A long journey to the inner self

An Iranian Taoist goes forth – first to study martial arts, then to escape persecution. Today, Ali Koohzadi lives in Georgia, teaching Tai Chi and struggling for asylum. A life.

by Lara

When Ali Koohzadi embarked on the flight that was meant to take him out of his home country forever, he had never heard the word refugee before. He knew nothing about asylum regulations, nor could he possibly foretell his chances to be granted a residence permit at his destination. All he knew for certain was for survival, he had to leave Iran for good. When looking back today, he has no Idea what made him pick Georgia as a substitute home. But throughout his life, Ali has never asked this kind of question anyway: “Since I was seven or eight years old I understand this. It’s not me – something moves, something selects me, something in the universe directs me to anything at any place.”
Whether fate, divine force or merely a subconscious attitude – had it not been for ‘something’, his life would have been by far less turbulent and most certainly easier. Born to a Mullah family in Tehran in the late 1960s, he grew up in a world strictly defined by traditional views and strong religious beliefs. But something inside of him always prevented him from relating to this life: “From childhood on I felt something is not correct in this religion.” It was mostly coincidence that the boy searching for answers and belonging encountered Taoism. Through practising Kung Fu To’A, a Persian interpretation of Kung Fu founded by Ibrahim Mirzaii in Iran in the 1960s, he started to engage in the philosophy behind it. From then on, his life became centred on these beliefs. Aged 12, when revolutionaries overthrew the Shah and proclaimed the Islamic Republic, forcing grandmaster Mirzaii to flee Iran after surviving a murder attempt, the boy decided he could not stay in the country. Aged 14, he broke with his parents. “My family pushed me out because they understood I am not praying as a Muslim. I broke the rules of this religion, and they were a strictly religious family.” Without their financial support, he had to drop out of school and start working his way from one badly paid job to the other, trying to fund his dream of migrating to the USA. But to leave the country, he needed a passport and to be issued a passport he needed to prove three years of military service. So Ali went to war. Upon returning after these three years though, foreign relations had worsened significantly and a visa had become unthinkable. The USA had suddenly moved far, far away.
The place where Ali finally found his way many years later lay more than 7000 miles from where he had expected it to be. In the Wudang Shan, a mountain range in the centre of China known for its multitude of Taoist temples and monasteries, he experienced a change in his self-conception. “I feel myself. I understand what my body is, the universe, nature. What the inner is. How I can be free from any rules.” Achievingthis was not easy. After almost 20 years of gathering money trying to go abroad, Ali had arrived at Beijing airport in 1998 completely unprepared and unaware of what lay ahead of him. He neither knew anything about the formal structure of Taoism as an institution, nor did he speak a word of Chinese. Still, he adjusted almost naturally. “One night in winter we sat together and this man started to tell a story from when he was young. He talked about a tiger who became friend with the mountain. Suddenly I started to laugh. Another student who knows English asked me, you don’t know Chinese, how can you laugh, how can you say yes? How do you know this? I said I don’t know, I just see what he said. When they asked me what he said, I could tell them. It was wonderful.”

“There was no internet, no radio, no books – nothing. Only we and the nature.”

Ali instantly related to the life in the monastery. Switching from Kung Fu to the internal and more meditative martial art of Tai Chi, the simple lifestyle and strict routines granted him what he has been searching for throughout his lifetime and still tries to achieve: a lifestyle fully devoted to his ‘inner’.“ At 4 o’clock in the morning we woke up. There was no heater, no warm water in winter, no good clothes and no warm room and no strong food”, Ali describes his day to day life. “So we got up 4 in the morning and at 5 we started to walk around our mountain. At 7 we had breakfast, only the water of rice. And for lunch was rice with a cucumber which we cooked in water, without oil or salt. So we ate, and after this, from 8 to 12, we practised. The same from 3 to 5 and from 7 to 10. At 10 we went to our room and we should sleep. There was no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no books and no people – nothing. Only we and the nature.”

