“When he reached the hospital, Hasan was hemorrhaging from his nose, ears and mouth. He had a seizure and died a few minutes later. The official cause of death was said to be a stroke, but his family and friends believe that Hasan did not die a natural death.”
The death of Hasan Heydari, a young Arab poet, in the Khuzestani capital of Ahvaz, has led to anti-government unrest in the city. Fans of the poet – believing that he had been murdered – took to the streets in protest on the evenings of Sunday, November 10 and Monday, November 11. His burial was scheduled for noon on Monday, but the security forces, wishing to prevent more protesters from gathering at the funeral, pulled it to the earlier time of 10am. A small group of family and friends were the only people able to attend.
Reza Najafi Mehr, Director General of Khuzestan Province’s Security Bureau, insisted that Hasan Heydari had died a natural death and denied that there had even been any protests.
“[Heydari’s] friends gathered to attend his funeral. But some media presented it as a security issue, out of ignorance of the traditions of Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan,” Najafi Mehr said on November 11. He added that Heydari's supporters and fans had gathered simply to express their condolences.
The protesters said, however, that if there had been no “security issue,” why was an autopsy not permitted? Why was the funeral time changed without informing those who wanted to be present?
Meanwhile, quoting the commander of Khuzestan police, the Telegram channel Asr-e Jonoub reported that a number of mourners who had been able to attend the burial ceremonies had been arrested. According to the news channel, the detainees had thrown stones at a bank and had set tires on fire, disrupting traffic.
According to Yusuf Al-Sorkhi, an Iranian-Arab writer and activist, one of the detainees is Abbas Sahaki, a famous Arab political singer who has been arrested several times over the last 15 years. Sahaki is widely seen as a peaceful person who would never participate in stone-throwing or other violent forms of protest. Al-Sorkhi added that Sahaki was first arrested during 2005 protests over a forged letter attributed to former vice president Mohammad-Ali Abtahi that proposed reducing the Arab population of Khuzestan and called for changing Arab place names to Persian names. Since then, Sahaki has also been arrested for singing songs by Arab poets in various Arab ethnic ceremonies.
A “People’s Poet”
Hasan Heydari was 27 when he died. But he was already a well-known figure among Khuzestani Arabs for his Shaabi (Arabif for “of the people”) poetry – poems in colloquial language about ordinary people’s problems, interests and dreams. He recited his poetry at religious ceremonies, memorial services, celebrations and weddings and was popular among Khuzestani Arabs.
Heydari’s two elder brothers have also been arrested several times. Hossein Heydari, also a poet well known to Arab literary circles in Ahvaz, was arrested a few years ago for his activities in support of Arab identity and the political, social, cultural and linguistic rights of Iranian Arabs; he was released shortly afterward. Abbas Heydari, the oldest brother, was arrested after the ISIS terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz in September 2018. He too was released after some time and no charges were brought against him.
In the last seven years Hasan Heydari had composed many original poems – though none were published. Yusuf Al-Sorkhi mostly blames the censorship of independent and “resistance” literature that in recent years has made it impossible for Arab-speaking writers and poets to publish their works.
But Al-Sorkhi added: “Shaabi poems are generally colloquial and unwritten poems which are learned by heart. Their hold and their staying power flows less from being printed on paper and more from the poet’s ability to recite them and how well the audience receives the poems.”
Al-Sorkhi also noted that – unlike in most other parts of Iran – there are no literary societies in Ahvaz. “Poetry societies for Arab poets are limited to religious poetry,” he said. “For this kind of poetry, there are societies, seminars, poetry-reading nights and gatherings. But Shaabi poems are usually recited by poets at celebrations, religious ceremonies, weddings and memorial services. Among Iranian Arabs, inviting poets to such ceremonies is an established tradition and Hasan was one of the poets who was very well known and popular in such gatherings and ceremonies.”
40 Days of Interrogations
But – aside from where the poet recites his poetry – what decides his standing in the eyes of the government and can turn him into a “security threat” are the poems he recites.
On August 18, 2018, a few days after reciting a poem in one such traditional gathering, Heydari was arrested and interrogated for close to 40 days.
“This poem was a serious and explicit criticism,” Al-Sorkhi said, adding that the target of the critique was Iran’s principle of the Guardianship of the (Shia Islamic) Jurist, the founding principle of the Islamic Republic, and the basis for the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“[Heydari] was kept in solitary confinement, and during his detention his family did not know where he was being held. They could only guess that he had been arrested because of that critical poem,” Al-Sorkhi said. Heydari was then transferred to Sheyban Prison in Ahvaz and authorities finally informed his family – adding that they could arrange for Heydari’s release if they posted bail.
But after his release, more than a year ago, Heydari received several summons from the intelligence bureau for further interrogations.
“Hasan continued to compose poetry and participated in various recitals and ceremonies,” Al-Sorkhi said. “It seems that his arrest and interrogation only damaged his health, but did nothing to discourage him from composing and reciting poetry in the style that he wanted. That is why he was summoned and interrogated by the intelligence bureau several times in the last year.”
At about 5:00am on Sunday, November 10, Heydari’s wife saw that he was hemorrhaging and called for help. He was rushed to the hospital – but the doctors could not save him and he died.
