

Was VOA or Radio Farda there?

Bahram said...

Great post and great work, both of you.
God bless you

chester said...

I think this is one of the best posts you've done. (at least that I've read over the past 2 yrs or so :- ))

Your story about the price of oil and the people being no better off, reminded me of an Iraqi woman who was interviewed after the fall of Saddam. An American reporter asked her whether she felt that the Americans were there primarily to steal Iraq's oil (hoping she'd say yes, of course). And the woman said that the oil had done the Iraqi people no good while Saddam ruled, so if the Americans want our oil as payment for getting rid of him, it's worth it.
Lol. Not what the liberal reporter was hoping she'd say.

Thanks for this report and the work you do.

Farouz Farzami said...

Dear Potkin , I still do not understand why Fakhravar fell out of favor in VOA .Who is exactly against him there?
It was wonderful post and it lingers in the memory of Iranian people's struggle for democratization.
Good night and Good luck

Azarmehr said...

Dear Farouz,

Who knows where the root cause of Fakhravar's boycot by the VOA Persian is? Its obvious the Afghan woman, Sheila Ganji, who runs the show does not like Fakhravar, and is giving the orders to boycot him, but is anyone encouraging her? I dont know. Only yesterday I heard some people from Iran say its Mohsen Sazgara who is leading Sheila Ganji, just like the way he manipulated Laura Rozen to write that article about Fakhravar in Motherjones. But we will not let this go.

Jahangir said...

Good Job! Good Post!

Fereshteh said...

Great write up. Did anyone film the conference by the way? Afarin beh har 2!

Bahramerad said...

Nice words...Nice comments....But
I'll like to ask all the people who read these pages - WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TODAY IN FURTHERING THE CAUSE OF DEMOCRACY IN IRAN AND SUPPORTING THE WOMEN, THE STUDENTS, THE WORKERS AND THE DOWNTRODDEN PEOPLE OF IRAN? And what will you do tomorrow?
If we all do nothing - then the evil doers do all the work and we'll be still be sorry 30 years from now.
STAND UP AND BE SOMEBODY. you too can be effective. raise your voice, raise your pen - at least open your eyes. and wake up!
and oh before I forget - Thank you Azahmehr and Fakhravar.

Winston said...

very good job!

Anonymous said...

Micheal Leeden loves Fakhravar.
that is why people don't like him.
"AEI" anyone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chester said...

Hey I saw this posted on IranvaJahan.
Good for you!

Anonymous said...

I work for VOA's TV Persian Service. I have never seen a more mismanaged organization. Staff morale is very low. Management has absolutely no clue. Sheila Ganji hires American reject producers who don't speak Farsi and have very little idea of television. They have no idea what they are doing because they are given no direction and admit to simply collecting a taxpayer paycheck without doing much work. Miss Ganji hires these people to surround herself with their credentials. The work environment is colonial and every effort is made to make life very difficult for anyone trying to accomplish any work. Sheila Ganji and her deputy Amy Katz, Acting Senior Executive producer, was fired from VOA's English Central News division. Amy Katz began at the Persian Service as a researcher and is now Acting Senior Exec. Producer. Her nickname by the staff is AK-47 because of her rude demeanour. Both have complete disregard for the Roundtable program and have a contentious relationship with the host of Roundtable. The service has a lot of potential and there are competent members of staff they are just blocked at every opportunity by Miss Ganji and her management team. Please ask your Congressman to investigate VOA's Persian Service management so that the staff may effectively work towards the noble cause of informing the great citizens of Iran.