Listen to the song of the reed,
How it wails with the pain of separation:
‘Ever since I was taken from my reed bed
My woeful song has caused men and women to weep.
I seek out those whose hearts are torn by separation.
For only they understand the pain of this longing.
(Rumi, 1997, 21)
1It was a hot summer in 1983 when I first saw Bahareh in an overpopulated ward in Evin, one of the most notorious political prisons in Iran. The ward was overcrowded by hundreds of women of different ages and backgrounds, and about thirty children of both sexes, aged from infancy to eight years. As any other evening - to which I was soon to become accustomed - they had, as if gushed out of a flooded ants’ hole, poured out of their overpopulated rooms into the narrow hallway. Squeezing their way ahead in this jam, they walked, alone or in pair, creating a cacophony in which words from different conversations intercepted one another. In this midst, the rusty voice of a woman, who repeatedly shouted curses, spoke the language of insanity.
2Yet, the instant my eyes caught the sight of Bahareh, all this noise withered away. I was captivated by the penetrating gaze of this little girl who, hanging tightly to her mother’s neck and sucking on her pacifier, stared at me. Emanating from her dark large pupils was a stunning fusion of innocence and curiosity, and a strange wisdom so unusual for her age. When I asked what her name was, she gently removed her pacifier and sounded ah-ah-ah. I must have looked puzzled; a “petite woman”, apparently her mother, the one to whose neck she had clung, intervened and said: Bahareh. She says her name is Bahareh. Only then I recognized that the sound I had heard as monotonous ah-ah-ah had in fact been a polytonous ah-āh-eh, the rhythmic sound of bah-hā-reh. During the next year that I lived with Bahareh, her particular rhythmic language became familiar, and I was tamed1 by her bright dark eyes. She however continued to surprise me by the way she looked at everything as if for the first time, yet as though she had been around forever.
3As the meaning of her name - little Spring - suggested, Bahareh’s presence enlivened every rotten thing around her. She had an amazing ear for music. You did not have to sing more than a few bars of a song before she hummed the rest for you. To put her to sleep, you had to sing her favorite song; she had favorite songs for different occasions. Yet, as if a bird, Bahareh sang and spoke without words, except for one word, amama, a “distorted” form of māmā for mother, by which she called, or referred to, her mother. According to the doctors, there was nothing wrong with Bahareh’s vocal cords to prevent her from speaking. Yet, she did not speak, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. Nevertheless, she understood us perfectly and spoke by uttering the intonations of the words. One could make sense of most of what she said if one took the time to get used to the music of her otherwise silent words, and to the scope of her language, which was at once ghostly and minimal. Rarely did she initiate a conversation, and when urged to respond, she responded reluctantly. Our attempts to encourage her to speak proved futile.
4Bahareh’s story is however only one among many which exemplify the unconventional childhood and parenthood in Iranian political prisons of the 1980s. This essay will narrate these stories in conjunction with the story of the 1979 Revolution, its subsequent short-lived “Spring of freedom,” and the ensuing violence. I will only briefly highlight this historical context, and focus on the peculiar child-parent relationships that sprouted out of this violent period. In shedding light on the dark death zones of Evin Prison of the early 1980s, I hope to offer some insights on those surrealities to which Bahareh’s “language”, in its absent presence, gives a voice and in doing so it in fact exceeds language. Implicitly, her wordless language speaks both to the impossibility of articulating the violence to which she was an involuntary witness, and to the creative modes of kinships and forms of life engendered by some of the inmates in this impossible situation. These new forms of kinship and community were anchored in love and care for the self and other, where the self is envisioned as always already interconnected with the other, where the other is inseparable from the self. The essay is hence about the unconventional languages and kinships emerging, and speaking to one another, in the floating thresholds of life and death in a political prison in post-revolutionary Iran. I however hope that the analytical insights this essay puts forward will speak to the much deeper issues that concern life, kinship of love, the power and limitations of language and our very humanity in the face of inhumane violence.
- 2 This is not to suggest that there were no divergence within the state, or in the interpretations of (...)
5The uprisings that led to the 1979 Revolution, which ended up toppling the Pahlavi regime and establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran, brought millions of Iranians to the streets in a fragile and elusive unity. Blooming out of this revolutionary struggle was an extraordinary sense of dignity and freedom, a deep desire for justice, and a feeling that everyone was taking part in making an incredible history. Streets were filled with people of different age, gender, socioeconomic and ethnic background, and divergent politico-religious affiliations, who initiated conversations with strangers as they would with their own kin. Whether intellectuals or lay people, everybody seemed to be actively engaging in discussions on urgent issues of the day, as well as aspirations of their imagined ideal community to come. Books and journals were freely sold and discussed on the street for the first time since 1953, when a coup d’état (planned and sponsored by the CIA) reinstated the Shah’s Regime, which thereafter reigned with an iron fist and a notorious secret police, SAVAK, that watched every act of political deviance. Yet, the expressions of intolerance toward any divergence from the views advanced by Khomeini, who was rapidly assuming the role of the sole leader of the Revolution, indicated that the hazardous clouds of political suppression were already gathering. After the inception of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini would become the first Supreme Religious Leader, Vali faqih2. Gone would be the possibility of working toward a more balanced and inclusive vision for the country.
6The seemingly unbounded freedom that followed the victory of the Revolution was short-lived and illusive. Even before the Revolution was announced victorious, the fissure among the opponents of the old regime was quite visible. The fact that Khomeini, while still in Paris, spoke of the rights to free expression and to political activism, even for communists as long as they do not take up arms, illustrates both the diversity of the opposition to the Shah and the growing power Khomeini had already begun to claim: determining who will (or not) have what rights.
7The leftists were the major voices of dissent of the Shah’s Regime. The supporters and members of Cherikha-ye Fadaye-e Khalgh-e Iran (the Self -Sacrificing Guerrilla of the People of Iran), a leftist organization which took up armed struggle against the Shah in 1970, populated political prisons and had been subjected to SAVAK’s brutal torture techniques and execution. Other leftist organizations which did not believe in armed struggle were also targeted, and their members subjected to imprisonment, torture, and sometimes even execution. The leftist organizations were actively involved in opposing the Shah, notably through a general strike and in revolutionary uprisings. In the last few days of the Revolution, “Cherikha-ye Fadaye-e Khalgh-e Iran” led the attacks and captured Evin Prison and the government’s Radio station, from which the victory of the Revolution was announced. The organization played a significant role in toppling the Regime in its last stage. Yet, the organization that began to gather a greater popular ground after the Revolution was Mujahedin-e Khalgh-e Iran (the warriors of the People of Iran), an Islamic organization which initially supported the Islamic Republic and Khomeini but soon became their most tenacious enemy.
