Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unrest in Iran nothing new to professor

With a photo of his father on graduation day. SFU News photo.

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

June 17, 2009


The incredible scenes from Tehran — the mass crowds, the sing-song chanting, the thrilling but unsettling feeling of not knowing the final outcome — are familiar to Peyman Vahabzadeh.

“I’ve lived those images,” he said.

Back in 1979, he, too, took to the streets, seeking to overthrow the hated Shah.

As a student, he survived a post-revolution purge of the universities. As a conscript, he survived a stint on the battlefront in the bloody stalemate against Iraq. As a refugee, he found love and, eventually, a new land in Canada.

Along the way, he lost a younger brother, hanged by a murderous regime.

He has never lost his desire to promote democracy in a nation whose people overthrew one tyranny only to have it replaced by another.

His remarkable journey has taken him from revolutionary Iran to the calm of the University of Victoria campus, where the 48-year-old assistant professor teaches sociology.

These days, he spends his waking hours in meetings and on the telephone, while monitoring events in what some are calling the first Twitter Revolution. He is a bridge between the reform movement in Iran and the 30,000 members of the Iranian diaspora here in British Columbia.

“We’re meeting and doing what we can to support the democracy movement,” he said.

He backs the reformist opposition against what he describes as a coup by radical conservative clerics supporting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Despite the Iranian government’s attempts to suppress Internet communications, the professor said he continues to receive emails and text messages from Iran that take hours to transmit.

He did not have access to such high-falutin’ technology back in the days of his own revolution.

His mother, Leila, was a teacher and his father, Ahmad, a librarian who worked at a Manhattan bookstore for 10 years to pay his way through Columbia University. Their three children were taught French and English. Young Peyman’s first published work, at age 14, was a translation into Farsi of a Reader’s Digest article on dog racing.

The librarian also had a fascination with Anne Frank, as he tried to grasp someone so young coming to terms with her impending death. He engaged his son in the Jewish girl’s terrible fate by asking such questions as, “What do you think of a young child, like Anne Frank, being arrested and killed by the Nazis for being different?”

Little did he suspect his own youngest son would suffer a similar fate.

The professor has an indelible memory of the uprising against the shah. He was just 17, joining a march of about 700 protestors in his own neighbourhood, when confronted by the army in military vehicles. “The fear that I felt in that moment will stay with me the rest of my life,” he said. Instead of bloody confrontation, though, the soldiers sought a peaceful interruption of the march. They dispersed, regathering in a nearby neighbourhood. The revolution was on. The shah fled.

“For one historical moment, we were all one,” he said. “Honestly, it is the greatest moment of your life.”

Soon, though, came the triumph of the ayatollahs. The demands for free speech and such reforms as universal healthcare were overwhelmed. He was expelled from university, later conscripted as a private, “living in the rocks and sand, eating dust” in Western Iran in the front facing the Iraqi armed forces.

His younger brother, Ahmad-Ali, arrested at age 16, was executed seven years later, one among uncounted thousands of victims of the Islamic Republic. The killing broke his father’s spirit.

Peyman became a refugee in Turkey, where he met and fell in love with Giti Faizabadi, a fellow exile.

They began a new life in Canada as refugees.

Mr. Vahabzadeh was labouring in a Surrey factory when an accident left him with a ruptured spleen, internal bleeding, and a pelvis fractured in five places. After surviving the shah, the ayatollahs, and Saddam Hussein’s bullets, he was nearly crushed to death by a tipping stack of gyprock.

Offered a retraining program from worker’s compensation, he instead negotiated a meagre disability pension, enrolling in college. At Simon Fraser University, his combined master’s and doctoral dissertation was awarded the arts dean’s graduate convocation medal in 2001. It was published as a book by a university press six years ago.

He has a forthcoming book titled, “A Guerrilla Odyssey.” (“Don’t read the book,” he quips. “The subtitle will tell you everything.” The subtitle: Modernization, Secularism, Democracy and the Fadai Discourse of National Liberation in Iran, 1971-1979. Point taken.)

Away from the classroom, he writes poetry and short stories, reads the works of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, finding in the literature of the dissident Eastern Europeans a familiar sensibility.

He offers no predictions for the final outcome of the current turmoil. Thirty years ago, the shah’s Imperial Guard failed to put down a mutiny by technicians at an air-force base outside Tehran, a fatal miscalculation for the regime as a local mutiny became a mass insurrection. He knows fate can be capricious.