Iranian Baha'i refugee recounts journey to freedom in new novel
October 25, 2010 - 3:20pm
Even as a child, Roya Movafegh knew her story had to be told—a
family’s perilous journey through the Pakistani desert, fleeing
religious persecution in Iran.
As Baha'is, there was no question what their fate would be if they
were discovered and returned to Iran, where more than 200 Baha'is were
killed in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and thousands
more imprisoned, tortured, and barred from employment and education.
“I knew that I was going to have to write the story
down,” Movafegh said. “That was a promise that I made to myself as a 10
year-old during the escape. It was a gift to my family because I didn’t
want us to forget.”
Now a multimedia artist based in New York City and
co-founder of the Children’s Theater Company of New York, Movafegh says
she never expected the story to finally emerge as a novel. For 20
years, she worked with photography, video and installation art before
she finally switched to free-flow writing and couldn’t stop. After four
years of intensive writing, her debut novel The People With No Camel was published in August 2010.
She explains the title in the preface to her book:
“According to the laws of Sharia in
Iran, if a Muslim man is murdered, his family may be compensated
according to the price of one hundred camels. If the same crime is
committed to a Muslim woman, her family is entitled to the price of
fifty camels. If a Baha'i is murdered, no camels apply.
“I am of The People With No Camel.”
Movafegh’s brave and imaginative novel combines the
literary strengths of memoir and fantasy to paint a portrait of freedom
that transcends her own experience as a religious refugee.
In 1981, her father refused to recant his faith in
order to accept a promotion at the Ministry of Commerce. For this, he
was fired and ordered to pay back three years’ salary, which the family
could not afford. At that point, with news of Baha'i arrests, executions
and raids of Baha'i homes increasing, the Movafeghs made the difficult
decision to flee Iran forever.
Disguised as a Baluch family from Afghanistan, they
packed into the back of a covered truck with several other refugees and
bumped and bruised their way across the desert toward Pakistan. The
hot, dusty stretch of unsettled land between Zahedan, Iran and Quetta,
Pakistan was heavily patrolled by helicopters and riddled with security
checkpoints. At each stop, Roya and the other children on board feigned
sleep to hide their fear from the guards.
At last, under the cover of darkness, the group pushed their truck silently through a dried river bed into Pakistan.
“Now we were lying
in the back of a truck in the desert—now we were free. Only now, we
were on the other side and could no longer know what awaited those we
had left back home. Now I was my grandmother praying for those I had
"My mind depleted, my body exhausted, I hid my emotions deep within, safely out of view, neatly out of touch.
"I mustn't miss a shooting star. I had counted sixteen thus far."
After a grueling train ride from Quetta to Lahore,
the Movafeghs disappeared into the crowds of Pakistan’s major cities,
living anonymously for fear of deportation. They took comfort in each
other and other simple pleasures—fresh fruits no longer sold in Iran, a
partly-clean hotel room, small toys from home—while anxiously preparing
for the final leg of their journey: the flight to Europe.
On December 16, 1981, after six weeks of perilous
travel, Roya, her parents and her younger brother, Joubin, were granted
asylum in Germany. But the story does not end with their newly-found
“Had it just been a story about my family, I would not have published
it,” Movafegh said of her book, which is categorized as ‘fiction-based
on a true story’ because it includes the stories of other Iranian
Baha'is she met in later years. “But the bigger picture was to have it
be a voice, one of the voices, for what is happening in Iran.”
Halfway through, the novel switches to a parable
about a young woman’s quest to save the forest that is her home. Through
the mythical characters of Persian literature; including the wise
Simurgh, the hero Rostam and many others, Movafegh critiques both the
cruelty of Iran’s oppression and the hollow freedom she encountered
later in life, as a young woman coming of age in the West.
After 10 months in Germany, the Movafeghs moved to
the United States, first settling outside Philadelphia where Roya says
she experienced the greatest culture shock. Culturally, Germany had been
very similar to Austria, where she was born and lived for four years
until her family moved back to Tehran in 1976—just three years before
the revolution that would later force them to flee. But in Pennsylvania,
Roya had to learn English, recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school,
and attempt to blend in with the Iranian Hostage Crisis still fresh in
most Americans’ minds.
“It was really hard for me to absorb what I had
gone through.” Now, Movafegh said, “I don’t really feel there is one
particular place I can call home, but at the same time I feel at home
everywhere in the world because that’s the way I’ve had to adjust in my
In Pennsylvania, Montreal and eventually New York,
Roya began to notice glaring discrepancies between the freedom she was
promised and the reality facing the continent’s racial and ethnic
“The fantasy section is a commentary on our
concepts of freedom,” Movafegh explained, recalling an experience she
had while encouraging a young African-American girl in Harlem to read
her history homework. The girl was reluctant: “This is not my history,”
she told Movafegh. “I know it’s not,” Roya replied, “but you have to
read it so you can complete the grade, so you can go on to the next
grade and the next and the next, so someday you can write your own
“This is why when someone says, ‘You’re so lucky
because you’re in a free country,’ I understand what they’re saying,”
Movafegh said tearfully. “I understand what they mean. But let's examine
what we call freedom—freedom at whose expense?”
To Movafegh, the pursuit of true liberty is a
spiritual quest. She hopes that, in addition to raising awareness about
the ongoing persecution of Iran’s 300,000 Baha'is, The People With No Camel will inspire its readers to reflect on how to attain a more enduring freedom in their own lives.
“There are so many levels to freedom,” Movafegh
said, “basic needs, shelter, the right to a profession…but there are
also deeper levels of freedom. I wanted to leave the reader to
Visit http://thepeoplewithnocamel.wordpress.com/ to learn more about the book. More information about the persecution of Baha'is in Iran is available at http://iran.bahai.us.
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