In May 2017, I flew to a city in Northwestern Iran for a one-month stay with Saren Azer and his four children. I was researching what I hoped would become a book, the story of a father who kidnapped his four Canadian children in the wake of a marital breakdown. While there, I kept a detailed journal of my immersion in a story (and a culture) that intrigued me, and still does. The book has not been completed, and may never be. Too many questions remain unanswered—questions that only the main protagonists—Saren and his wife Alison—can answer comprehensively. While I was in Iran, Saren was very open with me. Since then, he has decided he would rather that the story not be published. Alison has also chosen not to talk to me. And for ethical reasons, I have to be circumspect about the comments of the four kids.
What follows is a journal I kept of that month.
Day 1— Saturday, May 13, 2017
Turkish Airlines Flight 882, destination Tabriz in Northern Iran, is ahead of schedule. We are already in Iranian airspace and I’m edgy. I’ve had a 12-hour layover in Istanbul without sleep. My nerves are raw. Entering Iran, my cover story is as a tourist, to explore the Persian historic sights. But my real purpose is not so benign. I’m here to visit and film an international fugitive. How tight is Iranian security at 1:30 a.m. anyway? My Sony video camera is small enough to pass for tourist gear, but what about the 256-gig video card, the three one-terabyte hard drives and the mini-tripod I’m carrying?
And what if an alert border guard asks me to boot up my MacBook Pro? I’ve taken the precaution of moving all my research files to the Cloud, so there is nothing to give me away on my computer desktop. But my gmail account is full of correspondence related to the Azer story. And, anyway, a simple search of my name will blow my cover. It’s the second thing that pops up if you Google my name: “Claude Adams, Freelance Journalism”
Zap! I’m exposed. And there is no plan B. “Mikham ba sefarat” (I want to call my embassy) is a nonstarter. There is no Canadian embassy in Iran.
I’m on uncertain ground. Iran is not a friend of Canada. The two countries broke diplomatic relations in 2012. A number of sanctions remain in place. And who can forget Canada’s derring-do four decades ago when our ambassador, Ken Taylor, helped spirit six US embassy staffers out of Tehran during the hostage crisis? I co-wrote a book about that incident, called The Canadian Caper. What if there are some long memories in the consular section of the Iranian foreign ministry?
However, this morning I catch a break. The overnight Passport Control officer waves me through and my luggage passes inspection without incident. On this warm Iranian night, I am accepted as an anonymous tourist, here to visit an old family friend who also just happens to be wanted by Interpol.
His name is Saren Mahmudi-Azer and I spot him right away, waving hello from the reception area. He’s smaller than I imagined him. We’d spent hours talking on the phone and Skyping over the past year. I have the mental picture of a much larger man. Something about his tone, the timbre of his voice, his directness. But Saren is slighter than the man I imagined. He seems more vulnerable. Skinny. Salt and pepper hair, penetrating eyes, stress lines on his face.
Saren is driving me to his home in Urmia, nearly three hours away. The car is a late-model white Renault. (French automobiles are ubiquitous in Iran.) Conversation is light. We’re both tired. I notice that Saren keeps to the shoulder of the highway. “Too many potholes,” he explains. He drives very fast. We come to a police checkpoint. He identifies himself in Farsi as “Dr. Mahmudi Azer,” a physician, and he flashes an ID card. The policeman waves him through after giving me a passing glance. “Doctors are highly respected in Iran,” Saren tells me.
We drive on a causeway over Lake Urmia, once the largest saltwater lake in the Middle East, now in dramatic retreat—an environmental calamity that’s drying up year by year. I’m making mental notes, and Lake Urmia, a waterway in its death throes, strikes me as a possible metaphor to use in my story, although I’m not sure exactly how.
I’m thinking, here I am in Iran, on a pitch-black night on an unlit desert highway in an unfriendly country with a man wanted on an Interpol warrant.. A kidnapper. Well, not exactly. A man wanted by the RCMP for abduction. Stealing his children. I must be crazy.
Driving into the monotonous greyness that is the city of Urmia, we see young men putting up election posters. Voting happens in three weeks—an election that will return the reformist-minded Hassan Rouhani to power as president. Otherwise the streets of this city of 600,000 are empty. In just two hours the first call to prayer will echo through the neighbourhoods and the city will awaken.
As we drive, my mind is in turmoil. Is this a mistake? The man at the wheel is a wanted man facing 10 years in prison under Canada’s criminal code. He hopes to benefit from my presence here. He wants to use me as a voice against the Canadian justice system that once put him in handcuffs and wants to do it again. Am I exposing myself to his manipulation? Of course I am. He tells me he’s been demonized in Canada by forces that rallied behind his ex-wife Alison. He says no one will listen to his side of the story because of his accent, and his gender. He hopes I will be his “channel for truth.”
To be sure, one of the reasons I’m here is a deeply personal one. I had just broken off a 10-year relationship with a woman who was, herself, a child abductor. I’ll call her “M.” M was, like Alison Azer, a Prairie woman who married and had a child with a Middle Eastern man in a Persian Gulf country. When that child was a baby, she brought him to Canada and he never saw his father again. She wrote a book defending that abduction. I never openly questioned it. When as a journalist I began looking into Saren Azer’s story, M was fully supportive of the way he had seized his children. She encouraged me to write the book. She believed it could be a text about the parental imperative.
I didn’t quite share her certainty. I had my doubts. But I was drawn by the counter-intuitive nature of the Azer story. It was such an unusual narrative: A successful doctor and humanitarian, who fought for 13 years to earn his citizenship in Canada after a tumultuous early life in Iran; a man who fathered four children in Canada with a woman who loved him deeply—now throwing it all away, risking his freedom and even arguably his life to, as he puts it, “rescue” his children from a custody battle in Canada.
And I was the only journalist he trusted. Even though I had reservations about what Saren Azer had done, I have to be honest: I was ready to exploit that trust, to listen uncritically to his version of the story so he would talk freely, and to get close to characters in the story that I was most interested in—his four children. I saw my embrace of his hospitality, my “accepting” of Saren, as a necessary maneuver. Some might call it exploitation by ingratiation. Sitting next to Saren on this Iranian night, I have twinges of guilt about what I am about to do. But I’m also excited about my access to a story that’s gotten international attention.
We arrive at a narrow alley off Fozala Street, in a middle-class neighbourhood of Urmia. Somewhere in the shadows a dog is barking. I remember my notes. “Dogs are extremely rare in Iran. In fact, in Iran, dogs as pets are technically against the law.” Number 37 is a solid looking three storey grey stone house, fronted by a walled courtyard with a cherry tree. It strikes me as a kind of fortress sanctuary, until I notice a child’s swing hanging from one of the branches. And at the front door, several pairs of flip-flops and running shoes. A reminder, if you needed one, that in the Middle East, you always enter a home unshod.
Saren shows me to a spare guest room on the upper floor, nothing more than a mattress on the floor and a bare ceiling lamp. Not even hooks for clothing. I have access to my own shower room—cold water only—and a bathroom with a sink and a squat toilet. This will be a spartan month.
“It took me eight months to find this house,” Saren tells me. “Nobody wanted to rent to a single Middle Eastern father with 4 children. My sister had to find it for me. And now I have to run around like a chicken with its head cut off to make a living. But I do it. I do for them (the children).” He actually says “chicken with its head cut off.” His English Is almost idiomatically perfect.
“Them” are his four children: Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim and Meitan—the names roll off the tongue like a Sufi chant. I’m anxious to meet them but it’s 3:30am and they are sleeping soundly.
Saren has a stock answer for neighbours and colleagues who ask probing personal questions. The children’s mother, he tells them, was not able to travel with the family to Iran. No mention is made of a custody battle or the marital breakup: Divorce in an Islamic culture is a source of profound shame. However, anybody with a wifi connection can easily uncover the whole sad story. When you type the words “Saren Azer” in a Google search engine, you get 6,310 results. Many of them portray Dr. Azer as a single parent on the run from the law.
