Outsider struggles to survive under a brutish regime
I Confess: Revelations in Exile
By Kooshyar Karimi Wild Dingo Press, 370pp, $32.95
IN a world overwhelmed by an estimated 42 million refugees, it’s often the story of an individual’s struggle against barbarity that brings home the horrors suffered by people in lands less fortunate than Australia.
I Confess, a memoir by Kooshyar Karimi, an Iranian-Jewish doctor who now lives in Australia, is a stark and revealing account of how a regime run by frenzied zealots can dehumanise its citizens.
For years, Karimi was forced to spy for the Iran of the ayatollahs as a way of saving his own life and the lives of those he loved. This beautiful book is an atonement for those he was forced to betray. Iran, he tells us, was a world akin to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a nation with spies and informers everywhere, where many citizens led a double life. It was a nation where Big Brother, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Karimi describes as ‘‘ an evil old man with the intelligence of a house-brick’’, had a claustrophobic grasp of every aspect of life.
Bad enough for ordinary citizens, it was especially dangerous for Karimi, who was a Jew, a doctor who illegally performed abortions on desperate young women who’d been raped, and a spy. He describes life in Iran as feeling ‘‘ like you are a canary in a room full of cats . . . you live in anxiety all the time’’.
Karimi’s process of self-discovery in postKhomeini Iran was triggered when his mother inadvertently told him he was a Jew, something that set him apart from the rest of the Muslim citizenry and shaped his personality. And because of his faith, in 1998 he was kidnapped on the street, blindfolded and tortured. His release and salvation was predicated on his agreement to spy for a regime that he hated with all his heart.
I Confess is a book full of wisdom, wit and beauty, which in some way dilutes the utter horror of what Karimi and his family suffered. But the cast of real-life characters who inhabit the book could have been the proud invention of a Hollywood scriptwriter.
There’s Karimi’s mother, Homa, impover- ished and having to live on her wits to survive and provide for her children; his Muslim busdriver father, who fails to tell Homa that he already has two wives; there’s Dr Vahedi, a thoroughly decent Iranian physician who risks his safety to ensure the brilliant Karimi is allowed to get into a university to study medicine despite being Jewish; and finally the entire boorish, oafish Iranian secret service. And positioned high above a ship of state crewed by a dramatis personae who are mad, bad and dangerous to know, looms a coterie of Tolkien figures, the ayatollahs and mullahs who are navigating Iran from a modern nation backwards into a biblical theocracy.
Our introduction to Karimi begins at the moment of his birth. It is snowing on the night he was born, his 17-year-old mother lies alone