Iran News ...


Solitary Cell: A Tomb-like Place

By Masoud Behnoud, Tehran
Translated by: Roya Monajem

I am not writing to reveal a hidden mystery, nor is enmity with anybody or any group my intention. Revenge is a word that I have averted for many years now and today even the thought of it makes me tremble. So what is compelling me to tell about the story of the pain that its remembrance can produce only pain? The story that until now I have neither written or said a word about it to anybody.

I am writing only with the hope that it might help to stop this train that has been riding on the long railroad of history and has been made to fall apart by many societies, but we Persians are still riding on it. Why?

I am writing with the intention to remind ourselves of the nature of power and make an invitation to abandon the idea of remaining in power for a few more days despite everything. And I am writing for the generations and individuals who brood over politics. I am writing so that they might prepare and vaccinate themselves against this kind of temptation from the beginning, the temptation of putting the opposition into jails. Otherwise when they sit behind large tables and watch the crowd clapping and waving their hands for them, they might no longer find the chance to cure.

I am writing because last month when the world society of pen announced a universal day for imprisoned writers, I was sitting on a bench by the shore of the beautiful city of Eastbourn with seagulls crying and singing and soaring in the blue sky, making one to envy their freedom, when all of a sudden I remembered where I personally was last year at that time and suddenly I remembered that at that very moment Akbar Ganji, Emadoldin Baghi, Abas Abdi, Behrouz Granpayeh, Hussein Ghazian, Ali Afshari and Hassan Eshkevarri were and still are in the same prison and Hashem Aghajary in Hamedan's prison. They have committed no greater sin than I, the sin of writing and saying things that the ruling power did not like. They are in solitary cells of Evin prison and are leaning against a wall with an empty wall only two steps ahead of them. When I remembered them, the sky of Eastbourn turned dark and seagulls fell silent and the house of my heart turned cloudy and the sea filled its eyes.

First of all let me introduce the above men one by one.

Akbar Ganji is about thirty five years old and used to believe in Islamic Revolution and is a faithful religious man, even though in a pamphlet that he has recently written in jail and has managed to find its way to outside with great difficulty he has spoken of his objection against the religious government as he has reached the belief that religion is not for ruling. Five years ago when twenty one million Iranians chose Mohammad Khatami against the will of the extremists and traditionalists, the first fruit of the liberalist movement of Iran was freedom of newspapers; and as the result of the revelation and renaissance that these newspapers brought about, the extremists and Talibans saw themselves in danger. A group of them working in secret service contrived an outrageous plot and killed five political and intellectual activists - the same thing that had been carried out secretly against eighty people inside and outside the country in a time span of fifteen years. Ganji's offense is that he tried to betray the killers and after the arrest and death of Sa-id Emami, their head. Ganji nonetheless continued his struggle as he believed that light should be projected unto that darkroom of ghosts. And he continued to write to such an extent that his friend Sa-id Hajarian, the editor the newspaper where Ganji published his revelations was nearly killed in an act of terror, and with a bullet that a fanatic terrorist emptied into his head he fell into the state of coma for days. Even in the court, Ganji did not hide his opposition against terrorism and extremism, if only for the purpose of shortening his term of sentence. And in that very place, he showed the wounds and traces of the physical tortures committed against him to the cameras of BBC and CNA televisions. By January third he had been in prison for thousand days.

Emadoldin Baghi is a Talabeh (student of the theological school) of Qome and one of the young men who assisted the victory of the anti-monarchy revolution of 1979. As a follower of Ayatolah Montazeri, the dissident ecclesiastic, when the latter was removed from his lofty position by the order of Ayatolah Khomeini and joined the opposition - and after the onset of reformist movement in 1988, Baghi too started to divulge and criticize the fundamentalist group that he was once a member of.

