LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Political Exile - Nasrin Parvaz
Date of photography: 10th April 2018
A remarkable woman, exiled from her native country, Nasrin Parvaz was a civil rights activist in Iran. She was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death by the Islamic Republic and spent eight miserable years in a variety of Iranian prisons. She will forever carry with her the physical and psychological scars she sustained during that long, cruel detention. Now living in the safety of London, Nasrin continues to struggle tirelessly against the oppressors of people everywhere. Britain has a mostly proud record of granting political asylum to those individuals who genuinely need it; our state has also been generally tolerant of governments-in-exile that have been set up here in the past or, in some cases, that remain here still. But once here, the activities of such bodies can occasionally become an irritant to the British Government and, indeed, to the establishment as a whole. It has been known that, at the same time as a safe haven has been provided to the political opponents of a particular regime, the British Government has, for perfectly valid commercial or strategic reasons, been happy to trade with, sometimes even to support the survival and prosperity of, that very same regime, thus directly undermining the work and the position of its political exiles here. This might look like hypocrisy but perhaps realpolitik would be the more appropriate term.
Recently, I overhead someone describing London as ‘the home of political exiles’ and it is true that even a perfunctory survey of the capital’s history largely confirms this. During the early modern period, and before the Reformation, when the all-pervading power of the Church of Rome was deeply woven into national and provincial governance all over Europe, many people fled from persecution across the English Channel. As the Reformation progressed, greater numbers flowed to these shores - almost 50,000 Protestant Huguenots fled from the persecution of Louis XIV in 1598.
In 1789, following the French Revolution, many members of the French aristocracy fled to Britain to escape the ‘Terror’ and the guillotine.
Revolution across Europe in 1848 saw more refugees arriving to British shores and, in 1865, Ottoman intellectuals here established the London Young Ottomans as a vehicle for voicing criticism of an Ottoman Empire seen to be in an increasingly parlous condition, if not terminal decline - the original ‘sick man of Europe’. Many more Turkish political activists and intellectuals came to London following the ‘Young Turk Revolution’ of July 1908. And again, after the First World War, London provided a safe haven for those resisting the power of the sultans and became the birth-place of some of the progressive ideas that would eventually influence the creation of Atatürk’s modern Turkey.
After German forces invaded France in 1940, Charles de Gaulle, who was then Under-Secretary of National Defence and War, refused to be associated with his government’s truce with the enemy and formed a French Government-in-Exile, in London.
Also in 1940, after the fall of France, the Polish Government-in-Exile moved to London, remaining here until it was finally dissolved in 1990. The Belgian Government-in-Exile, headed by King Leopold III and Hubert Pierlot, was here too, as were Edward Beneš and Jan Šrámek, heading the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile. In 1941, the Yugoslav Government, headed by King Peter II, evacuated from Belgrade via Greece, Palestine and Egypt in order to settle in London. The governments of Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway all had governments-in-exile in this city at one time or another.
In the 1970’s, around 2,500 Chilean exiles - intellectuals, artists, businessmen, university professors and students - arrived to London having taken flight from Augusto Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship. Once here, they helped to organise campaigns against the Pinochet reign of terror and the regime’s notorious extrajudicial killing of its opponents. In the years that followed, other Latin American exiles arrived here too, from Argentina, from Ecuador and from Peru. In the mid-1980’s, many Colombian political exiles sought refuge in London, escaping from the appalling conditions in their own country and hoping to evade the death threats.
As recently as 2004, a Western Kurdish Government-in-Exile was formed here with the aim of creating a Kurdish state in Syria.
But the long story of exiles in London does not end with a brief catalogue of exiled governments that have sought safe haven here: in recent years, Turkey has hardly ever been out of the news as President Erdoğan, with his alarming authoritarian tendencies, has taken steps to reshape his country into a conservative, Islamic dictatorship. Any opposition to his so-called reforms is dealt with ruthlessly and the prisons are full of those who have opposed the President or who have dared to speak out against his tendentious reshaping of democratic government. Amongst these are hundreds of Kurds. Once again, London is full of Turkish and Kurdish political exiles. Will they too, one wonders, come together in an attempt to organise a formal opposition to the Erdoğan presidency in London?
