Translated by Iran Press Watch
by Masoud Bastani
Thursday, October 10, 2014
Gorgani Baha’is in Rajai Shahr prison
The first part of this report includes the stories of seven people who are among political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, known as “Gorganis” since they are all former residents of the city of Gorgan.
These Baha’i citizens, who, “in the annual reports of Human Rights Organisations are mere statistics”, are more than just names. They are human beings who have been incarcerated, and each one has his own story.
Payam Markazi, or “Central Message”
Payam Markazi is a cheerful, middle-age gentleman who voluntarily shoulders all repair and technical work in Hall 12 for all his fellow prisoners. When the tap water is not working or there is a problem with the lights, everyone seeks his help; now he has undertaken responsibility for all technical needs as a supervisor of the entire Hall.
During his two prior periods of imprisonment in Evin prison, Payam was jokingly nicknamed “Central Message”, a direct translation of his name from Persian to English. The name has often proved a useful way to open up conversations. Payam, who is 57 years old, has two daughters of 22 and 26 years. He is so cheerful all the time that few can believe how he has suffered during his lifetime. Only on the wedding day of one his daughters did he briefly pour out his heart.
On that day the Judiciary Authority did not allow him to be part of her wedding celebration, even if he had been handcuffed and accompanied by a guard. That night he felt moved to speak about his painful life.
In the 1980s, Payam’s father was arrested and, after great pain, tribulation and torture, he was executed. In addition, his mother was also imprisoned in Evin and Rajai Shahr prisons during that same decade. This happened while all the members of their family were living in Gorgan.
Around ten years ago Payam’s wife suffered a prolonged illness and passed away, and he was left to shoulder the responsibility of raising their two daughters.
Payam says his married daughter did not leave her sister alone, but continued to live in the family house along with her husband. Payam mentioned that on his own wedding night his mother was also in prison, and was not allowed to attend Payam’s wedding. Now it was his daughter’s turn to be without her father on her wedding day.
Payam loves reading novels, and reads late into the night. He reads so fast that there are not enough books – I personally confess that I am very jealous of this quality of his. Payam also does not miss a second of the limited time prisoners are allowed to spend in the prison yard – this demonstrates that he was a man of nature, mountain and jungle when he was living in Gorgan.
On most occasions we walk together briskly in the prison yard, and the topic of his conversation is the playfulness of his pet dog “Teddy”, a topic that brings a bit of humour to his fellow prisoners’ lives.
Siyamak Sadri, Mr. Pastry Maker
Siyamak Sadri is 41 years old – the youngest of the Gorganis. He, like other Baha’is in Iran, was never permitted to sit for the university entrance exam, so after finishing high school he started working. Siyamak has two children, a boy of 15 and a girl of 9 years old. Working with electrical contractors on high voltage transmission towers forced him to live in different parts of the country, but in the end he chose Gorgan as his permanent residence. He says Gorgan is different. Thedisparity between people, while still present, was less than in other places, and it was also welcoming to immigrants from other cities. People seemed to co-exist together more peacefully.
Siyamak lost his father during his childhood. His mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and is taken care of in a sanatorium. When asked about the most difficult aspect of his imprisonment he replied, “It is the times when I feel frustrated, as when my children are sick or need help with their schoolwork, and I am unable to offer any help. I can’t do anything from here, and I feel helpless.”
Siyamak is a fantastic cook, but his pastry-making is a specialty that he acquired while passing time in prison. Despite the meagre facilities and unworkable conditions of Hall 12, he looks for any excuse to bake cakes and pastries, as for example the birthdays of his fellow prisoners. He uses a big pot and covers the bottom with a layer of salt, changing it into Siyamak’s oven. Among those who enjoy his pastries no one can believe that they were baked under such primitive conditions. Although there are not that many people who fast in Hall 12, during Ramadan, the month of fasting in Islam, Siyamak bakes an assortment of pastries and offers them to all. He does the same during other Islamic holidays.
He says that he has always loved to create physical things that can be felt and seen. He laments the worst period of his working life, when he had to go door to door to sell medicine and health products. I suggested that perhaps pastry-making is the answer to this inner call to be productive.
