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Repent, repent...
Part 10: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
>>> Images

Sima Nahan
May 12, 2006

Taba is the Arabic root for "to repent." Tavvab, in the Persian pronunciation, is "the repentant one." In the vocabulary of the prisons of the Islamic Republic, tavvabs are those prisoners who repent their "counter-revolutionary" and "divisionist" pasts and see the light of God on pain of death. Depending on the degree of their cooperation, tavvabs enjoy privileges and authority within the prison system. They may be given the responsibility of distributing food, rationing the tea, or keeping an eye on the activities of fellow prisoners. They may be chosen by male guards as mates for siqeh (temporary marriage) and occasionally rewarded with frivolous contents of confiscated handbags.

I heard the account of one tavvab who had fallen in love with Lajevardi, head of Evin Prison, and shed tears of longing over a newspaper clipping containing his photograph. Others might accompany Pasdars on their patrol rounds identifying former neighborhood associates for interrogation. Some with a good enough record might be allowed to visit their families at home for twenty-four or, sometimes, forty-eight hours. Often they inherit tasks that prison authorities reject.

One such task is the tedious putting together of disparate information extracted from prisoners. Tavvabs are given, for example, the most illegible accounts written by prisoners and are required to reconstruct and diagram the hierarchy of a prisoner's contacts within a "subversive" organization. It is a task somewhat like assembling a triangular jigsaw puzzle, which in its completed form depicts one high-ranking member at the peak, followed by a few lesser ones, and branching out progressively to include all of the prisoner's contacts.

The most rejected task, however, is not a bureaucratic one. This is the ritual finishing off of executed prisoners. With the firing squad watching, certain tavvabs are known to have demonstrated their utmost loyalty by firing the final shot into the head of a fallen man or woman -- perhaps even a one-time comrade.

On the street one day after their release from Evin, Z and two of her former prison mates ran into a young woman tavvab whom they recognized in spite of her heavy veil. She had run away from them in horror and Z's friend who was better informed in these matters explained that released tavvabs have good reason to fear identification and revenge. The friends later learned that this particular woman had voluntarily returned to Evin as a guard and continued to live in the band where she was once held prisoner. Tavvabs are broken people. "Repenting" a former existence, denying the past, does not leave a person whole.

The anthology of Ruzha va Suzha ("Days and Burnings") is published by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, Division of Prison Supervision. Sometimes it contains essays -- passionate but unreadable ideological critiques of one opposition group or another -- but mostly it publishes poems and stories by repentant inmates from Evin and Qezel Hesar. In the introduction to the first of these volumes we read:

“The merit of this collection is that it uses art to convey the message of prisoners who used to belong to groups antagonistic to the revolution. This is a message born of a culture [farhang] that, despite its long-standing existence, has unfortunately never been presented as such. Many of its aspects have been explored in other more direct forms -- such as in interviews or reports -- but these can never deliver the message with the effectiveness of a work of art.”

The "other" forms of expression referred to by the unnamed author of this introduction, that is, the televised interviews and published "reports," are familiar devices of propaganda warfare used by both Savak and the Islamic Republic. These are known for being quite ineffective in convincing the public of what the regime wants. Neither the eager nor stony faces who appear on the television screen every once in a while, speaking of their misguided and criminal past, inspire conviction in viewers. They are not meant to convince the public. They are used to break spirits.

The writer of this introduction quotes Tolstoy, "the great and religious Russian writer," in defining literary art in terms of the transference of an experienced feeling from writer to reader. The "sincerity of emotions" which, according to this article, charac-terizes art is the missing element in official interviews and reports:

“Let others say what they may... Let there be talk of the use of drugs and force in extracting repentance. Once you have sat with these people and listened to their recounting of regret, suffering, and longing you can judge for yourself the sincerity of their words. Art -- exquisite and effective art -- is like a hand opening a pomegranate, inside which you can discover for yourself the lusciousness or the decay of the fruit.”

The anthology offers instances in which the mentioned "culture" is actualized in writing. There appears, most persistently, the sweet and peaceful moment of embracing death -- pure and for itself.

