Soheil Asefi at Cafe Commune. Photo by Francesca Torricelli
A new generation has joined the ranks of Berlin’s Iranian diaspora. Connected to their homeland through social media and far removed from their predecessors’ struggles, these activists have hooked up with local left-wing circles and are trying to make an impact in their own way. As part of our special EXBlicks: Exiled Politics series this month, we're screening Moslem Mansouri’s documentary Rebel Generation which explores politically active Iranian refugee communities in Berlin and worldwide. Join us for the film at Lichtblick Kino (Sep 21, 20:30).
It’s a sweltering August evening at Cafe Commune in Kreuzberg. Outside the leftist Kotti haven, a group of Italian tourists are braving the heat and talking excitedly, drinking beer and schnapps. In the back room, amid mismatched vintage furniture and posters of international revolutionary icons, a far more sombre event is taking place. A former Iranian communist guerilla fighter addresses the crowd. For his own safety, he identifies himself only by the name of Kamal.
A motley group of young Germans and Iranians make up the audience, a mixture of traditional hijabs and Antifa tattoos. They listen and sweat as a Powerpoint presentation plays a morbid slide show of dead bodies, makeshift graves, and crying family members laying flowers in front of pictures of their loved ones. Kamal tells them that during 1988 – one of the bloodiest years in the history of the Islamic Republic – over 30,000 political prisoners were murdered by the Iranian government.
“This is still happening every day in Iran,” says Karla*, the 25-year-old political prisoner rights advocate who organised Kamal’s presentation at Commune. “We need to make sure these stories get told.” In July, Amnesty International revealed that almost 700 Iranian political prisoners have been executed since January 2015, and the numbers continue to soar. “Iran’s staggering execution toll for the first half of this year paints a sinister picture of the state carrying out premeditated, judicially sanctioned killings on a mass scale,” says Said Boumedouha, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme.
Karla and Kamal belong to two different generations of Iranians living in exile in Germany. Though Iranian citizens had long been migrating to the West for their studies and careers – the first wave, composed mostly of intellectuals, came in the 1950s – the years following the 1979 revolution transformed the country from a secular dictatorship into an Islamic republic and led to a mass exodus of students, journalists, communists and activists who were escaping the grasp of the theocracy and the threat of torture behind the walls of secret service prisons. Most went to the US, but Germany has the third largest diaspora population in the world, with 120,000 Iranian residents currently living here.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the flow of Iranians seeking shelter in Germany slowed to a trickle. But following the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, that trickle became a torrent. When Iranians took to the streets in protest, the government cracked down hard, and the number of people fleeing to Germany jumped to 1170 in 2009. That figure doubled again in 2010, and according to Hamid Nowzari, director of Berlin’s Association of Iranian and Afghani Refugees, as many as 4000 refugees are now making their way to Germany every year. “These people are our age and never expected to see their friends shot on the street,” says Nora*, a 25-year-old Berlinborn Iranian at the Cafe Commune gathering, “They have experienced extremes that we couldn’t even conceive of.”
These new exiles aren’t all as politically active as the previous generation. “In recent years there has been an increase of refugees who find themselves at odds with the religious regime despite not engaging in a political act of protest,” says Nowzari. “Some were outed as LGBT, and some women were punished for cutting a man’s hair – that’s illegal in Iran. They are not activists as such, and often require more help from our organisation when they arrive because they were totally unprepared for this eventuality. They didn’t choose to come here.”
Nagres*, a 29-year-old student from Tehran, did choose to come to Berlin, and it didn’t take her long before she got involved in politics. Shortly after arriving in 2009, she joined forces with other young Iranians in Berlin to raise awareness of their peers’ struggle during the Iranian elections and subsequent repression. Then, in 2012, Nagres and her friends were approached by an Israeli activist. The plan? To form a group – the Iranian-Israeli Circle – and stage demonstrations and events that combined Israeli Berliners and Iranian students and exiles who stood against the “warmongering words and sanctions” that the US and Israel were imposing on Iran. However, once the immediate threats had subsided, the group began to disband.
Many of them still meet regularly to discuss political developments within their home country, using Cafe Commune as their hub. “Most of the Iranian exile community in Berlin are lefties,” says Nagres, who’s currently working on her masters at Humboldt University. “There are of course a lot of Iranians in the diaspora who are for the US and Israel, but in Berlin most immigrants have historically come from leftist backgrounds. The mentality of Iranian activists here is also influenced by the atmosphere of the city.”
For many young Iranian activists, the fact that their host country is collaborating so strongly with the Iranian government is galling. “The German government is a war machine,” says Nagres. Germany is second only to the United Arab Emirates in terms of exporting machinery to Iran, and their trade ties are getting stronger. “The government is also selling intelligence services to Iran, which has helped people to be wiretapped and tortured,” says Nora. “The most important act that we can do is to wage war on our own government. We need to expose these laws, stand up, and say ‘not in my name’.’’