- 3 There were of course more to the disagreements between Mujahedin and Khomeini, or many other clergy (...)
8Founded in 1965, the Mujahedin-e Khalgh-e Iran was a left-leaning Islamic militant organization which was able to recruit a number of Muslim educated youth in its armed struggle against the Shah’s Regime. Until the conversion of a large group of its members to Marxism in 1975, it had a much closer relationship with the major leftist organization Cheirkha-ye Fadaye-e Khalgh-e-Iran (the Self-Sacrificing Guerrillas of the People of Iran). Mujahedin’s emphasis on social justice and the organization’s anti-imperialist and Islamic sentiments made it more appealing to socially conscious young individuals with religious inclination. Mujahedin’s views created a bridge between the revolutionary struggles of the time, often influenced by anti- and post-colonial and Marxist perspectives, and a reading of Shi`i Islam that could resonate with more educated youth. Mujahedin had tried to gain Khomeini’s support while he was in exile, but Khomeini did not seem interested in Mujahedin’s class-conscious, semi-Marxist reading of Islam, nor did he favor, some argue, its belief in armed struggle. Still, Mujahedin rallied for Khomeini during the Revolution and in the early months after its victory, although this support was tension-ridden. In the spring of 1981, less than two years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the tension between the new state led by Khomeini and Mujahedin turned into a full clash. Prior to the Revolution, not every revolutionary Muslim in Iran saw Mujahedin as “monafeghin” (hypocrites)—the title that the new state deployed to refer to Mujahedin—but Khomeini and some other clergy members called them hypocrites for advancing a deceptive reading of Islam that mixed it with Marxism3. While Mujahedin were critical of most clergy and their rendition of Islam, they expressed strong affinity with Mahmood Taleghani, an influential clergy who died soon after the Revolution.
9It was however a non-clergy, a sociologist with a PhD from the Sorbonne, Ali Shariati, whose views on Islam were perhaps the closest to that of Mujahedin. Resonating with Mujahedin was Shariati’s “Red Shi`ism”, which also combined Marxism, post-colonialism, and a particular rendition of Shi`i Islam. Many Mujahedin’s members saw Shariati as their ideological father. Shariati was perhaps the most influential intellectual in popularizing his particular interpretation of Islam among the increasingly urbanized and secularly educated Iranians. Without his public speeches and many books, Khomeini and the Iranian Shi`i clergy would have not been able to reach most of the young urban Iranians. It was through Shariati and figures like him that the influence of Marxist groups was curtailed and Khomeini and some other clergy found popularity among the youth. Without Shariati the road for Khomeini’s ascension to power would have been much rockier, if not impossible.
- 4 To read more about Mujahedin, see Abrahamian, 1992.
- 5 It did not take that long for the state to severely crush Mujahedin within Iran. Its surviving lead (...)
10Not too long after his return from fifteen years of exile - spent mainly in Iraq and ended in France - Khomeini made it clear to Mujahedin that their eager support would not earn them any trust or share of power in the new state. After the new Regime was founded, differences between Khomeini’s and Mujahedin’s vision for the future of Iran became even more evident. Mujahedin’s constituency had grown large enough to allow its leaders to confidently demand their inclusion in the position of power in the Regime, something which appeared as a threat to Khomeini, who had never been fond of Mujahedin’s left-leaning tendencies. The clash of ideas (and struggle for power) soon turned into violence. The state and its militant supporters were attacking dissidents, including Mujahedin. When Mujahedin’s supporters were repeatedly beaten up during their public demonstrations, the hostility between the state and Mujahedin grew intense. The turning point was in April 1981, famously known with its solar Iranian calendar date (30 Khordad), when a massive demonstration by Mujahedin was attacked by the state. A large number of protesters were severely beaten, some were killed, and many others were imprisoned, many of whom ended up being tortured and some of them were summarily executed. According to the Regime, the protesters had not peacefully received the beatings. In Mujahedin’s account, some of the protesters had only responded in self-defense. Mujahedin declared an open war on the state, to which the state responded with extremely harsh measures. A few days after 30 Khordad Mujahedin called for another protest with the intention to fight back. It turned bloody. Mujahedin then announced that they had entered a military phase (faz-e nezami),4 a bloody period during which the state lost some of its high-ranking officials; about 70 of its parliament members were killed in a bomb explosion allegedly planned by Mujahedin and many others were assassinated by Mujahedin. In this phase, Mujahedin also assassinated selected members of the revolutionary guard, the newly formed military, and of Basij, a para-military group. The Regime responded in a frenzy of revenge that was not limited to Mujahedin but targeted dissidence at large5.
- 6 Aksarriyyat literally means the majority but was the title of the group that emerged out of a split (...)
- 7 For learning more about these massive imprisonments and systematic torture see Abrahamian,1999. See (...)
11This period coincided with an intense external war with Iraq, a violent conflict in Iranian Kurdistan, and the systematic suppression of all dissidents. Even those remotely associated with any opponents of the Regime, dissidents with no particular organizational affiliation, were persecuted. Yet to speak of these violent crushing of dissidence as mere wrath of the state may obscure the systematic manner with which it was planned and carried out. For instance, Aksarriyyat6 and Hezb-e Toudeh (Party of the People), two leftist organizations that supported the Regime - and, ironically, even its harsh treatment of the dissidents - were the last to receive the blow. Arrests were massive, torture was brutal, and executions were undertaken summarily. Thousands of prisoners were sentenced to death in trials that lasted only a few minutes, without jury and without access to lawyers. The war with Iraq allowed the political suppression to be carried out of the need for unity within.7
12By 1983, every dissident group in Iran had suffered from the massive and systematic persecution of the Regime. Most of these organizations were not involved in armed struggle. But the Regime used the involvement of two or three of the leftist groups in the conflict in Kurdistan as a pretext to treat as “mohareb” (warrior against God) anyone affiliated with, or remotely supportive of, dissident organizations.
