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Sepideh Gholian's Prison Diaries, Chapter Nineteen: My First Name is Sepidar

July 18, 2020
Sepideh Gholian
14 min read
Sepideh Gholian's Prison Diaries, Chapter Nineteen: My First Name is Sepidar

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 Moravvej.

 

My first name is Sepidar. It is underground; you’ll dig for hours to reach it. Is it a gold mine? No! A historical trinket? If historical is the equivalent of precious, and precious is a synonym for consent, then the answer is "Hell no”.

Sepdiar is like finding the remains of a woman under the rubble in Syria, whose house was devastated by rockets while she was peeling potatoes. It is like finding the charred corpse of a Kurdish mother in Halabja who died while she was breastfeeding her child. It is like finding a woman in Khorramshahr who drinks stagnant water, who has flagged down an Iraqi soldier hoping to save her two-month-old baby, but instead, bang-bang, has been shot.

Its eyes are the same as the eyes of women captured by the Taliban. But the big difference is, there’s no picture of these women in the magazines. Elias Alawi won’t sing a song for them. They will never receive the Sakharov prize and many years later, no one will cry for them. They will be buried and will receive no mention anywhere in history.

I don't have any pictures from Sepidar and I can't bring these women in front of a camera. They wanted to pour melted iron on my head, turn my blue hair into a rope and hang me with it. I was taken there afraid of being burned. Instead, they surrounded me with their burned bodies, amputated hands and debilitated eyes, and didn't let me get scared. As if I was burned before and now, they had healed me. I fall in love and breathe. I breathe Haft Tappeh, being a woman, and life.

We stand near the volleyball net. Baran asks me to play, but are playing so skilfully that I am ashamed to join in. I’m an urbane young woman, school- and university-educated, but next to them I’m an amateur. Baran is 22 years old and has been in prison for eight years, so she plays like a pro. Zahra Salehvand works in the prison and could therefore afford the volleyball net. They are playing barefoot, and I watch how Baran plays.

"Zahra Barani (Baran) is 22 years old. She was with her husband and family a quarrel broke out.  Three days later, one of those involved in the conflict was killed, and all the people who were present during the fight were arrested. Zahra was interrogated week after week until she confessed that she was a murderer. I have kissed the traces of the cables on her back. She is my friend and sister. After playing volleyball she comes and sits near me. She has long, straight black hair. She chops part of it out with the scissors she’s got from Barajeh, and tells me, “My souvenir for you, for when you are free."

I put her hair inside Borges's Labyrinths and hug her.

"Homosexuality is banned in here, Gholian,” the duty officer warns. “Who do you think you are?"

Again, how I reply is not important. Hugging is banned in Sepidar. But our hearts are beating for each other and we are hugging each other. The next day I am drinking sweet tea and eating bread with Baran when they say: "Gholian, you’re being let out.”

Being sent to the police station. I know there is about to be a horrible separation. Sepidar has become part of me. I was feeling all the lives in there."

Mirza arrives and chimes in: “You won’t be coming back here."

I love my cellmates' faces. I love the way Elahe walks in the corridor. I was happy just watching how Khadija, Shabnam and Baran playing volleyball. How can I leave that place? How can I leave my dear ones behind?

They drag me away. I just see Baran anxiously collecting up my clothes and books. I am taken from them violently and don’t get the chance to hug them. I can’t kiss Elahe’s belly. I’m yelling, “I’ll come back! Wait for me!”

All I can hear is Baran and Nisa crying. They force me to wear a blindfold, then chain up my hands and feet.

"Where are you taking me? Elahe is delivering her baby in two days. Where are you taking me?"

They force me into a car and drive for many hours. Finally, we reach somewhere whose odor I recognize. I know this place; walk four steps ahead, and there’s a chair. I know it’s the intelligence detention center. I feel relieved. They’ll interrogate me, then they’ll return me to Sepidar. I will get back there. I have to get back there!

My front tooth is broken but they don't care. They keep me blindfolded in the corner of the room. They are in a vicious mood, and I knew they will answer any questions with kicks and punches. After some hours have elapsed, I, blindfolded, and my bag are transferred to another car. When it moves off, I’m tempted to ask where they are taking me, but I don’t. I just tell myself: They are taking me to Sepidar, and they don't deserve to be asked any questions. They must not know that I miss Sepidar."

Nobody speaks, but I feel the presence of two men in the car. I pictured Elahe making a basket of fruit for the children, for Ibrahim, tearfully wondering: “Where did Sepideh go?"

