A Story Gone Viral
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You tweeted a picture of your mom. You pinned it on your Twitter account. Now, as of this interview, it has 12,000 retweets, 17,000 likes, and became viral “hit” on Reddit and 9gag. What is your mother’s personal story?
Armin Navabi: My mom was nine-years-old when her mother died from breast cancer. Her father remarried and the new wife asked my mom’s dad to kick out the 6 kids which he did. After that they had to figure out ways to survive on their own which made them tough kids. She and her siblings were close.
My mom was very smart. In school, she did well. She wanted to go to medical school, but she ended up being a nurse.
Before the Islamic Revolution
My dad kept asking her out on dates, but she was always playing hard to get with him. My mother spent most of her time in the library. During the time my dad courted her, she remembers getting chocolates and roses laid on top of her library book.
My dad would leave it on top of her book everytime she leaves the table to get a new book. Which, by the way, she found very cheesy. But they ended up dating for a while. They have had their relationship ups and downs, but my dad would always woo her back.
In the beginning, the revolution against the Shah was for freedom and not for Islam. But it became more Islamic. It took a turn in a way people did not expect. After the revolution, many who participated in the Islamic revolution were shot and killed by those who came into power.
The Big Sign in the Hallway
My mom was in the hospital working at the time when Khomeini was either coming down from the plane or he was giving a speech. I am not sure exactly which one. Everybody surrounded the television and watched the historic moment.
She said something to the effect of, “We’re fucked.” That comment made people turn around and look at her. The next day when she came to the hospital, there was a big sign in the hallway. On top, it said, “The Whores of West” and her name was on that list.
The Iran-Iraq War
My dad served the war as one of the doctors during the the Iran-Iraq War. They had this underground hospital where they kept on cutting arms and legs without anaesthesia of people who got shot. It was terrible.
One time, he wanted to treat some captured Iraqi soldiers. They asked him why he wanted to treat the enemies. My dad replied: if he was not allowed to treat them, then he was going to leave. The doctors were in high demand, so they let him.
When my dad came back from the war, he went back to work at the hospital where he met my mom. My mom worked as a nurse in that hospital.
One day, he went to the hospital’s cafeteria. He was shocked to see how much control the religious police had there. He was not happy about the situation of seeing the police there. He asked them to leave and told them to have some respect for doctors. Suddenly, the soldiers pointed guns at him.
The other doctors surrounded my dad to create a barrier. Someone came to my mom and said something like, “There is this doctor and things got heated with the soldiers and the doctors are trying to protect him.” My mom told me that as soon as she heard this, she immediately knew that it was him.
She immediately ran to the cafeteria. While she was running, she suddenly realized that this is the man she loves.
When she got there, she saw soldiers pointing guns at what looked like a group of doctors surrounding this man, who was standing right in the middle. It was my dad. My dad saw her from a distance, looked up and said, “Hi, Jila!”
She replied, “Hi.” And then, she ran away.
The Red Scarf
Early after the revolution, the rules about wearing the hijab were stricter than they are today in Iran. Hijabs were mandatory. My mother’s hijab was red. She was arrested for it. It was a different time since it was not yet accepted to wear fashionable hijabs. As a punishment, she had to go to mandatory purifying Islamic lectures.
At the lecture, somebody was telling her something to the effect of, “My dear sister, why would you do this to our young men? They have sacrificed so much blood, so many lives for our revolution. They have died in war and you would tempt them with corruption like this?”
Her reply was, “No. You don’t understand. My hijab was red in honour of the blood that they have sacrificed for us.”
Armin’s Superstitious Mom
In Iran, many people believe and pray to god and to the Imams when they need something, even if they do not pray five times a day or do not fast during Ramadan. Not everyone with religious views is very religious. Many people who consider themselves believing Muslims, even hate religiously zealous people.
My mom was very superstitious. She believed in curses, and good and bad omens. My mom would go and find these secret spell casters and pay them lots of money for the success of her sons. They would write spells and give her instructions on what to do with the writings.
Once, she made me wear a necklace that has some Qur’anic scribblings on it. She put a stone in the chain. I still have it. She told me to have it with me during my exams. It was self-contradictory because these are Qur’anic verses. This is supposed to be a spell, but Islam is against casting spells.