“Tonight my heart roams our city like a stranger. Silence cloaks the sleepy streets... Pure is the scent of the orange blossoms and sweet is the sorrow running in my veins. My heart travels the dark road to the graveyard of our city.”

The moment of final surrender is drawn out and savored in a story about a railroad worker who sacrifices his life in order to save a passenger train from crashing into a collapsed tunnel. Told in second person narrative, the story ends with a passage describing the worker's body lying lifeless on the snow:

“How slowly you take your final breaths... You are glad to leave the tracks of life behind and no longer be a captive to it. You would smile, but you no longer have the strength. In a few moments nothing will remain in your memory and you will know no one... You think of the high flight of eagles and your eyelids close in peace. The pleasure of this eternal sleep rests softly on your face.”

But the culture of repentance must by definition also celebrate a new beginning. In a poem entitled "A Narrative of Sleep and Awakening," we read of "awakening" through being consumed by fire:

“Now that I burn in the fire that I myself have set,

I speak of my sleep and awakening...

From the extremes of humiliation

I speak of eternal shame,

Of a strange but newly familiar sorrow.”

In the short stories of the anthology, this awakening, the new beginning, appears in different interpretations. In a more lyrical story it may be the protagonist's discovery of the serenity of a certain mosque to which she used to be indifferent. In a zealous piece, it may be presented as a new commitment to the cause of Islamic justice. But frequently, it takes the form of a transformation that takes place in a woman as a result of an act of self-sacrifice on the part of a man. The relationship between brother and sister is a recurring context in which attachment, conflict, and resolution are examined. Through this process a sister's perception is altered in ways prescribed by the brother.

In "The Shattered Mirror" we read of the political "subversion" of a young woman who comes from a devout religious family, of her resulting alienation from them, and her reawakening following the martyrdom of a brother. The story opens with the news of the protagonist's acceptance to the university, immediately after the revolution when some degree of political activism still existed on campuses. Sadiqeh is seduced into a movement with a rhetoric of "toiling masses" and "comrades" and is persuaded by her new associates to exchange her customary black chador for the lighter rupush and rusari worn by women of less pious backgrounds.

She wears the new garb whenever she is away from her own neighborhood and she feels torn in her loyalty to an organization that calls men like her two brothers serving at various fronts "mercenaries," and to the beliefs of her widowed mother. She is repeatedly warned by her old friend, Masoumeh, who attends the same university (but in black veil) and has the chance to witness Sadiqeh's change of personality, as well as by her mother who instinctively senses distance and danger. Without her veil Sadiqeh feels exposed and uncomfortable, and the pressure from her friend and mother is constant and unrelenting. At one point, after an unpleasant encounter between the two friends on campus, we read:

“[Sadiqeh] was touched by the ease and lightness of Masoumeh's movements. For a moment she wished that she too would wrap herself in her veil and at once be free from all this confusion and anxiety...”

Meanwhile one of her brothera returns from the front having lost both legs -- but Sadiqeh remains persistent in her new ways. She even goes so far as to expand her contacts within the organization and finds herself working directly under a male associate. As her previous contact, a woman, introduces her to the new man, they all shake hands:

“Sadiqeh stretched out her hand reluctantly. This was the first time she was shaking hands with a man. She felt his warmth and was overcome with feelings of shame and sin. She quickly withdrew her hand and was overwhelmed by the sensation of her own descent into the fires of hell -- the heat of which seemed to emanate from the warm joining of their hands.”

The moment of confrontation comes when Sadiqeh's second brother, Javad, accidentally runs into her, in her liberated costume, on the street. His rage is blind and fierce, and she half expects to be murdered by him. The incident occurs two days before Javad’s departure for the front. After receiving a good thrashing at his hands, out of fear and shame Sadiqeh locks herself overnight in the cellar. Persuaded by her mother and invalid brother to make peace with Javad before he goes off to war, she emerges from the cellar the next day. Javad is calm and understanding. She collapses into his arms:

“She devoured the scent of his body and the rosewater sprinkled on his shirt. Tears flowed on both their faces and mixed on their cheeks. Sadiqeh liked to taste his salty tears on her tongue. They remained motionless for a few moments. Javad moved his lips to his sister's ears and she felt the roughness of his whiskers on her skin. Sadiqeh felt that he had something important to say to her and she listened with her entire body. Javad whispered in her ears, quietly, only for her to hear: 'Sadiqeh, sister, you must never forget God... Just remember that other than God everything else is a mirage and nothing more. I shall be leaving but you who will remain must know that you cannot live without God.'”

