“I just want you to know that I am going to keep fighting ‘til the last minute. I am not quitting this, not now.”
I wrote looking at my watch, Maybe an hour and a half left at most. Emad was encouraging me to drop everything and to go to sleep, but I refused. But inside, I thought it was over.
Emad could not see my despair, but I felt imminent disaster, which seemed particularly bitter because we were so close to our goal and had been through so much in the last few months. Still, I told Emad, and myself:
“I owe you nothing less than to keep doing the best I can until the last minute. That’s the only thing that I can do — not to give up until the end. And if I somehow messed up in the past, and brought about this current situation — still more reason for me to keep trying until the very last minute.”
I had spent the last 48 hours trying to raise thousands of dollars to rescue Emad, this being his seemingly final chance to escape Iran.
The intelligence services were after him; we knew that they were searching for him from the communications with his family. Although he had relocated from Teheran, he could easily be uncovered any minute and all would be lost. The sum of money I had to raise was enormous, and the several big donors that I had initially relied upon to secure this possibility failed to come through in time. I went through 48 hours of insanity, which included calling completely random individuals on the phone in the middle of the night and desperately appealing for whatever small sums of money they could donate.
Surprisingly, a number of pledges came through, among dropped phone calls and curses from people who did not appreciate being awakened at 2:00 a.m. with desperate pleas for money. The full sum still failed to materialize.
Then — a sudden extension of the deadline. Even though I was only given a few more hours, we knew we could get it done.
In late March of 2015, I first connected with Emad (Emadeddin) Tayefeh, a young Iranian dissident filmmaker/animator, on Movements.org, a social media platform that matches human rights help-seekers with those offering assistance. It is run by an organization called Advancing Human Rights. Emad was living in Teheran and working clandestinely on a human rights documentary commissioned in 2011 by his mentor, famed director-turned-activist Mohammed Nourizad, known for founding a human rights organization called Eshgh.
Emad was looking for a way to leave the country and come to the United States while finishing the film. I found his story moving and heartbreaking. Over the next few months, we became close friends, scheming his escape and discussing Iranian politics and international indifference while also sharing family stories and culinary ruminations.
In April we were supposed to meet to discuss next steps when Emad messaged me to say he had been badly beaten.
He had been attacked along with his mentor while delivering equipment for the filming. Severely injured, he managed to escape. Over the next few months, he would be detained by Iranian intelligence and dragged, along with his crew, to an underground facility for interrogation. His film crew was released, but Emad was detained and beaten until he passed out.
He still refused to give up other activists or any information that might be helpful to the regime, and eventually he was released. But Emad had to leave soon or he would perish.
Emad came from a family split by the revolution. Although his parents initially joined forces with the Islamists in 1979, only a few years later they realized the consequences of bringing the ayatollahs to power and came out strongly against the regime. Pro-liberal activism cost them jobs, peace of mind, and security. Furthermore, it created a schism within the family, the other half of which aligned itself with the Revolution firmly and took sides with the ayatollahs, even with all the brutality that took place. Emad grew up questioning the lies and propaganda inflicted by the regime, and by the time he got to Shomal University he became an outspoken opponent of the Islamic Republic.
In 2009, Emad worked as an observer in the presidential elections, representing Mir Hossein Mousavi. He reported vast electoral fraud, which landed him in hot water with the Basij, the roving gangs of volunteer thugs charged with keeping order on the streets. He and his activist friends were beaten in the streets, and eventually he was arrested and dragged to Evin prison.
Evin meant months of interrogations, tortures, false confessions, and isolation in dark, cold, wet places. Still, once finally released, Emad returned to activism, and soon found himself organizing a clandestine organization on campus.
The Art Club, under the guise of extracurricular cultural activities, actually stood for subversive political activism, which included the unheard-of peace-building outreach to Jewish students on campus, as well as young Israelis and American Jews in assorted and strictly forbidden online chat rooms.
Emad’s Jewish counterpart in this venture was a mysterious, skittish student known to Emad as Kourosh Hamadani-Cohen. No one knew what he studied and he was not seen about campus. Following various incidents, The Art Club was infiltrated and uncovered by a spy, most likely with the assistance of Emad’s own relative, a notorious pro-regime figure named Taghi Dejakam who had worked for the Keyhan newspaper. Emad ended up in the Amal prison run by the IRGC. That experience included additional beatings and interrogations. Emad was forced to sign an agreement to check in with the authorities on a weekly basis.
Upon being released, Emad approached Kourosh and attempted to reestablish a relationship with him, but Kourosh avoided Emad and soon disappeared. Emad searched in vain , but was threatened with his life. To this day, it remains unknown whether Kourosh was a tragic figure who was destroyed by the regime as a Jewish activist, or whether he was a regime spy who proved to be part of Emad’s undoing.
While in prison Emad’s notoriety grew, as news about The Art Club’s activity, a humiliation to the regime, spread across the country. Over the following years, Emad balanced a complex dual life of professional accomplishment and sophisticated activism.
