Q&A with Nazila Fathi, Writer in Exile
Nazila Fathi covered politics from Iran for the New York Times for 15 years. But after the protests of 2009, when she realized her family might be in danger, she packed them up and got out. She talks to Laura Cameron about her new life in Toronto
You grew up in Tehran and reported from Iran for 15 years before you left in 2009. What was the turning point for you?
I had been writing about election protests throughout the spring, and in late June I received a letter from the government stating that journalists were no longer allowed to leave their offices. The government told us it was not responsible for our safety. I kept going out because I wanted to see the protests; then one of my sources called and said, “Don’t go out. They have identified you, and there are snipers working for the government who will shoot you.” A week later, my husband and I noticed a surveillance team outside our home.
You have two young children. That must have been terrifying. How did you get out of your apartment without being shot? We noticed the surveillance team would leave every night at midnight, so we booked a 5 a.m. flight and snuck out at 2 a.m.
What were your first few days here like? Sad. We left everything in our Tehran apartment, thinking that we would be back in a few weeks, but well over a year has passed.
Many of your sources remain anonymous because they fear retribution. Has anyone ever been threatened because of something you have written? Yes, some of my sources were arrested for talking to me, and they’re still in jail.
In one article you wrote for the Times, you said you were afraid you would develop “the exile syndrome” when you started reporting from Toronto. What exactly is that? When I was in Iran, my journalist friends and I always criticized reporters who were outside the country because they were cut off from the realities on the ground. I was worried that would happen to me, but fortunately people inside Iran have become so diligent about getting the news out. I have immersed myself in citizen journalism—people using cellphones to shoot videos, people blogging anonymously.
Do you worry about accuracy when relying on citizen reports? I double-check everything with my sources in Iran. People there care about getting the truth out.
Is Toronto becoming a hub for expat Iranians? Yes, a lot of educated, middle-class Iranians came over in the ’90s. When I arrived, I went on Facebook and realized many of my high school friends were in Toronto.
What’s the tenor of expat politics here? Iranians in Toronto are much more sophisticated politically; activists here have been much more reasonable and politically neutral. There’s a group of university students who biked from Toronto to a protest in New York last year and wore T‑shirts that said “Cycling for Human Rights in Iran.” They made human rights the centrepiece of their activism without attaching themselves to any political leader or specific movement, which is very smart.
What do you think of Iranian culture in Toronto? It’s vibrant. The first time I took my six-year-old son to Yonge and Finch, he said, “Mommy, are we back in Iran?”
How do you feel about raising your children in Toronto? There’s no doubt that schools are better in Toronto than Iran, but keeping the kids connected to their Persian identity has been difficult. We constantly remind them to speak Farsi, because they easily switch to English.
Do you think you will ever go back? Don’t ask me that question. It’s my home. I have to go back. But the wave of people who left after the revolution in 1979 thought they would go back, too. Thirty years have passed, and they’re still in exile.