Before Malala: My Facebook Friendship With Iran’s Youngest Political Prisoner

A boy with a blog had scared a government with a nuclear program. Touché.
Publish date:
October 17, 2012
women's rights, Iran

I stalked a boy online once. I spent a week putting his name into search engines, clicking on every result that came up to scan the screen for “Navid Mohebbi” and read the words surrounding that name.

Free speech. Petition. Interrogation. Beaten.

I searched for images of him, admired the soft contours of his face, the glinting onyx of his eyes, his mouth that stopped just short of a smile. I found him on Facebook and spent evenings clicking myself through the depths of his profile -- through photos of melting snow, his family beside a fountain, a montage of high school senior portraits before a sponge-painted screen.

I scrutinized his “About” page and attempted to piece together his person through the provided social media snippets:

  • From Amol, Lives in Tehran
  • Studies Political Science at Azad University
  • Languages: Persian and English
  • Birthday: January 28th, 1992
  • Political Views: Liberal
  • Interested in: Women
  • Relationship Status: Single

This was no act of virtual romantic rubbernecking. In fact, my intentions were purely academic. I was writing an essay about the Arab Spring for a creative non-fiction class when I came across Navid Mohebbi in an article headlined WORLD’S YOUNGEST DETAINED BLOGGER RELEASED. My editorial impulses jumped at the prospect of a primary source, and after tracking him down in social media circles, I requested his friendship in hopes of securing an instant message interview. He reciprocated with a smartphone-prompt acceptance and the message:

thank you for add you know me? i like to know why do you add me?

Caution is an Internet virtue, as conservatism is to Muslim culture, so Navid’s curiosity was well founded. We’ve never shaken hands. We live 6,000 miles apart. We have no mutual friends, groups, or likes, and parts of our profiles are written using entirely different alphabets. I, too, would want to know why a strange American girl wanted to be my friend; fearing he’d write me off as fishy friendship-spam, I fired back with a bit of flattery: You’re that famous kid who was jailed for blogging aren’t you? Would you mind if I asked you some questions?

Our Facebook thread quickly grew to scrolling length.

Seven months earlier, on September 18th of 2010, Navid’s cell phone rang. As with most millennial teenagers, this was a rather routine circumstance, but the sudden intrusion of sound caused him to jump. He had been napping after a day spent reading political articles and posting messages on his blog. The call was from a man who claimed to be from the university Navid was soon to attend. He wanted to remind him that he needed to come to campus to register for classes later that afternoon. Navid muttered that he would be there, and fell back asleep.

Half an hour later the doorbell rang. This shook Navid awake a second time. He listened to his mother’s footsteps as she traveled towards the door. She had been expecting men who had called earlier that day about fixing their water system. On the verge of abandoning his nap all together, Navid rolled over a second time, but his ears were met with further racket, only this time it jerked him out of bed.

His mother was screaming.

“Liars! You are liars!”

Navid ran into the hallway and met his sister at the top of the stairs.

“They want to arrest you,” she told him.

Together the two of them began throwing his books and notes out of the back window, the fluttering of papers and ruckus from ransacking his own room heightening the commotion alongside his mother’s pleads. Navid then called a friend and asked him to delete the emails in his inbox just in time for several security guards to break through his bedroom door and beat him back asleep.

Like most 1990s babies, born on the brink of the Internet explosion, Navid was immediately infatuated with what he calls, “cyber space.” Unlike at school or along the arid, Iranian streets, here was a place where Navid could say what he wanted.

“I blog when I was thirteen because I felt I had something to say,” he tells me. And so he did. Dubbed “the boy who cares about women” by the human rights campaign, A Safe World for Women, Navid wrote frankly about women’s rights and other forms of oppression.

"On this day I am hoping for a world without violence and humiliation, and joy for the women in Darfur, Sudan who are suffering from homelessness and gang rapes," he writes on March 8th of 2010, also International Women’s Day. "And for the women of my own country who are being brutally suppressed in the most vicious manner, I wish a society without gender-specific violence."

