Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi are acknowledged poets both in their home country Iran and internationally. They form part of the literary movement, the Post-modern Ghazal, which is seen as the most radical poetic movement in contemporary Iran. Lately however, they have gained massive attention worldwide for the inhumane sentences that the Iranian court has imposed on them for reasons we see as basic human rights.
In October 2015, a Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Ekhtesari and Mousavi to respectively 11 years and 6 months and 99 lashes, and 9 years and 99 lashes, on charges of “insulting the sacred” and “spreading propaganda about the state” in the social criticism expressed in their poetry.
Their flogging sentences were a result of the charge of “illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery.” In Iran, it is illegal to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your immediate kin or spouse. Their sexual charges are based on shaking hands, kiss in greeting and sitting near opposite sex person.
One of the objections by the IRGC interrogators of both Mousavi and Ekhtesari, was that their poems were used by exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, who has been accused of apostasy by hard-liners in Iran over a song they deemed heretical. In the eyes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp’s interrogators, anyone who cooperates with an individual accused of 'insulting sanctities' is also 'insulting sanctities.'
Their sentences were appealed, but Ekhtesari and Mousavi chose to leave the country on 8th December 2015. As they were without legal travel documents, they left the country illegally, partly on foot, and has been living in Turkey as refugees until ICORN and the city of Lillehammer were able to relocate them to Norway in January, where they are granted permanent residence.
“I know we are safe here and can enjoy our freedom after so long, says Fatheme Ekhtesari, and continues: “I believe this is a new beginning. I feel like I was born again and my wounds remind me that I am still alive and passionate to continue my poetic life.”
Programme Director in ICORN, ELISABETH Dyvik, who has worked intensively with their case, says:
We are excited and grateful that they are now safely arrived in Lillehammer. Fatemeh and Mehdi’s trial has been of great concern to human rights organisations and individuals around the world. Their court case drew a lot of international attention, especially because they were sentenced to lashing, a cruel and inhumane practice. We would like to thank all organisations and individuals who have assisted them, both with advocacy and other support, and who have got in touch with us trying to find a safe place for them. Temporary or other relocation proved very difficult because Iranian authorities had confiscated their passports, and they had no international travel documents. We look very much forward to working with them.
Ekhtesari and Mousavi already met with the Mayor of Lillehammer, Espen Granberg Johnsen, who says:
“Lillehammer has a long literary tradition, and the region’s two Nobe Prize winners, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Sigrid Undset, were front-runners internationally for the right to freedom of expression. We are proud to welcome the ICORN writers, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, in Lillehammer, and will give them the protection needed as well as facilitate for their professional opportunities and activities during their stay. I had the pleasure to meet them already, and they will be an enrichment to our local community. I would like to commend the great work of our partners in this affiliation as city of refuge; the Nansen School and Peace Centre, Lillehammer University College, the Norwegian Festival of Literature and Lillehammer Museums.”
Mehdi Mousavi is a prolific poet and cultural activist. Between 1999 and 2013, he published more than 10 collections of poetry in various publishing houses, both in Iran and abroad. Two collections of poems entitled Suddenly and Beeping for the Sheep were denied permission for publication by the authorities. Many more of his poems denied publication were published online.
Mousavi is known as the leading figure of the ‘Post-modern Ghazal’, which is known for its rejection of conformist religious and ideological dogma. By reflecting on contemporary social and political issues in Iran, they challenge the form and content of the Ghazal, traditionally known for invoking melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions.
Most of the works by this movement has faced severe censorship by the Iranian officials, and almost all of these works were banned in Iran, and have therefore been distributed underground. Together with Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mousevi ran the post-modern magazine Hamin farad bood (It was the Very Tomorrow) until it was banned by the Iranian authorities in 2008.
As a driving force for Ghazal, for more than 16 years, Mousavi has run creative writing workshops where he has been teaching writing of poetry, short-stories and novels. Banned from meeting in public, they would often meet in people’s homes. The gatherings drew between 20-150 writers, artists and intellectuals who would discuss their work, literature in general, fine arts, film, philosophy and politics. The workshops were regularly shut down by the Iranian authorities, who placed Mousavi and several of his peers under surveillance.
