A look in the correspondence of an Iranian political prisoner
by Majid Naficy
The Persian version of this essay was first published in Arash magazine, France in 1995 and later in my book Poetry and Politics and Twenty-Four Other Essays Baran Publisher, Sweden, 1996.
Among the millions of Iranian immigrants living outside of Iran today, there are many who have spent a good portion of their lives behind the bars of the Shah's or Khomeini's prisons. Now in exile, far from the coercive system of their home country, they have the opportunity to write about the time of their incarceration. Through this process they not only shed light on some corners of political life in contemporary Iran but also demonstrate that political prisoners, in spite of torture and fear of execution, are able to create a culture, of their own. In this culture like that of any other social group, we find joy and humor alongside depression and fear, as well as a passion for artistic and literary creativity which runs against the indoctrination policies of the repressive regimes. Unfortunately, what has been published so far on prison literature often serves merely political aims and even at its best has not gone beyond biographical sketches.
Of course, prison accounts should indeed be used as documentation to lay bare and fight against the system of coercion and suppression in Iran, but not at the expense of the other significant aspects of the political prisoner's life. How many exhibitions have been held to display the artworks of Iranian political prisoners' created on peach and date stones, in broken glass and bread dough, or by embroidering on cloth? How many poems, stories, and plays written in prison do we have at hand, and how many letters, wills of testament, and accounts of the writing and drawings on prison walls have been published? The prisoner's resistance does not emerge only in the torture chamber and interrogation room, the religious courts and execution fields; it also manifests itself in elaborate flower beds on the prison grounds and minute work on broken glass, pebbles, bones, and fruit stones.
In the following, after a short study of personal letter as a literary genre, I analyze 18 letters written during 1984-88 by an Iranian political prisoner who, for security reasons, must remain anonymous. The first sixteen letters he wrote from Evin Prison in Tehran to his wife, who in turn had been incarcerated in the women's ward of the same prison. The last two letters he sent outside to his wife's mother and sister. Our prisoner was executed in the course of a massacre carried out by Khomeini's regime to annihilate thousands of political prisoners in 1988. At the end of this article, with the permission of the present holder of the letters, I translate three samples of these letters without any alteration. I hope this work encourages others to publish and analyze Iranian prison literature.
The Letter as a Literary Genre
The value of a letter must not be underestimated just because of its personal nature. Correspondence of leaders of political and religious movements has on occasion found its way into holy books and other canonized literature. Citable examples include St. Paul's letters in the New Testament, the Shiite Imam Ali's letters in Nahj al-Balāgheh , the collected letters of the Persian mystic 'Ein al-Qozāt Hamedāni, and those of Marx, Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg. Furthermore, the use of letters in literary works has a long precedence as seen in Rāmin's ten letters to Vis in the Persian romantic epic Vis and Rāmin composed by Fakhr al-Din As'ad Gorgāni in the 12th century A.D. or Khosrow's letters to Shirin in another romantic epic called Khosrow Shirin composed by Nezāmi half a Western century later.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the West, under the influence of the school of Romanticism, which greatly appreciates personal sentiment, the writing of novels consisting wholly or partially of letters became fashionable, such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, and Dangerous Acquaintances by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Among modern Persian novels, one can cite Letters by Bozorg 'Alavi and From the Other Side of the Wall by Behāzin. Characteristics of the Letter In terms of form, a letter is typically a text sent from one person to another, consisting of a salutation, an introduction, the main body, a closing, a signature, perhaps a postscript, and the date of the letter below or above the text.
Three traits can be found in the letter genre:
First, regarding the context in which the letter is written, there is a separation in time and place between the writer and addressee. The letter is entrusted with filling this spatial and temporal gap.
Second, the letter's content is usually of a distinctively personal nature. The more personal issues raised in the letter may be unintelligible for those other than the writer and the addressee.
Third, the style in which a letter is written may be very different from that of a book or article. Since the personal letter is not an official document and is not written with a view to publication, the writer is not usually expected to organize his or her thoughts in a tidy fashion.
