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A Nom de Guerre To Help Keep Us Sane

December 11, 2017
Firouz Farzani
3 min read
A Nom de Guerre To Help Keep Us Sane

In Iran, everyone knows that honesty is a dangerous thing in the workplace – at least when it comes to opinions about politics or religious issues.

Anyone who wants to hang on to his or her job has to be fluent in double-speak. In Iran, more than most places, flattery and conformity are the keys to success.  

The trouble is it messes with our minds. Even if we don’t say what we believe, we come to believe what we say. Or at least the line gets blurred between what we must say for expediency and what we truly think. 

I spend a lot of time with journalists in Iran who sympathize with the political opposition both inside and outside the country, but who show up at their lucrative jobs in state media every day — to walk the walk and talk the talk of faithful subjects of the regime. They also parrot the party line in public, and repeat the most ridiculous conspiracy theories (which, as you know, run rife in Iran). 

But as soon as they get home — or to a party — and dive into the booze, the facade crumbles. Out come all the dirty jokes about political leaders and mullahs along with a lot of complaints about the state of our government. This is a perfectly understandable release, just as their behavior at work is a perfectly justifiable survival strategy.

To stay sane, everyone needs a private place to voice candid opinions – even if it’s only to the mirror behind the bathroom door.  Who cares if our nearest and dearest suspect early-onset Alzheimer’s?

But crucially, Iranian journalists don’t have a safe forum to discuss their real opinions. Nowhere to openly challenge the principles of the Islamic Republic, or the role of civil society. Nowhere to explore provocative books or blogs or debate alternative ways to run the country.

I think all of them could do with an alias — in fact, let's call it a nom de guerre. It serves as a shield. Protected by it from the censors and thought-police, they can get their real convictions out there and — when others react — see how they stack up.

When a despotic state quashes freedom of speech, journalists forget how to do their jobs. They lose their ability to think clearly and critically. Last month, when Robert Mugabe was arrested by the military, it took editors and journalists in Harare days to begin to report properly. It had been years since they’d had the freedom to work honestly and professionally.

Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine claimed asylum in Canada. I met him in Turkey recently, and he confessed that when he first arrived in this new country where he could say and write anything, he felt lost.

I was confused and disoriented, he told me. No sooner had I put my feet on Toronto soil, I couldn’t remember what I’d been opposed to in Tehran, or find a way to order my thoughts in this vast new space.

The key to staying sane in this country is to recognize the truth, put it into words and keep it safe and lucid behind a firewall. Like a nom de guerre.  

The alternative is – at best – mental muddle, and at worst, schizophrenia. 

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