ATHENS — Jail cells — alongside yoga studios — are the last bastions of true inner peace. When I became the first foreign journalist in decades to be thrown into Iran's notorious Evin Prison I was exposed to a mixture of intense interrogations amid long stretches of nothingness. Stripped of my laptop, cell phone and all human contact, I was forced to confront my ego and get used to spending time with me, myself and I.
The only printed matter in my jail cell was a copy of the Holy Quran. It was a previous inmate’s well thumbed edition that had come loose from its hardback spine. A neat hand had written several religious aphorisms in Arabic on its pages. Imagining I was resting against the thick pillar of one of the beautifully-carpeted Ottoman mosques of Istanbul, my adopted city, I spent hours reading the handwritten calligraphy.
On the second week the Greek ambassador was finally granted a 10-minute meeting. Leaving, he presented me with a copy of my mother’s Oxford Ph.D. thesis whose Greek edition he had happened to be reading. My guards confiscated it for “inspection” and I never saw it again. Perhaps they thought the perfidious Greeks had gone to the trouble of printing a book for their man containing disguised instructions within its unfamiliar alphabet.
Those were the only two books I saw. For the son of two academics who grew up in a house with floor to ceiling bookcases and whose only indulgence is haunting the aisles of secondhand bookstores in Boston, London and Istanbul, denying me reading matter was more painful than torture. Every day, I called the jailers and requested my mother’s book. Some of them visibly struggled with the concept that a woman could have written a book and looked at me as if I were trying to trick them. Others promised to convey the message but promptly forgot about me.
So I made reading lists in my head.
Several are recommendations by my Ministry of Intelligence interrogators. Others are themed on incarceration and were suggested by my friends.
Westoxification, Jalal al-e Ahmad, 1962: A recurring point of reference for my jailers, this is the pre-eminent philosophical work on which the cultural wars that followed the Iranian Revolution were conducted. Jalal al-e Ahmad criticised secular reformists for allegedly passively subscribing to Western cultural values and political theories. Ahmad suggested that Iran should rely on Muslim heritage. Later, he broke with his family’s Shiite clerical tradition and associated with the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party. Even more ironically, Al-e Ahmad spent a summer at Harvard University as part of a visiting fellowship established by Henry Kissinger to support promising Iranian intellectuals.
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders: Highly recommended by my interrogators as the definitive account of how the West funded leftist and right-wing intellectuals during the Cold War seeking to dissuade them from succumbing to the lure of Communism.
The Rise and Fall of Pahlavi Dynasty, Hossein Fardoust, 1995: When it emerged in the interrogation room that the relative of an acquaintance was the feared head of Savak, the Shah’s intelligence service, my blood ran cold. Even though I had not known this (unsurprisingly my friend was not advertising it), it could have been used as circumstantial evidence that I had pro-royalist sympathies should the interrogators have been that way inclined.
However, they were nonplussed. What’s more, they strongly encouraged me to read Fardoust’s memoirs as the definitive guide to Shah-era Iran. One of the reasons for the remarkably open-minded approach to one of the most hated men in the ancient regime could be the widely circulated rumour that the Islamic Republic’s intelligence ministry was largely constructed on the remnants of Savak and that Fardoust played a key role in this transition. Should this be true, it would explain his survival past the initial frenzy of revenge executions and his eventual death of natural causes in 1987.
The original Persian-language version is called "Khaterat-e Arteshbod-e Bazneshashteh Hossein Fardoust" (The Memoirs of Retired General Hossein Farbod). Out of print.
Death Plus Ten Years, Roger Cooper, 1995: Highly recommended by one of my interrogators, this is a memoir by a British man convicted of espionage in Iran in the 1980s who spent more than five years in jail and was exchanged for a number of Iranian prisoners with the British government. My interrogator told me that after reading it he was convinced Cooper had been a spy “because he exhibited an intelligence mentality.” He did not delve further into what is an “intelligence mentality,” presumably because he sought to establish the same parameter with me.
A Man, Oriana Fallaci, 1981: At the conclusion of my interrogation, I was told that I should not be so upset that it had dragged on for three weeks. “You shouldn’t be so negative about your experience,” the senior interrogator advised me. “Look at Oriana Fallaci, she spent so much time in prison. It formed her.”