Michail Khodorkovsky is also often in the news. He was certainly one of the most powerful of Russia’s oligarchs and after the Putin government jailed him and confiscated large chunks of his assets, he fled to London where he is now free, living in the UK capital and continuing to be an influential figure. He is surrounding himself with some of the best young brains and talent to have left Russia, although he is keen to stress that rather than establishing an alternative Russian Government-in-Exile, he is only nurturing a new intellectual and political elite who would be capable of stepping in and ‘hitting the ground running’, if and when Putin decides to relinquish absolute power.
I am well aware that the list above is only the briefest of sketches, a partial picture that leaves out numerous other political exiles who have in the past come to London (they continue to this day) to escape persecution and to foment change in whichever country they call home. To do justice to this topic, it would be necessary to write at much greater length and to apply historiographic skills that I cannot claim to possess. In any event, this project does not provide the time or the space for such an enterprise, so I must thank you for your understanding.
Instead, and in line with the way in which other similar topics have been treated, I decided to investigate the life of a single political exile, a remarkable woman, exiled from her native Iran. Nasrin Parvaz is a civil rights activist who was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death, who spent eight miserable years in a variety of Iranian prisons, and who now lives in the safety of London where she continues tirelessly in her struggle against the oppressors of people everywhere. I was introduced to her by Exiled Writers Ink, a remarkable organisation that brings together writers from many repressive regimes and war-torn territories, embracing equally both migrants and exiles. Nasrin’s story is particular to Iran, but it is universal nonetheless.
I was privileged to be invited to Nasrin’s neat, modern flat in North London, where she lives with a very large teddy bear, a gift from a man who meant a great deal to her. Populating her surroundings are pot plants, which she lovingly nurtures, a guitar which she plays whenever the mood takes her, books which stimulate her mind, and a computer which connects her to the world. The photography temporarily disturbs the order of all these things but this is quickly restored in readiness for my asking her to tell me something about the journey that brought her to London. She fled Iran in 1993 as a young woman of 35 and a year later, she was granted asylum and given the right to remain in England - her life as a political exile had begun.
Nasrin spoke with a soft voice, choosing her words with care in the knowledge that every word matters. Her voice might have been soft but her words were firm and unambiguous. She paused between sentences, using her silences to good effect. Occasionally, she struggled to remember a name or the details relating to a particular event, but I soon became aware that there was often a reason for this. Nasrin is a poet too, and I was conscious that her syntax and the cadences of her speech created almost tangible forms that were an enhancement of her meaning. It pained me whenever I had to interrupt her, or to move her on, so to speak.
I asked Nasrin to tell me something of her childhood first, which she did. “Milan, I was born in Teheran, the capital of Iran, into what one might call a lower middle-class family. My father was a hard-working man from a provincial farming family and, having married locally, he and his wife moved to the capital where my father took up work in an office. We were a relatively large family: I had three brothers and four sisters - I was in the middle.” I asked if she had had a happy childhood, at which she hesitated and then confessed apologetically that she did not quite remember details from such a long time ago - during one prison interrogation, her head had been smashed against a wall and, in consequence, her long-term memory is impaired. After a little pause, she continued: “One of my sisters told me recently that, as a child, I was both naughty and strong-willed, but I have personally very little recollection of those times. I went to a local primary school, which was very mixed, and there, for the first time, I became aware that some of my classmates were very poor indeed; they survived mostly on plain bread alone. I remember that very clearly. We were certainly not a wealthy family but these early experiences at school made an indelible impression on my life; ever since, I have felt very strongly that, whatever the regime, everybody should at least have enough to eat.”
