iran bulletin

The journal is a political quarterly in defense of secularism, democracy and socialism.





A single window to life

Shekufeh Mobayeni

I always loved trees. Especially when budding at the start of spring. Nothing is more beautiful than being witness to the birth of life. To bear witness to the birth of a leaf at the end of a cold black winter; bear witness to the opening of a bud; witness to the growth and maturing of a leaf.

It was night when they changed my place. Every so often they would change us round to stop us getting used to our surroundings. They were constantly moving us to another spot in case, despite absolute insecurity, we might get used to a piece of ground under our feet which linked one person to the next.

At six am on the dot, the tavvab [1] guard – one of the tens or hundreds of tavvabs who had been transferred from Kurdistan to Ghezel Hessar a few months ago [2] – made the wake-up call. In "Ghiamat" [3] wake-up call meant moving from a lying to a sitting position. Thirty, forty women and young girls, in sitting position, in total silence, and without the slightest movement outside the narrow confines of the "beds" started to fold up their blankets. They arranged their chadors [4] on their heads and tightened the blindfolds over their eyes.

As in other days, I was awake for an hour before the wake-up call, listening for the sound of tea being poured into plastic cups, and counting them. This was one of the ways of checking if there was an increase or decrease in the inmates and how many are still left and how many have departed from us. More than thirty tea cups were poured. So we had received a few "newcomers".

Together with everyone, but in isolation, I began folding my blanket. By raising my arms and holding the blanket aloft, I tried to increasing the size of my upper torso so that the blanket would be folded neatly and without creases. My chin was raised; the circle of my horizon widened and my eyes were locked on the tiles on the wall in front of me, a meter away.

I saw it. It was there, directly facing me. My heart began to beat. Excitement flew out of my fingertips, from every cell on my face. How lucky that I was hidden under my chador and blindfold, and safe from the visual range of the tavvabs. On the excuse of straightening my blanket, I leant forwards and quickly turned my head back. No. I had not been mistaken. There it was. A smile dissolved my face, soft, fresh and sweet, a calming reassuring smile.

I was sitting facing a wall with white tiles. It was one and a half meters to the wall. On either side of me, at a distance of 60 to 80 centimetres wooden walls had been erected to the height of 90 cm. The walls were made of the same wood of which soldiers’ and prisoners’ beds were made of. Behind my enclosure was a large hall and a window beyond which two tall plane trees reached for the sky and a willow tree. All round the hall wooden boxes, like the box I was in, were lined up, each the home of a female prisoner.

They called these boxes "beds" or "coffins", not only because of their dimensions, which were not much bigger than real beds or coffins, but because they were a place to bury life and give birth to death. They also called them machines. The function of these machines were not to extract information, or discover networks of [political] organisations. They were there to break humans, to empty them of their human identity and personality. To crush them and turn them into self-alienated creatures, agents without will and tools for crushing other prisoners. For the destruction of girls and women who were nurturing the new-borns of love and life inside them, one by one, creating empty, blank creatures, without a past or a future.

It had been over a month since I had seen a window. On that day a tavvab guard had pulled my out of my place and taken me to their room. In the middle of the room stood Haji Davoud [5]. He had been busy since early morning summoning the prisoners of "Ghiamat". He was checking to see who is about to crumble, and who is on the threshold of cracking.

For some he became a "caressing father", for others a beastly bully. I don’t know how many people before me saw winter that day, in that room. Behind Haji was a large window which opened out towards "Unit 1" yard. I was looking at Haji Davoud and seeing the window behind him. He was speaking, questioning, threatening. But he could not hear the sound of a spirit cracking nor smell a human rotting. He stared, he scowled. I could feel the burning bite of his look with all my being. And I saw how the large snowflakes slid down one after another, softly and quietly. I felt his breath too; and the craving for beating and destroying which has over taken him from head to foot. He held his clenched fist in front of my face saying:

"With these hands I will crush you. I will crumple you like a piece of rubbish. You all are filth which have been wrapped in tin foil. I will make sure that when you come out of the "machine" you will either be a tavvab and work for us, or be stood up against the wall in Evin [6]. They call these beds the tavvab-making machine. You will stay there until you crumble. First I will squash you like a piece of filth, then I will make a zero-kilometre tavvab out of you. Be sure that while I am here, the beds also stay. Do you understand? Here the road ends".

I heard him. I knew that I would get out of that place either "crushed" and "tavvab", or for a retrial and execution. I did not believe that there might be a third way. I looked again at the window. How happy and alive were those snowflakes. And Haji’s hands so large and heavy. How many ears had he made deaf with those very hands?

When I returned to the "coffin" I brought back the picture of the window. A window with white slippery spots of snow. Then spring came. Spring, the home of sprouting, to flow and continuity, Spring as the sign of life. And life was there. In me and with me. In front of me. Reflected in the white tiles of my coffin. How I wanted to bend forwards and touch those delicate small leaves, feel those spring buds, those new arrivals of life with my fingertips.

Translated by Mehdi Kia from The Book of Prison: An anthology of prison life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Edited by Nasser Mohajer, Noghteh Books, Berkley, USA.



1. Tavvabs (literally repentant) was the name given to prisoners who had repented and co-operated with the prison authorities, sometimes to the point of torturing fellow prisoners and joining firing squads.

2. Prison in Karaj, west of Teheran.

3. Literally "resurrection day" the name given to the cellblock in Ghezel Hessar where the "coffin cells" were situated.

4. Black tent-like cloth covering from head to toe.

5. Torturer and governor of Ghezel Hessar prison.

6. Evin is the notorious prison in Teheran where most of the executions took place.

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