In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks in Iran - first in Mashhad, then Tehran. I was trying to write a book (I never finished it) about the Paralympic movement, which has a very particular expression in Iran, both positive and exploitative. It was hard to get a visa (I had to fly to Dublin and plead my case as there were no UK-Iranian avenues open). But it was a wonderful experience; one I will never forget. I made some notes, which will almost certainly never be published, but perhaps they're of interest anyway. Here's what happened when I met one of the medallists from the London Paralympic Games of 2012. I have been thinking a lot of late about her.
With one Golden Arrow, she became an icon. Zahra Nemati’s story could have been lifted from the pages of her 14th century compatriot, the great Sufi master and Poet Khwaju Kermani, were it not for the fact that its central act took place not in Persia, but in Woolwich, where Sufi wisdom is in short supply.
She has a calm expression. She looks at whoever is talking to her with warmth and concentration. She takes care of her appearance; one which in Iran, is greatly admired. That she represents both the potential for change, and a threat to the status quo in Iran is less certain. But it is tempting to read her life as if it were a parable complete with a scriptural act of transformation; a flower in the desert.
I am not convinced that is she entirely comfortable, when she has to talk about herself. Who, after all, is? When we meet, she sits stiffly in her wheelchair, her hands clasped in her lap, occasionally tightening their grip on each other. She has a girlish laugh, which is merely a reflex, born of nerves, I think. And when she finds it hard to talk, she takes a long time deliberating, or even wrestling with herself, before she speaks. But there, it is; this is what her life has brought her, and now she is making the best of it. So, now it is now simply a question of how she chooses to apply her status. Or indeed, whether or not she wants to speak out at all, though there may be those willing her to do so.
Her home town of Kerman sits in the moderating influence of a mountain range which makes life bearable. Beyond the city limits, to the north and the east, lies fierce desert. It is said of this place, because deserts this poetically remote always encourage people to use the phrase “it is said”, that you can bake bread on the stone. And fry eggs. A fried egg sandwich in the desert is always, therefore, always on offer, provided you have eggs and bread.
‘It is,’ in the words of Zahra’s coach and husband Roham Shahabi, ‘the hottest place imaginable in the world.’
I remember once trying to fry an egg on some tarmac in the South of France, when the temperature was in the mid-thirties. It didn’t work, instead the translucent egg white sat wobbling in the breeze. But, given that Kerman Province often tops out at something over fifty degrees celcius, I would suggest that all bets are off. There is even some silly internet talk about it reaching seventy degrees.
It is also the region hardest hit by the earthquake of 2003, whose epicentre destroyed the ancient citadel of Bam (some hundred or so kilometres away from Kerman). The disaster cost the lives of more than 26,000 Iranians, and even led to a temporary respite in US-Iranian diplomatic hostility. But because earthquakes and paraplegia seem tragically linked, the assumption has long done the rounds that Zahra Nemati lost the use of her legs when her house collapsed. This is not true, I discover, when I meet her. It was in 2003, so the year was correct, but it didn’t happen that way. She warns me, very gently, that if I ask her to talk about it, she may cry. I tell her that I do not mind, but that I have no intention of making her cry.
Those who do not know her well call her Zahra. But if you are truly close to Zahra Nemeti, you call her Khaatereh. The word, literally, means memory. The irony is not lost on her.
‘I am trying to leave the day of the accident behind me forever. I need to finish with it, myself. When I recall it to my memory I weep.’ She apologizes in advance, and moves a box of tissues closer. But for now she still smiles broadly, her face framed by pristine, starched white head scarf, even as her eyes are imperceptibly watering.
In this baked, stoney, ancient town, famous for its poets, little Zahra grew up. Her father ran a furniture shop, which yielded enough when he retired, for him to invest in property. He, and Zahra’s mother, who had worked for years at a desk in the air-conditioned gloom of the city hall, now enjoy a comfortable retirement. Indeed it would be wrong to suggest that Zahra’s life had been anything other than comfortable. They were not rich, but they did not want for the basics, and their children were allowed to pursue their interests, in fact they were encouraged. Zahra was something of a tearaway; the youngest of three daughters, she often gravitated to the company of her younger brother.
