Authors: Houshang Asadi
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Editors; Journalists; Publishers, #Personal Memoirs, #History, #Middle East, #General, #Modern, #20th Century, #Political Science, #Human Rights
Letters to My Torturer
A journalist, writer, and translator, Houshang Asadi was a member of both the Writers’ Association of Iran and the Iranian Journalists’ Syndicate, and the co-founder of the Association of Iranian Film Critics and Script Writers. Prior to the Islamic Revolution he served for many years as Deputy Editor at
, Iran’s largest daily news-paper, and was for twelve years the Editor-in-Chief of the country’s largest circulation film magazine,
. He is the author of several novels, plays, and film scripts, and has translated into Persian important works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and T.S. Eliot.
In 1974 during the Shah’s regime, Asadi was arrested along with other journalists and found himself sharing a tiny prison cell for 9 months with a young clergyman by the name of Ali Khamenei, currently Iran’s Supreme Spiritual Leader and the appointed successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. The two formed a close friendship that continued until events took a dramatic turn.
Shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and following the new government’s crackdown on all opposition parties, Asadi was arrested once again. He was kept in solitary confinement for almost 2 years and severely tortured, until he falsely confessed to operating as a spy for the British and Russian governments. His sentence was death by hanging. In the end this was reduced to 15 years imprisonment. After 6 years he was freed and eventually escaped Iran in 2003. He now lives in exile in Paris with his wife, where he cofounded the influential Persian-language news website Rooz Online, on which he serves as a member of the editorial board.
To my wife, without whom this book,
and life, would be incomplete
LOVE, REVOLUTION, AND IMPRISONMENT IN IRAN
Letters to My Torturer
First published by Oneworld Publications Ltd 2010
This ebook edition published by Oneworld Publications 2011
Copyright © Houshang Asadi 2010
Translation copyright © Nushin Arbabzadah 2010
The moral right of Houshang Asadi to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved
Copyright under Berne Convention
A CIP record for this title is available
from the British Library
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I’m talking about torture.
I was a young man longing for freedom, deeply patriotic, and in love with literature. I thought the world could be changed. I supported the Iranian Revolution in the fervent belief that green shoots of freedom would sprout up, no one would go hungry, and dictatorship would be consigned to dusty museums.
But suddenly I found myself in hell. In 1983, arrested in a government crackdown on opposition parties, I was assigned to the care of a man who was employed as my “interrogator”. I was helpless prey, caught in the trap of the “brothers”. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, “brother” is the generic title of all male believers, and each of the interrogators were therefore called “brother” and an assumed name. My whole existence lay in the hands of one such brother, “Brother Hamid”. In defending the “holy” government, Brother Hamid saw himself as God’s representative, with absolute control over every aspect of my life. Sleep, medication, food, even going to the toilet, were impossible without his permission. His motivation was hatred based on religious ideology, his tools were a whip and handcuffs. He saw me as a traitor, a spy, the embodiment of corruption and evil. Everything he assumed about me I had to “confess” to, and eventually I did, under the onslaught of brutal whippings, my feet raw and swollen from the lash, strung up from the ceiling of my cell by a rope for days and nights on end, deprived of sleep, of every human dignity, and in torment that my wife was being tortured too.
If I needed anything, I had to bark like a dog. And whenever I barked, Brother Hamid laughed.
Brother Hamid transformed me from a young idealist to the lowest form of life on earth. After 682 days in solitary confinement, subjected to every deprivation, my “confessions” were used, in a show trial lasting just six minutes, to sentence me to fifteen years in prison. In the mass killings that were carried out by the government in the summer of 1988, I came very close to being hanged – called up before another kangaroo court, I was forced to lie. Each prisoner was asked three questions: Are you a Muslim and say your prayers? Do you renounce your past? Do you believe in the Islamic Republic, and who is your point of reference. And I lied to all three questions. I said I hated my past and was devoted to Ayatollah Khomeini, and I was spared the rope. Eventually, after spending six years incarcerated in some of the most infamous jails in the Islamic Republic, I was freed to rejoin the mega-prison that is today’s Iran. I escaped in 2003, and am now forced to live in exile.
