Iran Heroine's Sister Is Arrested

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

By Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003  for risking her life to defend victims of political violence in Iran. On December 28, amid a crackdown on anti-government protesters, her sister Nushin Ebadi—a professor of dentistry who is not politically active—was detained by Iranian intelligence officials in what may have been a bid to intimidate Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and campaigner for democracy, into halting her work. In this chilling excerpt from her 2006 memoir, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, Ebadi recalls the frightening details of her own arrest in 2000.

My Advance Warning

When you are about to be arrested in the Islamic Republic of Iran, you get advance warning in the press. Just as you might turn to a certain page for the week’s weather forecast, you can scan the front page of two or three hard-line papers as a guide to whose arrest is on the way. If the headlines fall below the fold or appear intermittently, the handcuffs are a good two or three weeks away. If the libel against you is making the front page every day, if the fury has become palpable in the top headlines, you know you should pack your overnight bag.

The hard-line apparatus is media savvy. It sends out the equivalent of press releases early, to ensure that Western media outlets can catch the news. But it forgets to embargo their release until the actual hour of the arrest — which is how phone calls such as one I received early one morning come to pass.

"Hello?" I said.

"Hello?" repeated the caller. "Who is this?"

"This is Shirin Ebadi."

"Mrs. Ebadi! I’m so happy to hear your voice! We received a telex earlier saying you had been arrested…."

"Really? You don’t say…."

That day the phone did not stop ringing. For hours I repeated over and over to journalists that I was not in prison. Yet. My sister called, after hearing a news bulletin on a Persian-language European radio station. "It’s all a mistake," I assured her.

The Worst Phone Call of My Life

At 5:00 that afternoon, June 28, 2000, the phone call I had been waiting for finally came. "Please report to Branch 16 of the Tehran General Court," the caller said.

As I made a last-minute survey of the apartment, checking to be sure I had packed my blood-pressure medication and an extra toothbrush, I convinced myself I would be back soon. "Your father and I have a meeting this evening," I called out to my two teenage daughters, who were watching television in the living room. "Order yourselves a pizza for dinner." I was anxious that my husband, Javad, not linger too long at the ministry, where I had been ordered to report, in case our daughters started to worry.

The session with the court judge lasted 20 minutes. He promised to alert my husband, who I presumed was waiting outside, that I had been taken to prison. The guards led me through a back door to a parking lot. It was quite late, after 10, and the fluorescent streetlights bathed the parking lot in a strange orange glow. The traffic had slowed by that hour, so it didn’t take long to drive up the expressway, past the spiraling twin minarets of the new praying grounds. The driver stopped at a kiosk along the way and bought me a soda. My mouth had gone dry.

My First Moments in Evin

The prison known as Evin is tucked away on the side of an expressway in northern Tehran. It is one of the few institutions in Iran whose reputation has passed unchanged from the shah’s regime to the Islamic Republic. With its iron walls and low-slung architecture, the prison holds a grim reputation for having been the scene of thousands of executions since the revolution. The name Evin conjures images of basement interrogation chambers and long rows of dank, narrow solitary cells, and occupies perhaps the darkest corner of the Iranian imagination.

I was wholly unprepared for the first question I was asked when I arrived:

"Are you here for a moral offense?"

Women who are brought to Evin after dark are typically prostitutes. After a second of shock, I realized that the prison guard assumed that this might be the case with me.

"No! What are you talking about? My offense is political!" This reminded me of a joke we used to tell whose punch line was "My crime is political." I started to laugh, which incensed the prison official no end. "Why are you laughing?" he demanded.

"My crime is political," I kept repeating, my laughter bordering on hysteria. He waited for me to compose myself, then looked away in disgust when he saw that I could not.

"Just write down anything, and take her away."

A female guard guided me down a long corridor, to what she called her best cell. It was covered in filth, and the sink had no running water. Dirt and rust rimmed the metal toilet in the corner.

"Is there a better one?" I asked tentatively. He let me peer into three others, and I realized grimly that mine was indeed the best. Unable to work up the courage to go into it, I sat hunched in the corridor. A few female prisoners passed by on the way to washing their dishes. "What are you in for?" they asked.

Blemishing the Revolution

I was in for "blemishing the revolution" by videotaping the testimony of a witness who claimed to have been a member of a violent paramilitary group. (The hard-line forces in Iran used such groups to put down unrest without involving the police.) He had come to my office offering firsthand information about this group, which had carried out a brutal attack on a client of mine. His offer seemed too good to be true — information about paramilitaries is almost impossible to come by. So I taped his testimony even though I suspected it might be a trap. Later I decided I didn’t want the tape in my hands and left it with the office of the deputy interior minister. Shortly afterward, stories about the tape, which I was accused of fabricating, began appearing in the newspapers.

