Israel, mako/Sof Shavua Magazine
By Dudu Cohen
“I want to create an international, interreligious cultural bridge, between Iran and Israel. That’s what I believe in.”
Translated by Viktoria Lymar
Edited by Steven Stenzler
19 June 2013
Dr. Daniel Dana, who was born a Muslim in Iran, doesn't forgive his homeland for changing its face. One who had to flee the country with Khomeini's rise, has been since then through an arduous journey of persecutions and struggles around the world, but is not going to rest until he achieves his goal: the overthrow of the existing regime in Iran. Today, after having settled in Israel and unearthed his Jewishness, he is also not impressed with the “new and liberal” president: “He’ll be stronger and more radically anti-Israel and the West.”
Dr. Daniel Dana’s last weekend was particularly busy and tense. It started with intensely watching newscasts, went over to streaming online updates and ended with a terrible sense of sourness that spread throughout his entire body. All around, the news releases and newspaper headlines were thrilled with Iran’s election results and celebrated the victory of the moderate candidate Rouhani – but for Dana, himself a native of Iran, there was no comfort in this good news. The faraway Islamic Republic, in his words, has already taken everything from him – the gorgeous country where he grew up, his beloved children, whom he doesn’t stop to miss, his first wife who turned against him – and finally, even the religion of Islam, which he opted to relinquish. In return, he has long pledged to do everything to in his lifetime bring down the fundamentalist regime ruling in Iran today – and as he observes, there’s nothing in the recent elections results to make him think twice.
“Now many think that Rouhani is a liberal, but this is a kind of fraud,” he comments. “In fact, it can’t be that a religious Muslim person would be a liberal. It doesn’t exist in reality, – in particular, if one has a Shiite ideology. If you ask me, he’s a copy of Khatami, the former president before Ahmadinejad – a bad guy who killed thousands of people and brought Iran to a terrible place. Rouhani came to carry on this system, and also to advance with the atomic project, and in my eyes, he is more dangerous than Ahmadinejad. He will be stronger and more radically anti-Israel and the West, and I don’t believe that something will change. It’s just us in the Iranian opposition who understand the Shiite worldview that guides these people. They are really imps.”
And still, Rouhani’s win is surprising. He is not Khamenei's protege.
“It was a deal, and I believe that the whole thing was agreed in advance. For, the cleric regime in Iran would not let somebody really liberal win, and therefore, it’s evident that they are just working together. Khamenei understands and knows that numerous people who oppose the rule of the ayatollahs would not allow such a blatant rigging to pass smoothly, and therefore he struck a deal with Rouhani: he would accept the election results, and in exchange for it, Rouhani would be his puppet and go the way he outlines. Don’t you get confused – these are not really elections, but rather something silly pretending to be them, and this is not a true democracy. 75 million people were merely choosing among eight candidates approved by Iran's Guardian Council. What then could possibly come out of it?”
As you surely understand, Dana is not pleased with the shifts at the top of the Iranian regime – but also not going to surrender before them. More than ten months of the year, he dedicates to toppling the reign of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and such small bumps on the road, which may perplex others, won’t bend him. Dana, an international lawyer by training, indeed believes with all of his heart that Iran can be restored to the beautiful days when it was considered a country of tolerance and acceptance – and according to him, all it takes is just a little patience.
“We have very strong friends within the country, and we quietly do a lot of things in Iran, beneath the surface. My dream is feasible,” he says. “24 hours a day I am working to take down the regime in Iran, and these elections do not change anything as to our modus operandi – my people in Australia, Canada, India, Japan and other countries still oppose the rule with their utmost strength and believe that there’s no difference between Rafsanjani, Rouhani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad. The new leader is even more dangerous, since he is a clergyman, and the strategy of the government will continue to be the completion of the nuclear project, the destruction of Israel and the West and the imposition of Islam on the whole world. Rouhani is a man full of faith, and devoted entirely to these beliefs – and my partners and I have to act against the Islamic Republic. There are 75 million people in Iran who are waiting for us.”
