Doctor, dissident,
refugee, spy

Words by Jana Wendt
Photos by Tim Bauer

Tortured in Iran over illegal abortions, he informed on fellow Jews to stay alive. Now in Australia, Kooshyar Karimi is busy making amends – along with books, inventions, art, music and a medical career.

“Oh, it’s you—,” says the doctor, a drowsy, rumpled, dark-eyed man looking out from behind the door of his home. I wait in the living room, baby toys in abundance, as Kooshyar Karimi disappears down the hall, which echoes to his apologies for mistaking the time of our meeting.

The doctor has a distracted air that I assume is exacerbated by the muddle. On a wall near me hangs a painting I later learn is one of Karimi’s own: a woman with a butterfly on her head and a red ‘X’ over her lips.

In the sparsely furnished open plan room, the eye travels to a piano and a life-sized photograph of James Dean.

The Karimi who returns is not the one who met me at the door. This one is dressed in bold, pin-striped pants, held up by braces patterned with tiny polka dots, and a white satin shirt secured with diamante buttons. His rearranged salt-and-pepper hair hangs loose, nonchalantly Bohemian. With no disrespect intended to the medical profession, he is rather more eye-catching than the average GP.

The morning’s problem for Karimi is the fact that part of the previous night and many, many, other nights have been spent in his garage. Close to every spare hour—and even some that are not spare, according to his wife—Karimi is playing inventor.

“It’s a killer love,” he says. “I’ve lost 10 kilos, easy”—a fact borne out by photos taken as recently as last year, showing a filled-out version of the man before me.

“If I don’t sleep at all, I can still manage,” he says, a restless, nervous energy ticking in him. The consuming subject of the diminutive inventor’s passion is a subject for later discussion. In the meantime, on a sun-bathed Sydney day, we reset the dials. The doctor reveals that in the early hours of this morning, trying to avert another garage bender, he took a sleeping pill in order to be fresh for our conversation.

He told not a soul, not even his closest Muslim friend, of his Jewish roots.

Sitting in the home he owns, under the pleasant leafy canopy of Sydney’s North Shore, Karimi’s stories about his old life in Iran are as compelling as the Hazar Afsana—reputedly the Persian origin of the 1001 tales of the Arabian Nights.

His birth in the back of a police patrol car in Tehran, to a 17-year-old slum-dwelling Jewish mother, sets the scene. Karimi entered the world as an abjectly poor member of a despised minority. The pain that came from those circumstances arrived in successive waves, each slightly different.

“I hate poverty. Hate it!” says Karimi, his intense eyes flashing. “Because it crushes you, especially in Iran.”

“If you are poor, you are an ant—you are nothing,” he says, bitterly.

At the age of five, Karimi was already working, making his way from the damp basement where the family lived, to another: a cobbler’s shop where he straightened crooked nails.

From left: Misha, Kooshyar and Newsha with baby Anna; Kooshyar and Koorosh as teenagers; Kooshyar's childhood library card; Homa with her sons Kooshyar and Koorosh.

When the five-year old labourer learned he was a Jew, he did not yet understand the extent of his curse. The fact that his mother, Homa, who revealed the secret to him and his older brother Koorosh, also demanded the brothers conceal their Jewishness, only deepened the appeal of the religion of Abraham and Moses for the younger boy. Kooshyar Karimi turned into an avid student of Judaism in a nation that prostrated itself before Allah. It was a case, he says, of “Jew-fever”.

Homa’s own desperate and loveless childhood pointed the way not only to what would become of her, but to the fate of her sons. Abandoned and consigned to a life with malevolent relatives, she was, says her second-born, the neglected and beaten “Cinderella of the household”. When an opportunity came in her teens to escape the torment, she took it.

A fetching Muslim bus driver, 24 years her senior, provided the exit. However a concession was required in return. Immediately after the couple’s elopement, Homa converted to Islam. It was not until later that the young woman learned her knight had two other wives, and many children.

Some readers may recognise the story I have outlined because Kooshyar Karimi is also a writer who, four years ago, revealed intimate details of his own and his mother’s life in I Confess: Revelations in Exile. Today, he strikes me as less doctor than writer, and one with every writer’s aspiration: to tell meaningful stories.

“I don’t like just entertaining, bullshit stories,” Karimi says. “I want to talk about important things in the world.”

Again, he retreats down the corridor to bring out a haul of books published in Iran, which might give true weight to his claims. Some of Karimi’s work has been as translator from English to Farsi—a standard medical text earned him his first decent money as a young man. Karimi shows me a handsome edition of the poems of Kahlil Gibran. Inferior translations, he says, can be “like brass copies of silver statues”.

Turning the pages of the Gibran volume, he effuses: “I made a copy in gold… I’m mad [good] in Farsi. Less than 10 people can read and write in Farsi like me. Confidently, I’m telling you.”