The most painful moments of Siyamak’s life are when he misses being a part of the lives of his growing children and carrying out his role as a father. Although relatives are permitted to visit Siyamak once a week, even so, when his children are in school, given the long distance from Gorgan to the prison, he usually only sees them once a month – this does not give him an opportunity to be part of their life. But his children are always happy to receive pastries from their father, and he feels a rare moment of contentment when he thinks of them going home with his humble gift.
The worst day of Siyamak’s time in prison was when, during one visit, a guard admonished his nine year old daughter because she was not wearing a scarf to cover her hair, and she came with tearful eyes to visit her father. Siyamak kept quiet so he wouldn’t make matters worse and put more pressure on his daughter, but in his heart of hearts he believes that these ordeals will be followed by better days in the future. He also adds that the Persian New Year (Nawruz) was bitterly sad and unbearable.
When I asked Siyamak to what extent he is familiar with the political prisoners in the Hall, he replied that he has become familiar with prisoners from all walks of life in both Evin and Rajai Shahr prisons, including Dervishes and Reformists. He said that he thinks change in Iran must come gradually.
He emphasised that, “My worry for the future is that change might create so much pain and cost that it becomes unbearable for all.” His happiest moment was when some of his fellow prisoners put aside differences of religious beliefs and defended his rights as a human being. He spoke of a time when he had been in Hall 350, and he wanted to help everybody by washing their clothes, but a few prisoners were not comfortable with his offer, as they supposed that as a Baha’i he should not touch other people’s clothes[i]. But a few others stood by him with all their strength. That was a great moment for him.
He indicated that he does not want to leave Iran after his release from prison, because he had had the opportunity to leave before and reside in another country, but he had not taken the option at that time. When asked what is special about Iran besides hardship and tribulation for him and his children, Siyamak said there are things here that he still dearly loves.
Farhad Fahandezh: A Man a Small Stature and Luminous Dreams
Farhad was born in 1959 and was studying to be a computer system analyst when he was expelled from university during the Educational Cleansing. In 1983 he was imprisoned for four years for being a member of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Bandar Torkman, but was released in January of 1989.
During his imprisonment in the 1980s he became so sick from food poisoning that he was kept alive only by vitamin injections and a medical drip. The signs of those years of sickness and a subsequent nervous breakdown are visible in this petite man. Its effect is so apparent that, with a little emotional excitement and tension, his long-lasting sickness manifests itself in sleeplessness and another nervous breakdown. He said, “I think this time prison life is harder due to my psychological condition. During the two previous times I was single and younger. No family responsibilities weighed on my shoulders, and I could cope better with the heavy burdens of prison life.”
Farhad considers one of the greatest achievements of his imprisonment to be his relationship to his faith. He believes that the loneliness of the prison enabled his intellectual understanding of the Baha’i faith to become a spiritual and philosophical one that allows him to be more contented in his inner being.
He rarely goes to the prison yard during recess, but rather sits down in a corner of his room and reads books related to history and sociology. From this perspective Farhad could be called the least active among the Gorganis, but he is one of the most steadfast members of the weekly meeting of the human rights and sociology classes which are conducted by a few prisoners in Hall 12.
Farhad is also interested in the political life of Iran, and follows the news with keen interest. It is clear that he believes that the most dangerous path for the future of his country is governance by the fanatical clergy. But in his dreams he can see a “country of lights”, and adds that he has incredible hope for the future of Iran’s cultural transformation. He believes that initially the change will be a slow, unseen progression, but that eventually Iran will experience a time of rapid change, and that this transformation will become apparent.
Farhad has a daughter who is 23 years old and a son of 14. During his imprisonment he was also mentally burdened by the imprisonment of his wife. Farhad says that his son Yunis, after hearing his father’s sentence of ten years’ imprisonment, said that he now understood what it must feel like to be under the noose.
Yunis’s father, like all the other Gorgani fathers in prison, is worried about the future of his children, and knows his son is going through a critical stage in his life. Despite all these tribulations, he hopes his children will be able to work for the betterment of mankind. He also believes that protecting children from the ills of society must be the first step in their upbringing. He hopes that all might bring up children who with all their hearts and souls will work to eliminate and heal the vices of society.
Farhad also studied psychology in the underground university of the Baha’is (Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, or BIHE). After completing his degree, he counselled many families and young couples. His clients were not only his co-religionists, but also friends, relatives, and his fellow citizens in Gorgan. He was a conscientious counsellor, and his clients often recommended him to others. Interestingly, all his services were offered free of charge, and he himself was selling spare parts for wristwatches for his daily bread.
