I take Richard Ratcliffe to Bill’s Restaurant, just opposite the Oxford Union, where he has just given a talk. He is energised, the heavy topics so far covered have done little to wear him down.
He tells me that when he first started speaking to the media about his wife, he was very cautious not to say anything potentially ‘wrong’, for want of a better word; but now that he has been doing this for so long, he realises that there is very little he can say that will actually result in disaster. The strategy is to remain honest and reliable.
He explains that since his wife’s predicament became a national news story, the press has been trying to get as much information as possible from all sides, the British Foreign Office, the Iranian side, etc. But through his consistent honesty and openness to the press, they now realise that he is a trusted source. The British Foreign Office hasn’t exactly lied, but they have withheld information on purpose at various points.
He contends, there is no ‘right’ thing to say really. ‘It’s kind of a shadow cave, where you’re seeing different reflections of a story and you’re making sense of it all. You only ever get parts of the whole picture. Not least because the workings of the Iranian regime is so opaque. It is a constant struggle between different factions within the regime and a constant effort to detect which bit one hears is propaganda and which bit is their genuine opinion of what is going on. You sometimes get to a stage where you think they are believing their own lies.’
His drink arrives and interrupts that train of thought. Rather playfully, he ordered a soft drink concoction named ‘Black Magic’. It has a mix of blackberries, blackcurrants, cherry, blueberry, banana, apple juice and activated charcoal. It certainly has the colour of charcoal. He flippantly ponders over whether his tongue will turn dark at the end of this interview, and chuckles at the prospect.
The man in front of me looks very sincere, and the soft lighting in the restaurant has softened his features. He is even more energised, evidenced by more lively body gestures as he speaks.
I ask if he thinks the fact that human rights are not established as an important concept in the current Iranian public psyche has contributed to the sense of bewilderment in the Iranian regime’s reaction to the outcry in the West.
‘I think yes. I think we’re all prisoners of our own understanding and our own experience. The Iranian media is very firmly controlled by their government. So if someone is very prominently featured in the British media, then the Iranian regime would automatically assume that they have got British government backing, by definition.’
‘And it also works the other way round, of course. So we all think of their leaders as more like our leaders. But they are different. So by their view, if you’re always on the television of another country, then you must be important to their government. And that’s how they operate in the hostage taking business.’
‘To be fair, it’s part of the British government’s approach to be disinterested, to downplay it. Imagine if you were trying to buy a Turkish carpet, you wouldn’t say “I really must have this carpet, because it’s amazing”; because then the price asked of you will go right up. So you instead go, “Maybe I will get a carpet, maybe not. I might be interested in what the other shops are selling.”
And that’s kind of like the dynamic where we’re saying “Nazanin’s really important. We have to get her back immediately.” And I am going out there saying that.
But I think with the way that politicians work here in the UK, is that they don’t do macro-policy.
So when the media ask “please tell us how you’re feeling”, it means “please tell us you’re a miserable human sufferer. And another thing they do is asking you “please tell us what you’d like the British government to do”, which means “please tell us they’ve been shit”.
So if you think about the three angles to our story in the press – number one is “Iran has Nazanin – so bad guys”. Number two is useless and incompetent British government. And the third one is suffering family. Sometimes noble family, sometimes suffering family.’
We both chuckle a bit at the absurdity of the situation. His face lightens up. He is rather pleased that he has so far resisted the effort to confine his story to these three boxes. I find it difficult to verbalise my emotions in the moment. Here sitting in front of me is a man who has clearly been through enough, and he has to fight the additional battle of getting his perspective accurately represented in the news stories. His ability to take his struggles with a lightness of touch is perhaps a shining example of human endurance and the ability to reconcile with greater forces outside of one’s control with courage, conviction and last but certainly not the least, an ability to poke fun at oneself to make the situation bearable.
‘They all want the personal story, the emotional connections their audience can readily make. The politicians want to say “here is this heartbroken, distressed husband going on hunger strike in front of the embassy of an oppressive regime”. Everyone gets that. “It’s because he is unhappy, it’s because she’s in prison. And the Iranian government is causing it.”
And the politicians, they come down, and basically the questions they’d ask are just two – “How is Nazanin?” “What more can the government do?” That’s it!’
I ask if this becomes an emotional burden for Richard at times, because one cannot be emotionally available all the time,. Additionally, in the face of such emotional upheaval, being emotionally available all the time must be draining. I ask if he understandably does not feel eager to discuss his feelings about the stressful events of what is essentially his private, personal life. I wonder how much he has adapted to accommodate the media attention whilst having a sustainable emotional existence and getting his messages across effectively.
I observe that Richard does not seem like the emotionally demonstrative type. He is soft-spoken, reserved and dignified.
