Escape From Iran
The following is a narration of my interview with Alam Hamidi, organised by topic into a more readable format. I have taken certain liberties with language where the translation was unclear, but otherwise have tried to stay as close to the translation as possible. All relevant material from the interview will be included at the bottom of the article.
I first meet Alam in our room at Heraklion Youth Hostel. He is asleep in the middle of the day, turned away from the open window to avoid the strong Cretan sun. In a dormitory that would normally fit twelve travellers, only two of us are resident. Coronavirus has hit the business hard and overall occupancy is barely a third of what it would usually be in July. Yet here we both were. Once I unpack my essentials and lock my valuables in the safe, I slip away as quietly as I can.
Now much later in the evening, I am sitting on the patio that connects the dormitories to the roof, on a tiny table opposite a tall potted plant and an outside sink. The heat has reduced considerably. A few small bugs circle around the overhead light, and I can hear the dull rumblings of cars moving closer to and further away from the hostel.
I am writing the next entry in my travel journal, which I was hoping to complete before the night grew too late for me to focus. I begin the passage on Hersonissos when I am joined by the man from my room, finally awake. He sits down next to me, and we both introduce ourselves. His name is Alam, and he has fled here from Iran.
Over the next hour and a half, and entirely through Google Translate, he tells me his story of physical abuse, his flight from the country, the family he had to leave behind, and his hopes of a final sanctuary in Europe. I let him guide the conversation, interjecting only for clarification or for follow-up questions. This is an account of that conversation.
When he reported the irregularities, he was threatened by the Guards to ignore it, and when he refused to ignore the issue, he was beaten.
Alam lights a cigarette before he begins. Two years ago, he was living in Ahwaz (Ahvaz), in the Khuzestan region of Iran, with his wife and three children. He was the Head of the Department of Inspection for the Revolutionary Guards, a position he earned after a twenty-two-year career starting at nineteen. This position was well-paid, affording him and his family a house better than other families in that area and bringing him close to such high-profile figures as Qasem Soleimani,who he shows me a picture of. But his lifestyle was not without caveats. Though ethnically Arab, he was promoted in part for his unwillingness to speak Arabic at work, as well as his refusal to wear Arabic clothing outside of his home. He could enjoy a privileged position only so long as he ignored his cultural identity. He was monitored outside of work to assess his continued compliance to this end.
One day at work, he noticed inconsistencies in the accounts that indicated theft of funds by the government. “They did not like when you find and report (irregularities) to the government, but I did,” he tells me through the translator. When he reported the irregularities, he was threatened by the Guards to ignore it, and when he refused to ignore the issue, he was beaten. He points out exactly how they broke his thumb, his leg, and which ribs had been kicked hard enough to crack. “I wore Arabic clothes outside the office. I should not have worn Arabic clothes. I spoke Arabic in the office.” He was fired after over two decades of service. Whilst he was still in Iran, he was harassed because he was unemployed. “My government did not want me to succeed,” he says. He was scared enough to flee Iran with the help of his brothers, even though it meant leaving his family behind.
I ask him about his family. He breathes deeply on his cigarette and blows smoke up into the air before he stubs it out in the overflowing ashtray. He shows me pictures of his remaining family in Ahwaz; his wife Zynab, and his three grown children Nagin, Faezeh, and Hussein. Together, he and his family are just some of the numerous Iranian Arabs hoping to escape to Europe. He shows me images of life in Ahwaz, of the poverty that exists there among the Arab population. He makes a point of informing me again that his family lived better due to his job. Now that he was gone, his wife was working odd jobs, including selling printer cartridges (this may have been a mistranslation). He does not mention what his children do, only that all of them are looking to leave Iran as well.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen your family?” I ask.
“Two years,” is the reply. “I cannot talk to them because their phones are being tapped.” I offer him my phone instead, but he declines to use it. “The government checks everything. (It is) becoming like North Korea.” He has been stoic throughout the conversation so far, never betraying his feelings outside of a few pauses. However, it is clear the conversation about his family has reminded him of better times. I offer to give him a hug that he accepts, and he lights a second cigarette before we continue.
