‘You can kill the Revolutionary, but you can’t kill the Revolution’ – Fred Hampton, 1969
This is my friend Shahram.
Dr. Shahram Motaghi Taromsari PHD, to be precise.
And he was precise.
This is a typical picture of him, on his phone, organising, strategising, working. His ever-present laptop is on the desk in front of him, but not in the photo.
Strong without being overbearing, Shahram was smart, witty, and very funny. He reminded me of actor Yul Brynner, but with a much more playful sense of humour. And he had charisma.
By the truckload.
He also had an insatiable curiosity. He wanted to understand people, their motivations and reasoning. Ultimately he wanted to uncover their humanity, and he would use his significant charm to root around in their psyche until he found it.
But if by chance he discovered a void there instead…a darkness, a malignancy or cruelty…well then he was the most dangerous of adversaries.
Because Shahram Taromsari was no armchair revolutionary.
He was the real deal.
Shahram’s good looks and undeniable appeal belied a man who was relentlessly focused. Underneath his relaxed and confident demeanour lurked a methodical, tireless soldier – whose every waking breath was completely committed to his cause.
And his cause, was the freedom of the Iranian people.
I met Shahram over 20 years ago, in the unlikeliest of places; South Armagh. It is one of the counties which lies along the British imposed ‘border’ between the north and the south of Ireland.
If you were a member of the British army during the recent political conflict that raged in the north of Ireland, South Armagh was not a place you ever wanted to find yourself. A fierce Irish Republican stronghold, the British came to refer to this beautiful county as ‘Bandit country,’ and squaddies dreaded a posting there. With good reason. Many did not come back.
Shahram fit right in.
Many’s the night I had to chuckle to myself when some well-intentioned visitor to the area would be introduced to him. Inevitably they would ask, ‘So, what do you do Shahram?’
‘I am a terrorist,’ he would respond proudly.
And the bewildered guest would then have to decide whether to ask what that meant, or make polite excuses and quietly back away…
The label of ‘terrorist’ was one Shahram had no problem embracing. He wore it with pride because, in his experience, the ‘terrorists’ were the good guys. It was ‘the State” which was criminal or unjust.
While still a young man Shahram witnessed the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the overthrow of the Shah. He believed that revolution had been hijacked – by religious fundamentalism and Iran’s ruling Mullah families. The bright future he and many other liberal Iranians had hoped for, faded quickly into disillusionment.
What Wikipedia describes as “an authentic anti-dictatorial and popular revolution based on a broad coalition,” quickly mutated into a fundamentalist power-grab, led by extremists and supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Defiance of Khomeini’s leadership and/or opposition to the implementation of extremist Islamic law was violently quashed. Property was confiscated. Opposition groups were banned. Journalists were arrested. There was a ‘purge’ of Universities too – as they had been deemed too influenced by ‘western’ teachings.
Throughout Iran, people were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed. Stoning, hanging, beheading – these forms of execution are still used by the Iranian state to this day.
Shahram was opposed to Khomeini’s rule. He was opposed to the Mullahs. He rejected any kind of religious fundamentalism as a form of Government. He wanted Iran to be a secular democracy, free from extremism. He resisted the new regieme.
As a result, he was one of thousands of Iranians who were imprisoned, alongside members of his family and many of his friends. He was branded a ‘terrorist,’ an enemy of the Iranian State.
In prison he was tortured extensively, and the injuries he sustained impacted on him the rest of his life. But he rarely complained.
Somehow Shahram was eventually released and managed to escape the country, finally settling in the UK. His desire to see a free, secular and democratic Iran was undeterred. In fact his resolve was strengthened; his experience was a vindication of his beliefs.
He would not forget his country or his people while in exile.
Instead, he would go on to devote his entire adult life to securing Iranian freedom. It was his raison d’être, his ultimate objective, his life’s purpose.
Everything else came second to this.
From his personal ambition and financial security, to having a family of his own. All of it would have to wait until he and his comrades completed the mission at hand.
