Caught in the Ayatollah’s Web
By SARAH WILDMAN
January 6, 2008
PRISONER OF TEHRAN
By Marina Nemat.
306 pp. Free Press. $26.
MY LIFE AS A TRAITOR
By Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman.
242 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.
How many men and women have been brutalized in Evin, Tehran’s notorious political prison? Built by the shah, the prison became a ghoulish instrument of the ayatollah after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Although Evin remains the repressive arm of the state, we rarely hear about its victims. (One notable exception is the Iranian-born Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who made headlines after she died under interrogation there in 2003.)
Two women, Marina Nemat and Zarah Ghahramani, both safely ensconced in the West, have now come forward with memoirs of their imprisonment at Evin. Their testimonies, recounting experiences separated by more than 20 years, illuminate Iran’s human rights abuses and speak to the moral dismemberment of a society based in fear and repression.
Nemat’s and Ghahramani’s accounts of arrest, torture and imprisonment are depressingly familiar. We have read these descriptions of beatings, humiliation and terror before, from Chile to Burma to Abu Ghraib. In each case, there is a weird sameness: the blindfolding, removal of human contact, debasing. Yet each victim has her own story to tell.
Marina Nemat grew up in 1970s Tehran in a middle-class Catholic family. But after the shah was toppled and the Islamists slowly consolidated power, “the world in which I had grown up and the rules by which I had lived and which I had believed to be set in stone were falling apart,” Nemat recalls. “I was a stranger in my own life.” Here we hear echoes of other Iranian memoirs — namely “Persepolis,” Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel. Perfume and makeup disappear, girls and boys no longer hold hands, and Islam classes supplant school curriculum. The teachers in Nemat’s high school are replaced by members of Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards. When Nemat raises her hand and asks to learn calculus rather than revolutionary theory, she starts an impromptu schoolwide walkout that begins her inevitable journey to Evin.
“I felt as if the country were slowly being submerged in water,” she writes. In prison, she meets a cadre of young women, each accused of a vaguely formulated antigovernment activity.
“Prisoner of Tehran” is a gripping personal history, but not a high literary event. Nemat’s prose is often treacly and hackneyed. Still, her testimony makes the book vital. She is best when relating painful stories of young people destroyed by Iran in the early 1980s. One fellow inmate, Sarah, descended into madness after her brother was executed and wrote the story of her life endlessly on her arms, legs and torso, refusing to wash lest her memories be forgotten. Nemat herself remained silent on her imprisonment for 20 years and concealed even the most bizarre twist in her story: She was briefly married to a prison interrogator, who helped commute her death sentence in exchange for her hand in marriage.
By contrast, Zarah Ghahramani wrote “My Life as a Traitor” soon after fleeing Iran for Australia. Born in 1981, she never knew a prerevolutionary Iran and held naïve hope that recent reforms would grant at least a modicum of personal freedom. In 2001, when she was 20, Ghahramani was tortured and imprisoned at Evin for her role in a protest at Tehran University. Wrapped in “a cloak of snobbishness,” she writes, “I hadn’t believed that my life could be invaded by people I considered beneath me.”
The details here are sharp, evocative — and angry. Her hands turn a “weird blue” after being tied behind her for hours; her scalp bleeds and itches when her hair is aggressively shorn as punishment. She longs for small pleasures, like pink shoes. In the midst of a beating, she worries that a cut on her chin will become infected. “I will become deformed and ugly,” she writes. “I will no longer be a pretty Persian girl. ... How powerful my vanity is!”
Ghahramani’s descriptions of torture are described unsparingly. She staves off insanity by talking to the man in an adjacent cell, her “madman,” who keeps her alive partly by insistently speaking to her. Ghahramani, who had been studying translation and Spanish before her arrest, cites a poem by Federico García Lorca: “Oh, death awaits me / before I get to Córdoba!”
Ghahramani thinks of herself “as a Persian rather than as an Iranian.” Her book, written with the journalist Robert Hillman, is a defense of Persian and Kurdish identity (she has both), Farsi and her anger at those who have subverted Persia. “I want my children to read Sadi and Hafiz and Khayyam and Rumi,” she writes. “Then I want them to read the Code of the Council of Guardians.” Why, she asks, have the mullahs “squandered such a beautiful language on this nonsense?”
In “Prisoner of Tehran,” Nemat asks her godmother why the family never asked any questions about her incarceration. “We’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid of knowing,” the woman answers.
Resistance to that fear animates these two important and chillingly universal memoirs.
Sarah Wildman, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, writes on Islam and migration in Europe.
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