The press dubbed it "the case of the tape makers." So when my fellow prisoners asked what I was in for, I whispered, "The tape makers."

"Really? What was it called?" one woman asked. "How much did you get paid? Was the director nice?"

"Oh my goodness," I thought, "they think I’m here for making a porn movie."

A bit later, the prison doctor stopped by to measure my blood pressure. When he left, clanging the door behind him, I gazed at the pocked, stained walls of my cell and felt all of the anxiety of the previous weeks slowly ebbing away. I had no recourse to anyone or anything, I realized, except God. "I’ve done everything I could do," I whispered, "and now it’s Your turn." Then I made a pillow out of my bag, pulled my chador over me, and fell asleep.

My Second Day in Evin

The clank of the metal breakfast tray woke me up. A piece of bread, a small square of salty cheese, and some tea. A guard rapped on my door and summoned me to be properly checked in. She tossed me a prison chador — blue, with a mocking pattern of the scales of justice — and told me to follow her. Down in the administrative office, they fingerprinted me, hung a numbered tag around my head, and took mug shots. One of the guards asked me, "So what do you play?" In Iran, when someone is arrested, their house is also raided for evidence. Since some of the ayatollahs consider playing musical instruments immoral, I thought they had found the girls’ piano or my husband’s sitar and were trying to add playing music to the list of my offenses. "I don’t play anything," I sniffed.

"Stop fooling around," the guard snapped. "We’re already tired of your games from last night. Now, I’m asking you again: What do you play?" "The piano belongs to my daughters," I said. "Not everyone is musically inclined, you know."

The guard who had escorted me here caught the misunderstanding and, with a faint smile, explained to the first guard why I had been arrested.

Again, the truth dawned on me. He had thought I was a drug addict! In Persian, "What do you play?" also means "What do you take?" — as in drugs. He had assumed I was high last night, to have laughed so hysterically. Prostitute, porn star, drug addict. Did no one in this prison think a woman could be a prisoner of conscience?

Changing Spaces

After the booking, I was taken to a new cell. It was no upgrade, but at least the guards were kinder, and I noticed that they were treating me specially. They scooped out bowls of food from a huge pot for the other inmates, but they served me a special tray of chelo-kabob (meat skewers over rice). I stared at the ceiling, then at the floor, until I felt myself going cross-eyed from boredom. So I started peeping through the little hole in the door. One of the prisoners had her child with her, and she was playing in the hall, entertaining the guards.

The guards, it turned out, all had college degrees, with backgrounds in juvenile reform. They knew of a children’s rights organization I had helped found, and later on, when they discovered the connection, they turned even more respectful and sweet. They sneaked me into the prison library so I could get some books. (It was technically reserved for male inmates; even here, we were second-class.) They brought me fresh clothes. But they couldn’t protect me from the luridness of the night.

Many of the prisoners in my ward were drug addicts who had been brought there to quit their addiction without the aid of any detoxification drugs. They howled and screeched through the night, horrible screams that reverberated through the walls. When the guards began feeling cozy with me, they would sometimes come and sit in my cell to complain about their jobs. I sympathized. It was tough work. But at least they got to go home after their shift.

My Thoughts on Prison

It was so odd to me, how the rhythm of prison life became familiar. The personality quirks of the guards; the dank, dusty smell of the cells — even the howls of the addicts seemed normal to me after a couple of days. On the third day, a young man visited my cell and accused me of trying to pass a phone number out of prison. "I’ve done no such thing," I said politely. He grew furious and searched my bag, with rough, jerky movements. I was dumbfounded. The prison guard, an affectionate woman whom I had gotten to know a little, came to my cell afterward. "Why the hell didn’t you defend yourself?" she demanded, her eyes full of reproach. "What kind of damn law school did you go to? What’s the point of all that education if you just sit there silently?"

I said nothing, just closed my eyes. I was too worn out to argue with her, too dejected to explain that a legal defense is useful only in places where due process is respected. She touched my shoulder, sighed softly, told me to trust in God and let me be. Later that night, a sharp rap on the door jolted me from my half-conscious stupor. "Get ready. You’re being sent to another prison," a woman’s voice announced from the other side of the door. Suddenly, all the fear I had managed to fight back since arriving at Evin rushed over me at once. As I picked up my bag with trembling fingers, snatches of all the reports I had ever read about prison torture began flashing through my mind. I knew they wouldn’t dare rape me. But they could lash my bare feet with electric cables until I "confessed," until I said, "Yes, I, Shirin Ebadi, falsified propaganda against the Islamic Republic."

"Where are you taking me?" I asked. Silence. "Please, can you just tell me where we’re going?" What if they were taking me to the dreaded place known by the ominous bland title of the Joint Committee? I’d heard that torture was rampant there.

