In his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," the French philosopher Albert Camus depicted suicide as an abdication of one's responsibility to confront the absurdities, disappointments and frustrations that accompany human existence. Our inherent freedom, Camus believed, confronts us continually with the question of whether life is worth living. To answer in the negative is to reject that freedom.
What, then, are we to make of those who commit suicide in the name of freedom? I do not, of course, include suicide bombers in this category, since their purpose is to kill others in a method of murder which necessitates their own death. I am thinking of those who take only their own lives as a political act.
I am thinking of such individuals as Jan Palach, the Prague student who, in 1969, set fire to himself in public to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia that crushed a brief flourish of political freedom the year before. I am thinking, too, of Szmuel Zygielbojm, an exiled Polish Jewish activist who, in protest at Allied indifference to the Holocaust, gassed himself in his dingy London flat in 1943. More recently, and far more obviously, there is the example of the young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation has entered the popular imagination as the trigger for the current revolutionary upheavals across the Arab world.
And then there is the subject of this article, an Iranian intellectual who chose suicide on April 29 by throwing himself from the balcony of his Tehran apartment. His name, well-known to those who follow the struggle for human rights in Iran, but with nowhere near the mass recognition of a Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, was Siamak Pourzand.
Unlike the three previous examples I gave of political suicide, in which those who died were either young (Palach was 20, Bouazizi was 26) or in middle age (Zygielbojm was 48) the 80-year-old Pourzand was clearly in his final years. A prominent journalist and critic before the Islamist seizure of power in 1979, he had endured more than three decades of vicious harassment at the hands of the regime, including kidnapping by the security police and several years in the regime's notorious Evin Prison, an incarceration that catastrophically impacted his personal health. Somehow, he managed to evade the sentence of execution that is imposed with gruesome regularity -- three hundred in the last year alone -- upon the regime's domestic opponents.
After all that suffering, why did Pourzand, one of Iran's great men of letters, a one-time contributor to the prestigious French journal of film criticism, Cahiers du Cinema, pass the death sentence on himself? We will never know the answer, although we can glimpse the tortured thoughts swirling through his head in this achingly beautiful tribute by his daughter, Azadeh:
I heard you grabbed onto the edge of the balcony for a second before finally letting go. Is it because you were regretting having jumped down the balcony? Or is it because for a second, you thought you heard me knocking on the door? The thought of you holding on to the edge of that balcony for a second before you let death take over is killing me, like a sharp thorn it is penetrating my eyes.
I miss you so much, Dad. I have been missing you for years. But, at least I could pick up the phone and hear your voice every day. But now what? Who is going to call me and leave those silly and funny messages for me every day? Who? Are you really gone? I cannot believe it. Did this really happen? Did you really throw yourself off that window? What went through your mind when you threw yourself off the 6th floor and floated in the air until that damn moment when you let the earth kiss your head? Did you think of us? Did you send me a goodbye kiss? I think I felt something on my cheek some time that night. Was it you? Was it? Tell me it was.
In an earlier passage, Azadeh declared:
I don't blame you, not even for one second. You had all the rights to seek freedom this way. Just know that the thought of your shattered head on that ground, your beautiful smile and all the things you have ever told me are both making me stay strong and die a hard death every second right now.
There's that word: freedom. The only thing we can know with certainty is that Pourzand chose to end his life. So was this desperate act of an elderly defeated man who could take no more? Or will Siamak Pourzand be remembered as Iran's own Jan Palach: a man who committed suicide not during the first hopeful flushes of democratic protest in 2009, but, in the manner of his Czech counterpart, two years later, when the deadly weight of Iran's regime seemed immovable, yet was eventually overturned?
As Albert Camus might have argued, the resolution of that dilemma lies in the realm of human freedom. Specifically, in the Iranian people again finding the strength and confidence to overcome the fear that the regime, in order to maintain power, methodically engineers throughout their society.
I am not naive enough to believe that international solidarity alone will spur the Iranians to renewed action. At the same time, the knowledge that ordinary people around the world identified with them was, as Vaclav Havel and others have testified, an enormous boost to the Czech dissidents who carried Jan Palach's legacy. Siamak Pourzand's inheritors are no less worthy.
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