Unfathomable

You can kill the Revolutionary, but you can’t kill the Revolution’ – Fred Hampton, 1969

This is my friend Shahram.

Dr. Shahram Mottaghi 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.

South Armagh

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. He managed to escape from Iran, finally settling in the UK. His desire to see a free, secular and democratic Iranian nation was undeterred. If anything, his resolve was strengthened. His experience during the Revolution was a vindication of his beliefs and 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. Everything else. 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. I was instantly smitten and we became fast friends.

After the riot – Shahram and I, Ardoyne, North Belfast

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 mid-day and a scorching 28 degrees celsius.

But Shahram was wearing a suit.

A dark suit.

With a tie.

In spite of this he looked as sharp and comfortable as always. Not a bead of sweat, even at his temple. 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 at this point, and the hot flushes had mixed with sunburn and dehydration. I would gladly have stripped off every piece of clothing and jumped into the nearest fountain, had their been one available. Sharam laughed at my disheveled appearance. He smiled and pointed to one of the Iranian flags posted around the forum.

You will come see my country when we are free, Comrade’

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.’

He laughed.

‘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 in Brussels

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. But his convictions were not mere ideology, he was no 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.

Shahram, in front of a tribute to the Martyrs of the 1981 H-Block Hunger Strike, Belfast

Although Shahram was smart and witty, he was never spiteful. It was not in his nature to be cruel. He would often describe himself as ‘an arrogant bastard,’ but in reality he was anything but. He was supremely confident, but when it came to others, he was supportive, thoughtful and reassuring.

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 so many times I lost count. It was of no consequence to him. He would keep going until he dropped. Only his objective mattered. Nothing swayed his certainty. No obstacle was insurmountable.  He was a determined and focused individual.

During the course of his many travels Shahram was often detained and/or questioned by various security and immigration officials. Usually this was due to a combination of his frequent travel patterns, the places he was visiting 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 of the very serious struggle he was part of. Instead he viewed these 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. And he asked the hard questions, the uncomfortable ones.

There was no half-way with Shahram.

He was an all-or-nothing kind of guy.

Shahram at an NCRI rally in Brussels, 2009

One of my favourite memories of our time together took place during the annual NCRI rally in Paris. Tens of thousands of people attend from all over the world attend each year, from all walks of life. It is always exciting. The atmosphere is uniquely powerful and the reception warm and welcoming.

The rally provides an opportunity to review ongoing events and campaigns, and to reconnect, reaffirm and re-energise. It is a chance to reunite with family, friends, allies and comrades, and – in stark contrast to the horror, oppression and injustice taking place in Iran itself – it is also a celebration. A celebration of resistance.

The NCRI is led by an amazing woman by the name of Maryam Radjavi. She serves as President-elect of this vast political coalition. And this is one of the most wonderful things about the NCRI: women have an equal place within its ranks. Even the security unit which chaperones the event is composed almost entirely of women.

How awesome is that? To have women in active positions of authority? Within a  Middle-Eastern context?

To accommodate a rally so large, 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 a bad sitcom.

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.

And…repeat.

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, it was time for me to learn Farsi.

NCRI Protest In Brussels, 2020

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.  Shahram was travelling, working, writing, drumming up support. We lost touch. But he was never far from my mind. 

I would still send him emails and texts, ring whenever Iran was in the news. I kept an eye on the NCRI’s website to stay abreast of events. He usually responded. We would catch up, and sometime he would ask for my help with one thing or another. Other times he would reach out to me first.

Occassionally my calls went unanswered.

I had learned to expect this and so I didn’t worry too much. 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. I kept sending the odd email, etc.

Then I began to hear from him less and less. And I got lax in my own outreach. Time passed. We were both being pulled in different directions. One day my cell phone died and I had to change my number. That’s when it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps Shahram might have done likewise. 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 if he wanted to, whereas I didn’t know how to find him. He travelled so extensively I wasn’t even sure he still had a place locally, 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.

Relaxing with friends

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, and he was not the type who would feel compelled to share his diagnosis. 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 also resented the inconvenience of his diagnosis. He undoubtedly would have viewed the cancer and its treatment as a distraction from the serious work at hand, depleting valuable time and energy best spent elsewhere….

And it’s also 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.  It always had before.

He knew the mind was stronger than the body, and probably decided he could defeat the cancer by sheer force of will.

And I too, believe he could have done just that, had it not been for this new and deadly microorganism called Covid-19.

On April 7th 2020, 828 people in the UK died from COVID-19 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.

For 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 in his usual confident manner, when he was loaded into an ambulance to be rushed to hospital. He told her 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 sat alone in my kitchen 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 seeking 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, a soldier 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.

Absolutely fearless.

He was my friend.

I feel so fortunate to have known him. He was an incredible human being.

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 we were unable to give him the send-off he so richly deserved. There was no wake. No proper funeral. No one was allowed to be at his side when he passed.

A death such as that is so wrong. He should have been comforted and surrounded by those who loved him – who love him still. I hope one of the medical staff was present, 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.

I try to convince myself that he is just living in France or England or wherever. That he is still here, among us….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.

The Iranian people will be able to live their lives as they see fit – as individuals, 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 does not extinguish the desire for freedom. All of humanities greatest leaders have taught us this. And Sharam knew it to be true.

The desire for freedom cannot be extinguished or contained.

For the desire for freedom soars.

Jâye shomâ khâli.

جای تو خالی بود دوست من

(For more info on the NCRI:  https://www.maryam-rajavi.com/en/national-council-resistance-iran)

Maryam Rajavi condoles the passing of Dr. Shahram Mottaghi

Published by FatAngryOldBroad

Former Stand-Up Comic, Writer, Poet, and all-round Subversive...

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  1. Beautifully written. Cancer is such an awful disease, and Covid does not leave the compromised alone, but seeks it out. God Bless. Jane

    Liked by 1 person

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