The journal is a political quarterly in defense of secularism, democracy and socialism.
The end of the rope
Weeping Tulips, Chapter 13. A personal account of conditions in the political prisons of the Islamic regime in Iran by Reza Ghaffari
Firooz Alvandi was a medical student at Teheran University. He was brought up in a well to do Bah’ai family. Bah’ais teach non-interference in political matters, and this is impressed on their children. Political activity of an kind was frowned on, and that against the Shah was totally taboo. But this was probably not the only rule Firooz broke without his family's knowledge.
Before the revolution, Firooz had no political affiliation: like a million other young people, there were a thousand things more important than activism, and would easily draw them away. But the spirit of the times swept away this apathy. Firooz along with millions of others was drawn into resistance to the Shah's regime. But for the extraordinary revolutionary conditions of the late 1970s, Firooz would now in all probability be an affluent dentist in north Teheran, and no doubt something of a ladies' man; haggling over the price of land or a Caspian villa, phone in one hand, pen and prescription pad in the other, with a queue of patients in the reception.
The closure of Teheran University by the Shah in late 1978, and the occupation of its administration building with the demand for the University to be reopened, helped derail these ambitions, pushing Firooz towards activism. He would take part in the daily demonstrations through the streets surrounding the University in support of the occupation. Firooz's Honda became part of the supply train that brought food to those occupying the University.
With us inside the university on 24 our a day red alert, it was inevitable that my and Firooz’s paths would cross, as he quickly became one of a small group of illicit suppliers, passing goods through the barricaded streets surrounding the campus under cover of darkness.
We would frequently exchange words of solidarity or a conspiratorial grin as he passed over his cardboard boxes of food. He was also one of our major sources of information, as we couldn’t believe what we saw on the television and weren’t at liberty to go wandering round the streets to find out for ourselves. Since this information was of an inevitably political nature, I found myself more and more able to engage in political conversation with him. This would sharpen both our perceptions: me as an old hand of the left who was fed desperately needed information on what was going on outside our barricades, and him about the wider nature of our fight. As the days progressed I witnessed a naive young student become an invaluable and keen-minded activist.
One night when Firooz was smuggling meat, vegetables and rice through the back door, he met a shabbily dressed middle aged woman, delivering two boxes of pastries. With great emotion, she handed over the boxes to a professor at the rear service entrance. With the boxes came a message: “As a representative of the hundreds of working mothers who have lost their loved ones in the fight for freedom and democracy in Iran, I want you to know that we support your campaign to reopen the University. With the overthrow of the Shah's regime, we'll see the light of freedom, democracy and social justice”.
She was the mother of one of those who had taken up the gun to fight the regime. It wasn't just the intellectuals who opposed the Shah, working people like this woman and her son were the very cutting edge of the struggle.
What she said deeply affected Firooz. As she left, he followed and engaged her in conversation. She told him that her son had been captured in Kurdistan and executed. Now she lived in the shanty town behind the University, and took in washing to survive. Firooz went back to her cardboard hut and spent the rest of the night listening to her stories. She told him how her family had been uprooted from their village in Kurdistan by the landlords, and how they were forced to come to Teheran in search of a livelihood.
That night had a decisive effect on Firooz. He wanted to become like her son; to fight for, and make real, those same ideals. But he had to come to terms with his past and present; to make a clean break from the affluent college playboy if he wanted to live up to what the woman’s son had died fighting for.
Firooz continued to visit the woman, learning from her, and tried to realise her aspiration as he became ever more involved in radical student politics, and the struggle against the Shah.
His activity intensified until the Shah was overthrown. But decline came hard upon this highpoint, and the consolidation of the theocracy placed new questions before Firooz. He could not stand aloof and become like his parents. And now, as a member of a community singled out for persecution, he was in no position to ingratiate himself with the new regime, even had he wanted.
Firooz fought back. He became an active supporter of the newly formed Rahe Kargar, and could now be seen running its stall in front of the University. From now on he planted both feet firmly in the revolutionary camp. There was no going back.
