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Prison Memoirs

PLAIN TRUTH, MEMOIRS FROM WOMEN'S PRISONS IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC

Monireh Baradaran (M. Raha)
February 1, 1997
Book chapter

Evin Prison: Summer 1988

The warm summer months appeared normal. We were allowed out into the prison courtyard as before. Fruits and other goods were on sale. Life went on with its normal order and rhythm. The rotation to clean and serve the cell-block was the same as before. The fact that there were less of us had not made a difference in this. The daily classes were not disrupted. We began classes, like school children, at 8 am. We would study a language, a book or articles that we had archived from newspapers. Silence was compulsory until lunch was brought.

But beneath this apparently calm life there was also something else: an anxiety and fear that showed itself at night in nightmares. We would wake up suddenly by the strangled wailing of someone and, dazed, would look at each other in search of the source. We would trace the voice, wake up its owner, and give her some water. Then there was sleep and nightmares once again, and the painful feeling of being lonely and defenceless. Death was on this side of the wall. Did those on the other side know? No. Perhaps the calamity on this side of the wall was no more than a small pebble thrown on the calm waters of those on the other side. Or, perhaps, the turbulent waves of life "outside" rolled and broke on one another, drowning the cries of our slaughter.

At dusk I would stand and stare at the other side of the wall between two iron bars. A youth flew his pigeons, and they would circle a little while before returning to their shed. On Fridays, people continued to pour onto the mountainside [1]. In those summer months the happy cries of children and grown-ups mingled with the loud music of the Luna Park [2] not far from us.

That August and September of 1988, the presence of balloons in the sky was a sign that the International Trade Fair was on again. On one of the highest, the British flag was displayed. The logic of the trading world was not to be disturbed by the gloom of our loneliness, the cruelty of the hangman's noose, and the pain of a whipping which appeared to have no end.

It was in the small world of the prison that I learned that I have a larger motherland. You could not trust the papers for internal news. You could find more news and articles from other worlds. I read, and in advanced Europe, I found myself alongside striking British miners; in mysterious Latin America, I found myself agreeing with the Sandinistas in their search for peace and sympathetic to the Farabundo Marti Front [of El-Salvador]; in the Middle East, in empathy with the anger and defencelessness of the Palestinians. But in those days I saw myself, and us, as the forgotten in the age of communications. In its noisy clamours and trumpeting it ignored us. A huge and naked tragedy was unfolding in the silence of the "free peoples" of the world and in the applause of politicians rewarding the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Yet I will assume, and let us assume, that at that moment the prisoner felt the course rope round the neck, he or she did not have my bitter feeling; that they murmured songs which began with the pronoun "we" so that our "free" consciences do not commit suicide from despondency and disillusion.

Questions

From time to time they would come from judicial authorities with questions which only called for a "yes" or "no" reply. Once we were having lunch and they came asking: "Do you pray?" and "Will you give a videoed interview?"

We put down our spoons and one by one said "no" and waited for death. The two who had said "yes" had such a bitter and angry tone that the judicial authority doubted his own ears. Next day they came back and introduced themselves as being an amnesty commission charged with investigating our files. They had said the same thing before. A number of times they took away some prisoners with a life sentence. They had kept them waiting for hours in the interrogation building and then returned them. Fardin [3] who for years had been under a death sentence was kept for weeks in one of the solitary cells of 209 [4]. Every night she waited her turn. She had heard and seen them take some prisoners away every night and next day replace them with new ones. When she returned to us a deep groove had been added to all the grooves on her face, and she hid a mysterious something in her pale smile.

In August we got a newspaper cutting from cell-block 2. They had begun to supply newspapers to block 2. We read that the spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council, after much cursing at the "discredited" communists, had asked for the "maximum penalty" for them. He had said that "after the hypocrites [Mujadedin] it is the turn of the non-believers" [5]. The words were clear and needed no analysis, etc. But there are times when knowing something and being informed is not the same as actually believing. One fights with oneself not to believe, not to be overcome, and to stay alive.

On the second week in September the whipping of the leftist women began. The news reached us by a woman who had been arrested for being a Baha'i. We did not believe until it was confirmed by other news from block 2. The news was: with the first light at 4 am, with the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, the cell is door opened, the prisoner is taken out, is laid out on a bed in the middle of the corridor, and is whipped. Five lashes. The cell door is then locked and another door opened. The second prisoner is laid out on the bed. The third, fourth, etc. It takes about an hour. The next turn is with the mid-day call to prayer, another five lashes, the third about four pm, the fourth at nightfall at about 8 o'clock and the last before midnight. Twenty five lashes on five occasions.