It looks as if the children are sitting on the edge of a pond of black sludge perhaps less than a hundred metres from their homes.
I ask him what his plan is now; where was he going and what was he doing? He was certainly not comfortable in Greece, though he has managed to find a job selling cars and houses.
“I want to go to Toulouse, to Paris, and into Germany. Germany is better than Greece, but England is the best. I would like to go to England, but it is too hard for refugees to enter. Greece is too poor. Not a good place to bring my family.” He takes his time typing out the next line into the translator as he tries to find the right words. “I wish I could have gone to France tonight. For two or three years I have tried to go to France, Italy, anywhere.” He plans to send for his family once he has made it to Germany and established himself there, which may take another year or so. “I need to get a car, and a big house for my wife.”
At this point Alam chooses to change the subject to Iran itself, and the reality of living in Iran as an ethnic Arab.
He describes Ahwaz as a beautiful place that is being destroyed by the Iranian government. “One hundred years ago, Ahwaz was its own country. Sheikh Khazal was the ruler. Then Reza Khan Pahlavi invaded for the oil.” He shows me pictures of Arabs living in beside what I assume to be oil fields. It looks as if the children are sitting on the edge of a pond of black sludge perhaps less than a hundred metres from their homes. The next picture he shows me is of flooding in the streets, and he explains that they have no more access to water than what the government allocates to them. “95% of Iranian oil is in Ahwaz. South Iran is bad. Iran sells oil to help Syria/ Yemen/ Hezbollah. The Iranian government are terrorists.” I ask him if he believed they were terrorists even whilst he worked for them. He replies, “my family is harassing me because I worked with the military.” In this instance, the intent was certainly lost in translation as he does not seem to agree with his own reply. He repeats that his family loves him, and the government is bad. Either he has dodged the question, or the translation (of my question or his response) was poor enough that neither of us understood each other. Whatever the case may be, he moves onto his next point.
“Iranian Arabs do not have freedom of expression, or a state – and companies do not hire them. The government is trying to disperse the Arabs in Ahwaz to other cities. (It’s) because we are the neighbours of our brothers Arag (Iraq). We both speak Arabic, and both our second languages are Persian.” I ask him if the Arab population has tried to change their circumstances over time, through political or social movements. “Arabs are fighting against the government, for one hundred (years, on and off again).”
“It’s sad how little I know of Iran, only the bad things,” I say. Alam nods in acknowledgement; he understands the publicity his country has in the West is not positive.
“Only China likes Iran because of the money. (It is) Iran’s humiliation (that) the money does not stay in Iran to help Iranians. That’s why young people leave the country. The people are good, (it is) the government (that is) bad.”
Alam then lights his third and final cigarette. By now we have been talking for the better part of two hours, and I can understand that he has exhausted all he wants to say about his personal situation.
“I wish I could have gone to France tonight. For two or three years I have tried to go to France, Italy, anywhere.”
The rest of the conversation takes the form of a list of facts, rather than an interview. He shows me things unconnected to his individual experiences, trying to convince me of the cleverness and good nature of the Iranian people. I need no convincing, which I tell him; my own experience of Iranians has always been positive, but I understand what he is trying to say. I understand the distinction between the government and the people quite clearly by this point.
“My brothers helped me escape; they can help you enter. You should visit. The people are hospitable.” The last comment on the state of Iran is to do with coronavirus. He explains that no Iranians have been vaccinated or have been helped by the government during the pandemic. We end after this, as Alam says he has nothing left to talk to me about. I thank him for talking to me about his situation and ask if I had his consent to publish our interview. He gives his consent, and even insists that I should not alter any of their names. “The government already knows who I am.” I agree that this is a fair point.