Fallaci’s best-known book is a novel based on Greek poet and resistance hero Alexandros Panagoulis to whom she was linked through a passionate love affair. Panagoulis was condemned to death for seeking to assassinate Greek Junta dictator Papadopoulos but was tortured in prison before being released in a general amnesty.
The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1968-77: The essential insider’s account of the last years of the Pahlavi court as told by consummate courtier and Shah confidante Asadollah Alam.
Fiction About Iran
The Increment, David Ignatius, 2009: A Greek-American CIA Iran desk chief teams up with his MI6 counterpart to subvert Iran’s nuclear program. Often while in jail I wondered whether the gentlemen from the Intelligence Ministry who had ordered my arrest had heard of the novel and decided that reality was imitating fiction. An unusually realistic novel set in contemporary Iran.
The Viper of Kerman, Christian Oliver, 2009: An excellent addition to the currently sparse English-language fiction list related to Iran. A tongue-in-cheek novel that sets out a frighteningly prescient vision of factional turmoil afflicting the Middle East’s most strategic country.
A Good Place to Die, James Buchan, 2000: An epic novel set in Shah-era, then Revolutionary Iran and tracking the fortunes of a British man and his Iranian paramour as their passions are buffeted by the winds of geopolitics. This being Iran, the Brit inevitably ends up accused of espionage. The book contains one of the most convincing descriptions of the insides of early revolutionary-era jails.
Iran Prison Memoirs:
Roozbeh Farahanipour’s Memoirs of Tohid Prison: This Iranian dissident was arrested over his involvement in the student demonstrations of 1999 and tortured over 36 days in the Intelligence Ministry’s Towhid Prison which nestles behind the Foreign Ministry in downtown Tehran but officially does not exist. While I was in Evin he was clandestinely in the country on a seemingly suicidal trip to whip up protests on the 10th anniversary of the repressed 1999 demonstrations.
Shah-e Sian Poushan (King of the Black-Clad), Houshang Golshiri: A grim tale of the worst days of Evin in the post-revolutionary account-settling of the early 1980s that features scenes of men shooting their ex-wives and the raping of young virgins.
In the Prison’s Small Autumn Courtyard, Mehdi Akhavan Sales: A pre-revolutionary collection of poems describing the writer’s interactions with various characters in Tehran’s Qasr Prison. It came to be known as Iran’s Bastille and was turned by the Islamic Republic into a museum chronicling the Shah’s cruelty. The prison was built during the 19th century Qajar dynasty and hosted prominent figures in the Iranian Revolution including leading Ayatollahs. Before its transformative landscaping, it was used for executions.
At the Wall of Almighty, Farnoush Moshiri: An allegorical tale about the mass arrests following the 1979 Iranian Revolution written by the descendant of a literary family. She fled the Islamic Republic after her play was banned and its director and cast arrested.
The 53 (Comrades) AND The Prison Papers of Bozorg Alavi: A Literary Odyssey, Bozorg Alavi: The 53 deals with a group of prisoners with whom Marxist intellectual Bozorg Alavi shared space during his four-year incarceration. "Prison Papers" (named "Scrap-Papers from Prison" in the Persian-language original) pioneered a genre of jailtime literature in Iran. Alavi wrote the book upon being released from prison. Until then, the only Persian language jailtime accounts had been composed by court poets fallen out of grace and grovelling for clemency and restitution.
Alavi’s book “illustrates the human predicament in prison with poignant vignettes, vivid character sketches, composite events — part real, part fictional — and frugal brush-strokes reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka and John Steinbeck,” according to Ervand Abrahamian, author of "Tortured Confessions."
Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Iran, Ervand Abrahamian, 1999: The definitive book on torture both in the Islamic Republic and under the Shah. The book lays out in fascinating detail and with extensive documentation how torture in Iran differs from elsewhere: victims are brutalised until something other than information is obtained — a public confession and ideological recantation. For the victim whose honor, reputation and self-respect are destroyed, the act is a form of suicide.
