300 words for truth

I dedicate my life’s work to all past and present Iranian writers and thinkers who have been imprisoned, tortured, executed and exiled. 

We live in the age of new catastrophes. An exile’s life is about fighting against oppression in the country of birth, gaining knowledge, demanding justice and freedom for all the world’s people. Being an exile has taught me the true meaning of commitment, resoluteness and resistance of oppression and injustice.

Exile teaches you how to resist, stand up when you fall, again and again, and walk back. It teaches you how to look deeper. It shows you not to see things superficially. Exile is a unique mode of seeing and thinking and living and dying. It reminds you about the real benefits regarding your stance facing the injustices imposed on yourself and others.

I write this as an Australian citizen and an exile from my birthplace of Iran. I have come to realise we live in the age of new catastrophes, and in a consciously cruel world. We urgently need a national and international discourse about the ‘Exiled’; a conversation about this figure in our times is missing and necessary; so we don’t lapse into the false justifications, culturally relativistic perspectives, and attitudes of self-censorship so deeply entrenched in our minds today.

I do not believe in any form of justification for publishing my work in Iran. To publish in Iran, one must succumb to the strict ideological censorship imposed by the Ministry of Religion and Culture Guidance. I believe those Iranians, either in or outside Iran, who yield to this ministry pressure, and gain permission to publish their works in Iran, do an excellent service to this oppressive regime. Firstly, they betray their ethical and intellectual responsibilities, and secondly, they betray long-suffering and oppressed Iranian citizens who strive for freedom, democracy and justice in their country.

So, what are we doing with these powerful concepts in our extremely violent and troubled times? And what are the reasons and justifications which allow us to employ them to discuss what we are experiencing? I want to bring to your attention the plight of those who suffer at the hands of dictators. Those who resist them by fighting back, and risk their lives to expressing their thoughts, writing and actions.

In their determined and fascinated hatred for thinking and reasoning the despots, their fanatical followers, supporters (including Australia), apologists, and disguised supporters pretending to be dissidents, have turned Iran into a living hell. Lukewarm and indifferent observers: journalists, self-serving academics, artists, and intellectuals who do deny this tragic and disastrous situation have exacerbated this hellish situation for millions of captive Iranian citizens. We know that those governments who do not brutally subjugate their citizens encourage democracy and openness in their society. They open the enormous potential for the happiness, self-confidence and prosperity of the people in their society. We have never experienced such a thing in Iran and neither, I can say with confidence, has the entire Middle East so far.


I participated in a revolution, and my dream for living in a freed, democratic, open society has been shattered. In 1979, Iran replaced one dictatorial regime with another. At that time, I wanted to be free in order to express my thoughts without being subjected to threats, harassment, arrest, imprisonment and torture. Alongside millions of other oppressed Iranians, when I made the decision to participate in that revolution and stand up against the brutal forces of the previous regime, I wanted to stop the social, cultural and economic discrimination, put an end to ethnic divisions and achieve equal rights and respect for myself and millions of other Iranians in a free and open society.

I wanted to achieve all these things to fulfil my love and passion for writing, and freedom of expression. But this dream was shattered when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on 1 February 1979 and made his first address to the nation at the Beheshte-e-Zahra cemetery in Tehran. Shortly after that moment I concluded that the dream I had nurtured for most of my life was not going to be possible. Living under this new regime was going to be even worse than it had been under the previous one. There was an immediate escalation of violence, arrests and executions of opponents coupled with uncompromising, hateful, resentful, dogmatic behaviours and attitudes, and fundamentalist, ideological infighting. I also observed the spread of theocratic domination and the will to create a closed and repressive environment. I saw the establishment of a regime which did not respect human dignity, freedom of expression and most importantly human rights. I witnessed all this in those early months of the establishment of the theocratic regime four decades ago, and this violence and intimidation continues.


I don’t have any pictures of my childhood. There was a photograph taken of me at primary school, but it got lost during the war between Iran and Iraq (1980–1988) when my family had to flee after my city was invaded by Saddam Hussein’s army. I once asked my mother: ‘Why aren’t there any pictures of my childhood?’ and she with her usual smile and quickness replied: ‘My son, why do you want a picture? We will always be near each other.’ I was born into a poor working-class family, and was raised during the massive modernization of Iran under the Shah in the 1960s and ’70s. Both my parents were unable either to read or write. They raised us with 300 words for truth. Words like:
‘We are poor, and we have to cope with it.’

‘I love you, and that is what I can give you.’

‘We live under this sky and are not treated equally by these people.’

‘Be the pride of who you are.’

‘We live in the best neighbourhood in the world because we share one unique thing amongst ourselves – our poverty, eat the same foods and do not discriminate against each other.’

‘We don’t need to force ourselves to lie because we don’t have anything to lose.’

