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Story Publication logo December 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Protestor's Fate in Tehran


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After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


Review of: MY LIFE AS A TRAITOR: AN IRANIAN MEMOIR, by Zarah Ghahramani

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14, 256 pages, Reviewed by Iason Athanasiadis

ISTANBUL -- The confession she was urged to sign made Zarah Ghahramani out to be "a sort of Mata Hari, part spy, part whore." But all this teenage student at Tehran University was guilty of when she stumbled through a harrowing imprisonment in Tehran's Evin Prison was participating in the greatest civil unrest in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Until this summer that is, when a disputed presidential election returned the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to power and triggered flash protests across this sprawling nation of 70 million. The 1999 protests lasted for a week and were confined to a few blocks around Tehran University; six months later, the summer's turbulence is still going strong with no sign of stopping. At a time of avalanching revelations about the prisoner abuses ongoing inside Iran's jails, "My Life As a Traitor" provides a gloves-off re-examination of incarceration during the last time the Islamic Republic felt in peril.

Ms. Ghahramani was a student at Tehran University in 1999 and a self-described "Persian princess." The wild youth of a generation dubbed the "children of the Revolution" swept a midranking cleric called Mohammad Khatami to power on a wave of pop star-like adulation. But the closure of a groundbreaking newspaper by Iran's conservatives sparked off violent student demonstrations, forcing the Revolutionary Guard to intervene.

The praetorian class that effectively runs Iran today flexed their muscles at the time, issuing Mr. Khatami an ultimatum to call his supporters to heel. Mr. Khatami's immediate compliance meant that, although he continued to rule for the rest of his term and even won re-election in 2001, his gesture took the wind out of the sails of the reformist movement for a decade.

Ms. Ghahramani represented a generation that believed in the possibility that the Islamic Republic's atrophied society could change through protest. But her arrest and imprisonment were a brutal coming-of-age unlike any experience the street could offer.

Entering Evin, Ms. Ghahramani stumbled into the very core of the Islamic Republic's conservative ideology. If the Cultural Revolution of 1980 had been an effort to Islamize Iran's educational institutions, Evin's interrogation cells represented the harsh face of this ideological crusade in stemming the tide of Westernization afflicting Iran's youth.

In a soliloquy on the nature of the Persian language, "the first choice of the angels" and "the language of liars," Ms. Ghahramani positions herself squarely in the camp of the secular Persian nationalists, less a Shiite Muslim fundamentalist than one of the "dancing girls who smeared kohl around their eyes and perfumed their hair and made their flesh glisten with scented oils."

In the eyes of her interrogator, Ms. Ghahramani was a typical supporter of a dangerously liberal cleric: a "pampered middle class princess from the university, playing at politics in street protests against the regime."

After beatings and humiliation, he presents her with a confession whose signing would turn it into a tool for pressuring a prominent political activist also imprisoned inside Evin. Ms. Ghahramani's interrogator presented her with a draft whose "audacity ... overwhelms me."

"The sheer brazenness of the fabrications makes me think of the fantastic lies that children sometimes tell their parents or teachers - lies so outrageous that the adults hoot with laughter," Ms. Ghahramani ponders as she sits in her cell. Then, humiliated and cowed by the beatings, she tearfully puts pen to paper and begins naming her friends.

"These are the tears you weep when you discover that your fear of pain is stronger than your convictions. These are the tears you cry when you hate yourself. Dear God, I'd always believed that I'd be so much stronger, that I'd resist and resist until death if need be. But it's not true. It's not true. I am not the person I hoped I would be."

When a shattered Ms. Ghahramani is dumped back into her solitary cell, her only companion is the disembodied voice of a fellow inmate floating down an internal shaft. Sohrab is a criminal equally forgotten by time and his jailers: after an extended incarceration and repeated abuse he has deteriorated into raving screeds that prompt further dehumanization at the hands of his vindictive captors.

"I hear him coming back from the toilet, laughing and swearing at the guard, calling him an ...," Ms. Ghahramani recalls. "And I think, Oh God, no! I know they will come and beat him, and they do. There are at least two of them beating him, and he shrieks with laughter while they go about it and screams abuse.

"I put my hands over my ears and make as loud a sound as I can to block out the beating and swearing, and by the time they are done with Sohrab, I am a quivering wreck."

Ms. Ghahramani's repeated insubordination results in beatings, a defeminizing shorn head and more violence after she rejects the lesbian advances of a guard crippled in the Iran-Iraq war. Stealing a glimpse of her surroundings, our helpless heroine is shocked to realize that Evin is "far, far bigger than I thought, brightly lit, all in black and white, and with cameras everywhere on the walls, peering down like insects.

"The corridor I am in runs before and behind me forever. Hundreds of doors open off it, and at intervals intersecting corridors head left and right. I am frozen where I stand by the sheer scale of Evin. This is not simply a prison. This huge, swollen fortress for the isolation of killers and thieves and prostitutes and embezzlers and drunkards and protesters is itself a city, with another city surrounding it, and the fortress draws people from the city outside through its gates to fill its cells as if the stream of the inducted is its lifeblood."

The trickle of testimonies over the past six months has turned into a revelatory flood about prisoner abuse in Iran's jails. Despite coming to power pledging to dispense justice with Islamic mercy, the Islamic Republic has presided over horrific state-sanctioned crimes. Ms. Ghahramani's traumatizing experiences serve as a reminder that, even after eight years of reformist rule, little has changed in the regime's far-flung power centers.

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