Siamak Pourzand: Living and Dying with Eyes Wide Open

As always, Lily dialed her father's number at midnight. To her, nighttime meant hearing her father's voice. It was the afternoon of May 1, 2013 in Tehran. Over the phone, her father's fatigued voice sounded grave and gruff, as it so often did during those days. The old man had to return to the hospital to continue his treatment program, but he told Lily that he wanted to spend that Friday at home and head over to the hospital on Saturday. When she asked, “Why?” her father's answer made her heart sink: “I'm fed up.” She tried to comfort him over the phone, telling him that these difficult days would soon be over and he would finally be able to leave Iran and see her. It had been ten years since Lily had last seen her father. A brief silence punctuated the conversation, and Siamak, more gently than ever, asked his daughter, “When will you call Daddy again?” Lily answered, “I'll sleep for a couple of hours and call you soon, just before you start to miss me, ok?” It was around three in the morning in Canada when Lily dialed her father's number again from inside her dark room. There was no answer, and she began to worry. She reassured herself that her father must be sleeping; after all, he needed his rest. But when she called again, this time a stranger answered the phone: Siamak Pourzand had thrown himself off the balcony of his room some time after Lily's first phone call. He had decided to put an end to his life after a decade of government persecution against him and his family.

Early Life

Pourzand was born on September 17, 1931 to an aristocratic military family in Tehran. Even though his father, uncles, and brothers were all decorated officers in the Iranian army, he wanted nothing to do with the military. In fact, he had to run away from military school twice before his father realized that he had different inclinations. He had been a film buff ever since his teenage years, and perhaps his mother and aunt – the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamloo's mother – were responsible for cultivating this passion.[1] They were both active in the performing arts scene, and this got the young Pourzand's foot in the doors of film magazines and publications. In 1949, he started the first Iranian “cine-club” (film club) alongside Hooshang Kavoosi. This paved the way for numerous Iranian film festivals in the years to come: under the supervision of Tehran University’s president, Pourzand officially oversaw the organization of the first festival for Iranian films, and the first festival for select foreign films, in 1954 and 1955 respectively. In addition to his activities in cinema, Pourzand was an executive officer of the Office for Art Publications and also worked for the public relations department of Iran's Education Ministry.

Professional Career

Pourzand, one of the most renowned and influential journalists of his generation, began his professional journalism career in 1952 at the Bakhtar-e Emrooz (Occident Today) magazine, ran by Hossein Fatemi, the foreign affairs minister.[2] During this time, Pourzand, who had fallen out of favor with his family due to his support for Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, wrote about municipal, cultural, artistic, and parliamentary affairs. The magazine was in circulation until the day of the August 19, 1953 coup d'etat; after Fatemi’s arrest and the fall of Mossadegh's cabinet, Pourzand was either on the run, in hiding, or under arrest for a year.

After the turmoil subsided, Pourzand, together with a group of prominent writers, established the weekly Peyk-e Cinema. Parviz Natel Khanlari, Nosrat Karimi, Saeed Nafisi, Ali-Asghar Garmsiri, Esmaeel Mehrtash, Mahmood Enayat, Fereydoon Rahnama, Hooshang Kavoosi, amongs many others, wrote for this weekly. Later, as executive officer and artistic and public relations director, Pourzand helped Ahmad Shamloo publish the popular Keyhan's Weekly Books.

Among Pourzand's most important activities during this time was the establishment of three countrywide syndicates across Iran. In 1960, Pourzand established the Syndicate for the Writers, Journalists, Translators and Photographers of the Press with the help of a group of journalists, writers, translators, artists, and members of the press. Over the next year, he played an important role in establishing the Syndicate for Cinema and Theater Artists and Technicians. The Press Retailer's Guild was another institution established with his help in 1961. All these syndicates played an important role in influencing the cultural landscape of Iran at the time.