“I progressed to secondary school and it was there, at the age of 13, when I was given the task of analysing passages from the Quran. To my dismay, I quite soon noticed a lot of inconsistencies and I was struck by the disturbingly unjust representation of women, whereby we were to be kept permanently subservient to men. It was then that I lost my faith. This had a significant impact on my life, simply because Islam is very much a part of most people’s daily lives in Iran. I progressed to High School where I finished my education at the age of 18. I am not ashamed to say that I found the education system rather uninspiring; I didn’t enjoy it much and consequently I didn’t do too well. Mind you, I did enjoy the camaraderie and the social aspects of school. I also loved reading and I enjoyed writing prose. At school, we were taught in Farsi with Arabic as one of our subjects, though perhaps foolishly, I tended to associate Arabic principally with the Quran, instead of embracing and mastering the richness of the language for its own sake.”
At that time, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi (widely known in the UK as the ‘Shah of Persia’) was very much in power. Towards the end of his reign (1941 - 1979) he was viewed in many levels of Iranian society with a considerable degree of suspicion, having gradually lost the support of the nation’s Shi’a clergy, of the bazaari (the traditional merchant caste) and of the working class. He was variously despised and mistrusted because of his close ties with the US and the UK, particularly in connection with those countries’ extraction of Iranian oil. Also at issue were his great enthusiasm for modernisation, his posture towards Israel, his alarming enthusiasm for the creation and deployment of an overweening secret police force, and the thick fog of corruption that permeated his family and his court.
Nasrin continued: “My parents were not especially political but it was certainly my feeling that most people did not care for the Shah at all. I was a bit too young to understand fully all the political complexities, but I certainly understood that the US and UK involvement in Iran was definitely not to the benefit of the people at large. I remember in 1974, when I was 16, a number of the Shah’s political opponents were arrested; they were Marxists, they refused to ask for pardon, and they were swiftly executed. I have no hesitation in saying that this single, shocking event woke me up politically.” By this time, the Shah had become infamous for his ruthless elimination of his opponents through the notorious SAVAK, the secret police force, often described as Iran's ‘most hated and feared institution’. The Shah had established this force with the help of America’s CIA and Israel’s MOSSAD and, at one stage, it boasted over 60,000 agents and informers, with almost unlimited power to arrest, torture and murder thousands of Iranian citizens who had the temerity to oppose the Shah. Nasrin adds: “Everyone knew that we could not talk safely but it was still a shock to see people being routinely eliminated, simply because they didn’t agree with the Shah.”
Now a young woman of 18, Nasrin also had other things on her mind. Tehran had become a vibrant, modern city and, while tradition was still respected, lots of boundaries had become blurred. The Shah may have ruled as an autocrat but he made efforts to promote modernity and progress. In an interview given to the German magazine, Der Spiegel, in February 1974, Mohammad-Reza said: "I would like you to know that in our case, our actions are not just to take vengeance on the West. As I said, we are going to be a member of your club.” Nasrin remembers fondly the weekend walks in the mountains, with girls and boys together, and though clearly all was not well, it seemed a good time to be young.
At the age of 19, Nasrin decided to make her first trip abroad, to England specifically, to study English at Cheltenham and to consider seriously whether she should study at an English university. However, upon returning home a year later, for a summer vocation, she found that Iran had changed rather more than she had expected: the Shah had fled on 17th January 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini had arrived back from exile in Paris in February - the monarchy was abolished and the Islamic Republic of Iran was born.
In an article in the Feminist Review (2003) Nasrin wrote about this extraordinary period in Iranian history: “Because of the revolution, a number of books came on to the market that had been banned before, and during that time, I was able to read Marx, Engels and others and realised that I too was a socialist, because I believed in equality and freedom. At that time, I believed that equality between women and men, which had been one of my issues since childhood, could only be attained under socialism. I became more confident and felt I had purpose in life - struggling for freedom and equality. Prior to the revolution, I didn't believe in God, but neither had I seen myself as a socialist because of all the propaganda against communism circulated by the government and by the Islamists. They said that the Soviet Union was a socialist country and that socialism equated to dictatorship. My mother would call me Stalin whenever she got angry with me for not listening to her.”