The occurrence of breaks or digressions and a lack of adherence to strict norms of grammar are characteristic of letters. In the Persian letters under survey here, for example, the influence of the Azeri language in the text is evident, the writer having been raised in a Turkish family. Within a literary work, familiar letters give the novelist or poet the opportunity to penetrate inside the minds of protagonists and to make the passage from the abstract to the concrete, from universal to the personal.
Special Features of Prison Letters
Writing a letter to immediate relatives such as spouses, parents, or siblings, who may be either imprisoned or free, is a right that has been repeatedly denied by the previous and present Iranian régimes, subject to the changing conditions in and outside of the prisons. One can see this change in the tone and the content of the letters under survey over the course of several years. In the letter dated 1984 reference is rarely made to anything other than everyday issues, whereas in a couple of the letters written in 1988 the courage that the writer shows to express his opinions is surprising. In these years, the Iran-Iraq War, tensions between different factions within the Iranian government, and, above all, a policy of moderation pursued at that time by Montazari, then Khomeini's designated successor, and his group had an impact on the administration of Iranian political prisons, including the policy regarding letter writing.
However, in general the length of a letter could not exceed five lines during one period and seven lines during another, and if the mail officer of the prison detected cryptic messages in a letter it was not sent and the prisoner was punished. Having the proper official stationery for writing the letter, the prisoner could usually write whenever he or she wanted, but the postal officer came to the ward to collect letters only at certain times. Usually the letters received by the prisoner were not read by others without his or her permission, but sometimes it occurred that due to the spirit of communalism and lack of respect for individual rights among the inmates, the letter was passed around and commented on before it ever reached the addressee.
In the following, I attempt to identify some of the more salient features of prison letters in light of the letters under study.
Conciseness or compactness is one of the most important traits of poetry. It is interesting that the prisoner is forced to make use of this poetic device and express his ideas in short forms, because of the limit on the letter's length imposed by the authorities. A great deal of time was needed for contemplation but the consequence could be a text which, like aphoristic statements, is short but deep.
For example, the second letter reads, "I must learn to be with while being without." This aphorism, short and meaningful, sounds melodic and poetic in the Persian text.
The writer of these letters was a prisoner of integrity, or using a prison jargon "on his platform". Through a symbolic language he conveyed his forbidden ideas to his wife, showed hope for the future and a passion for change. So, in his letters we find a style similar to the political symbolism used in Modern Persian poetry in 1953-79. At that time, in order to circumvent censorship the poet wrapped his or her social messages in images such as the struggle between night and day and between spring and winter. For example, when our prisoner alludes to future infants" in the third letter (see Appendix), he undoubtedly means individuals or political cells who at that time had split off from opposition leftist organizations such as Peykār or Fedā'i in or outside the prison. These "infants" attempted to find new ways of struggle by re-studying the Marxist classics and re-applying Marxist dogmas to the Iranian situation. In the sixteenth letter, he refers to the "dove of thought", by means of which he wants to criticize the existing revolutionary romanticism and volunteerism of the Iranian leftist movement.