He threw his energy into selling books and distributing pamphlets. Bundles of literature, piled head high, replaced the girls that had customarily rode on the back of Firooz’s Honda.
This work totally absorbed Firooz. It cut him off from his parents, and made his home life difficult and lonely. As the first shots were exchanged with Iraq, the family sold up, lock, stock and barrel, and fled to the ‘paradise' of America. With his parents gone, the essentially conservative Bah’ai community severed their strained ties with Firooz. At the same time, the Hezbollah took over the University. All that was left for Firooz to focus his energies on was the fight to overthrow the Khomeini regime - but in a way that was placing him in an increasingly isolated, and therefore vulnerable position.
Firooz was blacklisted as a known subversive, and was arrested in front of the University one day in 1981. His Honda was confiscated, the books on the back burnt. The Hezbollah raided his home and took whatever they wanted. Firooz was taken to Evin for selling books and pamphlets. His ‘crimes' were manifold: a socialist, communist, militant atheist — and a Bah’ai! Enough to earn him a 10 year sentence at a five minute Islamic kangaroo court.
He kept his mouth shut right through interrogation and torture in Evin, not giving one name away. He was then transferred to the Golden Fortress1 , spending two months in Quarantine.
I met Firooz in December 1984. We were ‘room-mates’: cell 22, block 1, section 3 of the Golden Fortress. I moved in to the bunk below his.
By now, the happy noisy and vigorous young man of pre-revolutionary days had become introverted, and would not communicate with anyone, or even hold their eye. We would study the faces of others in prison. Each prisoner becomes an expert at ‘reading' those around him; able to tell the degree of pain inside from the expression outside. Marks of unsettled and unsettling questions in Firooz’s mind were deeply imprinted on his pallid face.
His day would begin at one in the afternoon, when I would wake him for his lunch. He would eat little, and silently. After he had finished lunch, he would pick himself up and walk hurriedly to the prison yard, looking only ahead, smoking as he went. Here he was finishing a project he had started a month before my arrival in the block. He had collected five or more empty 50kg rice sacks, made from plastic twine. He would unravel them into long single strands, and then wind them together into a rope. He had created a rope of more than 50 metres long.
One day in the Spring of 1985 I went out after him to see what he was doing. He had tied one end to the far corner of the yard, and was standing in the opposite corner, twisting the threads into rope with a rubbing motion between his palms, hands held above his head. He was completing the final touches.
Firooz's project was a nuisance. He had diagonally bisected the yard with his rope, preventing the 600 other prisoners from exercising by running round the perimeter, unless they were prepared to limbo dance under Firooz's rope twice each circuit. I asked him what he was up to.
“Making a rope”, he said, continuing with his winding, not even looking at me as he talked.
“I can see that. Why?”
“To hang my clothes on.”
“What's wrong with the common rope that we all use?”
“I don't want to use it. I've decided to make my own.”
“But why are you making it so long. You don't have that many clothes! One shirt, one pair of trousers and underpants won't stretch to 50 metres.”
“Well, if my clothes won't fill it, at least it fills my time.”
I was still perplexed, but Firooz hadn't much patience with conversation. I left him to it.
After the exercise period had finished, Firooz coiled up the rope, and returned to the block. He tied one end to the bars at the far end of the corridor, sat at the other, and continued as before. He gave the impression that he was committed to finish this work as soon as he could, almost like he was working on a commission.
Firooz had come under a great deal of pressure from Haji Davoud and the Tavvabs 2 in the past. When Haji Davoud visited the block, Firooz was always singled out for the first beating, often at Haji’s own hands. Firooz would be mocked by Haji Davoud for being both a Bah’ai and a communist. Many prisoners reckoned that Firooz’s rope project was his way of cutting himself off from the other political prisoners, and so reducing the pressure from the authorities. It was not unusual for prisoners to occupy time by making themselves a rope. It was the prison equivalent of knitting. But other prisoners made ropes of 10 or 15 metres, not 50.
