The Arab, the Iranian, the revolutionary

Why is there not a wider celebration of the life and legacy of Hashem Beni Torofi in Iran and the Arab world?

Hashem Beni Torofi [photo courtesy of Hashem Beni Torofi family and friends]
Hashem Beni Torofi [photo courtesy of Hashem Beni Torofi's family and friends]

Whoever heard of Hashem Beni Torofi? Have you ever heard of Hashem Beni Torofi? Of course not – how could you? Don’t try to Google him. You will find nothing in English, and very little in Persian or Arabic. 

On March 23, a noble man died peacefully in his home in Tehran. There was no official announcement of his death. Scarce anyone except his immediate family, friends, and comrades took notice of his death. 

The ignorance of people in both Iran and the Arab world, and by extension, around the world about who Hashem Beni Torofi was and the significance of his passing is no comment on his precious life, cherished legacy, and revolutionary ideals, and far more, a gloss on the calamity that has befallen both Arabs and Iranians who no longer recognise their mutual and common heroes.

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A life dedicated to justice

Born in 1926 and raised in my hometown Ahvaz in southern Iran to a poor Arab family, Beni Torofi grew up to become a widely loved and respected physician and principled revolutionary activist committed to the cause of social and economic justice in his homeland. 

After his early education, Beni Torofi entered Tehran University to study medicine in 1947. Soon after, he joined the newly founded Iranian Tudeh (Socialist) Party.

After the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953, he was arrested and jailed for three years. Released from jail, he returned to his medical studies at Tehran University, and with the Tudeh Party now banned, he continued with his principled commitments to the cause of the poor working-class throughout his life.

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He was again arrested in 1959 and spent another 15 years in jail and in exile in the poor and disenfranchised parts of the country. He used this period to read and translate books that kept the critical edge of his mind sharp and alert. He returned to university again, and this time was allowed to finish and become a physician specialising in and practising general medicine.

Hashem Beni Torofi [photo courtesy of Hashem Beni Torofi's family and friends]
Hashem Beni Torofi [photo courtesy of Hashem Beni Torofi’s family and friends]

Soon after the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 and the regrouping of the Tudeh Party, he rejoined his comrades and became a member of the Central Committee of the Party.

During the devastating Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), he was in his native city practising medicine until he was arrested yet again – this time by the ruling Islamist regime – and sent to jail for yet a third time. 

Upon his release from prison in 1986, he returned to practising medicine and treating the poor in Ahvaz. He continued this until 2008, when he suffered a stroke. Having lost his ability to speak, he was forced to go to Tehran, where his wife provided the peace and comfort of his final years.

The happy few, the mournful many  

I had, of course, heard of the significance of Dr Hashem Beni Torofi. But I was not aware of his death before mutual friends, both his Arab and Iranian comrades, informed me. A few scattered but heartfelt eulogies have started to appear celebrating his life in both Persian and Arabic by his friends and comrades.

Was Beni Torofi an Iranian or an Arab, a Sunni or Shia? Neither this nor that; both this and that.


But why is that the case? Why is there not a wider celebration of the life and legacy of Beni Torofi in Iran and the Arab world? The answer must be placed in the diabolic calamity of both Arab and Iranian ethnic nationalism and sectarian politics that have now befallen them both. 

Was Beni Torofi an Iranian or an Arab, a Sunni or Shia? Neither this nor that; both this and that. The absurdity of even asking this question marks the cataclysmic catastrophe that has befallen the political cultures of both Arabs and Iranians, having forgotten what binds them together and what pulls them apart.

Beni Torofi was both and Arab and an Iranian by virtue of the exemplary life he led and in which he transcended the pathetic politics of both such compromising identities and rising to the revolutionary responsibilities of his people – both Arabs and Iranians. 

The life and legacy of Beni Torofi are an enduring testimony to a world that is now thickly covered up by a ghastly ethnic nationalism and religious sectarianism manufactured by the ruling class to divide people to rule them more effectively. 

Like any other massive political organisation, the Tudeh Party is correctly criticised for many historic mistakes its leadership has made. But the legacy of a massive political movement is not judged only by such mistakes. It must also be remembered by the noble souls like Beni Torofi, who peopled and gave it meaning and purpose. 

The Arab and Iranian world in which beautiful people like Hashem Beni Torofi were born and raised will be forever lost to a false and nasty set of binaries engineered between Arabs and Persians, or Sunnis and Shias, if the rich and fulfilling life of forgotten heroes this world has seen are not actively remembered and justly celebrated. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.