Abas Abdi is one of those ardent revolutionary students that by occupation of American embassy in 1988 and holding fifty Americans as hostage made one of the most important news making events of the last decades of the twentieth century. He was arrested six months ago, exactly on the anniversary day of that event. He finished university after the termination of that event, and after indulging himself in sociological studies he turned into one of the critics of the extremists and fundamentalists. In 2000 he went to Paris to meet his former hostage Barry Rozen and shook hands with him in a meeting at the headquarter of UNESCO in Paris and practically apologized for what he had done. Abdi who has been in prison for six months now and is deprived of any contacts with his family and his lawyer is regarded guilty for preparing a poll that showed that in contrast to the view of the leaders of the government, the majority of Iranians believe that the relationship with America should be resumed. He was sentenced and condemned on the account of publicizing for Americans and because he had signed a contract with Gallop organization in his polling institute. So he was condemned of spying for foreigners. After going through long days of solitary confinement, Abdi spoke in an incredible way in the court and apologized for his political mistakes. Nonetheless, he returned behind the closed doors of prison and he is still deprived of contact with others and it is not known what the final verdict of juridical power ruled by conservatives would be for him.

Behrouz Granpayeh and Hassan Ghazian, both teaching sociology, census and communication at universities, have been imprisoned on the account of preparation of a poll and participation in foreign conferences such as the one held in London University. They too, after going through long days of solitary confinement, confessed their crimes in the court.

Hassan Eshkevari, the moderate clergy who has been in prison since three years ago on the account of participation in Berlin Conference held by the initiation of German Green Party, has criticized Islamic fundamentalism in his articles where he has also presented modern ideas on women's covering and relationship between sexes.

Ali Afshari, the twenty six-years-old students' leader that has been in prison on the same account of participation in Berlin conference, though criticized his own and his peers' views in a TV program, but as after his release, he revealed the fact that those confessions were made under coercion in his solitary cell. He was once again arrested and sentenced to another year of imprisonment which has recently been extended yet another year.

Hashem Aghajary, now in Hamedan's prison since a month ago, has been considered guilty for criticizing religious despotism and condemning the fundamentalists for using religion as a tool for remaining in power in a speech he delivered for the students of Hamedan university, and the verdict of his death sentence has not been altered even by the leader of Islamic Republic. Aghajari who is among young Moslems that lost his leg in the War with Iraq, is now waiting for a rehearing his case by the Supreme Court upon extensive protest of thousands university teachers and students, MPs and reformist members of the cabinet and the letters written by certain ecclesiastics emphasizing that Islam does not pass death sentence for such words. [1]

Now that I am envisioning those imprisoned writers and intellectuals sitting in their solitary cells leaning against their cold walls, believing that there is nobody thinking of them in the world, while there is, I write to share their agonizing loneliness in a way. I can't do anything else. I write to cry out loudly: do not consent to such a pain happening to any intellectual, the pain that is sometimes harder than the pain of death.

That is a familiar place for more than twenty writers who have been in the same cells in the past five years and hundreds of political activists and intellectuals experienced it under Shah's regime and in fact they were built for such people. As one of those writers who has been in these cells on the account of writing a few articles, I do not believe that those who pass the verdict of solitary confinement are not aware of the depth of cruelty they show. I am writing with the hope that it might tap upon that delicate glass that every man has in his heart. Our great poet Sadii says that one who has no heart is like the impressions found on walls; impressions similar to those writings on the walls of the same prison that remind of the agonies of hundreds of men who had been there before us.

When they took us to solitary cells from different parts of Evin prison, at first we did not know we were six people dispersed on the two sides of a corridor; Akbar Ganji, Emadoldin Baghi, Mashalah Shamsolvaezin, Ahmad Zeidabadi, Ebrahim Nabavi and me, that if we knew, our pain and suffering and dread could have been perhaps less.

"Are you alone in this tomb?" I asked myself when the iron door of the cell was closed behind me. And I wondered, so where do these sounds come from, those unrecognizable vague sounds that were not familiar and were not easy to make out as I did not know the geometry of that place. When they were taking me there, my eyes were closed. All that I knew was I came out of a door and after going down a few steps I was driven to a cell, one by three meters, that I did not know where it is until the iron door was closed behind me. A voice ordered me to remove the blind. The cell was smaller than it could be believed. There is nothing in it to call the eyes and that is what makes the heart to overflow with awe. The walls seem closer to each other, more than that one may see in one's lifetime. The cell looks like a grave and perhaps that is why they are built in this way, to familiarize one to being buried alive.

