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Evin, Qezel Hesar, and milk for the baby
Part 7: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
>>> Images

Sima Nahan
April 17, 2006

One woman who had spent four years in Evin said that she had begun to get a feeling for the architecture of the place: the bands (communal units) each consisting of one room, one hallway, one communal washroom, and the guards' quarters; the infirmary; the yard; the solitary cells; and the approximate distance and relationship of these spaces to one another. Another woman who was released after only one year had a much vaguer notion of the design of the build­ings. To assess her direction she studied the light coming through a barred window high up on the wall in the hallway.

At one point, she discovered shadows of leaves playing on the wall or on the floor, by which she concluded that the building must have multi­ple levels. But before she could map it out more clearly, and as other prisoners also discovered the little display of the outside world and spent time hovering over the play of light and shadow, one day they found the window draped with a piece of cloth. On another day, the four-year-old son of a prisoner (living with his mother in the all-woman band) climbed on the shoulders of one of the women to take a peek at the sky through a bent ventilation shutter in the shower stall. He reported seeing a man, lying behind a door, singing to himself. The child reported "blood" and "chains." Encouraged by the women he greeted the man, calling him "uncle," and held a cheer­ful conversation until it became too risky to carry on further.

'Adara is the Arabic root for the verb "to absolve from guilt." Ta'zir (in the Persian pronunciation), meaning "absolving from guilt," is the word used for the act of torture by the prison system of the Islamic Republic. Amnesty International defines torture as "isolation, humiliation, psychological pressure and physical pain [as] means to obtain information, to break down the prisoner and to intimidate those close to him or her." The word ta'zir does not deny any of the above; it only carries with it the divine justification that in the process, the prisoner is absolved from any guilt -- those of which he or she is accused or suspected by the Islamic Republic, or any other. The once Revolutionary Prosecutor General Ayatollah Khalkhali once proclaimed: "If these people are guilty they are hereby absolved, and if they are innocent they become martyrs and will go to heaven." Before the revolution, Savak denied torture but at least called it by its name.  

I talked to a number of people who had experienced Evin. When I spoke to M she had been out of jail for less than a year. At the age of sixteen (year two of the Islamic Republic) she had been arrested distributing leftist leaflets, whereby she spent the next four years in Evin and Qezel-Hesar. Soft-spoken and iron-willed, she had survived experiences details of which she spared her family. On the day of our conversation, she ate her lunch, drank her tea, peeled fruit for her little cousin, and went on and on about what she called "the other facts of life." Her mother watched us anxiously from the corner of her eyes, torn between wanting and not wanting to hear.

M had not been cooperative with the prison authorities. She had disobeyed many rules: she had given curt answers during her interrogation; she had comforted and emboldened other prisoners; and, most importantly, she had never volunteered information, significant or insignificant. For her unyielding behavior at Evin, she was first punished by a stretch of time in solitary confinement, and then was trans­ferred to the even more sinister Qezel-Hesar prison. She said that she found solitary confinement more tolerable than the communal bands. She had bent a smuggled safety pin into a hook, pulled threads from her blanket and crocheted. She had learned to communicate with other prisoners by a coded banging on the walls. But, mostly, being left alone with her thoughts was what she found least objectionable. After her transfer to Qezel-Hesar, where it was forbidden to hold a conversation or share food with others in the band, where inmates were forced to sit for hours in the morning and hours in the after­noon in front of repeated propaganda videos, her health began to decline. At Evin she would stand motionless under the ice-cold showers in the winter as frequently and for as long as she was allowed--it gave her strength, she said--but at Qezel-Hesar she was beginning to lose, as she put it, "the energy to be human."

During her time at Qezel Hesar, the head of the prison was a man known by the customary title of Haji who has since been dismissed, allegedly on account of his unusually cruel ways but possibly because of factional differences. The pride of his establishment was one infamous Unit One, nicknamed The Coffin (Tabut), which was a large room divided by waist-high wood planks into a number of "coffins." Prisoners were confined to these structures, blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs, sitting upright without back support and with their legs stretched in front of them -- sometimes for months at a time.

The idea was to devise a method for prolonged torture that minimized the chance of death and loss of urgently sought information, and did not leave physical scars. The silence of the room was periodically broken by a fit of crying, or a prisoner standing up in her coffin, after which she would be taken away to "write." She would be given a supply of paper and left alone to put down the entire content of her memory, relevant and irrelevant to her accusations, until she became empty.

Haji was known to bring in a bouquet of flowers every now and then and declare: "I am holding fresh flowers from the garden out­side. Would anyone like to smell the flowers?" He would even some­times bring in his newborn son and ask: "Would anyone like to hold a baby...?" He would urge: "Come on girls, stand up, speak up, look what you're missing." And often the prisoners who did smell the flowers or touched the baby would "stand" and "write." M never ex­perienced Unit One. Soon after her transfer to Qezel-Hesar her health began to deteriorate, her energy dwindle, and she broke no more rules. Unbeknownst to her she was serving the final months of her jail term and within four months she was returned to Evin and then released.  

Back on the campus of Melli University, we visited my friend's old department. One of the janitors recognized my friend and both their faces lit up as they talked about the old faculty members and students of the physics department. He told us that the majority of the professors in the department now only have MS degrees and PhD students resent having to work with them. He said that he did not blame the old professors, those who were not already subjected to paksazi ("purification" of establishments, i.e. dismissal of ideo­logically undesirable employees) from quitting. He said that my friend brought with her good memories and that he was afraid that he would talk our heads off. He told us of the nightmare of finding milk or baby-formula for his 8-month old son, of standing in lines from four o'clock in the morning and at eleven being told that the sup­plies had run out.  

"They say let your wife breastfeed," he said. "You will forgive me, it is rude, but my wife is not a cow. She doesn't eat chelokabab for lunch every day either. She is wasting away trying to fill the baby's stomach."  

He asked if we had heard the rumor that recently a man driven to despair over finding milk and medicine for his infant had suddenly lost his mind and smashed the baby on the pavement in front of government representatives. (We had.) He told us that by his calcula­tions -- considering inflation, black-market prices, mandatory "con­tributions" to the war, and no raise in six years -- his income was worth far less than half of what it had been before the revolution.

As we prepared to leave he grew increasingly heavy-hearted >>> Images

"But I must say this," he said. "I feel forever indebted to the Imam. He has done us a great service.” We were taken aback a little. He continued: "Because now I can be sure that my children and grandchildren will we rid of Islam once and for all." >>> Part 8
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Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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