Surviving in the front yard of hell

hi michael, over the last 3 years i more and more revised my former indifference with books, and now i like to visit book stores more regularily. my aunt Farnaz has red many books, and it is her who gives me good literature to read or recommends my new or classic books. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, you might remember was one of the first classical english novels i red, and it sort of infected me with a literature virus.
here in stockholm, unfortunately, there are not so many bookstores, and some smaller one even had to close down because the competition by amazon and other on-line shops was too strong. recently, we went with sarah to the ERR meeting in dublin, and our flight back had a half day stop over in London. we managed to go to the center, and i showed her around the places where i lived 4 years ago near kings cross and where i went to ucl for the msc course. we came along Foyles book store in Charing Cross Road, which I never visited before. It was the first time I saw such a hugh book empire, distributed over 4 floors and with books from all over the world. I send a whatsapp to Farnaz in Stockholm, to ask her what book she’d like me to buy there and bring home. she recommended Shahrnush Parsipur’s memories about her time in Evin prison. i was happy, there was indeed the just recently released first english translation of it, called KISSING THE SWORD.
only when i red the introductory text i understoud that Shahrnush Parsipur is the writer of “Woman without Men”, i.e. the novel which served as the base for the movie with Golshifteh Farahani. You must remember the movie, cause we watched it together in the Munich Theatiner bioscop.
“Kissing the Sword” starts with when Mrs. Parsipur was in her late 20s, just finishing Tehran University still during the Shahs reign. She and her brother, a famous Iranian movie director who also fall in disgrace after the islamic revolution, where part of the progressive, left wing intellectual groups who opposed the autocratic regime of the Pahlevis. To avoid repression, she left Iran in 1976 to further study and work in France. Full of enthusiasm for the fall of the Shahs regime she returned to Tehran in 1980, but only to find out that the degree of oppression slowly started to reach new levels of violence and religious and political intollerance under the mullahs, who step by step tried to eliminate all other of the former opposition groups (tudeh party, peoples muhjaheddin, liberal artists and philosophers).
in 1983, Shahrnush was imprisoned together with her mother in the notorious Evin prison. they were sentenced for 4 years, without ever seeing a normal court trial, only being confronted with some fabricated evidence and blackmailed testimonials,which were blaming her for opposing the mandatory hijab.
almost 3 quarters of the book (chapter 1 to 15) are the records of her prison time, and for me it was quite shoking. it was not so much the cruelity of the evin guardians, who used to beat and torture the female prisoners both physically and mentally at every possible occasion, but i was disappointed to read about the lack of solidarity between the prisoners, how quickly they showed obedience to the guards, therefore losing the ability to fight the omnipresent prison authorities. maybe i was just to much preoccupied with the idea that everybody who is imprisoned for political reasons remains brave and heroic. but in Parsipurs memories one sees so often that the prisoners try to reliefe their terrible situation by colaborating with the guards. Shahrnush Parsipur herself does not clearly condemn this tactics, she might know that it is not her right to condemn the very attempt of a prisoner to save its own life. and all the prisoners see that day by day, that cell inmates are taken away and shot dead in the central prison yard.
so the first 16 chapters of the book are not easy to digest, they left me with sadness about the inability of resist a totalitarian regime. and the pursue of survival in evin does not appear to be a very heroic fight, its is mainly the attempt to survive the next day without sacrificing all your ideals.
Now i started reading chapter 16. Shahrnush Parsipur has been released from prison after 4 years, her brave brother has died, and she has lost her job at the university and her connections with the book publishers.
she than starts to translate chinese history books to earn a living for herself and her son, and to find a personal challenge, she opens a little bookstore in a Tehran side street. The bookstore in fact consumes more money than she earns from selling, but it offers her the possibility te establish an independent existence.
how she describes her live as a book shop owner reminded me of khianush, the persian girl who works in the Munich Avicenna book shop.

3 Responses to Surviving in the front yard of hell

  1. Foyles was the first shop I visited on my first visit to London, thanks to the advice of an English teacher.

    • ghazal says:

      hi andreas, charing cross road was once the area with the highest density of book stores in europe (if you don’t count the bukinists along the Seine riverbank in Paris). Foyles still manages to survive there, despite the desastreous competition by online book shops and downloadable e-books.
      but in addition to selling their products, book-stores have an additional function, as cultural and social switch-boards. In particular i realise this abroad, where like in the us one can take a rest, have a coffee and browse through new literature. would be pitty when this all is lost.
      how was it at the various place in europe you lived (malta, uk, lithuania, italy)?
      best regards, Ghazal

  2. radius says:

    Dear Ghazal,
    I think Andreas is an eye witness of the situation of prisoners in Evin. I had the “pleasure” to spend two days in detention of the east-german secret police during the advent of the fall of the regime there. My memories are that all the cell-inmates (we were about 20 in one large cell) were in a very optimistic and resistant mood. The guards had simply no chance to tear us apart. There was the unspoken agreement between the inmates that the guards are idiots and nobody attempts to colaborate with them. But I can imagine that Evin prison is on a different level in terms of physical and mental torture, and hence the inmates resistance and their solidarity is easily broken.
    Take care

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