My Life as a Traitor: A Story of Courage and Survival in Tehran's Brutal Evin Prison

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At the age of twenty, an Iranian student named Zarah Ghahramani was swept off the streets of Tehran and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where criminals and political dissidents were held side by side in conditions of legendary brutality. Her crime, she asserts, was in wanting to slide back her headscarf to feel the sun on a few inches of her hair.

That modest desire led her to a political activism fueled by the fearless idealism of the ...
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Overview

At the age of twenty, an Iranian student named Zarah Ghahramani was swept off the streets of Tehran and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where criminals and political dissidents were held side by side in conditions of legendary brutality. Her crime, she asserts, was in wanting to slide back her headscarf to feel the sun on a few inches of her hair.

That modest desire led her to a political activism fueled by the fearless idealism of the young. Her parents begged her to be prudent, but even they could not have imagined the horrors she faced in prison. She underwent psychological and physical torture, hanging on to sanity by scratching messages to fellow prisoners on the latrine door. She fought despair by recalling her idyllic childhood in a sprawling and affectionate family that prized tolerance and freedom of thought. After a show trial, Ghahramani was driven deep into the desert outside Tehran, uncertain if she was to be executed or freed. There she was abandoned to begin the long walk back to reclaim herself. In prose of astonishing dignity and force, Ghahramani recounts the ways in which power seduces and deforms.

A richly textured memoir that celebrates a triumph of the individual over the state, My Life as a Traitor is an affecting addition to the literature of struggle and dissent.
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Editorial Reviews

Sarah Wildman
The details here are sharp, evocative—and angry…Ghahramani's descriptions of torture are described unsparingly.
—The New York Times Book Review
William Grimes
With her collaborator, the Australian novelist Robert Hillman, Ms. Ghahramani writes in a spare, eloquent prose style that reflects both her child's view of the world before arriving at Evin and the pared-down perceptions of her prison experience.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The second-year Iranian college student in 2001 knew "that making that speech meant trouble," but she "had no real expectation of being kidnapped in the heart of Tehran and hustled off" to the notorious Evin Prison. Eventually, the 20-year-old Ghahramani is sentenced to 30 days and a few days-and several beatings-later is dumped in a vacant countryside to make her way home. Scenes from a happy family life (crippled by the Iran-Iraq war) and a spirited adolescence (cut short by a repressive regime) alternate with the prison experiences in this multilayered account. Ghahramani, daughter of a Muslim father and Zoroastrian mother, both Kurdish, dips with brevity and grace into personal family history and public political history. Graphic and powerful as her treatment of torturous imprisonment is, Ghahramani retains an irrepressible lightness, perhaps born of knowing that "[a] sense of justice can always benefit from a complementary sense of the ridiculous." Her painfully acquired knowledge of "how easy it is to reduce a human being to the level of animal" does not keep her from "wondering if I'll ever be pretty again." Nothing, however, dilutes the bare bones prison experience. Her straightforward style, elegant in its simplicity, has resonance and appeal beyond a mere record. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

The second-year Iranian college student in 2001 knew "that making that speech meant trouble," but she "had no real expectation of being kidnapped in the heart of Tehran and hustled off" to the notorious Evin Prison. Eventually, the 20-year-old Ghahramani is sentenced to 30 days and a few days-and several beatings-later is dumped in a vacant countryside to make her way home. Scenes from a happy family life (crippled by the Iran-Iraq war) and a spirited adolescence (cut short by a repressive regime) alternate with the prison experiences in this multilayered account. Ghahramani, daughter of a Muslim father and Zoroastrian mother, both Kurdish, dips with brevity and grace into personal family history and public political history. Graphic and powerful as her treatment of torturous imprisonment is, Ghahramani retains an irrepressible lightness, perhaps born of knowing that "[a] sense of justice can always benefit from a complementary sense of the ridiculous." Her painfully acquired knowledge of "how easy it is to reduce a human being to the level of animal" does not keep her from "wondering if I'll ever be pretty again." Nothing, however, dilutes the bare bones prison experience. Her straightforward style, elegant in its simplicity, has resonance and appeal beyond a mere record. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Ghahramani was a 20-year-old university student in Tehran when she was arrested. In Evin prison, she was subjected to verbal, psychological, and physical abuse over a period of weeks, and then taken to a courtroom and convicted of a long list of crimes, including writing and speaking against the government and encouraging other students to cancel classes and participate in protests. Her memoir intersperses descriptions of her time in jail with reflections on her life growing up in Iran in a prosperous family that encouraged learning and political discussion. She muses on the beauty of the Farsi language and on her own teenage love of philosophy and literature. She remembers incidents from her childhood and inspiring teachers, and examines her relationships with family and friends. She ranged from defiance to despair as she underwent senseless and sadistic interrogation and torture. This compelling book is a coming-of-age story in which the author examines her beliefs and emotions while she tells of a country in turmoil.-Sarah Flowers, Santa Clara County Library, CA

