Exile and the Kingdom
“I ran away from Iran. I didn’t leave my country. ”
This interview took place on
Arash walks into the Intercultural Centre with a smile on his face. He announces he’s finally found a house and that it’s a nice house. Katarina laughs sheepishly. When I press her she says, ‘All the door handles are different. And there’s a weird sunroom at the back. It’s got a bath.’
Arash is surprised by her reaction. He still thinks his new digs are nice. But there’s an element of doubt – from his group of friends, only Kiarash ‘the mountain climber’ has agreed to move in with him. Mohammed, the architect, has refused to come along. Arash thinks Mohammed is having psychological issues and may even be doing drugs. He doesn’t trust him anymore but needs someone else to sign the lease with him and contribute to the bond.
I want to get deeper into Arash’s story today and start by asking him what he would like as his Open City Stories pseudonym. He suggests ‘Fugitive’.
Fugitive is you know, the reality. I am a fugitive.
But fugitive has connotations that you’ve done something wrong. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you?
What’s your offer?
On my computer I’ve used a different name for you. I can’t remember. [It was Hafez, which he disliked when he saw my drafts and finally chose the name Arash] One of the things I worry about is if someone in your country reads this and figures out the person speaking is you.
There’s no, you know, surname. Just a nickname.
Yeah. But with your details will they be able to put it together.
Oh, about the details. Yep.
For example, for me, I tell you I used to work at [foreign organisation], there’s no more [foreign organisation] workers that came this way, except me.
If somebody knew that I came this way, they will find out that it’s me. It’s not hard.
Yeah, exactly. That’s what I mean. And because you have family there you don’t want to get them in any trouble.
So, I will tell you my story, but do not put my work experience.
Okay, yeah, I’ll make sure that’s not in there…maybe start with a little bit of what you’re life was like before you had to leave.
So shall we start when I was young?
Actually my dad used to work for a kind of organisation of the government. He was religious. My mum is a housewife.
I was a student. I went to university. Before that I looked at life in a different way, but after I passed the exam of University, after I went to University, my mind changed.
What do you mean it changed? How did it change?
Actually I was already religious. So religious.
And that was Islam?
And before my University I used to live with my parents. In that period of time I believed that, University is not good, it’s not necessary for the people. I did not care that I had to pass an exam for University, I did not try.
It was a joke. I believed it was joke.
“...after I went to University, my mind changed.”
Did you think that one day you might like to do a certain job?
Yes, exactly. I was thinking that I used to work as a seller.
Yeah, for example. From 12 years ago I used to start my first work. I was 17. I got my diploma. Diploma of accounting. I used to study accounting, in high school. After that I was hired by real estate. It was my first job. I really like this job because it was so easy for me to do. Because I was social person and I like to make relation with people, any type of people, from doctors to workers, or anything.
And after two years I met this girl. Our relation got serious. She told me if we want to provide a relation, this is really important for my parents that you be an educated person.
What was she like? Did your parents have an expectation for her as well?
They didn’t mind? Did they like her?
Actually I was so shy. I didn’t let her come to see my parents.
Did they know about her?
Yeah, after two years. I told about her to my mother.
What did they say? Were they okay with it?
Actually, she’s got a good situation. She was educated. She had a really nice family. Good personality. Good appearance.
She said, “it’s really important for my dad that you’re educated.” And accidentally [fortunately], I know English, I could pass my English pass by 97%. I think it was the main reason I could pass the exam.
So that was like an entrance exam for University?
Yeah. I pass the exam. And our relationship broken up just after that.
The old and the new
“The culture of the people – they were so conditioned people. ”
And I was in University. And I saw the people who were around me. And it was like a competition. Competition for studying. And in country like Iran, Tehran is the other country in Iran.
What do you mean a separate country?
When you, for example, compare the culture of the people living in Tehran with the other cities, I don’t want to say which is better…for example, for me I prefer to live in Shiraz, even though I was born in Tehran. I like Shiraz city.
Shiraz is the third biggest city in Iran.
Do you mean Tehran’s more modern, more westernised?
Yeah. The other cities look at people living in Tehran and they follow what the people of Tehran doing. Shiraz people also follow the culture of Tehranian people.
Where was the University?
