Updated: Dec 7, 2022
By Tom Squitieri:
Editor's Note: An ongoing series of protests and civil unrest against the government of Iran began in Tehran on September 16, 2022, as a reaction to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, murdered while in captivity by Iran's Morality Police; she had been detained for allegedly failing to wear her veil according to the Islamic Republic's strict dress code.
Demonstrations and profiles of courage have spread throughout the nation and abroad. Iranian security forces have killed over 500 people in its crackdown on the protests, the Iranian Human Rights group said recently. Over the weekend, some Iranian authorities said the Morality Police would be disbanded. Iranians are waiting to see if that will occur and what will come next—as they have been for decades.
Four of them approached us. Young women in their late 20s or early 30s. Forthright but calm, with intense eyes unrestrained by subdued vibes. Right up to my colleague and I they came as we stood in the lobby of our hotel discussing plans to walk through the streets of Kermanshah, Iran.
It was 1991, just weeks after the U.S.-led military action to repel Iraq from Kuwait had begun.
Could we sit and speak with them, they asked politely. Perhaps have tea. It is the only chance they get to speak with foreigners, they said. Word had spread there were new arrivals at the hotel, and they came over to take their chances, they said.
As protests sear Iran decades later, I recall this first experience with such Iranian bravery. Profiles in courage that I saw then, being duplicated and expanded now in daily protests throughout Iran for a wider world to see.
We said yes to their request. We found chairs in the lobby properly spaced, a low table for the tea we ordered, and for the next hour we chatted and answered their questions. In turn, we asked for their takes on Iran’s relations with the world, their futures, what they think of everything that came into our minds.
They told us their thoughts without hesitation or padding—the good, the warts, but even more so the curious, the puzzlements, and the “what-ifs.”
One pot of delicious tea was followed by a second. They wondered if we had any cigarettes to share. We did, and we did.
They were happy to learn that we were journalists.
The conversation quickly moved from chit chat to why we were there, what was happening in neighboring Iraq and beyond, the news about Britain (directed to my English colleague, David) and America (to me).
They asked about our families. David was married with three children and spoke Farsi, which delighted them. I was single and thus one said with a smile, “So we got the best of both.”
When I mentioned I had been reporting on a story from Los Angeles, one sighed and cooed about Hollywood, asking me to describe it in detail. They all hoped to go there one day. They peppered David about what London was “really like.”
As if by clockwork—of course they knew—the conversation and questions stopped as an hour approached. Quietly, they said it was “time to end.” The minders in the lobby who had been watching with fierce eyes and straining visages while failing to actually eavesdrop seemed even more perturbed.
Quickly, each of the four produced a 1-inch by 1 1/2-inch headshot to give us, their names written on the back. We returned the gesture.
As we were saying goodbyes, David casually asked them what they would be doing the rest of the day. “Oh, we will be beaten for talking to you,” one said matter-of-factly.
David and I were speechless. They gave us quiet smiles, a twinkle sparkled in their eyes as they proclaimed the wish to see us again "sometime in the future," and bade goodbye. “Don’t forget about us,” one said. They strode out of the hotel with nary a glance at the gargoyle palookas eager to be unleashed.
We sat there, stunned, honored, and distraught.
I have regularly scoured search engines for updates or news of them. Nothing. “Your search for (name) did not match any documents” is the most common return.
They would be near my age now— if they are still alive.
Yet, I look for their young, beautiful, intelligent, determined faces in any clip of Iran I can muster—and I do “see” them daily in the profiles of courage shown viscerally by today’s women and men in Iran. It is their murders, their beatings and rapes, imprisonment and torture they are enduring that is the rocket fuel leading today’s brave protests.
I still remember their voices and smiles, their eyes locked on me as we spoke and as they left, even as I have forgotten many other things. They had a beauty in their determination and in their truths.
“Don’t forget about us,” they said. I never have. As if I could or would.
Tom Squitieri is a three-time winner of the Overseas Press Club and White House Correspondents’ Association awards for work as a war correspondent.