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The color black
Part 11: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
>>> Images

Sima Nahan
May 23, 2006

The entire country is pervaded with the color black.

This is not the solitary and sorrowful black we are accustomed to see worn in mourning for forty days or a year. Nor is it the dramatic black of the banners of the Tasu'a and 'Ashura mourning processions, flying against a backdrop of white cotton and green silk, bringing to life the massacre of the Seventy Two Innocents and drawing tears from the great Lion of Persia. This is a new color. It can be the color of lead -- opaque and massive -- as in the paint on the windows of the whitewashed building of Chalus Hotel turned interrogation center and prison. 

Small towns in the Mazandaran province on the Caspian coast, Chalus and its neighboring Nowshahr, were favored by the Shah and his father as summer resorts. Before the revolution these towns prospered on account of waves of summer tourists from Tehran. They became associated with decadence: nightclubs, luxurious private villas, and bared female skin on the beaches. Now that the villas are for the most part abandoned by their mostly exiled owners, and women are allowed to bathe only in carefully secluded and patrolled areas in pants, overgarments, and head scarves, these towns are nevertheless subjected to an above average degree of Islamic surveillance.

On any hot and humid morning, a rusty Peykan of Nowshahr police, with its makeshift new Allah emblem, paces the streets warning the population, through an ancient portable loudspeaker, of the punitive consequences of bad-hejabi and other social offenses. The off-white Nissan Patrol of the Revolutionary Guards, with its fleet of a Peykan-ful of Sisters in tow, circles the streets in silence. In Chalus, the windows of the charming colonial building of Hotel Chalus are painted over with black paint while passers-by walk and drive by it in feigned oblivion lest they arouse the suspicion of the Pasdars lining the roof and porches of the building.  

Or the black can be glossy and piercing, as in the glance of revolutionary guards following one's movements as one walks by. It cuts through our animated conversation one day as I descend the stairs of an apartment building into the street with my friends. I am in company of three men to whom I am unrelated -- an offense punishable for all of us by, at least, flogging -- when we unexpectedly come face to face with a sight we must ignore and leave behind as quickly as we can. A man, still behind the steering wheel of his car and deathly pale in the face, answers the questions of the Pasdars hovering over him. His car is cornered by three Nissan Patrols against which some of the guards lean, pointing their G-3 semi-automatics in our direction and following our steps with their eyes. We lower our voice but do not altogether stop, and walk briskly but casually to our car. One more time we escape being the immediate subject of their attention.  

Black is the color of fear. Strapped to the ta'zir platform, J, picked up in a phone booth in a situation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or simply because of "suspicious appearance," is flogged for information at Sho'beh 5 of Evin. She is beaten on the bottoms of her feet with wire cables. No exotic method of torture, this most common form of ta'zir has proved to serve the purpose well. J is left alone when her feet become numb, only for the ta'zir session to be resumed when the wounds have "cooled off" -- which in Evin parlance means the feet and legs have swollen and the nerves have become active again. She is periodically left alone with pen and paper to write her confessions. She is confronted with other prisoners who might recognize her, or she them, before being transferred to a room where detainees -- bleeding, delirious with pain, or temporarily insane -- are kept between sessions of interrogation.

Strapped down, intermittently conscious, J lives the timelessness of pain. She remembers nothing, she knows nothing, but pain. Sometimes she is left for minutes, sometimes for hours. Unable to anticipate the next ta'zir session, the boundaries of pain and fear of pain give, and she succumbs to the permanence of the moment. She falls asleep when she is left alone to write. She even falls asleep under the lashes, frustrating and provoking her interrogators more. In the communal room she grabs hold of the skirt of a woman who stands up with a jolt in the middle of the night shaking her head and muttering to herself, pulls her down to the floor, and they both sleep.  

Blindfolded as you are, you see nothing but black. Tied down to the board with your head covered by a folded blanket, you breathe black. And in the omnipresent sound of Nuha chants echoing in the interrogation chambers of Komiteh Markazi -- as a woman is lashed in the presence of her crying son -- you hear a harrowing, ironic black: Aseman khun geryeh kon farzand-e Zahra mizanand -- Shed tears of blood, sky, the child of Zahra is beaten. 

It was one morning at work when Z received a call from her husband in Evin. His case had finally gone to trial and, two years after his arrest, his death sentence was issued. He had called to hear her voice for the last time, but thinking of sparing her one last night he had not told her of the sentence. Nevertheless she had sensed death and had broken down at the office. Dragging her two-year-old daughter to Evin the next day, in the irrational hope that they might take pity on the child, she was informed that the sentence had been carried out at dawn.

At that moment, she said, she detested all hope: her own and his. Not that she was afraid -- she had spent her years at Evin too. Under extreme physical pain she had learned how what is temporary can be eternal and how even this eternity shall pass. Enduring the pain but remaining unyielding, her belief was tested and confirmed: the future, change, freedom will triumph. But that morning when she suddenly saw her husband devoured by the beast of the struggle for freedom, everything in her mind vanished but one word: Hamid. Through the days that followed, she felt the sound of his name pounding unrelentingly inside her head, claiming, as it were, the man inside the sacrificial dress.

In prison, she had come to know the power to wipe out any existence, temporary or eternal. She had learned to stop the most automatic train of thought. She had stopped herself from thinking about her injuries, wiping off her mind the image of the lacerated and gashed flesh on her feet and legs. Through the long feverish days of her infected wounds, she had denied pain, thinking of water, of waves and rivers. But now "Hamid" pounded in her ears. The existence of this pain she was incapable of obliterating. She felt the swelling of a hard, massive rage -- a black stone germinating from deep earth -- pressing against her every fiber. And in a secretly held memorial service for her husband, she sat, unmoved, through the bitter words of a friend's eulogy:

“The blood shed for liberty and for Islam have mixed and dissolved in one another underneath the ground of the fields of poppy and tulip. That which grows on this blood over time, let us call progress. So shall progress, too, become a legacy of the Islamic Republic.” >>> Images

In the call for nourishing the tree of liberty, through the voice of an opposition group broadcasting messages from Iraq to its followers in Iran over unbearable static released by the Islamic Republic, fear of hope creeps under my skin. The broadcast conveys orders to members who may already be breaking under torture, may not be far from it, or may be recruiting younger brothers and sisters. The voice, authoritative and inexpressive, at times barely discernible, guides me through underground tunnels to small windowless rooms where blood and information will be drawn from me. And I see myself "standing" to write down my life, retreat behind layers of black cloth, stand to prayer five times a day, and wait in line to report those who break the rules and share their morning tea. I see myself slowly succumbing to the black and pungent magnetic field of God, martyrdom, and relinquished strife >>> Part 12
[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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