“I told myself: OK, I'm heading back to my home to be killed”
The life story of Dana (68) - Jamshed Hassani by his original Persian name – can easily sustain at least three dramatic thrillers, but for the meanwhile, he’s content with one: an autobiography that saw light last year, titled “Three Ropes Hanging” (Orion Publishing) – standing for the three court rulings that were issued in Iran against him and sentenced him to death. In the book he describes how he was born a Shiite Muslim in Iran, and how he sensed the religion take over the country already at 15 years old, even before the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. “I was like any serious and radical Muslim, with the encouragement of my grandmother who wanted me to be Ayatollah when I’d grow up,” tells Dana. “She asked me to pray with her every day, several times a day. The weird thing was that she cared that we not eat meat and milk together.”
In parallel to completing his Bachelor’s degree in law, Dana served for two years in the Iranian army and eight years in the police, that even awarded him a medal for being an outstanding sharpshooter. Already at that period, he tells, he began to suspect the persona of the rising spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – and when the latter was expelled to Iraq by the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi,* Dana managed to reach the Shah’s wife and volunteer before her to eliminate Khomeini in the name of the homeland. “I told her I was willing to travel to Tehran and assassinate him because I believe he's destroying my country. I vowed to shoot myself straight after that, and no one would know about the conspiracy between us, but the Queen refused ‘because we are not terrorists’.”
How did you know that Khomeini would be bad for Iran, at a time when everyone actually worshiped him?
“I realized he was a liar. He was interviewed dozens of times in the international media against the Shah's rule, and each time he delivered different things, depending on the scene. The United States and Europe supported Khomeini at that period, pumped to him billions of dollars and treated him as a holy man. Till now we are paying for the stupid decisions of the American politicians who didn’t get that lying is in his blood.”
Dana did not despair: imbued by faith that the Shiite forces slowly strengthening in his country were about to lead to the devastation of the homeland, he founded the militant underground organization “Javan” [“Young”], that sought to invite provocations, gain international attention and defy the growing sway of the ayatollahs. The organization's activities, which included, among other things, seizure of the Iranian military forces as a protest, raised up against him the regime as well, and created many conflicts also within Dana’s family. “It charged me a high personal price,” he says. “My wife was then a relative of a senior minister in the government, and it caused quite a few family problems. But I felt like there’s no choice, I can’t sit still.”
At some point Dana truly had no choice left: in late 1978, a series of violent demonstrations against the Shah began which led to his ouster to exile – and on February 1, 1979, Khomeini already landed in Iran after 14 years and became the supreme spiritual leader of the new Islamic Republic. After several years of the Iranian internal struggle, and while three death sentences were imposed over his head in the wake of his opposition to the new regime,* Dana fled Iran. He landed in Paris in 1984 with his first wife, Gitty, (who he later divorced) and two children, and from his residence in exile, continued to command the underground – low-profile. He spent five years when looking from outside at his country change its face, until he concluded he was no longer able to – and returned to Iran in spite of the obvious risk. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, I'm coming back to my home to be killed’,” he narrates. “I felt that in my current place, I was small – and that I had to return to being a soldier who fights for the sake of what he believes in. I wanted to be part of the soul of my nation and cared about nothing – neither family, nor fear. I wanted to sacrifice myself for the benefit of the nation.”
How did your wife and kids accept this decision?
“My children are angry to this day. They think I abandoned them when I made up my mind to go back to Iran. I asked my wife back then to return with the kids to Iran – but she refused, and today the children who remained in Paris feel like I left them. Maybe it was a mistake, but the good of Iran stood in front of my eyes prior to the good of the family. I acted out of passion that sometimes made me turn off the road.”
Dr. Dana pauses sadly, and this is the only time during the interview when his flow of speech stops and his face goes frown. His son (today 40) has become a doctor and his daughter (36) – a lawyer, but he admits that his relationship with them is very loose. “My children will be always mad at me for not functioning as a father, for supposedly abandoning them – and until today, it is an open wound for me,” he admits. “To every ten long letters I send them, they may reply once, in a single sentence. Apparently, father is father and children are children. I saw my grandchildren born only for some hours, at a meeting held a few months ago.”
