Don’t I have a conscience? I am not blind. I see people and I see their troubles.
On May 23rd Iranian sports hero Nasser Hejazi passed away after a protracted battle with lung cancer. Immediately in the streets people poured with posters, portraits, and, more simply, prayers. Admirers have been left shocked as to how a man of Hejazi’s strength could succumb to cancer, although the illness’ terminality was confirmed over a year ago.
Still today the nation mourns as it had when it first heard the news, and even members of the Iranian government who opposed Hejazi’s reformist attitudes have dutifully paid their respects. From his playing days, Hejazi had always been more than an exemplary athlete for Iranians: he had come to represent the model Iranian citizen. In his time Hejazi faced many of the same challenges that average Iranians continue to struggle against, but with his determination he was able to not only secure a better life for himself but also advocate one for others.
Nicknamed “Ostureh” (“Legend”), Hejazi was goalkeeper over Iran’s greatest footballing era. Winning two Asian Cups and representing Iran at the 1978 World Cup, Hejazi won the hearts of many of his compatriots, but he was prevented from achieving further greatness by the Iranian government itself. A ridiculous ruling, implemented curiously after the recent success of World Cup qualification, maintained the cut-off for all national sports teams at 27 years. Consequently, Hejazi was forced out of his stay with the national team at only 29 years. Bureaucratic meddling was a motif that would become all too familiar throughout his career, and it was most deleterious when the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) did not act in time to approve a possible move to Manchester United. Hejazi had already trained with United for an entire month with a permanent transfer appearing set, but as Iran was experiencing their revolution of 1979 Hejazi was impelled to return. While he could have easily sought foreign asylum, he held that, “We were at war. You do not abandon your country in war.”
While Hejazi remained loyal to his nation through the thickest of times he did not hesitate to expose Iran’s flaws. The sabotaged opportunities in his own career were minor in comparison to the more basic needs of his nation. Quoting Gandhi, he said, “My pain is not loneliness but it’s the death of a nation who considers poverty as contentment, incompetency as patience, and with a smile on its lips, considers this naivety as destiny.” Such a romantic evaluation is likely more than what the men in charge deserve, but it is an accurate diagnosis for the millions in Iran who have come to see corruption as an inescapable evil. Deceit and bribery are taken as facts and ways of life, when more accurately these methods have been propagated by generations of unprincipled rulers. In truth, the pervasive greed and depravity are merely symptoms of impoverishment and oppression. Under such harsh conditions, Iranians have had to adopt unscrupulous methods for the sake of daily survival.
Hejazi correctly recognized the government as the root of the physical and moral suffering of the people, and he was relentless in exposing their abuse towards the masses. “The government is saying it gives people 40,000 tomans like our people are beggars!” he cried. “Our people are not beggars! They sleep over rich reserves of oil and gas. It is the government’s duty to work for them, to give them access to their resources, to serve them.” He saw the government’s manipulation extend towards his own sport, and when he self-nominated himself for the 2005 Iranian presidential he explained his action with the contention: “Why can politicians come to our matches and stadiums and make political statements, but people from the world of sport cannot enter the world of politics?” Hejazi was forced out of his campaign by the Council of Guardians, but simply by running for office he had stirred more positive change than those in power had during their entire regime.
Hejazi’s impact, despite his failure to win office, raises many questions on why further efforts have not been made towards a movement for liberty and equality. While many statements of condolence from FIFA and other political bodies were received at the news of his passing, none of those organizations had acted in solidarity with Hejazi’s efforts to improve his nation. Worse, most influential bodies have never even given the situation in Iran a proper mention. Now with his death, there is a danger that the movement he supported may be entirely abandoned.
The structure of the Iranian government makes it nearly impossible for the country to achieve the change it needs. The Council of Guardians, composed of six Islamic faqihs and six jurists, holds the power to approve new laws and political candidates, and their opposition towards reform is a massive barrier to progress. With the system entirely against the Iranian people, Hejazi’s death has proven a much huger blow than the usual passing of a legend. Still, it is the responsibility of Iranians to preserve Hejazi’s story and to keep his presence alive among them. His experience can serve to be a model for others seeking to find their own path in the face of injustice, but it can only be learned from if it is first understood.
In contrast to those now involved in the ongoing riots in the country, Hejazi was enlightened and peaceful. That much could be seen simply from a glance at his face, eternally statuesque without a note of tension. He achieved much, but he retained his simplicity and his humanity, still being able to see in others the same effort which he put forth himself. What was tragic for him was when that effort was undone by an unfair system, but Hejazi had the insight to persist with his enterprise against all obstacles. Hejazi retained his individuality even after being forced into difficult positions throughout his life. His inner calm was in-congruent with his surroundings, and aided with his earnesty he learned much from his struggles, always maintaining his drive for improvement.
Hejazi’s death will continue to be mourned, but hopefully his life will remind Iranians of the value of looking inward for the solutions they crave. Because outwards there is much turmoil.