After this, he goes up to the balcony to finish his cigarette. I finish my notes before I go to bed for the night. The next morning, I see him packing his bags and stripping the bed; he is leaving for another hostel in a different town. Before he leaves, I thank him again for the interview, and then with a wave and a smile, he disappears out the door.
It is remarkable to think how varied the people you meet on the road can be. I had never heard of the Ahwazi Arabs and the situation they face in Iran. I came away from it wishing we had had more time to talk. His recent history has taken a tragic turn that may not be fully understood by most of us, but understood all too well by far too many others. It saddened me to hear that he aspired to bring his family to the UK, but that he knew it would be too difficult to ever achieve. More than anything I hope he can see his family again. With his resourcefulness, I have no doubts he will.
I found myself with little context for some of the points he mentioned during the interview. I felt the obligation to do further research into his story for the purposes of this article. I have included below sections of the story with relevant material from a variety of sources. For anyone interested in learning more, I would highly recommend following up as it gives more information about the events in Iran he referred to:
He shows me pictures of Arabs living in beside what I assume to be oil fields... “Iranian Arabs do not have freedom of expression, or a state – and companies do not hire them. The government is trying to disperse the Arabs in Ahwaz to other cities.”
The Hidden Side of Iran: discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities – International Federation for Human Rights (2010) (pg13-14): https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/IrandiscrimLDDHI545a.pdf
“One hundred years ago, Ahwaz was its own country. Sheikh Khazal was the ruler. Then Reza Khan Pahlavi invaded for the oil...Arabs are fighting against the government, for one hundred (years, on and off again).”
Tribal Politics in Iran: Rural Conflict and the New State, 1921–1941; Cronin, S. (pg52-5)
Ahwazi Democratic Popular Front: http://adpf.org/en/
Iranian Arab Groups Who Oppose the Islamic Republic; Iranwire: https://iranwire.com/en/features/5552
The last comment on the state of Iran is to do with coronavirus. He explains that no Iranians have been vaccinated or have been helped by the government during the pandemic.
WHO Report on Iran’s Coronavirus Response: https://covid19.who.int/region/emro/country/ir
“95% of Iranian oil is in Ahwaz. South Iran is bad. Iran sells oil to help Syria/ Yemen/ Hezbollah. The Iranian government are terrorists.”
Ahvaz- Bangestan Oil Field: https://www.gem.wiki/Ahvaz-Bangestan_Oil_Field_(Iran)
Iran’s Islamist Proxies; Wilson Center: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/irans-islamist-proxies
Counter Extremism Project: IRGC: https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/irgc-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps
“I want to go to Toulouse, to Paris, and into Germany. Germany is better than Greece, but England is the best. I would like to go to England, but it is too hard for refugees to enter. Greece is too poor. Not a good place to bring my family.” He pauses as he tries to find the right words for the next sentence. “I wish I could have gone to France tonight. For two or three years I have tried to go to France, Italy, anywhere.”
Migratory Map; Frontex: https://frontex.europa.eu/we-know/migratory-map/
Europe’s Unauthorized Immigrant Population Peaks in 2016, Then Levels Off; Connor, P. and S. Passel, J. (2019) (pg1-3): https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/11/13/europes-unauthorized-immigrant-population-peaks-in-2016-then-levels-off/
He shows me images of life in Ahwaz, of the poverty that exists there among the Arab population... It looks as if the children are sitting on the edge of a pond of black sludge perhaps less than a hundred metres from their homes. The next picture he shows me is of flooding in the streets, and he explains that they have no more access to water than what the government allocates to them.
Iran’s Plans for Ahwaz: Exploitation and Expulsion; Hamid, R. and Tsukerman, I.; https://www.dusc.org/en/drasat/9989/
Ahwazi Arab villages in south west of Iran forcibly confiscated by Iranian regime; Ahwaz Monitor (Youtube): https://youtu.be/e6qykQN3mHE
How Iran's Khuzestan went from wetland to wasteland; Tehran Bureau correspondent (The Guardian): https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2015/apr/16/iran-khuzestan-environment-wetlands-dust-pollution