Some distant day, Sara Khadem (Tehran, 25 years old) will explain very complex facts to Sam, her 10-month-old son.
Why did she decide to play the Rapid Chess World Cup in Kazakhstan on December 26 without a veil —a very serious offense in her country, Iran— as a protest against the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old girl who died in police custody on December 16? September, three days after being arrested by the morality police in Tehran accused of wearing the mandatory headscarf incorrectly.
Khadem will also explain why she emigrated to Spain next, along with him and her husband, 32-year-old Ardeshir Ahmadi (filmmaker, television presenter and businessman; imprisoned for three months in 2015).
Sam's angelic smile presides over this interview,
carried out in a secret place for security reasons and for fear that the relatives of the young woman in Iran will suffer reprisals.
There, much less than what she says here is enough to go to jail.
Sara Khadem (that's what she likes to be called; her official name is Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, whose transliteration into Spanish would be Jademalsharieh), Ardeshir and Sam give the image of a family of happy immigrants who have just opened their house in an upper class development.
But the couple's hope for a new life is darkened by the sadness of leaving their country under great stress.
“Yes, mixed emotions is the best way to describe what I feel.
Before our son was born, we never thought about emigrating.
Thanks to chess, I traveled a lot.
It is true that in the Middle East the situation is unstable, and that many people have a plan B to emigrate if things go bad.
I never worried about it because, as an elite athlete, I never had a problem getting visas”, she explains.
And neither does her husband, because he has dual Iranian and Canadian citizenship.
“But when Sam was born everything changed,” adds Sara.
“I started to give importance to living in a place where Sam can go outside and play without us being worried, and many things like that.
Then Spain emerged as the best option, thinking of Sam.
Seeing him happy here makes us happy.
And the character of the Spanish people is very similar to that of the Iranians.
Sara's new game
The interview is relaxed, except when the questions touch on sensitive topics, which Sara carefully addresses.
And rightly so: on the same day of the appointment, January 10, an Iranian court sentenced the activist Faezeh Hashemí Rafsanjani, daughter of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1934-2017), former president of the country and founder of the Islamic Republic.
Faezeh was charged in July with "propaganda against the Islamic Republic" for criticizing the Revolutionary Guard.
And she was arrested in September "for inciting rioters" who were protesting the death of Mahsa Amini.
If this happens to the daughter of a national hero, it is easy to deduce that Sara and Ardeshir cannot rest easy despite being well known in Iran and well connected at the heights of power.
The fear is not only for their relatives in Iran - "I hope they do not suffer reprisals because if someone has to explain my gesture it is me, not them, since the decision was mine alone", emphasizes the chess player -, but for possible members hostile to the Iranian community residing in Spain.
Despite all this, she makes an exception to her precautions when asked about her relationship with her veil: “Here I am going to be very honest.
Before this World Cup, when I traveled to tournaments I only wore it if there were cameras, because I was representing Iran.
But with the veil it's not me, I don't feel well, and therefore I wanted to end that situation.
And I decided not to wear it anymore."
She played without the hijab —mandatory in Iran for girls and women over the age of nine— in the midst of a wave of protests throughout the country, with thousands of arrests (more than 18,000, according to Iranian NGOs in exile), at least 16 sentenced to death and four executed as of this writing.
Amnesty International has spent years denouncing the lack of rights for Iranian women.
In its last annual report, it highlighted: "Women suffered discrimination in law and in practice with regard to issues such as marriage, divorce, employment, inheritance and holding political office."
And that “discriminatory legislation on compulsory veiling resulted in women being subjected to daily harassment, arbitrary detention and torture and other ill-treatment, and denied access to education,
Iranian chess player Sara Khadem, 25, on January 10 in Spain. Ximena and Sergio
Khadem's unveiled photos at the World Cup in Almaty (Kazakhstan) have gone around the world, but his life has been interesting since childhood.
A child prodigy, probably gifted (although she thinks not), she started playing competitive chess at the age of eight and immediately began participating in international tournaments: “Traveling is the best school in life, even when you have a hard time.
I especially remember a trip, as a child, to China, where we were put in a collective school dormitory in poor conditions.
Those experiences make you tougher.”
At the age of 12, she was the U-12 world champion.
But the return with the gold medal to his usual school in Tehran was traumatic: "Instead of congratulating me and being happy, my teacher told me that the enormous time I was devoting to chess would be much more productive if I invested it in mathematics or other more useful subjects.
She showed no empathy.
But I held on and kept going."