After supper, Firooz went back to bed, putting the finishing touches on a painting he had started almost three months ago. He continued this through the night, even though he only had moonlight to work by. Between midnight and one, he would rise, take a pack of cigarettes and walk to the small toilet area, where he would pace backwards and forwards, smoking, until around 3 or 4am. Initially, this led to a beating from the Tavvabs, but when they saw that he had isolated himself from the other prisoners and immersed himself in his rope project, they left him alone.
In late April 1985, Firooz lay on his bed, lit by the moon through a small window, finishing his painting. It was of three tulips. There are two types of tulips native to Iran. One stands straight, head upwards. The head of the other bends down and grows in the mountainous areas, on the slopes of Kurdistan. We call them ‘weeping tulips’. Firooz's three tulips were all weeping. He had sketched them in black pen and painted the petals a deep burgundy.
By April 30, Firooz had finished both his tulips and his rope. That night, he sat on his bed and showed his tulips to everyone. Some cell mates, unhappy with him for cutting himself off from us, said nothing. Others openly admired his fine work.
It was my day as elected cell monitor. I had made the tea, and was handing it around the others. Firooz sat on the bed, rope coiled beside him and the painting propped up against the wall by the bed. Unusually, he was openly discussing politics: American foreign policy towards Iran. I offered him a rather strong tea; again unusual, as this was regarded as showing favour. Normally we made the tea weak, to stretch out our resources. A cell mate questioned my generosity.
“I know my customers,” I joked, “This one only takes his tea strong.” But really it was to encourage Firooz because this was the most positive he had been for a long, long time.
The tavvabs called lights out, and we all went to bed. As usual, Firooz lay a while, then went to the toilet with a pack of cigarettes. Prisoners whose bladder infections and injuries forced them to go to relieve themselves frequently saw Firooz pacing back and forth and smoking in these confined and reeking toilets.
When I rose at 5am the following morning, I went to collect his share of breakfast, so that he could eat it at lunch when he eventually woke. He was not in his bunk, but nothing registered with me about it. As we sat over our common breakfast, I asked if anyone had seen Firooz around. No one knew were he was. Someone suggested that he might have been moved from the block because of illness. I asked at the control room. They said that no one had been moved. We became more concerned, and went from one cell to the next in search of him. Some comrades then went to the showers, and I went to the toilet to look.
I couldn't find him pacing up and down, so I checked each of the six cubicles, shouting out his name. I found nothing after pushing open the first three doors. As soon as I pushed the fourth I saw him. He was hanging there, from his rope, quite dead. His eyes bulged from his face. But he smiled.
Firooz had hanged himself in what we call the ‘Palestinian way’. He had looped the rope over the water pipes, and then under his legs, noose about his neck, in such a way as when he lifted his feet off the ground, the rope snapped taut and killed him instantly.
We informed the control room. Officials turned up, took a photo of Firooz as I had found him, and then instructed four of us to remove him. We took his body outside the block.
Shock and grief spread through the entire block. Shock both because of Firooz's suicide, and shock too because we had been unable to prevent the death of a comrade who had so strongly and courageously withstood the barbarity of the regime. But we could not show any of this openly, under the noses of the Tavvabs.
Later I talked to a comrade in the block who knew Firooz and whom I trusted. I had a long discussion with him about what had happened to Firooz.
Firooz snapped under the pressure meted out to “Intransigents”3 within the prison. He was constantly attacked by the Tavvabs and guards in their visits to the blocks. He got it worse than other political prisoners, as he was a Bah’ai as well as a communist. He was beaten to get information from him. They failed, and he was sent straight to the 209 torture chamber at Evin after two years in the Golden Fortress.
In 209 the interrogators had demanded information on his links outside prison to Rahe Kargar, and what information he had about prison activists. As a trusted activist, Firooz knew a lot that could have put others lives in danger. He had been offered the chance of release, and to continue his medical studies, if he became a stooge. But they would not let him leave the country to join his parents; he was a hostage, as his family had fled Iran and taken their money with them.
