Sepideh Gholian is a 25-year-old civil rights activist and journalist who was arrested during the labor protests of Haft Tappeh workers and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Her book, Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim, tells the story of her detention at the Dezful Intelligence Detention Center and Sepidar Women's Prison in Ahvaz.
In these 19 stories, Gholian paints a meticulous picture of her horrific experience. On one hand, we directly encounter the face of oppression. On the other, we engage with the fates of others whose names, lives and imprisonment might otherwise be doomed to be forgotten and denied.
IranWire has previously published Gholian’s book in its original Persian and is now serialising the collection in English, while its author has been returned to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. The stories are translated by Zahra H. Moravjev.
How many days have I been in this cell? I don’t know. But I do know it’s the second time they have brought me to this graveyard – though calling it a graveyard doesn't capture it. Sometimes I am jolted awake by the sound of others sobbing and whimpering as if they are crying over our own dead bodies. I don’t even think about calling or meeting with my family. The days have turned into heavy burdens that I am sentenced to carry, one by one, to the end.
By now I can recognize the sources of the voices. I can distinguish the footsteps of the interrogator who passes the cells and enters the interrogation room. I know the footsteps, and the odor of the interrogators who enter the other cells.
Hasan’s interrogator smells like Mashhadi perfume. First I recognize his footsteps, then I come to know his scent. This detention center has four interrogation rooms. In one there is no security camera and a toilet in the corner, for women. Once, I put my shampoo down in one place. The next time I use the bathroom I notice that the shampoo has not been displaced, so I conclude that I must be the only woman in the second set of detainees. Furthermore I haven’t heard any woman's voice. So I am certain that all the Arab women who have been previously arrested are either dead or have gone to prison.
They keep beating Hasan. He suffers from constipation and asks for a laxative. He constantly rings the bell and asks the guards for laxatives. Instead, they beat him. They say talking about constipation is disrespectful. He sobs and cries, “I am suffering and I can't eat anything,” but all they do is beat him. I guess asking three times for laxatives only to be beaten instead shows how brave he is.
For ten days, I live the sound of Hasan's beating. Two nights ago he shouted out, "Goood, why did you create Arabs?” After that, they beat him so badly that I didn’t hear his voice anymore.
There is another person, though, whose footsteps sound like a woman’s. They take her to the interrogation room and after some time they take Hasan into the same room. I hear the sounds of interrogation and torture; I hear Hasan's voice. They make him talk about the weddings he attended in Arab costume.
I want to know who is interrogating him. So when they are taking him through, I ring the bell. For the first time, I humbly ask them to let me use the bathroom an additional time (we are allowed to use the bathroom three times a day). They hand me a stick and warn me that I should not ask this favor of them again. I say, "Sure. I won't."
Regarding the voices, I understand that Hasan is alone in the interrogation room. I enter blindfolded. The guard uses the stick to direct me to the toilet and closes the door. I peek out from under the blindfold and see Hasan’s interrogator’s shoes. He wears glossy, patent leather shoes. His pungent odor has filled the room. They are both quiet until I finish.
Peeking out from under the blindfold and the at key behind the door also tells me that I am in cell number 24. There is a hatch here that goes through to the same interrogation room. The same room, without a camera, that has a toilet, and the interrogator with noisy shoes and strong odor, who is interrogating Hasan in there. I can hear the horrific, twanging voice of the interrogator, beating, and Hasan’s cries, late into the night.
Hasan is 20 years old. One day they take him to the yard and the guard asks him, “How old are you?”
And he replies in Arabic: "Anā ‘umrī ‘ashrīn sana (I am 20 years old)”.