At the beginning of April, a couple of months before the general election in Iran, Hossein Derakhshan played a prank on the readers of his Persian political journal, published on his Web site at www.hoder.com. Hossein had announced previously on the site that he was planning to go back to Tehran to witness what he expected to be the most transparent election the country had ever seen. Writing from his kitchen in Toronto, he started dropping hints in the online journal that he had arrived in Tehran early – well before the scheduled June election. He commented on the Tehran traffic and the weather. He showed a photo of fresh pomegranates and pretended he had just taken it.
Most readers didn’t believe he was back in Iran. But on his Web site, Hossein posted only the comments of those who accepted what he said. For several days he filtered the comments he received, censoring anyone who questioned his position and amplifying those who believed his line. After a week, he began getting e-mails that read, “I know you’re in Tehran. Why don’t you contact me?”
“I finally posted a photo with me holding a copy of that day’s New York Times in front of a Toronto landmark,” Hossein says, laughing. “I wasn’t in Iran.” The prank was a lesson in political manipulation. “This is exactly what the Iranian regime is doing to people. They’re controlling the information and making people think the truth is what they filter. It happens all the time. This kind of filtering of the truth, this is what I’m fighting against.” When Hossein did eventually arrive in Tehran in June he took a photo of himself holding a local newspaper, to prove that he was there.
Perched on a stool in a coffee shop near Victoria Station in London, England, Hossein, 30, gets a kick from retelling the story. He looks like an Iranian version of the American comedic actor Jack Black – thinner but with the same wide mouth and bright, engaging laugh. It was a couple of weeks after the July 7th bombings – not a particularly funny day to be in London. Nor was it the best time to be traversing the city as an Iranian man with dark features and a heavy backpack. The sound of blaring sirens echoed in from the road, and he had to raise his voice as we talked.
Since September 2001, Hossein has been using his Web site to loft ideas, observations and political criticism back toward Iran. Unfortunately for him, and most of the young Iranians who read his site, the election was won by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Dissidents of the past might have needed proximity to their country, or at least a way to smuggle a few pamphlets in over the border. Hossein’s latest volleys come from kitchen tables and small flats in south London. For the past few months, since leaving his studies at U of T, he’s been living out of a suitcase and writing from whatever horizontal surface he can find in Toronto, London and New York.
Hossein Derakhshan was born in Tehran in 1975 to a religious family. His father, a conservative businessman, has sold Persian rugs for more than 20 years. His mother is more of a risk-taker, says Hossein, who figures he inherited this quality from her. He has two younger siblings – a brother and a sister.
At the age of seven, he was enrolled at Nikan Institute, a religious private school in Tehran where students were given IQ tests and subjected to rigid guidelines about haircuts and clothes. Studying humanities was unheard of. Education, in the opinion of the school and most of its teachers, consisted of science and math and a firm grounding in religious theory. Hossein bristled at the school’s strict rules and narrow course offerings. “I never do things I have to do,” he says. “I’ve always resisted what’s forced on me. I’m a rebel. I thought, ‘Why should I study things that are not directly helping me understand society?’ At the end of the day you become a tool in some other people’s hands.”
Hossein left Nikan in 1992, before his final year, to attend a public school. The youth at his new school came mostly from poor neighbourhoods, but he also encountered a wealthy, westernized contingent who provided him with a connection to the pop culture of Tehran. He met other people his age with diverse interests – music, painting, the arts. His last year of school proved to be an awakening of sorts, and a break from the religious stridency and homogeneity of the previous years.
After finishing school, Hossein made another important connection. In 1995, a friend of his brother taught him how to communicate by computer using a modem. This was not the Internet – not yet – but rather 30 people linked to each other by computer via an operating system that supported the Persian language. There were forums and chat rooms, and Hossein could page whoever was online. It was a fascinating new world, he says. “That network changed my social circle again,” he says. “These people were quite westernized.”