In the fifth letter, on the occasion of his marriage anniversary, which was one day before the Persian New Year and the first day of spring, he speaks of "the coming of spring and the going of winter". By using this metaphor he ties his feeling of love for his wife to the struggle of the new against the old in society. In the seventeenth letter, written to his mother-in-law on the occasion of his wife's birthday on the night of the winter solstice, he employs pre-Islamic Mithraistic metaphors such as this:
Each year on this night, I try to imagine the long and cold night of autumn in which the cold winter wind lashes madly at nature's body and the darkness of night tries in despair to forestall the dawn, but in spite of all this, there are mothers who burn in the fever of labor and heroically bear a night of hardship. Finally, the dawn in its entire beauty prevails and the night goes away, the wind subsides, the mothers calm down in triumph, and children come to the forefront of existence. Then, the writer compares his wife to a narcissus, which for him has both a personal and a social significance. First, before being incarcerated he had always sought the durable beauty of the narcissus in his wife and sometimes even called her by that name. Second, the narcissus begins to grow at the end of winter and comes to the city in the hands of flower-venders. It ushers in the joyous message of the Persian New Year and the advent of spring, in the same way that his wife, who was born on the longest night of the year, had brought the message of growth and hope both for him and for her family:
And you, my mother, on the same day see a narcissus at your side, as full of light as the dawn, and as immaculate as a snowy mountain cap that with the radiation of the springtime sun [melts and] runs with the transparent streams into the heart of society. Let us all be congratulated on the occasion of ____'s birthday. Perhaps the most hidden metaphor is when the writer mentions his wife's interest in clouds and avalanches in the ninth letter (see Appendix). If the reader does not know that "avalanche" ("bahman" in Persian) is also the name of the month in which the Iranian Revolution of February 1979 occurred, he will undoubtedly fail to grasp the writer's message. By using this metaphor our prisoner wishes that the revolution, against monarchy usurped by the clergy would lead to the downfall of theocracy as well.
The Emancipating Role of Nature
In these letters nature plays an emancipating role. The moon, clouds, and migratory birds in the sky are not only the harbingers of freedom from prison, but they can also provide a point of contact and reunion between two imprisoned lovers. Our writer and his wife were incarcerated in different wards of the same prison. If they both looked at the moon on the same night they could make a connection beyond the bars. One can clearly observe this feeling in the ninth letter.
I myself have heard this feeling voiced by my own mother and sister. When my mother was still not sure whether my brother Sa'id had been executed, in a poem she asks the moon to be the point of eye contact between their gazes. Similarly, before their imprisonment, my sister Nooshin and her late husband Housein had agreed that, should they ever become separated, they would reunite each night by looking at the moon at nine o'clock. It seems likely that Nooshin continued this habit for years following Housein's execution.
An Archeologist's Gaze
In addition to physical torture, the authorities attempt to brainwash prisoners with ideological programs and force a new identity upon them by wiping out their memories. To fight this indoctrination, the prisoners usually strive to hold on to their powers of memory and imagination. Like an archeologist who unearths a potsherd and relies on his or her own powers of memory and imagination to revive a lost civilization, a prisoner, when looking at any object, must excavate and revive and explore the land of memory and dream that lies behind it. A good example of this can be found in the eighth letter (see Appendix) when the writer is temporarily transferred to a ward which was previously occupied by his wife. He clings madly to the bars on the windows and tries to look at the sky through his wife's eyes. He wants to revive his wife's presence with the help of material objects that at one time had been under her touch and gaze. In the seventh letter, he pictures himself in an "illusory meeting" between his wife and her parents behind the bars of the visitors' area. Traveling to the land of visions our prisoner imagines the two parties' dispositions and conversation for a long time.
It should be said that in prison, it is not only peach pits and pebbles (considered junk in the outside world) that find a new value as artworks in the creative hands of the imprisoned artists; it is every thing and word that finds a new depth and dimension with the aid of the prisoner's memory. In fact, the physical limitations in the prison lead to the honing of the prisoner's mental powers. Like Charles Baudelaire's albatross which is caught and kept on the deck by the ruthless sailors for their amusement, the prisoner can fly only like a poet, with the wings of imagination:
"The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jjeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking."
-- "The Albatross" from The Flowers of Evil
Strengthening of the Sixth Sense
Just as blindness can lead to the strengthening of the sense of hearing, the walls and the closed gates of prison, too, lead to the opening of new sensory windows within the prisoner's spirit. In his ninth letter, our prisoner says he has dreamt of his wife in convulsions, and in his fifth letter, after complaining that he has not received a letter, he takes refuge in his six sense as such:
Today, especially from the evening onwards, I am missing you. I have an odd feeling. I said to myself, maybe your letter is on the way, but now it's around one o'clock in the morning and I've become disappointed. I have become more worried that you are sick, perish the thought.