In their improvised new life, Saren shares a ground floor bedroom with the boys. The girls occupy another bedroom.
I sleep late, right through the early-morning call to prayer. And when I rise, Saren has already left for work and the three older kids are on the way to school. I meet Sarah the babysitter/housekeeper; she’s watching Farsi-language cartoons on a wide screen TV with a very shy four-year-old Meitan. Meitan has instructions from his Dad to translate for me, the stranger from Canada who’s come to visit. Sarah prepares my breakfast of flatbread, a boiled egg, tea, yogurt, cheese and cherry jam. Meitan eyes me suspiciously.
My first morning in an alien land.
An interview excerpt
Me: How have the kids adapted to the food?
Saren: We have cheese, we have yogurt, we have honey, we have butter, we have walnuts. These are the things that we have almost everyday. Sometimes they want cereal and we have cereal with milk. Pretty much, every morning we have all of those things on the table.
Me: Are there things from Canada the children miss?
Saren: We can find pretty much everything that we had in Canada. The fast food that we ate in Canada is also available here. Hamburgers, chicken wings and pizzas.
Me: What about television?
Saren: There are two English-language series that the children and I love. One of them is called Flash, the other one is called the Legends of Tomorrow. There are lots of super heroes movies. We watch Iron Fist. The girls have their own series of movies-- Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled. All the Disney movies, we have a collection of Disney movies-- maybe about 50 of them.
Me: Alright. You get Netflix in Iran?
Saren: No we don't. There is a website-- an Iranian website, that has tons of movies that you could download for free.
Saren’s birth name is actually a diminutive of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or Saladin, the 12th century Kurdish warrior who led the campaign against the Crusaders in the Levant. It’s a name he wears proudly, and he sees himself as a fighter. But Saren’s battles these days are much more prosaic than the ones fought by his namesake.. He is fighting to support himself and his four kids under difficult circumstances. His work day is full, and the pay is poor and sporadic. Mornings he does the rounds at a local hospital with residents, fellows and physicians. He reviews cases that have been admitted to the hospital in last 24 hours. Then he visits patients in the ICU. For his first 18 months in Iran, Saren was not permitted to do what a doctor does: See patients and charge them for his services. Iran’s ministry of health wouldn’t give him a private practice permit for what they called “ideological” reasons—presumably his murky past as a Kurdish activist/troublemaker. There was also the Interpol Red Notice hanging over his head, something that Alison’s lawyers had drawn a judge’s attention to in a court case in Tehran a year earlier.
Saren would finally get the permit in October 2017, allowing him to hang up a shingle and open his own private clinic. But until then, he worked as a contract consultant at the Urmia University Hospital, at a salary of about $1500US a month—about one-twenty-fifth of what he earned as a medical practitioner in Canada. Sometimes he was paid, and sometimes he wasn’t, an arbitrary arrangement that he often complained about. His main work involved teaching and consulting.
Saren: Sometimes at nights, I review files. I review manuscripts, papers, research matters . Preparations for the presentation the next day. Twice a month, I hold workshops for the physicians-- for the specialists related to my own field. I also work closely with a women’s group at a Woman's Hospital. I work with them in pregnancy complications, and critical care. The physicians in Iran really do a terrible job in seeing patients. I think patient rights . . . are significantly compromised here. I’ve never ever been able to understand how they manage. Some (doctors) see 200 patients in maybe six, seven hours.
Me: You're kidding.
Saren: No. That's the case. It's amazing. Almost everybody (in Iran) is sick. Everyone is ill. Everyone. I barely ever see somebody who doesn't complain of an illness. Somehow, there seems to be a massive somatization in this country. The diet is not good. People eat a lot of carbohydrates and lots of fat. Hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart disease, these things are very prevalent. . . . There is an extremely wide use of antibiotics. I was told that more than 40 percent of the prescriptions in this country have antibiotics. That wide use of antibiotics leads to the creation of very resistant bacterias. Obviously, it compromises the immune system as well. I’m told that for a patient to get a diagnosis, he has to or she has to visit eight physicians.
In Canada, Saren was a tireless left-wing proselytizer. He was impatient and righteous, organizing demonstrations and challenging authority at every turn. Arms dealing, deforestation, women’s rights, GMO foods—whatever the cause, he was the first at the barricades, and often the loudest. He had what one friend called a “God complex.” But in Iran, he’s had to learn to hold his tongue. He knows he’s being watched.
“I live in a glass house. I am in a fragile state, so I am trying to be as quiet as possible. I have no doubt that the system is watching me very carefully after all the allegations that I have faced in the court here.”
Alison hired an expensive legal team in Tehran and in 2016 accused Saren of trying to undermine the Iranian state as a young man She challenged his devotion to Islam, and reminded the court of sympathies for the terrorist PKK. He believes that, as a result, his home is being watched, and his phone tapped. He’s on a watch list because back in the early 90s, he was an activist for the Kurdish cause and had to flee the country. When he asked for asylum in Canada, he told authorities he’d be executed if they sent him back to Iran. So he understands why he’s under surveillance.
“I’m not surprised. In their shoes I would have done the same thing. Somebody disappears for 25 years and now he's back (in Iran). We don't have the slightest idea who he is. Then his ex-wife comes and makes a whole list of allegations. Knowing this, I try to stay quiet. I can't really do much.
"The Iranian government has been very accommodating and kind to let me come back to this country. I appreciate that and I'm grateful for that. At the same time, I know the Canadian government and Allison have gone to an exceptional extent to disturb the peace that I have here.”
Nevertheless, glass house or not, he can’t “stay quiet.” He feels no compunction sharing with me, a journalist, his sharply critical views of the state of health care and medical education in Iran. Even on my first day in Iran, I sense that Saren’s outspoken tendencies may get him into further trouble. He can’t quell his combative nature; he can’t resist polemicizing about what he feels is wrong with the system.
And the system that is now giving him sanctuary is intolerant of his kind of noise. Is it my place to tell him: “Be careful”? I decide it isn’t.
The next morning, using the Lonely Planet vocabulary guide, I try to win 5-year-old Meitan over. He’s a very shy and reluctant translator. I break through his shyness by showing him some pictures in the book and talking to him casually. Finally he whispers into Sarah the housekeeper’s ear on my behalf: that I’d like some water (ahh-bay) and bread (nan). Within a few days I will convince him to translate entire sentences, like “May I have some milk for my cereal?”
I realize that I could probably break through his silence with the jelIybeans I have in my bag, but decide to wait until the kids come home before handing out candy and other gifts from Canada.
Saren has reminded me NOT to shake hands with Sarah as per Islamic custom. And he asks me not to take out the camera until the kids feel more comfortable with me. His idea is to maintain my cover by introducing me to his work colleagues as a friend/media person who is interested in his humanitarian work, so I might be able to roll video.
Later that day, I unpack the gifts I’ve brought from Canada. Birthstone earrings for the girls, Superhero Lego sets for the boys and half a dozen bags of jellybeans for the family. (They will be gone within three weeks.) Saren expressly asked that I bring him an English-language copy of Report to Greco, the semi-autobiographical novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, his favourite author. It’s out of print, but I found a dog-eared copy in a second-hand book shop on Toronto’s Yonge Street and, leafing through the paperback, I came upon this quote: “The sole way to save oneself is to save others. Or to struggle to save others —even that is sufficient.” I was to learn that this is precisely how Saren sees the abduction of his children—a struggle to save his children and, by extension, himself.
I also unpack books by Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American writer and poet and author of the classic The Prophet. For good measure, I also brought him Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-seller The Unbroken, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.