The next step was to stop going to school, except for exams, to which she dedicated only the week before, because she was almost always traveling or preparing tournaments with the unconditional support of her parents, which she underlines as one of the keys to her successes: among others, world champion under-16 in lightning mode (five minutes per player) in 2013 and runner-up under-20 in classical chess in 2014, at just 17 years old.
At 19, he met Ardeshir, who by then had already spent three months in what he said was the "worst prison in Iran", Evin's, under unclear charges, but probably related to a report he had done for television about an
music group .
They got married in 2017 and took advantage of Sara's participation in various editions of the Gibraltar tournament (the best open in the world) to get to know different parts of Spain, which they liked a lot from the beginning.
At the end of 2018, at the age of 21, Khadem was already among the top 20 in the world in classical chess and was the runner-up in rapid and blitz games.
His future was outlined full of splendor, but his career was going to be stopped dead.
In the last days of 2019 and the first days of 2020, he was involved in two events of international repercussion in which he already exhibited the courage and firmness of his principles.
He recorded and published a video in support of Alireza Firouzja, the prodigious Iranian chess player, then 16 years old, who immigrated to France with his family and changed his nationality, fed up with the Tehran government forcing him to lose by default every time he asked him. It was time to face an Israeli.
This is a strict order, imposed on all Iranian athletes, even children.
The author of these lines has been a direct witness of these situations in World Cups under-8, under-10, under-12 and others, where he has heard explanations several times, without a tape recorder,
of Persian coaches or delegates who can be summed up like this: “I don't mind my boys having Israeli friends or playing soccer with them in the morning.
But if I allowed them to play an official game, with flags, against an Israeli, the punishment would be very harsh”.
“My immediate goal is to get into the top 10 in the world [she is 17th on the January 1 list].
And I also want to become a 'streamer', says Sara Khadem.Ximena and Sergio
As the Iranian government's position on this matter is extremely intransigent, Khadem is very careful when asked: “When we have to face an Israeli, if we play we have a problem;
if we don't play, too.
Answering that question gives me the same feeling;
I'll be in trouble no matter what I say.
So I prefer not to answer.
Her words about Firouzja are somewhat more forceful: “I supported him, and I think that the results after her emigration to France [now he is fourth in the world, at 19] show that he did well.
Saying I was punished for it might be too strong a word, but let's just say they didn't like it."
The facts indicate that she was indeed punished: three weeks later, she Khadem did not play in Gibraltar, despite being registered;
In addition, a few days before, she announced her resignation from playing with the national team in protest of a terrible event that occurred on January 8, 2020: an Iranian anti-aircraft missile shot down a Ukrainian plane with 176 people on board;
they all died.
The Tehran government said it had been a mistake.
Khadem remembers it this way: “All the Iranian people were heartbroken, me included.
I decided to leave the national team for that reason and stopped playing chess for a while."
And that's when the pandemic arrived, which culminated in the slowdown in its progression.
Before continuing the chronological account, it is convenient to explain a striking paradox.
Iran is one of the great chess powers in Asia, after India and China.
Also emigrated Firouzja and Sara are its brightest talents, the tip of a solid iceberg, with other young world elite players such as Maghsoodloo and Tabatabaei.
But chess was banned in Iran by the government of Imam Khomeini after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The reason is quite curious.
During the Middle Ages, chess was practiced in some parts of the world combined with dice, and money was bet.
The Qur'an forbids gambling.
Ayatollah Khomeini interpreted that rule in an extreme way, and some professional players, like Sharif or Shirazi, had to leave Iran, to France and the United States, respectively.
But several Iranian intellectuals generated a debate with common-sense arguments: in the history of chess, one of the essential stages is Persia, where it probably arrived from India around the sixth century, before traveling to the south of present-day Spain in the late of the VIII;
dice and betting have not been played for centuries, and what better entertainment for Muslim warriors than a war game.
Khomeini rectified shortly before he died, and there began a stage of massive diffusion that today translates into phenomena like Firouzja and Sara.
She explains it like this: “Before the Revolution and the prohibition, there was already a great chess culture,
a lot was played in the houses.
We already had a great teacher, like Harandi (1950-2019), who later became my first coach.
And that accelerated the subsequent emergence of very good players.
“Thanks to social media, Iranians can see that people are fighting for their rights,” says Khadem. Ximena and Sergio
And now you are going to resume your career from Spain?
“Yes, I will continue to play with the flag of Iran.
My immediate goal is to get into the top 10 in the world [she is 17th on the January 1 list].
And I also want to become a
, hosting chess shows.
I've had that idea for years, but I didn't want to do it from Iran with a veil."
Achieving such ambitious goals requires a lot of time, which you don't have right now.
