The violent death of Neda Agha-Soltan is perhaps the most watched in history. The astonishing video which depicts her murder shocked the world when it emerged during the protests following Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. Neda, and thousands more like her, believed that the published result which indicated a clear and unprecedented victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a consequence of flagrant electoral fraud. She was shot dead at point blank range by a Basiji, a member of the Iranian regime’s voluntary militia, on a crowded street during a peaceful protest. The Basiji’s tactic on that day was to scatter clusters of demonstrators by shooting one individual in each cluster. Arash Hejazi is the man who can be seen in that video wearing a white shirt and blue jeans. He is fruitlessly attempting to prevent the transfusion of Neda’s blood from inside her chest onto the Tehran pavement.
Hejazi is an unassuming political exile. He is dressed casually, and appears relaxed. As he lights a cigarette, he does not seem particularly insurrectionary, but, as Hejazi admits, “I was never a freedom fighter or a revolutionary. The revolution didn’t help us really, we had a revolution and it didn’t help us. I don’t believe in sudden change, I believe in gradual change: Hejazi supported the establishment figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi in 2009 because of his belief that “the only way of getting change is from within”.
With his father studying for a PhD in Britain, Hejazi initially grew up in a Birmingham suburb. Aged four, he moved back to Tehran and witnessed the Islamic Revolution as a young child. His adolescence was defined by the Iran-Iraq war, the longest conventional conflict of the last century. “Our teenage years were
spent going to funerals of friends who had been killed in the war: A doctor by profession, death seems to be a prevailing feature of Hejazi’s life.
His manner is one of reluctant fortitude and gentle sincerity, emotions which the video of Neda would inspire in anyone. Her eyes in particular generate a deeply disquieting impact. She stares directly at the camera as blood cascades from her mouth and men gather around in a futile attempt to save her. The viewer sees the vitality behind the stare slowly disappear until she can only give the camera a bloodied, hollow glaze. Hejazi emphasises the motivational impetus that this experience generated within him:
•She looked at me as if to say, ‘Don’t let it be in vain’. I felt that she was asking me to do something.”
Hejazi did do something, and he did so quickly.
He and his friend who recorded the incident immediately distributed the clip via Facebook, YouTube and email. The video spread virally across the world within hours. Just a couple of days later, his friend
Paolo Coehlo – who wrote the introduction to Hejazi’s recently published book The Gaze of the Gazelle – mistakenly gave away his identity online. This made Hejazi a target for an Iranian regime which was now cracking down on dissents with greater force than ever. His determination that Neda’s murder be seen by the world ultimately cost him his possessions and all his money, as well as the ability to see his extended family. However, such losses were not the only impact of the clip: since its recording, Neda’s image has become an icon for pro-democracy movements in Iran and further afield.
Hejazi fled to Oxford, where he was completing a Master’s Degree at Oxford Brookes and where he still lives with his wife and young son. This was the last time he saw his homeland. “I realised afterwards I never had the chance to say goodbye; I never had the chance to see the places I loved for the last time; I never had the chance to see the people I loved for the last time. But it’s the price you have to pay: Hejazi’s parents still live in Iran, although his father, having been interrogated by the regime following his son’s banishment, is now banned from teaching. •Otherwise, physically, things are fine:
Most Western contemporary discussions of Iran focus on its complex: foreign policy commitments and oblique nuclear arrangements. However, it is important to remember that, day to day, modern Iran remains an intensely repressive place to live. Reporters Without Borders ranks the Iranian press as fourth from bottom in the world in terms of journalistic freedom. Political opponents are routinely tortured. The Basij militia perpetually hassles and intimidates citizens whom it doesn’t believe are adequately adhering to Sharia law. Hejazi draws a distinction between the popular Islamic regime that was swept in on the back of the 1979 revolution, and the current regime: “‘People have lost their belief in what they thought would be a religious Islamic government.
It isn’t anymore; it’s just an oppressive government using Islam as a means to justify its actions. It is now just a typical totalitarian regime.”
Hejazi believes that the West failed to put enough pressure on Ahmadinejad after his allegedly fraudulent victory. Countries recognised him as President and continued negotiations. Hejazi speculates that a domestically unpopular Iranian President is likely to be more dependent on international legitimacy, and thus more desirable to the West. He is also sceptical of the ability of the international community to generate real change in Iran. “The opposition outside Iran has its own agenda. However, inside Iran, I really think they are looking for change.” The current squabble between the President and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most extraordinary recent development of which was the Ayatollah’s threat to remove the office of elected President entirely, is ongoing.
Hejazi dismisses this as “a struggle for absolute power, a dictator wants to take over from another dictator”. He concedes it is difficult to see exactly where change in Iran can come from. It will likely require a combination of international support and domestic ebullience.
There are enough people in Iran today who do not want Neda’s death to be futile. Hejazi is just one of these. He is a trained doctor, and volunteered when an earthquake devastated the city of Bam in 2003, killing 26,000 Iranians. “Literally, I’ve seen thousands of deaths. As a doctor you have to be detached; you just focus on the issue. People come in with conditions so you are always dealing with the possibility of death. But this one, afterwards when it was over, I felt so terribly devastated because it was so unfair. She had done nothing wrong. It was her right to peacefully demonstrate and disagree with anyone she wanted to. Then without any justification, they just shot her and she just died.” Hejazi is clearly still deeply affected by the experience. His own eyes blink at me above the bridge of his rimless glasses. “Her eyes followed me, and have followed me ever since. That’s why I talked, that’s why I wrote the book, that’s why I uploaded the video.”
- 47 seconds that changed the history of Iran: The Gaze of the Gazelle, the story of the lost Iranian Generation (cultureiran.wordpress.com)
- The End of Illusion; a review on The Gaze of the Gazelle (gazeofthegazelle.com)
- The Gaze of the Gazelle: witness to a death that changed history (Book Review) (gazeofthegazelle.com)
- Dr Shaheed, what you have presented is just the tip of the iceberg: Arash Hejazi’s open letter to Dr Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (gazeofthegazelle.com)