Baba looked out the window into the dark alley. Anxiously, he began tapping on the window ledge with the fingers of his right hand as he held on to the other side with his left. He began to whistle. He always whistled when he was worried.
“Ey baba, kojast? Where is she?” Baba asked out loud. His little girl entered the room, and stood behind him. “Baba? Where is Maman?” she asked. Baba turned to face his daughter. “She’ll be back, azizam.” “Let’s eat! I’ve prepared the dinner table,” she said. “You go on ahead, and call your brothers to eat. I will be there soon.” Baba murmured under his breath: “You, foolish woman. You foolish, foolish woman.”
He then stepped away from the window. Hope had faded from his eyes. Instead, dark circles had formed under them, his forehead now shadowed with hard lines. He was not sleeping nor eating well since Maman started helping out at the Sazehman. She started out by working in their kitchen and helping with tailoring needs. Eventually, she attended their meetings and passed around newspapers, acting as a mentor to other women, informing them of the political climate. Sure, Maman came from an activist family, which inspired and influenced her desire to be a part of the Sazehman.
But there was another reason, buried deep in her, which she would later reveal to her youngest daughter. Joining the efforts of the revolution gave Maman an escape route from her marriage. While she had learned to love Baba, she also felt trapped in their marriage. She was only 17 when they married. Prior to the marriage, Maman had wanted to sing on a radio show. She wanted to go to college. But Mamanbozorg, her mother, forbid her to sing in public. They were a pious family then, and pious women didn’t sing on public radio. In fact, after the Ayatollah toppled the Shah, women were forbidden to sing solo.
Maman continued her activism, as it gave her something to do and she believed she should continue in her siblings’ footsteps. Baba had no say in any of it, of course. Mamanbozorg had warned him: “If you stop my daughter, she will divorce you.” His wife came from an activist family; Baba didn’t like this, and didn’t want any part in it. But he remained loyal and stayed, and bore it all in silence. He would grow accustomed to this silence. He would learn to bear this silence so much that he would talk less and less in the years that followed. In this silence, Baba kept himself together, for his children, for his young wife.
Maman knew they were coming for her, the Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Regime.
Tonight, was the eve of a holy night; Muslims were commemorating their prophet. Maman was anxious; she had harbored an uneasy feeling for the past month. It was only a matter of time before someone found her activities suspicious. She had been discreet of course — she hadn’t deliberately called attention to herself. She wore her black chador when she went out so she was hidden from head to toe. Underneath, she wore a white scarf, a beige manteau — a long dress shirt — and khaki pants. On public buses, she kept to herself, eyes to the ground, an occasional smile to another female passenger. Despite the nerves in her body agitating, her heart racing like it did as if she had just a little extra caffeine, she still believed in the mission: to liberate Iran from dictatorship, from the abusive hands of those who stood in the way of justice and humanity. Before Khomeini brought the Islamic Republic to power, Mohammad Reza Shah, Iran’s last king, also took advantage of his throne. He too wanted to control people. He sent his SAVAK team — his brutal secret police — to take down anyone who opposed him, or anyone who stood in his way. The SAVAK even went after the pious women, who covered their hair, which at the time was not compulsory, by pulling on their scarves. Four years prior, the SAVAK shot and killed Maman’s only sister and brother-in-law during a demonstration.
The doorbell rang and Baba jumped.
“We are here to take your wife for questioning,” one of the guards said when Baba popped the front door open. The soldier guards wore khaki shirts and pants. They were fully bearded, heavy rifles around their shoulders. They carried briefcases too.
Maman wasn’t able to say anything at all. She methodically put on her long, black veil and then went to their car. One of the guards sat in the rear beside her. They ordered her to cover her eyes with her scarf and tie it in the back of her head and bow her head down. She knew they were probably taking her to Evin, the now notorious house of terror — a big, robust prison built by Israeli technicians during the Shah’s regime. They then handcuffed her from the front instead of the back — this was a favor, she thought.
The Evin prison stands by the outskirts of the Alborz Mountains in Northern Tehran with high stonewalls and towers where armed soldiers stand guard. The dusty, cream colors of the wall have been tearing with time; the prison is over 40 years old. The heavy metal doors stand as a reminder that there is no freedom once you enter.
Evin is like the River Styx, between life and death. It’s a name that gives people goose bumps. Evin is the unknown. You don’t know if your sentence is death or life in prison.
Maman and her companion inmates slept on military blankets that smelled of wool mixed with chemicals. They each received two blankets and red plastic cups that smelled awful every time they drank hot tea, which was mixed with a kafoor, a special chemical to suppress sexual desire.
