Robert Hillman is a journalist and novelist who has traveled widely in the Middle East. A "San Francisco Chronicle" Best Book of the Year
At the age of twenty, an Iranian student named Zarah Ghahramani was taken from the streets of Tehran to the notoriously brutal Evin Prison, where criminals and political dissidents were held side by side. A desire for freedom as modest as sliding back her headscarf to feel the sun on her hair had compelled her to join a group of university students covertly organizing peaceful campus protests. Ghahramani was fueled by youthful idealism, and though her parents encouraged her to be prudent, she underestimated the severity of the penalties imposed by the fundamentalist regime running her country.
She underwent psychological and physical torture, hanging on to sanity by scratching messages to fellow prisoners on the latrine door. She fought despair by recalling her idyllic childhood in a sprawling and affectionate family that prized tolerance and freedom of thought. After a show trial, Ghahramani was driven deep into the desert outside Tehran, uncertain if she was to be executed or freed. There she was abandoned to begin the long walk back to reclaim herself in a world in which she had no trust in her country's goverment and where she would continue to challenge fundamentalist injustice as she sought to reclaim her own liberty.
"It all started with the pink shoes. As a girl in Iran in the 1980s, Zarah Ghahramani gravitated toward bright colors and lots of jewelry. She particularly loved a pair of pink slip-ons with flowers on the toes. Unfortunately, with the war against Iraq in full swing, and black the prescribed color for clothing, pink constituted a political affront. At 6, Ms. Ghahramani was already headed for trouble. In "My Life as a Traitor" she records, in harrowing detail, the dire consequences of indulging her defiant 'pink-shoe sensibility, ' which eventually guarantees her a cell in the infamous Evin prison. There she is held for nearly a month in solitary confinement, interrogated and tortured, after taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University. A self-described 'princess' from a well-to-do family, she sits in a room measuring 6 feet by 5 feet with no bed, listening to screams of pain echoing down the hallways. How did it come to this? Ms. Ghahramani makes a highly unlikely political prisoner, a romantic, poetry-besotted young woman whose rage at the government was a matter of personal style as much as of principle. 'Irritation at and occasional exasperation with the rigid dress code, with the hidebound ideology of the mullahs, with all the dos and don'ts that we were expected to internalize--this made up the substance of our "opposition" to the regime, ' she writes of her set at the university. Rueful and half-amused, she reflects that 'not one of us could have mounted a coherent argument to back up our complaints' . . . With her collaborator, the Australian novelist Robert Hillman, Ms. Ghahramani writes in a spare, eloquent prose style that reflects both her child's view of the world before arriving at Evin and the pared-down perceptions of her prison experience. She and her friends knew Evin was a place to avoid, she writes, 'but only in the way that the good people in children's stories know that they must avoid the ogre's castle.' Once inside, 'a child sent on an adult's errand, ' she turns inward and begins to mine emotional bedrock. Physically, Ms. Ghahramani gets off lightly. She is never taken to the dreaded secret room where expert torturers, practicing skills perfected in the days of the shah, apply themselves to the hard cases and special enemies. On one occasion she is thrashed with a belt outfitted with flesh-piercing prongs. She suffers two savage beatings. But she leaves prison, thanks to pressure exerted by a former boyfriend with friends in the government, without permanent injuries. She is not raped. Mental torture is another matter, and this she describes powerfully. Solitude and uncertainty eat away at her like acid. One day an interrogator simply places her in an unfamiliar room, blindfolded and tied to a chair, where she is left for hours. Her imagination and the terror of the unknown do the rest. Sensory deprivation and killing boredom break her spirit. Alone in her cell she yearns for an insect to appear, 'any sort of bug at all, just so long as I could use my vision and notice things about the bug that my brain would then go to work on.' Instead she nourishes thoughts of revenge. In salacious detail she constructs fantasies of murdering her interrogators by smashing their skulls with a hammer. They have forced her to name names, sign confessions, beg for mercy. In moments of deepest misery she senses her humanity slipping away . . . Ms. Ghahramani moved to Australia after leaving prison. She has left the revenge fantasies behind her. Nor is she a revolutionary. 'I want my pink shoes ' is her protest slogan. 'That would be enough, ' she writes, 'for once the mullahs conceded my right to wear pink shoes, so much that is good and kind and wise and just plain human would follow.'"--William Grimes, "The New York Times"
"If, as a student at an American college, you'd never joined a protest, raised a fist, painted a poster or marched on Washington--even out of impure motives, such as a desire for a
- ISBN-13: 9780374531645
- ISBN-10: 0374531641
- Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
- Publish Date: January 2009
- Page Count: 242
- Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.75 pounds