I had to go to Bushehr to go to University. So I went to Bushehr. I found Bushehr was a really small city and it was not a modern city.
For the first time, it was really interesting for me to get summer to live alone, to be independent. And finally after some fighting with my family because they believed that it’s dangerous for me, I’m just 19.
I was the only child in my family. I don’t have any brother or sister.
I lived alone for seven years. Two and a half years in Bushehr and 4 years in Shiraz.
What sort of degree did you do, Accounting?
Accounting, yeah. And 4 years get my Bachelor of Science in Shiraz. Bushehr was small city, not modern city. And it was so different than Tehran.
So I went to University and I found myself alone most of the time, thinking about myself.
The culture of the people – they were so conditioned people. Because Bushehr is the oldest city in Iran. It has 7 years history behind it.
Sorry, seven thousand years.
So after 2 years I went to Shiraz. Yeah I started my education there. It was so better for me. I was so comfortable there. I found many friends. I can tell you that my best friends are from Shiraz. And they’re so kind people.
For example, if you went to Shiraz 10 years ago, you’d find too many tourist people out there. Because there’s a office town. I found a guy who was Irish. He used to work for a biscuit factory. He told me it’s really nice country, it’s got really kind people. They’re so interested to have guests from foreign countries.
I said yes, but there’s too much difference between people and governments, because the government is so religious. They put people under pressure and force them, people are not allowed to drink, and they have to have hijab and scarf on.
And after you finished your studies?
I go to [foreign organisation]. It was really good job. With good income.
The huge garden
“It was winter. I wasn’t on duty. I woke up at 5 o’clock and heard from TV – that they attacked. ”
Was it purely for money?
I got enough income. I worked two days and two days off. If I got two days vacation, I got six days free.
The office was really good. The place I was going to, it was really nice. Maybe the best place I could work. Huge garden. We had swimming pool. We could use that while I was working there.
We got club and we could drink in the club at the end of the week – in the middle of Tehran, you know, in the Islamic Republic of Iran. And that was really interesting for me, you know? Wow! How can we drink every weekend and nobody…
Nobody could do anything about it?
How was the work?
It was really good. Because the four friends out there, we were from the same street. We were old friends, we were friends for more than 10 years. Now we were all working for the [foreign organisation]. It was interesting for us because we didn’t have any experience working together and it was cool.
Why did you leave?
Exactly after one year we had intruder – from some forces. It’s actually government. They call it Basijis. It was organised attack.
They are some informal forces of the government. The government called them student. But we saw that. The Basijis – all of them have moustache. Like, Hezbollah or Hamas.
They attacked. They climbed over the gates. The police just came three hours later and they’ve done everything that they [Basiji] wanted. That night most of the foreign employers left Iran.
Where were you?
It was winter. I wasn’t on duty. I woke up at 5 o’clock and heard from TV – that they attacked. I was trying to make a phone call to my colleagues but nobody was answering me. Finally I could find my shift leader. He told me, ‘You have to go to work at 7.30 or eight.’
We went at around eight o’clock. When we arrived, there was more than two thousand polices. We were going in and somebody stop us and ask, ‘Where you go?’ We explained. He called the foreign minister and they allowed us to go in.
It was awful. The windows were broken. The gate was demolished. Everything was broken. We went and checked the houses in the compound. They had stolen some money and jewels.
And after that?
We were hoping the [foreign organisation] would open. That they were coming back. Five months later, they redundant us.
Did you start another job?
Yeah, I started but I was getting telephone calls from Basij and I don’t know…they were telling me, ‘You’re a spy of [foreign nation] and we’ll kill you. We’ll kill your family.’
At first I didn’t find it serious. But after some while I thought, maybe somebody do that.
Was it just phone calls?
Yeah, just phone calls.
When did it get serious enough for you to consider leaving?
Four or five times they called me, in maybe a month.
I was thinking about leaving the country before that. It made me serious about that. I was working for [foreign organisation] and they would support me to go and come back again. They would give supporting letter.
But after that attack – they left Iran and we didn’t have any contact.
I ran away from Iran. I didn’t leave my country.
No turning back
“My friend left four years ago and he’s now living in Tasmania. He asked me to come by this person. He say, ‘He’s good. He will take you there.’”
So how did you leave?