One lesson I’ve learned in more than four decades of the practice of journalism is: Don’t trust first impressions. They are notoriously unreliable, and they often get in the way of real understanding. Still, as I sit around the Azer dining room table on my first full day, I can’t help forming quick thumbnail sketches of the kids. Sharvahn, 12, is outspoken, quirky, and mercurial. She can go from giggles to tears in a heartbeat. Physically and, I suspect, temperamentally, she’s a small version of her mother. She shares her father’s instinct for saying exactly what’s on her mind. There’s also a winning guilelessness. “Are we good friends, Mr. Cloud?” she will ask me on Day 5. I swallow and say, “Of course we are.”
Rojevahn, 10, is quiet and watchful and, I will learn, the most sensitive of the children. The family breakup affected her deeply. Saren says she compensates for the missing Alison by taking up the housekeeping chores. On this first day, Rojevahn eyes me carefully, tries to anticipate my needs, urges me to eat more, makes sure I’m sitting comfortably. Later, I will learn that she is the also the most coherent and sure-footed when talking about their mother.
Dersim is an enigma. He’s one of the most precocious 8-year-olds I’ve ever met, and he’s physically beautiful. A charmer of the first order if he chooses to be. A good mind, and the constitution of an athlete. Saren calls him the “genius of the tribe.” His uncles and aunts sometime jokingly call him ‘the professor.” Hungry for approbation. Yet he has a dark side—an anger problem that can chill a room, and a goat-like stubbornness that’s infuriating. (Saren says he was much like Dersim as a boy. I take it as a warning.)
And finally, there’s Meitan. Five years old, the baby of the family, the cute child whom everybody wants to pick up and kiss, who worships his older brother and demands the most cuddle time from Baba. Watching cartoons in the morning, he’s fully engaged with the words and the pictures and the action—a small sponge absorbing data.
I compare my impressions with Alison’s capsule descriptions of her children, and find I’m pretty close.
“Sharvahn : charismatic, sunny magnetic, can get angry quickly and get over it quickly . . . has a strong sense of justice, right and wrong.”
“Rojevahn: highly empathetic, feels deeply . . . a big beautiful spirit . . . sees things in people.. .. she worries and takes on things that a child shouldn’t bear.”
“Dersim: super, super, super smart and logical . . . has a rich technical and emotional vocabulary”
“Meitan: delicious, hilarious and knows he’s hilarious. . . . eyelashes that don’t stop and . . . knows how to use them.”
The centre of their universe is “Baba”—the calm, authoritative dispenser of hugs and wisdom and stability, the man who makes fruit shakes on one hand, and enforces discipline on the other. Everything the children say to their father is prefaced by the word “Baba” and his response invariably begins “Yes, Baba.” The word Baba, Saren explains, is more than an affectionate word for father. It also means “it's your father who says yes to you.” It’s a word of adornment and kindness, a verbal embrace. And when he answers one of the children, he sometimes prefaces his answer with “Baba, djian. . . “—Your father hears his loved one.
I’m on alert for any sign of “hostage mentality”—kids quaking in fear, quiet murmurs for “mummy.” Or Saren protesting his innocence too forcefully. But I neither see nor hear any of that in the month that I am here.
Saren, in his Baba role, styles himself as storyteller, teacher and nature guide. On my second day in the Azer home, Saren calls the children to the courtyard. On the paving stones, he’s found a troop of ants carrying off the corpse of a much larger bug. It’s the opportunity for a small life lesson, and Baba can’t resist. “Look at this guy,” he says, directing their attention to one of the ants, “He comes back and he says ‘guys I think we should move him this way.’ There he goes, and there they go with him. The lesson here is that if we work together, we should be able to move anything.” Meitan, sitting on Saren’s knee, points to the dead beetle, and says: “Look, Baba, he died.” And Saren responds: “Yes, he tried to get into our house, but the ants said, ‘This residence is occupied. You can’t go inside’.” The children are entranced by one if nature’s phenomena being played out as they watch. “When we come back tonight,” says Saren, “Mr Bug will be gone—the winter supply of food for the ants.”
The lives of the children is full of stories. One of the gifts from Alison is a memoir of an indigenous girl who attended residential school, entitled “These Are My Words.” I film Saren, with the four children huddled around him on a chair, reading excerpts to them and suddenly I am struck by an extraordinary thought: Alison has sent them a book written by a child who was torn from her native culture, from her parents and friends, forced to dress differently, to speak a different language, to eat a different diet, to follow a different faith. It’s a story that parallels the odyssey of the Azer children!
Alison has sent them a kind of literary Trojan Horse—oh so subtle—a book as an extension of the struggle for the hearts and minds of the children. Does Saren not realize what Alison is doing? If he does, he doesn’t acknowledge it. But then, I listen closely, and I realize, to my astonishment, that he is turning the narrative around. Saren is using “These Are My Words” as a metaphor for the Kurdish struggle for autonomy! Listen! Listen how he frames the story: “The First Nations had a very very hard history. They are the rightful owners of the land and they have the right to their own cult and history and tradition . . But they suffered a lot, it’s important to read, right, to read about our country’s history.” It’s the story of the Kurds, seen through the prism of Canadian history. I wonder if the children, at some deep subconscious level, are aware of what is happening. . .. . . Never forget your own Kurdish forebears, is his message he insinuates.
As I witness this small father-child episode, I wonder how I will fit into this family dynamic for the next month, the stranger from Canada with the camera and the wireless microphone and all those questions? The children call me “Mr. Cloud” and within a few days, I fall into an avuncular mode. Rojevahn keeps filling my plate at the dinner table. Dersim watches me build a house of cards and spends hours trying to reach a higher elevation.
But I need to learn to step carefully. For example. I almost blunder and ask the kids if they realize that soon it will be Mother’s Day. I bite my tongue just in time. There is no Mother’s Day in the Azer household. Every day is Father’s Day, and in the minds of the children at least, any mention of mother is out of bounds.
In the privacy of my third-floor room, I set up my camera and record the opening segment of a Video Diary, which I’m hoping to use in a planned documentary.
VIDEO DIARY (May 14 )
I’ve just arrived , and already I’ve formed one very clear first impression. This is an uncommonly tight, happy family, the children bonded to a father who’s found a way to balance his work and his responsibilities as a single parent. Yes he’s an outlaw in Canadian eyes, and yes, he’s committed a crime that many might find unforgivable, and yes, you could even argue that these kids would be better off with a mother. But so far, 21 months after the abduction, Azer’s desperate gamble seems to be working.
While talking about my book project, I tell Saren that I have access to Alison’s Facebook page. He sounds surprised. And I catch a hint of concern. Does he see this as me conversing with the enemy? And when I refer to the CBC's interest in a possible documentary about his failed marriage and the abduction, he says, “You know, there are stories that don’t actually have two sides.” As an example, he mentions the struggle of against Fascism, but he is also making a statement about his own story. I’m tempted to object; that as a journalist I have to keep an open mind about the morality of the abduction, since I haven’t heard Alison’s side.
Saren is hosting a seminar for medical students and residents at a hospital for women and children. I bring my camera and roll tape for the first time, as Saren lectured. I ask him if there was any risk in me, ostensibly a tourist, exposing my video camera in public of the first time.
He assures me there isn’t. He introduces me to the audience as a family friend, making a home movie about his humanitarian work. It seems like an improbable story and I am concerned about the ethical position it puts me in. Inevitably I am being drawn deeper and deeper into his narrative—a fugitive seeking ways to justify his crime.