My mother felt her 300 words were too limited to express the depth of her feelings. Once she told me: ‘I am tired of this, please go and learn more words and teach them to me.’ I did this by reading her the writings of Forough Farrokhzad – one of our greatest modern female poets – and the novels of Dostoevsky, Camus, Behranghi and Heddayyat, and plays of Chekhov. Her reactions always made me laugh.

Whenever I asked her about the absent pictures of my childhood, she would respond with her truths. ‘What is the problem my son?’ she asked, ‘Look, you can see me and I can see you. I can tell you all my memories of you and you can do the same thing for me.’ These comments still baffle me when I think of my mother. When I think of the city that was and is not anymore. My birthplace was destroyed during the war.

Did she ever imagine what kind of disasters and tragic life lay ahead for us and our city when she made that remark? Years later, when I was in exile, I sent her a picture of me on my 30th birthday talking to her over the phone. I was tearful hearing her voice asking me: ‘Do you remember once you asked me about why we did not have any picture of your childhood and the answer I gave you?’ and I had answered, ‘Of course Azizm (my dear) I remember.’ Then she said: ‘Well, this picture you sent me reminds me of the pictures I have in mind of your childhood.’ I was surprised to hear this. ‘But Mother, do you know how old I am in this picture?’ And with her typical familiar paradoxical and strange responses she emphatically repeated her point: ‘I love this picture, it reminds me of your childhood.’ At first, I did not say anything to her. What would you say to a mother who has lost everything, and has been forcibly separated from her child? After a long pause my reply to her was: ‘Mother, I now understand what you meant.’

Like other poor Iranians, I experienced systematic neglect, disrespect and discrimination. I was harassed and beaten by the Shah’s agents, the notorious secret police called SAVAK, in my youth. I was harassed and threatened and beaten by the supporters of the new regime as well. I lost my city during the war between Iran and Iraq, and was ultimately separated from my loved ones and all my friends. Many were killed during the war. I lost the revolution I took part in – dreaming for a a better life and a free society.


As an exile I can never return. Experiencing exile breaks you. It uproots and vanishes you from the immediacy of your place. It shakes the foundation of your being and transforms the meaning of the world you love and live in, every day that passes. Exile is not just a word or concept, it is not imagined or justified. It is real. It is directly imposed upon your existence, your life, by the oppressors and dictators who don’t wish you and your people to be free and happy. Dictators want the exiled banished and wish death upon them. As an exiled person I have been thinking, learning, adjusting, integrating, writing, grieving, helping, gaining, contributing, loving, healing and connecting with others as well as nurturing my formidable hope and will to persist and be truthful to myself and my principles.

An authentic exile cannot go back to their homeland. Those who claim exile, especially if you are a writer, artist and scholar, know what it means to claim this unique mode of existence in the world. You cannot go home until the home is free. If you go back, this action is a clear indication that you not only compromise your humanity against the torturous regime from which you claim you fled, but also by the act of your return you directly and consciously legitimise the brutality of that regime that imposes pain and suffering on the people inside the country you come from. You do not give yourself to the oppressors who control, imprison, torture, kill and subjugate the population of the country of your birth in their absolute will to maintain their power at any cost.


I would love to return to my country of birth. I come from one of the most ancient parts of the world, and belong to one of the oldest civilizations. The stories of the Bible referring to Persians, the good deeds of king Cyrus, the stories of the Babylonian captivity, the story of the ancient King Xerxes (Khashayarshah) and queen Esther, Haman and Mordecai, Daniel, these are the stories I grew up with. I remember how our Jewish community in my city celebrated the festivities of Purim rejoicing, remembering the outcome of that story and feeling proud to be Iranian Jews, talking about the Cyrus the liberator of Babylon. I was born near the places where all these stories took place thousands of years ago.

I was born not far from the sites of ancient Babylon and the biblical cities of Sush (Susa/Shushan), Lagash, Ur and Nimrud. In my youth, I was introduced to our great thinker the prophet Zarathustra. I read his Gathas, so poetic, so philosophical, and was fascinated by his philosophical sayings: ‘good thoughts, good words and good deeds.’ I was told the story of king Gilgamesh (which was written on clay tablets around 2800 BC) and his friendship with wild Enkidu, and how they were created close to my birthplace.

I was born into the language of Zarathustra, and that of poets such as Omar Khayyam whose personality and poetry fascinated Edward Fitzgerald during the entire Victorian creative and intellectual era, and later influenced the 1960’s cultural and political movements in the West. I was introduced to the marvellous story of the One Thousand and One Nights, the love stories of Lyla and Majnon and Shirin and Farhad in the early years of my life. I read great Attar’s poetry ‘the conference of the Birds’ in Persian many times over.

