BOOK REVIEW: Protester’s fate in Tehran

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By Zarah Ghahramani

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14, 256 pages

Reviewed by Iason Athanasiadis


The confession she was urged to sign made Zarah Ghahramani out to be “a sort of Mata Hari, part spy, part whore.” But all this teenage student at Tehran University was guilty of when she stumbled through a harrowing imprisonment in Tehran’s Evin Prison was participating in the greatest civil unrest in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Until this summer that is, when a disputed presidential election returned the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to power and triggered flash protests across this sprawling nation of 70 million. The 1999 protests lasted for a week and were confined to a few blocks around Tehran University; six months later, the summer’s turbulence is still going strong with no sign of stopping. At a time of avalanching revelations about the prisoner abuses ongoing inside Iran’s jails, “My Life As a Traitor” provides a gloves-off re-examination of incarceration during the last time the Islamic Republic felt in peril.

Ms. Ghahramani was a student at Tehran University in 1999 and a self-described “Persian princess.” The wild youth of a generation dubbed the “children of the Revolution” swept a midranking cleric called Mohammad Khatami to power on a wave of pop star-like adulation. But the closure of a groundbreaking newspaper by Iran’s conservatives sparked off violent student demonstrations, forcing the Revolutionary Guard to intervene.

The praetorian class that effectively runs Iran today flexed their muscles at the time, issuing Mr. Khatami an ultimatum to call his supporters to heel. Mr. Khatami’s immediate compliance meant that, although he continued to rule for the rest of his term and even won re-election in 2001, his gesture took the wind out of the sails of the reformist movement for a decade.

Ms. Ghahramani represented a generation that believed in the possibility that the Islamic Republic’s atrophied society could change through protest. But her arrest and imprisonment were a brutal coming-of-age unlike any experience the street could offer.

Entering Evin, Ms. Ghahramani stumbled into the very core of the Islamic Republic’s conservative ideology. If the Cultural Revolution of 1980 had been an effort to Islamize Iran’s educational institutions, Evin’s interrogation cells represented the harsh face of this ideological crusade in stemming the tide of Westernization afflicting Iran’s youth.

In a soliloquy on the nature of the Persian language, “the first choice of the angels” and “the language of liars,” Ms. Ghahramani positions herself squarely in the camp of the secular Persian nationalists, less a Shiite Muslim fundamentalist than one of the “dancing girls who smeared kohl around their eyes and perfumed their hair and made their flesh glisten with scented oils.”

In the eyes of her interrogator, Ms. Ghahramani was a typical supporter of a dangerously liberal cleric: a “pampered middle class princess from the university, playing at politics in street protests against the regime.”

After beatings and humiliation, he presents her with a confession whose signing would turn it into a tool for pressuring a prominent political activist also imprisoned inside Evin. Ms. Ghahramani’s interrogator presented her with a draft whose “audacity … overwhelms me.”

“The sheer brazenness of the fabrications makes me think of the fantastic lies that children sometimes tell their parents or teachers - lies so outrageous that the adults hoot with laughter,” Ms. Ghahramani ponders as she sits in her cell. Then, humiliated and cowed by the beatings, she tearfully puts pen to paper and begins naming her friends.

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