13The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was imposed on Iran and continued for eight years because most Western and Arab countries lent their financial, military, and political support to Saddam Hussein. In Khomeini’s words, it turned into a blessing for the Iranian government, allowing it to consolidate its power. The war offered the Regime a strong justification to persecute any voice of dissent, deeming this persecution necessary for safeguarding what Khomeini called Vahdat-e-kalamah (the unity of the word) against the external enemy. The result of the harsh measures undertaken by the government was catastrophic for dissidents; those who did not end up in prison or killed either fled the country or lived in silence and in fear for many years. The exact number of persons turned into political prisoners is still unknown. In 1983, when I entered the ward where I met Bahareh, the number of women in Evin Prison was in thousands - a much smaller population than that of 1981. If the population of men – which was far greater than that of women – is added to that of prisoners of the entire country, one can easily have an estimate in the range of tens of thousands populating Iranian prisons between 1981 and 1983. According to Ervand Abrahamian, at least 8,000 prisoners were executed between 1981 and 1985,8 most of them affiliated with, or supporters of, Mujahedin. In the early 1980s, Mujahedin claimed to have the largest popular support of any dissident group, easily able to draw in over half a million people to the street demonstration. As a result, they outnumbered other dissident groups both in prisons and in the cemeteries.
- 9 Prisoners rarely discussed the details of their cases with other prisoners. I hence know very littl (...)
14Bahareh’s parents were affiliated with Mujahedin, though the details of their affiliation were not exposed to me.9 I should in fact make a general point about the characters who make up the stories which I seek to narrate: due to the nature of the prison system and constant ruptures in communication and connection among former prisoners, my knowledge as to whether they survived and were released, and information about their lives after prison, is limited. For instance, all my efforts to find out about Bahareh’s and many other imprisoned children’s adult lives have remained futile. I have mainly been able to learn of children whose parents left Iran and are now living in Western countries. There are very few of those who still live in Iran with whom I have been able to re-establish contact but none of them are the same children with whom I spent those early years of my imprisonment. Underlying these stories of unconventional kinships within a political prison are thus implicit and/or explicit stories of ruptures on a myriad levels, spanning over personal, familial, communal and national realms.
15In the early summer of 1981, fifteen days old Bahareh (or perhaps 40 days, for my memory betrays me here) had just been breastfed by her mother and was about to go to sleep to the warm voice of her father. As usual, he was strolling around the room, holding her in his arms and singing her favorite song. The door was suddenly sprung wide open, and several armed men raided their home. The father was shot dead on the spot, and Bahareh and her mother were taken to prison. Bahareh must have sensed the drastic difference between home and this new place. Taken from the loving arms of her father, she became privy to the nauseating odor of prisoners’ injuriously infected and sweaty bodies, and to the eerie stench of death swathed everything, as if a fog.
16What did she understand when she saw so many prisoners taken downstairs on their feet who returned on their buttocks or when others came back walking as though on artificial legs? What about those who were carried upstairs wrapped in stinky blankets? How was she affected by the fact that her mother remained blindfolded day and night during those first two months following their arrest? What did she see in the eyes of other children, guards, and interrogators - the only eyes open around her? She would become deprived not only of her mother’s eyes, but also of her breasts and their milk, which dried out on the second day of detention after the mother was taken downstairs for a second round of torture. These would not be all the losses her mother, and hence Bahareh, would experience. The mother would soon lose her upright posture; due to intense lashing on the sole of her feet, she will no longer be able to stand or walk on her injured and deformed feet. For months, she would move around on her buttocks, carrying Bahareh on her belly.
- 10 As Elizabeth Povinelli points out, Wittgenstein’s concept of “language game” is never defined as ha (...)
17In the first couple of months of their imprisonment, Bahareh and her mother, as well as many other prisoners, had to live and sleep on the floor of the hallway because of the lack of space generated by mass imprisonment. Constantly under the watchful eyes of interrogators and guards, they witnessed new waves of arrests, constant beatings, and deaths under torture. Prisoners were tortured by interrogators to speak, and beaten by the guards to remain silent, being punished if they even whispered to other prisoners. How confusing it must have been for Bahareh to fathom why speaking was sometimes so desirable, while deemed dangerous at other times. She must have wondered why prisoners often refused to speak when ordered to by the interrogators, but seized any opportunity to communicate with one another in their absence. Bahareh’s mother had no way of protecting her except by holding her close to her shivering and thinning body, and by singing in her ears, in whisper. Under this surreal condition, how could language and all its games not confuse “imprisoned children.”10
18After a couple of months, Bahareh and her mother were placed in a ward overcrowded by hundreds of women and about thirty children aged from infancy to seven years. Most of these children were there because their mothers had no one outside prison to whom they could send them. There were also a few children who had lost both parents to the regime but were brought to the ward and left at the care of women inmates. The guards usually did not directly mistreat children, though there were cases when they used them against their parents; the sheer fact of children living in such condition was of course a profound mistreatment. Since children lived with their mothers or in women’s wards, guards, interrogators, the occasional “handy men”, and the so called “technical brothers” (barādar fanni) – as the men who came to repair the broken facilities in the ward were called - were the only men to whom children were ever exposed. The games children played were always about prison, for most of them had either never been outside prison, or were too young at the time of their “arrest” to remember the world before prison. In one of these games, one of the children would play the role of barādar fanni upon whose entrance in the room all other children, including Reza, a seven year old boy, would cover themselves as women prisoners were required to do so anytime a man entered the ward. In this “children-play”, however unintentionally, normative gender roles were transgressed. Not only the child who played the role of barādar fanni was not necessarily male, but Reza, the only boy in the ward in that particular period, would cover himself like a woman. In retrospect, I cannot recall Reza ever assuming the role of barādar fanni. The normative gender roles were hence subverted: Reza, a boy, would sit covered in a chador along with other children, while a girl would walk into the room as barādar fanni, as the handyman. The analysis of this subversion of roles is beyond the scope of this essay. I would like however to emphasize the significance of Reza’s refusal to play the handyman, if only in passing, for it renders possible to construe this refusal as his way of resisting to identify, even if unconsciously, with the men he must have imagined as the hostile other.