For this third generation of activists, social media is a vital weapon. “Of course social media doesn’t provide the whole picture, but it brings us closer to the reality,” says Nora, who became politicised after watching the online videos of a young Iranian girl bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran in 2009. “Just because we use Facebook to share things, it doesn’t mean we’ve lost sight of the old ways like demonstrations and putting up posters. The two need to connect. You need to find new ways of getting the word out.”
Not everyone agrees with their approach. “A lot of Iranian people in diaspora are very disconnected, but they don’t realise it,” sighs Soheil Asefi. Sitting outside Südblock with piercings and a bun, he looks every inch the typical Kotti activist. However, the journalist and blogger’s history is far more troubled than that of the average Antifa punk.
In 2008, Asefi was arrested by the Iranian police, who had been monitoring his blog for seven years. He spent two months alternating between interrogations, solitary confinement and the criminal wings of Tehran’s prisons while the secret police sifted through and analysed every single word he’d written. Eventually, his father offered his own home as collateral in order to pay the extortionate bail, and Asefi left for Germany as soon as he could, on a grant as a “PEN Writer in Exile”. He continues to write about the issues in his own country from Berlin (see next page).
However, when he tried to connect with like-minded Iranians at Commune, he was left disappointed. “They sit in the back room, talking for hours and hours, trying to figure out things for themselves regarding sexuality, politics, whatever. Solidarity is great, but they want to politicise it as if it plays a significant role in changing Iran.”
Asefi was also shocked to find that the Commune crowd, and even their second-generation exile parents, rely almost entirely on social media to inform their views and discussions – something that he terms “clicktivism”. “The Iranian political situation is highly complex – there’s no way they can get it all from Facebook! They can still be activists here, sure, but not about today’s Iran.” He stands firmly by his belief that he will one day have to return to Iran – where he will almost certainly face arrest – if he wants to truly effect change in the country.
For veteran artist and director Daryush Shokof, the situation here is irredeemable. Born in Tehran, Shokof studied filmmaking in the US before moving to Berlin in 2000. It was here that he made and released a series of films criticizing the Iranian regime, foremost among them Iran Zendan (2010), which detailed the interrogation and torture of Iranian political prisoners by the secret police. However, after liaising with various activist and opposition groups in Berlin, Shokof became disheartened. “I had such hope that something might happen. But the more I went to activist and opposition meetings, the less I saw being achieved.”
Now working as an artist in Paris, the 60-something says his days of speaking out against the regime are over. “I don’t believe in any of the activism anymore,” he says. “There has been enough time for any serious oppositional organisation to do something. I am now extremely distanced from politics. I really do wish the best for Iran, but I detach myself from further engaging with it in any way.”
Regarding the disconnect between exiled Iranians and their homeland, Nagres agrees with Asefi and Shokof’s summary of the situation, but doesn’t see it as a problem. “Maybe the difference is in how long people live here for. When I first came here, I was more involved in direct issues regarding Iran, but as people live here for longer they become more connected to the city they live in.”
For social worker and activist Mila Mossafer, the issue is less in the disconnect between Iranians and their country than the lack of dialogue between generations. “The main problem is that every generation starts from scratch. We who are in exile don’t know about the generation growing up in Iran now, and they don’t know about us and our story. The fight starts anew with every generation,” she says.
Her generation, she continues, was “the generation of the revolution. We were leftists, and we wanted equality, freedom of press and freedom of speech, real women’s movements...” Part of a political group that opposed the Islamic republic, Mossafer lived in hiding for three years after Khomeini took over, until in 1985 she was able to make her escape. Disguised as a Kurd, she was smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey, where she dodged border guards and assumed the identity of a 17-year-old boy. Almost 90 days later, she made it through the GDR and into West Berlin where she eventually met up with her sister.
After a spell in a Nuremberg refugee home, she eventually made it back to Berlin and soon began working as a social worker and aided Iranian refugees at the Iranian Refugee Organisation while also liaising with activist groups in Berlin and sharing her experiences of life under the Iranian regime. In 1997, she co-founded a committee for the support of Iranian political prisoners.
Because the Iranian activist movement lacks a central organisation or platform where exiles from different generations can work together, she says, young and old activists often find it hard to agree on a common goal. In particular, members of the younger generation might not understand why certain Islamic customs make older exiles uneasy. “The young leftists are so used to the hijab that they don’t protest against it anymore,” she says. “They have no problem with the call to prayer. For my generation it is a very different experience: the call reminds us of the times when the torturer would leave for a while to go to pray and then return to continue with the whipping.”
But Mossafer won’t be deterred by something as small as an inter-generational divide. Though she feels that no great change can be spurred in Iran from Berlin, she aims to support and inform Iranian exiles from all backgrounds as they try to make sense of the situation at home. “We need to work on understanding each other and what has happened in Iran,” she says. “There is still so much work to do. At our next event, in September, many former Iranian prisoners from across the world will come and participate. It will be good to bring the old and young generations, who have just started to organise, together.”