The floor is of chalk and dust and a soldiers' blanket folded untidily is thrown in a corner and on the other side is a toilet of rusted metal. Its rusty surface discloses the deep reluctance to wash it. A bulky metal in a flat U shape that embraces the wall of one side is to warm up the place in winters and the wall of the other side is just a smooth, towering and empty surface. The ceiling is higher than usual, it is perhaps 4 meters in height and there is a 40 or 60 watts lamp hanging in the middle of it. The light is on throughout the day and night that makes sleeping difficult in the first few nights. On the top of the opposite wall, there is a small window under the ceiling whose glass has not been washed since the day of creation; it is so murky that light can hardly pass through it, and at most it can only disclose the brightness of the day and darkness of the night. The walls are all in white and if there is a trace of the old prisoners on them, it is neither visible nor legible under this faint light, unless after a few hours when the eyes get accustomed to that dimness. Further down on it, there are numerous scratches made by spoon, the only tool of prisoners, with each scratch and line symbolizing a day of life, marked quite orderly at first, but chaotic and disorderly as time has passed. Most have been abandoned after the thirtieth or thirty fifth line, as though after this period time has stopped altogether for the prisoner and its recording a senseless job.

Three sides of the cell are made of walls - or divar in Persian that in a way implies div (deva or devil) and in practice they are indeed like devils - and the fourth side of the iron door, the same door that led us to this bastion and when closed with a dry sound, it was as though we were trapped in a can -- and where was the can opener to open it -- with an outlet as big as two eyes high up and a narrower opening further down and through the former, the guard makes sure that you are alive and from the latter food and water are shoved in three times a day following a cry that informs the arrival of lunch or dinner.

The first discovery of prisoners is the size of that can; one can take three steps along its length and two steps along its width, and on the third step one has to turn. One should walk, but with closed eyes that makes one go dizzy due to this circular movement.

For an individual that writing is his life, when left without a pen and papers, the cell turns into a hell after a few minutes and the first desperate request of an imprisoned writer from the guard that is either Hajj Ali or Majdabadi is a pen and some sheets of paper. Hajj Ali is an old guard with twenty eight years of practice in this profession craving for his retirement and is a little bit kind. When you ask for pen and papers he says Fatemi should give permission and he then recommends Koran or Mafatih-ol-Jenan [2]. Not a bad idea, but the light is not enough particularly for a person with weak eyes, and they take away your glasses and do not give them back without Fatemi's permission. But if the request is first put to that lad Majdabadi, his response is a sarcastic laughter showing the two rows of his unwashed teeth through that opening in the iron door: 'What else.' and then there is the sound of his slippers dragged on the mosaics of the corridor. The opening is closed.

During this time one has to wear the prison uniform that is of a fabric as fine as that of the sleeping gown in gray color with printed scales, the symbol of juridical power that for an imprisoned writer who knows very well that no scales and justice and fairness has sent him into that abyss, it is a double sadism. And a pair of slippers that at night turns automatically to your pillow.

In addition to that blanket one finds a piece of plastic in the cell that at first one has no idea what its use might be, but soon realizes that it is supposed to be one's sofreh (table cloth), a tin spoon, a metallic glass and a disposable glass containing washing powder that I wasted on the first day on washing the sink and my plate without knowing that there would be no more of it until another two weeks. On the second day of imprisonment every prisoner cleverly realizes that he can keep the wrapping of the butter and he should keep it in order to have something to play and spend the endless time with. Another amusement, the only luxury of the cell, is to drink water from the sink tap, without knowing that it is coming from the prison well and is not suitable for drinking as it is a kind of heavy calcareous water that after drinking it for forty consecutive days will produce pain not only in my stone producing kidneys, but even in healthy kidneys. And it is only when the pain gets unbearable and one goes to the prison sick bay for it, if one does, that one would learn that he shouldn't drink from that water. In public cells of Evin, there is one drinkable water tap, and the well water is only used for washing. All kinds of cremes are used in prison as without them the skin would rupture due to extreme dryness after washing. As the Persian poet Nima says: "like the heart of rain in the absence of rain."

