Shahrnush Parsipur, born in 1946, is one of Iran’s most celebrated contemporary woman writers. An outspoken proponent of women’s rights, Parsipur has seen all of her books – eight works of fiction and a memoir – banned in her native land. No stranger to opposition, she was imprisoned for her writings four times, once by the Shah’s security police and three times by the government of the Islamic Republic.
The following is an extract from her Prison Memoir, which takes place in the years after the Islamic Revolution. Parsipur is tracked down, arrested and swiftly finds herself incarcerated without a hearing.
Photo by Maxwell G.S.
It was nighttime, the prisoners were lying down on the floor, pressed against each other. But, to my surprise, they were all awake. Total silence reigned over the unit. It was a strange scene. Contrary to all other times, there was no line at the bathroom door. Instead, a few prisoners had gathered round the radiator and they were taking turns climbing on top of it so that they could look out from the window set high in the wall. One of them was Iran, and another, Farzaneh. Both were monarchists. The rest belonged to various other groups.
When I walked out of the bathroom, I saw Iran climb down from the radiator. She was shaking. Although we were not friends, she took me by the arm and whispered that the bodies of the executed prisoners had been laid out on one side of the courtyard. That night, starting at eleven o’clock, we had heard an earsplitting noise every few minutes. One of the prisoners had explained that they were building visitors’ rooms and that the noise was from the steel beams being dropped to the ground. Just then, we heard the noise again, and Iran, who was in shock, started to shake even more. I asked her, ‘What is this noise?’ she said. ‘Heavy machine gun fire.’ I didn’t know what a heavy machine gun was. I left the people who were again climbing up on the radiator and walked back to my room. I felt uneasy.
That day, at about two in the afternoon, I had seen two girls leave the unit. They were very beautiful. They were wearing shoes and to avoid dirtying the pieces of carpeting on the floor, they moved toward the door on their knees. I had asked their names and ages. They looked like twins, seventeen at most, but they explained that they were actually aunt and niece. The image of their amiable faces had stayed in my mind. I had not seen them return. Now I was looking more carefully at the prisoners. They were silent and staring directly ahead.
When I reached my room, Farideh, who managed the room across the hall, was standing in the doorway. I asked her, ‘What is going on?’ That night, starting at eleven o’clock, we had heard an earsplitting noise every few minutes. She said, ‘It’s heavy machine gun fire. Can’t you hear it?’ I asked, ‘What is heavy machine gun fire?’ She explained that when they carried out mass executions, they used heavy machine guns and this was the sound of the shower of bullets being fired. Then she said everyone was quiet so that they could hear the single shots; after each shower of bullets, a single shot was delivered to the head of each prisoner. The prisoners were counting the single shots. So far, they had counted more than ninety.
Now I, too, was quiet. Farideh said, ‘Listen.’ I could hear the muffled sound of the single shots. Again, the image of the two girls flashed in my mind.
I returned to my room and quickly retold all this to Golshan and the others. The silence of death washed over our room, too. The noise that until then was supposed to be steel beams crashing to the ground, took on a different meaning. We, too, started to count the single shots.
Golshan left the room, and when she returned she said two sisters from the leftists’ room who had been summoned to the Public Prosecutor’s office had been executed. I hadn’t seen them leave, but I remembered the aunt and niece. At around two in the morning the two leftist sisters returned to the unit. Everyone followed them to their room. The prisoners kept touching them. They all thought they were seeing ghosts.
The night of the heavy machine gun fire passed bitterly. The prisoners counted more than 250 single shots. I didn’t know the exact number because I had joined in the counting midway. The next day I saw a list of some three hundred people in the newspaper. One of them was one of the two pretty girls I had seen leave the unit. They claimed she was executed because she had committed adultery. I never tried to find out whether it was the aunt or the niece who was killed. I knew that under the laws of the Islamic Republic, they stoned adulteresses. But the legislator had said that four unbiased witnesses had to have seen the adulterer and the adulteress in circumstances when even a thread could not pass between their bodies. I wondered in what situation they had found the young girl to have put her in front of the firing squad. What’s more, the girl was not married and therefore could not be accused of adultery. It was obvious that they were trying to tarnish her and her family’s reputation. I cannot find the words to describe the hatred I felt. The image of the girls would not fade from my memory. I remember clearly that when I met them I thought to myself, I wish I had a daughter this beautiful.
One night, a short while later, the heavy machine guns were again fired until dawn and another group of prisoners lost loved ones. This time, Mrs Zomorrodian’s fifteen-year-old son was among those killed. The lady had four children and she lost three of them to the firing squads.
Between the time when my mother and brothers were arrested and the day of my arrest, the impeached President Banisadr and the Mujahedin leader Massoud Rajavi fled the country and sought asylum in France. And while we were in prison, in August 1981, the new President Mohammad-Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar were killed by a bomb in the Prime Minister’s headquarters. Shortly before these incidents, the warden of Evin Prison was murdered.
