By Naeim Tavakkoli
Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, February 18, the Baha’is of Ottawa had a prayer gathering, open to all, supplicating the Almighty’s deliverance for the seven leading Baha’is imprisoned for the last nine months in the notorious Evin Prison, whose trial will be held shortly. A large multitude attended this prayer vigil, which was held at the auditorium of the National Archive, only a few blocks from Parliament Hill. Naeim Tavakkoli was asked to say a few words about his father. His emotional presentation deeply touched the hearts of all those in attendance. Iran Press Watch is pleased to share those words with its readers. A German translation is available in PDF here.
I would like to share a few words about my personal experiences and feelings about the current situation of Baha’is in Iran: about my family, my friends and myself. What I am going to share are my feelings and thoughts, and the complications which I face everyday: as an Iranian, as a Baha’i, as a member of the human family, and as a person whose father is incarcerated in one of the most infamous prisons in the world: Evin prison, in the northern part of Tehran, high on a hill, with underground cells and torture rooms, surrounded by thick huge walls.
I remember the time when I was involved in a hi-rise construction project which had a good view of Evin prison. As the building was going up, higher and higher, I was able to obtain a better view of that scary place. That is why today I can clearly remember the asymmetrical outline of Evin. It is the image I go to sleep with at night and wake up with in the morning, trying to picture my father inside it. I know what it looks like.
Three years ago, my father, Behrouz Tavakkoli, was in jail on a previous occasion for his Baha’i beliefs. When we finally received permission to visit him, I couldn’t believe that the man before me was my father. Pale, weak with a long beard and long hair, in a loose prison uniform. As they took him away I saw he was limping. Now I can imagine what it looks like. But this time I have to add to this picture all I can remember from his friends, too. I have to use my imagination like Photoshop software to add beards to the smiling faces of the other four men. I have to make them look older. Make them look older by several years older for every month they have spent in prison. I have to picture their joyful eyes as tired. Tired of repeated daylong intense interrogations under high intensity light. I have to imagine how my father and his friends look today after nine months of devastating interrogations accompanied by the most humiliating and insulting words they have ever heard in their lives.
Did you know that two of these seven arrested Baha’is are women? I can’t imagine these two women in that situation. This is what they call “white torture”. Words are losing their meanings and implications. Upon hearing the word “white” it is no longer the snow that comes to my mind, nor is it a dove or peace. Torture comes to my mind these days with the word “white”. White torture means all the serious orthotic problems my father has developed during his period of incarceration. White torture means that Vahid, one of my father’s colleagues, who is 35 years old, is losing his eyesight due to severe nerve-breaking stress. White torture means to deprive a mother from being with her teenage daughter for several months.
I have only a few minutes to share with you a few words about my father and his friends, but this is more or less the everyday life of the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran. This is the life of anyone who belongs to the Baha’i community, a community of over 300,000.
A community deprived of everything. Deprived of basic human rights from the time of their birth until they die. Deprived of being given – when just newborn babies – any name which holds significance to the Baha’is. Deprived of having even one easy day in school without being singled out. Deprived of being able to register in any school based solely on their talents. Deprived of higher education. Deprived of marriage certification. Deprived of not only government jobs, but even banned from being hired by a large part of the private sector due to government pressure. Deprived of having their own businesses without having their names published on the revolutionary guard’s blacklist. Deprived of having a tombstone on their graves, to rest in peace without shaking several times a year in their caskets from the bulldozers of the Islamic Republic. Deprived of having Baha’i administrative elections and institutions.
My father and his friends were seven members of this populous community which is scattered over every corner of Iran. Their job was only to bring these people together. To provide them with sense of community and integrity in the absence of any Baha’i institutions, which are banned by law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now they have been targeted by false and fabricated accusations by the regime.
I remember nine months ago after that morning raid on my parents’ home, I was talking to my mother and I could feel she was shaking on the other side of the line as she was telling me about her conversation with one of the intelligence agents. She was packing a warm sweater for my father as they were taking him away, but the agent refused to allow my father to take that package, saying “he is not going to need clothing anymore, only a live person does”!
Now it has been more than nine months that my father has been in jail. It has been more than nine months that I have been working on that picture in my head, imagining my father’s situation. Once I had to paint him in solitary confinement, and in interrogation rooms. I have tried to picture him in a room sitting on a wooden stool for over 20 hours facing two intelligence agents filled with blind religious prejudice. I have moved my father in this picture from solitary confinement to the general ward. Then I moved him back to a small cell with no bed, not enough blankets, sleeping on a cold cement floor in Tehran’s cold winter with his four cell-mates. Now I am working on another corner of this big mental canvas. I am drawing a court. I cannot see a lawyer though. Probably they won’t have access to their lawyers.
Will I have to draw my father and his friends back into the prison after this court case? Will I have to move him around Evin prison in my imaginary drawing one more time? From solitary cells, to interrogation rooms, to torture benches, to larger cells with his friends with him?
When I look more carefully at this big unpleasant picture there is another section in this prison which I can see, with wooden posts or steel posts. And steel rafters. And hand-operated cranes. And hoisting machines. And ropes!
My mind won’t let me move my father and his friends to that corner.