Niloufar Bayani was a friend of mine during my undergraduate days at McGill. After graduation, though, life took us in different directions and I haven’t spoken to Nilou in years. But then again, almost no one has spoken to Nilou recently.
Few people have been in contact with Nilou recently because she’s in jail. That is a very strange thought. Most of us know people we think might one day end up in jail, people who seem just a little sketchy, shady, or too willing to flout the rules. Nilou was not one of those people. She was an honest person and her particular brand of smarts, work ethic, and charisma made me think that she was going to be successful at life. After university, I heard through the grapevine that Nilou went to work on environmental conservation for the United Nations, first in Montreal and then in Geneva. But a few years ago she gave up that career trajectory to move to Tehran and work for a small, local wildlife conservation organization.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about Nilou, and yet is probably the single most important factor determining the trajectory of her life right now, is that she is Iranian. She grew up in Iran and travelled and lived in Canada on an Iranian passport.
Nilou did not shy away from her Iranian heritage. She loved Iran, and was frequently put in the regrettable (now that I look back on it) position of defending her home country. For those of us who grew up in the Western bubble, the Iran we know through the media seems like a dangerous, repressive place. Nilou was always quick to defend, to tell us that our perceptions were off and that the actual situation in Iran was quite different from the narrative we were exposed to. In particular, I distinctly remember her describing how the political and judicial systems were much fairer and more lawful than we understood them to be. She had a particular fondness for Tehran, and obviously loved and missed her city. She would tell us what she liked to eat, where she liked to go, what sites there were to see. I remember stories about hiking and skiing in the mountains around Tehran. That’s why I think Nilou went back - to give something back to the place she loved.
Nilou’s imprisonment is not a secret, it’s been covered by the mainstream media and the academic media. Essentially, the research she was conducting involved camera-trap monitoring of endangered animals and aroused the suspicions of the Revolutionary Guard, who thought her conservation organization might be a front for spies. She and her coworkers were arrested, and the head of the organization (a Canadian, not that it matters) died in custody, which absolutely terrifies me. The details about Nilou’s situation that trickle out are similarly terrifying: blindfolds, solitary confinement, chemical torture, top-secret trials, etc… But what angers and saddens me the most is the thought of my friend, with all her joyful charm and grace, imprisoned alone, unjustly and without recourse, and how that fits perfectly into the repressive, sadistic, paranoid caricature of her country that we know so well in the west. The caricature she would have argued so strongly against just a few years ago.
Nilou’s secret, but reportedly unfair, trial is over, but as far as I know the judge has yet to hand down a verdict. I hope that, at this late hour, maybe the Iran that Nilou so fondly told me about can finally shine through, and wisdom and justice can prevail. Maybe I’m naïve, but I want Iran to prove Nilou right.
Almost all the pictures in this post came from Nilou’s own camera. I don’t know who took them. The picture of Nilou with a baby goat was taken by our mutual friend Kim Sancton and is used with permission.