The genius of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi was, as Norman Geras observed, to use ‘common experience to illuminate the experience of the Nazi universe of death, and vice versa’.
Take the experience of shame. In If This is a Man, Levi recounted the hanging of a prisoner who had been involved in the blowing up of the crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As the prisoners are forced into the roll-call square for the ‘ruthless ceremony’ the ‘thick barrier of inertia and submission’ is broken by the cry of the doomed man: ‘Comrades, I am the last one!’
I wish I could say that from the midst of us, an abject flock, a voice rose, a murmur, a sign of assent. But nothing happened. We remained standing, bent and grey, our heads dropped. (…) At the foot of the gallows, the SS watch us pass with indifferent eyes: their work is finished, and well finished. (…) Alberto and I went back to the hut, and we could not look each other in the face … we are broken and conquered … we are oppressed by shame.’
The touch of unremediable violence, and the invitation to feel broken and conquered, was felt in extremis by the Iranian writers and human rights activists Ladan and Roya Boroumand. In 1991 their social democrat father who was a leader of the National Movement of the Iranian Resistance was stabbed to death in his Paris apartment presumably by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Years later, Ladan reflected:‘The moment the crime is committed there is an eclipse of humanity. The moment is transient but, paradoxically, those framing the unspeakable become eternal. There is nothing you can do. It is done. The day after I did not want to wake up and if I had the strength to put an end to my life I would have done it. The shame of living after that day was very strong. One does not believe in life anymore.’
But to render one experience clearer by casting it in the light of another is never to make them the same experience. Levi’s genius was also to refuse the facile idea that modern societies are just like the Nazi universe of death. He hated the ‘Fiat = Auschwitz’ graffiti that appeared in Turin in the 1960s, pointing out to the students that, for one thing, unlike Auschwitz, you could leave Fiat at the end of the day. And crucially, unlike in the camp, you could organise.
And the genius of Ladan and Roya Boroumand has been to organise. Refusing to be conquered and broken, the sisters looked each other in the eye and created The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran (Omid), an online human rights memory project and resource. Omid, said Ladan, was ‘our way to remedy the irremediable. Evil consists in the eclipse of humanity, but at Omid we acknowledge each victim’s humanity and create a space for empathy.’
And now the Foundation is crying out about a wave of repression in Iran. Earlier this month Ya’qub Mehrnahad, a 28-year-old Baluchi journalist, human rights and cultural activist, who criticised the Iranian government’s treatment of Baluchi people, was executed alongside another Baluchi man named Abdul Nasser. The execution of Iranian teacher trade unionist Farzad Kamangar, tortured while in detention and denied medical treatment, can still be stopped say Education International. Sousan Razani and Shiva Kheirabadi have been sentenced to jail terms and whipping for the ‘crime’ of having participated in a May Day demonstration this year. The trade union solidarity site Labourstart is telling us that Sousan has been ordered to receive nine months in prison and 70 lashes.
But where is the murmur of protest from the west? Are we too an abject flock? The eyes of the world are fixed on the nuclear diplomacy but away from our gaze the hangings and jailings and lashings go on.
And there is something shameful about this inattention. We care about what happens ‘in our name’ and by our governments, quite rightly. We are sceptical about intervention, understandably. We all know the Bush jokes. But then what? Is our outrage all used up by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Where is our murmur of assent to Sousan Razani and Shiva Kheirabadi?
There is a way we can look each other in the face. Boroumand again: ‘We must acknowledge the problems of ‘interventions’ from above (…) we human rights advocates and democrats should think of ways of organising at the level of international civil society to make us independent of the short-term political agendas of governments. We should organise a vast network of solidarity that could provide moral support, even material support to people struggling for democracy.
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