“When he reached the hospital,” Al-Sorkhi said, “Hasan was hemorrhaging from his nose, ears and mouth. He had a seizure and died a few minutes later. The official cause of death was said to be a stroke, but his family and friends believe that Hasan did not die a natural death.”
Considering the extreme distrust many Iranians have for their government, as well as the history of illegal actions committed by security agencies and the Islamic Republic’s dark record of eliminating its critics and opposition, it is no wonder that Heydari’s sudden death has led to suspicions that he did not die a natural death, but that he was murdered through “biological assassination”, meaning through the deliberate use of viruses, bacteria, poison or other lethal substances.
According to Al-Sorkhi, Heydari’s family and friends say that he had not been feeling well after his last release and had complained of various pains.
“Protesters believe that Hasan became ill, was poisoned and died as a result of substances given to him during his 40-day arrest,” Al-Sorkhi said. “In a WhatsApp message Hasan had told a friend that during his detention he went to sleep for a full day or two after each meal, and the friend replied saying that probably his meals were drugged.”
Heydari’s brother Hossein, however, posted a video denying that Hasan’s death was suspicious and asking protesters to avoid shooting guns, removing Iranian flags and committing other acts of violence. But Al-Sorkhi believes that Hossein was forced to make this video under pressure from security agencies. “These protests over Hasan’s suspicious death are a natural reaction by Arab ethnic activists who do not trust the government, and their slogans reflect the same demands made in the poetry of Hasan Heydari,” Al-Sorkhi said.
Not the First Poet to Die
Al-Sorkhi believes that suspicions over Heydari’s death have been fueled by the death of Sattar Sayahi, another well-known Arab poet who died seven years ago in similar circumstances.
“Sattar Sayahi, known as Abu Suroor Al-Ahwazi, fell ill around midnight on November 11, 2012, with symptoms similar to Hasan, i.e., hemorrhaging from his nose and ears,” Al-Sorkhi said. “He was taken to the hospital, where he died. Sayahi was also arrested several times because of his critical poems. The last time, three weeks before his death, he was summoned [by the authorities] and warned that his children would become orphans if he did not stop composing and reciting critical poems.”
Sayahi was in his early thirties when he died. A stroke was also given as the cause of death. He was well known for his epic poetry, not only among Iranian Arabs but also in southern Iraq. Sayahi was very popular and his poems were sung in many Arab ceremonies.
In late 2011, a group of unidentified individuals attacked the home of another Arab poet, Naser Jabrazgani, and beat him savagely in front of his children. As a result, Jabrazgani was permanently disabled and is now paralyzed.
Approximately seven months before the death of Sattar Sayahi, his cousin Shannan, also a poet, was run over by a car as he was returning home from a private poetry recital. His bloodied body was found the next morning by passersby.
And a few years earlier, on March 25, 2008, three other Arab poets — Taher Salami, Abbas Ja’aveleh and Nazem Hashemi — lost their lives in a road accident in Khuzestan as they were returning from a poetry recital. The three poets were also well known in Iraq because they had participated in a number of Shaabi poetry festivals.
In 2016, yet another poet, Ayyub Khanafareh, was killed in a suspicious traffic accident on the road to Kut Abdollah in Khuzestan, just a week after a video showing him at a recital was posted on YouTube.
The suppression of Iranian-Arab activists is not limited to poets and suspicious deaths. Aside from continued arrests, dozens of others have been detained in mass arrests over the last two years — the first time after the ISIS attack in Ahvaz in September 2018, and the second time during devastating floods in April 2019.
According to figures published on social media by a group of ethnic Arab activists, between the fall of 2018 and early summer of 2018, close to 240 Arab Iranian citizens were either imprisoned or detained on a range of political and security-related charges. Al-Sorkhi suggests this number is lower now because many of the detainees have been released in the last few months. “Of course an unknown number of detainees are kept at Sheyban prison in Ahvaz or in prison in Hamadan," Al-Sorkhi said. "They have not been indicted and have not been put on trial.”
The Arab protest movement, according to Al-Sorkhi, would not be snuffed out by the crackdown on Arab activists and the suspicious deaths of Arab poets. Instead, “every death, every spark, will rekindle this fire. The solution is not oppression but ending discrimination and discarding the policies of uprooting Arab culture and anti-Arab policies.”
A message-exchange between Hasan Heydari and his friend:
Friend: I was under torture for a month. They had no evidence against me. They wanted to force me to confess.
Hasan Heydari: I don’t remember how long I was [under torture] because I slept a lot. I went to sleep after lunch or dinner and woke up a day or two later.
Friend: Perhaps they put sleeping pills in the meals because Ahmad, too, was saying that he slept a lot.
Hasan Heydari: They do all kinds of things.
Teachers Imprisoned, Tortured, Executed, August 20, 2019
No Trust in Government as Khuzestan Faces Devastating Floods, April 12, 2019
Did Iran Execute Ahwazi Arabs in Revenge for the Terror Attack?, November 12, 2018
Iranian Arab Groups Who Oppose the Islamic Republic, September 24, 2018