In the first days, Mojtaba Sarlak came personally. The prisoners inside their cells could hear the whistle of the whip and the squeaks of the bed when the lash hit the prisoner's body. Later it was the old female Pasdar Taleqani, with her large build and masculine face, also whipped. And her whip hand was no less strong than Mojtaba's. In subsequent weeks other pasdars, male and female, came and lashed. They even gave the whip to Yusefi, an old woman who had excused herself saying that she did not know how.

At first we could not make out who they whipped, new prisoners or veterans? A complementary report came. They were veterans who had long finished their sentence [6] and had been transferred to solitary. After one or two weeks some of them were returned to block 2. The news spread like wildfire. We jumped on top of the cupboard and saw them from the gap in the window. Thin and bent, they walked with difficulty. It was as if they were ashamed. They did not lift their heads to look at us. They sent us news that they had agreed to pray; the regarded themselves as defeated. They had been told in their trial that the punishment for a non-believing woman is death under the lash or repentance. They wished they had been given a death sentence rather than a slow death. They saw no hope for an end to whippings. How sad and disappointed they looked.

Analyses and judgements on those who had accepted to pray under the lash had barely begun when this time the draw fell on us. We had expected it. They took away seven or eight. Anxiously we saw them off. They were returned near noon so that they could give us the exact news. They had been taken to court and asked: "Are you a Muslim?", "Do you pray?" They had all answered in the negative. The religious judge had given out a verdict of death under the whip or repentance. They had announced then and there that from that moment they would go on a hunger strike in protest at the judgement, a dry hunger strike. This took immense courage, especially under the circumstances, and it seemed that they were prepared to stick to their decisions. They were all prisoners of the 5th Branch who had been arrested in relation to the Tudeh party and the Fada'i majority (pro-soviet communist parties).

When the mu'ezzin sounded (the call to prayer) they were taken away. The judge had said that the whipping would start that noon. From then on we would be fixed to our spot whenever the call to prayer sounded. Silence threw its shadow everywhere. I imagined the cell doors opening one by one. They were laid out on the bed. The whistle of the whip would resound along the long corridors. They were returned to the cell, waiting for the next turn. It would have been less painful if they had been dealt the 25 lashes in one go. They said themselves that the wait was much worse than the whipping itself. They could not sleep at night. The gap between the last lash, around midnight and the early morning whipping, between 3.30 to 4 am was too short. They later learnt to sleep between the morning and noon lashings, which was longer.

One or two weeks later they took another group of prisoners. Now we knew what it was for. They came back. Their court case had not come up. Next morning they were ready and prepared for their names to be called out, and they all waited like this for some days. We all waited. One of them who was young, daring, and courageous used to dress up every morning and, walking past the door, would ironically joked "Pasdar (revolutionary guard) of our block! What ever happened to this lash of ours?"

In the end they were taken away. It was a Monday, September 23rd or 24th, about the time the schools open (the end of school holidays in Iran). That same humorous young girl told us as we were saying goodbye, "We are going to school. We will either pass or fail." They too went on hunger strike in protest against their judgement, a dry hunger strike. Not drinking even water, they would feel only hunger, thirst, and the whip. We now knew what days the court's sessions were held. If I remember rightly it was on Mondays and Wednesdays, days of waiting and more anxiety.

All but one of the second group were also supporters of Tudeh and the [Fadai'] Majority. Strike was their unanimous decision. It was not clear why they were taken before we were. Was there a special reason? It did not appear so. The previous group that were taken from block 1 had belonged to various political groups. In vain did we search for a specific reason. Yet this sort of question inevitably occupied our minds. Sharareh, who had a phenomenal memory and was the encyclopaedia and accurate memorizer of prison events and usually got it right, remembered that when lists were being prepared their names were on top of the list and by each other.

In the slow-moving hours and difficult days of waiting, everyone normally occupied themselves with something--and usually alone. One had set up a carpet waving post between two bedsteads; another with infinite patience was placing dots on a paper pattern for knitting. In those days two beautiful carpets were woven. Two others insisted on sewing a dress for me from a pair of trousers which would, under no circumstances, yield enough material for a dress. Every day I stood for an hour, motionless and they moved the material against my body this way and that. They sewed something that would not fit me. Then, with a thread from a stocking of the same colour as the cloth, they weaved a patch and sewed it on. It was no use telling them that I did not need a dress. In the end they produced something that I never had the courage to wear.