19Another game the children played was a reenactment of interrogation and torture; some of them would blindfold themselves and stand in line behind one another, imitating the adults being taken for interrogation, while a few others would assume the role of the guards, interrogators and torturers. Watching a child reenact the whipping on the sole of the feet of other prisoners-children was not merely heart wrenching: it also terrified the adult prisoners, making them realize how carefully these children observed the horror around them, and how they were deeply affected by. Adult prisoners would interfere and prevent the children from playing this game.
- 11 I know of a particular case of a child who was brought to visit her father in prison in the early 1 (...)
20In prison, children were often scared of men, including their own fathers. The occasional visits of their fathers imprisoned in male sections of the prison almost always turned into shocking experiences for both fathers and children, and of course for their mothers. During these visits, especially in the initial ones, children often tried to run away from their father. This left the burdensome task of convincing them that these particular men were to be loved, rather than feared, to the mothers and other women inmates. Men prisoners also worked hard to portray a kind and gentle image of themselves for the children, one that could stand out as radically different from the interrogators’ and the guards’. Under the most difficult circumstances - handcrafting was forbidden in prison - they made “jewelries” or little toys for their children. It was not however very clear to me to what extent the children’s fear was due to the identification of all men as potential interrogators or guards, or to the sight of their fathers’ helpless condition – not only could they not protect their children, but they appeared incapable of protecting themselves.11
21One of the ironies of parenthood in prison was that so often children became the protector of their parents, usually of their mothers. Again and again, Sona, Cheshmeh, and many other children restrained the interrogators from torturing their mothers. While interrogators did not always shy away from torturing prisoners in presence of their children, it occasionally impeded the use of torture. This was the case when torture was not deemed essential to interrogation. Torturing prisoners in front of their children was however a tactic to induce greater emotional pressure on prisoners. Yet, while in ward, where children could be left at the care of other women, interrogators often asked mothers not to bring them along for interrogation. Some mothers purposefully brought their children along, hoping that their presence might lessen the possibility of being tortured. In some occasions, children protected their mothers when they were only infants, or even before they were born. Even though some pregnant women were executed, pregnancy was sometimes a factor in postponing the execution until the child was born, or as long as the mother could claim breastfeeding her child. Occasionally, this delay saved the mother’s life; summary executions became less prevalent from 1983 up to the massacre of 1988. If someone had not been executed in 1981-1982, she or he had a greater chance of survival thereafter. Yet many who survived the early 1980s mass executions were killed in the massacre of 1988, during which about five thousand sentenced prisoners were executed in the course of only two months. As most prisoners’ testimonies revealed, the massacre was planned; the state officials have attempted to justify the massacre by blaming it on Mujahedin’s attack on Iranian border towns in the Southwest of Iran, when Iran had just accepted the ceasefire with Iraq. Supported by Saddam, Mujahedin hoped that the ceasefire would cause chaos among the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards, keeping them preoccupied hence unable to fight back. The Regime nevertheless responded with rage. The result was not limited to the quick and humiliating defeat of Mujahedin. The state used the opportunity to also carry out the cleansing of political prisons, which it had hoped for so long. On the battleground, members of Mujahedin’s troops were killed; several villages were bombed and burned down, with many of villagers massacred. Mujahedin and the Iranian Regime blamed each other. The state then shifted its attention to prisoners, who had been imprisoned for years and hence had nothing to do with the attack. Once again, those who were killed were not only prisoners affiliated with Mujahedin. Many leftist prisoners were among the massacred, as well as others who had served their time and were waiting to be released, or remained imprisoned only for refusing to sign the letter of repugnance, which was the condition of release for all political prisoners under the Islamic Republic. While the executions of the early 1980s were no less massive, in women’s wards life was drastically different in the early 1980s due to the presence of children. Children at once demanded life and were the life givers.
22As I mentioned earlier, breastfeeding could occasionally postpone the execution of a mother. Since the Islamic law prohibits the killing of a breastfeeding woman until her child is two years old, some mothers claimed they were breastfeeding even when their milk had dried out. Not every breastfeeding woman survived execution, but it sometimes played a role in their possible survival. One could not easily suggest that those who claimed to be breastfeeding while their milk had been in fact dried out did so to save their own lives. Knowing that the child would be left behind without parents was agonizing, and mothers tried hard to delay this as long as they could. Yet, they were often forced to make impossible choices: cherish every second left of their time with their children, or avoid making their children too attached to them to prevent their future heartache.
23It is hence difficult to simply speak of these children-parent roles in terms of the protector or the protected. How could language possibly describe the way the three year-old Mahasti clung to her grandmother’s legs every time she was called for interrogation? Was she, in her mind, protecting her from another round of torture, trying in vain, desperately, to prevent her from going to interrogation? Or was she imploring for her own protection by the grandmother? Was she demanding her to stay, letting her know she needed her protection? The grandmother was arrested when she was already in her late sixties (Mahasti at the time was a fourteen month-old girl). The Regime hoped that by arresting them, Mahasti’s mother, an affiliate of Mujahedin, would be forced to turn herself in. The grandmother was severely tortured to give away her daughter’s whereabouts. She was so severely tortured that she suffered a major stroke, which put her into coma for the next six months. Mahasti did not leave her grandmother during the months she was in coma; she lied down on her grandmother’s belly whose bed-ridden body remained still in the prison’s clinic.
24By the time her grandmother regained consciousness, Mahasti had become inseparable from her. Mahasti, who could speak and walk before her “arrest,” no longer uttered a word nor did she walk. It took months of living in the ward with so many loving women, who tried to comfort her, and with her grandmother’s extraordinary unconditional love and effort, for Mahasti to begin speaking and walking again. At first, she only walked clinging to her grandmother’s leg, and spoke only in her presence. She appeared conjoined with her, following her everywhere in the ward, accompanying her to the most profane and spiritual endeavors, from the bathroom to her prayer. She held on to her leg under her chador as she prayed, and did not leave her sight even when she needed to relieve herself. It was as if she had to make sure her grandmother would not disappear; as if her presence was her life cord. Yet who was the life cord for the other? How could one deny the life-saving role of Mahasti in her grandmother’s return to life after that severe torture and the subsequent coma? How could her survival be fathomed without the responsibility she felt towards the survival of Mahasti which, in the absence of her parents, had solely fallen on her? Perhaps Mahasti too saw herself as a little protector of her grandmother? Did she realized that her breathing on her grandmother’s belly while she was in coma played the most vital role in bringing her back to life? Was that the reason she was now trying to be a constant presence in her life so she (they) could go on?