The Things My Family Didn’t Tell Me
When he finally returned to Iran, Dana was shocked to discover that no one executed him. The authorities simply turned a blind eye on him, “solely out of considerations of the image,” in his version, – and he took advantage of the narrow leeway given to him to keep working as a lawyer. Once again he stood out as a troublemaker: took on complicated legal issues and delicate cases of political prisoners, women sentenced to stoning on the charges of adultery, and other types not really liked by the ayatollahs’ regime – and soon, was red-flagged by it again. First, his personal secretary was arrested for “walking together with a man in the street,” and later on he got to be harassed. In the early nineties, he was forced to leave Iran for the second time and moved to Australia, where he was granted political asylum.
In the new continent, following a dream of Jesus, Dana began a spiritual process at the end of which he decided to convert to Christianity. Yet that wasn’t enough for him – he also did postdoctoral theology studies at the University of Melbourne for three years and was ordained as a full-fledged priest. As a cleric, he didn’t cease to evoke controversies, especially when he decided to translate into Persian the infamous book “The Satanic Verses” by the writer Salman Rushdie, that at the time stirred a huge storm among the followers of Islam all over the world and was banned from publication and distribution in any Muslim countries. The translation created around Dana a fuss in Australia: conflicts arose between him and the Muslim believers residing in the country, and turned him into a figure that even the local intelligence services didn’t let themselves ignore. In 1994, he flew to Israel for a couple of months to conduct professional research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and when he intended to return – found out that the Australian authorities prevented his entry to the country on the claim that he posed a risk to its national security. Dana was left without a home, without an ID card and without personal security. “I tried to persuade the Australian authorities to rescind the decision,” he shares, “but the correspondence we had didn’t bring any avail. Now I understand that everything is for the better, but it still hurts me about the wrong done.”
Having no choice, Dana decided to settle in Israel. The first few months, he felt terrified and helpless, preferring not to contact the authorities for fear that they wouldn’t know how to digest his story. Finally, he turned for help to the U.N. office in Jerusalem, where he met Zena Harman – Israeli diplomat and a former Knesset member who died this year, that helped him to start afresh. Harman – whom Dana calls a “savior angel” – connected him to the International Christian Embassy, for which he was asked to carry out paid academic research. Encouraged by his achievements, he began to lecture on the Persian culture subject matter, was certified as a lawyer in Israel, handled more than a few cases of Iranian refugees seeking political asylum – and overall, started to feel at home.
And then the time came to deal with Judaism. After diving into the depths of the Koran and the New Testament, Dana felt that it's but natural to research the Tanakh – and was fascinated by it. While he began to delve into the secrets of the new religion, there occurred two major events that made him realize that he was all in all reconnecting to the roots. The first one happened in May 2003, when Dana found that his left leg was paralyzed. He was rushed to the hospital and after a number of comprehensive tests, it turned out that he’s suffering from a disorder called “sickle thalassemia.” To his astonishment, the doctors informed him the disease was characteristic primarily of the Middle Eastern Jews. “It put me in shock,” he recalls, “They had no idea I was at all a Shiite Muslim; I suddenly felt like wanting to be a Jew was springing right out of the soul, and out of an intense desire.”
The second revelation about his Jewish background took place four years later, in 2007. “My cousin Miriam disclosed to me a detail that stunned me. She told that when her father – my uncle, my mother's brother – had been on his deathbed, he had taken the palm of her hand, held it tightly, and divulged to her: ‘I want you to know we are Jews. Our original family name is Abayef.’ He told her they had hid it over the years so that the Muslims in Iran wouldn’t harass them.”
“It turned out that many years ago the family moved from Iran to Turkmenistan and Bukhara, however, eventually returned to Iran in 1920 through the Caspian Sea, after Lenin had risen to power. The guard at the border told them that if they wanted to enter the country, they must behave as Muslims in all senses. In the identity card, they were renamed from Abayef to Danande, – which means like a ‘wise man’ in Persian, but in the Hebrew context – implies belonging to the tribe of Dan. My ‘Shiite’ grandmother knew the secret, too – and now I also gathered her strange insistence not to eat meat with milk.”
