PITTSBURGH — Writer Yaghoub Yadali first ran afoul of Iran’s hard-line leadership for the depiction of an adulterous affair in his first novel, “The Rituals of Restlessness,” an alleged affront that landed him behind bars. An accomplished TV director as well as writer, Yadali was sentenced to a year in prison on charges of publishing subversive material, even though it had been approved by state censors years earlier.
Widespread protests by his colleagues and supporters following his 2007 detention prompted authorities to release him after 41 days. Freed, but still under constant harassment, he spent the next four years looking over his shoulder, wondering when he would be detained again.
“I was waiting to be arrested every day,” he says, recalling those dark days from the comfort of his new home in Pittsburgh, a seemingly unlikely refuge for an Iranian dissident artist.
But Yadali has made a comfortable home here as the latest writer to be harbored by City of Asylum, a nonprofit haven for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries. The program provides free housing and a stipend for writers and their families.
“Since coming here I have been able to write without worrying about censorship or persecution,” says Yadali, who discovered the Pittsburgh-area program after first coming to the United States in 2012 for fellowships from Harvard and the University of Iowa. “At first it was strange to write without those limits.”
An English translation of the book that prompted his troubles with Iranian authorities will be published in the fall with the help of his benefactors in Pittsburgh.
City of Asylum founder Henry Reese was inspired to create the artist refuge in his hometown following a lecture in the late 1990s by writer Salman Rushdie, who had faced deaths threats for his work “The Satanic Verses” a decade earlier. “I respect those that stand up against authority to keep them open and honest,” says Reese.
During a visit to Pittsburgh, Rushdie spoke of literary asylums that he and a group of world-renowned writers had prompted the governments of several European cities to create.
Today, nearly three dozen cities on several continents are home to asylum programs for artists. Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum differs, however, in that it was established by a private citizen without state sponsorship.
Following Rushdie’s lecture, Reese says, he decided that he too could provide artists with a community that would allow them the freedom to work without fear. A former telemarketer and coupon book printer, Reese was determined to emulate the model Rushdie had described.
“I just felt that we could do something on the worldwide stage … at a local level,” he says, recalling the unusual rise of City of Asylum in a once-ruined section of the city known as the North Side.