25Gradually, she seemed more secure about her grandmother. She began to play with other children, though with her grandmother still in sight and in close proximity. She no longer was attached to her leg. Just when she had finally allowed herself to loosen up her grip on the grandmother and trusted to be entertained by one of the many “aunties” without having her in sight, the loudspeaker called the grandmother’s name. Later that evening, the grandmother returned from another phase of interrogation, trying hard but unable to hide her badly swollen and injured feet from Mahasti—the same feet already deformed by previous episodes of torture. She was called again two days later. This time, she did not return for three days. My words cannot capture Mahasti’s distress nor the collective effort of so many “aunties” to keep her calm and entertained. The grandmother returned with injuries too severe to be covered up. Mahasti was glued to her again. Nobody could separate her form the grandmother. Perhaps she knew her hands were too small to prevent the guards from taking her grandmother away if they wished to do so. Yet she tightened her grip on her as though this could protect her (them).
26After her return, Mahasti sat by her grandmother’s side for days, stared at her deformed feet, now freshly swollen and blackened, tried to massage them with those little hands of hers, and to comfort her as if she were a nurse, or indeed a mother. She kept cuddling, caressing and kissing her as a mother would treat her injured or sick child, but at the same time acted like a helpless infant who would cling on her fatally ailing mother, hoping that a miracle of love would save them both. In extreme pain, the grandmother also tried hard to hide her discomfort from Mahasti, but allowed her to feel like she could take care of her. I do not know how Mahasti felt or thought about all this. Did she feel guilty about leaving her grandmother out of sight and associated her injury to this absence? Could she decipher the impossibility of their condition, seeing their attachment to one another as the only means to survive it? Here again the roles of parents and children as those of the protector and the protected were perplexingly blurred, and the words and concepts to signify them were as deeply convoluted.
27Prison condition inevitably led to the creation of unconventional parenthoods. In the absence of the father, the normative model of a nuclear family, constituted of a father, a mother and children, was already lost. In its stead, the children often lived in the company of many women who shared the parenthood with the biological mother. Only eight-month-old when I met her, Sahar had several “mothers” and “aunties”. They came to her rescue when her young biological mother, grieving the horrific death of her husband under torture and frustrated by obstacles of motherhood in prison, occasionally lost her temper and took her anger on Sahar. Sahar’s parents were affiliated with Mujahedin. The mother, only twenty-one-year old at the time, had to experience motherhood for the first time under the duress of imprisonment while grieving the loss of her husband. She occasionally lost her temper and acted out her frustration by yelling at Sahar, occasionally even spanking or shaking her. But every time she would lose her temper, remorse would subsequently overtake her. She would cry of guilt. The inmates were ready in each and every instance to rescue the child and console the mother. They acted as sisters, mothers, and friends.
28Among those children living in Evin prison in the early 1980s, Sima still has a strong presence in my memory. Sima was a precious girl with whom we played “words game” during which she amazed us by her incredible ability to pronounce the most difficult words and sometimes even use them in sentences. Her curiosity and playfulness did not however stop her from acting like a little mother to her cousin, Sahar. Her tender attention and her motherly gestures were extended even to us, the adult inmates. I can still close my eyes and feel her little fingers caressing my face whenever I had fallen ill and bed-ridden. I met Sima in the same room that I spent about a year of my imprisonment along with Bahareh and Sahar and eighty women. She was just over one-year-old when I first saw her. She always looked very pale, not so much because of her fair complexion and blond hair, but due to sun deprivation in prison and the strong doses of cortisone she was given to control her severe asthma under the circumstances: Sima’s father had been executed. Her older sister lived with their grandmother outside of prison, while Sima, her mother, her aunt and Sahar, her infant cousin, were all jammed in a corner of a room, crowded with roughly eighty other women and Bahareh. There were no beds in the room, which barely had the capacity for 15 people, even when all slept on the floor side by side. As mentioned earlier, only a few months old, Sahar often suffered her mother’s temper, aside from many other discomforts she experienced as an infant born and raised in an overcrowded political prison. At nights, the room was filled with her cries, Sima’s dry and rusty coughs, and the moans of pain of tortured inmates, and fragmentary words spoken in the midst of dreams and nightmares.
29Exhausted from sleepless nights, Sahar’s mother, a grieving young widow, occasionally did not tolerate Sahar’s cries of hunger, or of pain, which were often due to the lack of proper diapers for her sensitive skin - despite frequent change, her skin sometimes was so badly burned that it turned totally red, even with bleeding scars. The mother had heard that her husband had committed suicide to escape his subjection to relentless torture. The story of the horrific means by which he had killed himself had become a common knowledge, spoken though only in whispers. In her agonizing grief, she would display a rage that was mainly rooted in her feeling helpless and unable to protect and comfort her little baby. Her frustration was intensified by her entrapment in an overcrowded, noisy, suffocating room. It was also magnified by her own pain and her uncertainty about her future and the future of her little child. It was under such a circumstance that she sometimes reacted to Sahar’s cries with her own screams, curses, and occasionally even slaps, which would immediately draw the attention of the concerned and watchful eyes of other inmates. We would interfere; somebody would take Sahar away from her while others try to comfort her. She would almost always break down and burst into tears and sob, feeling guilty for slapping or cursing her little child. Yet who could really blame her for being out of control? Many of us were ready to jump in and act as a temporary mother for Sahar, to help her mother take a break from her suffocating experience of motherhood in this unbearable condition. Whether this made her feel more or less inadequate as a mother is not clear to me. However, I do believe that raising a child in prison without these unconventional bonds of kinship would have been damaging for the child and the mother, if not impossible. In such occasions, if one took the time to watch Sima, one felt the heartbreaking pain and confusion she experienced, extending her motherly care from Sahar to her mother and yet wanting to ignore it all and remain a playful child. She would try to distract Sahar by playing with her, trying to make her laugh, while her own pale face looked even paler, and her coughs growing rustier.
30Children were real saviors for many women inmates. We laughed more when children were around, used our creative mind to give them a sense of life outside prison, felt a greater incentive to remain playful while growing more mature. Art had greater significance with children around; we painted for them what they had not even seen - an inmate drew many animals they had never seen in real life; we played pantomime, and sang for them. Children compelled us to remain connected to life, to stay alive; they gave birth to us.