Secrecy permeated the cells. The women did not trust each other. After all, anyone could be a spy. Many repented for their acts against the Islamic Regime because they believed they were wrong. Others repented simply to avoid execution. The women put on a guise in front of the guards. Their faces read obedience and repentance.
One of the men began whipping the soles of Maman’s feet with a cable. She tried not to scream, only letting out soft, broken groans. Her feet bruised and ached. As the whipping continued, Maman imagined herself in America. She was not blind to America’s history of genocide of native Americans, slavery, discrimination, or the Vietnam Wars. She knew that America had played a major role in shaping Iran’s past by meddling in its affairs in mid-20th century. She was well aware that America’s intervention had altered Iran’s destiny for ill.
But in this moment of suffering, she needed to believe in an America that promised freedom: the freedom to be herself, to reclaim her dreams and hopes, to be the woman she didn’t get to be in Iran, bounded by a stifling marriage, and a revolution she would later regret fighting for. She knew she would have opportunities in America that she wouldn’t have in Iran. That was the American dream to Maman.
She slowly began to feel hopeful even as the pain continued to penetrate her body. She imagined the taste of freedom — like butter melting on white, Jasmine Rice — and the smell of freedom — like fresh Barbari bread out of the oven; what a heavenly aroma. Freedom must have tasted and felt like this. The whipping continued. Maman shut her eyes, clenching her fists. Azadi. Freedom. She repeated to herself.
The women gathered for dinner. The guards brought over the usual: dry bread and cheese. Everyone ate, heads down, remembering that this moment was a rare bit of normalcy in the cell. But this night’s silence was suddenly broken by gunshots: loud, sharp bullets that marked an execution outside the cells.
Out in the yard, 30 women lined up against dark brick walls, and for the last time, they sang from their hearts, freeing their forbidden voices, for the regime that was about to execute them had always been taking away something, always depriving, censoring, and brutally raping them, on the streets and inside the prison cells. Under the name of God, these dictators polluted the air and committed such heinous crimes with eyes wide open, giving religion its undeserving name, tainting faith and humanity and justice.
The women sang Raghseh Shokoofeha, Dance of the Blossoms. They wished each other well as the line drew closer to the finish, and with each bullet, their voices died as each fell to the ground. They danced like the blossom as it twirled with the spring winds, around the green fields amongst the flowers and seeds. The restless blossom gave a kiss to the wind under the sun with its red lips.
Shokoofeh miraghsad az badeh bahari
Shodeh sarta sareh dasht sabzo golzari…
The women inside were unable to swallow the pieces of bread that were now lodged in their throats. The spoons dropped, and no one said a word, each woman counting the number of gunshots until silence. This was one of many executions that took place while Maman served her term.
Death lingered in the hallways, in the small, tight cells, in the shower stalls, on the walls where some women hung themselves with their scarves. Everyday Maman wondered when her name would be called. But she never mourned or cried. She kept busy and didn’t share much with other cellmates. In prison, she learned to mistrust. She learned to close her heart enough to protect herself, enough to keep her guard.
As the days went by, the atmosphere grew tense. Every week, the guards came to the women’s small units, called a few names, and took people away; none of the remaining prisoners knew where to or for how long. The next day, they’d come and retrieve the belongings of those they’d taken: clothes, accessories, anything that marked their existence. Maman and her companions feared the uncertainty of their inmates’ whereabouts, but they knew that wherever they were taken, they must be closer to death.
Maman’s name was eventually called.
The guards took her to a big room and told her to tie her scarf around her eyes. She sat on what felt like a rough carpet, between small wooden boards on the floor with no room to move. At night, the prisoners slept in the same position seated, only getting up to use the bathroom. No one could make any noise. They could only breathe. If they needed anything, they raised their hands. During meals, if their spoons touched their plates and made noise, Haji, the head prison guard, kicked them. He was a big, broad-shouldered man with an empty head, a metalworker turned head of the political prisons, who killed people with ease. Because of his profession, his hands were heavy and when he struck a prisoner, she couldn’t breathe for several moments. Everyone feared him, even Maman. Rough and aggressive, he made fun of prisoners in front of others and humiliated them. He used them to make bread or take charge of a unit. When there was prayer, he made everyone pray, and if someone refused, he accused her of godlessness.
For six months, Maman stayed in one position, blindfolded. Death had never felt closer. In the mornings, someone touched their shoulders to wake them up for prayer. Maman felt a touch on her shoulder. Her body twitched. Was it, morning already? She wondered.
It was time for Morning Prayer. She listened to the swift sound of chadors brushing against the floor, one after another, like a slow dance. Her mind calmed, she could feel herself smiling — she was not alone. She prayed and thought of her children, her daughter and two sons. Did they know that she was alive? She had not been allowed visitation hours, nor had she been given the chance to make any calls. She wasn’t even sure she’d make it out alive. This felt like the end, but she would keep strong. She had to.