Mehdi Mousavi also holds a PhD in Pharmacy, and owned and ran his own pharmacy in Elam, Iran, from 2012-2015.
Fatemeh Ekhtesari, who is also a midwife, has won numerous awards for her writing, including Jaleh Esfahani Prize at a poetry festival in London in 2013, and the Khorshid Prize in 2012, awarded to female Iranian poets.
She studied and worked with Mehdi Mousavi and served as editor of the magazine, Hamin farad bood for three years until it was banned. She has published three collections of poetry in Iran: Feminist discussions before cooking potatoes, Crying over a box of eggs (in an underground publication), and Beside the side-track. Owing to ongoing censorship of her work, Ekhtesari has turned to publishing her poetry on her blog and Facebook page where she has 7,000 followers.
In her work as a poet and a women’s rights activist, Ekhtesari, typically explores womens issues, among them gender discrimination and domestic violence, and have published several articles about related topics. Trained in media production, she has also made 2 short documentary films (Still and The ways). Though the main subjects of her poems are social issues and human concerns, she also use different styles such as formic and romantic.
In 2013, Ekhtesari formed part of the Resistance At My Writing Desk literary exchange through which six poets from Iran and six poets from Sweden together translated the Persian poets’ work to Swedish.
Filling the gap
When publishing Feminist discussions before cooking potatoes in 2011, Ekhtesari removed certain words from her book to avoid censorship by the Iranian authorities. After printing, she filled the missing words in by hand. The Iranian authorities banned distribution of the book, and seized those copies of it that were available at bookshops and the Teheran International Book Fair. Ekhtesari was taken into custody, interrogated, and kept in detention for seven days.
The same year, Mousavi published a collection of poetry. Its distribution was banned and all copies were rounded up from Tehran’s international book fair. He was arrested at his home and detained by Iran’s intelligence services. During his seven days’ detention, he reports being interrogated about his poems and his support for the green movement in Iran.
Poetry for change and its consequences
The censorship, surveillance and detentions continued years ahead. Mousevi and Ekhtesari have fought for their and other writers’ right to free expression, and also, with terrible consequences, upheld the right to free assembly. The couple has been subjected to surveillance and confiscation of work, travel bans, detention in solitary confinement in the Evin prison, interrogations, physical and mental torture, and insecure living conditions ever since fleeing the country.
They will continue their work from their residency in Lillehammer and will participate in the Norwegian Festival of Literature in May. Fatemeh Ekhtesari is currently working on another project about individuals who have to cross the border illegally to seek asylum.
Campaigns and media coverage
Mehdi Mousavi and Fatemeh Ekhtesari's case have been covered by international media and numerous human rights and writers' organisations. Here is some of the coverage:
The New York Times November 2015
Chicago Tribune January 2016
The Guardian November 2015
Buzzfeed January 2016
Iran Human Rights
Lillehammer City of Refuge
The Norwegian city of Lillehammer has been a member of ICORN and hosted persecuted writers and artists since 2008. The official member and managing institution of the ICORN programme is the Municipality of Lillehammer, partnered with the Norwegian Festival of Literature, Lillehammer House of Literature, Lillehammer library, The Nansen Humanistic Academy, Lillehammer University College, Bjerkebæk and Aulestad – the homes of The Nobel Prize in Literature winners Sigrid Undset and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
Since 2008, Lillehammer have hosted three writers, Prudence Uriri, Hai Bah Huyn, and Nama Jafari, and recently welcomed Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi.
Lillehammer will host this year’s joint ICORN Network Meeting and PEN International’s WiPC conference 30 May to 2 July.
The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) offers temporary, long-term safe residencies to writers, journalists and artists at risk, so they can continue their work without fear of persecution. By 2017, more than 60 cities had joined the network, to host writers and artists who face threats and persecution. The Cities of Refuge are located across Europe, the United States, Canada and Latin America, and will expand towards South Africa, Australia and Asia in the coming years.