Silence

No one would answer me. "Just walk," they said. At a dark courtyard in front of the prison block, a bus stood waiting. One of the guards tied a blindfold around my head and helped me onto the bus. We rumbled off, and I groped the seat beneath me, staring into the blackness of the folded cloth over my eyes. We seemed to be driving in circles (and in fact, we were — I later learned that we never left Evin). When we stopped, I stumbled out of the bus, my hands floating in front of me. "This way," someone said. I recognized the voice. It was Ali, my interrogator at the court. "We’re convening a court session for you," he said. My hand was placed on the stump of what felt like a staff. "Follow me."

I followed. Vivid images of all the hideous things that could go wrong flitted through my mind. My mouth went dry, and I couldn’t stay quiet. "You will have to answer on Judgment Day," I cried shrilly to Ali. "It is you who are the negligent one! You are my interrogator; you’re supposed to investigate this. But instead of tracing who actually leaked the tape, you’re charging me!" I was beside myself, fury and terror dissolving my inhibitions. I screamed, "I will never, ever forgive you on Judgment Day!"

Suddenly, the staff halted. "Take off the blindfold," Ali said. I blinked, my eyes adjusting to the dim light of a narrow hallway about the width of a large man’s shoulders. Eight doors opened off the corridor, to eight solitary cells. "The water here is cleaner," he said. (The contaminated well water in the other ward had upset my stomach.) "The food is better, and no one will disturb you at night. You’ll be much more comfortable," he promised.

"I think I would be more comfortable at home," I said sullenly. He turned on his heel, strode out of the hallway and locked the door behind him.

I began investigating my surroundings. There was no guard. I peered into each cell, all windowless, with grimy, cheap carpeting that had clearly gone unwashed for years. In one room, my eyes seized on a half-full pack of cheap Iranian cigarettes. I really, really wanted to smoke. I left a crumpled bill on the table — we were allowed to keep money to use at the prison sundries kiosk — and went foraging for matches. For half an hour, I inspected each cell, checking in corners, under the carpet, everywhere. Smoking is permitted in prison, but inmates aren’t allowed to keep their own matches or lighters. You have to ask one of the guards to come light your cigarette for you. I wanted to smoke one of those cigarettes as badly as I had ever wanted anything, but I had promised myself I would never request anything in prison. It was a point of principle. I refused to need anything it was in their power to give. After another fruitless search, I threw the pack back on the table, curled up on the stinking floor, and went to sleep.

A Rude Awakening

The kick to my side was delivered to hurt, as well as to wake me up. "What are you doing here?" A stout woman with oily skin towered above me.

"I don’t know," I said sleepily. "They brought me here last night."

"Well, this is the guard’s room, so you can take yourself elsewhere."

"Fine," I said, gathering my things.

"What are you in for, anyway?" she asked with an offhand rudeness. None of your business, I wanted to retort. But I lectured myself: You’re stuck here, you’ll need to somehow win these awful people over. So I explained calmly.

"You’re lying," she said, rummaging through my bag. She took away my clothes and tossed a smelly, stained chador in my direction.

"But… but… please give me my own clothes back."

"That’s all you’re going to get," she snapped.

Adjusting to My New "Life"

Later, when a doctor came to check my blood pressure again, I petitioned him for my own clothes and got them back. For some reason, it made a universe of difference, sitting in that cell in my own clean dress instead of in the foul, unwashed smock worn by a hundred wretched women.

I couldn’t decide whether I preferred the old ward or the new. Here, the menu was improved. Chicken kabobs, schnitzel, nutritious stews, and (I was promised) an apple every 10 days! But the guards were enthusiastically ill-tempered, mean, and petty. There were four of them guarding just me, and they resented this fact greatly. "We are your prisoners," they liked to say. It was difficult to tell what time it was, since the naked light bulb hanging in my cell was always on and there were no windows. I was allowed no newspapers, no radio. Sometimes I would wake from a nap and wonder whether 10 minutes or 10 hours had passed. I began to go mad from the loneliness and silence. I missed my ex-neighbors’ cursing and swearing, their middle-of-the-night howls for heroin.

But after a day, my agitation passed. Maybe prison isn’t all that bad, I told myself. At least I don’t have to think about mopping the floors or taking out the garbage. I don’t need to worry about the article I promised to write or the trial I should be preparing for. No dinner to cook. No mortgage to pay.

My interrogations took place in a small room nearly filled by a dilapidated wooden table. The sessions lasted several hours, the circuitous questions repeated endlessly. The judge began each round with a sonorous recitation of Koranic verse.

What flustered me was not so much the interrogations but the slowing of time. Hours turned to days and days to weeks in the suffocating sameness of my cell. I prayed five times a day. I stretched. I attempted calisthenics.