Then I picture Baran and Nisa, hard at work in the workshop, saying: “We won't eat dinner until Sepideh gets here."

I remember the glass of sweet tea that I left near Nisa's bed. I’m worried about it; I and hope Mina doesn’t accidentally kick it over and spoil the carpet. I remember the day I was left in charge of cleaning, when we took all the rugs and carpets out to the yard, and used buckets of water to wash them. I remember when the bleach spoiled my red baggy pants. I also remember when I hit myself in the mouth while yelling at Baran.

I reassure myself that they are not going to drive me to Tehran. It’s a long way and if they wanted to take me there, we’d be on a plane. They want to scare me and then return me to Sepidar. They must know how much I love it so they want to scare me a little.

They turned on the radio. Ali Zandvakili is singing, "Now I’m alone in the place where loneliness seeps through the ceiling, the waves of separation have shattered my home into a hundred pieces... If only after that sweet dream, I hadn't opened my eyes to see the world again..."

After many months, I burst into tears. Baran's hair, the armband that Somayeh made for me, Elahe's belly, how she was scared of Evin Prison because it was far from home, my sweet tea glass and the handicrafts of aunt Afri: they all march in front of my eyes. I can’t stop crying. I hear dogs howling. Picturing and describing these moments is a horror beyond words. I was separated from my dear ones, blindfolded for hours, my hands and feet were chained and now, in the middle of nowhere, wild animals are howling. This is it, I think. This is how I’m going to die!

To hell with it. Let it finish! The minute I left Elahe, Zahra, and Nisa I was done for. They hand me the stick and I peek out from under the blindfold. We’re at the detention center five hours away from Khuzestan. “It is time to pray,” someone says. “Let us pray."

They put me in the triangular cell that’s only about a meter square, where no-one can sit down. How many detention centers are along these roads, I wonder, where we have no information about them, or how many people have died in these places?

They return me to the car. I am still blindfolded and don’t know where we’re going. I never finished the sweet tea at Sepidar and they haven’t so much as given me a glass of water since.

In the morning, we arrive somewhere. I take off my blindfold. It’s Evin Prison Court.

They have separated me from Sepidar. They have taken me away from home.

Everything in Evin reminds me of Sepidar. The dance of the trees in the wind reminds me of Baran's hair; the volleyball makes me long for Sepidar. All I have are a few strands of Baran's hair and a few notes hidden inside my books.

Kissing Baran’s hair makes me restless and enervated. I write the letters to my dear ones: “It’s killing me that they won't let me back to Sepidar."

In the last letter I write to Baran from Evin: “Sometimes the road to get to somewhere is very difficult. Sometimes you have to die to get there. But I know that even if I die here, they won't let my body be taken back to Sepidar." My desperation to see Sepidar, Baran's hair and newborn Ibrahim tears at my heart. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe calls me Sepidar.

Sepideh Gholian's Prison Diaries, Chapter Nineteen: My First Name is Sepidar

Parya Mohammadi is charged with aiding and abetting murder. Some guy verbally abused her, her husband got angry and pushed the man, and he died. The woman is always the victim of such assaults and is always the guilty party in the end. She has a memento letter from Sepidar. She dyed her eyebrows, and the prisoner in charge of the ward reported her to the prison authorities, so she lost her job cleaning the prison guards’ kitchen of prison guards and couldn't talk to her husband anymore.

The day after she gave me this letter they switched her ward. We always write on the yellow labels stuck on the food products from Hami International. We get them from the workshop and used them for letters, diaries and shopping lists. When I collect up the scraps pieces it’s as if I’m being dragged out of Sepidar, over and over again.

Now that Somayeh has been hanged, I write something to Sahba on the corner of my book. "Somayeh says we’re going to be inspected. Please be careful and hide your diary."

Somayeh was right. A few days later, they found Sahba’s Arabic diaries.

Our hanged Somayeh, our crying Sahba.

I bear a heavy burden. Why didn't they let me say goodbye to my loved ones? I left them there on the ground, and now I’ve come here and named myself after them.

In November I was released from Qarchak prison and returned to the streets. From Modaresh to the Shariati crossroad in Dezful. Then I was arrested again, from the Shariati crossroads to detention and then back to Sepidar prison. It all happened so fast.

Everything was still there, the same hugs and laughs. Fatima, Sakineh's daughter, was speaking indistinctly. Ibrahim had been born but they had named him Ali. I had returned to my dear ones, but this time I was more experienced. When the duty officer came to inspect Sahba's bed I stopped her and told her it was illegal to do so. I hugged Baran and announced that nobody had the right to harass her. This time we held each other's hands, and I promised not to forget them.

