Two Iranian teens, two reactions to their father’s jailing


‘Daddy, don’t you confess!” she implored over the phone, the outburst of an impulsive teen.

The jailers listening in quickly ended the conversation. But 15-year-old Scheherazade’s rash words ultimately meant more to her imprisoned father than she could imagine.

It was the first time in weeks she had spoken to her father, Saeed Laylaz, a prominent Iranian economist and liberal journalist jailed days after disputed elections last year. For nearly two months, his wife and two children had no idea where the 44-year-old had been taken or even whether he was still alive.

His imprisonment transformed the lives of Scheherazade and her 18-year-old brother, Mohammad-Hossein, shoving them out of the warm cocoon of adolescence into the ruthless and confusing world of politics, where adults sometimes lie and distort. Like other children of Iran’s thousands of political prisoners, Scheherazade and Mohammad-Hossein grew up fast.

But the trauma of having their father taken away from them affected each child differently, convincing one that speaking out against tyranny is a losing game.

“To me it’s not worth it,” said Mohammad-Hossein, a quiet, reed-thin young man with slight whiskers growing on his chin and upper lip. “I think there’s a better way. I imagine a better life than politics.”

For Scheherazade, the jailing only fortified her beliefs, her outspokenness.

Outside the gates of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, a guard once asked her what crime her father had committed.

“Telling the truth,” she says she told him.

At first, Scheherazade and Mohammad-Hossein thought their father was having early-morning guests, some of the dozens of politicians, journalists and activists who regularly visited his home and office at Sarmayeh, or Capital, the now-banned daily newspaper where he wrote articles critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies.

The teenagers slumbered blissfully amid the commotion, sleeping in late during a break from classes. It was June 17, and the streets were raging with protests in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection.

“Suddenly I realized they were in my room,” Mohammad-Hossein said. “They were looking for computers. They looked all over the house.”

Scheherazade got dressed and went into the living room. She tried to say something to her father but was told to shut up. Their mother served the plainclothes security officials tea before they took her husband away. Then she served the kids breakfast.

Their mother, Sepharnaz Panahi, began a daily routine of shuttling between the gates of Evin and the entrance to the Revolutionary Court, bearing the late-summer heat as she sought details about her husband’s imprisonment.

The children rarely saw her at home during the day. Her worries were multiple. Laylaz was the family’s breadwinner, and concerns about money began to mount.

One day the phone rang and Scheherazade picked up. It was her father, calling from prison. For several seconds she was silent, not knowing what to say. Laylaz told her his “work here” was nearly finished, and that he would be home soon, maybe after a week.

Scheherazade was elated. She called her mother and grandmother and all her friends.

But the week passed. Then another, and another, and it became clear that the government would not release him any time soon. Occasionally he called home to tell his family that he was OK, but his voice was thin, his words spare.

Then, with no warning, he appeared on television as one of the dozens of defendants in a series of mass trials of opposition supporters and activists. One by one, prominent opposition figures publicly confessed to being part of a Western-backed conspiracy to undermine the Islamic Republic.

Only the most adamant hard-liners believed the confessions, which were nevertheless a demoralizing and humiliating illustration of the state’s power against its critics.

But even if the trials weakened the resolve of some, they strengthened the determination of others, like the feisty Scheherazade.

“I want to study law and become a lawyer,” she said, her brown-gray eyes filled with steely confidence. “I want to fight for the rights of women and children.”

Autumn approached and school began. Most of Iran’s teachers tend to be liberal-minded, and they supported the opposition movement. They heard about Laylaz’s imprisonment from satellite news channels, and treated Scheherazade and Mohammad-Hossein with sympathy.

But some of the students glared at them, though no one confronted them acrimoniously.

“I tell everyone I am very upset about what has happened,” Scheherazade said during a lengthy conversation in Tehran. “But I am also very proud of my father. We [students] debate a lot about events in the country. There’s disagreement, but it’s respectful.”

Mohammad-Hossein dreams of becoming an airline pilot, but his studies collapsed as he became distracted. He whiled away his time playing soccer with friends.

“I say, let’s go abroad,” he said. “Let’s go abroad and work and build something.”

Scheherazade plunged deeper into her studies, perhaps, she said, as a way to forget the troubles at home. She also tried to keep some semblance of a normal life, going to the movies or shopping with her friends like any other teenager.

The family settled into a gloomy routine. At twilight on some days, they headed to the gates of the prison, where they sought word about Laylaz and befriended the families of other prisoners during makeshift picnics and protests on the small, dusty field near the entrance.

In talks with other children of dissidents, they also learned that weeks in solitary confinement and the psychological pressure of interrogations that can last a dozen hours often damage personalities, making readjustment difficult. They worried about how Laylaz might be changed if he was released.

In early December, word came that Laylaz had been sentenced to nine years in prison and 74 lashes for spreading propaganda against the regime, public disorder and collusion to conspire against national security. The sentence was trimmed to six years a few months later.

“My friends joked that I’d be visiting my dad in prison with my own kids,” Scheherazade said.

It was months into his imprisonment when the family first had a chance to see him. Laylaz looked pale and gaunt as he sat with his wife and children for 50 minutes in a garden at the prison complex.

They brought him some history books and fresh fruit, which delighted him. He asked about the family’s finances. Had loans been repaid? Were they able to access his bank account? Scheherazade tried not to cry, but couldn’t stop.

He urged her and Mohammad-Hossein not to get in trouble. He told them the interrogators had threatened to lock them up, and he dreaded the prospect of the pressure they could put on him if that happened.

“He was worried about us,” Scheherazade said. “He said, ‘I will resist on behalf of the family.’ ”

Then he turned to his daughter and thanked her. Locked up in solitary confinement, he had no idea whether the opposition had been crushed. His interrogators continued to demand that he confess to crimes in exchange for more lenient treatment. But his daughter’s admonition indicated that all was not lost, that it was worth it to continue resisting.

The fireworks had already begun. It was the last Tuesday night of the Persian calendar year, a pre-Islamic festivity known as Chaharshanbeh Souri, when teens set off firecrackers and Roman candles and jump over bonfires.

The family was told that Laylaz might be temporarily freed to spend the Persian New Year holidays with them. Mohammad-Hossein and Scheherazade dared not believe it. There had been so many promises.

“Every calendar event that happened, the authorities would say 100% he would be released on bail,” Mohammad-Hossein said.

Scheherazade kept staring at the entrance to the prison as she talked to other relatives of those inside. She was the first one in the family to spot what could be the silhouette of her father emerging from the gates.

Dusk had settled, and the light was bad, but finally she made out his features, and ran to him.