My Friend Vanished in Iran
Jason Shams spent months protesting in Tehran. Now his friend Leily, 29, a photographer, has been missing since Sunday, when police were seen dragging her from her car.
Leily Afshar was the type of girl you’d look at and say to yourself “now that’s one hip chick with a good sense of style.” She liked photography. She wore her straight brown hair long. She was a young girl, living, working, and playing in Tehran just like us all. She absolutely adored her friends.
When our friend Frankie got shot in the leg during a protest the day after the elections, Leily took care of her 24/7, crying her eyes out in the process. It was funny watching Frankie cursing while Leily cried, when it should’ve been the other way around. She loved animals and had two cats…
Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of the Iranian Protests
Damn there I go again, writing in past tense. She IS the type of girl…
Anyway, she’s been lost for two days now.
On December 27, Iran was rocked by the largest and most violent protests since the elections in June, the Basij apparently pulled Leily out of her car, threw her in a van and dragged her away. When Leily didn’t come home that night, her mother began desperately searching for her, with picture in hand, at police stations and penitentiaries all over Tehran. A woman finally recognized Leily and the gold Matiz she drove. The woman told Leily’s mother she had seen her dragged out by the Basij in Ferdowsi Square.
None of us know exactly what happened. But I can imagine the rest, as I've seen it over time. Did I tell you she had a camera? She was probably snapping shots away behind a red light, humming to some Bob Marley song, when the window of her small car was smashed in by their batons, covering her face and lap with broken glass, cold and shaking hands grabbing her hair as she screamed and kicked and was pulled out of the window; slammed to the ground, hands tied behind her back and thrown in the back of a van with painted windows.
• Big Fat Story: Iran at the Breaking Point• Watch video of the Iranian protestsI left Iran in November. Though I’m half-American, I lived there most of my life. I left Iran with hopes that the friends there are throwing stones, kicking tear-gas canisters, and fighting the struggle, while I can do more for them here in Washington. I can earn a degree and later help democratize the country; inform others on what it means to be part of, and represent, the Green Movement in Iran. But all that is meaningless now for Leily.
The problem is that there are too many missing, too many killed, too much grief out there for anybody to pay attention to your case. Missing friends and family have become a common occurrence—especially since Sunday’s demonstrations. More than 1,500 people have been arrested since the latest wave of protests—and who knows how many more missing that haven’t been counted.
As an Iranian, you are one of many running in circles with a picture in your hand these days. And what’s worse is that somewhere inside, you often feel like one of the lucky ones. You are grateful that the guy whose blood is on your shoes, whose head got run over by the police truck four times, wasn’t your brother. That you weren’t the one who felt his sister’s sweaty palm slide away from yours in the crowd only to find her broken body under the bridge. You have no gunshot wounds to treat at home, scared that if you take your father to the hospital, you will be identifying his body in a walk-in freezer on the outskirts of town a week later, instead of saying goodbye to him tonight.
Nope, none of those. Instead, I have a friend with whom I raised my glass many times, whose laughter I still hear echoing in my ears.
I have many such friends: unknown computer geeks who emailed us new proxies every day, the 15-year-old boy who blew cigarette smoke in my face when I wanted to gouge out my eyes from the tear gas (we quickly discovered cigarette smoke was the best antidote); the old woman in the chador who stood between me and the Basij when I slipped on the gasoline; young girls who forgot how to put on makeup, but learned how to rip open the fuel hose of a motorcycle with their fingernails as I struggled with the match in my shaking hands; the old man who had tied a green piece of cloth to his cane and was waving it from a balcony as I passed beneath him in a sea of green.
I don’t know where these people are now, but I can guess where Leily Afshar is. She’s in some penitentiary, probably outside of town where no one can hear her screaming, being harassed and poked around, to see if she can be branded a spy and used as a sacrifice in this ruthless propaganda war, if she can be pressured to confess on TV that these are not the people of Iran but the agents of CIA and Mossad.
I left Iran with hopes that my friends there are throwing stones, kicking tear-gas canisters, and fighting the struggle, while I can do more for them here in Washington.
Those who have walked out of Evin Prison, or have been visited by their families on the inside, say that sitting in their dark cells for days, the sound of “Allaho Akbar” (God is Great) from the rooftops of Tehran was what gave them the strength to go on. Iran is now that prison, and we are the ones standing on the rooftops of the world watching in horror. As one who has witnessed the strength of the people, and how each and every unique voice can mean something, all I can ask you is what Mir Hossein Mousavi, not our leader but our comrade, asked of us in his first statement, friends and allies either killed or in jail, under strict surveillance, two days after the elections: “I trust that your creativity will open new channels of communication to produce results for the country.”
I also trust you, not for the sake of the country, but for the sake of Leily Afshar.
Jason Shams has worked as a reporter, journalist, and political analyst in Tehran, and was active in the Green Movement from the beginning of the Mousavi campaign up until November 15, when he moved to the U.S. He lives in Washington DC, where he is working on a Farsi language Web site.