 Personal Life

Siamak Pourzand's first marriage to Mandana Zand-Karimi (Ervin) ended in 1967. Zand-Karimi is a writer and intellectual who served as the first female head of Iran's Customs Administration before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.[3] Now living in the United States, she serves as founder and director of the Alliance of Iranian Women. Their daughter, Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, is a writer, filmmaker, and human rights activist.[4] In 1969, Pourzand married Mehrangiz Kar[5], who later became one of Iran’s most distinguished lawyers and human rights defenders and one of the most influential leaders of the country’s women’s rights movement. They had two daughters, Lily and Azadeh. Lily is currently competing in the Canadian Liberal Party primary elections in Willowdale, Toronto, for a seat in Parliament. Azadeh is the founder and executive manager of the Siamak Pourzand Foundation.[6] Established after Pourzand's death, the foundation “promotes freedom of expression for writers, journalists, and creative minds in contexts where the censorship apparatus is hard at work.” 

A renowned journalist, during the 1970s and ‘80s Pourzand did a number of important interviews in the U.S. for Keyhan newspaper. He was Keyhan's special reporter at John F. Kennedy's funeral, and he also interviewed President Richard Nixon, a feat accomplished by few other journalists from the Asian continent. Pourzand also interviewed a number of Hollywood actors and directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, Kim Novak, and Anthony Quinn. During these years, as a result of Pourzand's tireless efforts, Iranian films were showcased for the first time at Western film festivals. He was also the first Iranian to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Meanwhile, Pourzand also taught numerous journalism workshops both inside and outside Iran as a founding member of the Press Writer's Syndicate. For more than fifteen years, he was a member of the editorial board of the Keyhan newspaper while also heading Keyhan Institute's public relations office.

Retirement

The 1979 revolution put an end to Pourzand's career in journalism. His renown during the Pahlavi family’s reign and his familial ties to the previous establishment served as pretexts for his forced retirement and eventual imprisonment; likewise, due to his previous involvement in the film industry, government media continually denigrated him as a Westernized, 'Hollywood' individual, even in the last years of his life. Throughout this time, he was primarily confined to his home and received a meager pension, while Kar supported their family financially through her legal career.

During this period, Pourzand was the editor-in-chief of the Shafaa monthly magazine published by a charitable foundation to help patients with kidney disease. However, Pourzand did not last long at this position, thanks to government pressure. He was destined to the same fate at the Abaadgaraan magazine, a specialist monthly for civil engineers. It was after this misfortune that Pourzand, then sixty years old, was forced to work as a chauffeur for some time. 

A New Beginning

With the 1997 election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency, Iran's social and political landscape opened up, enabling Pourzand to gradually rejoin Iran's professional journalism, artistic and intellectual scenes. As the media once again prospered, Pourzand could not have been happier; feeling rejuvenated, he shared his experience with younger journalists assisting newspapers and magazines with advice on news writing, attracting advertising and capital. With the help of reformist newspapers such as Jame'e, Neshaat and Nowruz, Pourzand also held ceremonies honoring many aging and forgotten artists. Also, as Kish Island's cultural and artistic advisor, Pourzand helped organize a number of successful literary, artistic, and film festivals.

In 2000, Pourzand became the director of the Tehran Arts and Cultural Center. In this capacity, in addition to organizing public events, he also sought to help the burgeoning women's rights movement. But Pourzand’s oversight of an organization that worked with female artists and activists soon attracted the attention of government intelligence. To make matters worse, in 1998 he had published an audio report, broadcast on Persian Voice of America under his own name, on the Iranian Intelligence Ministry’s serial murders of Iranian intellectuals and writers, such as his friends Parvaneh and Dariush Forouhar. Intelligence forces seized on this report as a pretext to settle scores with the reformists.

Arrest

On November 24, 2001, intelligence forces finally executed their plans, kidnapping the seventy-year-old Siamak Pourzand in front of his sister's house without a judicial warrant. His family, now residing outside Iran, did not know his whereabouts or his condition for weeks. Pourzand was first taken to the prison of Tehran's Public Spaces Office, and from there to Mehrabad Airport's detention center, where he was kept in quarantine.

Prior to Pourzand’s arrest, his wife Mehrangiz Kar had also been arrested and jailed for a period in 2000 for participating in a controversial political conference in Berlin. After her release, she left Iran along with their daughters; Pourzand had been planning to join them, and his arrest dealt a major blow to his family. 

