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My Life as a Traitor: An Iranian Memoir [NOOK Book]

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...
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My Life as a Traitor: An Iranian Memoir

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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

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
Sarah Wildman
The details here are sharp, evocative—and angry…Ghahramani's descriptions of torture are described unsparingly.
—The New York Times Book Review
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: 9781429922708
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 1/6/2009
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 668,381
  • File size: 256 KB

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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Read an Excerpt


1

THE BLINDFOLD is firmly tied. My consciousness is divided between the darkness that my eyes strive to penetrate and stark terror. When the blindfold is removed, the first thing my vision registers is the face of the man who is to be my interrogator. He is standing, I am sitting, but my gaze instinctively seeks out this man’s face. It’s not an attractive face. I can see immediately that he knows the impact his appearance will have on a young woman, really a child, snatched from the streets without warning. He knows everything about my terror.

He is tall, fat, and bald, and he stinks. I don’t know whether the stink comes from his breath or from his body, but it is foul, like rotting meat. He is perhaps fifty years old, with an untidy beard streaked with gray. He wears a long shirt hanging out over his trousers.

He draws himself up even more fully erect and stares down at me, as if to reinforce the dominance not only of his stature but of the power he has over my life. Some part of my mind, even in the midst of my fear, recognizes that this man is enjoying himself, and that this is only the beginning of his enjoyment. He has already summed me up: pampered middle-class princess from the university, playing at politics in street protests against the regime. I’m a toy to him. Maybe he hates me, too, but more important than his hatred is the enjoyment I will provide. I am guessing at his opinion of me, of course; the only things I can really be sure of are my fear and the aching desire to be safe, to be in the care of someone—my father, my mother—who wishes me exactly the opposite of what this man has in store for me.

I know where I am, or at least I can guess: this is Evin Prison, in northern Tehran, some miles from my home in the inner suburbs. I have heard of this place; everyone I know—all of my friends from the university—has heard of it. We all know it is a place to be avoided, but only in the way that the good people in children’s stories know that they must avoid the ogre’s castle. It did not truly occur to me that a good person—I!—could be dragged into this bad place. What had I done to deserve this? Voiced a few opinions, handed out petitions, gathered in street protests with my friends. I had never hurt anyone, never fired a gun, never thrown a stone. This is the horrifying contradiction of my situation: I want it to be known that I am someone who loves peace and books and conversations with my friends, but these things are irrelevant to this man who stands before me. If his instructions are to kill me, he will kill me. The world he inhabits is brutal, primitive. There is nothing in him to which I can appeal. Nothing.

The interrogator lets the reality of my situation sink in. He sits at a desk facing me and says nothing for some time. Finally, he looks down at some papers spread on his desk. "Zarah Ghahra-mani, born in 1981, with birth certificate number eight-four-three issued in Tehran, a student doing a translation course, is that right?"

"Yes," I reply softly.

He strikes the desk hard with the flat of his hand, and I almost leap from my chair, such is my shock. My eyes had been slightly averted, half closed, but now they open wide—as wide as they can possibly be.

"When you wanted to change the future of the country at the university, were you speaking so softly?" he shouts.

I don’t respond. Just for a split second, I shut my eyes and rapidly pray for God to intervene and make me safe.

The interrogator hits the desk once more, as loudly as the first time. I don’t move.

"When I ask you something, answer me, do you understand?"

"Yes," I reply, my voice seeming to come from somewhere far away from where I sit.

The interrogator leans back in his chair and tugs at the strands of his beard.

"What is your name?" he asks, when he is good and ready.

"Zarah Ghahramani," I reply.

"Full details!" he shouts.

I swallow to free my throat from the constriction of fear.

"Zarah Ghahramani," I answer, in a voice neither too soft to antagonize this man nor too loud, for that might make me seem belligerent. I am trying to educate myself in this man’s preferences, trying to learn what expression, what tone of voice, what demeanor will placate him just enough to save me from his temper. "Born in Tehran, birth certificate number eight-four-three, student of translation, entrant of year thirteen seventy-nine."

He makes no response at first. His plump hands are toying with a pen on the desk before him. My gaze becomes transfixed by the fidgeting motion of his hands, as if the power he has over me is concentrated in them. I think of what his hands might do to me, not knowing at this moment that those plump hands will become an enduring image in the nightmares that await me, not knowing that everything I fear from those hands will come to pass.

I place my own hands on the desk. I am making a deliberate attempt to regain some control of myself. I am attempting to look like someone who is ready to begin a sensible, logical conversation. Against my better judgment, I am going to treat this dreadful man as if he has some compassion. I am going to speak to him as if he cares about my situation, even though he doesn’t. This is whistling in the dark, yes, but I must at least try to relieve my humiliation, if only for a few minutes.

He is observing me thoroughly while hiding his stare. When he sees that I have placed my hands on the desk, he says, "Are you ready, then?"

Instantly my courage falters.

"Ready for what?"

He gives me a menacing look.

"Only I ask questions," he says. "Do you understand?"

"Yes."