‘I was the naughtiest of all of them. I was always up to mischief, always making noise. I was hard to contain, always climbing the wall.’ While her parents couldn’t always indulge her wilder instincts, her wider family, her aunts and uncles adored her, and egged her on, telling her that they loved her as she was, and she should never change. The conclusion she drew from this was that, at home, she would barely lift a finger to help, and she got away with murder.
‘I didn’t want to be a boy. But I did want to be a powerful female. I wanted to be as strong as I could possibly be.’
Her parents, desperate for an outlet for their hyperactive youngest daughter, and perhaps to stop her bouncing off the walls and driving them mad during their favourite TV programme in the evening, enlisted her in a Taekwondo course. She bit their hand off, not literally, (although you couldn’t have ruled that out, by the sounds of it). Within a few weeks, in a segregated class of twenty five girls and women, her coach took to one side. She was just twelve years of age.
‘Zahra. You have got it. You can do everything in Taekwondo. When you strike, you do so at the right time. You are clever. You read the moves well.’
She, in turn, was thrilled by her new prowess. It had a physicality, which satisfied the internal dynamo that kept her in perpetual motion; arms, hands, legs, feet, torso, bobbing, ducking, twisting and striking out. She was not violent in nature, but she relished the strength it gave her to “look after herself”.
‘Of course I don’t like hurting people. Taewkondo is an art of defence from your enemies. Not attacking. I don’t like to start the war. A real human being would never try to start a war. But everyone should know how to defend themselves.’
There is, in this statement, a curious echo of the national sentiment attached to Iran’s military position: Aggressive-defensive is probably the simplest way of summing it up, so in that regard, as in certain others, she is deeply in tune with the men who rule her country. But there are points of difference, and this might be one of them:
‘But above all it increased my self-esteem. I thought, I can get what I want.’
For all that, there was a quite different side to Zahra at school. She was extremely diligent, and by her own measure, excelled, even voluntarily enlisting in extra classes, learning English and art. And she developed a love for calligraphy and painting. The artwork of her childhood was drawn from her imagination, landscapes of small cottages nestling in mountainsides, with streams flowing past. A jungle. A distant range of snow-topped mountains. Nothing that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the wall of a Persian restaurant.
One day, when she had been attending Taekwondo classes for a couple of years, the coach couldn’t make it. She took over the class, and taught in his absence. And that, in turn led to her setting up her own business at the age of just eighteen. She started her own course, charging a handful of kids to attend.
But at the same time, she was about to leave home. She had received the offer of a place at the Universty of Jiroft to study Botanical Medicine. Her family were delighted for her and she duly left home. Although Jiroft was only a short drive from Kerman, she was terribly homesick, and hated the course she had chosen. She decided that she would have to leave, and re-apply for something else instead.
She was five days short of her nineteenth birthday when she took a taxi home, something she did most weekends. They sped along the long straight road towards Kerman. Suddenly, right in front of them, a car slammed on its brakes and tried to perform a U-turn. There was no time for the taxi driver to react. His flimsy car crashed straight into the side of the other vehicle, and catapulted into the air. By the time it landed, Zahra had lost consciousness.
She had broken her back. But she had survived. Two sentences which sit cheek by jowl in newspaper reports and accounts of daily traffic accidents in every corner of the planet.
When she woke up, she could not feel her legs. The physicians assured her, over the following days, that she would make a gradual improvement, but deep down, she knew better. Her paralysis, from the waist down, was total.
‘I want to say something to all the people in the world. Your position in the world is not fixed. You think you are will always be rich? You think you will always be poor? It doesn’t work like that. You can lose your wealth in an hour.’