Farhad Fanhandezh is the only Gorgani who received a ten year sentence. When I asked him why, he said that the culprit was the Office of Information in Gorgan. “Possibly, having a lot of people as my clients and associates made them more sensitive, and they doubled my sentence,” Farhad said. He explained laughingly that during the interrogation, when his laptop was searched and nothing was found, they asked him for his “original” laptop, saying “Where is your original laptop? The one we have has nothing on it.” He answered that there was no other laptop, but they didn’t believe his answer.
He said that despite the long journey his wife must take from Gorgan to Karaj to visit him, seeing her is like a relieving medicine. When his wife misses one of the weekly visits, everyone notices Farhad’s tenseness and unease.
His friends never allow him to help with cooking and preparing food, due to his physical weakness, but in addition to his serious studies he loves spending his time watching football.
During the past two years, Farhad felt happy only when he arrived in Hall 350 of Evin prison, and was welcomed by one of the prisoners of the “Green Movement”. Perhaps this feeling stemmed from the fact that he had once told his wife that if he was going to be imprisoned again, he would like to be in Evin or Rajai Shahr prisons.
Foad Fahandezh, Souvenir Bangle Maker
Foad is the younger brother of Farhad. My first question for this witty 51-year-old man was how it felt to be imprisoned along with his brother. “Would you rather have your brother next to you, or leave the prison earlier?” I asked.
His older brother had told me that having Foad in the prison was a great blessing, and that sometimes a person has a special relationship with his brother that he cannot have even with his old friends. Foad, with tearful eyes, said that he could not even imagine leaving his brother behind in prison.
He is generally content with his life in prison, and only his separation from his family truly hurts him. The walls around his bed are covered with photos of his family. When I asked him what he does with all the photos, he said, “When I was free, I always spent my time with my family; now I have a good time with their pictures, telling them the stories of my heart.”
Foad mentioned that although the entirety of his arrest, court proceedings and imprisonment took 30 minutes, the bitterest moment of that day was when he was in Hall number 209 in Evin prison. While blindfolded he told his interrogator “I hope you are not tired”[ii], and heard back something like “What does it have to do with you whether I am tired or not tired, you lower-than-a-dog?”[iii]. Foad, with a bitter tone, continued to explain that this incident actually happened during Ashura[iv] at about 12 o’clock in the afternoon. He mentioned that if he saw that guard again he would surely ask him, “Why don’t you follow your own beliefs? How can you live with this injustice?”
Foad spent two years of his life during the Iran-Iraq war in the war zone. Foad, like his brother, also has two children. Shomays, one of his daughters, has tasted the bitterness of a wedding ceremony without her father. He says that with the permission of the guard he was allowed to talk to his daughter for a few minutes on the phone just before the wedding vows were exchanged.[v]
This Gorgani prisoner, like the others, could not continue his studies in any university or pursue the career of his choice. He and his wife worked for some years as weavers, and also sometimes worked as house painters, until he finally found a job as a radiologist in a friend’s radiology center.
Foad’s bed is also his workshop. With thread which he finds here and there in prison he makes beautiful and colourful bangles, and offers them as gifts to his friends. When I asked him why he does not charge for his craft, or at least charge for raw materials, he says that these bangles, given as souvenirs to the families of his fellow prisoners, will remain with them as a dear gift; this gives him a feeling of joy and happiness. Foad says he considers them to be the most precious things he has produced in his years of working.
[i] This refers to the Shi’i Muslim concept of najes (ritual impurity), originally connected with blood and bodily fluids, but which Iranian clerics in recent years have increasingly attempted to connect with Baha’is.
[ii] Persian slang : a complimentary blessing to others who work hard .
[iii] A very derogatory term used to put someone down.
[iv] Ashura is the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, in which the third Imam of Shi’i Islam, Imam Hussain, was martyred – it is a day of mourning and a Holy day; also the time of 12 PM is very sigificant, as it is said that at that time, Imam Hussain was martyred.
[v] This is a Baha’i obligation: the couple about to be wed are committing themselves before God to the marriage, and saying the wedding vows to each other individually.