Every Friday night the Komeil Prayer ceremony was broadcast on the prison loudspeakers for several hours. I was raised in a Muslim family and my father always prayed. My mother, too, had been praying for years. My grandmother was more inclined towards mysticism, yet she had religious beliefs. As a result, I never had the slightest bit of conflict with religion. I didn’t abide by the tenets of Islam, but I never lost my respect for religion. Now in prison, I found myself gradually being exposed to religious rituals that bore no resemblance to what I was familiar with. We knew all about praying and fasting. My mother also believed in giving alms and paying tithes, although my father was of the opinion that there was no need for this because he paid taxes. In prison, the Mujahedin and devout monarchists prayed, but the leftists, according to their beliefs, refrained from this practice. I was among those who didn’t pray.
Now the Komeil Prayer had appeared on the scene. The high volume of the loudspeakers in a unit where more than three hundred people were in commotion was nerve-wracking. Around the same time, a mullah dressed in a jacket commonly worn by the Revolutionary Guards came to the unit. They took him The prisoners were counting the single shots. So far, they had counted more than ninety. to the largest room which belonged to the leftists and a great number of the prisoners gathered there. I, too, went. He had come to ask about the difficulties the prisoners were facing. Normally, the prisoners didn’t dare complain, but by then they were so wornout and stressed that they stridently complained about the heavy machine gun fire. The mullah denied it altogether and said, ‘It’s the sound of a soccer ball hitting the rain gutters.’ And then, as is customary, he preached for a while and then chanted a sermon. Before starting the sermon, he suggested that the prisoners cry.
I was stunned. In fact, one of the reasons why I never went to the mosque was this ritual of crying and weeping. As a child, I never understood its meaning and in later years when I came to believe in socialist ideas and saw the world differently, I still didn’t comprehend it. But that day, a vague understanding began to take shape in my mind. In reality, the prisoners were all in such an emotional state that they needed to cry, and this man who was himself one of the causes of their circumstances had come there and was encouraging them to cry.
It was in September when they asked all the prisoners to start attending prayer services in the prison’s house of worship. I didn’t go, and until my last day in prison I steered clear of participating in these sorts of ceremonies. The prisoners would go to the house of worship where various programmes were arranged under the supervision of the prison warden and the judge of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court. Sometimes repentant prisoners would speak, other times prisoners who were still committed to their cause and belief would discuss events, and occasionally prisoners sentenced to death would caution their friends against participating in politics. I can’t remember how many times a week these events were held, but I do recall that except for the elderly, the ailing and mothers caring for small children, all prisoners were strongly encouraged to attend. Many, in fact, looked forward to it. Their incentive was to see family members and relatives who were being held in other units, or at least to get news of them.
Towards the middle of November, the prison population swelled far beyond capacity. More than three hundred and fifty prisoners swarmed around the unit. At night some were forced to stand alongside the walls because there wasn’t enough room even to sit. The trials and executions continued and even these were becoming a routine. One day they announced the names of numerous prisoners and said that they should prepare to be transferred to Ghezel-Hessar Prison. When you are free, you inevitably feel compelled to act, but when incarcerated, you are powerless to do so. My name was among them. Golshan, Iran, Farzaneh, and Banafsheh – all residents of the first two rooms in the unit and the remaining members of a case involving monarchists – were also among the group. My mother, who didn’t want to be separated from me, went to the unit’s administration office and managed to get her name added to the list. I returned to my room and approached Minu. She apologized and said that she had given my name to the administration and told them that I was a communist. As manager of our room, she was obliged to report on the prisoners, and I did in fact socialize with the leftists in the unit. I said, ‘I take no issue with this, except that I have never been a communist. A socialist, yes. To the same extent as the Swedes are socialists.’ Still, I made no effort to change the content of the report she had filed.
I was tired, dispirited and fed up. I felt the weight of all the corpses on my shoulders. In truth, deep in my heart I was also somehow happy that I was in prison during that terrifying time. When you are free, you inevitably feel compelled to act, but when incarcerated, you are powerless to do so. Given my beliefs about freedom and democracy, if I had been free at that moment and took no action, I would have been deeply disappointed in myself, and it was obvious that I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. The breadth of the disaster unfolding was far greater than my capabilities, far greater than even the capabilities of the largest political groups.
Albert Camus, in writing about Sisyphus, who defied the gods and put Death in chains and was punished by having to push a rock up a mountain only to have it roll back down again, wrote, ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’ because he has to be. And in prison, at a time of blood, filth and stupidity, I was somewhat happy because I had to be. I had not wished for the circumstances I found myself in, yet I did not try to escape from them, and now the decision-making was left up to the limited aptitude of the Hezbollah. ?
Excerpted from the Prison Memoir of Shahrnush Parsipur, translated by Sara Khalili. The complete memoir was published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York in 2012.