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Prison Yard

2/7/01 By: Gholamhossein Karbaschi
Source: Payam Emrooz, Monthly Review

From 6:30 in the morning and 7:30 in the evening, a square yard (30 meters by 30 meters) would be open to the prisoners. This is the time of 'airing.' The first time I put my step into the yard, I remembered the years 1352, 53 (1973-74) when together with a group of revolutionary and political figures I was in room four of the adjacent building that is now hall 2 of the ward 325. Ayatolah Taleghni was in a solitary cell in front of our room. Sometimes we could hear the pleasant sound of his namaz (praying). The door of the rooms were kept closed and we could leave the room only three times a day to use the toilet and carry out the ceremonial washing (voozoo). During those years I never saw the yard. We were transferred from the solitary cell to the public ward with our eyes closed and were taken out of the prison (released) again with our eyes closed. Ever since then I never liked that yard. Even when during the first days of Revolution and by the recommendation of certain authorities of the Intelligent Service I came here to visit some of the previous prisoners that were jailed again, I hated the place so much that I decided not to ever come back again. Before that visit I had come to Evin to attend the court of Kamali, the famous interrogator and torturer of Savak.

Now twenty years after the establishment of Islamic Republic I was there again in Evin as a prisoner and this time as a prisoner among 200 people with different air. The air that compels one to reflect upon mankind and all his beauties and ugliness or perhaps to review one's own life. From the very first day of my arrival, I started to read with avarice and haste one of the two books I had about our contemporary history. And everyday I took a walk for one to two hours in the yard. Although the screaming of the crowd and the smallness of the yard would leave one no peace, but nothing else could be done. Early in the morning everybody was busy doing physical exercises. One would throw oneself hurriedly out of the suffocating air of the ward to breathe some fresh air. It was impossible to think and reflect in that crowded place. Though association with friends and other fellow prisoners had its pleasant moments too. The prison yard is a part of those gardens that were once among the properties of Seid Zia whose role and influence in the political life of Iran very much preoccupied my mind due to reading those history books. (And how meaningful it is that his inheritance is the most famous prison of the country and the foundation he built is the place of suffering and ordeal of people. A single individual and so many lasting roles!) The yard was situated on one side of Evin River and it had a smooth slope divided into three levels. The first level that occupied a larger area was allocated to two small Volleyball and Football playgrounds that were appealing to both young and old prisoners (some say 'since your arrival they are careful not to make so much noise in the afternoons while playing these two clamorous games.' Thanks.) There were eleven sturdy oriental plane trees on both sides of the yard (did Seid Zia plant these trees fifty years ago when he built this building or were they planted before?) and beneath every line of these trees there is a small garden full of Jasmine and Geranium bushes. And on the western part of the yard where Seid Zia's house was located there were two old table tennis tables covered by a ceiling made of prefabricated cement plates that obscured the antiquity of the buildings and trees. On the second level there is a yard about 100 square meters in area with a few trees and a small pool in the middle. This area is in fact a traditional coffee shop (no ghalyan was served as smoking ghalyan is prohibited in the ward!) and a semi-restaurant that serves cheap food at lunch and dinner hours to those who do not wish to eat prison food. Here prisoners have made chairs and tables with the branches of the trees and pieces of wood that like that cement ceiling ruin the familiar atmosphere of the old garden.

There is a passageway four meters in width that is a good place for walking. This passageway extends to an area (20-30 square meters) covered by the canopy of a plane tree. It is in fact a traditional gymnasium (zoorkhaneh) with the same facilities (such as takhteh shena, dambel, mil, and even vazneh) and even a drum and a canopy for the master (morshed). There is a painting on the wall and a beautiful inscription that perhaps a prisoner has engraved as a remembrance:

Ali Valiolah

A seal of Ali's love is carved on my heart

Appreciating the engraver from the time immemorial to eternity

In this verse, it is possible to find both the crystallization of the traditional Iranian knightly spirit and also the aspiration of a prisoner, perhaps innocent that looks for the unique justice of Ali. It is said that Ali ruled over a society where he left the Ali-like justice, equality and judgement for everyone and on the day he died there was only one prisoner in the whole city of Kufah and that was Ibn Moljam (his assassin). Ali has advised so much in his decrees even about this man and he recommends that although retaliation (ghesas) is your right, but be careful not to go too far with him not even with his corpse.

However, there is such a wide difference between this small outdoor zoorkhaneh that is separated from that cement paved passageway by a small brook and those modern playgrounds full of noise and propaganda and clamor that provokes a strange feeling in one. Every morning when the prisoners make a ring to carry out the set of traditional rhythmic movements, there is a totally different air dominating the place. On the wall there are also two well-designed frames. In one of them there is the following calligraphy:

You are a man if you restrain your lower self

You are a man if you don't reprove others

It is not manly to step on one fallen

You are a man if you take the hand of one fallen

All this can be the message of a prisoner. Perhaps he thought that he had been jailed due to voluptuousness and selfishness of certain people and once fallen, many that were neither a true man nor with manly manner had not taken the hand of a fallen man nor... They were of the kind constantly contemplating on beastly and voluptuous revenge.

And finally the painter had hung another frame on top of these two empty frames. Had he not have enough time to write something else? Or had he left it empty so that whoever that comes here would write and see his own image and pain in that empty frame? It is perhaps an image of unspoken words that one usually hints at by putting down a few full- stops. And perhaps it is a subtle allusion to the One hidden from sight that everybody thinks if he arrives, the earth would be filled with justice and equality.