Among other reasons, because he has been reading books on child psychology for a year and a half since his pregnancy: “A very important part of a person's character is formed in childhood.
Parental input at that stage will have a long-term effect.”
But she has her husband: “Being a professional player implies a dedication of many hours a day.
Ardeshir helps me a lot, and it allows me to continue being the same person I was before we got married.”
Sara Khadem has three role models in chess: Gari Kasparov, Judit Polgar and Magnus Carlsen.
And all three inspire topics of conversation of general interest.
Kasparov, a staunch opponent of Putin since he retired from high competition in 2007, emigrated from Russia to the United States in 2013 because his life was in danger, and today he is still very active in that fight.
“I admire him a lot, he is very brave.
I don't think I have the knowledge it takes to make big changes, but I do fight as hard as I can to make the world better,” says Khadem.
Polgar, Hungarian, the only woman in history to have been in the top 10 in the world, only went to school for exams (as has happened to Sara since she was 13 years old).
After her retirement, in 2014, she fights for two main objectives: to introduce chess as an educational tool in school programs and to increase the number of female players, which in the 21st century are still very few (approximately 10%).
Khadem unites both issues: “Chess is very useful to educate children.
I will include him in Sam's education, regardless of whether he wants to be a player or not.
And he has a label of masculinity that needs to be removed, so girls see him as normal play.
It is very important to include it as an educational tool from preschool and mentalize teachers,
so that frustrations like the one I suffered at the age of 12 are not repeated, and stereotypes disappear.
I believe that the recent worldwide success of the series
can help a lot."
Protest in Tehran on September 19, three days after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died in police custody. Ap / LaPresse
Carlsen, Norwegian, is now the undisputed number one.
But he is also in the news due to a scandal: he accused the American Hans Niemann of cheating him (with the help of computers) without evidence in the game that the Scandinavian lost on September 4 in St. Louis (USA).
Niemann has sued him for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Khadem is confused: “I have the impression that Niemann did not cheat in that game.
But, on the other hand, I have great respect for Carlsen, who at the moment is accusing without evidence.
Perhaps he has them, because the matter is being investigated.
We must wait for all this to clear up."
Khadem almost always speaks with intermittent smiles, as if he wanted to sweeten each opinion.
But his grimace changes to a much more serious one when the talk turns back to the situation in Iran.
“Now, thanks to social media, most Iranians can see how much human rights are valued in the rest of the world, and that people fight for them when they are violated.
And that is what is happening in Iran.
Women fight for freedom.
There is also a paradox here: 60% of Iranian university students are women, but in Parliament they only occupy 16 seats out of 290: “Unfortunately, there are people in power who do not see women capable of managing politics or other issues .
They want them to just be housewives.
But some are fighting to change it, and I think they are going to succeed, because older women also see what is happening in the rest of the world, and many of them are supporting the younger ones."
In fact, there is a custom assumed as normal by the majority of Iranian women, especially the young ones, according to the testimony of several people who have traveled to Iran in recent years: when they are invited to a house, their attire inside is much less demure than abroad.
In a country with such strict rules,
“Unfortunately, there are people in power who do not see women capable of managing politics or other issues.
They want them to just be housewives”, says Khadem. Ximena and Sergio
In addition, youth predominates: the average age in Iran is 31.7 years.
And it is clear that the majority of Iranian youth are against the government.
Is Iran a gas-filled bubble that will burst sooner rather than later?
"When young people in any country in the world are fighting for a better life, the government of that country must change what is necessary for them to live better."
How do you see Iran in 10 years?
“I think the world tends to be better.
And Iran cannot be an exception.
We are going to make progress in various areas: human rights, the environment and many more.
Iran will soon be a better place."
As Sam continues to explore the surroundings, the conversation ends with another paradox: “When Iran is in the news, it's almost always for political issues.
But, without a doubt, Persia is one of the oldest and richest cultures in the world.
Throughout the centuries there have been various scientists who have made significant contributions to humanity in their field.
The same happens in literature (especially in poetry) and in art in general.
And in the cinema, we have Kiarostami, Farhadi and others who have won many awards.
Although my husband is a film director, I am a beginner at the moment.
But I would like to know much more about that world, ”she comments with a laugh.
In fact, Persian culture already existed long before Islam.
Does she feel more Persian or more Muslim?
“The first thing is a nationality.
The second, a religion.
I am Iranian."
Although not completely free to say what he thinks: “For me, freedom is having the opportunity to be ourselves.
It does not mean that everyone does what they want, but I believe that having the right to do it without harming others is an essential need to live."
The Iranian chess player Sara Khadem. Ximena and Sergio
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