His mother's advice: “Be as smart as a snake among your enemies and as naïve and plain as a pigeon among your friends."

In his suburban Australian living room, fielding my questions, it is as though Karimi is gathering up the shards of his identity in an almighty effort to construct a coherent whole. The fragments are lost sometimes as he leaps distractedly from subject to subject, forming long chains of occasionally, only loosely related topics.

“My talk’s like a word salad,” he admits, a smile appearing and quickly disappearing from his lips. At times, he dives deep into the story he is intent on telling. At others, he is less attentive, perhaps bored. Some subjects prompt a distant look and a lowering of the voice.

My host regularly jumps up to make tea, or offer fruit. On one occasion, when Karimi wanders to the terrace outside to smoke, I follow and find a mound of butts—Karimi’s spent comfort—in a jumbo ashtray.

For Karimi, at 47, the task of reconstructing his identity is hard because the place in which he was formed was alien to him. He told not a soul, not even his closest Muslim friend, of his Jewish roots. The ascension to the role of Supreme Leader by the fearsome theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, when Karimi was 11 years old, was hardly an invitation to share deadly secrets.

His mother Homa, he recounts, gave Karimi critical advice: ‘You have to be as smart as a snake [among] your enemies and as naïve and plain as a pigeon [among] your friends.’”

Karimi adds “I remember asking: ‘Who is the enemy?’ She said: ‘Everyone’.” Homa “realised everyone betrays you; nobody loves you. [If] you’re going to survive in this system, you betray them too… and she transferred that to us,” Karimi says. “You need to be manipulative, very smart, sometimes deceiving, sometimes extremely honest.”

Karimi honed the survival techniques necessary for life in a totalitarian theocracy.

“I remember asking: ‘Who is the enemy?’ She said: ‘Everyone’.”

“It’s not a Hollywood movie where you can say ‘Yeah, I think you are not the Supreme Leader, I think you are an arsehole, and this is against democracy. You [would be] dead the next minute,” he says.

“You have to come and admire the Supreme Leader, and [then] go next door and say very political comments about him to bring him down.”

Unlike other Iranian Jews, whose birth certificates are marked ‘Jewish’, Kooshyar Karimi and his brother Koorosh, sons of a Muslim father and a Muslim convert mother, were officially members of the majority faith. Their father being largely absent, the boys continued to be Jews within the four walls of their home.

Some Muslims were suspicious of them. Some of their Jewish relatives were condescending. Despite the mountain of obstacles placed in his way by the all-seeing apparatus of state, Karimi, with the help of an influential friend, was able to pursue and complete medical studies after an initial rejection. He had fulfilled Homa’s ambition—shared by so many Jewish mothers—to have a doctor in the family.

His true passions, however, lay elsewhere. His brother, Koorosh, now a software engineer in the US, tells me from his home: “I went into mathematics and computer science. He was coming to our department and talking to our professors about subjects like physics, or mathematics, or geometry, while he was at medical school. Impressive. He was always like that.”

But Kooshyar Karimi’s determined opposition to the regime was a guarantee of strife. Koorosh says his brother was reckless despite already being in the regime’s gun sights.

“He was always doing crazy things,” he adds.

The doctor’s rebellion risked the gravest consequences when he became, in his own sardonic words, “Iran’s leading abortionist”. Despite having reservations about abortion under normal circumstances, Karimi agreed to terminate the pregnancies of hundreds of desperate girls and women, some of them victims of rape who, under Sharia law, faced death by stoning for having sex outside marriage. Karimi the writer described the intimidating circumstances in which he operated, in his second English book, Leila’s Secret. He risked a jail sentence or, in the case of pregnancies over 14 weeks, execution.

Could you resist torture? Kooshyar Karimi explains why you probably couldn't, at least in Iran.

These terminations were the pretext that Iranian intelligence used to detain and torture Kooshyar Karimi. He was 28, a surgeon and a published author. In the course of 65 days, he made the admissions his torturers wanted and agreed to spy for the regime. His principal task would be to exploit his standing with fellow Jews, some of whom were related to him. Although a number of the new spy’s targets were strangers, they nevertheless confided in the well-regarded Dr Karimi, who, they believed, was researching a book on Jewish history.

He has no way of knowing how many Jews were questioned, detained, or tortured as a result of his spying.

The whip that delivered 50 lashes to Karimi’s back – and the cigarette that scorched his flesh – worked their magic for the Iranians. For 13 months, Karimi acted as a terrified agent for the regime he despised. At his masters’ direction, he claims to have targeted as many as 90 people. While Karimi listened to what his victims revealed—often trenchant opposition to the regime and philosophical support for Israel—he feared the small recorder concealed inside a cigarette packet in his pocket would click off and expose his betrayal.