My Day in Court

One morning the guard handing me breakfast said I should dress for my trial that day. The prospect of leaving the confines of the cellblock for anywhere at all shot my heart through with joy.

The moment we entered the courthouse, I was overwhelmed by an intense feeling of over stimulation. After being alone for the past 15 days, the throngs of people — well-wishers, journalists pushing against police officers to speak to me — flooded my senses with shouts and colors. Suddenly I heard my husband’s voice. He pushed his way forward with the lawyer who would be representing me.

It turned out to be just a preliminary session. The man whose testimony I had videotaped, Amir Farshad, was put on the stand, and he courageously stayed loyal to the story he had told me. Then the court read the complaints of the plaintiffs, who were basically a selection of the extremist right, paramilitaries, and the hard-line press. At one point during Amir Farshad’s testimony, the judge summoned Ali, the interrogator. "His testimony doesn’t match the transcript of his interrogation," the judge said.

"Let me try to remind him," Ali replied.

As we were herded out of the courtroom, I caught sight of my teary-eyed sister pushing toward the front. She couldn’t manage to get through the crush of people, but our eyes locked.

Ten More Days…

Ten more days in prison. Ten more days of clanking breakfast trays, of sullen guards smoking and despising me. Ten more days of trying to imagine the gentle, rocky slope of the Alborz Mountains, where my poet friend Simin Behbahani and I hiked each week, talking languorously while we scaled the mountain as teenagers scampered past us with their boom boxes and jaunty bandannas. We usually climbed to a particular summit and stopped for tea at its mountainside cafe, savoring the cool alpine air and the vista of a lush green gorge. Simin and I are kindred spirits; many of the themes of her poetry — women’s suffering, the celebration of their rights and existence — inspire my own work. I tried to force more hours to pass by remembering her poems. The images came, of monsters soaring the sky in trails of smoke, of plundered mermaids.

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.

Soon we reached the yawning juncture in north Tehran known as the Parkway intersection. While stopped at a red light, the driver called down to a taxi beside us and asked if the cabbie could take me home. The driver nodded, and I grabbed my bag and jumped out. "Are you ill, ma’am?" he asked, staring at me in his rearview mirror.

"No," I said, "I’ve just been released from prison!" He looked startled. "I’m not a thief or a criminal," I said. "I was a political prisoner."

My First Day Out

He studied my face closely, then exclaimed, "Hey! Aren’t you Mrs. Ebadi?" When I said yes, he smiled brightly and congratulated me on being freed. After a polite two-minute wait, he launched into his own tale of woe. He had a master’s degree in engineering and supplemented his tiny income by renting a friend’s cab in the afternoon. He lamented the corruption and bribery, inflation and joblessness. After a while, he stopped checking to see if I was listening. He seemed even sadder than I was. I was eager to get home, but I could not resist stopping at one of the white kiosks along the way for newspapers, the daily ritual I had missed the most in prison. I surveyed the stacks — laid out on the sidewalk like a quilt, there were so many — with greedy eyes. I bought seven or eight, rolled them together, and pressed them tightly against my chest. As the taxi began the slow descent down my sloped street, I could see my relatives gathered outside the house, with a lamb ready for sacrifice. The driver rushed around to open my door and refused to take any money from me.

As I walked through the door, my daughters hurled themselves into my arms, squeezing me tight for a long minute. That night, we stayed up late, drinking round after round of tea. My husband placed before me a great stack of newspapers, all those printed during my time in prison, and I began rifling through them as the conversation buzzed around me. My daughters sat beside me, breathless from filling me in on all that had transpired while I had been gone. They were used to consulting with me on everything, from homework to friends to which way they should part their hair, and now they recounted all the decisions they had made in my absence.

They had also amassed messages from everyone who had called or faxed from around the world since the news of my imprisonment, and the bulk of the folder surprised me. My international reputation had grown slowly over many years, and it was not every day I had such a thick stack of messages to remind me just how far and wide it had spread.

Well past midnight, the relatives began leaving one by one, and a warm quiet descended on the living room where we sat. For years, I had made it a practice to keep the uglier side of my work out of the house. I never spoke much about my cases, for many of them involved defending victims of horrific violence, and I saw no reason why my daughters should be exposed to the painful details. Of course they overheard me giving interviews on the phone, and they knew my workdays were filled with trials and trips to prison to visit clients. But I felt it was important to draw boundaries around my work. Coming out of prison was just another, more challenging moment in a long-running effort to pretend I was a mom like all others. And the charges against me? They were ultimately overturned. The revolutionary court announced that since no one had officially been charged, the case was closed.

Excerpted from Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope (Random House), Copyright 2006 by Shirin Ebadi.

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:02

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