This time, when I left, I saw Somayeh begging Mrs. Jadori to let her dance for just two minutes. But then the duty officer opened the door and told me, "Go and never return Gholian!"

I am always in Sepidar.  Below you can see some parts of Sepidar that were left behind in my books:

The last day’s shopping list:

The papers that I and Baran played the alphabet game on:

The paper on which I asked Mina the tailor whether this week was men’s or women’s visitation. She wrote, “I’m reciting dhikr.” She was reciting dhikr the whole night. She was arrested with 30 grams of narcotics and after three years at Sanandaj prison, was sent to Ahvaz prison.

These papers are the Sepidar within Sepidar. For some of the pieces that look ridiculous to “us", when I replace the "us" with "me", the problem is solved.

Mina used to work the whole day in the workshop and late at night, she stayed up reciting silent dhikr. She is from Sanandaj. She was in the car with a man driving to Khuzestan when they were both arrested because of an insignificant amount of drugs found in the man's car. She waited three years for a trial. For three years, these silent dhikrs were her only hope of acquittal.

Her case was postponed for different reasons. A flood, a prisoner escape... I don’t know if she’s been freed yet. I don’t know if her silent dhikrs are over and done. But I remember, in November 2019 when I returned to Sepidar, she beat herself in the chest three times: “Ah, my daughter! Damn this country!"

I remember her tears because they banned her from making calls because she had prayed with her hands to her chest as Sunnis do. I remember that Sepidar is full of Minas.

A note from Nisa in December 2019:

The first time I was in Sepidar, I wrote a poem. She memorized it and wrote it in my diaries. I like to think her as the gateway of those pieces.

All I have from Sepidar is Somayeh’s grave. There is no tombstone – her family can't afford it – and when loneliness washes over me, I seek shelter there. Now I understand what a waste it is to bury someone. I can't believe that body is smothered with soil. There is no harmony between her and the soil.

If only they could throw her body in the Karoon river so her full lips could be eaten by the fish. And Zahra Hosseini would have cooked the fish and made hashoo, a traditional dish in southern Iran.

If only they would throw her body in the Karoon river so she could be the fish food – and the fishermen who were never supposed to confess to anything caught them.

My dearest Somayeh. You don't belong in the soil. If only they would had burnt you and wind could have carried your ashes away. So that now, when I leave my father's house every Thursday, I can inhaled you into my lungs.

My dearest Somayeh! You were sacrificed, firstly because you were a woman, then a woman from Khuzestan, and finally a woman from Shelang Abad in Khuzestan. If only they could have done anything to your body other than burying it. And yet this is the only address I can have from you now. It’s a place for us to hang out. I come here, but I don't feel you. But I tell you, Somayeh! Please take care of me, just like the days we were in Sepidar and you cleaned my broom skilfully. Just like the days when I was not in Sepidar but remembering your laugh made me smile.

My dearest Somayeh! This chapter has finished. Do you remember my lover, whom I told you about? She is a dexterous writer and will write your biography. We’ll rest our feet in the river and she’ll sing in my ears for you, for Elahe and Sepidar.

Sahba, I have promised your crying eyes that one day I’ll return. You probably don’t remember, I, Ali, Ibrahim and Sepideh do. I and other vagabonds know this: that desire to go back to the place where they left their hearts. Yet they wander and wander, and will never return. Sepidar is neither my birthplace nor a homeland, but a place to which I constantly return.

Elahe! You are not a mere memory for me, not merely something or someone that I miss. When I think of you as if I visit you in a corner of my heart. I am not satisfied by just thinking about you. Every time I remember you, I feel an urge to go back; the cycle repeats itself over and over, but in the end, I never reach you. We’ve made wonderful worlds together in these cycles.

I return to Sepidar when I smell a strange thing in Evin. A battered braincell recalls that scent. How many people am I now? The everlasting ramble changed Ibrahim to Ali for you, and Sepideh for me. Now you, I, Ibrahim, Ali, Sepideh – we all return to nowhere.  Your crying eyes asked for this, right?

This chapter has finished. But it’s just the beginning of your whispered story, held in the delicate fingers of a loved one, reminding us of a fisherman’s bazaar – reminding us of Abu Farooq grove.

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Sepideh Gholian's Prison Diaries, Chapter Eighteen: In Damascus Time

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Sepideh Gholian
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Sepideh Gholian's Prison Diaries, Chapter Eighteen: In Damascus Time