Praying for Atheist Republic
I went through a religious phase. I took Islam seriously. It was annoying to my parents. I tried to make them take Islam seriously. They did not pray. I was trying to get them to pray and fast.
They never went to mosque unless there was someone’s death or celebration. I did not want them to go to hell. They wouldn’t listen to me. So, when I decided to become an atheist, it was a relief for them.
I started Atheist Republic in Iran. Soon after, I came to Canada. It started growing and growing. I quit my job in Canada. I started to focus on Atheist Republic.
My mom was supportive. You would think your mom would get very angry because my parents spent so much money on my education in order for me to get a good job and now I decided to work on activism.
She prayed to god that Atheist Republic would become successful. It was ironic. I told her, “Mom, praying to god that my war against god would become successful doesn’t make sense.” She said, “A mom has to do what a mom has to do.”
Pigeon Experiment and Losing Faith
My mom slowly started losing her faith. One thing that really got to her was the superstitious pigeon experiment. Even pigeons can become superstitious by random things; the pigeons can be conditioned to develop superstitious behaviours in belief that they will be fed.
Then she asked, “I’m like those pigeons?”
But then she said, “Maybe those pigeons feel good doing what they’re doing and getting a reward for it. Let me be superstitious. At least, I feel like I am helping you. Even when it’s not doing anything, it just makes me feel good. Let me have that.”
On Her Deathbed
I wish I called her more. I wish I talked to her more because she loved it when I talked to her. Some of my family members would get bored when I talked about religion and politics. She would talk, listen, and comment because she wanted to keep on talking to me.
When she got cancer, it was way too advanced to do much about it. My dad was not ready to let her go. They got her a VIP room at the hospital. Anything he said would happen. Since he was a doctor, he knew a lot of people in the hospital.
I wanted to go to Iran, but they knew that I wouldn’t get past airport security, and would be jailed and on death row. My mom said, “Please don’t let my last memory of you be you in jail.” So, I couldn’t go see her because of the book I wrote Why There Is No God and founding Atheist Republic.
She told the doctors in Iran that she does not want to die without seeing her son. I feel partially responsible for this because I couldn’t go and see her. The doctors said that she can’t leave the hospital. However, she said she doesn’t care. That she wants to see her son before she dies. She left the hospital and came to Vancouver.
My mom died shortly after because she was not getting the care she was getting in Iran. When she got to Canada, she had to wait for a long time to see a doctor. The good part was unlike the doctors in Iran they were not listening to my dad anymore, but asking her what she wanted.
My dad wanted chemotherapy, but my mom did not want it. She said she is done. My dad was trying to force her to do chemotherapy because he was not ready, but the doctors respected what she wanted for treatment.
One time, in the hospital, she asked me if I am sure -- if I really think there is nothing after death. So, I told her, “Yes, that is what I think.”
Then she said, “Good… because I am so tired.”
One time, when I went to see her at the hospital, she had these headphones on and was listening to the Azan (Call to Islamic Prayer). She was embarrassed and said, “Armin, I know this is all bullshit, but it’s really helping me. It really helps me with my pain.”
I was like, “Mom, why are you apologizing to me? You don’t need to be embarrassed. Just do whatever you want. Do whatever it takes for the pain.” It is sad that she felt embarrassed to do something Islamic in front of me.
Before her death, she told my dad that she does not want any Islamic ceremonies for her death. She was happy to know that she is going to get buried in Vancouver because she did not want people to pray over her grave.
There were a few attempts of this in Iran for her. However, my dad made sure he cancelled all the ceremonies because it was my mom’s wish that they have nothing like that.
A lot of people asked me, “Aren’t you sad that you’ll never see her again? Don’t you wish that there was a reunion or an afterlife that you’ll meet her one day? Isn’t that such a cold way of believing in the world?”
I always respond, "Even if you ignore the fact that we have to believe in things that are true and that we have evidence for rather than the things that we like, you have to also understand that the afterlife does not come with just heaven. The afterlife comes with hell.”
We were told that most people will burn in hell. My mom would also be burning in hell right now if Islam is true.
I might be sad that I'm never going to see her again, but I am much at peace knowing that she is not being tortured right now by a fucking sadistic god because she did not worship him enough.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Armin.
You can reach Armin by clicking on the link below