Later that day, I learn that Saren is engaged in a subtle fight for legitimacy—he is lobbying a university official and a deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament, an old family friend, to intercede with the Ministry of Health to lift restrictions on his right to practice medicine. The government is reluctant to give him the green light because of the Interpol notice against him. “I have broken no law in Iran,” he insists. “The children are in my legal custody. Why should I not be able to open my own medical clinic?” He is confident he will win this fight, and later that summer he will. Justice, he explains, is more flexible in Iran. Friendships in high places are helpful. Phone calls are made. Documents are revised. Legal obstacles are brushed aside. It’s the system, and he knows how to play it.
For supper that night, Saren is making omelettes. Sharvahn takes a break from sewing her new graduation cape (black with red trim) to chop onions, Rojevahn is setting the table, and Dersim is recovering from an accident with a broom. He knocked over and broke a dish. Baba raises his voice in anger at Dersim’s carelessness, and then he asks for forgiveness. I can’t help wondering if this is for my benefit as much as for Dersim’s: the rigid disciplinarian showing his softer side.
Around the table, there’s a domestic hubbub. All four children are vying for Baba’s attention. Dersim: “Baba, look at the mark I got today in math.” Meitan is anxious about a broken toy: “Baba, how do I put the head back on Mr. Freeze?” Sharvahn: “Baba, can I try on the cape I made?” Rojevahn: “Baba, can I have another piece of Laughing Cow cheese?”
Saren is careful to respond to every question and comment in order. The whole process reminds me of Forrest Gump at the ping-pong table, reflexively sending the ball back time and time and time again while scarcely breaking a sweat.
School days begin at 7am. Three very sleepy kids roll through their ablutions, three of the them put on their school uniforms, the girls with their grey hijabs. Four-year-old Meitan trails behind his older brother Dersim. Baba fixes a simple breakfast for the kids—bread and cheese and milk, and they leave shortly after the babysitter Sarah arrives at 730. Sarah’s husband Abdul Karim drives the three older kids to school and Saren leaves on his hospital/university rounds. (He tells me he hasn’t been paid his university salary for 4 or 5 months, so finances are perilous, although I suspect he is borrowing money from his brothers. For one thing, he drives a late-model Renault coupe that retails in Iran for the equivalent of about $13,000 US.)
The work and school day ends at around 2pm and everybody is home for lunch, the major meal of the day prepared by Sarah. Lunch is followed by nap time, usually Dad going off to rest for two hours with Meitan. Then at 4, the private tutor arrives for Rojevahn and Sharvahn. Between 5 and 6, Saren goes on a food run. Each day has a set menu: Sundays are scrambled eggs mixed with tomatoes along with bread and salad, Mondays are a take-out treat day (chicken wings and fries), Saturdays are a simple meal of french fries with salad . . . Bedtime is around 10, the kids dutifully brushing their teeth and putting on pyjamas. Both the boys and the girls get a half hour of story time from Baba, who turns off the lights and reads with a lamp around his forehead, like a miner. From 10 to midnight Baba has his own time, answering emails or reading, or preparing for his twice weekly lectures.
Things I’m learning as I assimilate to Persian culture. I imagine the four children and Saren had to learn them too when they arrived :
- Don’t put paper down the squat toilet. I did on the first day and caused a plumbing crisis. Use the hose that’s been installed, or fold the used paper carefully and drop into adjacent wastebasket.
- Tolerable squat position: right arm grasping faucet, left arm against back wall. And drop all clothing below the waist, so you can rise safely in mid-defecation.
- I like Iranian flatbread. There’s always a lot of it. I imagine it’s full of gluten.
- The full-fat homo milk is unexpectedly tasty.
- Eggs are expensive, as much as $1 per.
- I offer to make spaghetti carbonara but momentarily forget that Muslims don’t eat bacon. And lamb is simply not a viable substitute.
- Stay out of the way during the morning get-ready-for-school rush.
- I can live with a cold shower, as long as I expose parts of torso carefully.
- May is the perfect month in Iran. Not too hot and few if any bugs.
- Meitan needs video games.
- There’s a convergence of too many languages here: Farsi, Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, English (Plus there are two Kurdish languages!) It’s confusing for me but the children seem to be able to juggle them all.
- On my daily walks through the neighbourhood, I see few if any dogs. I learn that owning a dog is illegal in the capital, Tehran, and taking it for a walk is punishable by as much as a $2500US fine and 60 lashes. And the dog is put to death.
- Muslim women are some of the heaviest makeup users in the world. Saren tells me it’s their not-so-subtle way of counter-acting patriarchy.
- Don’t shake hands or otherwise touch a devout Muslim woman, unless she’s a family member.
Today, I see a small crack in the peaceful domestic facade. Over lunch of grilled fish and rice, Sharvahn and Sarah, the nanny/caretaker, have an angry flareup. Sharvahn’s afternoon tutor called to say she can’t come today because of a personal matter, so Sarah gave her the day off. Sharvahn is furious because mid-term exams are coming and she’s hoping that the tutor can help her get a high mark in religious studies. It’s an uncommon display of petulance from the eldest child, and Saren seems unequal to the job of mediation.
It’s a situation, I surmise, where a mother would have had a calming, moderating influence. Sarah the housekeeper is the female role model in the family—she makes the girls’ clothes, takes them to market, buys them the things girls can only get from a woman. But she doesn’t have the authority or the gravitas or the loving touch of a mother, and besides, she doesn’t work a full day. She’s not here to give them the round-the-clock attention they need. I can’t help speculating that Alison, the missing mother, could have handled this more deftly.
Another observation: At lunch end, a workman comes by to fix the home air-conditioning system, and the two boys are running riot, playing a raucous game of Power Rangers. Saren does little or nothing to quiet them down and it’s left to Sarah to play traffic cop. But both boys ignore her and she doesn’t know how to impose her will. Again, I suspect that a firm but loving Mom could have handled this much better.
Imagine feeding time for a gang of cats. I’m trying to set up a camera to videotape a typical meal. Forget any sense of order. Where is everybody sitting? What’s Meitan doing under the table? Sharvahn, why are you waving at the camera? Why can’t I find Rojevahn in the frame? Unexpected guests appear and walk into the sequence. People change chairs. There’s no surface to set up the camera for a steady wide shot. Saren, the centre of my focus, suddenly stands up in mid-sentence and my shot is gone.
As I’m looking in my viewfinder, Sarah breaks into the shot to insist I take a second helping of koftas—spiced ground meatballs; she doesn’t understand why I would be filming lunch, which she painstakingly prepared, instead of enjoying her food. Abdul Karim, Sarah’s husband, places the quart bottle of Fanta directly in front of my camera, and then looks abashed when I grimace at him. I’m ready to scream but no one would understand.
I’m trying to disappear into the background but my camera has killed the table talk. Long stretches of unnatural silence, sidelong glances at me, the Canadian camera guy at the end of the table. I try to imagine Michael the editor making his way through this video and pulling his hair out. I move the Fanta bottle aside and Sarah fills the vacated space with a water jug— directly in my shot.
I finally put my camera away in surrender. And eat my kofta. The whole table relaxes. So much for cinema verite.
“In Iran you lead two different lives.” I’m trying to understand Saren Azer better and I come across Emmy Award-winning journalist Ramira Navai’s book about growing up in Iran, called City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran. “It’s a kind of schizophrenic society. There’s an inside, private life, and there’s an outside, public life, and nearly everybody lives by these rules. You’re two different people.”
That’s Saren in a paragraph. Two different men in one body. The public man is secure in the confidence that he’s done the right thing in bringing his children to Iran, and he defends the regime that is giving him sanctuary. The private man, however, who (I believe) longs for the life he had in Canada and asks himself constantly if he’s made a terrible mistake in jeopardizing his children’s future in a country that imprisoned and tortured him for his beliefs.