When you are left in that cell that is as big as human loneliness, you spend an hour standing and you stay alive only with the help of your ears that you fix on the vague outer sounds trying to discover the geometry of your surrounding with the help of them, until your legs gradually start to ache and you have to sit down on that same blanket that soon has to be used both as a mattress and as a covering, the kindest creature of that bitter atmosphere despite its dirtiness and foul smell. But one does hear sounds, the sounds of one's surrounding. The sound of a school bell from afar.the sound of hymn singing in the school yard. the hubbub of the break times; and sometimes the sound of a car horn and the ambulance sirens, the sound of a loudspeaker that if you pay more attention you find that it spreads the news of the arrival of vegetables, eggplant and cucumber. And the continuous dragging sound of the guards' slippers in the corridor. And the deafening sound of a bell that fills the air a few times once every hour that until the time that you are taken for interrogation, you will not know that it gives the news of the arrival of a new prisoner. After hearing the sound of that bell a few times, you hear the voice of a woman in a somehow protesting tone: 'Yeeeess.' And when you are taken for interrogation you realize that with the sound of that bell which rings in the yard of the prisoners of the solitary confinement, a woman who is the guard of solitary cells of women always opens the door. Each time that the bell rings, you hear the hoarse voice of that woman who asks for her chador (veil), and following that comes her reply that she is the guard of the solitary cells of women.

When they took me and four other writers to our solitary cells, nobody opened that iron door for fifteen days, nor did anybody answer our knocks at that door. The food arrived from underneath of the door in disposable plates and it was always more than that the prisoners who have lost their appetite could finish. After those fifteen days, we had all lost fifteen kilos except for Shamsolvaezin, the journalist who used to be the editor of Keyhan newspaper for years and the deputy of Mohammad Khatami-- the ex-head of the boards of editors of that newspaper and the present President. Shams is thin and he is so familiar with Evin's prison and all its nooks and corners that he knows its geometry even with closed eyes and he is also familiar with the prison's ethics, and throughout his term of solitary confinement he recited Koran in a pleasant voice. He has been jailed several times since the last regime. From Zeidabadi's cell one can only hear the sound of Koran, too. On the sixteenth day when we were finally allowed to have visitors and they brought in my clothes, it was quite obvious that they no longer fit and suit me. Ebrahim Nabavi, the satirist who was also in the room of visitors, said to his sister, "I am on a diet as I had put on so much weight lately!" It is a blessing that there is no mirror unless after fifteen days of not taking a shower, with your beards grown and your complexion turned yellow due to the lack of light, not only you would be scared of yourself, but also nauseated.

And air, there is so little air in the cell, and summers are worse and there is even less air. Inevitably one has to lie down and put one's head next to the iron door with only few centimeters away from the toilet so that a narrow current of cold air of the corridor where an air conditioner works noisily would creep in bringing a little bit of oxygen with itself.

On the second night, Nabavi could no longer breathe and felt suffocated and the corridor appeared to be in a turmoil in the middle of the night. Later we learned what that hubbub was all about. Probably they were forced to leave the door of his cell open for a little with Hajj Ali accepting the responsibility, as there was no other person to ask permission at that late hour of the night. Personally I reached the same situation on the thirtieth night and was taken to the sick bay where they put me under serum infusion.

Today that I am unable to enjoy the peaceful shore of Eastbourn and the sound of seagulls, it is because I can imagine all those writers now in prison sitting in the east corner of their solitary cells, leaning against the wall, ignorant of each other's presence staring at the traces of fists on the opposite wall that like a monster looks at them face to face and breath to breath.

And sound and sound, in that gloomy cell, it is only sound that enters it, enters a place where after sometimes eyes and tongue seem to be some useless organs. And at first I did not know what a great opportunity this very appeal to sound presents for those who like to persecute a prisoner. On the second night that ears were not still very familiar with the sounds and most of the sounds entered as strangers, the guards performed a radio play for two hours. The sound of footsteps walking and running, the sound of fallings and risings and panting. I still do not know whether that was the innovation and amusement of the authority responsible for the protection of Evin, that Ganji referred to as butcher in his defense at court, or did he appear just at nights to amuse himself and then left for home or was it an order and an arrangement. Sometimes something fell as though there was a struggle going on and sometimes in the middle of it somebody cried Mr. Baghi. Mr. Baghi.meaning that they were taking Emadoldin Baghi. Where to? Could anybody see us that with every sound we looked like an animal wondering in a cage?

