On a cold winter afternoon in Tehran a woman dressed in her imposed Islamic attire enters into a dark underground tunnel, escorted by a guard. Passing through the dark labyrinths, she could barely see anything. Only flickering light of a small flashlight moving a few feet at a time convinced her that indeed they were moving forward. The air had a unique smell into it and a mixture of sweat, mildew, urine and dampness somehow reminded her of a mortuary where she watched her mother's body being washed and prepared for burial years ago.
After several turns, she stumbled into a round atrium. An old lantern burning on a stool shed some light including its own dancing shadow onto the high concave ceiling creating macabre images up there. The guard grabbed the woman's hand. “This way, this way!” He pulled her towards the left tunnel.
After about three hundred feet they reached a large steel gate guarded by a heavy-set man, dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans. He had a thick mustache and a cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth. In one hand he had a large key ring; his other hand held a thick stick like a club that he aimlessly shook to the left and right. A small radio was on a table next to him playing incoherent music.
“What do you want?” The heavyset guard's voice was deep and scratchy, perhaps due to years of drinking and smoking.
“She is here to see number 87,” said the escort guard pushing the woman forward. “She is cleared, and here is her pass.”
The fat man glanced at it and examined the stamped date on it and looked at the other guard without even acknowledging the woman growled:
“Go ahead. Ten minuets, and make it fast.” Returning the visitor permit, he added: “Leave nothing behind and don't take away anything, understood?” Then without waiting for any answer, he opened the gate with a screech of wrenching metal hinges.
The woman and her guard passed through the gate and entered a new tunnel. The gate slammed shut behind them. She was fearful; this could be the point of no return. They kept walking and after turning two corners, they entered into a larger hallway with small prison cells on each side, separated by concrete walls. She could faintly see the prisoners behind the thick steel bars.
She kept walking and looked intently at the gazed eyes of the prisoners fixated at her, barely seeing more than the white part of their eyes. They looked like creatures in a wax museum. The air was thick and smelled of urine mixed with tobacco smoke. The sheer silence among the prisoners made her aware of herself. She could hear her own heartbeats.
They kept walking. She saw a prisoner praying, another man was combing his bald head and in the next cell there seemed to be a man writing something, although there was neither enough light, nor did it seem he had a pen or any paper to write with. Suddenly the guard pulled her hand:
“Stop! we're there.” He added, “Make it fast and short, we have five minutes.” She nodded OK.
The guard pulled out a key chain from his pocket and unlocked cell number 87. For a moment there was a deep silence. She could hear water drops hitting a tin can in the distance. The dampness and the chilly air gave her the goose bumps. She was shivering.
They stepped into the cell and the guard yelled at the prisoner:
“Dariush, are you awake, you miserable baboon? Answer me!”
“Oh yeah I'm awake. The last time I slept, I was not in a prison,” mumbled the prisoner incoherently.
“Then get your ass up and sit down. Someone is here to see you.”
Dariush tried to force his thin and feeble body up from the bed, but only fell back down again. The woman realizing he was in pain approached him and asked him not to move. The guard lighted up the small candle he pulled from his pocket, poured few drops on the floor and then stuck the candle firmly into the melted droplets on the floor.
“Who are you?” asked the prisoner.
“I am Maryam's mother. I went through lots of red tape and paid hefty bribes to be able to get permission to come and visit you,” she said.
“The last person asked to see me was almost a months ago. That was my government-appointed defense lawyer. Only he was, in fact, here to defend the government and worked against me!” the prisoner continued. “He wanted me to confess to crimes I have not committed. I don't get visitors very often, you see?”
“Well, it was mostly Maryam who wanted me to come and see you, to thank you for what you have done for her and all of us,” her voice was trembling and soft.
“I haven't done really anything important. I only shared what I had with another human being before it could be taken away from me by force.” The prisoner lifting himself slightly on the bed then continued with a fading voice: “I am already considered a menace to society. My expedient trial judge already determined that I am to be eliminated from earth in the name of God. My days are numbered, but I want you to know I am happy to meet you and to know that Maryam is well.”
“But what you have done for all of us will keep your name alive for ever. We have been praying for you and are desperately trying to find out if there is something we can do for you under these conditions.” She clinched her hands together.
“How sad it is that the most I accomplished is just to come and see you. Getting that permission took a month however.” She pulled a picture from her pocket, ” Maryam wanted me to give you this. This is two weeks after the operation…” She put the picture in Dariush's hand. “Maryam feels real healthy now. You can see the smile in her face…”
Under the dim light the prisoner looked at the photograph. The woman saw a faint smile on his face. He looked at the woman.
