The Limits of Free Speech

Farhad Foroutanian was born in Tehran in 1957. In 1986, seven years after the Iranian revolution and in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war, he emigrated to the Netherlands. Since then he has been working as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. His works, which often deal with topics like censorship and individual freedom, have been displayed in 35 solo exhibitions. Naturally, I wanted to ask him a couple of questions about his personal experiences with issues like censorship, freedom and displacement.

Farhad, two of your major topics are freedom and censorship… Do you have any personal motivation for concentrating on those two?

Censorship is an scary shadow which has followed me all my life…and I hate it. Therefore I talk about it. Freedom is a topic that concerns many people on this planet. I have never had as much freedom as I wished. Being born in Iran is just like being born in a cage. After that you will always be looking for freedom.

How did censorship follow you? Did you experience censorship in Europe as well?

Censorship loves artists and intellectuals! It never lets us go. I experienced this almost everywhere, under different names and in different shapes. But I can recognize it everywhere: even in Italy and Holland – anywhere.

Would you mind telling me in which way your work has been censored in Iran and in Europe?

If I make something that questions their politics or authorities they will find a way to let me know that they are not happy with that. I can lose my job because of that. This has happened many times in my life. They make me understand that, if I want to work and have a better life, I have to be careful about what I say.

On your website you state that you have been born three times, what do you mean by that?

I was naturally born in Teheran. Later I had to emigrate twice – once to Holland and once to Italy. Each time changing place, country and direction of my life was like being born again. I said that I have been born three times because each time I had to start everything over again, just like a baby.

You returned to Holland in 2000 after some time in Italy. How did it feel to come back to a place you had left?

It did feel like a kind of coming back home. It may sound strange, but I miss all the places that I have lived in. Even those that felt like a cage!

Could you imagine moving back to Iran? What was the reason you had to leave your birthplace – how was it like a cage for you?

Cage is maybe not the best word to describe the situation in Iran. As a bird in a cage, someone will take care of you. They will give you water and food and maybe even love. At the time that I left, Iran was more like hell than like a cage – there was the war with Iraq, daily bombardments, not having my freedom, etc. I had to go away and I did it.
I would love to go back to Iran, but after 24 years in Europe it wouldn’t be easy for me to leave my work, my friends and everything behind me. I created a life, a world for me here and I cannot leave it behind.

Do you still have any connections to Iran today?

Almost every day – with my colleagues, family, …

Would you say that Iran has changed since you left it?

Very much: cities, roads, people, culture, many things.

Would you say that there is a place that is “home” to you? How would you define it?

To me, “home” is a place where I feel that I’m not alone. A place where you can feel that you exist, where you are being seen. Sometimes I have that feeling in Iran, sometimes in Holland, even in Berlin. It is a strange feeling, but “home” to me is a wish, a dream, a utopia. Or maybe “home” is just something inside ourselves.

Thanks for your time!

Paul Hellmich


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