Iran Heroine's Sister Is Arrested

"They want to intimidate me," says the Nobel Prize winner

By Shirin Ebadi

In those last days in prison, I started to hallucinate. All my niggling physical ailments suddenly acted up. My hip pains, hypertension, heart palpitations — even my childhood stutter — returned. I despised my own weakness and tried not to complain. I just pressed my teeth together, flexed my fingers until the nails turned blue and bit back my groans. I tried to remember who had said, "We are not born to suffer." I couldn’t, however, and my inability to recall made me terribly angry. I picked up a metal spoon and began trying to carve some words into the cell’s cement wall: "We are born to suffer because we are born in the Third World. Space and time are imposed on us. There is nothing to do but stay patient."

I tried not to get too dreamy, so I would be crystal-sharp during the interrogations. It was not uncommon for the interrogating judge to bluff and corner you into implicating someone by suggesting that person had implicated you first. It’s an unsubtle and classic ploy of interrogation; I managed to evade each attempt. Others involved in the case did not. One of them implicated me. I tried to convince myself not to judge him for this. Even hard-core political activists who’ve braced themselves for torture won’t know until it comes to pass whether, or for how long, they can hold out.

The second session of the trial unfolded much like the first. At least this time, the court permitted my husband to speak to me for a few minutes in the hallway. "Do not, under any circumstances, let my mother or the girls visit me in prison," I said. I woke up every morning thinking about them, but I didn’t want them to see me in a prison uniform, behind bars.

Finally Getting Out

On an indolent Thursday evening, as I lay restless on the soiled carpet of my cell, the guard rapped at my door and announced that I had a phone call. It was the judge presiding over my case, calling to say that 25 days after I had first passed through the iron gates of Evin Prison, I could be released on 20 million toman bail (about $25,000). Euphoric, I immediately dialed my home number and asked my husband to show up at the courthouse first thing Saturday morning with the deed to our house.

The next day, the hours crept by with agonizing slowness. When night fell, I lay on my back and let my mind wander. I thought of seeing my daughters again and of how relieved I was that they had been spared the sight of me in a dirty prison chador. I thought of the weekly hikes I would resume with my poet friend. I thought of what one of my clients once told me about the indispensability of prison. In Iran, he’d warned, unless you are punished before the public, everyone will assume that you collaborate with the regime.

When I woke up Saturday morning, I took a long look around the cell, whose contours I had memorized, and wondered how long it would take to forget the shapes of the stains, the graffiti carved on the walls. By nine a.m., having packed the five or so items that constituted my personal belongings, I sat ready on the cot, waiting eagerly for the guard’s knock. At 5:00, it finally came. The burly guard, the one who had complained of being my prisoner, swung the cell door open and told me to follow her. She moved laboriously down the corridor, and I willed myself to stay at her pace, though my feet felt so light, I thought they might take off underneath me at any moment.

An ambulance with tinted windows idled in the prison courtyard. A prison official told me it would drop me off at a taxi service. Why an ambulance? The traffic in Tehran is unmoved by emergency vehicles, so surely not for the sake of transporting me more quickly. I thought it better not to ask questions and simply got in. As we rolled onto the crowded expressway, I gazed affectionately at the snarl of cars — bored drivers checking out those around them, dusty trucks loaded with fruit, playful comments painted on their sides — and thought, for the first time ever, that 6:00 traffic in Tehran was not without its charms.

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