All of a sudden and for no reason he bursts into laughter. His laugh reminds me of the shabby old man in an Iranian novel by Sadea Hedayat called The Blind Owl. Hedayat writes that this old man has a laugh "that makes your hair stand on end." If I weren’t so scared, I would sneer at my interrogator for having adopted so many of the clichéd mannerisms of bad guys in books and movies.

"Do you know why you are here?" he says.

I don’t answer.

"No," he replies, answering his own question, "you don’t know, do you? You have to remain here because the country does not need rubbish like you."

I shake my head as a sign of disagreement. I merely wish to say that I am not rubbish, or anything like rubbish. Even more foolishly, I say, "But why?"

He comes abruptly from behind his desk and shoves his face so close to mine that it is almost touching me. "Didn’t I tell you, I am the only one who asks questions!"

I have shut my eyes defensively, as if preparing for a blow. I open them again and feel his spit spraying my cheeks. The foul smell of him! I am close to vomiting, and would vomit except that I have not been given anything to eat for days and there is nothing to throw up.

He sits down again and stares across at me with contempt. He waits, letting me dwell in my terror. In God’s name, what was I thinking? That this man would talk to me intelligently, reasonably, listen to my side of the story?

He begins to ask me about my family. He speaks in a tone of false intimacy, as if he were an old family friend. How is this person, how is that person? I know perfectly well that he seeks to lull me into believing I am now safe, that he has spent his temper and is now going to be calmer, more sensitive. I am waiting for the blow. I know the blow is coming. This vile man with his techniques of interrogation learned from bad movies is aiming his blow, taking his time. How disgusting that he should name the members of my family with his stinking, unwashed mouth! How repulsive that he should use their names! But that is not the blow.

"Tell me," he says quietly, "how is the old Savaki?"

He means my father.

This is the blow.

2

THE INTERROGATOR, HIMSELF the agent of tyranny, had invoked the name of an older agency of tyranny. SAVAK had been the state security arm of the Pahlavi regime—the regime that ruled my country until two years before my birth in 1981. The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been swept from power by one of the defining events of the twentieth century, the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. SAVAK had been the most detested institution of the shah, a secret police force licensed to torture, murder, and imprison at will. Even by the hideous standards of such institutions through the centuries, SAVAK stood out as especially vile. The agents of SAVAK were known as Savaki, but my father had not been one of them. He had been a high-ranking officer in the shah’s army, loyal to Pahlavi, yes, but not a zealot, not a thug, not a killer. The interrogator had wished to shock me by calling my father "the old Savaki"; shock me, sicken me, further reduce my ability to resist his will. He was saying, in effect, "You are the daughter of a devil if I say you are. There is no limit to the means I might employ to harm you. Nobody will sympathize with you."

Although I was born after Khomeini’s triumphant return to Iran and grew up under the regime he created, I was raised as if Pahlavi were still in power, or at least as if he might soon return to power. For the first four or five years of my life, I was unaware of any rules and restrictions other than those that originated with my mother and father. I ate everything on my plate because, in other parts of the world, children were starving. I didn’t repeat certain words that my older brothers and sisters sometimes used when angry. And so on. But by 1986, when I turned five, it must have become apparent to my father and mother that the zealots who ruled Iran were there for keeps, and so I was required to adopt a second set of rules and restrictions, an outdoor set imposed by the state.

Excerpted from My Life As a Traitor by Zarah Ghahramani.
Copyright © 2008 by Zarah Ghahramani and Robert Hillman.
Published in First edition, 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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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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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 17, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A young woman's life before and during her confinement at Evin Prison.

    What a beautiful, moving and emotional memoir! Ms. Ghahramani writes in detail about her days spent at Evin Prison. She shares with her readers her honest thoughts and feelings - she holds nothing back. How wonderfully Ms. Ghahramani intertwined her chapters - those about her horrifying days as a prisoner with those about her childhood and even some history of Iran.

    Well written, interesting and a page-turner. After holding my breath throughout the book, I finally let my emotions go at the very end and cried uncontrollably.

    I would love to find out more about what Ms. Ghahramani's life was like after she went home - about her healing process and when/how did she leave Iran.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2008

    My Life As A Traitor

    The title is provocative but it is not a gimmick. As far as the ruling Islamic clerics in Iran were concerned, Zarah Ghahramani was a traitor. The Tehran University student made a speech on reform in school, attended political meetings and took part in protests. As a result, in 2001, she was grabed on the street and taken to Evin prison, which is notorious for its political prisoners' wing. Ghahramani, who was 20 when that happened, gives an unflinching account of the interrogation and beatings which followed and concludes that pain will break anyone. This is not a tale of unwavering strength and resistance to torture. Yet it is a tale of courage. The courage it takes to lay brare one's fears and frailties in the face of physical and mental punishment. Interspersed with these harrowing episodes are her memories of growing up in a privileged household against the changing political backdrop, her passion for the Farsi language and falling in love. 'Young women in vestments that reach from the crown of their heads to their toes fall in love in the same way, by the same process, roused by the same emotions, as young women all over the world,' she writes. If the Iran on television and in newspaper reports seems foreign and unknowable, books such as Persepolis, Reading Lolita In Tehran and My Life As A Traitor illuminate the country and her people, one story at a time.

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