The story of Kazemi’s 2003 death in Iran, the ensuing Canada-Iran diplomatic fallout and the ongoing struggle for justice in the case, led by Kazemi’s son Stephan Hachemi, is relatively well known in Canada.
Kazemi was arrested for taking photographs at a student protest outside Evin Prison in Tehran, a major jail for political prisoners in Iran.
Students were protesting for political change in the country, highlighting issues such as freedom of the press, access to education and youth unemployment, and demanding the release of political prisoners. Protesters in Iran were facing serious state repression at the time; many were arrested without charge, often disappearing for days after being apprehended by state security forces.
Remembering the 2003 student protests in Iran is important because of the role they played in creating the political ground work for major protests against the presidential election in 2009, an election that many both inside and outside of Iran, including Amnesty International, criticize as undemocratic.
Visiting Iran at the time Kazemi was documenting the 2003 protests and was arrested on June, 23, 2003 after refusing to turn over camera films to prison security forces. On July 11, 2003, nineteen days after being arrested, Kazemi died in Iranian custody in Baghiyyatollah al-Azam Military Hospital after being severely beaten by Iranian police and intelligence forces.
Today, advocates for Kazemi, including Arshadi, continue to campaign for justice, working to hold the Iranian government responsible for her death.
Although often identified as a photojournalist in media reports, the details of Kazemi as an artist, working both in photography and film, has received much less focus in the mainstream press.
Over the past year, It Is Only Sound That Remains has been presented Montreal audiences, deepening popular understanding of Kazemi’s life beyond the headlines. Paying artistic tribute to Kazemi, the moving performance mixes live poetry, Iranian music and personal audio recordings taped by the late artist.
As an artist and community activist, Arshadi has been centrally involved in the Kazemi case on a political level, and through this artistic work she celebrates Kazemi’s life beyond the media coverage.
Arshadi has long explored issues relating to loss and exile, having arrived in Canada from Iran in 1983 as a political refugee, and has since developed various artistic projects involving photography, painting, sound and video.
This beautiful multidisciplinary work moves to illustrate Kazemi’s life and humanity not as a victim but as an Iranian artist, a mother and a Montrealer.
Named after a poem by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, It Is Only Sound That Remains mixes various elements together for a powerful portrait of a woman in struggle.
I had an opportunity to interview Arshadi at Bistro Araucaria café in Montreal.
Art Threat: It Is Only Sound that Remains explores the life of Ziba Kazemi, the Montreal photographer killed in Iran, a story you are very closely connected to. Can you describe the project and what inspired you to create the work?
Shahrzad Arshadi: It Is Only Sound that Remains is a play based only on sound, no images — a sound theatre piece. It’s a project inspired by old audio recordings Ziba left behind, including many recordings with her son, sounds of eating soup, of talking together. I heard these recordings first through Ziba’s son, Stephan, and after listening for the first time I immediately knew it would be great to work with this audio artistically.
Two very nice artists, Moe Clark and Caroline Kunzle, helped to develop It Is Only Sound the Remains. Kunzle encouraged me to work on a creative radio piece after I read a text on Ziba for a the Montreal Life Stories project.
I love the radio — it is a very important medium. First thing in morning I run to turn on my radio to listen to news on what is happening in the world, to hear new music. So the project is inspired, in ways, by my love of radio.
I started creating the project based on the old audio recordings and also included beautiful poetry from Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, a great woman artist who was very outspoken in Iran and died very young. Farrokhzad wrote a poem called It Is Only Sound that Remains.
In the performance Farrokhzad’s poetry is interpreted beautifully by Montreal poet Moe Clark.
Also the piece includes actors who read from Ziba’s diary and letters, while I also reflect on my relationship to Ziba through narration.
For readers who are not aware, can you highlight the important points of Ziba Kazemi’s story and also your relationship to Ziba’s story?
I first heard about Ziba on July 8, 2003. It was early morning. I opened the radio and the news was reporting that an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist was arrested in Iran and was in a coma at a military hospital in Iran. I was very shocked.
At the time I didn’t know Ziba but immediately started trying to figure out who was Zahra Kazemi. I was surprised that I didn’t know an Iranian photographer living in Montreal.
It was a very sad week, because again the news coming from Iran, a country I love so much, is often so horrible. So I started searching in Montreal for Zahra, asking friends who might know her and quickly I connected with a friend who knew Zahra, known to friends and family as Ziba.
At the time I was contacting many people and finally a friend writing at La Presse found Stephan, Ziba’s son. Eventually I helped Stephan interpret a conversation with Ziba’s mother in Iran, Stephan’s grandmother, connecting me directly with the story and the family.
As a human rights activist this case became very important for me. Every day I was learning more and more about Ziba’s story and I couldn’t put the story aside. It wouldn’t be a story of injustice that I would forget.
Ziba’s son generously began sharing Ziba’s personal documents and after reading these papers I became very connected emotionally. Reading the dairies was very touching.
At that time we started getting more details on Most media reports focused only on Ziba’s death in Iran, on being tortured, Ziba as a victim. I wanted to remember Ziba differently, to illustrate her life fully, the life of a very important woman, someone who became very important to me, someone who I wanted to remember thought art, through beauty.
How do you feel It Is Only Sound That Remains illustrates a fuller picture of Ziba Kazemi’s story?
