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How it All Began: The Story Behind Parvaz
Photograph by Mark Thiessen
In this transcribed interview, Reza, founder of AÏNA, talks about how he first started Parvaz magazine for Iranian kids as a teenager in Iran.
My interest in photography began when I was about 14 years old. Soon I realized it was more than just a hobby. It was something deeper; something that helped me communicate how I felt about the world.
In 1968, when I was 16, we moved from Tehran to a city called Bandar Abbas, a harbor in the south of Iran near the Persian Gulf. There were three high schools in the city at that time and none of them had a library. Coming from Tehran and being an avid reader from a very early age, this bothered me. So I decided to launch a library at my school. My plan was to write to all the parents, asking them to donate books from their homes. The administration at the high school loaned me a photocopying machinea manual one where you had to turn a lever to make a copyso I could prepare the letters. The letters went out, and the response was unbelievable. We got 600 books in one week. From having no library to having 600 books was fantastic. I started going to school in my spare time to get the library ready.
At the same time, I often went around the city taking pictures of different things. The environment was new for me. The scenery, the people, everything was different from Tehran. One day I went to the fish market, where small-time fishermen sold their catch in the streets. I was talking to them and taking pictures, and, like most people, they asked me why.
"I want to show people back home in Tehran who you are and how you live," I told them.
An old lady spoke up. "If you want to know how we live, let me tell you. We're living in very bad conditions."
"Why? What's wrong?" I asked.
She replied, "Because every time we make some money, the police come and demand bribes."
This was my first close-up look at social injustice. "Why?" I asked. "That's not right. You shouldn't give it to them."
She said, "If we don't give them the money, they won't even let us go to sea to catch fish or sell them here."
The incident impacted me deeply, and I kept thinking about it for the next few days. I wanted to do something about it. Finally, an idea came to me: Why don't I start a magazine? I already have a library. Why not start my own magazine? After all, I could take pictures and knew some people who could draw. I would write about this incident for my magazine. So I started thinking of a name for the magazine, and finally came up with Parvaz.
Parvaz means "to fly or soar." As a kid I loved to watch birds flying. But to me Parvaz also signified an opening of the mind, something that would allow kids to dream and let their minds soar. So I began my work, did all the writing, prepared about four pages, and made 50 copies on the school's old photocopy machine. Two weeks later, I very proudly I released Parvaz to the public, selling it for a very small amount of money.
One of the first reactions came from a teacher of mine, who said, "Reza, did you write this story?"
"Yes. What do you think of it?"
He seemed a little worried. "Well, I think you've written a very good story," he said. "But I don't know how the reaction will be."
"Whose reaction?" I asked. "All the students like it. You like it."
He said nothing.
Some days later I was sitting in class, looking out the window, and saw a big car drive up. Black car, new, very nice. The kind of thing we normally didn't see in a city like Bandar Abbas. Three extremely well-dressed men got out and went toward the school's administrative offices. A little later the door of our classroom opened and the three guys from the car walked in, along with the school's director. Usually the students looked up to the director and were afraid of him. But now he looked as though he had shrunk. He was pale and shaking. It was bizarre. He walked toward me and said to the men, "This is him." Everyone looked at me. I didn't know what was going on. One of the three men said "Thank you," to the director and then to me, "Could you please come with us?" I looked at the director, I looked at my teacher, both of them had their heads down. So I followed the three men to their car. When we got in, one of them asked, "You are the one who did the Parvaz magazine?" I thought, Wow, after only a couple of days everyone knows about Parvaz! Fantastic! I said, "Yes, it was me." They nodded, saying, "All right."
They took me into an office which had no sign outside. Bandar Abbas was a small city at the time, and I'd seen most of the city's administrative buildings, but had never seen this place before. They took me to the third floor and into a very nice, big room. An important-looking man sitting at a desk cluttered with papers asked me to sit down. I had no idea who he was or what was going on. He said, "Are you Reza Deghati?"
"Yes," I said,
He asked, "You are the one that printed this?" And he picked out a copy of Parvaz from the papers on his desk.
"Oh yes, that's me," I replied. "How did you like it?"
He looked at me and said, "I will tell you how I like it."
Then I noticed he had a stack of Parvaz issues on his table. Oh, he likes it a lot, I thought. He's bought 20 or 30 copies out of 50.
Then he snatched up some of the Parvaz copies, came from around his desk right up to me and said, "You wrote this article?"
"Yes," I said. By way of explanation, I added, "I met a lady and she told me this story. I hope it will help people to change their life and..."
I trailed off as his face darkened. He suddenly looked like a beast. He started tearing up the issues and hitting me with them, yelling, "Who gave your permission to do this? Who did you ask? You're not allowed to do this in our country! This is the country of the Shah, the country of the dynasty. You're causing trouble for the government!"
I felt terribly shocked. Here I was, so proud of my Parvaz, thinking, Fantastic, everybody loves it. And now this man was beating me and screaming, "You must never touch this again!"
I felt afraid, of course. I almost felt like crying but didn't want to in front of him. But then, while he kept hitting me with the shreds of Parvaz, a thought occurred to me: Good thing I didn't write a book. That would have hurt much worse!
I learned that he was the Director of the Secret Police for that province. The three guys who came to get me were all secret police and the minute Parvaz came out, informers around the city sent them a report. Obviously, they found its criticism of the police and government unacceptable. There was no free media in Iran at that time, so this was unheard of. I had no clue about all this. I was living in an idealistic world. To see how this small article created such a stir in the city and the government was eye-opening.
Looking back, it strikes me that when the director was hitting me and yelling at me to stay away from Parvaz, he was forbidding me from something that eventually formed my entire career. The incident changed my life. It showed me the importance of the media, of words. It was the start of my career as a journalist, which eventually led me to work for National Geographic, and to found AÏNA, and to create Parvaz 34 years later in Afghanistan.