Shahram got his PHD in International Relationships. Building on his formidable education, personal experience, and keen intellect, he set himself to his task.
In the course of his working life he was a University lecturer in ‘International Relations and Middle-Eastern Security,’ acted as a consultant on Middle Eastern Affairs specialising on Iranian related matters – both political and military, and authored endless submissions, reports, research, and academic papers on the current Iranian regime; its ideology and its human rights violations.
His work informed world political leaders, activists, human rights organisations, journalists, academics, the EU, the UN, and Governments around the world.
A member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – a left-wing coalition of several Iranian dissident groups based in France – Shahram went on to become the NCRI’s Irish spokesperson and came to Belfast.
That is how I met him.
‘You will come see my country when we are free, Comrade’
We were in Paris at a massive outdoor rally in support of the NCRI. It was the end of June. The sun was belting down. It was only noon and already a scorching 28 degrees celsius.
Shahram was wearing a suit.
A dark suit.
With a tie.
In spite of this he looked as sharp and comfortable as always. A fucking Farsi-speaking James Bond, though he would definitely object to the comparison.
Meanwhile my pasty-white Canadian ass was turning a deep, angry red, and if you touched me an outline of your hand would linger on my skin for seconds afterwards. I was well into menopause, and the hot flushes had mixed with the sunburn and dehydration. I would gladly have stripped off every piece of clothing and jumped into the nearest fountain, had their been one available.
I shook my head solemnly.
‘No Shahram,’ I said, wiping sweat from my eyes, ‘Iran is too hot a place for me. I couldn’t take it. I can’t even do Paris.’
‘Iran is a big country, comrade. We have mountains.We have snow. The cold air comes down from Russia. I will take you to the mountains. When we are free…’
I toasted him with my bottled water and nodded.
‘When you are free.’
He grinned and I felt a bit better for a second, just thinking about all that snow. I downed my bottle of water in one swig while he disappeared purposely into the huge crowd to organise one thing or another.
Looking, as always, super-fucking-cool.
Shahram was a natural leader, but more importantly he inspired confidence in others. He was never rash or impulsive, and had geniune empathy for people – even if they had differing views.
I had no doubt that he would see a free Iran one day. And I had no doubt that he would be one of those who would bring it about. That was the kind of man he was. Determined, cabable, resolute, steadfast. I adored him. I trusted him implicitly.
And I would have followed him anywhere.
Shahram travelled extensively in his capacity as an activist. He cultivated anyone and everyone who might support or aid his cause; whether a powerful figure in the world of politics, sport or entertainment, or an ordinary person with little to no prior knowledge of middle-eastern affairs.
In fact, he was adamant that ordinary people were the most important contacts of all.
“It is the people who will inform and persuade their Governments on our behalf,” he used to tell me, “Their voices, their awareness, can influence policy in a powerful way. If people are educated, if they know the truth, then world Governments can be held to account for the decisions they take, and challenged when those decisions are contrary to justice…”
Over the years his convictions cost him dearly. He lost family, friends, comrades in the struggle to free his nation. But nothing diminished his focus. He never once wavered in his commitment. No matter what set-backs came his way, no matter how futile things might seem, Shahram remained undefeated. He just dusted himself off and tried again.
He was not one-dimensional either; his interests did extend beyond Iran. He was deeply curious about the world. But ultimately, he saw the struggle for freedom in his own homeland reflected in other conflicts around the globe, and this gave him a strong sense of solidarity with people engaged in resistance. If the cause was just, Shahram could be relied on to support it.
That desire for something more, something better, resonated deeply within him. He was compassionate and humane and opposed tyranny wherever he found it. His convictions were not mere ideology, he was not a pacifist. He would not hesitate to fight if called upon. He was a man of action. He identified with the underdog; those rebelling against a larger, more powerful oppressor. He was their ally.
They were his comrades.
Although Shahram was smart and witty, he was never spiteful. It was not in his nature to be cruel.