Richard is keen to agree. ‘At the beginning, you know, the thing I learnt is that you could only be yourself. And I remember at the very beginning of finding it all very hard, dealing with questions of how I was feeling; because I bottled it all up.
It’s a way of coping, right? This is horrible stuff. I mean, the more I look at it, the more I feel bloody horrible. So, I’d rather not look at it, you know?’
He speeds up as he speaks, and his previous boyish smile vanishes.
We observe it’s an inevitable part of one’s emotional response to trauma. The inescapability from the horribleness can be enfeebling.
He refers to a member in the Oxford Union audience, who spoke about his brother’s escape from Iran through bribing human traffickers. ‘You go into battle mode. And then you rest. That’s what a lot of soldiers do. And then in their seventies, they look back at their war experiences and suddenly realise the scale of trauma imprinted on them. The dawning happens much later on. But one has to bear in mind that these soldiers returned from battle and proceeded to live a productive civilian life. They didn’t want to be reminded of all that horribleness. They want to be reminded that there is a life worth living.’
‘I am in battle mode. At the very beginning, I got critiqued by journalists who said “Can you not be more open?” And the honest answer was “I can’t”. You have to just be yourself. And it is trustworthy when you are. And we’re all prisoners of our own personalities, right? I am where I am (emotionally) and that’s just the way it is.’
‘There are certain advantages in that I am reasonably stubborn, and I am of a stern temperament. During the early stages, stuff would happen, and I would get up to talk about it on the telly. The emotions wouldn’t hit me until four, five days later when I was sitting alone in my house and suddenly I would go “Wow, shit!” And that was how I got on with it and did my job.
Now my in-laws are desperate, they’re full of tears. That’s the natural response when you have to make sense of that fact that there is nothing you can do to help your imprisoned daughter.
I am having this battle now, which is broadly holding the government to account. Because a dual-nationality British citizen is being taken hostage. And we cant have governments like Iran treating people like this and getting away with it’
We touch upon the backwardness of the Iranian regime. Ed Hussain’s recent best-seller ‘The House of Islam’ reminds our generation how Iran used to be a beacon of modernity and tolerance in the Middles East just decades ago. Richard jumps in,
‘There is something ultra-modern about Iran’s hostage taking practice. I worry about how we’re getting more insular. If you think about political debates, whether it’s Brexit, Israel with its wars or whether it’s Iran essentially locking up its people who also have a foreign passport. There is a retreat into an enclave. Whatever it is, the volatility of the contemporary/modern world, where you have the modernisation of societies through ideas, the ideas spawn by the French Revolution, is making people more intolerant. The slogan “Let’s go back to the good, old days” encapsulates the sentiment of what a lot of countries are doing.
The hostage-taking business is to do with the religious fundamentalists who want to interpret the Koran literally and impose Islamic Fundamental Laws, not the guy running the kebab shop down your road. For me, the world is not becoming a safer place by us all isolating ourselves from others. The world is made a safer place through contact and understanding. And you know understanding is messy and sometimes it ends up as not understanding and it’s frustration and all the rest of it.
One of the things that I think is frustrating with the Iran-UK engagement is that both national consulates have been trying to wash Nazanin off their hands. The British one insists that she is Iranian, therefore making her imprisonment an internal affair. Their Iranian counterpart maintains that she is British and uses her as a pawn. What they should have done is to say “she’s yours but she’s ours as well. So fuck off!” And the acknowledgement that they will treat each other’s citizens with respect. She is a citizen of the world.’
We move on to how Nazanin’s doing. Richard divulges that her situation has worsened since their daughter, Gabriella’s return to the UK recently. ‘What has kept her going so far is the hope that she can get out in time for us to have another child. We have different coping mechanisms. I am an optimist, and strangely enough, I have constant hope that she can be released soon. But I realise that this may not be the reality and I have been hurt by false hopes before. So I got out and campaign. I go on hunger strikes. It’s a different story for Nazanin, she doesn’t have that much hope and she is not sure how much longer she can survive without hope. Her second sentence means she will not be able to have a second child. She has already been on two hunger strikes, and the second one considerably longer than the first one. She is planning another hunger strike if she is not released by the time around Christmas. Now, there is a physical limit to how long one can survive on a hunger strike. You can only go on for so long before it becomes fatal or causes permanent damage to your body. And with the third strike, Nazanin will reach that point. I fear the worst. I understand why she is doing this, because it has kind of worked before and she feels like she has to do something to get the Revolutionary Guards’ attention. It is not my job to tell her what to do even though I obviously does not want to lose her. So it’s my job as a husband to accept her decision.’
Richard has finished his drink. As he rightly predicted, the charcoal has rubbed off his tongue. It is difficult to describe the emotions manifesting on his face but what is notable is the piercing sense of determination. One gets the sense that this is not the first time he has harboured similar fears, and yet he stays more resilient and more determined to fight on.