Kirkus Reviews
Determinedly self-critical memoir of an Iranian student's incarceration and torture in Evin Prison. Born in 1981, two years after the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, Ghahramani grew up fairly privileged in a fashionable Tehran neighborhood. Her father, a well-educated Kurdish Muslim, had been a high-ranking military officer under the shah. Her mother still practiced Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion suppressed with varying degrees of severity ever since invading Arabs imposed Islam on Persia in the seventh century. The author lived in two worlds, publicly demonstrating loyalty to the state and dutifully wearing "basic black from the head downward" in school, while at home she could wear what she liked and freely inquire into any subject. In 2001, she was seized off a street in Tehran, blindfolded and driven to the dreaded Evin Prison. Writing in English with the help of journalist Hillman, Ghahramani alternates a grim portrait of her incarceration with happy memories of her youth. She avidly read Garc'a Lorca, embraced Persian culture and the Farsi language and broke up with a young businessman who insisted she wear a chador to a friend's wedding. In jail, interrogated by a series of odious tormentors whose identity she could only guess by the sound of their voice and their smell, she was beaten with a studded belt, her hair brutally shaved off. The terrified young woman wasn't heroic enough to withstand torture; she identified her friends in photos taken by the police. Conversations through a fan grille with a crazy prisoner in the cell above her somewhat assuaged her grief and guilt at having become "a trained rat" for her jailers. Eventually, the author was dumped in a Tehransuburb and returned to her family. She now lives in Australia, but her burning passion for her language and culture remain. Ghahramani's shockingly honest recollections grimly complement Marina Nemat's account of her ordeal at Evin in the early 1980s (Prisoner of Tehran, 2007), reminding us how little has changed for women in Iran.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780792752646
  • Publisher: BBC Audiobooks America
  • Publication date: 2/28/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged

Meet the Author

Zarah Ghahramani was born in Tehran in 1981. After her release from prison, she moved to Australia. My Life as a Traitor is her first book. Robert Hillman is a journalist and novelist who has traveled widely in the Middle East.

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Reading Group Guide

About This Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Zarah Ghahramani's My Life as a Traitor. We hope they will enrich your experience as you explore this haunting memoir of revolution and its aftermath.

Questions for Discussion
1. As you read about Zarah's youth, which aspects of Iranian life surprised you the most? What discoveries did you make about the history of Iran and Iraq and their recent war?2. Zarah describes the rich spiritual traditions of Zoroastrianism, which sustains and inspires her. In what ways did the Islamic Revolution affect secular life in Iran? How do religious wars in general affect the faith of civilians? Should governments have any role in regulating faith-based organizations? 3. How did your perception of Arash shift as details about him unfolded? How did the reality of his friendship with Zarah compare to the images conjured by her interrogators? 4. In chapter eight, Zarah describes her relationship with Behnam, including the magazine-style checklist that spelled doom when she first met him. How might her experience with dating have differed in a less repressed culture? Would she have fallen in love with him so easily? 5. How did the memoir's dual timeline enhance your reading? What was the effect of interweaving memories of an idealistic childhood with scenes of brutality in Evin? 6. Discuss the title, My Life as a Traitor. Where does the true betrayal lie in Zarah's story? What does it take to build genuine patriotism among a citizenry? Should all forms of political expression be legal? 7. In chapter ten, Zarah describes a cousin who died after setting herself on fire. Why was it impossible for her cousin's husband to understand that her "daydreams [were] dismissed forever when she was a child . . . She had her soul thieved from her"? Why would many Iranian women, some of them Zarah's relatives, not understand it either? What convinced another cousin, Ellie, to believe the mullahs in chapter eighteen? 8. Chapter twelve describes the history lessons Zarah received at school and at home. Through what process can "official" history become manipulated? How can truth outlast propaganda? 9. In chapter thirteen, Zarah recalls grudgingly having to learn Arabic, feeling disdain for the Arabs who brought Persia to its knees fourteen hundred years ago. How does such ancient history manifest itself in current events? Why do western audiences often lack knowledge of the history beyond western civilization, while non-westerners such as Zarah can quote classics of British literature? 10. What did Zarah gain from her conversations with Sohrab, the uninhibited man imprisoned above her? What do their two very different situations indicate about justice in Iran? 11. At the end of chapter twenty, Zarah writes, "My political activism was to my mother a form of vanity, a boast to the world of my moral beauty." Can political activism exist without a sense of moral superiority and exhibitionism? 12. Throughout her imprisonment, Zarah is vocal about loathing her captors, and she refuses to concur with their lies. How would you have fared in a similar situation? What separates those who remain courageously defiant from those who succumb to aggressors? 13. Speculate about the reasons for Zarah's release. What did the government accomplish by arresting and torturing her? What determined her fate in their hands? In what way were the terms of her release like a second imprisonment, leading to life in exile? 14. Was Zarah's gender an advantage or a liability during her time in prison? How did her mother serve as a role model for survival in a misogynistic society? 15. How did you react to commentary delivered by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University in 2007? Does his regime offer any promise of reform, or does it signal higher levels of corruption and intolerance?
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