The Doctor Confesses: How A Spy Escaped Iran
By Stephen CrittendenSeptember 12, 2012
In the Iran of the Ayatollahs, he was a Jew, a writer, a doctor performing abortions, and eventually, reluctantly, a spy. No wonder he had to escape to write what he calls the start of his “atonement”.
Kooshyar Karimi, I Confess: Revelations in Exile (Wild Dingo Press). This memoir by Sydney-based Iranian-Jewish doctor Kooshyar Karimi may well turn out to be my book of the year. It is an extraordinarily vivid evocation of what it was like to grow up as a secret Jew in the Iran of the Ayatollahs, a world Karimi likens to George Orwell's 1984, where informers are everywhere and almost everyone is forced to lead a double life. Being Jewish in this world, he says, is to "feel like you are a canary in a room full of cats... It's very scary, you live in anxiety all the time".
Kooshyar Karimi: I Confess
Karimi didn't always know he was Jewish. This was a secret his mother revealed to him in a moment of crisis when he was a small boy, and it had an enormous effect on him, beginning a process of self-discovery he says shaped his whole personality.
Added to the burden of living as secret Jews under an Islamic totalitarian regime, is the extra burden of crushing poverty. At the centre of the story is Karimi's energetic and duplicitous mother, who grows up as an abused Cinderella figure before running away with a handsome Muslim bus-driver from Tehran.
Unfortunately, as she soon discovers, he already has two other wives, and when she becomes pregnant, he whisks her off to a dank basement in the slums where she is left to fend for herself and her children mostly on her own.
The resilience she needs to survive with two small sons is one of the book's great themes. Karimi has to work from a very young age, straightening nails for a cobbler, selling watermelon, repairing bikes. Mostly out of necessity, his mother carries on a relationship with another man while still married to her neglectful husband. Needless to say it's a dangerous thing for any woman in contemporary Iran to do, especially in the slums where everyone knows your business, and it makes her an extremely transgressive and interesting figure. Looking back, Karimi says he now realises something he didn't then: that for all her faults, her vanity, her egocentricity and duplicity, his mother is the reason the Jews have survived: "No Jew has ever dramatised that characteristic blend of resourcefulness and obstinacy better than my mother."
Karimi is an opponent of polygamy, and this book shows how it destroys lives. He carries the scars of a fire deliberately lit by one of his father's other wives when he and his brother were left in her care as tiny children. He writes that this kind of thing is commonplace in Iran: "Everyone knows, everyone shrugs, it's accepted as an added hazard of childhood."
A clever boy, he grows up to be a doctor, and this brings him into contact with an army of desperate, pregnant women and girls, many of whom have been raped. One of the many secrets he reveals in the book is that he carried out about 200 abortions in Iran, on many occasions sewing back the women's hymens to "repair their virginity".
These activities, together with a separate career as a writer, soon bring him to the attention of Iran's feared state security agency, the Tashkilat. It turns out that the Tashkilat knows all about his Judaism, and he is tortured (at one point he is given 50 lashes) and forced to work as a spy — informing on other Jews including his relatives — until he makes the decision to escape with his family to Turkey.
In 2000, Karimi was granted refugee status by the UNHCR and given a visa to resettle in Australia. He now lives in Sydney, working as a doctor on the NSW Central Coast. His book is dedicated to the memory of Habib Elghanian, the first Jew executed by the Islamic regime of Iran in 1979, "and so my atonement begins".
This wonderful, beautifully written "confession" took 11 years in the writing. Coming to Australia, Karimi says, "I lost my language skills. I felt like a painter without hands. I had the heart of the stories, but not the heart of the language." There is no doubt that he has now remastered those skills in English. Nor that Australia is in the midst of an outpouring of fine refugee literature.