Both of these exciting findings pushed him to embark with all his might on the conversion process, in the end of which he picked the name Daniel Dana. “A last name similar to Danande, and why Daniel? Because Daniel, described in the Book of Daniel in the Bible, was a Persian Jew.”
Are you keeping in touch with your Iranian family today?
“My father passed away 28 years ago, and my mother is constantly on the move between Iran and various countries overseas, where we hold family reunions. The family members know that I am not a simple person, and these are my lives. They always ask: ‘What are you doing? Why precisely Israel? Why not Italy, for example?’ Israel is perceived as a dangerous place for them. Only Miriam my cousin, and another relative who lives in the United States, believe we are Jews. Others do not believe and do not attribute importance to this discovery.”
Do you miss Iran?
“Of course. This is my country, my home. Would you not miss your home, were you in my place?”
Today you're Jewish – it appears like your home is here.
“I'm Jewish by blood, but I was born in Persia. I am a Jewish-Israeli and Persian-Iranian. I want to create an international, interreligious cultural bridge, between Iran and Israel. That’s what I believe in.”
“The Iranian Nuke Is Not Serious”
As of today, Dana maintains a religious lifestyle: keeps Shabbat, puts on tefillin, even if not yet walking around with a kippah [skullcap] on his head. He secondly married Marina, a Jew of Russian origin, whom he met in Israel, and she was the one to support him in all the conversion procedures so that they could properly get married [in a traditional religious ceremony].
His main activity today is via the PLIM [Peace and Love International Movement] Organization – an advanced and anti-militarist reincarnation of the “Javan,” which concentrates on fostering friendly relations between Iran and Israel. “We are in touch with a lot of Iranians who live outside Iran,” expounds Dana, “The aim of our activity is to clarify why Israel is a positive country, and why violence and hostility towards it on Iran’s part is wrong. We have many an activity in this respect – we invite Iranians to Israel, and promote advocacy activities for peace and harmony in the Middle East.”
When not occupied with fostering Israeli-Iranian relations, as stated, Dana allows himself to focus on the domestic politics in the homeland he had to leave. He declines to specify the exact courses of action by which he intends to further the fall of the current regime in Iran, but promises that endless efforts are invested in doing so, in far more channels than it might seem. “I work two months a year as a lawyer and the other ten months, I’m abroad – in Germany, France, the United States, Canada – in order to advance this goal. I’m doing it along with thousands of other friends who are located in Europe and the United States.”
The question is whether this is not about a heart’s wish easy to back remotely. Do you have enough active supporters in Iran itself?
“We certainly do, but it’s not possible to say who. We have a daily contact with people in the country, but the problem is that the Iranian army is very strong and it gives ammunition to about 3 million Iranians loyal to the government and opposes actively any uprising. This makes the job much more difficult. Just so that you understand: the general population in Persia, before the Islamic Revolution, was 33 million people. Today, the population numbers more than 80 million. Meaning, nearly 50 million added because of the Islamic ‘birth method’ that encourages reproduction regardless of ability to financially support the children. It’s the Shiite ‘present’ to Iran, which created tough socio-economic problems in the country. That’s a country which is basically one big prison.”
Is the State of Israel helping you?
“So far, no.”
And what about other Western countries?
“Not officially, but we have ties in Germany, France and other countries.”
What is your position regarding an attack on the nuclear facilities? Are you already counting down?
“Actually, I’m against attacking nuclear facilities, because in the end, the results will be not good for Israel. There’s also a possibility that the Iranians would pull a [terrorist] attack themselves, as a manipulation, and blame Israel. This will enable them to make a great propaganda piece. Anyway, I think that they don’t have anything really serious over there. It was alleged at the time that Saddam Hussein had much stuff, and as it turned out – no.”
There are pictures of nuclear facilities, there is satellite imagery.
“It’s not serious. If they really had something – they would advance at a faster pace. Believe me, like a lot of things with them, it is mostly talk.”
Original Hebrew article:
* For a somewhat different account, see e.g. http://www.aish.com/sp/so/The-Iranian-Mystery-Man.html?s=nb;
See also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psw8M6FS1sQ (mostly English)