Iranian Baha’i refugee recounts journey to freedom in new novel

The People With No Camel

"The People With No Camel," by Roya Movafegh, recounts the journey of a Baha'i family fleeing persecution in Iran.

October 25, 2010

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 Bahá’ís, there was no question what their fate would be if they were discovered and returned to Iran, where more than 200 Bahá’ís 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 Bahá’í 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 Bahá’í arrests, executions and raids of Bahá’í 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 left behind.

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 freedom.

“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 Bahá’ís 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 life.”

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 minorities.

“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 history.”

“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 Bahá’ís, 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 contemplate that.”

Visit http://thepeoplewithnocamel.wordpress.com/ to learn more about the book. More information about the persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran is available at http://iran.bahai.us.

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Reprinted with permission from the Baha’is of the United States
(see U.S. Baha’i News)

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