All the same, he often described himself as ‘an arrogant bastard.’ In reality he was anything but. He was supremely confident, but also tremendously self-less.
If he had a task he was relentless in seeing it through. He did everything to the absolute best of his ability – even if it nearly wrecked him to do so. I watched him push himself past the point of physical and mental exhaustion a number of times. It was of no consequence to him. Only his objective mattered. Nothing swayed his certainty. No obstacle was insurmountable. He was resolute.
During the course of his travels Shahram was often detained and questioned by various security and immigration officials. Usually this was due to a combination of his frequent travel patterns and, as he put it, his ‘brown’ middle-eastern looks.
Sometimes the scrutiny was in-depth and less than polite, but Shahram never took it personally. To him, it was just another aspect to the very serious struggle he was a part of. He viewed such inconveniences as an opportunity to engage and educate others, to shatter cultural and racial stereotypes. He was always immaculately dressed and exceedingly well spoken. He knew there was power in presenting himself professionally.
He challenged people.
His intellect challenged people, and he often had officials explaining more to him, than he did to them. He questioned those in authority.
At every opportunity.
There was no half-way with Shahram.
He was an all-or-nothing kind of guy.
One of my favourite memories took place during the big yearly NCRI rally in Paris.
Tens of thousands of people attend this annual event, from all over the world and all walks of life. To accommodate this, things have to be carefully planned months in advance. The logistics are a nightmare.
This time, there was a small glitch. A mix-up with the hotel reservation for a group of 40. Shahram knew I spoke a little French, so he hunted me down and asked for my help.
We went the front desk of a hotel to find two of Shahrams’ female comrades and the hotel Manager waiting for us. The women had all their reservation details in hand, but they spoke only Farsi. The front desk attendant spoke only French.
This led to a lengthly, comical exchange that made us all look like unwilling participants in a United Nations version of the Abbott and Costello skit, ‘Who’s On First…’
Shahram would ask the women questions about the booking in Farsi. They would respond.
Then he would repeat their response to me in English.
I would then relay that to the front desk guy in my bad and limited French.
He would answer me in French.
I would repeat this to Shahram in English and he, in turn, would tell his comrades in Farsi.
It took nearly an hour, but eventually everyone was satisfied and rooms were found for all. Just goes to show you what can be accomplished when people take the time to try and understand one another. In the meantime I vowed not to get caught out like that again. Before my next trip I had to improve my French.
Shahram suggested once that was done, I should really start to learn Farsi.
It was April 2020 – AC (After Covid.) The first UK ‘lockdown.’
I hadn’t seen my friend for a few years.
At first we kept missing one another. I was working two jobs and distracted by the minutia of day to day goings on.
Then I just wasn’t out as much. I am a very introverted person, though you might not know that if you saw me in a group. Don’t let the illusion fool you; if no one is there to drag me out to socialise, I don’t go. I usually have to be convinced.
I did not want to lose touch though.
I sent Shahram regular texts and emails, just to let him know I was thinking about him and his comrades. I called whenever I saw news about the latest goings on in Iran or when I needed an update.
But my calls began to go unanswered.
I had learned to expect this. Due to his constant travelling Shahram often found himself in places where cell phones had little to no reception, and he was ceaselessly busy. I figured he would reach out when he needed to.
When my own phone died and I had to change my number, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps Shahram might have had to do the same thing, and that my messages might not be getting through.
But surely his email was still the same? And he knew where I lived. Knew how to find me, whereas I didn’t know how to find him. He travelled so extensively I wasn’t sure he still had a place in Belfast, or where it might be – though he had plenty of pals to stay with if required.
But apparently he was still around on occasion. Mutual friends would run into him by chance, and later mention it to me. I asked them to relay my request for him to get in touch next time they saw him. But still the years passed and I heard nothing.
The next thing I knew, I got an odd message from another mutual friend, asking if I had ‘heard the news?’
That’s an opening line that rarely brings good tidings these days.
‘No,’ I replied, ‘Why? What’s happened?’
I was completely unprepared for her response.
He had cancer.