31Women inmates created a web of kinship in prison in which even families outside prison were included. They sometimes asked their families to bring them dresses in bright colors, or made with a kind of fabric more suiting for children. They would then unsew these dresses, cut, and hand-sew new clothes for children. Celebrating children’s birthdays was a collective project involving weeks, if not months, of planning, in which most women inmates participated. Fathers also played a part in making gifts for their children, but were absent in the collective work to arrange the birthday party and at the celebration, though they too celebrated their children’s birthday in their wards with their male comrades despite the absence of their children. They too were collectively involved in the process of coming up with the ideas for, and making of, gifts for children, and found ways to send gifts to their children or give them in the meetings. Men also tried hard to sustain and recreate bonds of kinship despite all the challenges they faced.
32The emotional bond between parents and children was a predicament faced by both. In cases where the mother of a child was executed and the child was given to other family members outside prison, she or he had to not only adjust to the new living conditions but would have to live with the trauma of suddenly losing any connection with the mother. When the mother was still alive but the child was sent out and placed under the care of the grandparents or other relatives, the child was often reluctant to return to visit her in prison. Even though these visits took place in the meeting hall and not in the ward, it seemed that the anxiety and the dread of seeing the guards, or the general atmosphere of prison, was overwhelming for these children. This was particularly painful for the imprisoned parents, especially for the mothers who had been living with their children up to that point. Yet, they understood their children’s fear of prison. They realized that for these children, just coming to the meeting room was enough to trigger the memory of their dreadful experience of their life in prison. The mothers had to work hard to reassure their children that they would not be taken back in, and to make the little time they had - often only a few minutes - enjoyable so they would want to come back. To give a sense of these experiences I will here relate the story of imprisonment and release of Bahareh with which I began this piece.
33Amama, Amama, this was how Bahareh called her mother. We asked her: Why don’t you call her māmā? Isn’t it easier than amama? But she kept calling her mother amama. As if this deliberate or unconscious “distortion” abridged the gap between the signifier and the signified, between the saying and the seeing. In Farsi, the last two letters, the two “ā”s of mā (ﻤﺎ) and mā (ﻤﺎ) in māmā, ﻤﺎ ﻤﺎ , are written vertically. Phonologically, one has to also cut the air vertically while sounding the word mama. But in amama, except its first a, which is written vertically as the a (ﺍ ) in (ﺍﻤ ﻪ ﻤﻪ), but still pronounced as flat short a, the two other “a”’s in the end ofﻤ ﻪ do not in fact really sound “a”’s but “h”, which in Farsi is written and sound horizontally.
34Conjuring the reasons for Bahareh’s peculiar word for mother I cannot help but think of her mother’s transformation from an upright posture to a horizontal position following torture. I wonder if this metamorphosis may have shaped Bahareh’s perception of her mother and the world around her, thus turning her mama (ﻤﺎ ﻤﺎ ) into amama (ﺍﻤ ﻪ ﻤﻪ). I also wonder whether one can read in her amama the loss of her mother’s milk haunting her word for mother, for in children’s language in Farsi, the word mama (ﻤ ﻪ ﻤﻪ ) means breast, which also - in fact, mainly - implies mother’s milk. In Bahareh, the distortion of māmā to amama seems to summon up not only the mother’s breast in the absence of her milk, but also her descending from an upright posture to a horizontal one. Could this also offer an explanation for Bahareh’s attachment to her pacifier, pestoonak in Farsi, which indeed means little breast?
35Although Bahareh never uttered any other word than amama while in prison, words were not entirely absent in her language. They rather had a ghostly presence. While one could not suggest that she did not speak, her mode of speech inhabited a peripheral position in relation to adult’s language. She hummed the rhythm of the words based on the syntax of adult’s language, reminding me of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of major and minor languages, her speech form taking the form of a “minor” language in relation to the “major” language we spoke. In its reliance on the major language, her language highlighted, as Deleuze and Guattari also point out, the flawed dichotomy that may be perceived to exist between the two languages. Our communication with Bahareh could however not lead to an extensive dialogue. She sometimes hummed while still sucking on her pacifier, as if intentionally mocking the very communication she pretended to have with us, as if she demanded that we understood her in her terms, without subjecting her to the rules of the authoritative language.
- 12 This is an allusion to Michael Taussig, 2003.
36Without a visible body of its own, her singular, spectral, mode of speech borrowed the body of the major language, though turning it against itself. It spoke in its words without explicitly uttering them. Her “silence”, which resembled the Silence of Sirens in Kafka’s Odysseus, frightened us. We, the adult inmates, felt unsettled by her ghostly language and its simultaneously minimal and excessive expressions. The reason for the absent presence of words in her language was left obscure to us. This generated anxiety that was not merely due to the fact that her manner of speaking reflected and demarcated the very limit of [our own] language (Botting, Scott, 1998, 2). Our anxiety was also rooted in the gaping silence created by this absence. Palpitating behind this anxiety-inducing gap was our imagination of her imagination12 about the malice of the world we inhabited. In Foucault’s words, the infinite possibility hinted at by Bahareh’s apparently wordless language showed us just how far speech may advance on the sands of silence (Foucault, 1980, 30).
37Her mode of speech left us anxious, for without words her verbal communication with us remained at a minimally basic level—I am not sure what would have happened had we tried learning to speak with her in a sign language. The minimal mode of her speech was agonizing; it denied us entry into Bahareh’s world. We wondered about what laid in the vast lacuna between her seeing and her saying; we envisioned her dreadful experience of the horrifying scenes her eyes saw and had seen. Seeing what we witnessed through her eyes terrified us. What if the cruelty of this world took away her innocence - the innocence we often attribute to children? What if her refusal to speak the language of the adults was a means of resisting to grow up and turn into one of those adults to whose cruelty or misery she had become an unwilling witness? All we knew of her world we read from her eyes and her bodily gestures. We relied on our own imagination of her imagination.