“Can I keep this picture?”
“Of course, Maryam wants you to keep it.”
The guard interrupted with anger:
“Weren't you there when the man told you don't take or leave anything behind? Were you deaf? Take the damn picture back.” He yanked the picture from the prisoner's hand and gave it to the woman and yelled: “ONE more minute! Make it fast. I am going to be late for my afternoon prayer. Hurry up!”
The woman took the picture back and acted as if she put it in her pocket. But in the darkness of the cell, she dropped it on the floor hoping Dariush may be able to find it later. She looked at him and said:
“Dariush, let me thank you again. We're not wealthy people, but when we paid for the cost of the operation and the transplant; we were told to pay an additional twenty million rials, which will guarantee your freedom. I am surprised that you don't seem to be aware of that?” She continued: “I hope we were told the truth. We are ready to sell the rest of our belongings, if that would indeed return you to freedom.”
Dariush was now laying flat down on the bed staring at the invisible ceiling and had clearly a smile on his face. He responded: “Please tell Maryam, that I am happy to have done what I could.” He paused for a second and continued, “My freedom is at hand. Whether in a prison or outside, the degree of freedom in this country is the same. You should have not paid those bastards. They cheated you out of your money, but I am indebted to your kindness.” He turned his head and looked at her. “Lady, I assure you, I won't get out of this place alive.”
The guard stepped towards the door:
“Time to go. Leave the rest of this conversation for the next life. Let's go.”
The woman held Dariush's hand and kissed it. Her tears touched the back of his hands. He felt her warm teardrops and remembered his own mother holding his hand when he was a child…
The woman left and the guard slammed the door shut and locked it. They headed back, walking the labyrinth corridors. She felt numb as she walked. She was shedding tears silently and thinking. How could there be places like this on earth? Why aren't we told and why should this innocent man be imprisoned here just because of his political views and for talking about those views at a university campus. Is that why they let people go to school? To find out who deserves to be arrested?
When they reached the steel gate, the fat man opened the gate and they continued without a word being exchanged. After a few minutes they reached the first checkpoint. A cell-like office with a kerosene heater in the center and couple of chairs surrounded by five men and a couple of women dressed in their hunter green fatigues, armed, and searching the few incoming and outgoing visitors, one person at a time.
This was the known point of entry to Evin Prison, one of the most notorious places on earth. A place very few walk out of alive or without mutilation. The woman entered the room and a female guard searched her and then pointed towards the exit corridor. Men stood every few feet guarding the entire hallway . With eyes bulging out of their sockets they appeared to be trigger-happy robots. At the end of the corridor an alarm went off. A huge gate with a thickness of no less than three feet of steel was controlled electronically.
The gate opened just enough for her to exit and then shut back behind her with a roaring thunderous sound that reminded her of Khomeini's first speech in Behesht Zahra Cemetery. In that speech he loudly accused the Pahlavis for proliferating cemeteries all over Iran, and yet he himself became the angel of death for hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the years that followed his arrival and the inception of his infamous mission designed and supported by the British for more than 150 years. No Mongols ever did as much damage and no incompetent king ever raped Iran like Khomeini did.
It was near the sunset; she stood there for few seconds and behind her was nothing but the huge steel gate installed into the hillside. No walls, just the hillside and the gate. No visible signs at the gate. No welcome and no good-bye. A large steel gate separated the two sides of a prison, the prison within and the prison without. In the land of oppressions one would wonder which side of the wall is the true prison?
Walking away she could see the skyline was covered with scattered clouds, pained in shiny copper and orange colors, near sunset.
As she sat in the bus going back home, she pulled from her pocket the crumbled copy of the ad she had run months ago in several newspapers in Tehran. The ad asked for a kidney donor for her dying seventeen-year old daughter Maryam. It said the family did not have much income, but were willing to sell whatever they could in order to pay for the operation. A few weeks later, a government-controlled hospital informed her that there was a volunteer with the required genetic match.
Among the prisoners who had been told by the guards about the ad, Dariush volunteered first. He knew that if he were to live, even one kidney would be enough for him. And if he had to die, why would he need two kidneys? He had to do something else in life to make his short life flourish to something positive and nourish his soul. His soul was still his and would survive any dastard government.
The extra money paid by Maryam's family was never meant by the government to be for Dariush's release. Nevertheless he did gain his freedom at last. He was executed after his recovery from the operation, two months later. He no longer is a prisoner of the Islamic regime.
There are no gates where there is freedom.
Farrokh A. Ashtiani is the founder of PersianParadise.com