I have never read a prison memoir before. Over Nasrin’s 1980s imprisonment circle torture, rape, execution and sickness unto death. At one point her family, her only visitors and outside support for eight years, try to persuade her to ‘recant and confess’, a peculiarly awful situation because she – and the reader – understand why they’re undermining her. In these circumstances, an absolute refusal to budge from her principles saves Nasrin, as does her writing, and her imagination. In other circumstances she would be called an extremist or a fanatic. Nelson Mandela was, after all, called a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher.
She has no contact with the left comrades she worked with before her imprisonment. In fact, she’s tortured to extract information about them, as well as to break her spirit. She remarks that unlike the left, the Mujahedin, also imprisoned, are united. But still, when asked by her sister prisoners, she explains with the simplicity of truth that she was imprisoned for fighting so that the poor can eat, not just the rich.
With admirable restraint, Nasrin fills us in on how Winston Churchill and the US engineered the 1953 coup which overthrew democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in order to install the Shah and stop the nationalisation of Anglo-Iranian Oil, later BP. The crimes of the British colonial class need shouting out: in that decade alone they destroyed the democratic governments of Guyana and Ghana, brutalised Mau Mau freedom fighters in Kenya, laid the foundations for perpetual civil war in Sudan and Nigeria, and kicked off the 1960s with the joint UK/US/Belgian assassination of Patrice Lumumba. These are the crimes I happen to know about.
In Khomeini’s prisons, friendship between the women, and attempts at friendship, also save them. They don’t stop trying to communicate through prison walls, teaching each other Morse code and hiding tiny written messages. The women’s beauty opposes the ugly drabness, baking in summer, freezing in winter, of the cells – grossly overcrowded or blood stained or where solitary confinement, one woman chained hand and foot to a wall, is staged – that they’re shunted round, blind folded. The chained woman is forced to eat like dog. At no point is Nasrin cynical, bitter or sarcastic and there’s very little to laugh about apart from once wetting herself. Lockdown means access to a toilet three times every 24 hours, in both sickness and semi-starvation, in fact a form of torture, itself, writes Nasrin, a form of theatre.
The book’s style is compressed and its 49 chapters, each dated, are short, befitting the prisoners’ faces kept expressionless in order to give nothing away to guards and torturers. Nasrin’s drawings and paintings illustrate the book, and the chapter titles provide a further landscape: Arrest, Paralysed, A Little Boy, Poems in the Graves, Solitary Confinement, Cockroach Cell, The UN Human Rights Inspection. The reader knows that Nasrin will be released, but when, we ask ourselves, why, and under what circumstances.
She doesn’t dwell on her feelings. She thinks as a political fighter, assessing which struggles aren’t worth expending energy on, like resisting the black chador; and the demand to be separated from non-political prisoners, when all prisoners are human beings. She is as strong in arguing her positions with sister prisoners, usually her allies, as she is resisting her jailers and torturers. Perhaps the former requires greater strength. After reading Nasrin’s novel, The Secret Letters from X to A, and now her non-fiction, I’m even less inclined to take Margaret Atwood seriously.
Incredibly, when she was dying of a ruptured duodenal ulcer, Nasrin saved her own life, with the help of sister prisoners. Denied medical care, she stopped herself vomiting, by force of will alone, the drops of honey and water her friends managed to get into her mouth: to this day, living with illness caused by torture, she exercises her extraordinary strength.
One Woman’s Struggle in Iran: a Prison Memoir by Nasrin Parvaz, 2018, Victorina Press