Hossein used his newfound electronic forum to stir up debate about Iranian society and whether the Supreme Leader should be accorded so much power. The network’s conservative moderators eventually suspended him, but Hossein had already received his first taste of writing for an audience. During the first few months of the tenure of Iran’s reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, he wrote a daily column about the Internet for one of the largest reformist papers, Asr-e Azadegan. At the time there were fewer than 200,000 Internet users in Iran, and Hossein believes he may have played a role in introducing many of his compatriots to the World Wide Web.
“If you are young and ambitious, Iran is not a good place to stay these days,” says Hossein. “There are limits to whatever you want to do – from having fun to studying to making money.” So in December 2000, he packed up and left Tehran for Toronto. About two years later, he signed up for courses at U of T. As a student, he was involved with the Iranian Association and continued working on his blog, which, by 2004, was starting to get noticed. “Hossein’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last year,” says Ronald Deibert, an associate professor of political science at U of T and director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies. “He’s become very influential in the Iranian dissident community.”
With his Web site, Hossein hopes to fight against what he sees as a hypocritical culture in Iran that stems back centuries to when Persia was being invaded and its people had to live double lives in their home and outside. “I’m not a rude person, but I want to separate myself from those reformists who are saying we have to use a sanitized, non-violent language,” he says. “I’ve been using the same language people use on the streets. When you’re writing a diary or Weblog, it’s natural to say that last night we had dinner and we opened a good wine and drank and it was a good experience. Because it’s an Islamic taboo, there’s no mention of drinking in public in the media. By mentioning this, I’m trying to break the taboo and bridge the gap between my personal and public life. Hypocritical language can only produce hypocritical politics. If you want to break that cycle you have to introduce and use another language that is frank, blunt and true.”
Hossein rails against the ambiguous, poetic tradition of Iranian writers, especially those who live outside the country and aren’t forced by the regime to soften their words. “A lot of Iranian Weblogs are full of this quasi-literary stuff that is not saying anything,” he says. “It’s self-contradictory. You have no idea what this guy is talking about.” His idea of political discourse is more straightforward and candid. It comes from a source that might not be very well known to Iranians – The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart. Hossein believes Stewart, the American cable-television comedian, is speaking the language of today’s politicized youth.
A community has sprung up around Hossein’s Web site. The comments under Hossein’s postings – some from visitors with names like Ironic Iranian – weave from English to Persian and back again. There are passionate rebuttals, quotes from the philosopher Wittgenstein, and the kind of biting criticism of Iran that could never appear in print in Iran. Hossein’s success as an exiled writer has boosted his cachet with the reformists in his home country. On his trip to Tehran, he visited the reform candidate Mostafa Moin and talked with the politician’s aides and strategists, who viewed him as a means of potentially influencing younger voters. (Moin even had his own Weblog during his unsuccessful run.)
Back at the London coffee shop, excitement creeps into Hossein’s voice. A young person entering Canadian politics might set goals like changing the Liberal Party from within. Hossein wants to do nothing less than change the Iranian constitution to even the balance of power between the elected politicians and the Supreme Leader. Why not think big? “They’ve done it once 16 years ago when Khomeini was still alive,” he says. “It could be done again with international pressure and some political partisan activity.” He’d like to see a Persian version of www.meetup.com, the Web site that organizes political and social groups in various cities, such as the French-speakers club of London. He’d like to see the number of non-governmental organizations grow in Iran. Most of all he’d like to see the Internet used to its potential in a country where upwards of 70 per cent of the population is under 30 and there are thousands of Weblogs. “Weblogs could have a huge political influence in Iran and Tehran,” he says. “I was thinking of using this network to win a seat on Tehran’s city council.”
After hinting at his own political aspirations he walks back onto the streets of London and away from the noise of Victoria, toward a few policemen watching over Buckingham Palace. “Someday,” he says while passing tourists in Union Jack T-shirts, “I hope Iran will be like this country,” but, he says, without the police presence, the lingering threats of violence: Iran’s had too much of that already. Hossein gestures over toward Buckingham Palace. “Someday in Iran I’d like to see a ceremonial leader and a group of elected politicians who make the real decisions.” It will take a fight. It will take more than a Web site to change his country. But a good blog is a good start.
Craig Taylor writes for The Guardian in London, England.