The first week of the new decade has been the most harrowing Iran has seen in a long time. It has been full of fear and stress, even by the standards of a country engulfed in one or another crisis for years. Yet, on the morning of January 9, a sigh of relief came to Iranians when President Trump confirmed that the Iranian attacks on the Iraqi bases hosting US troops had led to no casualties and thus an immediate US response (which would have amounted to a full-on war) was averted.
However, for a number of Iranians, there was to be no relief.
Just when dozens of Iranian missiles were raining on military bases in Iraq, a passenger plane departing from Tehran to Kiev crashed shortly after take-off. All 176 people on board Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) died. The Ukraine’s flag carrier is a popular transit option for those Iranians trying to get to the West. Of the 167 passengers on this flight, 138 were headed to Canada, which is home to the most vibrant community of Iranians abroad. Many of the victims were Iranian-Canadians. At least 63 Canadian citizens died, in what was the most deadly Canadian aviation incident since 1985 Air India Flight 182, which was brought down by extremist Sikh terrorists.
What brought down the PS752? And was it related to the missiles Iran was shooting toward Iraq? As I write these lines, US reports suggest that it was an Iranian missile that brought down the plane —a possibility that has led to an enraged Iranian response.
The pain-stricken families of the victims will be sure to press for truth. In a country like Iran, where there is heavy censorship and seeking facts and information can often land you in jail, a protracted battle for truth over the PS752 promises to rage. The authorities haven’t helped by refusing to hand over the blackbox, despite independent experts asserting Iran’s lack of the necessary expertise to analyze the flight records. To make everything worse, some officials have chosen the Islamic Republic’s favorite method: intimidation.
Writing on Twitter, Hessaemedin Ashena, a well-known advisor to Iran’s President Rouhani, warned: “Iranian-born clients of the Persian-Language media” to “refrain from joining the psychological war about the Iranian plane and collaboration with Iranophobes.”
But the government’s policy of stone-walling the truth is going to have one formidable opponent they couldn’t have predicted: Hamid Esmaeilion, a 42-year-old writer who is easily the most talented Persian-language fiction writer of his generation.
Esmaeilion lost his wife, Parisa Eghbalian, and his daughter, Rira, on the flight and has already emerged as a public advocate for the victim families’ quest for justice and truth.
There is some bitter poetry in this task having fallen to the grief-stricken Esmaeilion. Born in 1977 in the western Iranian city of Kermanshah close to the Iraqi border, he comes from what many Iranians have billed as the Burnt Generation. These are the people who were too young to have paid any price during the tumultuous Iranian revolution of 1979 but they spent their childhood in the hard years of the 1980s: years of war with Iraq, shortages in society and draconian state repression of the nascent Islamic Republic. Esmaeilion’s short-story collection Thyme Is Not Pretty features six stories that take place in the 1980s and all revolve around youth and middle class lives of this Burnt Generation. His protagonists all live on a single street in Kermanshah, a city known for its endurance in the face of hardship and conviviality between Persian and Kurdish speakers.
My favorite work by Esmaeilion is his Gamasiab Doesn’t Have Fish, a rare historical novella in Persian that brings to life characters across the Iranian post-revolutionary society: those who pick up arms against the regime as well as those who fight for it on Iraqi battlefronts.
Esmaeilion has now promised to put his talent to the service of justice and truth about the fallen plane.
Leaving Toronto for Tehran, passing through Frankfurt, he was quick to take to his Facebook page and talk to his people. In his first post after the disaster, full of grief, he wished his own death would come sooner and spoke of going to the “Nothingland,” a phrase that struck a chord with many Iranians living through these difficult times.
In another emboldened post, Esmaeilion took a more defiant tone. He asked victims to share their contact information with him and promised to fight for them.
“I have put on my shoes of Iron,” Esmaeilion wrote, “I have sharpened my pen. Like always, I have my rage with me. They sent two priests to me in the Frankfurt airport to calm me down. I am very calm but it will be a different story in Tehran, when I get there in a few hours.”
“I am a child of that soil and I know all the story,” the raging writer wrote. “There is no mood for appeasement in me. All that could calm me is the pursuit and discovery of truth. I know that I have no support but the family of victims and you, the people.”
Iranians around Canada and beyond were quick to organize candle vigils for the victims. Esmaeilion saw this and wrote: “Tonight in Toronto and other places in the world and maybe Iran, candles will be lit for our beloveds. I am empowered by the shaking flame of these small candles.”
In a society full of lies, the furious writer won’t be alone in his quest for truth. Reactions on Twitter is telling of what is to come.
“Until the truth is out, we are all Hamed Esmaelion,” Sam Reza tweeted. “I hope that it turns out that this was a technical failure or else...”
Obscurants of truth would have reason to be fearful of this warning. Others might think of a ringing line of poetry from the contemporary Iranian Ahmad Shamloo: “Beware when the time comes! When the mothers in black, those who mourn for the most beautiful children of sun and wind, will finish their prayers.”