Nasrin went on: “Milan, I must confess that I was frightened, because I did not trust Khomeini from the start. It’s true, he did talk about freedom initially and even about equality for both the men and women of Iran, but I was deeply sceptical, though my parents were optimistic about the changes ahead and so were many others. Khomeini was especially welcomed by Iran’s poor, who hoped for greater prosperity and better lives for their children; of course, what they got instead, imposed on them by the new regime, and barely a few months later, was greater misery and even fewer freedoms. Although the bulk of the people rose up for bread and freedom, because they were well organised for taking power, the Islamists were the only ones who gained from what was subsequently called the ‘Islamic Revolution’. By the time I left England and returned to Iran, in the Summer of 1979, Teheran wasn’t the same place I’d left a year earlier. In such a short time, everyone seemed more politically polarised yet, curiously, not as religious as before. Ironically, while the Islamists were building their power base, the young people of Teheran enjoyed a few months of freedom, a period during which many dynamic social and political groups were established.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Nasrin started to attend political gatherings of those who opposed the new regime, mostly because she saw the writing on the wall. She campaigned for greater equality for all Iranians, greater recognition of human rights, freedom of expression, more generous welfare provision and, of course, women’s rights. As early as March 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a diktat that women should cover themselves in the full chador; indeed, all female government employees were asked to adopt it immediately and so lead the way. Women were barred from becoming judges; gradually, most beaches and sports grounds became segregated by sex; and the legal age of marriage was reduced to 9 (admittedly, it was later raised to 13). Not surprisingly, women were outraged and on 8 March 1979 (International Women’s Day) one hundred thousand of them marched through the streets of Teheran in protest - most men watched from the pavements in disbelief.
Nasrin continued: “Slowly but surely, the Islamic regime was beginning to crack down hard on any opposition and soon afterwards, mass executions began. From Summer 1979, the regime began mass killings in the villages of Kurdistan. The Kurds did not support the Islamic regime; rid of the Shah, what they wanted was their freedom, they wanted the Kurdish language to be spoken and taught in their schools, and they wanted the right to self-determination. Once the new regime sent troops, and the killing started, many Kurds escaped from their villages and retreated to the mountains where they created the military resistance now known as the Peshmerga.”
“As a young woman of 23, I had already been an active supporter of a socialist political group and had for two years helped with organising workers to fight for their rights. Then, without any warning whatsoever, on 13th November 1982, I was arrested in broad daylight on a Teheran street. I was intercepted on my way to meet with a political associate. On that day, I entered a nightmare world, from which I was only to emerge eight years later, physically and mentally scarred. I was tortured and sentenced to death.”
The Anti-Sabotage Joint Committee (or Komiteh Moshtarak) Interrogation Centre, in Teheran, was built in 1932 but it became notorious during the reign of Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi and his equally notorious secret police, SAVAK, who tortured and killed thousands of the Shah’s opponents there before the 1979 revolution. Of course, following the Revolution, the Interrogation Centre didn’t have to wait long to be re-populated. The Islamists, in their turn, had to neutralise their own opponents and this place was custom-built and fully equipped for the purpose, including with all the paraphernalia of torture. It still remains uncertain how many hundreds of Iranians passed through this place, how many were brutally tortured, and how many never came out alive. In recent years, the Interrogation Centre has been converted into the ‘Ebrat Museums’: schoolchildren are frequent visitors, invited to look upon grotesque but horribly realistic displays about the history of this factory of horror. This place is rightfully a monument to the propensity of human beings to brutality, but don’t expect to learn anything about those who passed through its bleak interiors after 1979. Iran’s recent history has been cleansed of all such unattractive facts; only the Shah’s brutality can be shown. Thankfully, Nasrin survived the Interrogation Centre and once her novel and memoir are published, we shall learn more about what went on behind the walls of this palace of terror.