When Javad's body is brought home in a casket, his mother and sister are surprisingly calm. Looking at Sadiqeh's bewildered face, her mother says: "My innocent daughter, I understand that the sorrow of living without a brother is great." The family is glad that Sadiqeh had made peace with Javad before he was martyred. When finally Sadiqeh breaks down at his burial, she pulls back the white shroud in which his body is wrapped and sees that his skull is crushed and his eye sockets are empty. She wails and the congregation wails with her. At home she tries to collect her thoughts in solitude.

Roaming absentmindedly in the yard, she walks to the pool and sorrowfully addresses the goldfish: "Salam. I've come to be reconciled with you. This is the Sadiqeh who loves you. This is Javad's Sadiqeh." When she dips her hands in the water she feels the fish slipping through her fingers. She recites: “Astaghfurillah-i rabbi wa atuba ilayha -- I beg God's forgiveness and I repent.” Then she unfolds her long-untouched prayer carpet, dons a white veil, and goes down in prostration:

“Then she saw Javad again. He was standing tall before her, smiling. She too rose, and muttered Allah-o Akbar.”

By my reading, Sadiqeh's transformation is her return to the family and its ways, which is where her capacity for passionate dedication comes from. Her commitment to the leftist movement is only a transference of her family's devout faith to a new cause -- a cause whose adoption is her rebellion. And as her rebelliousness is crushed, her passion is redirected homeward to what seems like the very object of her passion: her brother. Sadiqeh's uninhibitedly sensuous love, such as she describes while in her brother's arms, would never find expression outside of the family.

In "On Leave for a Few Days," the relationship between sister and brother is presented in yet another aspect: the dependence of the sister on the brother, not only in the correctness of her perception of the world, but in her ability to perceive at all. This is a story of a revolutionary guard, Said, who returns home from the war for a few days, his regrets for having survived his martyred friends, his benevolence toward their families as well as his own, and his assassination by "terrorists" on the street. The story is told by his sister, Maryam, who is hungry for his teachings. She recalls that before going off to the front he had had a long talk with her: "I understood him perfectly, as if I had known it all before... Indeed a brother is his sister's eyes."

He had said: "Maryam, I hope that you will never become like Mojdeh and Nayyereh who have nothing on their minds but pretty clothes. Today I saw them on the street wearing gilded scarves on their heads. I wish they wouldn't do such things -- the scarves shone in the sun like chandeliers... Sister, pray for me to be martyred. All my friends are gone. I have fallen behind. I am the only one left." Maryam had said: "Don't say these things, brother. I don't want to lose you. If you die I will be blind." "No, sister, the Imam is the eyes of us all. Pray that he lives forever," he had responded.

After Said is gunned down on the street, Maryam takes to reading his books: "I have learned many things from him. I have learned how to learn." She speaks to him in her dreams and his image is always with her: "Now I don't have to wait for him to return from the front. I know that he is dressed in white, like an angel, floating in the sky above our house. Last night when I closed my eyes and my tears were trapped between my eyelids, I seemed to fly over the seas with him. A red tulip had grown on his head. I flew with him. I was no longer afraid -- not even of horseback riding and swimming. He taught me everything." 

She continues: "The terrorist who shot you was blind. He could not see how you left the earth like a green tree and ascended the sky. Now he cannot see that like a white dove you are forever alight." She decides that from then on she will no longer be "Maryam" but "Rafideh" who, in a footnote we read, was a "sister nurse who served in the tent of the prophet." >>> Images

For a sister's ability to "see," even when her visions seem more like surrealistic hallucinations than Islamic Truth, a brother must give his life. For a correct or improved identity of a sister-Sadiqeh's return to her old identity, Maryam's transformation into Rafideh -- the brother must be sacrificed. The blood of the brother is the salvation of the sister >>> Part 11
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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