Sitting on the terrace of his Sydney home, cigarette in hand, Karimi acknowledges he has no way of knowing how many Jews were questioned, detained, or tortured by the Iranian regime as a result of his spying. He knows the identity of some, but admits there could have been more.

“A few would have been in serious trouble” he says. “Torture in Iran is common… especially if you’re a guy—you go in and they start punching you. It’s just fear, they want you to be scared.”

When asked if he thinks, these days, about what he did then, Karimi, his voice low, and eyes downcast, replies: “Any time I have a bad thing happen, I say it’s because of that. It’s in me all the time. I think about it. I didn’t want to do it… I loved these people. I hated [it] when they were talking. I thought ‘Oh God. Shut up! Don’t say that.’”

Koorosh Karimi describes his brother as being at “breaking point” in 1999 when Kooshyar confided in him about the depth of his involvement with the Iranian regime.

“That was a scary thing,” says Koorosh, “very serious and very scary.”

Six months after the revelation, Kooshyar Karimi escaped to Turkey, believing the Iranian authorities were planning to kill him. “After he left, everything crumbled,” says Koorosh, who was threatened by gun-toting government thugs.

“I became the target for the same group that were after him,” he says. “Sometimes [there were] very, very strong threats. [They wanted to know] whether I’d talked to Kooshyar, whether I know what he’s doing…”

Kooshyar Karimi’s arranged marriage in Iran to a Muslim girl, Azita, was unhappy and ended in Australia years after Karimi’s escape via Turkey and arrival here in 2000 as a refugee.

“We hated each other,” he says. “If [Iran] was a free country and we dated, we wouldn’t even finish dinner together. That’s how different we were.”

The union produced two daughters, 22-year-old Newsha, and Niloofar, 17, who now live with their father and his second wife, Misha, an Australian GP who married Karimi in 2014. Around us in the Karimis’ living room lie 15-month old baby Anna’s toys. They will be shared with a second baby, due in July.

Eight years Kooshyar’s junior, Misha Karimi says her husband promised “some beautiful stories to share” before their first date in the coastal town of Tea Gardens, north of Newcastle in New South Wales, where both were on a medical placement.

Kooshyar held back the darker tales. He still remains guarded, says his wife, about details of his treatment at the hands of his Iranian torturers.

“Occasionally, he will tell me a little bit more,” she says. Eighteen months into the couple’s relationship, the GP recalls her husband “mentioned that he actually had a fractured base of skull as part of the trauma, and was coughing up blood for quite a long period of time.”

Kooshyar Karimi still suffers constant headaches, a condition he traces to what was done to him.

To survive in Australia, he installed mirrors, sandblasted shower screens, delivered pizzas and did body piercing.

"Writing in one language is such a small dream."

Remembering these words as Goethe’s, Kooshyar Karimi took them to heart. They inspired him to pursue a study of English back in Iran. Ultimately, in Australia, with the help of an editorial collaborator and his daughter Newsha, Karimi completed the memoir I Confess in English. In 2012, as he travelled around Australia publicising the book, which had evolved over 10 drafts and 11 years, he learned his mother Homa had been detained in Iran.

The complex and somewhat mysterious character of Homa had consumed a large part of the book, which also delivered excoriating criticism of the Iranian regime. Although she was unaware of the exact contents of the book, Karimi claims Homa had encouraged him to publish it. He had in turn warned her “they might take you in, question you, interrogate you”. Her son told her he did not believe the regime would go further than that. It did.

“They took Mum to shut me down,” he says today. An intervention with the Iranian government by then Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr led to the release of the then 63-year-old, who had been held and tortured for more than a month. According to Karimi, his mother was “devastated, crying, shattered” in a phone call after the ordeal, “and I was so relieved she was released”.

"I can lie to get what I want, because I grew up somewhere where betrayal was part of normal life.”

Karimi says he has inherited a little of his mother’s “craziness” and her passion for life. To survive in Australia before qualifying to practise medicine, Karimi installed mirrors, sandblasted shower screens, delivered pizzas and did body piercing. Early one morning, he sends me an audio track of a song he has written, on which he plays piano (in what he calls a “horrible” self-taught style). Also included in the email are many images of his own paintings.

A painting by Kooshyar Karimi

A painting by Kooshyar Karimi

I conclude there are 25 hours in Karimi’s days.

“All this passion and curiosity,” he says, “I think [it’s from] Mum. So a lot of good things, bad things from Mum? How can I say it? I can be deceiving; I can lie to get to my aim, to get to what I want, because I grew up somewhere where betrayal was part of normal life.”

He is sitting on the sofa with his back bent into a stoop, as though a vast weight has descended on him. A small menora rests in an alcove nearby, not far from a small, framed copy of rock star Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, which hangs on the wall. Karimi is talking about his decision to reveal in I Confess his mother’s affair with a wealthy man he detested.