* * *
These days, the calligraphy remains with her; the replication and reinterpretation of arabic script is a meditative act, whose value lies as much in the process as the outcome. Indeed in Sufism, the esoteric form of Islam prevalent in her region of Iran, calligraphy is common practice. It is a way in which you can draw yourself into a union with God. She still loves to transcribe the verses of the great Sufi poets, like Saadi and Farid ad-Din Attar; men who wrote about the annihilation of the self.
And, since childhood, her painting has changed.
‘I don’t paint figuratively any more. I love the harmony of colours. It is abstract. I start with blank paper and I introduce colour. That’s all.’
To become the brilliant archer that she now is, she had to become acquainted with stillness. It has its own, particular, slow tension. Watching Zahra shoot is compelling; a complex, hypnotic drift of interaction between eye, and finger tip and arm, flexing and bending as the potential for the flight fixes itself into a decision to let go. In the moment of release, nothing is resolved until it hits the board, and only then, does the energy drop out.
Just two years after her accident, she was training with the Iranian Olympic Archery squad, and beating them. She holds a number of national records for archery, to this day. And after making her point, she joined up with the Paralympic Team, who catered much better for wheelchair users, and all their needs.
‘My first trip abroad was a tournament in the Czech Republic in 2010. I broke the record and I won the gold medal.’
Two years later, in London 2012, she completed that chapter in her journey. In a final which ebbed and flowed, she got the better of her Italian opponent to take the gold medal in the Recurve. She became the first Iranian woman ever to win Paralympic gold.
‘All gold medallists can agree with me about this: All our athletes try their hardest in the Paralympics, for the gold medal, to be the best. So, after all these months and years, training hard and being away from your family, when the person finally comes to place the medal around your neck, it’s like the blossoming of a flower whose bud contains all that history. It’s like a good flower.’
Her victory attracted great attention in Iran. Here was a story from which everyone could draw something. According to the forthright, Washington D.C. educated Dr. Javadi Moshref, who runs the Islamic Republic of Iran Women’s Federation for Sport for the Disabled, the emotional tenor of her win resonated at a very high level in the complex power structure in Tehran. They noticed, and acted fast to take ownership of her story, congratulating her and showering her with best wishes and praise, all dressed up in the standard religious language.
But on her arrival home in Kerman, she noticed that things were a little different.
‘I think nowadays the situation for women here in Iran is changing. I think I am one of the icons. I can impact on this situation. When I arrived home in Kerman after the London Games, lots of women came to the airport to meet me, and all over the city there big pictures of me. Now so many women in Kerman have taken up archery! I am so pleased.’
‘My reputation among the people is good. People try to make contact with me. They try to say hello to me, when I am outside. It seems I make them happy. When I was 18, and I had the accident, I had the opposite effect on people. My presence made them cry for grief. But now they cry for happiness.’
It is intriguing how much traction her story has in Iran. There should be no misunderstanding; Zahra Nemati is no political firebrand. She will not be leading a women’s march on Tehran any time soon. But she is a more or less willing link in a chain, which will surely lead to greater emancipation for the women of Iran. She understands this, and at least for now, while she watches and waits to see what will be the next curtain to be torn down, plays her part.
‘I want to say this for women. Hopelessness is temporary. It can be fixed. Through our efforts, it can be changed. When you want something, you can get it. This is my message to women. Do not give up hope. Try everything that you want.’
‘It is changing. It can be a good earthquake.’
What is indisputable, is that the language in which Zahra Nemetis couches her disability and her achievement is very much at variance with that of the generation of men who went before her. There is no talk of sacrifice, of the honour brought about by her massive injury, no talk of Iran, in fact. Far more, there is private determination, and equally private fear. There is honesty, too, and there is a healthy dose of truth. A friend and confidant of hers confides in me, as if on Khaatereh’s behalf, that, for all she has come to terms with her paralysis, there will always be at least one single cell in her body which will never be silenced, and which is screaming with the injustice.
‘Even for our breath we should thank God, for we do not know if we will breathe again. I could have died. It is not a fixed life. Perhaps I will be a loser or a winner. Half an hour later everything might change.’