Not expecting her to disclose too much of the detail that will illustrate her memoirs, I asked Nasrin to give me just a sketch of her experience after her death sentence was passed, when she might have been executed at any time. After thinking for a moment, she responded: “Milan, how does one summarise a nightmare that lasts for eight years? I will try. I was charged with being an enemy of the state, a CIA and Mossad infiltrator and agent. I had no legal representation as such, and passing death sentences had become pretty much a conveyor belt activity by then. I was aware that some people I knew had been executed even before I was arrested; some people who were put in prison with me were executed there and then; so I was only too conscious that my life could be taken from me on any day, at any time.”
I asked Nasrin why she had continued to work as a political activist, knowing that the eradication of the regime’s opponents had already begun, and that she might be next on the list. Unhesitatingly, she replies: “Milan, we believed that the cause we worked for was greater than any of us. Freedom and equality wouldn’t just drop from the sky; they had to be fought for; and in this fight, many would need to sacrifice their lives. My parents broadly knew what I was up to; they saw my books and they heard me speak, but they didn’t know the degree to which I was involved in the cause. But they did warn me to be careful, and I heard their warnings, but I felt I must go on.”
In her prison memoirs, Nasrin writes about the Interrogation Room: “The room’s purpose was unmistakable: it was torture. There was a trolley with straps for the prisoner’s hands and feet. Blood, new and old, stained the floor. And there was a distinct smell in the room; a smell that I had never come across anywhere else. It was the smell of agony, mixed with blood and sweat.” Nasrin spent six months in this hell on earth; she was tortured almost daily; she was blindfolded and subjected to the vicious falanga or bastinado (beating of the soles of the feet ) until her feet were swollen, bleeding, and turning blue. “Ibrahim, my interrogator, cried out with each stroke: ‘In the name of God!’, ‘Ya Ali!’, ‘Ya Hussein!’ Whenever I heard the whip crack, searing pain shot through the soles of my feet and went up through my body like a lightning bolt. The pain made me want to die, yet I did not cry out; some strange strength came to me in my desolation. They wanted the names and addresses of the other activists I’d worked with, but they couldn’t get them out of me.”
“To me, it was very important not to give away any names. At one point during my interrogation and torture, I even tried to kill myself, because I feared that I was getting close to cracking up and confessing. My feet were in such a state that walking on them turned into self-inflicted torture. The pain was so shocking that sleep proved impossible, turning both days and nights into a relentless, unending nightmare. Then, after one of those severe beatings, I became paralysed; it was only thanks to the kindness of my fellow inmates, who looked after me, that I survived at all. For weeks, I didn’t know if I would ever walk again.” About a month later, during one of those regular interrogations when she refused to say anything at all, Nasrin’s head was smashed against the wall. Ever since these brutal interrogations, Nasrin has suffered from epileptic fits. Twenty years later, neurosurgeons in London diagnosed a brain tumour that can be traced back to the trauma that she suffered.
Partly thanks to the intervention of her father, her death sentence was eventually commuted to ten years’ imprisonment, of which she served eight, in the Evin, Ghezel Hesar and Gohardash Prisons. “Once when I was moved from the Joint Committee Interrogation Centre, I thought they had finished with me, but I was wrong: they continued with interrogations; they were trying to change us, to re-educate us, trying to convert us to their faith and their way of thinking. They demanded that I confess publicly and this, of course, I refused to do. If I had confessed, I might have been released sooner but I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself afterwards.”
