“Came like water, like wind I go” is a Sufi expression from Persian philosopher and poet Omar KhayyÃ¡m. For Aydin Matlabi, an award-winning Canadian photographer of Iranian descent, it symbolizes the time he spent in Iran during the tumultuous 2009 presidential elections. What was initially supposed to be a photography trip for his master’s thesis at Concordia turned into violent protests, jail time and expulsion from Iran.
Matlabi recounted what he went through in his second home and how the pictures he took came to become the exhibit currently shown at Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts Gallery.
How did this photography project start?
Initially, I was going to Iran for my master’s thesis on promiscuity in the Islamic faith, during the summer of 2009. I went there thinking that because it was the elections, it would be calm and people would be more open-minded.
But that’s when it all built up. I was in the city of Mashhad in the northern part of Iran and I wanted to see the election movement, a week before elections. Right away I saw the crackdowns. Bikers with batons beating whoever dared to wear green bracelets [representing the opposition party] or who dared defy Ahmadinejad . It was really brutal and I didn’t expect that. It had been so peaceful at first.
What was the atmosphere like in the streets?
There were millions of people in the streets, all together. For once, there was one voice in Iran. Young people, elders, even mullahs were cheering! Then it turned into a violent conversation between those who disagreed over the elections. But that’s freedomÂ of speech in Iran: it’s brutal, but you get to speak. People didn’t care so much about the violence because they were going to vote, they were so excited.
What happened when the situation started to deteriorate?
The Basij, who are like the Islamic police, came at me with knives so I would stop; they didn’t want me to be there. The people in the demonstrations saw that and protected me. If it wasn’t for them, I would have been long gone. Their bravery is something I never want to forget.
What made you stay there amongst the violence?
It was a romantic notion of being a hero. I truly believed that this was going to be a change, that there was no way the government would crack down harshly on its own people. But I was a fool. There’s a reason why it’s called a dictatorship.
I thought I could document a moment of history like the Berlin Wall. I genuinely believed that at the time. But peace fingers are just peace fingers, you can still get shot.
The only reason I survived was pure luck and because other people sacrificed themselves for me. I didn’t want to give up, until I was “politely” asked to leave by the government and didn’t really have a choice but to leave.
How exactly were you “politely” sent out of Iran?
The last day of the protests, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech saying that anybody in the streets would be seen as a criminal. People didn’t think he would dare do anything. So the next day I got into a cab with two friends to join the demonstrations.
When we got there, every corner had hooded hoodlums waiting to attack us. The cab driver didn’t want to go further, he was really scared. So we opened the door, the guys came at us and we rushed into the crowd. Eventually they dragged us out and handcuffed us.
I was lucky. I had a photocopy of my Canadian passport in my pocket. They were worried about that, but I still went to prison.
What happened to you in prison?
They can physically destroy you and rip you apart emotionally. I spent two nights and three days there.
They put you in a situation where you get to see what they do to others. Then you expect it to happen to you. I was blindfolded, had no idea where I was. There were people laying on the middle of a table, and that’s where theyâ€¦ did stuff.
The second night, I just wanted them to get it over with. That’s the worst part, you just want to get it over with.
Then they came to get me, blindfolded me again and I thought: okay, this is it. But then they brought me somewhere else, dumped me in the middle of the road with my bag. They gave me a paper in Farsi that said I had 48 hours to get out of the country or I’d have to show up in court and be sentenced as a spy.
How did it feel to come home after that?
When I came back I was really depressed. I had no idea what was going on with my friends and colleagues in Iran.
I was being approached by magazines who wanted to publish my pictures, but I didn’t even care, I didn’t want to do that. Even World Press Photo approached me to participate in the competition. It frustrated me because I didn’t want my work to be photojournalistic.
I wanted my pictures to be a part of history, I didn’t want them to disappear. Now look, it’s been two years and these pictures are being shown again in art galleries.
How do you hope people will react when they see your photo exhibition?
If people could â€” even just for a second â€” have goose bumps from being there, that’d be it. I wanted to bring back a moment of history.
Right now what’s happening in the Middle East is brutal. But I’m happy it’s happening because eventually it’s going to reach Iran too.
There’s a really sad saying that goes like this: a revolution is not a revolution if it fails. The Iranian revolution failed in 2009 but I’m not going to forget it, because it’s going to happen again. I’m going to make sure no one forgets it.
Came Like Water, Like Wind I go runs at FOFA from April 4 to 29. The vernissage is April 6, from 5 to 8 p.m.