Relief at the Release of Aras Amiri

Comma Press was overjoyed to hear last week's news that British Council worker Aras Amiri has finally been freed by the Iranian government and allowed to return to the UK. Below is a brief example of the work she was doing with Comma.

In late 2017 Comma Press was lucky enough to be approached by Visiting Arts to collaborate on a project it had been working on with other partners for a number of years involving Iranian fiction writers and translators. Using a network of Persian language writers, readers and translators facilitated by the British Council’s Iran arts programme, Visiting Arts planned to develop a set of resources for publishers and translators interested in Persian literature in the future. Visiting Arts also wanted to publish an anthology of short stories reflective of the rich and diverse state of contemporary Iranian literature, having gathered a shortlist of around 30 new, previously untranslated short stories and commissioned English language synopses of them. Comma felt extremely privileged to be involved in this work, and was keen to construct 'The Book of Tehran' out of the shortlist, to fit into its ongoing Reading the City translation series that had already featured cities as diverse as Havana, Khartoum and Gaza.

    As this was such a collective effort, various contributors were involved in the selection process, including the novelist Fereshteh Ahmadi, who had recently visited UK for a writers’ residency with the International Agatha Christie Festival in Devon (also supported by the British Council’s Iran arts programme), and Aras Amiri (an Iranian curator and arts consultant at the British Council) who had been instrumental in bringing all these partnerships together. Through a number of conference Skype calls, the various partners worked through the synopses and whittled the shortlist down to the ten stories that would make up the final collection. With the translation set in motion, Aras emailed Comma in March 2018 to say she was going away for a week but would catch up on her return.

    Nothing was then heard from Aras for a long while. Eventually, an employee of the British Council who happened to also be a former employee of Comma's, contacted us discretely to explain what had occurred and to ask that we didn’t talk to anyone about it. During her visit to Iran to see an ailing grandparent, Aras had been arrested - on the evening of her intended departure - and shortly after detained in Evin Prison (the same facility where Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being detained). It wasn't until over a year after her arrest (i.e. May 2019) that Aras’s sentence was confirmed, meaning until that point she had been imprisoned illeglly - by Iranian law - without having a confirmed sentence issued (just as was the case with many other political prisoners in Iran including, several  environmentalist prisoners and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself).

Contrary to widespread reports, Aras was not charged with spying for the UK (although this was deliberately announced, inaccurately, by the spokesperson for the Iranian judiciary and promptly taken up Western media). Aras was accused of ‘establishing and/or leading an illegal group against the Iranian regime’. She was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, with a simultaneous 12 years travel ban, and a ban on working in any Iranian governmental or public sector role.

   After the May 2019 charges, Aras formally appealed at an appeals court in August 2019, but this appeal was rejected. Aras was in her early thirties and halfway through studying for MA in the philosophy of art at Kingston University focusing on the works of Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno. Unlike Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Aras was not a dual national (the Iranian government doesn't really recognise dual-nationality and regards all British-Iranians as simply Iranian), but was rather an Iranian citizen with British residency. By working with the British Council, Aras was accused of promoting the UK’s soft power agenda, whereas in reality what Aras was doing was exactly the opposite: supporting the export of Iranian culture into the UK. As well as helping Comma, she had worked with the Edinburgh Festival, Womad, and other festivals, bringing musicians, writers, theatre producers, film makers, and visual artists from Iran and the Persian diaspora to UK audiences.
    Comma was told by its contact at the British Council to take all references to Aras off the eventual Book of Tehran, and it was with heavy hearts (as we couldn't talk about it publicly) that we launched the book in March 2019 at the Edinburgh Iranian Festival. We were not able to mention Aras’ name in the book, but Sophia Victoria and Yvette Vaughan Jones at VA agreed it should be dedicated to her cryptically: 'to a friend in Iran'.

    After more than three years in jail, months of scattered, indirect, heart-breaking communications, Comma finally heard privately on 15 August 2021 that Aras had been acquitted by the Supreme Court following an appeal lodged by her lawyer a year previously (she had been released from prison while this review took place from June 2021), but her travel ban remained in place. Then last week, just minutes before the news broke, we were told Aras was finally safe and sound in the UK. The British Council put out a statement a few hours after Aras' arrival, so Comma felt it was time to share the story also (with Aras' and VA's consent). This is what Aras did. She helped navigate us through the complex cultural and textual complexity of 30 beautifully written short stories - much as she would have helped other cultural organisations appreciate the nuances and value of other powerful and important pieces of art or performance.

     Thank you, Aras, for your work on The Book of Tehran, and on the countless other art projects you have helped come about, largely uncredited. We hope you can start to rebuild your work as a champion of all forms of artistic expression from Iran.