Prisoner of rebellion

Zarah Ghahramani is the coauthor, with Robert Hillman, of "My Life as a Traitor." Hillman assisted in the writing of this article.

As an Iranian citizen of voting age, I was entitled to cast my ballot in the June 12 national election. I didn’t do so. It was with good reason I have placed 10,000 miles of safety between myself and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Still, distance couldn’t diminish the anxiety I felt as I watched Iranians in great numbers protesting what they saw as election fraud. I feared for the life of every outraged citizen whose face flashed across my television screen.

The last time protesters swarmed into the streets of Tehran to vent their frustration with the regime, I was among them. That was in the winter of 1999. Hundreds of thousands of undergraduates like me clamored for more freedom to choose what we wore, what we said, what we were permitted to study. We’d grown up after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, had only ever known fundamentalism, and we were sick of it. We marched in a delirium of hope, believing that the justice of our cause was irresistible.

We were foolish in certain ways, but it was good foolish, happy foolish. “Something’s happening,” we said to each other. “Everything will change.” The crowds of Tehranis who watched us marching smiled and called out, “God be with you!” And those few who weren’t smiling? We pitied them; their day was past.


Then one fine morning -- a morning on which we didn’t march -- the people who’d been watching us without smiling struck back hard. I was walking home from the Tehran University campus after studying in the library when a car pulled up beside me on a quiet street. A man and a woman who said they were police officers (they were not wearing uniforms) hustled me into the back seat. I thought, absurdly, “How rude!” An hour later, I was in a detention center with 20 or more prostitutes who wouldn’t risk talking to me openly because I was, as they explained in whispers, “a political.” Later that day, I was taken to Evin Prison in north Tehran.

Over the month that followed in Evin, I learned that the people I’d pitied, the people whose day was past, had merely been biding their time. A highly detailed dossier was placed on a table before me during my first interrogation. The blindfold I was compelled to wear whenever I wasn’t in my cell had been removed. The dossier included hundreds of photographs of me and my friends engaged in all sorts of innocent activities -- drinking coffee together on the steps of my faculty building, chatting, laughing, flirting, waiting for a bus.

“We know everything about you,” my interrogator said. I thought, “So what?” I was still cocky, in quite a snobbish way; I didn’t believe that the smelly, ill-educated man hovering over me had any right to ask a well-educated person such as myself any questions at all. His Farsi grammar was dreadful.

But then the torture began, and that changed everything. My cockiness lasted about 10 seconds. Over that month in Evin, I was beaten, lashed, tied to a chair in a stress position for what must have been 12 hours or more, kept in solitary confinement, tormented with tales of what was being done to fellow students who’d marched with me in the street. My head was shorn down to bare skin. I was told to admit to all sorts of dire things -- that I’d spied for America, betrayed my native land, chased boys -- all of which were nonsense, and all of which I confessed to. Torture works. But it doesn’t produce truth.


Nobody knew for sure I was in Evin. But my family and friends made an educated guess, for although I didn’t know it until later, thousands of student protesters had been arrested at the same time I was. A friend of a friend was able to exert influence, and I was released. Once free, I took months to recover from the ordeal, if mounting rage at what had been done to me can be called recovery. I had been warned by my interrogator before I left Evin that there was more, and worse, to come if I acted up again. It became apparent to me that if I remained in Iran, I would have to act up again. I knew my rage would one day overwhelm me and I would begin screaming in the streets. The only safe course was to leave my native land -- my native land! I did.

I fear that the protesters who are being picked up by state security on the streets of Iranian cities right now will be forced to endure what I endured nine years ago. I fear they will be tortured, humiliated, made to sign false “confessions.” It will seem to some of those who survive their ordeal that the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has such fearsome resources of repression at its disposal that all protests are futile. That’s what I thought when I was released from Evin, and that sense of futility contributed to my rage.

I think differently now. I remember my interrogator saying to me: “We can do what we like. No one can help you.” Later, alone in my cell, I thought, “It’s true, they can do what they like.”

But even as I said that, I was imagining freedom. That is something the interrogator and the regime he served don’t dare to do. And in the long term, that is our advantage; our own fearsome resource. We can imagine freedom.