This year, as part of the group project module, my students* explored the brief stay, in Southampton, of Dr Ali Shariati, who is recognised as the ideological father of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. His short stay in the UK and unexpected death on 18 June 1977 have been shrouded in myth. Both scholars and the wider public have thought that Shariati died in London. Information on Shariati’s time in Southampton was sparse and hazy. In order to shed fresh light on this mystery, the students undertook a significant amount of original first-hand research using archives and interviews. Most important of all, they discovered his death certificate which sheds new light on this last episode of his life.
At the time, Shariati’s students and supporters in Iran did not know Shariati had left Iran in May 1977. Most people got know of his whereabouts when news spread rapidly across Iran that Shariati: “was killed by the SAVAK (Iranian intelligence services under the Shah) on the streets of London.” Although Shariati’s stay and his death in Southampton was mentioned in a few documents, the perceived intelligence at the time linked the UK episode of Shariati’s life and death to London. This could be partly because for the people in Iran, London at that period represented England and the majority did not know about cities outside London.
Shariati’s brief adventure in Southampton was also the subject of last year’s Group Project research. Then, the students endeavoured to find evidence by searching the city’s police records and also the archives of the General Hospital and the City Council, but of no avail.
This year, the students were advised to continue the research to see if they could discover why Shariati came to Southampton in the first place when so many thought he was in London. Ali Rahnema, the main biographer of Shariati, suggests that it was largely due to chance. According to him, Shariati initially wanted to go to Paris, where he had previously studied but his close friend, Nasser Minachi, the founder of the Hosseiniyeh Ershad (the non-traditional religious institution, where Shariati delivered most of his popular lectures) persuaded him to go to London where he could stay with Minachi’s grown-up children, giving them the chance to meet him. However, according to Rahnema, when Shariati arrived in London he found that the address or telephone number of the Minachi family, which he had scribbled down on the back of a cigarette packet, were incorrect. He was therefore forced to resort to his only other contact, Ali Fokuhi, who was his wife’s cousin and who studied at the University of Southampton. After a short stay at Fokuhi’s apartment, Shariati rented his own property in Southampton. However after only three weeks of staying there, he died of a heart attack.
The most intriguing question that the students needed to investigate was where, exactly, Shariati lived and died in Southampton, a piece of information that no-one, either from the public or those who had widely published about Shariati, knew.
Rahnema does not clarify either where Shariati moved to after his stay with Fokuhi, or who he had contact with while he was in Southampton. To find out more, the students used the genealogical website “ancestry.com” but could not find any results for Ali Shariati in Southampton. (This was also extensively searched by last year’s student group). Then they had the original idea of looking for him under another name. They had remembered that upon leaving Iran, Shariati travelled with a passport bearing only his second surname, Mazinani, to avoid detection from the SAVAK. Following this lead, the students traced a death certificate in the name of Ali Mazinani who died in Southampton in 1977. It gave them the address where he died, namely 10 Portswood Park. This then, was the address Shariati moved to after leaving Fokuhi’s attic.
“We followed this up”, wrote the students, “by finding the house and taking pictures and we asked the current residents if they knew anything of Shariati or of who had owned the property in the 1970s. Unfortunately, they did not know as they had only recently acquired the property. However, now we had the address we went to the Southampton City Council Archives to use the electoral register to find out who had owned the property at the time of Shariati’s arrival. This turned out to be a University of Southampton Psychology lecturer named Dr George Butterworth who had since passed away.
“We wanted to discover why Dr Butterworth had decided to rent to Shariati. We managed to contact his family who put us in touch with his friend at the time, Alan Costell. We conducted an interview with Costell, which revealed that Dr Butterworth had been sympathetic to political exiles; his wife even had connections to Iran. This goes some way toward explaining why Shariati ended up in this particular place in Southampton.
“Our final goal was to discover the impact of his time in Southampton and to do this we returned to the Southampton City Council Archives to find the census data for that period. This revealed that while in 1971 there were only 30 Iranians in the community, by 1981 this had increased to 189 and by 2011 to 1083. Initially we thought the increasing number of Iranians in Southampton was due to Shariati’s last days there, but when we published this information in the form of a website, a local Iranian contacted us to say that actually, Southampton was an official centre for refugees after the Iranian revolution, which explains the growth in population.
“The website that has now been taken down due to its costs features mini videos that condense this information. We have added our research about Shariati’s works and his impact on the Iranian Revolution in a format that will appeal to a younger audience. We broadcasted this information on Twitter and Facebook with some success; gaining over 700 views in the first week from all over the world and generating several responses from interested local Iranians.”
* Daniel Williams, Victoria Lawman, Sam Steward, Rosie Hunt, Gregory Denholm, Hamza Raja, Glenn Gowdie
The quoted paragraphs above are written by Victoria Lawman and Daniel Williams.