It was the summer of 1984. The roar of the lashes was making the whole ward shake as if from the shocks of a long lasting earthquake. These were the sounds of lashes on a woman’s body on the second floor, right above our ward. She was subjected to whipping five times a day during prayer times, in order to force her to either die or accept to pray. Every time the lashes roared, the children screamed and cried of fear. Unlike other children, Bahareh never cried, nor did she ever scream. Sucking faster on her pacifier, she silently stared with unusually enlarged pupils, though at no one or nowhere in particular. In such moments, I shivered to my bones wondering what she knew of the horror that even we, the adults, did not or could not recall. It was as if she had a vivid memory of sometime in the past, of all the times in the past, even of a memory of the future; as if she knew of the imminent coming of a much more potent malice, as if she could see the future as already present, already past, yet still to come, of all those times that have been, are, and will be “out of joint” [Shakespeare].
- 13 While I was in Iran in 2003-2004, a devastating earthquake destroyed the ancient city of Bam in Ira (...)
38In her book Impasse of The Angles: Scenes from a Moroccan Space of Memory, Stefania Pandolfo writes about a young poet, little more than a boy, who seems old while singing of loss and sorrow (…) for he is infused with the authority of what is spoken through him (Pandolfo, 1997, 248). Despite her limiting language, Bahareh also sang like a storyteller, like a poet who has not yet lost the instinctive knowledge of dying, hence does not speak death to the world (Harrison, 1992, 249). In my mind, Bahareh still sings without words for as Botting and Scott write: certain experiences disclose an ‘unknowing’ at the heart of experience that denotes the limit of language, discourse, culture (cited in Charles, 2000, 21). Bahareh reminds me of the palm trees which stood upright and alive in the midst of the ruins in the ancient city of Bam after the disastrous 2003 earthquake.13
39Bahareh has come to occupy a significant place in my memory. I see her in conjunction with my own life history, my own losses and resumptions of homes and languages. Times and again I have come to imagine myself looking through her eyes as I witness the disjointed histories of the present world unfolding, always ever more shocking, yet painfully familiar and excruciatingly repetitive.
- 14 The revised version of this thesis was later published, Talebi, 2011.
It was 1999. I had begun to write in English, for the first time extensively, about my prison experience. I was writing not merely to give an account of my own life but narrating in analytical mode about imprisonment, death, madness and survival, as my undergraduate Honor’s thesis14. In one of those challenging nights of writing, I had a dream of a beautiful sunny day, of myself in the ocean with my pants rolled up to my knees, holding a friend’s hand. The sunrays had a dazzling orange reflection in the blue water. Yet, I was saddened by a deep loss. Somehow I knew, as I assumed all others walking along in the ocean did, that we were the only survivors of a disaster. I was torn between my joy of being present to this splendid beauty and the horror of inhabiting a world in the aftermath of a disaster. We kept walking deeper into the ocean but, all of a sudden, the ocean began to roar and vomit its rage. The waves were rising, pushing towards us to wash us away or to swallow us in. As I paused, undecided about running away or giving into the waves, I suddenly saw Bahareh playing with the waves, far deeper in the ocean. I awoke, bewildered!
40Why would Bahareh inhabit this strange space in my dream? Why now, after so many years, would she return in my dreams? After all, there was obviously no scarcity in the disastrous events in the world. The writing and the dream took place when the US was bombing Iraq on a daily basis, oblivious to the history and memory of the support it had lent to Iraq in the eight years of war against Iran. In my mind, however, these realities stirred up other memories, which affected my psyche. I have come to learn that for me, any new incident of injustice and violence awakens the memories of other injustices I have lived in the past, including the experiences of imprisonment of which Bahareh was a significant part. Yet her return most likely had to do with my relationship to language and writing, which somehow was reminiscent of Bahareh’s language and its peculiar connection to words. While words are essential element of any human language, in her language they appeared ghostly, at once absent and present. They were there but in an elusive form, having borrowed another body, a non-speaking speaking body. Her appearance in my dream seemed to rely on the resemblance my mind perceived in her language and my manner of speaking English in that period of my life when I was struggling to express myself in the words of a foreign language while my native tongue remained silently present. But why should Bahareh come to speak through me, to me or/and for me? What is it in her story that compels me to unearth it, as if an archeologist, from under so many layers of memories? Why did she occupy such significant space in my dreams in such disastrous and creative moments of my life?
41I recall my dream in which the ocean seems to attempt to swallow us in, when Bahareh becomes visible to me as she plays with the waves, far away. Does she appear to me as the harbinger of my survival, a reminder of the gift of life that I have come to embrace despite disasters and of the disasters of which she and I were surviving witnesses? Has she appeared in my dream to awaken my conscience and to urge me to bear witness to, and to speak out against, the injustices of our time, our histories? Is she the child in me, inviting me to embrace life with fresh eyes, to be born anew yet with the memory of all the lives lived before? This would mean giving birth to oneself not like Plato’s philosopher, but as a wanderer, a seeker, a forever novice, a forever child?
42In his discussion of the voluntary and involuntary memory, Walter Benjamin writes of the way in which the taste of madeleines transported [Proust] back to the past, and reminded him of the town of Combray in which, after all, he spent part of his childhood. In Benjamin’s words, for Proust, the past is somewhere beyond the reach of the intellect, and unmistakably present in some material object (or in the sensation which such an object arouses in us), though we have no idea which one it is. As for the object, it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it (Benjamin, 1968, 158). In Benjamin’s view, the return of the past does not have to always occur involuntarily and randomly, but the past can also be summoned consciously and voluntarily.
43Although I had really never forgotten Bahareh – she was only submerged in my memory – I am not sure what awakened her dormant image and brought her to the surface of my mind. I only remember that one cold winter night in New York, while walking home, her image re-emerged, so vividly and potently that it felt like gusty wind had suddenly penetrated my skin. I immediately seized it, as it seized me. She rekindled a series of other memories in my mind. Her re-appearance urged me to think about the ways in which her story relates to my past and present life.
44Both Bahareh and I are survivors of disasters - though I know nothing of Bahareh’s present life, I assume and hope that she is alive. Bahareh was born in 1981, in the midst of a bloody war with Iraq and the crackdown on political dissidence. She expressed herself in explicit words only after she was released from prison. I too survived those disastrous years of the early 1980s, as well as the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. I found myself unable or reluctant to write while still in Iran, refusing to express myself in a language that was also spoken by the killers, resisting, like Bahareh, to deploy words that had spoken death to others. In spite of all this, I had in fact begun writing while in Iran but the possibility of the risk my writing entailed and the suffering that my possible imprisonment or death could bring to my parents compelled me to stop writing. Only in exile did I resume writing, and not in my mother tongue but in a foreign language. Like all languages, English too is also the language of violence and massacres, even of genocide; yet as Bahareh inhabited the language of the killers from a different space, I too was reborn in anew in this foreign place and language, to bear witness to the memories of massacres but also to creative ways of living through and surviving them.