I took the family out to dinner last night, to celebrate Sharvahn’s graduation into junior high. They ordered lamb kebabs and rice, with black currant Fanta’s, and it cost me 100,000 tomans ($30 US) for five people. Saren made a point of telling the kids that I had insisted on paying over his objections, and I caught a small edge in his voice. In Middle Eastern culture, it’s an insult to the host when a guest reaches for this wallet. But I feel it’s equally important for me—in fact, a matter of journalistic ethics—to step out of the role as a guest and pay my way. A clash of cultures, perhaps, but a necessary one . . .
(A flashback: It’s the early 90s and I’m on assignment in Ethiopia for the TV service of the Christian Science Monitor. We’re just finished an interview with a farmer/herder on the edges of the desert. As per local custom, he invites the crew and I to stay for supper. I see his son take one of the family’s three goats from their pen, and prepare to slaughter it for the cooking pot. We’re being invited to consume a third of the family’s natural wealth! To refuse would bring shame to our host. To accept would be like emptying his savings account. What to do? “I’m sorry, Tibebe,” I finally tell him. “But we are all vegetarians. We cannot meat. It’s against our belief.” He tells us he understands, and there’s an undertone of relief in his voice. I reflect on this moment as I sit at Saren’s table, eating his food as I work. There is no polite or devious way to refuse his hospitality. He knows I’m a carnivore.)
On thing strikes me about Sharvahn’s graduation ceremony: Looming over the school auditorium are giant photographs of two iconic ayatollahs: the late Ruhollah Khomeini, first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Islam expressly forbids any images of Allah or Prophet Mohammed, but the ayatollahs get maximum billboard treatment in a country that pretends to be a democracy, but is in fact a theocracy. And indoctrination begins early, as a roomful of little girls, all properly hijab-ed, stand with their parents to join in the singing of the national anthem.
The graduation ceremony stretches over 2 hours—a confusion of sound and lighting, with too much adult speechifying and a lot of cute girls in uniform and costume performing skits. A little too much cuteness, in my mind, for the benefit of nobody but the adults, and the Islamic state. I had a very hard time getting any usable video amid the chaos, but in the end I forced the wireless mic on Saren and focused on him trying to get his daughter’s attention, to congratulate her on her scholastic success.
Weeks later, when I am back in Canada, he sends me copies of effusive praise for the three school age children’s academic performance from their teachers. It’s all meant to underline his main message: The children are assimilating well to their new life.
We returned last night from the town of Oshnavieh where two family friends H and I operate a jewelry business, and hobby-farm a lush apple orchard. A splendid weekend of dining and socializing and resting away from the big city. H drove us through the green hills near the Turkish border, in the shadow of the snow-covered Zagros mountains, and we stopped at a mountain stream and saw flocks of sheep and Kurdish families in their small French cars on weekend picnics. It was music and conversation in the car, stopping at a small general store near a village for soft-drinks where everyone admired Meitan’s traditional Kurdish outfit. But the kid has become paparazzi-shy after a brief lifetime of being admired and gushed over for his sweetness and winsomeness.
I have to be judicious about my camera since the kids, for all their charm and politeness, still find it obtrusive. So I employ it economically, at moments that just cannot be missed. Like the meals spread out on a carpeted floor where everyone (except me) sits crosslegged and eats yoga style. Saren assures me that it took him months to get used to eating while cross-legged after two decades in Canada.
I meet H's son P who speaks a useful English and who tells me of his hopes to emigrate to Canada for his master’s in computer engineering, as soon as he finds a successful dodge to Iran’s mandatory two-year military service. “I don’t love Iran,” he tells me. “The only thing I love is the tea.” He drinks gallons of it. (He also has a secret stash of alcohol in his home, which he is willing to share with friends.)
P explains the difference between Sunni and Shia. He tells me his dream city is New York. The baseball Yankees. He loves Kurt Cobain and Pink Floyd. He’s seen every American movie of note. He’s especially fond of Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick. His political hero is an Iranian dissident writer named Said who is “terrorized” for his political beliefs. He believes in the underground Green Movement. He’s a somewhat sad reminder that the emerging Generation X of Iranians want to flee to the West because reforms here are so slow, and even the re-election of he reform-minded Hassan Rouhani won’t be enough to keep the kids at home. (This mood would erupt into nation-wide protests less that a year later—young Iranians angry at the slow progress of reforms.)
My conversation with P gives me a sense of how the Azer kids might feel once childhood ends and they try to accommodate to life in Iran as young adults. Won't they feel the burning wish to escape, the way P and his contemporaries feel? Or will Iran become a comfortable prison?
At H's garden picnic we cook chicken over a rough BBQ and drinks gallons of tea and rest on carpets on a concrete patio covered by grape vines. It is all very idyllic and typically Middle Eastern where Saren’s kids and guest (me) are celebrated and many photos taken and everybody reminds themselves that life is indeed quite comfortable.
The night before, Saren shared with me a brief and sharp email exchange between Sharvahn and Alison, where the mother asked why the children had not thanked her for the gifts she had sent them. “What happened to your manners?” she asked, a small scold from afar.
Alison also asked Saren to have Sharvahn telephone her, to respond to the question of whether she felt Alison should co-operate in the writing of this book. Sharvahn, he says, refused to call her mother.
In the car ride back from the country, Saren asks the children about their fondest memories of Canada. They talk about restaurants, and hikes, and holiday trips in Victoria and the Rockies, but not a single reference to time spent with Alison. When Saren asks them to recall happy moments with their mother, the back of the car goes silent. Alison has been airbrushed from their lives. I wonder if they are reticent out of consideration for Saren’s own ambivalent feelings—maybe they’re afraid that anything positive they say about Alison will be seen as a nuanced rebuke to their father.
That night, I ask Saren, off camera, if the children’s reticence about Alison and the past might not be their way of protecting him. Are they worried that any emotional “slippage” on their part about Mummy may re-ignite those “bad” years when their parents were bludgeoning one another? Saren seems puzzled by the suggestion, saying only that he is scrupulous about never saying anything negative about Alison; and that Rojevahn and Sharvahn both become restive if he shows any sign on reconciliation, any sign of willing to re-introduce Alison to their lives. They, and not he, were enforcing the alienation, he said. It's a curious rebuttal of the given wisdom by psychologists about the dynamics of alienation.
Doing this story raises a serious question for me as a journalist. I’m a guest in the Azer home, I’m submerged in their daily lives, I sit at the dinner table every day, I play with the kids, they treat me like a visiting uncle with a camera and lot of questions. Saren and I talk about his situation even day. He asks for advice, wants my opinion. I tell him I need to stay impartial, I haven’t heard Alison’s side of the story. He says he understands, but still I can’t help being drawn into his narrative. How do I tell this story fairly? It’s a question that hangs over me every day.
I keep having to remind myself that I’m the home of an international fugitive, a man hiding his family in a country that Canada calls a supporter of terrorism. Yet, I’m treated like a special guest, the kids act as my translators, I’m invited to weddings and picnics and graduations, nobody feels threatened by my camera, nobody will let me pay for anything. They even apologize for my having to use those awkward Eastern toilets. It’s not at all what I expected.
Tonight, after the weekly supper of french fries and salad, and some reminiscences by the four children of their earliest memories of childhood in Canada, Saren tells one of his parables. It’s called The Fox and he Lion. This one is awkward.
“All the animals in the forest are running for their lives, and the panic wakes up sleepy old wolf . He is puzzled. He asks the fox what’s going on. The fox tells him that the Head Lion has issued an Executive Order—that all he forest creatures with three testicles are to be arrested and prosecuted. ‘But we only have two testicles,’ the wolf says, ‘Yes,” says the fox, ‘but they have to be cut out, so they can be counted.’
The Moral, Saren explains, is obvious: By the time you’re finished with due process, the damage is done. It’s what happened to his kids, he is saying. They were damage by the process of Canada’s family law.