In those days Les Miserables was the only novel available to us, a memento of Ghezel Hessar. It had been gathering dust for months in the cupboard, for everyone had read it at least once. It was back in circulation in those days and was being passed from hand to hand. In the evenings, now that we had no television to while away the time, we used to gather in one of the rooms. The assignment was novel reading. Each person had to recount a story that they remembered. It was not easy. It was many years since we had read those books. Laleh had this unique power not only to remember novels she had read in detail, but to recount them in the most delicious way. She "read" the novel Passage from Sorrows over several nights. She did not change the order of events, was true to the original, and created the characters as they had been developed by the author. Laleh was a true artist. She knew music and had a warm voice. She then went to the long novel, Jean Christoph (by Romand Roland); we listened, all ears. Another friend, after she had recovered from the tablets which she took to take her own life, recounted Gadfly (by Sadegh Hedayat). In these moments we found solace. We came out of ourselves and for a brief moment forgot the reality of those days.

Jokes also spiced our days. At times we would laugh our fill. The topic of the day was the whipping, our destiny, and revolved around ways of escaping that fate. One said she would tie a pillow on her back and would pretend she was a hunchback from the beginning and wanted us, if the need came, to support her story. Showkat said she had made a shield from tin cans. She said that the noise of the whip on tin would not only not make Mojtaba suspicious, but he would put it down to his prowess. It was said that whipping only applied to those born to Muslims. If someone could prove that their parents were not Muslims they would not be considered a renegade non-believer [kafar mortad]. I said that I would tell them at court that my parents were both Marxist. The kids were shocked. I laughed and said, "Don't worry, they are both long dead." Another pointed out, "Then they may ask you the beliefs of your ancestors." I had not thought of that. After a few moments I shouted excitedly, "I will say my grandmother and father were utopian socialists."

One day Sharareh and another sat in the corner of the yard worrying over Eshrat. She was one of the oldest of the "melli-kesh" prisoners [7] and suffered many illnesses. She was a diabetic, had kidney problems and backaches, etc. Sharareh was worried as to what would become of Eshrat under the whip with all her ailments. What would happen to her insulin injections? Roghieh joined them, and they told her of their anxieties and fears. Roghieh burst out laughing and recounted the story of an infertile couple. One day, riding a cloud of fantasy, the woman became pregnant. After nine months of an imagined pregnancy she gave birth to a girl. They called her Safieh. They brought her up in their imagination. They imagined her pregnant, and after nine months she faced death during labour. They began to cry and beat their heads and breasts, "What will happen if Safieh dies, woe on Safieh." We were drawn to their corner of the courtyard with their laughter.

Silent Cries

One morning when I suddenly woke at the sound of the Muezzin, I heard the weeping of a woman. It was from a cell-block below us. It had an indescribable burning and pain. It was not a cry; it was all pain. It compressed your heart such that you hated the dawn of another day. I thought the noise was from block 2. Perhaps a woman had heard of her husband's execution, or had a nightmare. We later learned it was Nazi. She had recently been brought from the solitary cells. She had resisted days of lashings. In the end she could take it no more and prayed. They had sent her and a few others who had given in to prayer under the whip to one of the rooms in block 1. The pasdar would enter the room at each prayer time and would not leave until they had done their prayers.

That strange burning cry on that dawn was the pain of the wrecking of a human being. Nazi was 19, six years ago, when she was arrested. She was tortured a lot and had withstood it all. She had held her head up with pride. She was kind, and her kindly smile gave her pale face a special flavour. She had finished her sentence some years back but remained incarcerated because she had refused to submit to the humiliating conditions of release. After the massacres of 1988, she was sent to block 2 separated from her old friends. I would see her from the window when she went into the courtyard. She looked bent and extremely dejected. She was released later that year.

Ozra resisted for thirteen whole days under the lash. On the thirteenth day she cut her wrist. The pasdars found out and took her to the dispensary and sewed up her wrist. The lashings began the next morning. After a few more days she too prayed.

For the last one or two years, Ozra had unfortunately come under the attention of Zamani, the prison's security chief. As her sentence was drawing to a close, Ozra was taken for interrogation, where she was noticed by that man who was provoked by her straight answers and uncompromising tone--or perhaps he had made a bet with himself--to break this arrogant young girl. Ozra was also startlingly beautiful. For a time she was regularly called up to him for debate. In the closed environment of a prison this method could be trap. Young Ozra had quickly realised this and avoided falling into the trap of debating. Zamani went on calling her and at times used Ozra to convey his threats and views to us. He said that in the end Ozra would give in. She had been regularly sent to solitary cells. She had been lashed. Finally she was taken to block 2 to separate her from her friends.

She too stopped praying as soon as those black summer days were over. It was in spring of 1989 that she was freed.

