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What We Talk About When We Talk About Iran

On Maryam Rafiee and Humanizing the ‘Big Enemy’

By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer

When covering international events and relations, writers occasionally refer to a country as a single agent, as if it were an individual person acting on one set of motivations:

“China uses coercion and aggression to get its way”

“Russia erupts in fury over Biden’s calling Putin a killer”

“Iran doubles down on social media ‘modesty,’ arrests hundreds”

Those overly concerned with semantics may see a subtle paradox in that last headline. Iran is not just its government, its military, its police. Iran is its citizens and residents, including arrested ones. “Iran doubles down, arrests some of itself.” That’s what the headline means.

We could be more specific and say, “Iranian police arrest hundreds.” Of course, the Iranian police is also a diverse group of individuals, so we could zoom in further. Which police departments? Which individual officers? The task becomes unreasonable—the time needed to uncover all these names, the resources it would require, the amount of space in the paper. News agencies run on budgets and extremely demanding deadlines. So we simplify and call those acting on behalf of the local, regional, or federal government “Iran.”

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Hossein Rafiee with his wife, Derakhshandeh Teimourian, in Chabahar, 2002.

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When reporters follow this convention of treating a country like an individual, they don’t inherently erase complexity. It depends on their audience. For example, when a New York Times article reports “US Punishes 24 Chinese Officials,”  American readers understand that the US is not really an individual actor. We know our nation contains a multitude of people with a range of ideological viewpoints. We run up against our differences every day.

But it gets trickier when we personify foreign states, particularly ones that our own leaders consider threatening. Vibrant societies often appear as villainous monoliths, especially in the A1 headlines and soundbites. And the average news consumer in the US is worried about their own daily life: their job, their education, their family, getting that leak in the roof fixed, picking out a Mother’s Day gift, affording it. I know that some days the headlines and soundbites are all I have the mental room for. And some days, I don’t even have the mental room for those.

To me, one of the countries that appears most opaque in US reporting, after North Korea, is Iran. I’m tired of hearing about one of the oldest human civilizations only in relation to how its affairs affect US interests. I’m tired of listening to experts from the US summarize an entire nation’s motivations in fewer than two hundred words or in under twenty seconds. I want to hear five Iranians with conflicting political beliefs talk at length about their own country.

Every nation is made up of hardliners and moderates, radicals and reformers, ideologues and people who don’t really care who’s in power as long as there is some stability. But in the US, we rarely get to glimpse the richness of Iranian political views.

Of course, while newsrooms and their audiences are responsible for depictions of foreign states, US journalists are not entirely at fault here. Reporters have limited access to information from some countries, and it’s nearly impossible to capture the true diversity of opinions within societies where citizens are discouraged from speaking out. In so many places, from Russia to Uganda to Myanmar (and yes, even in the US), individuals who challenge the reigning order are sometimes threatened, or jailed, or silenced.

In Iran, one of those dissident voices is Hossein Rafiee.

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The Rafiee family, Tehran, 2000.

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As the graphic designer at UNO Press, I first encountered the Rafiee family while working on the cover and interior layout of Dear Baba: A Story Through Letters, a volume in our Broken Silence Series, edited by Adam Braver.

Dr. Mohammad Hossein Rafiee is a former Iranian political prisoner and retired chemistry professor. Rafiee was first detained in 2001 on eventual charges of “spreading propaganda against the State.” He was released after six months. Then in 2015, as moderate politicians negotiated the nuclear deal with Western powers, hardliners targeted Rafiee for publicly supporting the talks. At the time of his second arrest, he was seventy-one years old. Due to medical conditions, he was released on bail in 2017.

Dear Baba collects the letters that his daughter, Anna Maryam Rafiee, wrote to him during his 2001 imprisonment, when he was held for six months in an undisclosed prison with no access to legal counsel, mostly in solitary confinement.

Maryam was not able to give her father the letters until he was released. Prior to their reunion, Maryam stashed her epistles beneath food in the freezer, in case intelligence agents searched their home. 