Also a few times, including in his fifth and eighteenth letters, he writes that his heart beats to his wife's breath; and his words should not be taken allegorically. When two lovers think of each other deeply, their hearts grow close and a telepathic current beyond the five senses connects them.
I myself remember that on precisely January 7, 1982 I felt that the heart of 'Ezzat, my late wife who had been detained for four months, was no longer beating. When two days later I heard by telephone the news of her execution, I was not surprised. The prison walls of Evin were not able to separate our hearts.
Power of Love
What is especially impressive in these letters is the courage of the writer to express his love for his wife. She was also a person of principle and integrity, and inevitably the love between this couple strengthened their resistance against the prison authorities. Nevertheless, this dynamic love was persistently questioned by some prisoners. Our writer was criticized for lack of revolutionary commitment because in his letters he spoke of his wife's beautiful eyes or called his love for her the motive force of his life.
In his fifth letter against the background of Iran-Iraq war he writes, Perhaps it is not intelligible for many people how in these circumstances, when people time and again, to the sounds of explosion search in fear and panic for their loved ones in the ruins left by the bombardment, and with thousands of heartbreaking scenes created by the bombardments of schools, factories, and so on...that you are worried about the narcissus like this. I cannot find a word or phrase which can explain my answer to this question. What can I say about this narcissus, the flower of my being, my whole life and...
My life is the least thing I can sacrifice so that this flower can bloom. How can I not be worried?
Our prisoner cannot find a phrase to defend his love, but the mere expression of this love serves obviously as its best defense. For the intolerant dogmatists within the leftist movement, there exists no individuality, and the expression of sentiment between lovers is labeled bourgeois individualism. It is not accidental that the following romantic account that the writer has written about his first visit with his wife in the prison is condemned equally by the hardline prisoners and the prison authorities:
An animating joy out of a moment of an unexpected meeting, and dizzy, stunned, and upset how rapidly this moment passed and I did not know what I said or what I heard. But at that moment your welcoming face and your warm gaze sliding down my being showed the sign of your pure and spotless love, a reflection of you laughing at all hardship, the mirror image of pains and separations that you suffer. And it was not surprising for me that you had always been that way.
[From the seventh letter.]
The prison guards, especially in the women's ward, would mock prisoners on and off with words of love picked up from their letters, accusing them of moral corruption. Of course, in a theocracy which forces women to remain under the veil, it is not suprising that there is no room for lovers to express their sentiments.
However many years have passed since these letters were written, one can still feel the heat of passion between these two lovers. Not only did this love enable them to stand firm against the theocratic régime in Iran, but it also helped them to defend their individualities against the communalism of the Iranian leftist movement at that time.
The Central Role of the Prison Letter
The philosophy of imprisonment is based on the notion of confinement of the convict in detention and the separation of prisoner from the outside world. For this reason, as one of the few means of communication available to the prisoner, the letter plays a central role in prison life and overshadows all other activities. Through a letter a political prisoner could not only have a hand in organizing prisoners' struggles in other wards and prisons and coordinate between the life inside the prison and the world outside, but the letter also serves as a notebook for his or her ideas, a channel through which to continue an otherwise interrupted marriage, and sometimes even as a medium for the prisoner's literary talent. It occupies the prisoner's mind all the time, especially when he or she is either waiting for letters from others or writing his or her own.
In this respect one should mention the short remarks that our prisoner's wife had jotted down below the text of her husband's letters shortly after receiving them. Therein she expresses the immediate effect which the letters had on her or the circumstances of the ward at the time she received them:
"What a longing heart!", "How refreshing after doing the laundry [by hand]!", and "I was going to the (prison) shop to carry back some supplies." Unfortunately the letters of the prisoner's wife to him are unavailable to us. Nevertheless we can at least read the direct effects which his letters had on her and thereby understand the importance of the letter in a prisoner's life.
In short, a letter which in the outside world serves only as one of many forms of exchange of information, ideas, and sentiments, becomes the political prisoners' most significant means of communication as well as a tool for unifying their past, present, and future.