Meanwhile, the authorities confiscated Pourzand's entire archive of writings, which he had kept secret in his sister's basement. Even though very few people – not even his sister – knew the exact hiding place of this archive, intelligence agents had intimate knowledge of the collection: after asking for the keys to the dank basement, they immediately located the hiding place. Pourzand's family suspects that Payam Fazlinejad – a young writer and blogger who at the time was a regime critic and close friend of Pourzand's due to his interest in cinema – of betraying Pourzand's valuable archive to the authorities. In the aftermath of Pourzand’s arrest and imprisonment, Fazlinejad developed close ties with the Iranian government.[7]

Thanks to consistent pressure from his family, several European countries called for Pourzand’s release, [8]as he was in poor health. However, after spending four months on parole, Pourzand was transferred to Evin Prison, where his health rapidly deteriorated still further, leading to a heart attack. At that point, judicial authorities were forced to relocate him to the special care ward of Tehran's Modarres Hospital. 

House Arrest

After his treatment at the hospital, Pourzand was placed under house arrest, on the conditions of posting bail and reporting to prison authorities on a weekly basis. Upon his return home, his relatives discovered that his ribcage had been broken; they could hardly believe that a man of his age had been tortured like this. For some time, Pourzand refused to shower; eventually he revealed that he had been forced to stand under hot running water for long periods.[9] 

After the 2009 crackdown on the Green Movement, Pourzand's mental and physical health further deteriorated. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest in his apartment in Tehran. Throughout these years, despite continual harassment by phone and in person, not to mention the looming threat of forced confessions and a return to prison, what tortured Pourzand the most was his separation from his wife and daughters. His family, who had had no choice but to continue to live outside Iran, desperately tried to facilitate Pourzand's exit from the country, but judicial authorities ignored their calls. Nevertheless, Pourzand refused to leave Iran illegally. Only his youngest daughter, Azadeh, was able to meet him in Tehran for ten days in 2005. During this short stay, not only was she interrogated on multiple occasions, but she was also threatened with the prospect of never seeing her father again if she spoke a word about his conditions to the media.

Suicide and Salvation

One day in 2000, Pourzand drove to pick up his daughter Azadeh from school so they could visit her mother in prison. When Pourzand pulled over at her school, a cold and irritable Azadeh hopped in the car and gave him a sullen greeting. Her father stopped himself from laughing and just said hi; they had had a fight the night before because Azadeh was afraid that her father might speak to the media about her mother's arrest. After a short while, Pourzand broke the silence: “We won't be meeting Mother today. Instead, I want to bond with my daughter. We’ll drive around and have fun, because I’m sick and tired of staying at home.” Soon, Azadeh’s mood brightened, and they were having a good time bantering and listening to Pourzand's favorite, Frank Sinatra, [10] on the stereo. Azadeh realized that they were heading for a destination outside the city. After arriving, Pourzand got out of the car without a word. The sun was setting over a deserted field with bunches of dead flowers and black ribbons left here and there. Pourzand said, “This is Khavaran Cemetery, and it's a history kept hidden from young people like you. It is filled with pain and suffering much bigger than yours, mine or Lily's.” His voice trembled, but he continued on: “We have to be patient and strong in rebuilding our country.” He spoke on and on that day, as if he was telling Azadeh all his words for future generations.

Siamak Pourzand, who loved his country and people, chose his own death at the age of 80 after years of hardship.

[11] The news echoed resoundingly both inside and outside Iran: a man whose life the government had ceaselessly sought to control had changed the rules of the game by ending his life on his terms.[12]

 


[7] Refer to: our interview with Mehrangiz Kar and Azadeh Pourzand

[9] Refer to: our interview with Mehrangiz Kar and Azadeh Pourzand

What Tavaana Students Have to Say

This course taught me to know myself better and how to face the injuries that my spouse and I suffered while we were imprisoned. I came to have a more rational view of it, and I became more skilled in interacting with people who are victims of trauma.
- Bahram, Trauma Healing course graduate

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