Sepideh Gholian's Prison Memoir

Translator: Zahra Moravvej​

Editor: Hannah Somerville

Today IranWire is honored to publish the prison memoirs of Sepideh Gholian, a 25-year-old activist and citizen journalist from the city of Dezful, Khuzestan.

Gholian was just 23 years old when she was arrested alongside several contemporaries in late November 2018, for reporting on a labor protest at the Haft Tappeh sugar factory. For 30 days she and fellow activist Esmail Bakhshi were brutally tortured by Iran’s intelligence services before being released on bail. In January 2019, based on a forced confession extracted on camera, she was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Gholian’s experience is far from unique in Iran, where thousands of blameless individuals are arbitrarily detained and tortured by the regime every year. What makes her case different is that, while on temporary release from Sepidar Prison last year, Gholian was able to document what she had experienced there before she was re-arrested and sent to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.

The resultant memoir has been published as a book, Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim. IranWire has already published the book in its original Persian and today, presents it to our English audiences.

Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim takes the form of 19 exquisitely-crafted and painful vignettes, narrating episodes from Gholian’s months in detention and on the women’s ward at Sepidar Prison. These fragments are a damning indictment of the barbarism of the Iranian prison system and conditions at both its network of detention centers and Sepidar. We read of sexual humiliation of Arab women, forced shaving in the corridors, rape and chemical lobotomies, racism and psychological manipulation by “journalist-interrogators”. Perhaps most of all, Gholian’s testimony brings home the sheer randomness of it all: both in terms of the sadistic punishments meted out in this hidden world, and on whom they are inflicted, and when.

But at the same time, Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim is a call to arms. Through its intimate anecdotes, snatched notes, documents and heart-rending hand-drawn illustrations, the collection of tales warns us not to forget that all the female inmates of Sepidar, whose lives and concerns have shaped Gholian’s own experience behind bars, are all real – and they are still inside.

Some of Gholian’s cellmates had babies in prison, who by now might be learning to crawl. Some are still waiting to call their husbands again. Some, we can only hope, are still playing clandestine word games on stolen scraps of paper, still making lipstick from Vaseline, still dancing barefoot in their cells at night. Through the viciousness and misery of Dezful and Sepidar Prison shine rays of human warmth that no measure of cruelty can seemingly put out. Women in Iran, Gholian asserts, are blamed for everything. But Tilapia Sucks the Blood of Hur al-Azim is a love-letter to women’s strength and ingenuity.

We have chosen to publish the work in full. Scholar Zahra Moravvej​ has painstakingly translated the work into English while retaining Gholian’s distinctive voice: at times precise, at times trembling and surreal, and with a sometimes confused, non-linear narrative that reflects the unspooling of time behind bars in Iran’s secretive detention sites. We hope it becomes an important historical document in its own right: a first-hand telling of a story that never should have had to be told.

You can read the book, in order, by following the links below:

Chapter One: This Darkness Will Not End

Chapter Two: Makieh, Zahra, and Bruised Bodies

Chapter Three: Hasan, the Sound of Beating, Perfume’s Odor

Chapter Four: Is Esmail Alive?

Chapter Five: I Believe in Ibrahim's God

Chapter Six: Hit Me! Hit Me Harder!

Chapter Seven: Zahra Does Not Know Persian Very Well

Chapter Eight: Ali the Fisherman

Chapter Nine: Makieh, Farhan, the Interrogator, and Ameneh Zabihpour

Chapter Ten: The Bloody Groom

Chapter Eleven: Single Writing and a Cable for a Pickle

Chapter Twelve: Somayeh Shahbazi, The Woman Who Fought

Chapter Thirteen: Khadija Asakereh Dreams of Being an Actress

Chapter Fourteen: The Smiley Girl Will be Stoned to Death

Chapter Fifteen: Visitation and the Cycle of Humiliation

Chapter Sixteen: Decay in the Pill Queue

Chapter Seventeen: The Queue

Chapter Eighteen: In Damascus Time

Chapter Nineteen: My First Name is Sepidar

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