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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — None of us like to be fooled, not least when we end up passing on the wrong impression to thousands of readers.
So I want to set the record straight today about a story I wrote last November about the most tragic figure to have emerged from the summer’s post-election unrest in Iran: Neda Agha Soltan. Neda’s death by gunshot during last June’s protests was caught on cellphone video, instantaneously turning her into an icon. Though I stand by the facts in my story, in view of recent events I need to point out some grave flaws in the conduct of my main source, Neda’s self-styled fiance.
Caspian Makan escaped Iran for Turkey in November, where he gave me his first interview. When I came face-to-face with him, it took me a few seconds to recognize the strained, white-haired man before me as someone I already knew.
I recalled him as a drifting man in his late 30s whom a common friend had asked me to help out. He claimed to be a photographer but none of my photographer friends — whether news or artistic — knew him. When I met him, his high-handed manner and tendency towards self-absorption were not endearing so I kept my distance. Months after our meeting, I received several emails from him containing unremarkable touristy snaps he had taken of a Dervish spectacle in Turkey. Without even perfunctory politeness, he demanded that I place them in “the Western press.”
Now we met again under very different circumstances. Makan had just been carried over the Turkish-Iranian border by a Kurdish smuggling ring and was facing an uncertain future. Trembling with emotion, he described the horrific experiences he was subjected to: days and
nights spent locked in a shack in the unsavory company of Afghan refugees, then more days spent in a rough Kurdish village following a crossing facilitated by some of the most uncouth people he said he had ever encountered. So disgusted had he been by the poor food afforded
him that he demanded the smugglers release him. Relenting, they took him to a slightly better house.
As he toiled in an affected voice through the recollection of his “ordeal,” I could only wonder at the impression this effete urbanite must have made upon his smugglers, rough people for sure who put their lives in daily danger, exposing themselves to the bullets of the Revolutionary Guard that patrols Iran’s borders.
A few months later I received my answer. Women’s activist Aida Saadat had escaped over the same route and described the smugglers’ disgust with Makan and their warning to her that if she was going to indulge in such tantrums, they would leave her in Iran.
Safe in Ankara, Makan described in great detail the “terrifying” terrain he had to cross and how, once in Turkey, he stumbled into the middle of a warzone between the Kurds and the Turkish government. But he was given away when he opened his luggage to discover to his great
consternation that smugglers had stolen the two boxes of perfume he had bought in Tehran in case eau de cologne was expensive in Turkey.
Then I checked the security situation on the days Makan had been in southern Turkey and discovered that there had been no military operations in the area at the time of his crossing.
Makan launched into an account of Neda’s final days that was tragic and compelling. Unfortunately, it was also full of lies. The way he told it, Neda — a very politicized young woman — begged him to sally forward into the streets with his camera and document events. He dutifully did so, snapping extraordinary images of Revolutionary Guardsmen hanging off helicopters, mercilessly shooting into the demonstrators.
“Really?” I asked. “That’s funny, I never heard even a claim of helicopter-mounted snipers.”
“Yes, yes,” Makan assured me. “I would show you the evidence but the Islamic Republic confiscated all my archives.”
With Neda dead, Makan started giving interviews to international television channels, achieving the kind of international media profile he had always sought. Within a few days, he disappeared from public view. Neda’s family believed that he had gone off to Canada, though he
claims he was held in Evin Prison. Though this is very likely, his proven record of dissimulation and outright lying make me hesitant about accepting at face value any claims of his that are not
His position while in prison was particularly dangerous, he claimed, because of three actions he had done: Firstly, he converted from Shiite Islam to Zoroastrianism, an act the Islamic Republic punishes by death. Secondly, he spoke for an hour over a line he knew must be
bugged with “His Majesty Reza Pahlavi,” Iran’s controversial Crown Prince-in-exile.
“So why did you do it, if you knew they were listening to you?” I asked.
“The principle of the matter,” he answered, regarding me gravely.
And of course there were all those terribly damaging exclusive images he had snapped of helicopter-borne slaughter.
Not only was Makan not Neda’s fiance when she died, they were not even romantically linked anymore. Neda left him after a row they had and Caspian was allegedly seeing another girl, with whom he was spotted attending one of the post-election protest marches. This would explain his absence during Neda’s final moments.
And there were never any helicopter-mounted shooters.
Makan’s Narcissus complex is clear from the photographs of himself that he posts on Facebook, wearing elaborate suits and ties, driving a Mercedes, or Karate Kid-like in martial arts poses. When I asked him to sit in front of his unpacked suitcases for our interview (to visually convey his recent arrival from Iran and state of transit), he wrinkled his nose and demanded the BBC fly him to London “where I can wear a suit and we can do the interview properly in a studio.” When I told him that the cameraman was a local from Ankara and had not flown out from the U.K., he looked thunderstruck with disappointment.
As it was, the Islamic Republic put him through a few sessions of interrogation, realized he was a harmless self-promoter, and released him a few weeks later. Makan described his time in jail as so traumatic he often considered slitting his wrists, wrapping himself in a blanket and bleeding to death. Given that, by his own admission, the interrogators plied him with sweets and fruit, his reaction appears mildly exaggerated.
Once out of jail, he tried to go back to normal life but all his friends had abandoned him. As a landscape photographer, he had always depended on the Islamic Republic for commissions (the Ministry of Culture block-bought all 3,000 prints of his book of landscapes from the Caspian Sea, one of the regime’s method for rewarding docile artists). Now, he was out of favor and the Ministry of Culture did not return his calls.
So Makan escaped to Turkey. Luckily, he had a journalist friend already there who had been forced to flee Iran after he called her as Ministry of Intelligence agents were knocking on his door. A few days later, she lost both her jobs and, facing the threat of imprisonment, took the first plane out. Now in Ankara, she arranged a room for him where he could recover even though she was suffering from a stress-related illness which prompted irregular periods and loss of hair.
Rather than holding a grudge over how her association with him had caused her to lose everything, Makan’s friend remained loyal, ensuring that he was never alone in his time of need. Not only did Makan never apologize for turning her life upside down but — once safely out of Turkey — accused her of jumping on the Neda bandwagon to make a name for herself. She remains in Turkey, lacking Makan’s connections and awaiting for the U.N. process to come to its laborious conclusion.
In the refugee apartment in Ankara, the monolingual Makan had infuriated his flatmates by taking calls from foreign journalists, listening intently to what they had to say, then breathing out a pretentious “Of course, of course,” before passing the cellphone to his English-speaking friend and asking her to speak on his behalf.
Supported by a nephew in Canada with royalist links, who simultaneously appeared to be blackmailing him, Makan arrived in Canada. Now it was time for his greatest moment. Clutching a lock of Neda’s hair and a few pictures he snapped of her during their two-month acquaintance, he began a morbid international tour.
Last month he addressed a high-profile human rights forum in Geneva, alongside luminaries from China’s Uighur minority, North Korea, Cuba and Burma (perhaps he shuddered at having to sit alongside such uncouth, common people). Then he was off to Israel, to meet its Nobel prize-winning president, Shimon Peres. Even as the Western media hails him as an “outspoken human rights dissident,” Iranian civil rights activists who have sacrificed much since last summer feel outrage at how Makan hijacked their cause.
Still, Makan got what he wanted out of this sorry saga: political asylum in Canada and a purpose to life. Now, in interviews conducted inside gleaming TV studios, he looks smug as a bug in a rug in his brand new suit. Neda must be spinning in her grave.