45In 1984, nearly three-year-old at the time, Bahareh was given to her grandparents while her mother was still imprisoned. Less than an hour after joining her grandparents, Bahareh began conversing with them in complete sentences as if she had been speaking for years. Her first questions, as they recounted to their daughter, had been questions similar to most children’s: What is this? What is that? And soon she began speaking accurately in adults’ language. The outside world was as foreign to Bahareh as the United States was to me when I arrived in March 1994. Prison had been the only place she had known, at least as far as her conscious memory could remember. Who knows what she remembers of the fifteen days (or forty days?) before she was taken to jail. What she experienced in prison must have had a deeper imprint in her life.
46Now once again Bahareh has transpired in my life, though in and through my dreams. She had come to act as my interlocutor in the aftermath of many disasters and massacres, when new wars and new massacres were intriguing the memories of the ones I had witnessed in the past. Her presence invokes in me the memories of those injustices and urges me to bear witness to those of today. It also reminds me that after a massacre one has no way of surviving except through a creative manner of embracing life and death, through an artful expression of life, in the wider sense of both terms, art and life, by living poetically, living through poetry. I think of Bahareh’s playing with the waves in my dream as such poetry - a poetry that speaks life rather than death to the world. Faced with so much disaster in our world today, I wish to write of Bahareh and her life giving soul as poetry. Yet, words seem illusory. They appear slippery. The fire of the images and memories makes them evaporate or melt away like small pieces of ice under the hot summer. Yet in my soul a burning sensation lingers on, a painful burning from the losses. I do not merely mourn for what was lost, but also for what never came to be. I seek a way to tell the stories of injustices to which Bahareh, her mother, and many others were subjected, though in elusive and evasive words.
47How can I narrate Bahareh’s story, or those of the other children in prison, in a conventional language, especially when Bahareh herself so ardently refused to speak it? How do I convey the power of her apparent silence, which undermines the typical figures of silence as muteness or as indication on one’s entrapment in trauma? Immutable in her “wordless” language while in prison, she began articulating herself in words after leaving prison. Was her speaking in words a way of marking a passage, a recognition of her new status as a mourner and a survivor? Was her speaking in adult’s language a way of communicating with the adults now as a survivor and a witness? Was there a connection between the unconventional kinship in prison, which embraced her “wordless” language, and the conventional of biological family, though of the grandparents, to whose care she was delivered and her speaking in their words/language?
48I too came to speak, though in the form of writing, after my release from prison and upon leaving my country of birth and my family - it was perhaps due to this separation from home and family that I reckoned with my losses and my survival, in their repetition, in the second time, as with every traumatic event, in an always already belated manner. I too had left a strange world I had called home behind and inhabited a foreign country where I would attempt to create a new, and mainly non-biological, kinship, while the imaged from my past life mingled with those of the present. This is not merely a past that seeps into present in its impacts and memories, or in its uncanny repetition, or the one that takes the form of present in constant transition. It is also the past that one consciously summons, in an impossible mode of seizing a historical moment in a way that time stands still and has come to a stop (Benjamin, 1969, 262). One must also write of this past experience at once like a child with fresh eyes and yet as a dying person, in a dialectic of transition, of the instant of time standing still, which Benjamin portrays as the very moment of one’s death when a sequence of images is set in motion inside us, as our lives comes to an end (Ibid., 94). Through this poetic imagery of life and death, one may find a way of exploring bygone presents.
49Like an enigmatic allegory, Bahareh has stood at once still and vivacious in my memory, always a little girl, never growing old or dying, appearing and disappearing, never failing to appear again. She comes to speak to and through me, constantly there, as I move from one stage of my life to another, as I grow older, or whenever I face the limitation of language, and the need and desire to tell the story of new injustices. She is there to remind me of my survival and of my ethical responsibility to remain a witness of injustices. She is there to be a witness to my witnessing.
50In that abyss in which, as Hugo suggests, there seemed to be nothing to be done but to talk, Bahareh chose not to speak, at least not in a conventional language. In her “silence” I recognize her survival and her profound response to the burden of responsibility she inherited by the mere fact of being born in that time and place. Can one construe Bahareh’s silent language in prison and her speaking after her release as a sign of defiance against the “crime of the other”, as her refusal to speak in the language of the killer? Was this her way of recognizing that [o]ne does not, for all that, bear any less responsibility, beginning at birth (Derrida, 1994, 21)?
51There were pigeons in Evin Prison, the kind I used to see in New York City. Perhaps these pigeons were one of the reasons why it was in New York, more than anywhere else in the US, that I was reminded of my prison experience. In prison, pigeons would gather behind our bars and make sounds, especially in the spring. To the ears of some tortured prisoners, it was as if the pigeons were saying: please do not beat. Do not beat hard! (lotfan nazanin, mohkam nazanin). While living in New York, I woke up for months to the sounds of what I assumed were the cries of orgasmic pleasure of a couple living upstairs. Only later did I learn that they were the sounds of pigeons. As I initially began to write the story of life in prison, I thought that if my ears could hear such drastically different sounds from the pigeons of prison in Iran and those of New York City, how would my voice, speaking of the experiences from Iranian prison, be heard in the United States. How would Bahareh’s wordless language, I wondered, be spoken through my own elusive words? How would the stories of those children, Mahasti, Sahar, Reza, Sima, Cheshmeh, the unconventional parenthood and the beautiful bonds created in the abyss of prison be communicated? Yet I remain hopeful that somehow the pain of loss and the joy of love would speak to our humanity, as do Bahareh’s bird-like humming, or the music of love and loss sung through a ney (flute) in Rumi’s poem, with which I began this essay. While particular to different contexts, love and pain as human experience (Del Vecchio-Good et al., 1994) may create unconventional bonds of kinship among us beyond the borders of conventional languages. Of this unconventional language and kinship, Bahareh’s and other children’s stories in this essay offer but a glimpse.