A P P E N D I X
The Third Letter
February 6, 1987
Dear ____, my dearest,
The night before last I got your fourth letter which you wrote a few days after your birthday, and I was still in the mood of that day [i.e., of your birthday], which revives sweet memories and wishes in me. These days, I have become more submerged in myself than ever. I have been thinking about you, your birth, and the passion that you showed while talking about birth and emergence; and I remember the birth of infants which we witnessed a while ago before our arrest, and how much I wanted to be able to provide you with conditions in which you could try to raise and educate them with your entire passion, and I know what a good mother you could become, were, and are. And I try to imagine and figure out how much those infants must have grown. Most likely, after three or four years they will have been walking, talking, laughing, crying, taking steps, and running in the heart of society. How are your illnesses? I think due to recent hardships, they must have grown worse. I am very worried about that. If only I had all of your pains, how comfortable I would be, and you would be relieved for a moment.
Give a warm hello to Mother ____ and Dad, and kiss the moon-like face of ____.
My hellos to all friends and relatives.
Your Husband, ____
May the fire of our love glow more and more brightly! [Note of addressee:] Received Tuesday, February 20, 1987 at 5 o'clock. I was very depressed.
The Eight Letter
June 4, 1987
Dear ____, my good partner,
Have a good day!
Throughout these four months that have passed so far this year I have not received any letter from you. I do not know if you will receive this letter or not. Anyhow, for the sake of writing a letter, I have been going over our life together for hours. From the first day we met on that sunny day by the reservoir on Azerbayjan Street, until we met at the visitors' area [of the prison] last March, its every moment passes through my mind, so that your warm gaze and your beautiful voice I could feel in my soul and the remembrance of your illnesses shakes my body. Only the memory of your happy spirit and your overflowing love for green and beautiful plains releases my soul. It has been around seventeen days since we were moved to the new ward, a ward that for a while had been the shelter of my ____, a ward you spent some time in.
When your memory makes me impatient, I take refuge in room #2. I cling to the bars. I stare at the hills, sky, and clouds, and at whatever I think you might have been gazing at through the bars and been drawing into your thoughts, and I try to penetrate your thoughts. I press your kind and generous hands to my heart. Say hello to Mom and Dad and convey my heartfelt love and respect to them. By any means tell me about your physical condition. My heart beats to your breath.
Your husband, ____ 325 Ward Upper 2
[Note of addressee:] Received Sunday, July 4, 1987 at 10:30 a.m.
Ward 2, formerly 325.
The Ninth Letter
May 27, 1987
My soul's dearest, my good ____,
The last letter I received from you was on the last days of last year. From then on, I have had only the most meager news from you, and you know how unbearable that is for me, and I know that this is the case for you, too. When the expected time for receiving your letter has passed and I am waiting for the letter, I loose the strength to do anything and then I take refuge in the moon and stare at it at night behind the bars on the window so that I can feel your laughing gaze, because I know you watch the clouds and you love rain, snow, and avalanches. With your warm gazes you please the moon, and then I can see a narcissus in the moon's burning face. But my soul still finds no relief, and I think about where I can find you again. I take refuge in your letters and read them time and again.
Finally I see that I must return to my heart and my soul, that you have place in my heart and I can hear your voice with the ear of my soul, "as long as the tale of loss and gain hinders unification, one should bear the hardship and suffering of love." My soul finds relief, and in loneliness I sit to talk with you because conversation with you is the source of life for me and I regret that I did not take advantage of every moment of that one year of the spring of our life to talk with you and that I let the time pass by. I am very worried about your health. A few days ago I dreamt of you in convulsions. I wish I could buy all your pains with my soul, then how relieved I could be. My warm hellos to all of my dearest. The remembrance of your gazes fills me up.
Your husband, ____
Hall 3, Room 16 [Note of addressee:] Received Thursday, August 21, 1987 at 6 p.m. How refreshing after doing the laundry [by hand]!
This essay was written in September 1995.
>>> Read in Persian