The huge difficulties faced by a thinking man growing up in Iran during the 1980s and 1990s are chronicled in a compelling personal tale told by Iranian doctor and writer Arash Hejazi, in The Gaze of the Gazelle. During the extraordinary days of June 2009, the days of the Green Revolution when the Iranian opposition challenged the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was brutally suppressed by the military, Hejazi achieved an extraordinary few seconds of immortality.
He was the man in the white shirt who held a dying Neda, a young woman who was shot in the chest on the streets by the government's paramilitary forces and bled to death, staring unknowingly into a passer-by's camera. Hejazi posted his friend's video of the tragedy on the internet, which immediately became a symbol of the protesters' fate in the terrible crackdown. As Hejazi says, "a mere 47 seconds of film shook the world".
The brave decision to publish the film had profound personal consequences for Hejazi, as the authorities reacted against him. "I have lost everything because I told your story," the writer soliloquises to the dead woman in the opening of the book, "my career, my country, my family and my security. I need to simply be a witness to an era full of dark hate and bright hopes."
But despite its title and the first chapter, which is all about the gaze of the dying Neda, the rest of The Gaze of the Gazelle is the story of what Hejazi calls the "Burnt Generation", the young people who were just old enough as children to feel the impact of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and able to share their parent's excitement over the fall of the Shah. But as they grew up, they then had to experience the brutal nature of successive Iranian governments.
Many others of his generation were forced to go and fight Iraq, and then return shattered by the experience to a corrupt and increasingly murderous regime. Hejazi avoided going to the front line, but had to serve as a doctor in the Revolutionary Guards, where he was repulsed by what was going on around him: the politics of the Guards, but also having to turn away hundreds of poor from getting medical treatment as the Guards looked after others more important to their aims.
As he tells the story of his life, Hejazi's often rambling style mixes political and social observation and personal stories, and frequently takes off into flights of thought about the centuries of Persian traditions in literature, poetry, music and architecture. Much of the power of the book lies in telling how this cultured man struggled to express his thoughts.
He loved music and was a writer. "I imagined I was a Dostoyevsky waiting to be discovered," as he put it, but his troubles with the authorities would not go away. Hejazi persisted and ran a publishing company which brought out titles by international and local authors, all of which invited even more persecution from the government.
But his activities took him outside Iran, to places such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he met thinking people from around the world, and led him to publish Paulo Coelho in Persian. This vital link with a world-famous prisoner of conscience proved key after Hejazi took his momentous decision to publish the Neda video. Coelho's blog provided an important trigger for international pressure on the government for restraint in dealing with Hejazi.
Hejazi is now in exile in London, but remains firmly part of the developments in Iran. The book's appeal is in his inner confidence that change will happen. Sitting on the London Tube's gloomy Circle Line, he looks at his fellow passengers and thinks that "after reading my story, they may embrace life with a little more enthusiasm and passion, living every moment as if it were the last". Coming from someone who has done so and paid for it, these words have extra power.
The Gaze of the Gazelle: The Story of a GenerationBy Arash Hejazi, Seagull Books, 363 pages, $21