“I may have won the fight for my children after a few more years, but in what condition would I get them in? I just couldn’t wait. And neither could they.”
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”
At breakfast, Saren tells the children he has a surprise for them: A package of gifts from Alison. She mailed the package to a woman in Urmia she’s in contact with, and the woman delivered the package to Number 37, Fozala Street. They will get to open the package before supper, he tells them. I make the decision not to film the event: I don’t want their reaction to the gifts coloured by a outside observer who’s recording. I’m worried about Heisenberg’s principle, that the observation alters the event etc.
When Baba arrives home from work, the kids erupt in anticipation. Baba, what is the surprise? When will we open it? Should I wake you up from your nap at 6 o’clock?” The house explodes. The kids have been watching "Despicable Me" for maybe the 50th time, and now they let loose from TV-induced lethargy. They erupt with their school news. Saren doesn't get the nap he needed. He’s uncharacteristically sharp.
Meitan, the youngest, is delighted as he rips open the package. He rummages through the candy, the books, the games and the clothes that Alison sent and wants to play with everything.“You know I like Mommy,” he says. Rojevahn, the angriest, refuses to open her note from Alison. Sharvahn wears a frown. Dersim says he prefers football to hockey cards. He doesn’t ’t want to read his card out loud. They all ignore the clothes, but they like the tic tacs and the m & m candy. Saren tells them: “Now you must all sit down and send a thank you note tonight. I never want you to think that if you are grateful to your mother that it will distance you from me.” (I wonder if he says it for my benefit, as much as theirs. ) Sharvahn: “Baba, it’s really big!” is her reaction to a plaid shirt that her mother sent her. However, she wears it for the next three days. Nobody wrote thank-you cards.
“Sharvahn,” Saren tells her, “the greatest people are those who look forward in life, not backwards. You can’t live in the past.”
“But Baba," she responds, "She’s very mean.”
Saren is furious. He’s just been online and he came across report by the Missing Children Society of Canada about the Azer kids. He resents their being singled out as “missing.” He calls it an act of blatant racism. “The government knows where the children are; Alison knows where they are. They are not missing.” He says it’s all part of Alison’s continuing campaign of trying to blacken his name. He’s furious that his kids are being used as what he calls “poster children” for a cause. But there’s a certain myopia here: Of course, the children are “missing”—missing from their mother, missing from their friends, their school, their country. Missing under law. Saren is troubled by semantics. I sometimes find it surprising that a man of such sensitivity and acuity should fail to see the logic of his adversaries, his inability to put himself in their place.
Today, I’m a witness to an extraordinary event. The two girls are upset by Dersim’s disruptive behaviour, his flashes of rage and petulance. So when they have Baba’s attention, they tell their father that they believe Dersim needs professional help. Sharvahn: “He’s out of control. He needs to talk to somebody. Baba, it’s getting worse and he doesn’t listen to anybody.”
With Meitan on his lap, Saren sits quietly and hears them out. But he is clearly uneasy about what they are suggesting—that their brother needs professional counselling. There was too much of that back in Canada, Saren believes—the experts on both sides of the custody battle who only made things worse. So he tells the girls: “What Dersim needs is an outlet for all his energy . Maybe we should sign him up for soccer. I’ll talk to Abdul Karim about it.”
But Sharvahn and Rojevahn feel that Saren is missing the point. They tell him they think Dersim’s behaviour stems from things that happened when he was with Alison and her boyfriend Tony after she left the family home in 2012. Once, they say, they watched Alison lock Dersim in the trunk of her car when he was misbehaving; another time he was taken out of the car, had his pants pulled down and was smacked. At the age of five, they say, this could have had a traumatizing effect. It could account for Dersim’s anger.
Later, after dark, Saren takes me into his confidence and shows me a copy of an RCMP video, taken in November, 2013—the questioning of Dersim by a female police interrogator. The boy is edgy, chattering away nervously, clearly uncomfortable by the probing. The officer wants to talk about an incident, in which Dersim was allegedly tied up by Saren as a form of discipline. “Look how the officer is leading him on, and look at how he answers,” Saren tells me. “It’s obvious that Alison has persuaded him to tell this story.”
At one point in the tape, Dersim rushes out of the room, saying he’s finished. Someone waiting outside the room, presumably his mother, tells him to go back in, and his speech and mannerisms are erratic. The recording was never introduced as evidence in the custody battle between Alison and Saren, but it does portray a young boy is a highly stressed state. Its one of the reasons Saren is so reluctant to expose his son to any more professional help, as the girls are urging.
Saren seems very distracted at lunch today. He’s not his normal amiable self; and he’s on his phone a lot. It looks like he needs time to himself, so I finish my meal and go to my 3rd floor bedroom. A few minutes later, Saren comes upstairs with a cup of tea. “We need to talk,” he says, “but please give me your phone, and come down to the second floor.”
We walk down to a large unfurnished space on the second floor, and we set up two folding chairs. He shuts the door, hands me my phone, and asks me to turn it off. Now I’m uneasy.
“I just had a call from someone at the Iranian foreign ministry.”
I ask him why he wanted my phone off. He tells me he thinks the home may be bugged; he’s sure the house is being watched.
“You know that article in the National Post, that interview that Alison gave?” I tell him I’ve read it. Someone in Canada had forwarded it to me by email. It was an article by reporter Marie-Danielle Smith, in which Alison described her 2016 visit to Iran to see her children. In the interview, she had made a couple of disparaging remarks about women’s rights and the justice system in Iran.
“The government wants me to respond to some of the points she makes in the article," Saren tells me. "I’m thinking of writing something and sending it to the newspaper. What do you think?”
I say I’m uncomfortable giving him any kind of advice at all; I’m supposed to be a disinterested observer. But I have to tell him something. So I say it’s entirely his choice. He could write something under his own byline, or he could contact the reporter and make himself available for an interview. Saren likes the second idea. He says he will contact the reporter later that day.
Why should the Iranian government should be so concerned by an article in a Canadian newspaper? Saren thinks he knows why. Canada and Iran have started talking about a resumption of diplomatic relations after a five year hiatus. Saren is worried that his case will somehow become entangled in the diplomatic talks—that he might be used as a bargaining chip in some kind of deal. His worst scenario: Iran lifts its protection and he is extradited back to Canada, with or without the kids.
The story has an odd epilogue: Reporter Marie-Danielle Smith responds a few days later. She wants Saren to send her a photograph of himself holding a local Iranian newspaper, to prove that he is who he says he is. Once she’s confirmed his identity, she’ll talk to him. Saren feels insulted. What game is this reporter playing? Why would she not trust him? He decides to drop the whole thing, and not continue the dialogue.
Two quotations from the Persian poet Rumi:
“When a man makes up a story for his child, he becomes a father and a child together, listening.”
“There's no one with intelligence in this town except that man over there playing with the children, the one riding the stick horse. He has keen, fiery insight and vast dignity like the night sky, but he conceals it in the madness of child's play.”
It’s May 29 here in Urmia, Northern Iran, and I’m about to go for my daily walk. The sun is beating down, it’s nearing 30 degrees, and I was going to take along my water bottle. When I remember that it’s the second day of Ramadan—the 30-day period of fasting in the Islamic calendar. Where it’s against the law to consume anything in public, even a drink of water. Foreigners, I am warned, are not exempt. Maybe I’ll stay in.
Ramadan is another opportunity to witness the incongruity of the Azer story. Saren describes himself as a “secular Muslim” because he rarely if ever prays, does not obey the fasting customs, and does not enforce any form of Islamic piety upon his children, who are required to study the Koran in school. In fact, he says that throughout his marriage, Alison was a more devout Muslim than he was.