Actually, I left two times. First time I came to Indonesia without telling anybody. My friends, my family. I came to Indonesia and I was there for two months. My visa was going to be finished.
So you need a visa to get there?
By the new law you need to get a visa from the embassy. Last year, we arrived to the airport [visa on arrival].
I arrived there and there were too many Arabian people. They look like us. Too many Arabian people behind me and too many in front of me. I was talking to an Indonesian guy and suddenly the police officer came to me and ask me my passport. I gave him. He checked it and said, ‘Follow me.’ I followed him to the office, sat on the chair and the other one [other police officer] said, ‘Why you are here?’
I said, ‘I’m here because I want to continue my education in Jakarta. So I’m here to check the situation.’
He saw that I can speak English. Too many of the Iranian, even Afghani people, they can’t speak English. He found that I can speak English so there’s no problem and he stamped it – my passport.
I left that office. I rent a taxi from the airport and asked him to take me to the hotel. Just, we were you know, at the gate of the airport, came out and the police car stopped us.
So they let you through customs and but stopped you outside?
Yes. Again. He came to the car and asked me about the passport.
[I said], ‘This is my hotel reservation and passport, this is my visa, so what’s the problem?’
He said, ‘We know that you’re coming here to go to Australia illegally. You have to go back to your country right now.’
I said, ‘No, this is the reason I’m here – because I want to continue my studies.’
He said, ‘No, there’s no way.’
I got three thousand dollars that time. I gave him hundred dollars. I told him, ‘ I know what’s the problem for you. I want to help you and myself. Because I’m so tired I want to go to the hotel and rest.’
He said, ‘You’re offering me the money?’
I said, ‘Hey, look. I know what are you looking for. Just take it.’
He said, ‘Okay. Give me some time to ask for my supervisor.’
He went for some time and came back again and said, ‘No, it’s not enough. You have to pay $500.’
Everything’s for money! You can buy them easily.
I said, ‘No. I don’t have that money.’
He started to discuss with me and I said, ‘Okay. Let’s go to the Iranian embassy. Then I will give you $500.’
He shocked. ‘No it’s not enough.’ He started hitting me…like this [pushing]. ‘Give me the money.’
So it was really bad situation because…I was alone. I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t know where I am.
I gave him 400,000 rupiah [as well]. Same as forty dollars. He gave me his number and told me to call him if I have any problems.
I came to hotel but the bad luck, the air conditioner of the hotel was broken. So I was forced to go to another kind of hotel. It was the first night I arrived there. I was there for two months. I pay more than $2000 for rent.
So I have to pass this time – but after two months nobody called.
How did you make the arrangements [with people smugglers]?
My friend left four years ago and he’s now living in Tasmania. He asked me to come by this person. He say, ‘He’s good. He will take you there.’
So, after two months I decided to go back to Iran. I went after my money [paid to the people smugglers] Also, I heard some news that the [foreign organisation] was going to be opened again.
I was after my money for three months. I could find the place that he was living. It was like gangster game. Because I was following him. I was waiting just front of the door where he comes out and catch him.
But the problems that forced me to leave Iran bothered me more than the first time.
“When I first left Iran it was really hard for me to say goodbye to my family and my friends. I saw my dad was crying – for the first time in my life. ”
So it was worse when you went back?
I was really under mental pressure. I saw that I was going to be crazy. Economical pressure. Air pollution. Money. Everything.
The second time when I decide to leave Iran it was easier. When I first left Iran it was really hard for me to say goodbye to my family and my friends. I saw my dad was crying – for the first time in my life.
Second time it was not hard like that. It was easier. I didn’t tell any family. Just my mom and dad and I said goodbye and…
I came to Indonesia. It was easy. I knew the city. I got better feeling in Jakarta.
Did you think of staying there [Indonesia]?
I know some Iranian people who like there. But for me it wasn’t good. They are kind people [Indonesians] but they’re so poor. And they do everything for money. And the problem is that I can’t live in the weather like there. It’s hard for me. Because I grew up in dry weather and it’s so wet and warm.
I know my target. I know what am I here [for]. So after fourteen days I got a call and they called us to say, ‘ We got a boat. We are going.’
See Cheating Death for the story of Arash’s boat journey, which he told us when we first met in July 2013.
The Reluctant Activist
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Let me tell you
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