Then one day, a few years ago, someone emailed me an image. He asked if I knew the man in the photo. I did. It was Brother Hamid, by this time one of Iran’s ambassadors. Staring into his eyes, I knew I needed to confront my torturer and the living nightmare that was his legacy to me. I searched through my scattered notes, written intermittently over the years since my release from prison, but they were filled with hatred and I no longer identified with them. I didn’t wish to view the world, as my torturer had, in black and white terms. I didn’t want to respond to the whip with the sword of my pen. No, now that I was the judge, I hated the idea of taking my revenge on him. Instead, I decided to write letters to him, to convey to him in some small way the intimate cruelty of those days and their aftermath.
Writing this book was a painful struggle. Every dawn as I started work on the manuscript, I would return to Brother Hamid’s hell. I would weep and write and the soles of my feet would throb. I even
had a heart attack. Every fibre of my being protested, but I forced myself to keep going. I wanted to lay bare the life of a person under torture, and to describe the effect of that torture on the mind and body of a human being. In the process, I had to overcome my inner turmoil and remove every trace of hatred, line by line. I did my best to view the scene impartially and to be true to myself, as there is nothing more frightening to me than a victim of torture becoming a torturer himself. In the end, I began to see something of myself in my torturer, and found myself recognizing him as a human being too, as another person born in the same autocratic culture. And finally I gathered up my letters in this book, which I hope will eventually reach Brother Hamid’s hands, sooner or later. Perhaps he will recognise himself in these pages.
During my long years in prison, I realised that thousands of men and women, before me, alongside me, and after me, were tortured to death. I wish the story of torture and imprisonment could end with my story, and that of Brother Hamid. I wish the history of torture, which follows in the footsteps of the inquisitions of the Middle Ages, would end with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But even in recent times, from the valleys of Afghanistan to the prison camp of Guantánamo Bay, prisoners have been interrogated using techniques that, just fifty years earlier, the US military had condemned for eliciting false confessions. And we are all familiar with the sexual degradation and torture of Iraqi prisoners that was captured in chilling photographs, and appeared on our television screens and in newspapers around the world.
As I finished the first draft of this book in 2009, Iran descended into political unrest and chaos once again. And the people who are protesting against Iran’sautocracy today are sadly being subjected to the same treatment we were a generation ago, as hundreds of new Brother Hamids keep the torture chambers busy. Young men and women are being tormented using ever more refined techniques of physical and psychological manipulation and the application of pain so that they will “confess” to being spies for the USA and Israel.
In the era when my “Brother Hamid” and his fellow interrogators were torturing political prisoners mercilessly, no one knew about it. It took many years for our stories to leak out and be heard. Today, torture is still being practised in many parts of the world, but the news travels more quickly. In the current political climate, then,
Letters to My Torturer
is more than the account of one man’s experience of torture. It is the exploration of an issue that sits heavily on humanity’s conscience.
At the height of one of his torture sessions, Brother Hamid asked me: If one day things change and we end up being your captives, what will you do to us? My answer is this: we will demolish all the world’s infamous prisons of torture and we will sentence the intelligence officers and interrogators to go to their ruins to plant flowers and sing love songs. And the sham trials, the torture, and all forms of degrading and inhuman treatment that went with them will at last be a thing of the past.
Paris, March 2010
And I see stars. No, that’s an old-fashioned way of putting it. Fireworks go off in my head.
You say: “That was the first article of the constitution. Now lift up your blindfold slightly.” I do as I’m told. You open your military coat. I see the vague outline of a pistol. “And this is the final article, but before we get to this one there will be lots of other articles along the way ...”
Dear Brother Hamid,
Greetings again, this time after an absence of twenty-five years. At this moment, as I begin to write, exactly a quarter of a century has passed since the night your first slap made me see stars. I don’t know what you are up to these days at eleven o’clock at night now that you have become an ambassador. I don’t know whether you remember the slap or not. But I go to bed at exactly eleven o’clock and most nights I can still hear the sound of that slap in my ears.