Beneath the Narcissus


Beneath the Narcissus is an autobiographical account of my experience as a political prisoner for eight years (1982 – 1990) under the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It begins a year before my arrest, when the regime was beginning to crack down hard on any opposition and mass executions were taking place.  As a young woman of 23 I had already been active for two years organising workers to fight for their rights. My arrest took place in broad daylight on a Teheran street, when I was intercepted on my way to meet my political associate. From then on I entered a nightmare world from which I was to emerge eight years later scarred both physically and mentally. Initially sentenced for execution, I was to be incarcerated in four different prisons, throughout that time. Through family pressure my sentence was eventually commuted to ten years, of which I served eight. Three years after my release, I made the reluctant decision to flee my country since I continued to be under harsh surveillance, and friends were being re-arrested.


The book moves forward chronologically starting with the shock of arrival in prison where I am placed in a corridor with other women, all blindfolded, confined to a square of black blanket, their feet swollen and bleeding from beatings. I am interrogated and tortured and give false information to play for time. More severe torture after this leads to paralysis of my lower body. I am placed in solitary confinement where I am horrified at the bloodstained walls. I learn that the cell was inhabited by a pregnant woman who lost her baby there. My spirits however are raised when I am joined by two women. One of them has her four year old son with her. The shock of meeting such small children in prison is compounded by the relief and pleasure I get from playing with this little boy. Our relative happiness at finding each other is shattered when we are joined by a fourth woman, who is one of the prison’s notorious ‘penitents’. These are prisoners who have been broken under torture and forced to recant and become ‘born-again’ Muslims.  They are used by the prison authorities to spy on the prison population - in effect a fifth column. The fear and distrust created by the exploitation of these penitent prisoners is an important theme of the book, which goes on to show how difficult it was for the female prison population to build mutual support since friendships were actively discouraged. The book illustrates the prison regime’s primary aim of breaking prisoners not just through physical torture but through the psychological torture of isolation and fear, fear of each other as well of the prison authorities. 


The main thrust of the book concerns relationships between the women prisoners, who were both brought together and divided by their shared experience. Factionalism and the pressure of turncoat prisoners sowed seeds of distrust, mitigating against the natural solidarity of women in prison.  There are a number of episodes in the book illustrating this, where I describe my struggle to be true to myself and my political beliefs without losing my humanity. The books shows how prisoners need to hang on to their political identities as a way of surviving, and how this can lead them into conflict with fellow prisoners with different convictions and priorities.  One example of this is my refusal to join a protest over the right to wear colored chadors. Since we are against the whole idea of wearing chadors in the first place, but are compelled by the authorities to do so, whenever we have contact with males, it seems ridiculous to me to negotiate for colored as opposed to black chadors. Fierce arguments erupt over political attitudes to every aspect of our difficult life in prison.


On the positive side I show the importance of friendship between prisoners, as an aid to survival.  Letters and messages are passed secretly between myself and others. We have many secret ‘post-boxes’, one of them being the flowerbed in our recreation yard. Friends bury tightly scrolled up letters beneath plants, with colored cotton threads attached that peep out of the soil to indicate their whereabouts. I always bury mine beneath a narcissus or a typical Iranian flowering bush, called in English, the “marvel-of-Peru”.  In our difficult circumstances we help each other as much as we can. A baby is born to one of our cellmates and we all try and help her with clothes and bedding for the new born baby and in tending him when his mother is too weak. I ask my parents to bring in soft cotton material disguised as skirts for myself, to use as baby sheets.   Towards the end of my prison experience, when I am close to death from a stomach ulcer, a group of friends actually saves my life – watching over me constantly as I threaten to lose consciousness, and dripping honey onto my tongue to give me some strength as I can no longer eat.


Another source of survival is any contact we manage to have with the outside world. I describe visits from our families, which we are sometimes allowed and sometimes denied - the poignancy of speaking to one's parents through a glass wall, over a telephone, with the threat of being cut off at any moment if anything politically sensitive is mentioned, of hearing one’s mother begging one to confess in order to be released, or seeing one’s proud father cry. Other contact with the outside world comes through books that have either been smuggled from the store of confiscated goods from new arrivals or borrowed from prison libraries. We devour any literature we can get our hands on that can feed our minds and spirits – Brecht is one of our favourites. We copy out whole books and pass them on in secret. We have no access to radio, but the heavily censored government newspapers are available for us, unless we are under punishment. The televisions in or rooms and on our wings are there for propaganda purposes and give us little or distorted access to the world outside. When public 'confessions' of prisoners are broadcast, we are compelled to watch them. Desperate for news from outside Iran, a friend and I write to friends in Europe.  We never receive a reply. Our only hope comes when we hear there is to be a visit from the head of a UN Human Rights Commission. The night before, we debate the risks of trying to make contact with him. The following morning we wake to discover a wall has been erected overnight, blocking off our corridor. The prison authorities are taking no chances. He comes twice more, the last time coinciding with the day of my release. His interception has resulted in my and other prisoners’ early release.


The book depicts the day-to-day life of women political prisoners, their sleeping, eating and washing arrangements, the difficulty of privacy and of maintaining a sense of identity. It also offers an informal study of the psychological effect of prison on a female population, with observations on and conversations between a core of women I was in close contact with. As such it is not only about my struggle to survive these difficult years but an account of women’s experience in prison, a subject that has not been much written about. 


The book closes with a brief account of my life in Iran after my release and the difficulty of picking up the threads of normal life again.  I describe how, after my arrival in this country with my story still locked inside me, I continued to suffer from nightmares. These are gradually eased as I begin to release my story in the context of psychotherapy and testimonial writing at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Telling and then writing my story and remaining politically active in defiance of what was inflicted on me has been of enormous importance in reconstructing and making sense of my life.