And, as was his nature – he had been fighting it.
For a couple of years, as it turns out.
He never told me.
Its true we had lost touch, but news like that usually gets around. So I suspect many people did not know.
He was not the type who would feel compelled to share his diagnosis either. He would not have wanted the sympathy or commiseration. Would not have wanted the attention. Although he was brilliant at sussing out others and spoke openly about his own past, he could still be an intensely private man at times.
I’ve also no doubt he resented the inconvenience of his diagnosis, likely viewing the cancer and its treatment as a distraction from the serious work at hand, depleting his valuable time and energy when it needed to be spent elsewhere….
And it’s possible that deep down, he believed he was somewhat indestructible; that his determination to move forward would always outweigh any physical or emotional set back.
He knew that the mind was stronger than the body, and probably decided he could defeat the cancer by sheer force of will.
I belive he could have too, had it not been for this new and deadly microorganism called Covid-19.
On April 7th 2020, 828 people died in the UK from COVID-19 or complications thereof, in one 24-hour period.
They were not just numbers to those who knew and loved them. They were individuals with stories, history, family. That sounds like a soundbyte, but it is of course, true.
Sadly, Shahram was among them.
It was not the cancer that took his life.
It was Covid.
With his immune system compromised by the cancer and its treatment, his history of smoking, and his age, my friend was already playing with a stacked deck at the Covid table.
All the same, Shahram still felt strong enough to reassure his partner when he was loaded into an ambulance to head to hospital. He fully expected to be back home in a day or two.
But once in hospital his condition declined quickly and dramatically.
His body was not able to absorb the life-saving oxygen it needed to survive, and his respiratory distress deepened. No matter how hard they tried to intervene, the medical team were unable to save him. By the next day my friend was gone.
Just like that.
A tiny virus had managed to do what the worst kind of torture and imprisonment could not.
After I got the news I just sat there in silence and stared out the window at my garden.
I was absolutely stunned. I managed to shake off my disbelief only long enough to text mutual friends in case they had more information. I suppose I was still hoping that there had been some sort of mistake, that Shahram had managed to recover. But no, it was true.
I sunk back in shock and denial. Even now, I find myself devoid of words. Shahram’s passing rendered me speechless.
It is unfathomable.
Shahram was a such a strong man.
In every way.
He was tenacious. And he always seemed very fit, in spite of his past injuries, his smoking, and the endless stress he was often under.
He was relentlessly driven, almost a force of nature. So it was easy to forget he was just as fragile as the rest of us. Its why his passing came as such a shock. It was almost beyond my comprehension.
He was a revolutionary, an academic, an educator, and an agitator. He was smart, funny and charming. He had devoted his entire adult life to securing the freedom of others.
And he was fearless.
He was my friend.
I feel so fortunate to have known him. He was an incredible man.
I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet – the idea that I will never see him again in this life.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile his loss with the potency of his personality. His sudden departure leaves a cavernous void in its wake.
Due to Covid restrictions those who loved him were unable to give him the send-off he so richly deserved.
So there was no wake. No proper funeral. No one was even allowed to be with him when he passed. I hope one of the medical staff was, but I will probably never know.
All this has added to the impossibility of his demise, giving his loss a dream-like quality, an unresolved ending. There is no sense of closure or reality.
And maybe that is comforting in itself. I can pretend he is just living in France or England or wherever. That he is still here, busy working….
But I know that’s not true. I know in my mind he is gone, even if my heart cannot believe it.
I can still hear his voice in my head as I write this – his exacting enunciation mixed with his Iranian accent. He had such a distinctive way of speaking. Such a great voice. Such a wonderful wit. I will miss it – and him – so very much….
He was incredible.
One day soon, it will happen.
One day soon the Iranian people will be able to live their lives as they see fit – free of fear, intimidation, torture, imprisonment, and the control of others.
One day soon, it will come.
And when it does, I will see my friend again.
For death cannot contain the desire for freedom. Sharam knew that better than most. Death has no dominion.