I was twenty-three and I’d just started to feel I had a purpose in life. Like so many of my generation, just after the Shah was toppled I’d joined one of the groups opposed to the new Islamic regime. These groups had been sprouting up in the void of power: this was the time when the Shah was on its knees and the new regime was not yet strong enough to force people to abandon their demands. We all thought we would be able to overthrow Khomeini’s government just as easily as it seemed the Shah’s had been turned to dust.
War came when Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. It changed everything for the worse.
Khomeini used to say the war was a blessing, a divine gift. I only understood what he meant later on; because we were at war, no one could make demands, not even for food, and the Islamic regime could get rid of all the people and groups who wanted a secular government, freedom, justice and equality.
I was living at home and my parents knew I was attending political meetings and demonstrations. They saw my copy of Towards Socialism and all my other socialist books and pamphlets. They became increasingly worried. ‘Be careful!’ they always used to say. Yet I don’t think they really believed I was putting myself in any real danger. At first I didn’t either. On TV, the Islamic regime’s newscasters talked constantly of the arrest and execution of armed fighters, terrorists and traitors. I wasn’t armed, and I didn’t see myself as a traitor. All I was doing was talking to workers about the need to organise and struggle for employment rights.
Yet in 1981, I was shocked out of my complacency when Ali and some other friends of mine were arrested and executed as traitors and infidels. All they had been doing was printing Peykar, a socialist newspaper. After Ali was hanged, his father came to Tehran and visited us. He told us that before he was hanged, Ali had been beaten to such a total pulp that when they showed his father the swollen, purple, faceless corpse of his son, he had not recognised him.
It was really only when we heard Ali’s father that my parents and I fully realised the danger I was in. They decided it would be safer for me if I left Tehran, even though it meant I would have to give up my job as a dental nurse.
It was not easy to move. When the war began, the Islamic regime introduced a new emergency law which meant that all landlords had to inform the authorities when a tenant moved in or out. Yet my father managed to rent an apartment from someone he knew and could trust in the town of Karaj, an hour’s bus ride from Tehran. I went to live there with my mother and one of my younger sisters, while my father continued to live and work in Tehran. We only got to see him on the weekends.
Although I had moved to Karaj to escape danger, I did not give up my political work, and I often went to Tehran. One Saturday, I had to take a letter from an activist to Hooshy, my handler. This involved a long walk from the coach stop, and I passed a parade of young conscripts, no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. Just boys, children dressed as soldiers. They were cannon fodder, and melancholy gripped me.
They each wore a bandana decorated with the slogan ‘In the name of god’ and they were shouting out, ‘War, war until victory!’, ‘The road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad!’, ‘Down with Saddam!’, ‘Down with America!’, ‘Down with Russia!’
The TV news regularly used to show these boy-conscripts parading before they left for the front. They were given a Koran and a key that was supposed to unlock Paradise for them if they were killed. Most of them were blown to pieces. It was rumoured that when they first reached the front, they were used to clear minefields. Later on, when young boys were no longer sent to the front, donkeys were used to clear minefields: tears filled their eyes as they were pushed to run for their death.
As I moved past the boy-conscript parade, I began to feel uneasy for myself. I now know it was a premonition, or a sixth sense, yet I ignored it and just carried on. Then, suddenly, a car stopped just ahead of me. I saw Hooshy in the back seat. He was pointing me out to the man sitting beside him. I knew at once that he had been caught and had betrayed me, and that I was trapped.
Shocked, my brain still remembered the letter I was carrying. I’d folded it several times and hidden it in a cigarette packet, but the Islamic guards would surely find it when they searched me. Still, I tried to stay calm, to act the innocent and deny everything. No matter what Hooshy had said, I would deny!
The driver of the car, a plain-clothes Islamic guard, stepped out. He was good-looking and clean-shaven. No one would imagine he was an Islamic guard, but coming close to me, he gripped my wrist and it was obvious to me.
‘Come with me,’ he ordered.
I was defiant. ‘Show me your identity card.’
With a mocking expression, he took a card out of his pocket and held it up. The people passing by were oblivious and continued strolling along. It seemed I was alone in the street, yet it was full of people going about their business.
‘Look everyone!’ I wanted to shout out to them. ‘They’re arresting me! Here before your very eyes!’ But my throat dried up and no words came out. I heard the guard, who was tightening his hold on my arm.
‘Get in the car.’
As he pushed me into the front passenger seat, I smelt cologne on him. He got in the car, took the wheel and switched on the engine.
‘Put your head on your knees,’ he ordered.
The position was awkward. When I moved my head to try to make myself more comfortable, he grabbed my hair from under my compulsory headscarf. He toyed with it for a moment, unpleasantly sexual and aggressive, and then pushed my head further down past my knees, hurting my neck and back.
We drove for about twenty minutes, so we must still have been in Tehran. When the car stopped, the driver sounded the horn and I heard large metal gates opening; the car moved on again, but stopped after less than a minute.
‘Blindfold,’ the driver shouted out to someone. He got out of the car and came round to open the door on my side. ‘Get out but keep your eyes shut. Here’s a blindfold. Put it on. And follow me.’
How could I follow him if I was blindfolded and couldn’t see where I was going? I put the blindfold on. It was elasticated, and when I opened my eyes I realised that if I looked down, I could see just a little bit of the ground in front of me, so I was able to stumble after him.