This wish proved a punishable act, one that warranted Navid thirty-one days in solitary confinement and another seventy in a cell with ten common criminals, and little else but the sad light of a single window.

That day he was arrested under the following charges:

  • Acting against national security
  • Propaganda against the state through connection with foreign media
  • Insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Insulting the current leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Being a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign -- an effort to generate support for the amendment of discriminatory laws against Iranian women

He was released on Christmas Day.

I was baffled to hear such a lengthy list of criminal charges directed against an eighteen year old who uses the Internet for humanitarian causes (by UN standards). Apart from making a government enemies list and having a consuming passion for human rights, it is apparent, even through our cross-wire relationship, that Navid is just another teenager -- overwhelmed with school, caught up in his appearance, and betrayed by the cavalier spirit particular to high school boys.

His Facebook likes may include Feminism, Iran’s Human Rights Documentation Center, Nationalism, The White House, and Iran for Peace and Democracy, but he also likes Denny’s, and Mariah Carey, and even posts the occasional "selfie" on his wall, his hair always meticulously gelled back.

The relationship between teenager and disciplinary parent is a fairly accurate analogy for Navid and the government he has been forced to deal with. Like a parent counting to ten, the government issued their warnings, and even filtered Navid’s blog by removing certain posts. Only, instead of shuddering with images of his name on a security watch list, Navid took it as a compliment. “I was happy that I challenge the government,” he gloats, “and then I try to attract visitors again.”

When he noticed his blog had been filtered a second time, he grew frustrated because schoolwork was increasingly impeding on his blogging hours, so the words he could log were a rather precious commodity. "I don’t know why my blogs, which I update once a month or so, would scare these people so much as to filter it within a couple of weeks of its creation," he posted in translated English, before signing off, "But alas, they’ve closed their ears and don’t want to hear our heartfelt advice. It’s okay if they don’t want to listen, though, it will harm them in the end."

After a few months, the government had had enough. “I guessed they may come,” he tells me. “They were afraid that I join the student movement in university.”

A boy with a blog had scared a government with a nuclear program. Touché.

Even after his release, Navid was kept under close watch. He was forced to communicate with me using proxies -- circumventing censorship gizmos, which act as an intermediary between one’s computer and the network, bypassing blocked sites and keeping a server’s activity anonymous.

Other times he sent me messages through a friend, who then forwarded them onto me, so they couldn’t be traced back to Navid’s computer. There were times when I wondered if our conversations made him nervous and became paranoid that my own exploits would be the cause of a second arrest. “I have no good position because Security guards Security Control me and my mobile and Home phone and all of my Traffic are Control,” he reminded me one evening, before continuing “....but I want to know have you Satisfied to my answer?”

Like 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban last week for supporting the education of girls and young women, the force of Navid's words had become paramount to his own safety.

Even after telling him that I would change his name to ensure anonymity, he requested that I not, requested only that I wait a year if I decided to publish his story outside of my classroom. “If they arrested me I try to tell them I didnt any interview with someone,” he wrote. “Do what ever you like and dont worry.”

I did worry, like an older sister, which is why I published nothing and checked on him often. I feared the day when he would stop appearing in the column of my Facebook chat, and I was right to. Navid simply could not refrain from blogging, so they came after him again. Only higher powers intervened, and he managed to escape to Turkey where he now lives in exile.

I wanted to scold him. You’re going to get yourself killed! I thought to myself. Is martyrdom really the only answer? But then a message that left a lump in my throat appeared in my inbox. “I love my country and that is why I went to prison,” Navid wrote. “For freedom in Iran, we strive to achieve our demands.”

It’s been two years since I turned in my paper, and what began as a virtual friendship has since blossomed into something closer to the real thing. I now know that he also loves swimming and traveling, and reads many novels and biographies. His heroes are “all nations who resist against dictators and try to teach freedom, equality, and social justice.” He also loves going to the movies.

At twenty, Navid remains remarkably conscious of the power of his words, even in broken English, and likes to remind me, “Please don’t change the soul of my text, although you are free to edit the grammar.”