‘I dreamed I was executed by a firing squad in Iran’


Maryam Palizban. Photo by Yana Kaziulia, used with permission.

This story is part of a series called “Portraits of exile” that delves into the experiences of Iranian women in the diaspora as they pursue freedom and showcase their resilience. The story comes as a commemoration of the tragic passing of Mahsa Jina Amini, a Kurdish woman who was killed at the age of 22 at the hands of the morality police for not fully covering her hair. This incident ignited widespread protests in Iran, which persist to this day despite escalating government oppression.

Maryam Palizban and I were both students at Tehran University at the same time, yet our paths never crossed during those years. Our time there coincided with swiftly repressed student protests, reminiscent of the darker years following the 1979 revolution when many of our parents bore witness to the executions of their fellow classmates from the same university.

Maryam caught my attention in the movie “Deep Breath,” which achieved significant success as Iran's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2004. Beyond its accolades, “Deep Breath” symbolized our generation's relentless struggle to breathe life into a vacuum devoid of breathable air.

Years later, our paths crossed in Berlin. She had earned a PhD in theater studies from the Freie Universität in Berlin and was actively researching at academic centers in the city. She frequently traveled back and forth to Iran for her work as an actress.

Leaving Iran

Maryam, like many women who appear on camera in Iran, encountered significant constraints on her freedom, even beyond the country. Reflecting on her journey, she shared:

 Leaving Iran was never my desire. Despite my family's urging for me to study abroad, I felt deeply connected to my roots there. I was involved in a small theater group at university, and I had made strides in the cinema scene. However, a romantic relationship in Berlin made it difficult for me to stay in Iran. Neither my family nor the circumstances in Iran allowed us to be together freely.

I left Iran, but my primary focus remained on maintaining my ability to travel there regularly. All my research work centered around Iran, my family resided there, and I held deep affection for cinema, theater, and my colleagues there.

Maryam shared these sentiments during an interview with me after the anniversary of “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a milestone that profoundly impacted her life.

Living abroad, with “Deep Breath” gaining recognition at prestigious cinematic events, Maryam began receiving offers for roles outside Iran. However, she faced a dilemma: either accept work abroad and risk losing the chance to return, or conform to Iran’s standards for actresses. Ultimately, she opted for the latter path. Reflecting on her decision, she remarked, “It was a very complicated situation. I lived two parallel lives for years.”

Two parallel lives

When I met Maryam in Berlin, she grappled with balancing her two distinct lives in Iran and Germany. She was particularly cautious about being photographed without wearing a hijab, which was one of the main requirements for actresses in Iran.

At the same time, as a researcher attending conferences outside Iran, she remarked,  “While others were preparing their speeches, I worried about covering my hair or the possibility of someone taking a photo of the meeting and publishing it somewhere.”

However, the hijab wasn’t her only obstacle to freely living her professional life. Political issues also loomed large, dictating what could and couldn't be said. “Once, I gave a speech on the dramaturgy of Khomeini's funeral. Imagine, despite the article’s importance, all I could think about was ensuring it wasn’t published. Similarly, with my book on martyrdom performances in ta'ziyeh, a ritual dramatic art that recounts religious, historical, and mythical stories, I took steps to prevent its translation into Persian.”

Despite her precautions, upon returning to Iran, Maryam was often subjected to lengthy interrogations. “They say they want to interview you, but when you go there, it's an interrogation,” she explained. “After these ‘interviews,’ my colleagues would reassure me, saying, ‘It's normal; we all have them.’ You accept it as part of reality, telling yourself it's the price you pay for working on this soil.”

When I asked her if her life in the West triggered the interrogations, she replied: “Both that and as the number of ‘nos’ you say increases, the pressure intensifies. In many projects, I clearly know of the directors’ or producers’ affiliation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the source of their funding. You don't want to be involved in those works. This scrutiny puts you in the spotlight.”

The road to exile

Maryam's last trip to Iran, just before COVID-19, involved participating in a theater production. Despite a year of rehearsal, the production ended after only five nights. It faced challenges from the start due to the team's decision to boycott the government-sponsored Fajr festival, protesting the IRGC's downing of Flight PS752 in January 2020, which claimed 176 lives.

Back in Germany, Maryam still struggled with leading two parallel lives. “In Berlin, I was scheduled to speak about cultural politics,” she recounted. “Feeling the need to be authentic, I wrote an emotionally charged text on the difference between a cultural actor and a cultural agent. The night before the speech, a vivid dream of being executed by a firing squad led me to decide I couldn’t participate while wearing a head covering. I did not post it on social media and hid the photos afterwards,” Maryam recalled.

Reflecting on her experiences, Maryam said, “The process had become overwhelmingly complicated and painful.”

The defining moment of 2022

In 2022, the pivotal moment arrived with “Woman, Life, Freedom,” which served as the catalyst for Maryam's bold decision to appear without a hijab — not merely a personal choice but a significant political statement. She posted a photo on Instagram without a hijab, captioned, “Women, cinema, theater, culture, art, science, religion, Iran don't belong to you! We don't belong to you! Intimidation, threats, torture, murder…these are yours! We hate you!”

I asked her if she realized that her action marked the point of no return, jeopardizing her safety to visit Iran and work there as an actress, essentially marking the onset of her exile. She responded, “Yes.”

Then everything changed — Maryam's relationship with many of her colleagues in Iran underwent significant shifts. “A part of the community severed ties with me,” she reflected. Despite the later political involvement of some other actresses, their numbers remained insufficient. “If more actresses had posted images without hijab, the regime wouldn't have been able to pressure us this much,” Maryam said.

The volume of digital threats and attacks exceeded her expectations. Amidst all the pressure, she felt the need to redefine her relationship with Berlin, the city she had fondly lived in for so many years, as a place of exile.

Life as an exile

Nearly a year after the storm in Maryam Palizban's life, she likened this experience to a year-long battle that ultimately strengthened her resolve. Even in her lowest moments, she “never once regretted” her decision. “I feel closer to my true self now.”

She also shared with me the profound support that lifted her up when she felt herself teetering on the edge. “My partner and son provided invaluable support; they are my anchor here. But I soon realized that I needed more, so I sought professional psychological help.”

Finding solace within a new community of Iranian activists in Berlin, united by the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, Maryam also mended her trusting bonds with connections in Iran.

She expressed optimism, affirming that while change may not have reached every aspect of Iranian society, it undeniably and profoundly occurred. Maryam conveyed her belief that “something fundamental has shifted in 2022, marking a notable achievement.”

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