Recent examples of confessions include: Iranian-Canadian sociologist Ramin Jahanbegloo’s interview to a state-run news agency following his release; Haaleh Esfandiari’s televised confession in a hotel room presented in documentary format on state-run television; and Roxana Saberi’s signed confession in prison.
Torture and Resistance in Iran: Memoirs of the Woman Guerilla Ashraf Dehghani: Ashraf Dehghani: Written by one of Iran’s best-known female Communist revolutionaries, the book describes her two-year imprisonment under the Shah before she managed to escape. It provides an account of the conditions of her imprisonment as well as treating the broader political struggles experienced by her revolutionary party as it sought to survive inside prison.
General Prison Literature:
My Imprisonments: Memoirs of Silvio Pellico Da Saluzzo, Silvio Pellico, 1832:
An account by the Italian patriot, dramatist and professor of literature, Silvio Pellico, of his times as a political prisoner in the notorious 19th century Spilberk jail. His memoirs inspired great sympathy for the Italian nationalist movement. The book is known as "Le Mie Prigioni" in the original.
The Writing of the God, Jorge Luis Borges: A short story by the surrealist Argentinian writer about an Aztec priest incarcerated with a jaguar who searches for a divine script in the patterns of the animal’s fur.
The Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci: A modern classic.
The First Circle, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn: This masterpiece of prison literature refers to Dante’s first circle of Hell: a walled garden reserved for the Greek philosophers. It refers to a relatively comfortable gulag in the Moscow suburbs where prisoners work on technical projects to assist state security agents, entrapping themselves in a moral dilemma. The book addresses numerous philosophical themes and illustrates the difficulty of maintaining dignity within a system designed to strip its inhabitants of it.
Gioconda, Nikos Kokantzis: The true story of first love between two young people in the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki during the years of German occupation. Their passion is abruptly interrupted when Gioconda and her family are banished to the Jewish concentration camps.
The Prison Poems of Mas'ud Sa'd Salman Lahori: A series of jail poems conceived in Ghaznavid Lahore by a prince who spent 18 years in jail.
Poems of Nazim Hikmet: Incarcerated for 18 years for being a leftist.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, Chol Hwan Kang: A matter-of-fact description of 10 years of beatings, humiliations and hard labor experienced by one man at a North Korean labour camp.
I thought of this book, which I read after visiting North Korea last summer, a lot while in my cell. One of my daydreams was what would happen if the Iranians decided to extradite me to Pyongyang for some summary North Korean justice for practicing journalism while there on a tourist visa.
Papillon, Henri Charierre: Written by a convicted murderer, this book is an account of incarceration in a penal colony in French Guiana. After planning and executing a series of treacherous yet failed escape attempts over many years, he was eventually sent to notorious prison Devil’s Island, a place from which no one ever escaped … until Papillon.
The Roots of Heaven, Romain Gary:
This winner of the Prix Goncourt is set in Equatorial Africa in the aftermath of World War II and relates to a low-grade terrorist campaign conducted in the name of protecting elephants. His championing of the pachyderms was inspired by a spell in a concentration camp when “every time we looked at the barbed wire or were almost dying of misery and claustrophobia in solitary confinement, we tried to think of those big animals marching irresistibly through the open spaces of Africa, and it made us feel better.” The original edition is called "Les Racines du Ciel."
Julian: An Intellectual Biography, Polymnia Athanassiadi: My mother’s Oxford Ph.D. thesis became one of her most successful books of scholarship which — to my enduring shame — I have yet to read. A fan of my mother’s work, Greek Ambassador in Tehran Nikos Garrilidis tried to rectify this by bringing me a copy of the book in prison. Unfortunately, my jailers confiscated it and, despite my requesting daily until I was freed, I never saw it again.
"But even if the world gathered all its strength, there is one thing it is not able to do, it can no more punish an innocent one than it can put a dead person to death. [...] How wonderful, here is a limit, a limit that is invisible, like a line that is easy to overlook with the senses, but one that has the strength of eternity in resisting any infringement."
Purity of Heart, Soren Kierkegaard
Iason Athanasiadis was reporting in Iran on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting
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