He was told that he could get out quickly, if he signed over his family’s house where his grandmother lived. She would visit him, and had been his only contact with the outside world over the four years of his imprisonment. She could only visit once every six or seven months, as she was old, frail and afraid of the guards.
Neither the stick nor the carrot influenced our comrade. We knew this, because none of the contacts he had built up through the years in prison came under attack. Then they threatened to put him in front of the firing squad if the Tavvabs found out he had been involved in any prison resistance.
On his way back to the Golden Fortress, cell 22 block 1, Firooz decided that one way to lessen the pressure on himself would be to find out who had informed on him. To do so, he decided to withdraw from his prison activity, and to limit his contacts. In this way, he would limit the total number of reports made on him. Firooz did eventually locate the man who had been whispering against him: one Esfahani, a Rahe Kargar tavvab in the Golden Fortress who had known him well from the period before his arrest.
But Firooz’s policy of silence had unfortunate repercussions. Everybody knew that he had been taken to Evin and put under pressure. Some ‘leftist’ prisoners considered his withdrawal a sell-out. They sent him to Coventry, telling others to do the same.
This came as a devastating blow to Firooz. He had no other world than that of prison comradeship. Now pressure from his own comrades combined with that of the prison authorities. It was a contradiction he could find no way out of.
By the time I joined him in the block, this was his state of mind. Most prisoners had wrongly lost faith in him, and he had become disgusted with them, at the instigation of these ‘leftist' prisoners.
These prisoners were on my back to watch what I said to him, but I took every opportunity I could to get him to open up, and often tried to draw him into political conversation. He seemed to be interested in this, and wanted to be fed information on developments after his imprisonment, especially on what was happening in Rahe Kargar. In prison he had heard that it had been disbanded - untrue - and was keen to find out was happening.
Grief wasn’t an adequate response to the tragedy of Firooz’s death. It demanded an answer from us as to why it had happened, and what responsibility we bore for it. Each shade of prison opinion interpreted it differently to start with, as heated debate spread from block to block.
Those ‘leftist’ prisoners argued that Firooz’s suicide was the result of him simply breaking down under pressure; his way out. But this was not a convincing argument. If Firooz really had given up, he would have revealed the names of hundreds of people both in prison and still free. Firooz didn’t give enough information for even one arrest - ever.
Firooz paid for his role within the prison. He had become a flag of resistance. Haji Davoud wanted to destroy the morale of those around him, those who looked up to him, by breaking him. He was targeted in the same way that one army would focus its attack on the standard bearer of its enemy on the battlefield. The tragedy was that his own side opened up their ranks around him to let the assault take place. When he needed the morale support of those he had given support to, he found their backs turned.
Firooz weighed all this up with a stunned calm. His work on the painting of the tulips and the rope were no deranged retreat into an internal life of his own. Maybe at the beginning such diversions had been to keep Haji Davoud and the Tavvabs off his back. But the symbolism of the tulips, and the brutal functionalism of the rope became so clear and so strong after Firooz’s death that it was clear to even those prisoners blinded by more than the prison hoods that he had set his feet on the road to this end at least three months before. He even had the date chosen at the beginning.
We managed to obtain a Persian dictionary. This explained the symbolism of Firooz’s three weeping tulips. Weeping tulips live through the spring, and die at just about this time. In fact, you could predict their death almost to the day: the day Firooz died.
Firooz was telling us this the night of his Last Supper - if we had been able to understand. He was saying his goodbyes, and showing us that he was going out fighting. He had given in to no one, and would die before they did.
All this was analysed intensely within the block. We eventually reached the conclusion that each and every one of us in prison could only defend ourselves by defending our common security. We could not afford to let anyone be isolated, as this endangered not only that individual, but created a fissure in our ranks imperilling us all.
It had taken Firooz’s death to make us appreciate exactly what Haji Davoud was trying to do. We had to make sure that the lesson was not forgotten. Our self-criticism was passed onto the other blocks, and through visiting relatives, to the wider movement.
[Lightly edited and abridged]
The Farsi version of The End of The Rope has been published. An English version will appear later this year. The book has been translated into Swedish and Turkish.
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