The fantasy that only sounds can be the source of flight is unstrained during the first few nights. The voice of the singing women prisoners who do not heed the order and call and admonishment of a guard who loutishly tells them to shut up and continue to sing comes from the west side of the cells. The sad song of women who sing songs that are apparently some old tunes, two or three in number with a common place content, all of complain about misfortune and the desire to reach an impossible dream. "I wish to go to the seaside with you again. to here and there while you're holding my hand.Woe! If my hands are left alone again. Woe! If you come again and a clamor arises. And from above comes the sound of the cry of men, the cries of night, the sound of beseech. Who is calling God every night and puts all his strength in a cry that burst out of his heart that I imagine would scare birds to fly away from the branches of the trees of Evin's yard. And a pigeon or a cuckoo comes every night to sing its tune. And an imprisoned poet of the past has said, "A bird took flight from the depth of darkness! The night said light and resumed its sleep. A bird woed, spread its wings and gathered them! It didn't know the path of night and sat in darkness."

Deceptive are sounds and it is more difficult when there is no one to talk and listen to and in a week your only wish is to be taken for interrogation. Spring belongs to silence, at least there is a human being that talks and hears through this near wall about the arrival of spring, about this heavy illusive silence, about this bitter darkness, grinding your teeth you say: "For which uncommitted sin?" But this is just an illusion. Then after a week or a month, the iron door turns on its heel and a voice orders you to put on the eye-blind, and you set off and leave your vault with the same dragging slippers whose sound you hear in the corridor. There are three steps, a door, another door, and again another door and again another door, a key, a bell and finally air, air, air.What a blessing is the sky even when you don't see it and only feel it. "Remove your eye-blind after leaving the yard."

I wish I could tell those who are there at this very moment that when you go to interrogation, when you put your foot outside the yard of solitary cells of women, before getting into that old worn out car, that if you are lucky enough it might break down and thus give you the chance to look at the trees the autumn and the sky for a moment, and on reaching the door. I have discovered - if you look toward the north, toward the snow covered peaks of Alborz mountains that oversee Evin, next to that large iron door, there is an angle that points to a curved mountain with a sole tree on its top. I wish I could dispatch this news to them somehow. I had promised myself that if I survive, I go to see that tree on the first day of my release from a different angle, expressing my gratitude for those rare moments that by looking at that lonely tree, I forgot another lonely being that was me. During the three seasons that I looked at it from the same angle it did not always appear to have the same air and it changed color according to my imagination.

It is winter now and that tree is a tree more than any other time. Perhaps it is even clothed in a dress of snow. Nevertheless, when I left Evin I never kept my promise, until a day while walking down the neighborhood of Darakeh, passing heedlessly through an alley that reaches Soadatabad situated next to Evin, my eyes fell on the small familiar tower of solitary cells, and I knew I was very near and my heart beats intensified because of imagining men who were at that very moment leaning against the wall. The same air is overruling me here in Eastbourn.

In the solitary confinement the most important thing they do with you is to convey to you, in any ways that they can, that there is no one that you can appeal to, there is no regulation or law, and when you fall into this abyss all the paths are dead-ends except one, and they do not show it to you easily. Do not look to find logic. There is no logic, nor there is an ear to hear your voice. The air is so heavy and illusive that sometimes you would even doubt your humanity, and it takes time to tell yourself that you are a human being and no human being is worthy of such debility. And if you are not a man of power and politics, this pain appears more inhuman and harder.

I can talk no more of those agonizing moments, and if the situation in Iran were to find some order I believe that our first vow should be to overthrow the tradition of making humans to suffer such a fate. It should be wiped out of the world. In one word, I should say that it is such a place that when some dear highly valued memory finds its way into your human heart, as it is inevitable and there is no way to stop it, you push away that memory bitterly and wrathfully thinking that this is no place for it; it doesn't deserve to sleep in a corner of such a ruined place.

When writers are imprisoned, by the virtue of an inborn magical strength they turn into a Dostoyevsky or thousand other people who have fallen into abysses in the past centuries. But in the modern age of communication and information revolution one would think that the days of such treatments are over, while it is not.

1. The Supreme Court recently throw out Hashem Aghajary's death sentence. But the case has been sent back to the same court that issued the previous sentence, and that court hasn't ruled out issuing another death sentence.

2. These are religious books.

... Payvand News - 2/27/03 ... --

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