Maman approximated time based on when she was served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When the women cried, they kept their heads up so as not to make noise, but mostly to show the guards that they weren’t giving up. When there was silence, Maman busied herself by thinking about different things. She prayed and started to think of a food recipe: Ghormeh Sabzi — a traditional Iranian stew. First, trim cow or lamb meat and cut into 3/4” cubes. Next, fry onions over medium heat in half of the oil until golden. Add turmeric and fry for 2 more minutes. Then increase heat, add meat cubes and…
She had to keep her sanity. She missed humanity, love, and compassion. She was tired of cruelty and having the enemy watch her at all times. She imagined her mother and father holding her in their arms like a baby. They would pat her head and her back; tell her that everything would be fine, and that they still loved her. It was strange for her to need love from her parents instead of wanting to hold her own children. There was God too, of course. She never once stopped having faith in Him. Despite all the hardships and suffering, she believed then that he gave her the strength to carry forward. It wouldn’t be until after her immigration to the States, when Maman was in her 50s, that she eventually stopped believing in God. She would then realize that she had strength within her all along, and that it was her own strength that allowed her to survive.
Maman endured 194 days of blindness in a colorless world of constant fear. She heard the firing squad and the unbearable, hushed cries of women betrayed by their government, women whose only crime was their idea of liberation, their hope for forbidden freedoms, to put an end to arbitrary punishments, and to silences that gave neither hope nor relief, to marg — death that plagued the soul.
She felt a tap on her shoulder so she stood. Maman and her inmates were taken to a large room where they stood in rows. They were then told that they could uncover their eyes. The women finally saw each other again. They had all lost much weight, their eyes weary and hollow. Maman went to the bathroom and saw a big bicycle in a corner with a mirror on its handle. It was the first time she saw her reflection in six months.
“Salam,” she said hello to herself as she touched her weary face.
She felt joy upon meeting a familiar and happy face in the mirror. She smiled, for she had become someone else. Life had another meaning. She had won the battle between evil and self, between death and life.
Though Maman was originally sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence, she was released after five years. She wasn’t sure why she had been given early release, but believed that being a mother worked in her favor. Or maybe it was just luck. For the first time in five years, she stood outside the heavy metal doors of Evin. She was free, but could not yet grasp freedom in its entirety.
It was the afternoon of August 27th 1986 when Maman walked out of Evin and went home. It was as if she’d woken up from a nightmare. She felt a mix of excitement, happiness, sadness, and anger. She had missed much of life in five years.
She felt numb when the car stopped in front of her house and her children came into view. She found herself in a dream and would remain a stranger for a long time, searching the house for signs of familiarity and recognition. Her children had grown up and were unused to her motherly presence. Maman struggled to understand what she had ultimately lost and what she’d gained, if anything.
For the first few months, she fell into a depressive state. She visited a psychologist, and was put on antidepressants. As time went on, she reduced the medication little by little, as she didn’t enjoy the side effects of dizziness and drowsiness.
She recalled those days behind bars. She had decided then that if she were to be released, she would have another child. Some of her inmates had encouraged her to have more children. It had seemed natural then, to want to grow a family.
Maman stood in the middle of the living room in a baby blue dress shirt and a cream skirt, looking out the big windows facing the Alborz Mountains. Her face glowing, she rested her hands on her growing belly. She had been out of prison for a year, and now radiated with the lightness growing inside her. It did feel a bit strange, to carry a child again at 38. But this would be a new beginning for her and her family. She even wished that she would have twins.
She knew that the fight was not over. America awaited her. She was going to dream again. She’d always been a dreamer.
Maman began singing softly as she prepared her afternoon black tea with cardamom.
“Sar oomad Zemestoon…”
Winter has come to an end.
Baba watched Maman as she kneeled down to pray in her white chador, her back toward him. He was relieved to have her back, and looked forward to welcoming their new baby — the lightness after much hurt. He would learn to bury the anger and the pain, and in his grand silence, he’d remained loyal to Maman, to his children. In his silence, he would keep his love.
Baba began to whistle. He always whistled when he was worried.
Elaheh Farmand lives in the US but grew up in Tehran where she often heard hushed snippets about her mother’s time in prison. She felt compelled to understand her mother’s ordeal as well as the killing of her aunt and uncles. She has interviewed her family members about their past and has written several unfinished pieces based on her mother’s accounts. This latest version, which takes a slight fictional take on some dialogues and aesthetics of the story, is the most developed, though her mother’s story is still yet to be fully told.