Originally appeared in The National.
Death to the Dictator!: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran’s 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price
Sara Crichton Books
“Afsaneh”, the pseudonym taken by the author of Death to the Dictator!, means “fairy tale” in Persian. Aptly, her book starts out like one. In Iran, against the backdrop of last year’s Green Revolution, for a moment anything seems possible. A generation disenchanted by its ageing political leaders discovers, in a rage-fuelled protest against a rigged election, that its season of liberation is at hand, and that its intifada against its elders might succeed so rapidly as to seem almost magical.
A year later, the government of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad still stands, and the Green Revolutionaries have learnt frustration again. Afsaneh Moqadam’s book traces one revolutionary, here called Mohsen Abbaspour, through a pilgrim’s progress from political indifference to a naive and dangerous zeal – and finally, by way of captivity and torture by the Basij (Iran’s auxiliary security force), pain and despair.
Mohsen’s political engagement begins in earnest only after the election. His candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, loses, and the shockwaves ripple through Mohsen’s social circle. In protests he grows braver and less judicious, until he smart-mouths a Basiji guard and ends up being sent to Iran’s most brutal prison, where he is beaten and raped close to death. Eventually, when Mohsen goes home, he remains a shattered man, his rectum held together only by crude stitches and his psyche almost as wrecked. The fairy-tale aspects to this narrative end, in other words, midway through the book.
The instant photo-uploads and breathless tweets from the protests thrilled many an observer outside Iran, because with unprecedented immediacy the world could watch events unfold almost in real time. Death to the Dictator!, however, is one of the first books that appears to be reported from the protests. Its potential is to reveal what the ill-fated revolution felt like from inside, and whether its participants have the character of a permanent, grinding insurgency, or of a movement destined to fade away.
Unfortunately, this potential goes mostly unfulfilled. The lack of focus on the technology of the revolt – the Facebook-organised mobs, the masked kids with Twitter-enabled smartphones in one hand and brickbats in the other – does seem to confirm that social media meant less to the protesters than to their observers and supporters abroad. Such details help illuminate the still-obscure history of the protests. What Moqadam’s account lacks is illumination of issues wider than the experience of Mohsen himself: how the protests happened, who orchestrated them, what the protesters sought to accomplish. The book tells the story less of the revolution than of one revolutionary.
Why Moqadam limits herself in this way is a question entwined with her anonymity. Certainly, anyone within a truncheon’s swing of the Iranian state would suffer terribly if she wrote such a book under her own name. Yet, while one can hardly fault the author for opting to live, the anonymity has led the author to make lamentable decisions about style and scope. She (and I use the pronoun provisionally; the woman’s name ‘Afsaneh’ could be a ruse) makes herself totally opaque, writing in the third person, employing a free indirect style from Mohsen’s perspective. This device at once makes the story more personal – we hear Mohsen’s thoughts, even his daydreams – but also relieves it of the obligation to offer a more universal perspective.
The author’s presence in Mohsen’s head is indeed so complete that a natural suspicion is that she herself is Mohsen, except that Mohsen is not a writer. (Also, Death to the Dictator! seems to be written by a native English speaker. No translator is credited, and the language is simple but fluent, with occasional flourishes – artful deployments of the subjunctive, five-dollar words like “bastinado” – that would place her abilities far beyond advanced ESL.) Nor is Mohsen especially politically active or knowledgeable, which rules out his making any but the most banal observations about Mousavi, Karroubi, and Ahmadinejad (“a holy fool”, says the author of Ahmadinejad – again with disarming fluency in English, and this time Christian, idiom).
Moqadam has concealed her own identity by hiding behind her subject, and for this trick to work well one must have a more compelling subject than the unlucky Mohsen. To tell the story of the Green movement through his eyes also abets the tendency to distort Iranian public opinion by listening only to those cosmopolitan and well-off enough to have Twitter accounts. A clean victory for Ahmedinejad would indeed have seemed implausible, if one’s friends were in the rarefied demographic class of Mohsen or, most likely, the author. For Iranians who are not atheists from the Tehran suburbs, as Mohsen is, the victory would have been less mysterious.
Critics have compared this book to Shah of Shahs, the classic Ryszard Kapuscinski account about the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The spectre of that more successful revolution, and the failure of Mohsen’s parents’ generation to install a virtuous and durable one in the Shah’s place, haunts the events and even the title of Death to the Dictator! The anti-Shah generation effaced royal inscriptions and replaced them with “No God but God” in Arabic; Mohsen’s yelled “God is greatest” from the rooftops, implying that the Supreme Leader had a higher authority to answer to. Kapuscinski’s book is perhaps the most powerful description of the torture-techniques of the Shah’s SAVAK or secret police, just as the retelling of Mohsen’s torture and serial rape is a memorably chilling account of the Green revolt.
The comparison turns out to be the right one for wrong reasons as well. Kapuscinski fabricated liberally, with the excuse that his fictions revealed deeper truth. I don’t doubt the story of Mohsen Abbaspour, but this book leaves the reader similarly unsure about where the story stands. Is it journalism, with a scope so narrow as to feature the story of only one interview subject? Was there any attempt to confirm details? Did the author ever meet Mohsen, or did she interview him by phone from Los Angeles? Journalists generally reveal at least basic details about how books are written, and under what ground rules, and by which writer encumbered by which biases. Kapuscinski simply lied about the nature of his work. The author of this book doesn’t lie, to my knowledge, but she is evasive about important facts.
If the names and places are changed to protect the guilty, and if no effort has been made to fact-check or provide background, is Death to the Dictator! then really more like a novella than a work of history? The enforcement of genre boundaries can be a pharisaic and discreditable preoccupation when done for its own sake. But in a book so shy about its origins and methods, these details do matter – after all, genre categorisation carries with it presuppositions of truth, accuracy and confirmation that determine how readers look at a given text.
Death to the Dictator! is unlikely to be the last or best word on events in Iran last summer. By the end, Mohsen sounds as though he has been successfully cowed into submission, and I would be surprised if many of his fellow protesters seethe with the same desire to shake up the old order that they had in the fairy-tale period of the revolt. Moqadam implies that the older generation is beginning to recognise the brutality their sons and daughters have suffered, and that, as a consequence, public opinion will turn slowly Greener. If I were Mohsen I would take this as an encouraging sign among many more discouraging ones. The current regime lives on, and it knows its enemies better. What the protesters’ next tactic will be, beyond waiting for a generational shift, is not hinted at here. What appears clear is that the Green movement is too committed to die out, but too impotent to succeed. It will live on, only in the shadows, haplessly ever after.