On one side of the ground there is a small garden beside the wall that is covered with the seasonal flowers and embodies the roots of a bush of jasmine (of Amino-doleh type) that hides the adjacent tall wall. In this month of the year (ordibehesht, May-April) this garden, like all other parts of Tehran is full of white and yellow flowers that spread a beautiful fragrance under the morning and evening sun. It is like a heavenly present to the prisoners so that they would forget the bitterness of prison and associate the same plant falling down the walls of the houses in the city alleys bestowing their sweet fragrance to those passing by. Alas just a few steps further down, there are four public lavatories built by the prisoners themselves that compensate the fragrance of that perfume and announce the end of the moment that one raises one's head craving for the smell of jasmine. The quality of these lavatories are better than those found inside the ward as they are newer and more sanitary due to the sun beams penetrating them. And finally there is the barbershop at the end of the yard that brightens up the melancholic air of the prison with the sound of its radio sitting in front of its mirror.

Whenever I take a walk here I can not sense the effects of all those urban transformations outside. All the small gardens here are full of bushes of roses and geraniums! A habit that has pervaded everywhere, alleys, parks, streets, houses and offices in the past few years. A habit that was considered as a penalty and waste of treasury at first! But then due to its harmony with a public need it permeated everywhere, even to all the living quarters and offices and now it has even taken over the tables of its opponents! And this is a kind of real influence and conquer that if we decide we can produce in practice.

A line of small gardens and elongated vases (the latter as the reminder of a recent innovation in Tehran) separates this corridor from a small area that faces a wall two meters in width. Usually there is a crowd of people sitting on a blanket by that terminal wall, drinking tea or playing chess or you can find them laboring hard to engrave on a piece of wood or stone with some defective tools and mostly with hand. As though they want to have a memento of their imprisonment and the tremendously slow passage of moments and seconds in this 'graveyard of livings' as the prisoners call it.

There is a wall as tall as 7-10 meters surrounding the whole yard isolating it from the green space outside. Tall plane trees cover that outer green area and even that tall wall can not hide the beautiful freshness of spring ruling over them. The wall is composed of four parts and most probably it had been built in four or perhaps three successive stages. First there is the stony lower part that seems to be quite old (it belongs perhaps to the time of Seid Zia) and there are two lines of more or less red Cossack bricks on top of it each belonging to a different phase. As though the more the place turned into a prison the more it was felt that the wall should be made taller! Finally, there is the third part that is also made of bricks and covers a height of about 1.5 meters. It seems that this last part has been built quite recently and in a rush. On top of that there are barbed wires covering a height of one meter. Would it be necessary to raise the wall even further when in addition to the watchtower there are also other walls and obstacles behind it? I don't think that any of the people I see here- most of whom have gone to the court on their own and have surrendered themselves by their own will - would ever try to escape even if they leave all the doors open! However, the place was a prison after all and there was the question of protection and other security necessities. There is a crack in a part of the stony wall that has not yet reached the upper layers but it appears that sooner or later that is what will surely happen and perhaps they should do something about it now! There are also several fluorescent lights and a few lines of twisted wires and cables producing an ugly sight, but the most striking scene is still that of those eleven tall oriental plane trees that are still standing firm on their roots. It is said that in the past they were used as a means to punish the prisoners, but now they are the means of bestowing freshness and a cool canopy in the heat of summers. Surely they have a lot to say about the history of that place that you should sit and listen! What sort of people had been there? Who were prisoners, who were guilty, who were innocent and who else were prison guards here...Or was it that one side had been always right and the other side always guilty? Have these trees a better judgement about certain functions now? I have seen some imaginative talented people whispering to these trees!

Nearly everybody is affectionate here and if one day we thanked our fellow citizens for their kindness and cooperation, today I should thank my fellow prisoners for the concern they have shown me. The remarks and judgements are of the same kind found outside. With this difference that as one of the prisoners pointed, here they are not rooted in avarice and needfulness as today I am a prisoner like others, expelled from my job and isolated in this enclosure beside them. If one day, some would be condemned of seeking their own interests by expressing their affection and views, it would never be like that here! The most inspiring and beneficial experience for me is the words and the behavior of a strange mythical 71 years old man. He was initially imprisoned for 6 month due to a familial dispute over inheritance, but it is now 6 years that he is in prison! While the ownership document over which the dispute had started had been nullified, and he could be released on one million toumans bail, but nobody even asks how he is left alone paying for his bail. And the prison authorities, even for the simple reason of reducing the number of the prisoners, refuse to give him a short leave of absence so that he could go and demand his past 6 years salaries that would amount to a sum of money much more than the required bail.

He knows by heart nearly all Hafez's poems and the poetry of many other poets such as Khayam and he is even familiar with many contemporary foreign literary and philosophical texts. He expresses his views on philosophical and literary matters as professionally as a university teacher, although he has an apparently disorderly look due to his long imprisonment. He has white entangled hair, withered body, but a beautiful sense of humor. When he noticed how attached I was to his beautiful poems, he composed tens of lyrics and two-versed poems everyday and gave them to me. He would mark some of them with a red line and would say 'these suit you more.' Here is one of his poems.

I don't say there is no faithful soul in this city

Many there are, but where is one as faithful as I?

The one who claimed companionship more than others,

Left me alone on the day I got into trouble!

From prison diary-Evin-1999

-- Translated for by Roya Monajem,

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