“When I found out that my Mum was with this man, it was one of the saddest moments of my life—I crashed,” Karimi says, his voice diminished to a whisper. “It’s [a] very private part of her life I’m exposing, but basically… I’m trying to say that she sacrificed her body and her pride to bring food to the table for us.”

Karimi will not let go of another mystery concerning Homa: he is certain it was she who helped Iranian intelligence track his activities during the period he performed abortions in Iran. A mobile phone Homa gave him, quite unexpectedly, and for which the doctor was never required to pay, was the secure connection—or so he believed—to the women seeking his help.

Why Karimi risked his life to perform abortions in Iran.

Karimi says he thinks the Iranians exploited his mother’s weakness to get to him: “She didn’t know this was going to be dangerous for me. Definitely not… Mum has got the biggest weakness for money. They definitely gave her something… and then gave her the phone as well. And she would have felt powerful…”

He pauses to consider the sinister recesses of his mother’s character.

“Is this an evil person?” Karimi asks. “She’s a damaged person. It’s very perplexing,” he says, as though struggling to decrypt a code.

Koorosh Karimi has his own views about the relationship between his mother and younger brother: “I can tell you it’s like a love affair between the two,” he says. “My Mum loves him, and he’s done so many things to her.”

Both of Homa’s sons, reunited after 17 years when Kooshyar visited the US last December, agree the story of their lives under the tyrannical Iranian system had to be told—no matter the price. It is a story that may soon have even wider currency, courtesy of Hollywood—where, according to Kooshyar, a producer and director are eager to see it on the big screen.

His projects include a kettle that boils in 30 seconds and a toothbrush that pumps toothpaste through its handle.

Misha Karimi, bemused, says her husband is “absolutely appalling” with money.

Having come from a country which permitted no financial credit, Karimi is taken with the power of the plastic card. He is given to impulse buying—presents for others, clothing for himself, ordering more restaurant food than he or his wife can eat. A flashy sports car, she says, cast such a spell recently that he was determined to buy it for his wife there and then.

“It took arguments,” she says, to stop him.

Inside the garage of the Karimis’ home, the place where Kooshyar has spent so many nights, is a demonstration of another type of passion.

“Sometimes he’s almost quite manic if it’s all going well,” says Misha Karimi. “Other times, he’s quite flat if it’s not producing as much electricity as he thought it was going to.”

‘It’ is the final iteration of a humming, vibrating and blindingly illuminated contraption—the ‘Terramagnetron’. With professorial flair and references to the thermodynamic laws of physics, its inventor explains the development of the device—a generator, which makes use of powerful magnets to produce electricity.

Kooshyar with the Terramagnetron (photo by Jana Wendt)

Kooshyar with the Terramagnetron (photo by Jana Wendt)

Karimi is not modest in his claims: “I realised if you magnetise piezoelectric crystals—that has never been done before—and put [them] in a magnetic field… they start vibrating,” he says of the launching point for his project.

“It needs nine to twelve watts to run but the output is around 100 watts,” Karimi claims. Humans paying for electricity, he says with impish pleasure, is like fish paying for water.

“Everything will change with this… I love this machine,” he says. “This will make a lot of news around the world.”

The Terramagnetron is not the only project born in Karimi’s garage. It follows on the heels of a kettle that boils in 30 seconds; an ear-attached drowning alert; the ‘Collision Averter’—a solar-powered flashing light for driveways; an infection-checking device for babies’ urine; a laser light attachment for police headgear to dazzle and disable attackers; and a toothbrush that pumps toothpaste through its handle.

Misha Karimi says: “When I’d just given birth to Anna, Kooshyar was sitting there in the hospital with a table full of electronic things. Yes,” she recalls, good- naturedly, “that was the drowning device.”

The inventor’s passion that reached its apotheosis in the Terramagnetron has taken its toll on the couple.

“We love each other,” says Kooshyar, “she understands, but it’s frustrating.”

“There is something missing in Kooshyar's existence.... I know whatever he does is just for the sole purpose of filling that hole in his heart.”

His childhood self, he wrote, was “a boy who aches”. In Kooshyar’s impoverished beginnings was hunger not just for food, but for Adonai, the Jewish God, and for the affection of a father preoccupied with his other children and wives. I ask Koorosh how he believes his younger brother has come through.

“There is something missing in his existence,” he says. “There is a hole in there. And he’s trying to fill it with hard work, or invention, or doing this thing and that, and he can’t fill it… I know whatever he does is just for the sole purpose of filling that hole in his heart.”

The sign on the door in a suburban Sydney medical clinic proclaims the credentials of the room’s occupant: Dr Kooshyar Karimi MBBS, MD, AMC, FRACGP.

By now, we know there is more to it than that.