Late last night, I sat in on a cel phone conversation between Canadian consular official Kirill Kagner in Ottawa, and Saren. Saren had the speaker phone on. He asked Kagner if he should respond to Marie-Danielle Smith’s piece in the Postmedia newspapers, about Alison’s Nov. 2106 visit to Urmia. Kagner said that of course Saren was free to do anything he wanted, but he said it would be better to make his arguments in a Canadian court.
Remarkably, he suggested that Saren might want to contact Marie Henein, the Cairo-born lawyer who represented Jian Ghomeshi, and ask if she would be interested in taking on his case pro bono. Kagner also said he believed Saren stands a “strong chance” in a Canadian court, and that in any case, he was unlikely to serve any jail time for abducting his four kids.
Of course, this MAY be a strategy to smoke Saren out of Iran, and get him back into a Canadian court. Saren suspects it’s a trap.
But Kagner speaks a good game. Saren told him that the Iranian government would likely not approve another visa application for Alison because of the comments she made in the Postmedia story, re women’s rights and the legal system in this country. That blocks off a serious opportunity for reconciliation with the kids. Kagner remarked that she should not make these kinds of statements if she expected any sympathy from the Iranian government.
Kagner also said that what Alison wants from Saren is to set up lines of regular telephone communication with the kids. Saren made the point that he would have a talk with the girls, but if the past was any indication, they would refuse point-blank, and he would not force them against their will. Kagner made the case that in the “controlled environment” in which they now lived, perhaps Saren could convince them to change their minds. He promised to try, but didn’t hold up much hope. Unspoken was the likelihood that the boys might agree.
Besides, he says, the kids have been told they are completely free to pick up the telephone and speak to their mother anytime they want. A landline and a cellphone are available.
Yesterday Saren took the kids out to buy patio furniture for the courtyard. He lets the kids vote on the colour. They decide on white—a plastic table and eight chairs. It will go next to the cherry tree. "A good table will last us 10 years." says Sharvahn. It’s a comment about her sense of permanence, that they will still be here in a decade. Saren tells them that when his fortunes improve, they will get a bigger house, and maybe even a pool. The boys squeal with delight.
A visit from E, one of Saren’s friends from the hospital. They huddle and talk quietly, out if earshot. Later, Saren is agitated. He hasn’t been paid his university salary for five months, despite putting in 35-40 hours a week in the hospital ICU, and lecturing. So he’s decided to hand in his notice, and he will let the chancellor know tomorrow. To distract himself, he piles the kids into the car, and we take a drive into the country. He’s driving very fast, and there are flashes of mild road rage. We stop in a village for ice cream and soft drinks, and while we idle, the shopkeeper washes the car unasked.. Then we prepare to leave, the shopkeeper refuses to accept any payment and he and Saren have a tussle over the money. “People here don’t measure happiness by how much money they earn,” Saren says on the drive back, “but by what they can do for one another. It’s one of the cultural qualities I’m hoping the kids will pick up.”
Its too late to prepare supper, so we stop at the takeaway joint and pick up 36 chicken wings and fries and a large bottle of Milinda pop. The owner gives Dersim and Meitan a free portion of fries—another small act of kindness.
Rojevahn is mortally upset. She told her Dad she didn’t want to have people for dinner that night because she’d be stuck with a lot of dishes. Saren reacts angrily. “You shame me,” he tells her. I’ve never seen him this angry at Rojevahn. “How can you say that? Disinviting people because you didn’t want to do dishes!” It’s an intensity I haven’t seen from him to this point. Rojevahn cried and was inconsolable, thinking she may have put her father to shame.
Saren is talking about Dersim "People tell me I was just like him when I was his age". Sensitive, brilliant, complex, competitive to a fault. Sharvahn, on the other hand, is much more adaptable, open with her feelings, her favourite saying at the dinner table “It’s okay to ask for help.” Meitan, a great absorber, words, sentences, concepts . . .
A big day for Meitan yesterday. He took his first walk to the corner store on his own to buy milk. Dad was bursting with pride, as he sent his boy off with some money and and empty pasteurized milk bottle. On the eve of his 5th birthday. Celebrate.
Yesterday Saren and I were talking about pain, and awareness of another's pain. “When I cut into someone’s carotid artery in the operating room, and I touch a bone (with my scalpel), the pain is severe, and a part of me feels it.” We’re talking about empathetic pain, and what he believes is Alison’s apparent lack of it. The inference here is that she’s unfamiliar not only with the pain she’s causing her family, notably Saren, but also the harm that she is doing to herself.
Saren can’t seem to understand that no matter how much of it is self-inflicted, Alison is also feeling great hurt. His view is that her suffering is not genuine; I believe it is, no matter what psychological box she may be in. Her tears and anguish are real—she may simply be projecting it to the wrong people.
Nine working days left, which need to be put to good use. I’m still working on the best way to approach Sharvahn. We are now “good friends,” she thinks I resemble Santa Claus, and she has abandoned almost all his shyness with me. (i.e. “Do you live alone? I think I would like to live alone.” . . . “Mr. Claude, are we not good friends? We are, aren’t we?” ) How can I approach her to talk about her mother candidly, and her dream? Roje definitely has more to say, and her feelings I believe are stronger than her sister’s, but she’s less open. She’s by far the most attentive of the children, jealously guarding her rights to dishwashing, and very needy of the firm hugs of Baba. She still eyes me carefully, although her watchfulness is not as suspicious.
I also need to get Saren on camera about the turning point, i.e. the decision in Aug 2015 to make a run for it . .. and their adventure in Iraq. He’s very taciturn about things like the border crossing in the snow, since he wants to say nothing that might upset the Iranian authorities, or to tell of things that might be seen as having been hazardous to the kids.
Saren and I had an intense conversation last night in the coolness of courtyard at midnight. We covered a lot of ground. Highlights: “Alison was in hell (when we met), and she took the first train that came along to escape.” In this metaphor, Saren was the train. . I learn that Saren’s pet name for Alison—“Boss”— comes from Zorba the Greek, one of his favourite movies and books. “Boss” is what Zorba calls his employer, the narrator of the book. Saren sees himself as something of a Zorba character, full of lively rawness and impetuosity. Interestingly, like Zorba, Saren doesn’t like books. He admits he rarely finishes one. “I learn from life by living and trying to do things, rather than by being how other people learn. Why should I read about how other people solve their problems, when I can do it by myself?”
From Zorba: “When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seems to rush upon us to destroy us, yet we are not destroyed.”
“A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.”
Saren tells me that when Alison made her complaint about Saren uttering threats in 2012, she told police he mentioned a gun—one that was never found. “When you see me with these children," Seen asks me, "can you seriously imagine me threatening them with a gun?” It’s absurd, of course, but do I really know this man and how he will react under extreme stress? After all, he has said more than once that the struggle with Alison left him psychologically off-centre. And there’s that lingering odour of Lynn’s 2015 testimony to police, that she had once heard Saren make a remark that suggested sympathy to the idea of honour killing. (Lynn later recanted, but the police report still leaves a faint smell.)
He says that Alison was intrigued by the idea of Tiger Parenting. “She was the Tiger,” he says. “ I was the Bear.” When a child cried, she would say “Let her cry.” He would choose comforting. What does an unanswered cry do to a child? Foster independence? Rubbish he says. He remarks how, even at her robust age and size, Sharvahn still wants to sit on his lap and feel his warmth. He watches movies on a foam mattress with his children clustered around him: Rojevahn and Dersim cradled on his shoulders, Meitan between his legs, and Sharvahn with her head on his abdomen. Thus he will fall asleep, encased in his warmth and the rhythm of his breathing. He loves to play The Monster, talking to the boys about “eating your little bones” and tickles their ribs and they twist and turn with pleasure, like bear cubs.
