One view on the Arab Spring: From Syrian jail cell to Muslim feminists

I’ve known journalist D Parvaz for a decade and may never quite see the world the way she does.

But it’s worth trying.

Parvaz is a reporter for Al Jazeera and was formerly a colleague of mine for many years at the (dearly departed print version) Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper — now Seattlepi.com

She returned to Seattle this week to moderate a talk at Seattle Town Hall by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who used Facebook to help spark the Egyptian revolution.

D Parvaz and Wael Ghonim at Seattle Town Hall

It was a great talk and Ghonim’s story is fairly well-known, as described here on NPR, in part to publicize his new book Revolution 2.0.

But a lot of the folks in the packed room would have liked to hear from D (technically, it’s ‘Dorothy’ but she prefers D). Ghonim tried to get Parvaz to talk about that moment last year when she was world famous – jailed by Syrian officials for attempting to report on protests there.

Held for nearly three weeks, first in Syria and then later in Iran after being secretly deported there for more interrogations, many think she’s lucky to be alive.

D refused to talk last night about her own experiences and perspectives, so I will.

D Parvaz

What might surprise many who know her only as a serious journalist who put her life at risk for a story is how wacky she can be.

D can be wacky, let me tell you.

But that wackiness likely stems from a desire not to be confined by the conventional wisdom, and a fierce intolerance for ignorance, bias and provincialism. Even at Al Jazeera, Parvaz continues to push the envelope as evidenced by her recent report on the Muslim feminists of Egypt.

Muslim feminists? You can count on Parvaz to find a story nobody even thought was there.

As a young girl growing up in Iran, she was witness to the 1979 Iranian (Islamic) Revolution. Her family eventually left Iran and ended up in Vancouver, B.C., where Parvaz completed the rest of her childhood into college — and decided early on to become a journalist.

“When I was a child in Iran, I saw how differently it was viewed by the outside world,” Parvaz said. “My family talked about issues, the news, all the time. It was important to us. I think that was transformative.”

As an Iranian emigre living in the West, she has seen how the cultures, politics and peoples of the Middle East are so often boiled down to simplistic caricatures. This is a deadly mindset, she says, that repeatedly leads U.S. politicians to talk of war with Iran.

“Here we are again,” said Parvaz, noting the drumbeat news stories warning of potential attacks on Iran by Israel or the U.S. because the Iranians appear to be pursuing nuclear weapons development. In a previous such episode, in 2006 while D was at the Seattle PI, she grew so concerned at the talk of launching a war on Iran she decided to go there.

“I went on my own dime, to visit family and do stories,” Parvaz said.

“At the time, the Bush Administration was talking about bombing Iran, as a member of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ and it just scared the bejeezus out of me,” she said. “I wanted to tell people about my family, about this 10,000-year-old civilization they were talking about destroying. I wanted to humanize the place for the American public.”

In the 2006 story she did for the Seattle PI on returning to Iran is an opening quote from someone concerned about her safety on visiting this corner of the Axis of Evil:

“They might think you’re a spy. What if they arrest you?”

She wasn’t arrested then, in 2006, but the concern turned out to be well-founded last year when Parvaz, working for Al Jazeera, was arrested the moment she got off a plane in Syria and was put in a Syrian jail cell where she witnessed horrors all around her.

“I saw a lot of blood, heard a lot of screaming,” Parvaz said. She was not physically abused, but she was still worried. “I figured that if they were letting me see all this going on they were going to have to kill me.”

Instead, after weeks in the Syrian jail (during which a massive media and political campaign was going on to free her), Parvaz was secretly deported and flown to Iran — where officials initially denied knowing anything about her.

“That’s one of the ways they terrorize people, by using uncertainty,” she said. “When I finally did appear in court, the Iranian judge told me they didn’t need to go through the charade of charging me before executing me.”

Parvaz was eventually released by Iran, to worldwide media fanfare that made her very uncomfortable. She couldn’t help thinking about all of those still in prison, those not released, those tortured and killed — as well as the anguish she caused her friends and family.

“The story isn’t about me,” she says.

Well, sorry D, this one is. Sometimes we can learn something about a story by talking to the storyteller. Here are a few more comments from my conversation with D Parvaz:

  • Q You are now a reporter for Al Jazeera. Some Americans think this is a news organization run by the Taliban, or at least one with a bias. Your response to that?
  • DP: I think that comes from people who want to read news reports that support what they already think. Anyone who thinks Al Jazeera is biased toward these oppressive regimes need only look at what happened to me in Syria and Iran.
  • Q What can Al Jazeera provide to us that we don’t already get from CNN, the New York Times, BBC or other news organizations with an international focus?
  • DP: Because of where it’s based, the people it hires and its expertise I think it provides a unique and valuable perspective on a region of global importance. This should be a regular part of any intelligent person’s daily news diet.
  • Q How did your imprisonment in Syria change you?
  • DP: I still don’t know if it really did. What’s sad is that, as an Iranian, this is how you expect your government to act. It did make me appreciate my freedom even more. You realize how easy it is to fall down that rabbit hole … Most of the time in Syria, I was just overwhelmed by the torture factory around me. I just wanted to survive and get out of there to file a story.
  • Q What can Americans learn from what’s happening now in the Middle East?
  • DP: Much of the Arab Spring is fueled by people fighting to regain their rights. We should look at how hard it is to regain a right once you lose it. I wonder how it is that American citizens have allowed Congress to pass laws that allow officials to detain you without a trial if they think you are even loosely affiliated with what they consider a terrorist organization. I kept waiting for someone to stand up and scream about this but nobody did.
  • Q What should the U.S. do to promote democracy in Egypt, or to fight the brutal oppression now going on in Syria?
  • DP Look, first what most Americans need to recognize is that they, or well their government leaders, have been supporting these oppressive regimes for decades. Do you know what it is the U.S. government actually wants to see happen in Egypt? Do they? In Syria? I guess I would like to see Americans putting more emphasis into diplomacy and less into blunt interventions like sanctions or bombing people.
  • Q The Arab Spring started with great enthusiasm and hope for political transformation and new freedoms across the Middle East. A lot of that enthusiasm seems to have been dampened by ongoing turmoil in Egypt and, of course, what’s happening in Syria. Ghonim said he remains hopeful, optimistic for the future. Are you?
  • DP: I saw the Iranian Revolution first hand and today many Iranians would say it hasn’t quite worked out the way they hoped. Revolutions are not just about unseating a dictator or toppling a statue. Revolutions are a process, sometimes a long and painful process. We need to give these countries time. I’m impressed at the courage of these people to take to the streets. That gives me hope, I guess.

 

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Joe Adcock

    Nice job, Tom. And to think that I shared a cubicle with Dorothy (as I always called her for some reason). Every good wish to you and to any P-I folk you may encounter, Joe Adcock (now living in semi-peaceful retirement in Arlington VA).

  • Denny Fleenor

    Thanks for this piece, Tom. I have never met or worked with D but always appreciated both her style and perspective in her P-I columns. In an era where there are few truly good journalists remaining, she stands out.  PS — IMO you are one of those good journalists too.

  • http://www.kristenmyoung.com/ Kristen Young

    Nice job, Tom.  I can “hear” D’s voice and get a sense for her character from this interview, which is a credit to you.  -Kristen