At the time, she was only a teenager. Her eighty-three letters capture ordinary moments in the life of a young adult: cramming for a tough chemistry exam, sharing sweets on the Persian New Year, hiking up a mountain on a springtime camping excursion.

But whenever her thoughts drift too long into these moments of peace, her writing always tacks back towards her inescapable political anxieties:

I only slept for four hours last night. I was thinking the whole night about what they would do to our home if they raided it...I read in Gorki’s book, when Pavel’s house is raided, one of his friends says, “These agents have the dirtiest job in the world, and they themselves know it!” 

Do you think they know their job is really bad? I don’t think so. If they knew, they would never do this.

...Since your arrest, I feel that our phone is being tapped. When I pick up the phone, I hear a voice, as if someone else is connected to the conversation. During the phone calls, the quality of the sound drops and my voice echoes. And at the end of the calls, I hear a voice again, that perhaps represents the disconnection of the third party from the line. Do you think I am hallucinating? 

...I can’t talk to my friends comfortably anymore because I don’t want [agents] to listen to my private conversations. I think eavesdropping is also among the dirtiest jobs in the world.

It stands out that when Maryam considers the agents of the Revolutionary Court, she imagines their psychology. She doesn’t believe they’re sadistic, only self-deceiving.

Her enemies are weak people but not monsters. 

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Maryam with her brother Mohammad and mother, on a road trip to her father’s hometown of Birjand, 2002.

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The year before father’s arrest, Maryam Rafiee was preparing for a “Hello, Children of the Earth!” Conference and wrote to Chelsea Clinton about the upcoming event:

[I] just wrote about our history, culture, and religion to show that we are a peaceful nation...according to what the conference was about: “Dialogue Among Civilizations.” ...However, I am sure my letter didn’t even get out of the post office, let alone to the USA.

Maryam was dropped as a presenter from the conference, and she wondered whether her letter to a Clinton played a role: “I was the girl who started a dialogue with the ‘Big Enemy.’”

In a way, this demonstrates that when the US looks at Iran and simplifies it, Iran does the same thing back. We are both each other’s Big Enemy.

But then again, maybe Iranians don’t oversimplify us quite as much as we oversimplify them. After all, I’ve never heard of an American teenager without any familial or ethnic ties to Iran writing to Hassan Rouhani’s children. In high school, I didn’t even know the names of the Iranian president or Supreme Leader.

Perhaps as the less powerful nation in our geopolitical rivalry, Iranians cannot afford to be as ignorant of American politics as most Americans are of Iranian politics. Who can afford to be ignorant of the US? Our presence has so often been fatal to people around the world, especially in the Middle East. Iranians have killed too, but they don’t have military bases near our borders.

“I want to stop this,” Maryam writes. “I think people of different countries need to talk more with each other and share their cultures and beliefs.”

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Maryam at her high school graduation, Tehran, 2001.

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In the end, any group of people is just that: both a group and the individual people it comprises. This is true whether we’re talking about an activist organization, a university department, or the entire country of Iran. However ideologically inconvenient it may be, the human experience is both collective and individual.

How do we break up the monoliths we receive in headlines and soundbites? Through long-form journalism, through profile pieces, through memoirs. Through trying to see the individuals within a society while not forgetting the bigger picture.

After encountering Hossein and Maryam Rafiee through Dear Baba, I still don’t know what to hope for from the current nuclear talks or the upcoming presidential election later this month. But at least I have a better understanding of the personal impact these political issues have had on one family. Iran is the Rafiees, and their allies, and their opponents, and their oppressors. It’s eighty-three million different people. 

Now when I read about what Iran allegedly does or believes or desires, I remember the faces of a father and daughter and remind myself, Maybe some of Iran, but probably not all of it.

Maryam with her father on a road trip to his hometown of Birjand, 2002.

Maryam Rafiee now lives in Canada and works as a chemist, architectural conservator, and field archeologist. Read her writing here.

Dear Baba
is available here.

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