Iranian activist Zarah Ghahramani’s memoir, My Life as a Traitor
(2007), written with assistance from Robert Hillman, recounts the 30 days Ghahramani spent in the Iranian regime’s notorious Evin prison, enduring beatings and psychological terror. Ghahramani was praised by reviewers for her “shockingly honest recollections” (Kirkus Reviews
) of her response to this ordeal.
Ghahramani begins her account with the moment she was picked up on the streets of Tehran, blindfolded, and taken to the Evin prison. From there, she goes on to recount the story of her upbringing and the act of political defiance that has brought her to Evin.
Ghahramani was born in 1981, two years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution. She grows up as part of a well-to-do family in a wealthy part of Tehran. Her father had been a senior army officer under the Shah, but under the new regime, he works as a shopkeeper. He and Ghahramani’s mother raise their children to live a double life. At home, they are taught tolerance and intellectual curiosity—indeed, Ghahramani’s parents model religious tolerance in their own marriage, as her father is a Muslim while her mother practices the ancient and largely suppressed Zoroastrian faith. Meanwhile, outside their home, Ghahramani and her siblings are taught to comply with the oppressive rules of the radical mullahs.
As a young woman, Ghahramani embraces her Persian identity, preferring Farsi to Arabic as a literary language, and growing increasingly frustrated with the Islamic regime. She is also an avid reader of world literature, gaining perspective on her country’s situation by reading the works of Kafka and García Lorca. For a time, she dates a young businessman but dumps him when he insists she wears a chador
to a friend’s wedding.
Ghahramani’s parents continue to encourage her to adapt and survive, but as she becomes a student, she finds herself increasingly unable to follow this advice. A major shift occurs when her beloved cousin burns herself alive, in order to escape a forced marriage. Ultimately, it is the requirement to cover her hair that she cannot accept. She interrupts her narrative to attack the mullahs’ edict that women must be covered, skewering the regime’s argument that an uncovered woman is responsible for the unclean thoughts she provokes in a man.
Fearless and idealistic, Ghahramani becomes involved in student activism, against the pleas of her parents. In her second year of university, she approaches the local leader of the movement protesting the regime. She sets out her belief that radical change is needed, and fast. “‘Big plans,’ he replies…‘You know we don't expect to change very much, a few things this time around, a few more the next time.’”
Frustrated, Ghahramani decides to forge ahead on her own. She gives a speech on campus. Rather than focusing on the content of the speech, Ghahramani explains her motives for taking such a serious risk: “I was speaking about issues that seemed to me as crucial as love. Surely love is about the liberty of the soul, and my politics were also about the liberty of the soul.”
Shortly afterward, aged only 20, Ghahramani is picked up on the streets and bundled off to Evin, a place where “politicals,” as the imprisoned protesters are called, are hanged every day.
She is locked in a tiny solitary cell, with no toilet. Guards blindfold her before she is taken anywhere, so she does not see another living soul. To stave off madness, she leaves messages for other prisoners scratched into the toilet cubicles when she is allowed to visit them. She begins a whispered relationship with the man in the next cell. A former surgeon, imprisoned for ten years on a murder charge, he has been driven halfway to madness by his ordeal. Ghahramani grows to loathe him, but without him, she is utterly alone. Two questions haunt her: when will she be interrogated and tortured? And will she ever be freed?
Soon the interrogations—and the beatings—begin. Ghahramani charts the systematic destruction of her will, revealing in intricate detail how she fell apart. She recalls how every vicious blow, every bruise, made her worry about her looks—and how that, in turn, made her worry that she was hopelessly vain. She recalls how completely she was reduced to despair when the guards shaved off her long hair.
At first, she fights despair by recalling happy childhood memories. Later, she longs to commit suicide, if only she had the means. One incident gives her renewed strength: on the way to yet another beating, she loses control and starts yelling at her guards, insulting them. They push her to the ground and begin kicking her—but she feels joy, a sense of strength.
Yet, one day, Ghahramani realizes on the way to the interrogation room that today she will name names. She forgives herself on the simple grounds that she knows she is not strong enough to survive anymore. She identifies friends in police photographs and signs her name.
She is given a show trial and then driven out into the desert beyond Tehran. On the drive, she doesn’t know whether she is going to be freed or executed. Abandoned in the desert, she begins the long walk back to the city. Later, she will learn that she was lucky: her former boyfriend has a well-connected father, for whose sake she was spared harsher treatment and longer imprisonment.
The book ends as Ghahramani waits for her father to collect her from a public park: “I clutch my blindfold tightly in my free hand.”