Reza Baraheni, tireless Iranian dissident and former president of PEN Canada (2001-03), has died at the age of 86 in Toronto.
He was known as “the Iranian Solzhenitsyn”. “A columnist of his country’s torture industry.” “Iran’s best living poet.”
He had the unique distinction, and the misfortune, of being imprisoned and tortured both by the Shah’s regime and, after the 1979 revolution, by the Islamic Republic. He went into exile twice, in the 1970s in the United States for five years, then in 1997 in Canada where he settled.
He and Canada were made for each other. In no other country would a newcomer, even of his stature, have been so quickly accepted and elevated to the presidency of a leading center of PEN, the group of writers with chapters in more than 100 countries.
A human rights activist and fierce defender of freedom of expression, Baraheni perpetually protested against the persecution of writers, intellectuals and ethnic minorities by his native country. To know him was to know the agony of contemporary Iran.
A prodigious author, in English and Persian, he left behind a treasure trove of over 60 books of essays, literary criticism, fiction and poetry. His works have been translated into a dozen languages.
When he recited his poems, or those of Rumi or Hafez, he left audiences spellbound, including those of us who had only a vague familiarity with Farsi.
He was a good storyteller. His account of the horrors he endured remains etched in my memory.
Born into an Azerbaijani Turkish family in Tabriz, he grew up in dire poverty. He became the second Iranian to complete a doctorate. in English — the former became a court poet of the Shah, while Baraheni took the dissenting path.
As a lecturer at the University of Tehran, he defended non-Persian minorities whose linguistic, ethnic and cultural identities were suppressed. He was arrested by the Shah’s police.
“My long beard was pulled out, little by little,” he told me in 2005, remembering the first day of his 102 days in captivity. “Then I was dragged into a room of the torturer. “Tell me who told you to write this article? he asked, squeezing me from both sides. “I wrote it myself,” I said. ‘Tell me, tell me,’ he continued to squeeze.
“He then started kicking me in the stomach, groin and testicles. I fell. Others joined in the beatings. I was lying on a torture bed with my hands and feet tied. I received 75 blows on the soles of my feet with a barbed wire whip. I fainted.
“When I came to, the interrogator picked me up and put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. I went down… Later, a guard told me that one of the torturers had imitated the sound of a gunshot.
“I was told that if I didn’t confess, my wife and 13-year-old daughter would be raped in front of me.”
He was released after strong protests from prominent American scholars and writers, including novelists Jerzy Kosinski and EL Doctorow.
Baraheni defected to the United States. He testified before Congress and rallied Arthur Miller, Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Berrigan, Pete Seeger, Susan Sontag and others to question Washington’s blind support for the dictatorial Shah.
In December 1978, he and Allen Ginsberg were among hundreds protesting outside the White House against Jimmy Carter harboring the King.
Two months later, it’s the Islamic revolution. Baraheni returned to Iran, trading the tranquility of his tenured professorship at the University of Maryland for a taste of the freedom promised in his homeland.
In Tehran, battles raged in the streets, with the Shah’s palace guards putting up a last stand. Dodging bullets one such night, Baraheni found himself outside a mosque where the guard let him in. He lay down next to others in the yard. Pulling the hood of his parka up to his eyes, he dozed off.
Awakened by raindrops, he saw the others still asleep. He closed his eyes. But the drizzle didn’t stop. Sitting, he looked around him. Nobody moved. “They were all dead. I rushed over to the dozing guard and asked him, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
“’You didn’t ask.’ ”
He resumed teaching at the University of Tehran but was quickly condemned as a counter-revolutionary and imprisoned for 84 days, the last 48 at the infamous Evin prison, where nearly a quarter of a century later, the photojournalist Canadian Zahra Kazemi will be assassinated.
Baraheni was held in solitary confinement and was often blindfolded, always during interrogations. Returning disoriented from one of these late-night sessions, he found himself pushed into a long line of prisoners on the way up.
“Where are they taking us? ” He asked.
“We have all been sentenced to death,” says the man behind him. “Weren’t you in court?
“You don’t have a mark on your sole?”
“You better shout and let them know.”
But the guards ignored Baraheni.
“Keep screaming, keep screaming.”
Someone finally lit a torch on his soles, only to shout that Baraheni should also be marked for the death squad.
“I was kept in a room waiting for someone to show up with the marker. Then, by some miracle, they found the condemned man. I was spared. A few minutes later, I heard the shots.
After his release, Baraheni was expelled from university.
In 1994, at clandestine Writers’ Association meetings, Baraheni and others drafted a charter calling for “freedom of expression, without limits or exceptions.” They called it the Text of 134, echoing Vaclav Havel’s Charter of 77 in communist Czechoslovakia. He translated it into English and smuggled it to Arthur Miller, who read it at the 1994 International PEN Congress in Prague.
Retaliation was swift. Many have been imprisoned, blackmailed or murdered. Baraheni’s name appeared on a blacklist in the fall of 1995. He fled to Sweden, from where he came to Canada.
His vision was not limited to Iran.
He helped change the wording of PEN International’s charter to make it more universal. His first words were: “Literature, however national in origin, knows no borders and must remain commonplace among peoples despite political or international upheavals. He proposed deleting the words “although she is of national origin”. This simple but profound change was approved at the 2003 PEN Congress in Mexico City, the first change to the document since its formulation in 1948. The revised Charter now reads: “Literature knows no boundaries… “
Following the American invasion of Iraq, Baraheni was upset that the Baghdad Museum and the Iraqi National Library had been looted and destroyed. He wrote, “It would have taken only two soldiers and a tank” to safeguard these great treasures, but the Americans had instead prioritized guarding Iraq’s oil wells and the Oil Ministry in Baghdad.
He was a polarizing figure, eliciting strong reactions, for and against. It was a function of his passionate advocacy as well as a reflection of deeply divided Iranian society, in Iran and in the Diaspora – pro-Shah royalists and Islamic revolutionaries, to begin with; Mujahideen-e-Khalq Marxists and law-abiding secularists; and at present the many factions within the Islamic regime, widely divided between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Syed Khamenei and hardliners on the one hand, and liberal-minded clerics on the other go.
The latter have tried in vain to soften and democratize the political regime, in particular former presidents Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). When Khatami, in particular, raised high hopes, Baraheni insisted, telling me, “Khatami won’t make much difference, even if he’s been in power for 25 years. Baraheni knew the lay of his land.
Baraheni died on March 24. He is survived by his wife Sanaz Sehhati of Toronto; daughter, Aleca, of Fairfax, Virginia; son Oktay, of Tehran and Toronto; and Arsalan Esfandiar of Toronto.
A funeral is scheduled for Saturday, April 9 at 1 p.m. at Elgin Mills Cemetery in Richmond Hill.