We went inside a building, down a long corridor until he opened a door and told me to go in.
‘Stand still. Don’t touch your blindfold.’
Somehow I knew I was alone in the room. I pulled the blindfold up. The small room was empty. I had been left alone before being searched. I wasted no time – very quickly, with my hands shaking, I took the cigarette packet out of my handbag, took out the secret letter, tore it into shreds and stuffed the pieces behind the radiator. I put my blindfold back on with a small sense of triumph.
It was difficult to believe they had left me alone to destroy evidence. Surely the Shah’s Savak would never have left a prisoner alone before a thorough search. Were the Islamic guards amateurs?
I was not left alone for long; the door soon opened and the same plain-clothes Islamic guard who had driven me here came back in and told me to follow him to another room. When we got there, he ordered me to take my blindfold off, I pulled it down off my face and let it hang there like a necklace.
There was a large man with a camera seated behind a desk full of papers and files. He called the guard by his first name, Ibrahim. In one corner of the room, there was a group of young men, little more than boys, standing and staring at me.
‘Name, age, address?’ the large man asked. I told him and then he took pictures of my face from three angles. He asked me for my watch and then emptied my handbag on the table to pick through its contents.
The large man kept my handbag, but gave me back my purse with my money still in it. ‘Alright, put your blindfold back on,’ he ordered.
As I put it back on, my headscarf slid down onto my shoulders, revealing my long hair, and all the boy-men in the corner burst out laughing crudely. Ibrahim snapped at me. ‘Put your headscarf on properly!’
Even the accidental sight of a woman’s hair was offensive to the morality of the Islamic regime. Abolhassan Banisadr, the very first president of the Islamic regime, had publicly declared that women’s hair had always to be covered as it emitted a special radiation inducing lust in men.
Ibrahim ushered me out of the room and started asking me questions in the corridor.
‘What were you doing in the street?’
‘I was going shopping. Look, I have to call my family.’
‘You can’t,’ he said bluntly.
‘They’ll be worried.’
Ignoring me, he called out ‘Sister!’. Although I was blindfolded and couldn’t see, I knew a woman had appeared. ‘Go with her,’ he told me, ‘and consider your situation. I’ll be back for you tomorrow and you will co-operate.’
Still blindfolded, though able to see a bit of light if I looked down or if I threw my head back, I stumbled after the woman up a long flight of stairs. She took me to a room and gave me a body search. As she bent down to examine me, the position of the blindfold allowed me to catch a glimpse of her head – she was wearing a burqa, not the usual hajib or chador. I was taken aback. Even the most religious Islamic women seldom wore burqas in Iran.
It seemed odd and paradoxical. Here she was encased in a walking prison, yet she was the jailor. I wondered whether all the women jailors working in the prison wore burqas or if it was her own choice – or the choice of whatever male relative was in charge of her life.
‘You have your period,’ she told me, and pressed a small plastic bag and a fresh sanitary napkin into my hand. ‘Put the dirty one in here.’ She pushed a bin towards me.
‘You want me to change it here in front of you?’
I found it degrading, but I did what she said.
She instructed me to remove my shoes and gave me some plastic slippers to put on and asked me to follow her. As we entered another corridor, I could just make out that it was lined on both sides with blindfolded women. They were all lying or sitting down on the floor just a short distance from each other, I could also see some of them had big bandaged feet with blood seeping through the bandages. After a while, my guard told me to sit as she pointed to a blanket on the floor. It was obvious she knew I could see from under the blindfold. All the guards knew. It must have made their work, moving us about, easier or they would have given us bigger blindfolds.
I didn’t sit down. ‘I need the toilet,’ I said.
Without speaking, she led me down the corridor to a small room with three toilet cubicles. ‘Hurry up!’
Afterwards, she took me back and again told me to sit down on the blanket, not to talk and not to touch the blindfold. ‘Raise your hand if you need to speak to me.’
I was so tired and disorientated that I barely took in what she said. I was now just thinking of how worried my family must be. It even took me some time to take in the horrors around me. The blindfolded women lining the walls were all silent, but every so often I could hear whispers coming from the cells.
As the lights dimmed, I felt an exhaustion I had never felt before, and I lay down to sleep. My mind went to my family, I was always at home by this time, and I knew my parents must have realised I’d been arrested; they would surely be destroying anything incriminating: socialist books and papers and the bottles of wine my sisters and I shared with my father when my mother wasn’t around.
I was thinking my thoughts when the woman lying next to me whispered, ‘When were you arrested?’
‘Why did they arrest you?’
‘I don’t know.’ I said and asked, ‘Where are we?’
‘The Joint Committee Interrogation Centre. It’s in Firdausi Street.’
A guard shouted ‘Shut up’ so we stopped talking.
I knew the building, it was a circular complex built for the government of Reza Shah by the Germans in 1932, and I now wondered how many prisoners it had housed and how many of them had come out alive.
I longed to fall asleep but couldn’t, and then I heard the faint sad voice of a prisoner in one of the cells singing Nouri’s song. It made me long for freedom and the outside world – the world that seemed impossible to ever reach again.
Dear Maryam, open your eyes … call my name …
I’m still awake,
I wish I could sleep and see you in my dreams…