As far as Ali was concerned, he could have stayed forever. After about two months in the monastery though, his permit ran out. He had entered China with the purpose of studying modern Wushu at the sports University of Beijing, yet quickly noticed that this was not the right thing for him to do. Now the government refused to issue him a visa for a monastery stay – he had to return to Iran. From this moment on, he led two dissimilar lives, entangled by official terms and visa regulations: Whenever the date on his stamp forced him out of the country, he returned to Tehran, practising illegally in private and saving money until the 6 months were up and he could re-enter. He commuted between these two worlds for over twelve years. Yet while Ali became more and more attached to the life he lead in the Chinese mountains, political transformation of his home country induced a detachment from this other life that finally forced him to give up both.
When the 2009 presidential elections delivered a government of rather disputable legitimacy, they resulted in nationwide protests giving birth to a new-born opposition in form of the green movement – and to a wave of sanctions which surpassed the preceding in number and severity. To Ali, the self-proclaimed only active Taoist in Iran, theses sanctions posed a serious threat. He started to withdraw his actions further into private, but the threat persisted and slowly prevailed. Once, without an occasion or warning, he was imprisoned. How long he stayed in that darkened underground cell he can’t remember. But the experience changed him: “When I came free from prison they told me that anytime I start to be active again, I am under their control. They will catch me again, and they told me if they take me again they won’t let me be free.” The fear these days caused in him should follow him on his future path, even beyond the borders of his country.
Today, living in relative safety in Tbilisi, the burning fear has retreated to a dim glow in the background. In the last three years, he has built up a new life and existence. Lacking any degree or formal occupation, he does the only thing he is really good at: Wushu. By teaching Tai Chi, Qigong and Kung Fu, he manages to make a living in an alien world. His arrival in Georgia was accompanied by a culture shock much bigger than any he experienced before: Suddenly he was surrounded by new impressions that were unavailable in the monastery and illegal in Iran. It took him a long time to get used to nightlife, parties and alcohol, and every time he had to touch a woman during training, he was terrified. “When I entered Georgia, it was like another planet. I am almost 50 years old, but when I am talking with people they say I look like a child. Another thing is difficult: you know western people always work with their mind. And I don’t have a very good mind. I look for the inner and for them what I am doing is stupid. They look for intelligent people, not for people who follow their inner. Of course some people can feel, can understand, but mostly people cannot.”

“I understood that something won’t let it happen that I stay here as a refugee.”

It was during one of his Tai Chi classes, roughly a year after the fear had forced him out of his home country, that Ali shared his story with one of his students and she told him to apply for asylum. “A refugee”, she explained to him, “is someone like you”. Thus he entered the stage of refugee procedures and asylum debates. Battling his way through the authorities, the questions he encounters keep confronting him with the same obstacles over and over: What changes suddenly threaten his life after having practised rather safely in Iran for over 12 years? How could he just leave with a normal visa and flight ticket? And why didn’t he enter Georgia as a refugee in the first place? Ali’s story is too atypical for him to be considered a refugee officially; yet he cannot be granted humanitarian protection either, as he did not flee from a war or revolution. Iran, despite being among the countries with the lowest democracy index and the highest number of executions, is a highly stable state. Every letter of refusal Ali receives brings back that old fear.
“Last week the Georgian government told me that they won’t give me any status. What should I do? I don’t have money and I don’t have any place to go, and if I return back to Iran I don’t know what happens. But I know that they never kill anyone at the border. They let people enter and live, one day, one year, to be sure, oh, I don’t have any problem. And suddenly one day people cannot find this person. They take this person, hidden, put him in a prison, or they kill him. When I was in prison, I understood. I found out.”
The question how to go on is unresolved. It seems that for once, his inner guide has left him all on his own. But to Ali this is just another stage of the journey: “I understood that something won’t let it happen that I stay here as a refugee. I ran away from Iran and now I am in Georgia. But this journey continues.”

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