Sepideh Gholian is a 23-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 Moravvej.
It’s Friday morning, and I am sleepy. In fact, over the past days, I cannot resist sleep. While I sleep I am drawn into realities, as though I am free again and have been returned to these same cells that smell like death and blood: the horrible reality that my brothers Mehdi and Esmail have accompanied me to, the reality where I get sicker, the painful reality that we don’t deserve to drown in endless darkness.
I dream of some of the moments in my life when I was free. When I wake up, I think to myself: Wow! How lucky I am to be here.
On one occasion, I dream that I am at home and I am being beaten for no reason, like always. My brother pulls my hair and beats me until I am unconscious.
My life has always been like this, since I was a teenager. I was always tormented by members of my family because I dyed my hair, or because I had gone out without permission! Here, I wake up screaming and I think: Sepideh! Here is better. At least if they beat you here, they are your enemy.
I am so lucky, I think, to have a cell of my own here. That’s why I feel very strong, which amazes my interrogators. I am sleeping to endure some painful realities and replace them with other, worse ones.
This particular Friday I am awaked by the voice of a guard who seems kinder and smarter than the others. He is the only one I can ask for a sanitary pad and a nail cutter. His character, I think, is similar to my mother’s.
When I hear his footsteps, I felt like my mother is here. He shouts: “Get up, gents! Today is shaving day! I’m shaving your heads today, so be ready with your blindfolds on in your cells.”
My friends, Hasan, Esmail, Ali and the neighbor all stand up and come toward the door. Hello, my unseen and resistant brothers! I am ready to die for them.
They sit in the queue that runs from the men's toilet to the door of my cell. My heart is pounding knowing they are so close to me. I wish I could jump out of the cell and hug them one by one, take care of their wounds and cook for them. I am on the verge of laughter as their footsteps draw near. Hasan is dragging his feet as if he is tired. I hear the electric razor being switched on.
My favorite guard moves so fast that Makieh and I call him Whirligig. He shouts: “If anyone raises his blindfold, I’ll smash his nose.” Then he asks the first detainee, “What happened to your face?”
“You smashed it last night.”
Whirligig replies, “You deserved it. Whoever fights Ali’s brethren is doomed.”
There is silence.
“You wanted to kill us?” Whirligig replies. “The Shia?“
“I swear to God, sir,” replies the first detainee, “we have nothing to do with you. We are Sunnis.”
“Shut the fuck up,” says Whirligig. “Your beard shows who you really are. You’ll stay in that cell for the next 10 years and after that, you’ll be transferred to prison.” He shaves the man’s head and beard and tells the other guard, “Take him to his cell! He’s done here."
He repeats the same question to others, who reply with the same: “We are Sunnis. We are Arabs."
Whirling is laughing like a drain and asks Hasan: “Hasan! How old are you?”
Hasan says, “Twenty."
“Now I’ll groom you. And when you’re 50, the bride will come pick you up from prison.”
I want to see the scene. I ring the bell. “I do apologize, but I feel like I’m going to throw up. I need to use the toilet."
“Come out,” the guard orders me.
I take the stick and walk. From under the blindfold, I can see that many of them have fallen on the ground. As if I am in the middle of a war zone. The floor is covered with hair. The buzz of the electric razor, the voice of the guard that I had imagined was better than others, the shaking voices of Hasan and the other loners. There is a war going on in here. He is blood grooming.
Here they have gathered everyone and based on the lengths of their hair and beards, they will be prisoned. Here a 20-year-old, Hasan, is being groomed with a mouth full of blood. He’ll wait until he is 50 years old to celebrate his wedding. Here, Hasan is the groom, and his beard smells of blood.
I lied when I said I felt like throwing up. But there is so much blood on the way that I actually do vomit into the toilet.
Write this. They accused a 20-year-old boy who was bleeding of being a “murderer”, because he had a long beard. Here is Ahvaz, here is Khuzestan. Here, being groomed smells like blood...