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Iranian Cartoonist Flees 'Unimaginable' Conditions, Reflects On Life In Exile

Iranian cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani: "I could have stayed and remained totally silent or wait to be arrested and jailed at any moment."
Iranian cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani: "I could have stayed and remained totally silent or wait to be arrested and jailed at any moment."
Iranian cartoonist Kianoush Ramezani is among some 150 Iranian intellectuals, media workers, journalists, and bloggers who were forced to leave Iran following the postelection crackdown last year. According to Amnesty International, as many as 5,000 people were arrested in Iran following weeks of antigovernment demonstrations.

Ramezani is the founder of Iran's first Cartoonist Society and the president of the Cartoonist Society of Gilan. He spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari about why he fled his homeland and what it means to live in exile.

RFE/RL: Why did you leave Iran?

Kianoush Ramezani:
Following last year's presidential vote, because of the atmosphere that was created and also because my fellow citizens -- journalists, political activists, and those who were trying to raise awareness and spread information -- came under intense pressure and were repressed, the majority of those working in these areas were forced to leave the country.

A number of them were arrested. Some of them had to leave Iran illegally through Turkey and northern Iraq under [what were] sometimes very difficult conditions. Later, they were granted refugee status in other countries.

A few months after the vote, because I decided not to practice self-censorship, I started to draw political cartoons that reflected the postelection repression, in order to help the Iranian people and their protest movement. Because of the problems I was facing -- the arrest of my very close friends was an indirect threat against me -- I was forced to leave Iran. Since December, I've been in France, where I am seeking political asylum.

RFE/RL: Until recently, you lived in your own country, with your family and friends. You had your job. You were well-known. Now you've lost many of the things you could once take for granted. You're a refugee. You're living in a country that is not your own. How does it feel?

I was one of those Iranians who believe that they had to stay in their country to be effective and have an impact from inside the country.

Since 2006 -- because of the pressure I faced over of my work -- I could have asked for asylum. It wasn't my plan [to leave my country], but the postelection conditions were, and are still, so unimaginable .

[In Iran] I basically had two choices. I could have stayed and remained totally silent or wait to be arrested and jailed at any moment. I would have become a person who wouldn't have been able to be useful to society or the opposition movement. Between being sent to jail, remaining silent, and practicing self-censorship, or going into exile while enjoying freedom of expression and the right to work, I chose the [last] option.

Even though French people and rights organizations here treat Iranians with respect, this still is not my homeland. There are problems. There is always homesickness and nostalgia [and] the thought that I will not be able to see my country and Tehran for a long time. The thought of not being able to be with my family. I wasn't even able to see them and say goodbye because of the way I was forced to leave the country. These are all pains that one has to experience to understand what it means to be a refugee and why refugee status is usually associated with pain and sadness.

RFE/RL: I looked at some of your drawings and cartoons and didn't find anything about living in exile or the plight of refugees. Is that something that might be reflected in your future work?

Yes, because of the kind of crisis my country is facing, I've been focusing on the crackdown and repression of my people, and I haven't really focused on my own status as a refugee. But while searching through my work, I found a cartoon, which I sent you. I drew it after researching the life of a Romanian writer, Ion Luca Caragiele, who went into exile and passed away in [Berlin], far from his homeland. His life inspired me. The drawing, even though it is about a Romanian writer, can now represent the life of some Iranian refugees.

RFE/RL: If you had to make a cartoon or a drawing of a refugee or asylum seeker, what would it look like?

It would definitely be a person that has left a part of himself in his homeland. It would be definitely a person with a body or soul that is incomplete that is kept away from his homeland.

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