A talented animator and director, he partook in international festivals and took home awards. His film Kingdom of Solomon brought in the prize for the best visual effects for a feature film in the Fajr Festival. His short animation Over the Totem was nominated for best short animation in the Tehran Film Festival. Even in 2015, when he was already in hiding and could not even attend the festival where his work was featured, he was nominated for best short film at the 14th of Mahale Film Festival.
At the same time, his life was a sequence of arrests and detentions, interrogations, tortures, beatings, assaults, and harassment. His family was targeted for searches, surveillance, and scare tactics. Over the course of six years, Emad spent over a year in a variety of prisons, mostly in Evin. He organized protests in support of political prisoners, including his own cousin Mohammed Amin Valian, who was initially sentenced to execution but who managed to escape to the United States. Emad and others in the family paid a heavy price after his cousin’s escape.
While many participants of the Green Movement revolution which unfolded in the summer of 2009 who were not imprisoned for lengthy terms left the country for political asylum abroad, Emad continued the fight in his country for as along as he could stand it. He suffered multiple injuries, including a broken shoulder and two broken wrists, and lived in constant fear of arrest, imprisonment, or worse. He was a swimmer and tennis player; he can no longer engage in these activities due to his untreated injuries.
No support came from the West.
President Obama failed to speak out for these brave souls in 2009, and he has not helped the human rights movement in Iran since.
This issue was deliberately off the table in negotiations towards the nuclear deal. As we now know, any hopes Iranian liberals had put in the United States and its allies that year were doomed from the start, because in 2009 Iran had reached out to the United States laying out the preliminary conditions for negotiations.
Emad kept asking me why the United States never intervened, did nothing to destroy the bloodthirsty regime. I still have no answer, besides the character of our citizens being different than that of our government.
Emad sacrificed so much. He was expelled from his Masters program, fired from his job on television and blacklisted. He was forced to rely on support from his family, which also suffered financially for their politics. His girlfriend left him after being threatened with arrest and imprisonment.
Forced to go into hiding, Emad persisted in working on the film. I realized that no help from my connections in the West would come until Emad escaped the country, so I started searching for options for escape. One scheme failed after another.
Emad’s family reported repeated visits by his tormentors, searches and seizures of his personal property, and explicit threats. The day came when he no longer could remain in the city — he fled to border towns near Turkey, taking only basic necessities and his laptop with his precious film footage.
His health was poor, with agonizing psychosomatic symptoms as well as heart pain that he had earned in prisons from stress and torture years ago. His life in border towns was far from safe. The search for him was on, and strangers in smaller towns were scrutinized harshly. There were nights when he had to sleep on the streets, listening to howling wolves.
After the nuclear deal was signed, the human rights situation inside the country deteriorated signficantly.
Arrests — and hangings — grew in number.
Emad had to seek refuge in the jungle, surrounded by spiders and snakes. Emad was weak and exhausted, but during a risky escape he managed to bribe some customs officers, and in a truly miraculous course of events, made his way over the Turkish border.
Emad’s situation in Istanbul was precarious. He came into Turkey just as the conflict between the PKK and Erdogan’s administration was reaching its peak. There were gun battles in the streets of Istanbul, and waves of xenophobia whipped up by Erdogan’s manipulations of extreme nationalism. Emad could not find an apartment to rent or a job because he was a foreigner. The money that supporters managed to raise for him he was unable to collect due to Turkish nationalists working in the banks.
He went for days without food, until some kind souls managed to bring him a little money in person.
Still, Emad did not waste time. He set about editing his documentary The Public Enemies, searching for a job, and trying to make his life as meaningful as possible under the circumstances. He filmed his documentary with a broken wrist, often in excruciating pain. In Istanbul he found a film center where he would work for 12 hours a day for free, just so he could have a couple hours every day to work on his film. The little time he had he spent volunteering with refugees and trying to film stories of the Iranian diaspora, distrust and fear of that community notwithstanding.
Still, his adversaries would not let Emad be, even in Istanbul. He received a “private” phone call consistent with IRGC’s pattern of terrorizing dissident targets abroad. He had to change his SIM card, abandon his acquaintances, and flee.
His life, after everything he has been through, continued to remain in danger. He has a little over two weeks to legally stay in Turkey.
Emad is hard-working, warm-hearted, a talented visionary with a personal understanding of the situation in Iran. He has the ability to distinguish between the true hearts and the faux dissidents who get so much attention at the expense of the real defenders of freedom and human rights.
Emad’s upcoming film has already received attention from BBC Persia, VOA Persia, and a documentary producer who is interested in distributing it — provided that Emad makes it to the United States to edit it.
Emad has a possibility of a future now. He could help shift the paradigm of the Iranian dissident movement from the divided, distrustful, and infiltrated group it is currently to something much more powerful and effective.
I implore those of us who claim to care about liberalism, democracy, human rights, and freedom to lend Emad support — save his life. Bring him to the United States.
Contact your elected officials, tell them Emad’s remarkable story, share it with other media outlets. Give him an opportunity to live as one of the people he has emulated all his life — an American. He earned it with every challenge to totalitarian evil, with his blood, his nightmares, and his refusal to betray his allies under torture. Coming to the United States is a privilege; Emad is worthy.