Neda Agha Soltan was shot dead on a street in Tehran after the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. She was unarmed. She was beautiful. And she was supposed to have a long life ahead of her. But she was brave enough to protest against the Iranian regime.
The last seconds of Neda’s life were captured on a cellphone camera. The short video horrified the world, which had been mostly oblivious of or indifferent toward the torture and execution of thousands of young Iranians who had dared demand freedom and democracy in their country, beginning as early as 1980. In her very public death, Neda became the face of Iranian dissidence.
In the same video clip, we see a young man, a medical doctor who happened to be present at the scene, try to save Neda, but there is nothing anyone can do. Blood pours out of her nose and she dies. The author of The Gaze of the Gazelle, Arash Hejazi, is the young doctor from the video. He has since fled Iran and now lives in Britain.
The jacket flap of The Gaze of the Gazelle tells us that the book is the story of Neda’s generation, but after reading a few pages, we discover that it is not. Instead, it is the story of the generation before Neda, or as the author puts it, the story of Iran’s “Generation X,” those who were seven to 15 years old at the time of the success of the Islamic revolution of 1979.
The first 300 pages of the book read more like a historical text than a memoir; events are told in a journalistic manner and are sometimes interrupted with small bits and pieces of the author’s life. The prose is mostly accurate, concise and clear, and makes for an informative read, but it is bogged down with too much information and too little narrative.
Also, some of Hejazi’s statements are jarringly strange. For example, he writes that when he was about 7, not long after the success of the revolution, he met Ayatollah Khomeini. He describes the Ayatollah’s gaze as intelligent, kind and serious, which “made it impossible for anyone to hold his gaze for more than a few seconds.”
In February, 1979, on the plane that brought Khomeini back to Iran after years of exile, a reporter asked him how he felt about his return, and he responded that he felt nothing. His words and his cold gaze pierced the hearts of many Iranians. People had died to bring Ayatollah Khomeini back home, and he felt nothing? Then, after coming to power, the Ayatollah ordered the torture and execution of thousands of young Iranian dissidents, many of whom were from Hejazi’s generation, so it is very difficult to imagine Khomeini’s gaze as “kind.”
About halfway though the book, Hejazi writes about the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1988. He writes: “I was the only one who loved that man. I felt a lump in my throat. He had always been there for me, in my thoughts. His actions, his decisions, his vanity, his cruelty, had broken my heart. But can a child hate Santa Claus when he finds out he isn’t real?” The author’s comparing Khomeini with Santa is nothing short of bizarre.
Throughout the book, Hejazi explains how he gradually became disillusioned with the revolution. He writes that at the age of 9, he had turned into a "fanatic" but hid it from his father, a university professor, who was opposed to his son’s consuming interest in Islam.
Then Hejazi describes the taking away of personal liberties that began only months after the success of the revolution: the ban on music, makeup, Western literature, painting human figures (especially of women), alcoholic beverages, and cologne and perfume, and the enforcement of the hijab. He became a doctor but found it difficult to practise; the system prevented him from delivering his services to the poor.
Then, during the time of the reformist Iranian president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Hejazi followed his dream and established a publishing house in Tehran. But Khatami’s reforms were superficial, and he was incapable of delivering on his promises of freedom.
After Khatami, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all the positive changes vanished, the dictatorship deepened and Hejazi found it close to impossible to publish books. When he witnessed Neda’s death, his disillusionment was complete, so he escaped Iran.
The first time Neda’s name is mentioned in the book after the prologue is on page 213, so the reader has to keep in mind that The Gaze of the Gazelle is not about Neda but is rather the history of a country caught in one of the worst dictatorships of all time, where the greed and the thirst for power of a few in the name of religion has taken far too many lives, of whom Neda is only one example.
Marina Nemat was born in Tehran in 1965 and spent two years in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. She is the bestselling author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran, and lives in the suburbs of Toronto.