Its difficult to present Ziba’s full character in one performance piece, but we present parts of Ziba’s life that are lost in the mainstream media reports.
Every time we perform the piece, we hold a discussion with the audience after the performance. The ideas and questions expressed by the audience are always very interesting and touching. Many people explained that the performance gave them another perspective on Ziba, another way of connecting to Ziba’s story. This was very important for me — it was almost a gift to know so many people were connecting more personally.
It Is Only Sound That Remains tries to illustrate Ziba as a woman who was beautiful, who was brave; as a mother struggling to raise a child in this world; as someone who had the courage to travel all the way to Palestine, to Israel, to African countries, to Iraq and Afghanistan during very dangerous periods. Ziba travelled to Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power and worked to document life in Afghanistan as a female photographer.
Also in Montreal there were many exhibitions showing Ziba’s photography both before and after Ziba’s death.
All these details on Ziba’s life are never talked about in the mainstream media coverage, all we hear about is that a photojournalist got killed, with no details on Ziba’s very full life. It Is Only Sound That Remains is focused on some small details of Ziba’s life and character, also the way that Ziba was a wonderful mother for Stephan, who is now doing so much to remember and fight for Ziba.
It Is Only Sound That Remains has been presented in Montreal, a city celebrated for being a centre for the arts. I’m wondering why it was important for you to present this artistic piece on Ziba in Montreal specifically?
Montreal is my city. I left my country Iran a long time ago and came to Montreal, a city that is now home in a way. I guess for Ziba, who left Iran eventually arriving in Montreal, it was the same thing in a way.
Montreal is a city with so many beautiful artists, so I felt It Is Only Sound that Remains would be a way to connect with the artistic spirit of Montreal, that people would understand and connect more with Ziba’s story through the arts.
Art is often a great way to connect and raise issues in Montreal.
Today in Canada, with a Conservative government that is moving to cut everything, including public funds for the arts, now it’s more and more important to express our progressive ideas through the arts.
Now It Is Only Sound that Remains involves multiple artists, relies heavily on sound and has no visuals. Can you reflect on the artistic process behind this work?
When starting to work on the project, I honestly didn’t have a clear idea as to what would come out of it. I was worried that the sound theatre concept wouldn’t interest people — how do you convince people to come to sit in a dark room, to sit and listen in the dark for over one hour? As the project developed, becoming more and more beautiful, I lost my fears.
The piece includes poetry, but there is also beautiful music by santur player Amir Amiri, and by Iranian musicians Ardalan Kamkar, who lives in Iran, and Sheida Gharachedaghi, who is now living in Montreal, a composer and pianist.
All these different elements mixed together, creating a work that is also collective and collaborative. The essence of the piece is Ziba Kazemi, who left all these old audio cassettes behind. Sometimes in the process I was wondering what Ziba was thinking when recording those audio cassettes, tapes that are now featuring in a performance.
Can you describe those cassettes that Kazemi was recording at home?
Ziba was turning on the cassette recorder when they were eating lunch at home. In one recording they are eating soup. You can hear the sound of the spoons, them talking when Stephan was a little boy, around four years old, asking for more soup, little details of life in sound.
It was very emotional for me to create this work, to listen and re-listen to all the recordings. Many times I cried when working on the sound for It Is Only Sound that Remains.
Also I think that the live aspect to the performance makes it more powerful. I narrate live, Moe Clark reads poetry live and there is also a live feeling to the way the audio recordings from Ziba are presented and mixed.
Although the audience doesn’t see us during the performance — we perform behind a black curtain — our stage becomes the entire space that is beautifully decorated with Iranian carpets and pillows where people can sit to listen.
After the first performance, I got hope in the idea that people could still listen. Today we are losing our ability to listen, with so many images bombarding us every day as the world becomes louder and louder all the time. It Is Only Sound that Remains proved to me that we can still listen.
Can you talk about challenges you faced communicating the story of Kazemi, given you both had very difficult relationships with Iran?
Yes, the relationship with Iran is very complicated. In exile we have different homes, both Montreal and Iran.
Ziba’s story speaks to the experiences of many other Iranian women, of Iranian refugees. I was also communicating or reflecting on my own story and feelings about Iran through telling Ziba’s story.
It Is Only Sound that Remains asks people to listen to Ziba’s story and it’s through that story someone can come to understand why we, as Iranians, are here in Canada, why we are living in exile.
Although all our stories are different they are also similar, all our lives are connected.
This performance was an opportunity to communicate to people, for people to listen to our stories as Iranian women. To listen to our stories not in pity but as courageous women, as artists, as activists. I do not want people to feel pity with our experiences, with Ziba’s experience, with my experience. I want people to feel solidarity.
I want people to understand these Iranian stories in the same way I feel people in Canada need to understand and address the injustices happening to First Nations people here on these lands.
Today we need to share our stories, to learn from each other, this was one of the main points of It Is Only sound that Remains.
All my art is about trying to bridge gaps between people, between cultures, about trying to encourage everyone to take responsibility for injustices taking place all around the world, in Iran and in Canada.
Listening to headlines about injustices, about Ziba Kazemi, is not enough. We need to act, we need to create responses to these injustices.
For more information on artist Shahrzad Arshadi and It is Only Sound that Remains visit shahrzadarshadi.com.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Stefan Christoff is a Montreal writer, community activist and musician who contributes to Art Threat. You can find Stefan on Twitter as Spirodon.