I used to mix with the ancient marsh people who lived near my city. I listened to their ancient stories about how they lived on the water, made their reed houses and weaved their date tree rugs and baskets for thousands of years even before the emergence of Sumerians, Acadians and Babylonians. Any time I see a river, it reminds me of the river Karun which passed through my city, and recall the saying we were told when we were kids: ‘Injast k Aab dejle va karun bray miloniha sale as ke hamidghar ra me bosand v ma anha ra mi noshim,’ meaning: ‘It is here that the waters of the Euphrates and Karun have been kissing each other over millions of years and we have been drinking them.’


The exile cannot go home because he/she thinks. What kind of thinking is the oppressor afraid of? What is the meaning, the essence, of being exiled in our time? We live in violent and dangerous times. Who is an exile? Exile and home and birthplace, what is their relationship? Exile is a mode of being that raises crisis, questions, and resists the despotic rulers of his/her people. The exiled defies, speaks to power, both in his solitude and amongst those who want to listen. The exiled through his/her sheer desire and will to understand the oppression and injustice at home has learned and is convinced that authentic being shapes, forms, develops and grows through seeing, listening, thinking and telling the truth to the face of power and its abusers. The exiled is passionate about advocating justice and freedom.

The exiled is a free individual who despises any form of injustice imposed on innocent, powerless and dispossessed people. The exile’s main concern is conscience. The exiled maintains tremendous self-belief and independence, and relies on his or her own inner resources. He or she is enriched with resilience and authentic reasoning to keep their dignity and self-respect even when they are ignored, neglected, deliberately misunderstood, and excluded. At heart, the exile is a happy human being, because, at the core of their existence, they live with a clear conscience. The exile detests bad conscience. The exile spends lots of time and energy to learn, think, reflect and understand what ‘exile’ is. The exile always defies, and is suspicious of, the dominant forms of thinking that are ideational or prepositional.

The exile is continuously eager to learn what love, friendship, solidarity, longing, commitment to a cause, ethical and moral responsibility toward himself and others are. The exile detests drawing pitiful and charitable attentions to his or her experiences and situations. The exile does not speculate; he or she sees and says. These are the ways of exiled thinking and seeing and saying. For the authentic exile, the right things, the matters, genuinely stand with the ideas that occur in living beings. The exile knows the word ‘idea’ means to see, face, meet, be face-to-face.

The authentic exile is the one who knows this so deeply because he or she has faced the brutality of injustice and the violence of oppressors who are determined to destroy his or her will to think authentically and be honest with himself and herself – it is all about seeing, feeling, judging, thinking, telling and acting. Once I said to a friend: ‘We stand before a thing, each other, a car, a tree, a political system, a poor man, an orphan child, a refugee, an asylum seeker, a man or woman who has been tortured or lost everything in the war. You see, my friend you and I are standing before the world, and it stands before us, it faces us. We are in it. So, what is happening in the world? The genuine happening occurs when we, you and I, encounter each other face-to-face and tell the truth to each other.’


The exile is forced to leave his or her homeland for one purpose, and that is to learn freely, live and express their thoughts and views against injustice and oppression. The exile’s total responsibility is to learn, think and act with ethical and moral integrity and never allow himself or herself to become the subject of any form of temptation which leads them to succumb to the will and power of monopolists and oppressors. We must determinedly and without any doubt in our minds resist oppressive regimes which impose their will and power on citizens’ lives and deny them freedom to exercise their legitimate rights and express their ideas, thoughts, views and criticisms.

Dictators are enemies of human flourishing and happiness. History moves on, and we can’t stop it. To make the future of the world in which we live better, we must determine ourselves to work together to end injustice. Threatening, arresting, interrogating, imprisoning, torturing, executing and exiling peoples from their countries because they wish to freely express their ideas and views, against the brutality of the government that subjugates them to its repressive ideology and political will – these are simple acts of barbarism. There is nothing more sacred than life and living it with dignity in the world.


Imagine that you cannot return to the country you were born in because you think, write, criticise, and question the legitimacy of the oppressive regime which has kept the people of your birthplace captive. Imagine being threatened, and fearing for your life when all alone in strange cities and places, and having your movements monitored and telling yourself that ‘for the sake of preserving my freedom and human dignity I am not going to succumb to all these things.’ Imagine your mother dying when you are unable to attend her funeral because you criticise the ideas, values and conduct of the regime that rules your birthplace. This has been my exilic life over the last forty years.



Read the rest of Overland 241

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Mammad Aidani

Mammad Aidani is a human rights advocate, poet, playwright, theatre director, and psychosocial researcher. In his research he investigates the violence, torture, trauma and suffering experienced by Iranian and Middle Eastern immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have resettled in Australia and the West. Mammad is currently the vice president of PEN International Melbourne. He teaches Hermeneutics and Phenomenological philosophy at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. Mammad's writings have been banned in Iran.

More by Mammad Aidani ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays