Shahrnush Parsipur was a successful writer and television producer in her native Iran until the Revolution of 1979. Soon after seizing control, the Islamist government began detaining its citizens—and Parsipur found herself incarcerated without charges.
Kissing the Sword captures the surreal experience of serving time as a political prisoner and witnessing the systematic elimination of opposition to fundamentalist power. It is a harrowing narrative filled with both horror and humor: nights blasted by machine gun fire as detainees are summarily executed, days spent debating prison officials on whether the Quran demands that women be covered. Parsipur, one of modern Iran’s great literary voices, mines her painful life experiences to deliver an urgent call for the most basic of human rights: the freedom of expression.
“Parsipur makes a stylishly original contribution to modern feminist literature.” —Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis
“Stands as a powerful testament to not only the devastations of an era, but to the integrity and courage of an extraordinary woman.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Parsipur’s memoir is a powerful tale of a writer’s struggle to survive the worst cases of atrocities and injustice with grace and compassion. A terribly dark but truly illuminating narrative; Parsipur forces the reader to question human nature and resilience.” —Shirin Neshat, artist
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Tehran, August 13, 1981
I WAS HOME. IT WAS EVENING. I HAD JUST taken a shower and was resting when the doorbell rang. I answered the intercom and the person identified himself as being from the Islamic Revolutionary Court. I walked out onto the balcony and called down to him and his two companions in a loud voice so that the neighbors, or at least the doorman, would become aware of my situation. They came up to the apartment, gave me a summons, and searched the rooms. I got dressed. Knowing that I had committed no wrong, I naively thought that I would be detained and questioned for no more than forty-eight hours. I was confused and not thinking clearly. On leaving the apartment, I took only enough money to pay for a taxi ride home and nothing more. I took no personal effects, not even a toothbrush, but I locked the doors to all the rooms, something we never did at home, and took the keys with me.
They took me to Evin Prison, the infamous prison built during the reign of the shah and operated by his feared secret police, the SAVAK. At the main entrance, they blindfolded me but I could tell that even at that late hour — it was around midnight — there were many people coming and going. They led me into a corridor and had me stand in a corner. From beneath my blindfold, I could see there were other people standing there. One person was trembling violently and moaning. After some time, they led me into a room, sat me down on a chair, and removed my blindfold. An olive-skinned man with a bushy beard was sitting in front of me. He was in his late twenties. My attention was drawn to the large diamond ring he was wearing. I had never seen a man wear a diamond ring, except for a wealthy and flamboyant industrialist I met during the shah's era, and he popped into my mind at that moment.
The interrogator wrote several questions on a sheet of paper and I answered them in writing. My first name, family name, and then my opinion of various political groups. I think the first one was about the monarchy, to which I replied, "By the will of the people, that government fell in 1978." He then asked about the "cursed" Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran who had been impeached and had fled to France just a few weeks earlier. I wrote, "I imagine Mr. Banisadr has made certain mistakes." My interrogator then asked about the "hypocrites' organization" — a term Ayatollah Khomeini and the Hezbollah used to describe the Islamist-Marxist People's Mujahedin of Iran, his one-time allies who were now being suppressed — and I replied, "I don't know the Mujahedin that well and I don't have a particular opinion of them."
In all my answers, I tried to be respectful of all people and groups. The interrogator finally shouted, "What is this? Everyone is a mister to you?" I answered, "Yes, and the day you fall off your horse, you too will be a mister to me."
I had been arrested once before, in 1976 during the reign of the Shah, and spent fifty-four days in solitary confinement for having resigned from my job as a producer at the National Iranian Radio and Television in protest of the arrest and execution of several artists and writers. I had moved to France after my release to escape the suffocating environment that had engulfed the country. But in France financial pressures and loneliness weighed heavily on me. By 1980, with Iran in the throes of revolution and turmoil, I found myself incapable of moving on with my life. A tragedy was unfolding in my homeland. I could see the specter of bloodshed. I could see an ailing state — seven thousand years old and forty million people strong — in the convulsions of death, throngs of people being killed with each tremor. As a writer I felt directionless and weak, and I could not define my role as an individual. I didn't have the courage to throw myself into the arms of the world, and my lack of identity in a foreign land made me even less daring. Although I was a published writer and my books had been well-received in Iran, I thought that if I wanted to gain recognition for my work, I had to return and live in my country.
In the summer of 1980, I sent my son to Iran to live with his father and attend school there. I started shipping my collection of books related to my Chinese studies at the Sorbonne — I was translating Laozi and the Taoist masters — to Iran. By September, I was ready to return but war broke out between Iran and Iraq and travel to the country became restricted. I spent my evenings next to the radio, following the news. The day they announced the reopening of Tehran's airport, I went to Orly Airport, where as fate would have it, a passenger had not shown up and I took his seat.
Six months of apathy followed. The country was in a revolutionary crisis, the economy had collapsed, and rival Islamist and leftist political factions were vying for power. I had moved into my mother's apartment. While I was looking for work, I went to the tedious and chaotic meetings of the Writers Association. Soon, however, I realized that because I was neither a revolutionary nor a member of a political group, I had no role there. Still, the meetings were my only social outlet.
Walking along the city streets, I would often stare at the faces of the young political activists selling newspapers and I was certain that most of them would be killed. My fear compelled me to write a letter to Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the Mujahedin. In it I tried to explain that, now that the Ayatollah had turned on his group, there was no way for their organization to come to power and that a mass killing was inevitable. I wrote that it would be prudent to order the youth to return to their homes and to save their lives before it was too late. I also wrote about the futility of armed conflict. I read the letter to two friends, both of whom said that it was useless and would serve no purpose. I threw the letter on my desk and decided not to send it, but I didn't tear it up; I had worked hard on it and it was well-written.
In May, my brother Shahriar and a few of his friends started a video club and they put me in charge of it. Being employed meant that I would soon be able to bring my son, who was still with his father, to live with me, and to feel that I was slowly settling down in Iran.
I spent my days at the video club calling well-to-do people in the hopes of bringing in more members. Meanwhile, I was translating Mircea Eliade's three-volume A History of Religious Ideas from French to Persian. The work on Eliade was influenced by my thinking about the Enûma Eli, the Babylonian myth of creation, which describes the god Marduk's elevation above all others, and the epic of Gilgamesh, with its tale of Tammuz's murder at the hands of his lover, the goddess Ishtar. These are among the earliest mythologies of the world, and are considered humanity's earliest written texts. At that stage of the revolution in Iran, I could not stop thinking about the meaning and significance of these myths.
On the morning of June 28, 1981, I was getting ready to leave for the video club. Despite Hezbollah's propaganda, women were still not obligated to cover themselves, and I remained stubbornly hijabless. My mother turned on the radio. They were broadcasting a religious mourning ceremony. We wondered who had died.
On the way to the office, I saw that the streets were emptier than usual, emptier than they were even on holidays. The front door of the building where the club was located was locked and I didn't have a key. I returned home and called my brother who told me there had been a massive explosion at the headquarters of the ruling Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and many had been killed. I told my mother what had happened. We took my three year old niece, who had spent the night with us, and drove to my brother's house. There, I learned that the large number of people killed included Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, the secretary general of the IRP and head of the Islamic Republic's judicial system. I was shocked by news of his death. He was a very powerful man and had played an important role in the revolution.
All that I was afraid of was becoming reality. For several days, newspapers had been publishing photographs of young political activists, men and women, who had been executed. The bloody times were moving along.
While I was discussing all this with a few friends in the living room, my mother and brother were having a different conversation in the kitchen. My brother told her that he and his friends had been collecting an archive of political periodicals published by leftist and communist groups. He said their reasoning was that once the Islamic government solidified its control over the country, all opposition groups would be suppressed and their publications would be confiscated; his archive would be valuable for future studies. I believe that was the extent of my brother's political activities. But by then, he had a large collection of anti-government publications in his house.
A few nights before the bombing of the IRP headquarters, the warden of Evin Prison and the chief judge of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Court had appeared on television and announced that all opposition political publications were banned, and anyone caught with them would be sentenced to the most severe punishment. Now my brother, whispering in the kitchen with my mother, was trying to get rid of the pamphlets. He didn't have a car, so he asked my mother to put them in the trunk of her car and to either throw them away in ruins outside of town or hide them in the basement of her apartment building. My mother agreed.
A few hours later, my mother and I said our goodbyes and drove home. The streets were still empty. On Fereshteh Street, we saw barricades in front of a mosque. Ambulances were driving by carrying motorcycles inside their open doors instead of patients. I didn't understand the reason for this. It was perhaps to ferry the strike forces to a new location.
My mother forgot all about the suitcase in the trunk of her car and a few days later, on July 3, she drove to Evin, a neighborhood in northern Tehran, to visit my younger sister who was pregnant. Evin Prison is there, and it was common for the revolutionary guards to stop and search the cars driving nearby. My mother casually waited as they inspected her car. Of course they discovered the suitcase. They asked her what the periodicals were and she told them they were Mujahedin publications. Although there were many opposition political groups, my mother was only familiar with the Mujahedin. And when they asked her who they belonged to, she said they belonged to her. The guards told her that they would have to take her to Evin Prison for her to explain her case. My mother innocently asked whether she could first stop by my sister's house to drop off the things she had brought for her. Delighted to learn where she was heading, the guards agreed.
According to the doorman at our apartment building, that morning as I walked out through the garage to take out the garbage, the revolutionary guards entered the building and went up to our apartment. Unaware, I went to the office. I had just sat down at my desk when my brother called, terrified. He told me that our sister had called to say our mother had been arrested. My mind went blank, then I told my brother to go to our apartment because there were many political newspapers and magazines there, too. I used to buy one or two every week, each belonging to a different faction, and after reading them, I would toss them in a corner in the kitchen.
Meanwhile, my younger brother, who lived with us, returned from a trip to Mashad in northeastern Iran, one of the holiest cities in the Shia Muslim world, and came straight to the video club to see me. I told him what had happened and asked him to go to the apartment as well and keep an eye out for the revolutionary guards. Afraid that the guards would show up at the office to question me, I gave him my address book and asked him to throw it in a trashcan on the street.
It was not until five years later that I learned what happened that day. My brothers both arrived at my mother's apartment at about the same time. The revolutionary guards were there searching the apartment. My older brother told them that the publications they had found in my mother's car belonged to him. Regardless, the guards turned the apartment inside out and arrested both of my brothers. Among the items they took were my records and cassette tapes. They ripped up some of my books, and from my French and Chinese collections they took the first volumes of each series and left the rest behind. They also found the letter I had written to Massoud Rajavi.
I sat waiting in the office, expecting one of my brothers to call. I was concerned, but I didn't really think the incident would take a serious turn. At about three in the afternoon, one of the video club partners arrived, and after discussing the situation, we concluded that I should return home and not come to work for a few days.
Seeing the apartment ransacked terrified me. The doorman suggested that I run away. Despite my fear, I told him I didn't think it would be necessary, that we hadn't done anything that would require me to flee. I still thought they would hold my mother and brothers briefly and the whole incident would be over. I watered the plants and started tidying up. I didn't dare throw all the newspapers and magazines in the garbage and decided instead to burn them in the toilet. The fire caused the toilet to crack, so I stopped.
That night I sat and watched television. Again the head of Evin Prison and the chief judge appeared on the screen, reading the names of people who had been executed that day.
I stayed home for two days. I thought of everyone I could contact for help and in the end I decided to try to see Azam Taleghani, who was a member of parliament and the daughter of the highly respected Ayatollah Taleghani. I thought she would not only sympathize with my plight, but would have the power to help me. This truly showed how little insight I had. My mother and brothers had been dragged away and were completely cut off from communication. What could this woman do? Nevertheless, I wrote a note to her, explaining that my family members were in danger and that they were not at all politically active, and I went to the parliament building and gave it to one of the guards to deliver to her. After some time, a man approached me and with a smile asked how I was and inquired about Shahriar. It turned out he was the representative from the city of Khormashahr and one of my brother's childhood schoolmates. The guard had somehow given my note to him and he had recognized my last name. Relieved, I explained the situation to him and he promised to do whatever he could. He even said he would ask Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then chairman of the parliament, for a personal note.
A few days later, I again went to the parliament. My brother's friend had kept his word and had a handwritten note from Rafsanjani asking the warden of Evin Prison to attend to the case of the Parsipurs. I gave the note to my sister-in-law who took it to Evin Prison and handed it to one of the guards at the main entrance. I didn't keep a copy of it.
By then, my mother and brothers had been in custody for well over a week and we had had no news of them. I resumed my work at the video club and kept in regular contact with my brother's friend, but I soon got the feeling that he was trying to distance himself from me. On August 13, I too was arrested.
The interrogator continued with his endless questions. Then he asked about the letter I had written to Rajavi. "The letter was never sent to him," I explained, "and, in fact, it touches on issues that are not in disagreement with the Islamic Republic. As an Iranian, I have tried to explain to the leadership of this organization that an armed movement is a mistake." He asked about a trip I had made to Kurdistan a few months earlier to interview the dissenting leader of the Kurdish people for an article that was published in a literary magazine edited by an influential Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamlou. I answered that the tone of the interview clearly demonstrated that I was not in favor of Kurdistan seceding. He asked about the pamphlets they had found in my mother's car and I, not knowing what my mother and brothers had said, claimed they belonged to me.
The interrogation finally ended and they took me to a solitary cell. The unit's prison guard was a thuggish woman who dressed in masculine clothes and had a bad temper. The next night they again interrogated me and this time they put me in a cell right above the prison bakery's oven; it was unbearably hot. I was there for three days and on the fourth night I was transferred to the common prison block.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kissing the Sword"
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