I asked Nasrin how she had managed to stay sane through all those years of torture and imprisonment and, with the glint of tears in her eyes, she responded: “I survived because the others there helped me to survive, and I helped them. We stole paper and pens and we wrote coded messages; we painted pictures and we wrote poems - they didn’t survive long but at least they were a sign to us that the human spirit within us was still alive. Some of those who were imprisoned became mentally unstable; some just ran out of the will to live altogether. Those who could no longer cope with the pain and the cruelty that were inflicted upon us, they committed suicide or, in some cases, they simply gave up and died. I will never forget them, and I don’t know if I can ever forgive those who were responsible for their deaths. Those who perished, those who were executed, they cannot speak for themselves; somehow I survived, and therefore I must speak for them. I feel it is my duty to speak for them, to continue to cry out against the injustice that was done them, to keep on protesting for myself and for all of them too!”
During 1990, a Human Rights Delegation was allowed into Iran to inspect the prisons and, in particular, to see the Evin Prison to the north of Tehran where Nasrin was being held at that time. But no one saw her; all the political prisoners were hidden from the Delegation. Later that year, perhaps because of this visit, or for some other unknown reason, Nasrin and a number of other prisoners were released, with conditions. Suddenly, she was back at home with her parents but inevitably, after eight years in an Iranian gaol, Nasrin was a different person altogether. Yes, technically she was free again, but she soon learned that because of her past, no university, no workplace would accept her; she was now a marked person, someone not to be trusted.
The Ayatollah Khomeini has been described, sycophantically, by Shia scholars as a ‘charismatic leader of immense popularity and a champion of the Islamic revival’ but when it came to dealing with the opposition, he and his revolutionary guards were every bit as ruthless as the Shah’s SAVAK, his hated secret police. Nasrin could not bear to be idle for long and she soon returned to the political activism that had put her in prison before, and this she managed to sustain for almost three years. Only when she realised that she was being routinely followed, and one of her friends was arrested, did she decide to take flight from Iran and to seek political asylum here in the UK - it was 1993.
Though Nasrin felt safe here in England, starting a new life in a foreign country is never easy. She loved her own country and she would have much preferred to stay close to her family and friends, not forgetting her political associates. She would have rather stayed at home, working towards making Iran a better place for all, but those in power seemed to have other ideas. And there were always those agencies who liked to pull strings from the outside; such forces hardly ever gave much thought to the welfare of the Iranian people.
As a constant reminder of all that she had suffered in her home country, Nasrin never quite recovered from the injuries that she had sustained during interrogation. Loss of memory and blinding headaches plagued her for years and while the latter were originally diagnosed (wrongly) as migraines, it turned out to be a brain tumour that was causing all the problems. Brain surgery failed to alleviate these symptoms entirely and Nasrin now depends on a cocktail of heavy medications.
Once she was given political asylum in Britain and granted refugee status, Nasrin studied for a degree in Psychology and, subsequently, for an MA in International Relations, at Middlesex University. She also completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Systemic Theory at an NHS Foundation Trust, where she worked as part of a team of family therapists.
In 2002, Nasrin’s prison memoir was published in Farsi and translated into Italian a few years later. Her articles, short stories and poetry were published in the Feminist Review, in Live Encounters magazine, in Unthank Books, Exiled Writers Ink and others. Together with Hubert Moore, she has also translated poetry that is prohibited in Iran, from Farsi into English.
Here in England, Nasrin has given talks on the violation of human rights in Iran; she has also lectured in Scotland, during the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as well as in Canada, Sweden and Italy. One of her stories, A War Against Womanhood, won the Women’s World Award in 2003; another was long-listed for the Bristol Short Story Prize; and a third was shortlisted for the Asham Award. Nasrin’s novel, The Secret Letters from X to A, is scheduled to be published by the Victorina Press during 2018 and the same publisher plans to bring out her newly-extended Prison Memoirs later that year. Nasrin is not only an undoubtedly prolific writer and internationally recognised speaker, but she also paints, and her paintings are mostly depictions of her life in prison; it is her way of exorcising the demons who haunt everyone who has survived the nightmare of torture and a long, brutal incarceration. She has also created a series of paintings illustrating the desperate plight of refugees everywhere.