Alison, he said, displayed an unfamiliar quality in the Iranian court when she visited in 2016. He described it as a kind of strength, of gravitas. I suggested self-confidence. He said no. It was something else. Whatever it was, he said, he admired it. But his point was otherwise: She was enjoying her role as a benighted mother; it gave her stature and definition. She had become a crusader. He says he saw her photo at a public appearance in Canada, appealing for the return of the children; hands on hips, she had a certain swagger. And her role as a Fighter for Justice was a role she relished, he says.
Just back from a two day swing to Mahabad, Saren’s birthplace, and Bakun, where we visited a college roommate from more than 20 years ago.
Got my first glimpse of Diya, the matriarch, Saren’s mother,a small brown wrinkled fruit of a woman who has the look of ill-health about her, but who lit up when she saw the kids, esp Meitan. Kamal, Saren’s older brother, was also there, unkempt, rowdy with the kids. He’s trapped in Iran because of passport issues; a bitter, frustrated, handsome man with a deep wonderfully growly voice, waiting for the authorities to let him go. He spent three years of his 20s in an Iranian prison for what I assume was his political activities. He talks about “forced adaptation” and how you come to “love your prison walls” and he seems to be talking both about himself and the four children, because he says this forcing has serious consequences. I don’t get a chance to ask him about these consequences because Saren arrives in his undershirt for a cigaret.
We have the standard breakfast on the kitchen floor, cups of tea and slightly stale bread with cream cheese—Diya fries a couple of eggs and I struggle for comfort.
I meet others in the family: the brother who runs the electrical shop, the bookstore owner, we pass the shop that sells surveyor’s equipment, managed by the sister, and we meet Kamal again. The names: Suleyman, Ishmael, Mohammed. The brother I don’t meet is the rap singer/party animal Mehmet, who carries a somewhat notorious reputation and who appears to be well hidden from view.
The ancestral home in Mahabad was bombed during the 1979-89 troubles, shelled from the surrounding hills by Iranian military fighting Kurdish rebels, in the kind of action that seems to evoke Sarajevo. The family lost one uncle in the fighting, and the house was rebuilt along with a basement with thick concrete walls. I sleep in an adjacent room, occupied only by myself and a very large brown cockroach whom I release to the outside world.
Shortly after we left Mahabad, Alison telephoned Diya and told her, in very basic Kurdish, that she wants to visit again. Diya feels very sad for Alison, a mother stripped of her kids, and wants them reunited. Saren is very troubled: he foresees more grief for the kids if Alison returns and sows more confusion, But he is stuck because he offered her an open invitation to come and share in their lives. Now he has a condition: she must come in peace. I think he fails to see the impact if he tries to prevent a reunion, and setting conditions will only work against him. He hopes the government will refuse her a visa, because she said some unkind things about Iran in her recent Postmedia interview. All in all, she will win this round whatever happens; Saren is mortified but he agrees to talk about his confusion in a wide ranging interview under the cherry tree at midnight.
A breakthrough yesterday. Roje and Sharvahn gave me 20 minutes of camera time and they were surprisingly candid about their feelings about their mother and father. (That's all I'm willing to say about the interview at this time.)
I’m thinking more and more about Alison. I believe that despite the pain of her last reunion, she MUST make every effort maintain contact with the children, both for her sake and for the optics of the situation. It’s not enough to rail against fate in Canada; she has to take advantage of any access there might be to the children in Iran. The boys, especially, are still reachable. Saren will only damage his case if he puts up any more barriers. He can only hope that Alison doesn’t go ballistic when she is here, IF the govt even agrees to issue her a visa.
Meanwhile, for some mysterious reason, Lynn’s visa application seems to be stalled. Saren believes the government may be waiting until I leave. I told him that means they know that I’m here, and they know my purpose. Which is slightly disturbing.
This morning Sarah the housekeeper told me that I should stay in Urmia. “I will find a woman for you,” she assures me. “Someone who can cook.” I am flattered but politely decline. How do I explain that it isn’t a cook I need?
Last night I showed Saren a tape of the girls’ interview. He was clearly troubled. He’s afraid that Alison will turn on the children if she hears what they say about her. I see now how frightened he is by his ex-wife and by her ability to influence events. He doesn’t want me to include Sharvahn and Rojevahn’s comments in a documentary, fearing they will come back to haunt them. He really is a mother bear.
Today we responded to a summons from Iran’s foreign affairs ministry. We met a Mr. Razai in Rm 604 of a downtown hotel who requested a formal meeting. He was a civil servant in his mid-30s, wearing a somewhat garish red-and-white sport shirt, and his first comment to me in English was, verbatim: “Do you want to leave?” I said yes I did. But I was a little shaken by the bluntness of the question. Was he inviting me to request an extension? But he was friendly enough. He asked me how was I treated during my four weeks in Iran, was there anything unpleasant? I said no, the opposite. I was welcomed expansively and without reservation. What did I think of Dr. Azer’s situation? I told him exactly what I thought: the children seem stable, happy and assimilated. What was my opinion of Dr. Azer? I said he seemed to be doing a good job as a father. But I stressed that I hadn’t spent much time with Alison, I would have a better grasp on the story once I had spoken to her. What about the Canadian government? Would I be talking to them? Yes, I wanted to interview officials to find out Ottawa’s position. Would I tell them what I had told him? Yes He requested the name of the publishing house. Were they government-run or private?
I asked Him: Would we be able to talk to officials about the case, and request documents corroborating what Saren had told us about how the courts dealt with the proceedings while Alison was here? Again a positive.
But there would be a small price. I would have to leave behind a copy of everything I had filmed. Gulp. Of course I wasn’t being offered a choice. They had approved my visa without insisting on me presenting them with a Program. But now they wanted an insurance policy: If I misrepresented anything in my use of the video, they would have the raw material for rebuttal. Fair enough.
Last night, after a feast at the country home/orchard of Dr. A, a friend of Saren's, I took a walk with the local representative of the Iranian foreign ministry, a disarmingly friendly guy who introduced himself as Mr. Montezumi. He told me about Alison’s visit here last November. Seems the local officials went out of their way to make her feel welcome—she was greeted by flowers and boxes of sweets, etc.
He explained the Iranian government wanted some kind of happy reconciliation among mother, father and kids, but it seemed to him that Alison was unbending. “We would help her find a comfortable apartment, she could live with the children while Dr. Mahmudi Azer would move out, we could even help her finding work at the local university.” But the inducements clearly were not enough. Alison wanted to take the children back to Canada, and that, for Iran, was non-negotiable, he said. Islamic family law says that after a marital breakdown, children who have reached the age of seven are allowed to decide whom they want to live with, and that choice is respected. Montezumi added that Tehran and Ottawa were talking about diplomatic recognition which would lead to a re-opening of the embassy in Ottawa, and this is why they wanted to smooth over any issues between the two countries. The Azer case is clearly on their hit list, but there was no ambiguity—since Saren and the children were now Iranian citizens, their right to choose a parent would be protected by Iranian law. We were under a full moon, a clear sky, and the symphony of frogs croaking. A cool, sharp Iranian night.
While we walked, Saren asked the children if they had any messages they wanted me to pass on to anybody in Canada. It was an obvious reference to Alison; but this not-so-subtle invitation was met with a mild groan or two, and silence. The kids would only mention Grandma Lynn; Saren couldn’t generate anything more.
It’s easy to draw the conclusion that the children have no fond memories of life in Canada with their mother.. But that, I think, would be presumptuous. They may be silent because they are perplexed and don’t know how to put this confusion into words. They may want to avoid ambiguity. They may be silent because a stranger—me—is listening.
They may be skeptical about the father’s sincerity in asking the question. Or, maybe, a happy memory just doesn’t come to mind at the moment.
All I can think of is something I read once, a kind of a Golden Rule of Parenting: Try to raise children who don’t have to recover from their childhood.