Mahin had been alone for years. That is after she had endured the "boxes" [8] for ten months. Ten months of sitting cross legged between two boards, chador and blindfold on, motionless and wordless. She had sat and not surrendered. She was taken out of the coffins after Ghezel-Hessar's governor changed. Afterwards she rarely communicated with anyone. She ate alone, walked alone, read alone, and was totally alone. After some years she stopped talking altogether. Her room was next to mine. Whenever I went there, her silent presence screamed at me and made me ashamed of my chatter and laughter. She never protested, however. Never. Nothing made her happy or sad. That is how I saw it. Sometimes I doubted if she actually saw events outside her. But she saw and she smelt.

In those summer days of 1988, she was desperately restless. Anxiety and dread were making waves on the calm sea of her looks and face, and it was probable that she would commit suicide. Quietly she was observed and followed wherever she went. When she went to the toilet or the bath, her friends waited outside and if she took a long time they would find an excuse to enter. On a number of occasions when she locked herself in and refused to open, they climbed the wall and prevented her suicide attempt. She had tried to cut her wrist. The last time when she resisted and pulled her bleeding wrist angrily from their grip, they had to inform the pasdar. They should not have done this, but now there was no stopping her. The next day, or a few days later, she finally succeeded in cutting her wrist and killing herself, killed by them, the prison guards who had ground away her psyche and caused her illness. They did not even try to save her life.

Mahin Bedui's beautiful face was a scream, a silent scream.

One September morning, whose dawn bore no ray of hope yet we had no choice but forced us? to get up, clean the room, reply to the repetitive greeting of fellow prisoners, for the day's worker to prepare breakfast, one person on the bed above remained asleep, oblivious of the daily activities. I pulled myself up on the bed bars to wake her. She was in a deep sleep. I called but she did not reply. It was then that I noticed her unusual breathing. I pulled the blanket back. Her face was swollen and dark. We banged on the door. The pasdar arrived quickly. It seems they too expected unusual happenings in those days. With difficulty we took her down, semi-conscious and flaccid, put on her blindfold and chador, and since there were no stretchers, the pasdar allowed a few of us to take her down to the first floor dispensary, which lacked any medical facilities. In those days no one was taken to Evin's central clinic.

It transpired that some days ago she had quietly collected sleeping tablets from here and there. They brought her back two or three days later. Her face still was swollen and purplish. The despair and bitterness of her looks were so painful that for days I did not have the will to approach her, any one of us could be in her place and even had thought of doing as she did. Despair is also a human emotion. Everyone understands this except those who have an ideal vision of the political person.

In that ominous August we heard that Raf'at in block 2 had committed suicide with cleaning powder. She had been in our block until recently. They had taken her away with the Mujahed prisoners. She came back two weeks later. As usual she had not said a word. Where had they taken them? What had happened? What became of the others? She had said nothing before she took the cleaning powder.

She was severely psychologically deranged. She was always alone and silent, and plagued by obsession. She spent most of her time by the sink or the bath, her sleeves and trousers rolled up, washing herself, her clothes or a pot. The previous summer her brother had hanged himself in prison but her psychological history dated to before this, perhaps to the time that she was taken for further interrogation. She was part of those Mujahedin who had won the confidence of the interrogators by pretending to be repentant and willing to co-operate. They had performed tasks for the Mujahedin such as getting news of the inside out of the prison. When the authorities uncovered this venture, for a long time they were pressured and placed in solitary. Some were executed. The rest were given life sentences. Raf'at was given life.

Her sad blue eyes, in the midst of her pale child-like face, are hidden among these lines.

On October 6, news spread like wildfire: "The prison governor has changed." Perhaps this was a ray of hope.


1. Evin Prison lies in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, which span the north of the capital [tr].

2. Funfair, close to Evin [tr].

3. Fatemeh (Fardin) Modarress Tehrani, Tudeh Party, executed March 1988.

4. Prison cell-blocks are known by their telephone number [tr].

5. Kafar, literally apostate referred to the communists [tr].

6. In prison jargon, they were jokingly known as melli kesh--literally "nationalised victims" [tr].

7. She was a prisoner who, after a very long imprisonment, had finished her sentence.

8. Prisoners were placed in wooden "boxes, not much larger than coffins. They wore blindfolds all the time, even when eating; were violently woken at dawn; had to sit bold upright and still, facing straight ahead till evening, in total silence. Penalty for any infringement was the whip. This went on for months, almost a year for some, until the prisoner broke. Some went totally mad" [tr].

Source : Iran Bulletin, a political quarterly in defence of secularism, democracy and socialism. www.iran-bulletin.org