I suggested to Nasrin that after living here for 25 years she must consider herself a Londoner, but she hesitates: “Well Milan, it’s rather a yes and a no; of course, I am now de facto part of London life, but do I belong here? There are days when I feel I don’t belong anywhere. My racist white neighbours, who have thankfully moved away, were happy to remind me, quite frequently, that I am really a foreigner.”
Nasrin is not alone in this: all aliens, however well integrated, will know this feeling from time to time and major developments, like Brexit, can lead to their being reminded by the more xenophobic amongst the indigenous population that perhaps it’s time to pack their bags and GO HOME! Nasrin now speaks and campaigns against the violation of human rights not just in Iran but worldwide. During recent years, we have all witnessed emerging polarisation in Europe and the rise of nationalism and chauvinism; ironically, these trends seem strongest amongst the newly-independent nations of Eastern Europe, once satellites of the USSR, whose peoples should know only too well what the suppression of human rights can feel like. Ours may be the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ but our own governments do not always offer the best example to the world. While HM Governments rarely miss a chance to preach to other nations the values of democracy and the importance of human rights and freedoms, they have not held back from imposing upon the UK population laws that erode our own rights of peaceful, political protest, nor do they have any hesitation in attacking and humiliating those who dare to oppose these dictatorial tendencies.
Nasrin herself has noticed that often, when she mentions in her speeches or in public discussions the erosion of human rights here in the UK, raising concerns about the creeping intolerance of dissenting voices on our own doorstep, she will be reminded that people like her should consider themselves lucky to be here and perhaps be a little more grateful that they have been offered a safe haven. Associated with all such utterances are the deeply worrying undertones of xenophobia.
At this point in our exchange, I felt I needed to share with Nasrin my own experience of the astonishing events that took place during my previous exhibition in Central London in 2015, Outsiders in London: Are you one, too? Two portraits were physically attacked - one was actually knocked off the gallery wall - by some very angry British visitors. And whose images should be targetted? It was the portraits of Peter Tatchell, one of our most prominent, dedicated and internationally renowned human rights campaigners, and of Trenton Oldfield, who dared to disrupt the 2012 Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race, putting himself at great personal risk to make a non-violent protest, highlighting elitism in our society and the alarming damage being caused by the continuing increase in inequality. ( Peter Tatchell has kindly agreed to be part of this project too; please go to: Campaigning from home )
The images of these two remarkable men were attacked, in part because their views were seen as objectionable but also because they were not Brits - neither was originally born in the UK and despite their having lived and worked here for many years, their attackers felt they had no right to criticise the country whose hospitality they enjoyed. Put crudely, the message was quite simple: ’This isn’t your country and it never will be, so if you don’t like it here, you can go back to where you came from.’ Of course, this is not a uniquely English phenomenon: intolerance towards ‘outsiders’ is increasingly discernible all across Europe, and in many other countries, the popular reaction to such an exhibition might perhaps have been even more violent. Nasrin knows personally exactly to what such intolerance can lead.
The celebrated Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, who lives in what she calls ‘self-imposed exile’ here in London, also continues to remind us that we should look carefully at what is now happening in Turkey and begin to recognise the fragilities that exist in our time-honoured system. She urges us to recognise, at an early stage, that nationalism, the hatred of outsiders, and a retreat into some kind of nostalgic past, can easily happen here too. Such popular movements are confidently on the march already in Hungary and Poland, they are starting to surface in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, and they are emerging in other parts of Europe too. The leaders of these ‘patriot parties’ like to proclaim, ‘Our past was glorious; ours was once a golden age; and we need to remove any obstacle that prevents us from reviving that golden age. The liberal elite and the European Union have stolen our sense of who we are and that’s what we want to revitalise.’ Did Nigel Farage not say something very similar whilst campaigning for leave during the Brexit referendum, and have not other politicians followed his lead with the promise of a ‘global Britain’ restored to the power and magnificence of its former Empire?
Britain has a mostly proud record of granting political asylum to those individuals who genuinely need it; our state has also been generally tolerant of governments-in-exile that have been set up here in the past or, in some cases, that remain here still. But once here, the activities of these bodies can occasionally become an irritant to the British Government and, indeed, to the establishment as a whole. It has been known that, at the same time as a safe haven has been provided to the political opponents of specific regimes, the British Government has, for perfectly valid commercial or strategic reasons, been happy to trade with, sometimes even to support the survival and prosperity of, those very same regimes, thus directly undermining the work and position of the political exiles here. This might be seen as hypocrisy but perhaps the more appropriate term would be realpolitik.
During the Second World War, the relationship between General Charles de Gaulle, heading the French Government-in-Exile here in London, and the British Prime Minister of the day, Winston Churchill, was stormy to say the least. The Polish Government-in-Exile felt betrayed by Britain and the Western Allies when Europe was carved up by the victors and Poland found itself amongst the satellite states of the Soviet Union. Kurdish political exiles have enjoyed the hospitality of this country for years yet talk, with some bitterness, about how Britain has betrayed them repeatedly: with the establishment of Iraq in 1920; in 1946, when the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was established in Iran’s Kurdistan; in 1975, when the Shah of Iran signed the Shat Al Arab Agreement; and in 1988, when up to 5,000 civilians were killed, and almost twice that number injured, by a gas attack upon Halabja. The Kurds fear that they will be betrayed yet again, now, during the current civil war in Syria, where Britain is likely to side with Turkey in opposing the creation of an independent ‘Kurdistan’.
All these sorry tales help to highlight the perennial conundrum of political exiles in this country: their dreams and aspirations will sometimes simply be swept aside by the harsh reality of economics, national interest, and the brute power of those states which shape the course of world events.
Nasrin went through a terrible ordeal, she survived a nightmare, but she remains optimistic: “Milan, if we compared how things are now with how things were 100 years ago, it would be foolish not to recognise the enormous progress that has been made. Yes, it all came at a cost, but I did my bit and I continue to do so, but I would not like you to go away thinking that somehow I have sacrificed my life. I just try to make things better and while I often speak and write about the darkness in the past, I also harbour a firm faith in a better future. Sometimes, I feel that there is almost more joy to be derived from struggle. I don’t have any children, I have no husband and I am free to live as I wish. I do what I want to do. No, it didn’t come easily but now I live my life the way I want to. My struggle for freedom started early on, confronting the conventions and the constraints my own mother erected around me - from the outset, she was trying to control me - and I have kept at it ever since.” Nasrin giggles. I asked her if she would ever change: “Of course I will! I am always changing! I am not the same person I was ten, or even five years ago. I welcome change for I see that only change offers the opportunity for things to get better.”
Finally, I asked Nasrin what hope she had for her mother country, for Iran: “I am sure the current Islamic regime will eventually be kicked out by the people. It is only a matter of time. We have recently seen mass protests, not just on the streets of Teheran but in the provincial towns as well, and every year these popular protests are gaining strength. In recent years, the women of Iran have played a leading role in these demonstrations and I am confident that the Iranian people will rise up once again. There are so many people who welcomed the return of Khomeini who regret it bitterly now. The Islamists are mostly backed by the more conservative country folk and villagers, and they remain in power because they have the guns. And yes, they have the prisons too and these are full; and yes, they will still do anything to eliminate the opposition. In that respect, it seems as if nothing has changed, but we must fight on and I do, every day!”
Text edited: 26th May 2018
Nasrin's novel, The Secret Letters from X to A, was published during June 2018 and her newly-extended One Woman's Struggle in Iran, A Prison Memoirs has been published in December 2018.
You can learn more about Nasrin's work by visiting her own website:
Nasrin is a member of Exiled Writers Ink - they have published several of her short stories.
To learn more about them and their work, go to:
Page modified: 17th March 2019