I am 26 year old Reyhaneh Jabbari. I am doing my time in sub zero temperatures of Shahr-Ray prison in Iran. It is below zero inside the corridors here. I have not been able to get the face of one woman out of my mind. I was awakened by the screams of a woman one night. They were taking her to the gallows, but because she had an infant that she was still breastfeeding they postponed her execution for a couple of weeks until her milk dried up. They could not find anyone to take care of her infant after her execution so the child was going to be given to the state. All the papers were signed. We could hear her blood curdling cries…she refused to give up her baby. When we saw her, she was sitting in the middle of the yard with all the other women consoling her. But she could not hear or see anything. Do all mothers not act like this when their children are being ripped away from them? Do they not all scream like that? What about my mother, Sholeh? I took the girl a glass of water because her lips were dry and cracked. I said nothing. I was at a loss for words. I had seen other children being taken away from their mothers in prison when the child was 2-3 years old to be given either to relatives or the state. But she was different. The child was an infant still breast feeding and the mother was to be hanged. Her screams and moans could be heard up until her breasts had no more milk. It was not long ago when Tayebeh took me around and introduced me to the other prisoners when I had just arrived. I had no idea that six years would pass ….six cold winters that I would be away from my family.
When I was 19 years old I came here. Pretty quickly other prisoners told me that we had 3 minutes a day to call our families. It was Sunday and I was so nervous about calling. I was afraid they would not recognize my voice. My mother answered and all I could get out was a simple hello before my face was wet with tears. I was crying silently. She was crying loudly and telling me how much she loved me and would die for me. I felt so safe for those few minutes with my mother’s voice. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. My time was up. I told my mother I would call again and asked her to come visit me. I was returned to my cell. I sat on my bed. Tayebeh, God bless her, no matter what her crime was, she was so very kind to me. She was like an angel to me during my first days. That night she talked and talked to me to help me get used to my new surroundings. I knew she must have been very tired from doing all her inspections and the paper work that had been given to her.
The next day I was taken to a section called “cultural activities”. This is where there are classes for prisoners but of course it is free labor. I signed up for doll making and mosaic work. I would have never in a million years agreed to make dolls by cutting out a pattern and sewing them had I not been in prison. But it made me pass the time and made me tired. I hoped that sleep would come and make me forget. Many times on those first nights, I would wake up in a sweat just to find sweet Tayebeh caressing my head, giving me a glass of water. She would ask if I was having a nightmare but I could never remember what I dreamt about. She would tell me to go back to sleep. I was usually drenched in sweat and shaking.
A few days after I arrived, it was a Tuesday when my family was coming to visit me. I was so happy I was actually smiling. The other prisoners made a joke that finally they had seen me smile. They called out my name and a few others. We were driven in a car to the place for visitation. There were glass cabins with air phones and green curtains. I was cabin 36. When they lifted the curtain I saw my family. My sisters’ faces were red from crying. My parents looked worried but managed an anxious smile. They picked up the phone. My father asked questions about who the man was that I had stabbed….why I had stabbed him…what he did for a living….I got dizzy, realizing the interrogation was not over. My sisters sensed this and said they just wanted to talk like we always did-about nonsense sisters talk about. The curtain started lowering; we kept on lowering our heads so that we could see each other for as long as possible. I could not wait until next week. In the next few weeks I decided to get some sort of work inside prison. Working brought with it in person –in person-visitation, meaning no glass partition and longer phone calls, so I jumped at the chance. I also found some books that I would read all through the night.
Next visit we were taken through corridor after corridor. Evin was unlike any other building I had ever seen in that it was a maze of corridors and stairs. We got into a room with cheap chairs and tables. The palms of our hands were marked with a red stamp. I saw their four faces again. We could hug each other this time. They all looked very sad but managed a smile. I asked my father for pen and paper. He asked for paper from the guard. I wrote how I had acquired the knife. Signed my name in Farsi and put my finger print on it after covering my finger with ink from the pen. I gave it to him and told him to read it after our visit. They slipped into my hand a pretty hair pin. We talked and kissed each other. Those visits gave me much happiness. So much so that I would do hard labor in prison because the reward was in person visits. It was worth it for me. I was becoming more familiar with prison life.
One bitter day, they brought in Fakhteh and told us we could say our goodbyes. She was the one I had been with in solitary cells. She is the one that ignited hope inside me with one sentence, told me of the lies of my interrogators [Shamloo]. She was very pretty. But she was now looking very sickly in the yard leaning against the wall. I went up to her and hugged tightly. She moaned. I was surprised. She said she had been flogged. FLOGGED NOW? Before her execution? Why not a year ago? I imagined her family getting her body and seeing the scars. Why was the flogging necessary right before her execution? I learned not to ever hug anyone in prison ever again since their bodies could be ripped from flogging they had received from a brutal angry man. She was taken to solitary as it is often done the night before the hanging. Everyone said goodbye with tears. They do not want the prisoner to hurt themselves in any way to hinder the hanging, thus they are taken to solitary where there is no chance of hurting oneself. On some occasions, with the permission of the Warden, with previous arrangements, some chose to spend their last night with a friend. The next morning there was no need to wake up Fakhteh. All her belongings were gathered up and given to her family. Usually, after an execution there is prayer that night and after that all is forgotten. Like nothing ever happened and that person never existed. Everything goes back to normal.
When I was 19 I became familiar with the dark and hidden world of our society. I got to know women from different classes and walks of life. I learned that all that one leaves behind is the impression we leave with others. That every minute is different that the next, always changing. Slowly, the bitter experience of solitary was fading away in the quiet of my room. I learned how to get used my surroundings in prison. I would go around and meet new prisoners and even use some exercise stuff we had available.
There was a girl named Hediyeh who came into our room and changed the atmosphere. She was my age, had been sent to Karoon prison at 14 due to some relations she had with men. Her parents were separated. Sadly, she could not get used to her new surroundings and thought by complaining, screaming she could solve it all and get what she wanted. But that was not the case. She was exceptionally beautiful. They sent her or rather exiled her to Evin where she was surrounded by people who abused her. It could be foreseen that due to her beauty and youth she was enticing to many; to which she reacted badly. She was then sent, to the dreaded Rajai-Shahr prison where after much conflict she was sent back to Evin. When I first met her she was 19 like me. When she came back to Evin she was in very bad shape mentally. Tayebeh accepted to take care of her, help her find her way. But sadly, Hediye was sent back to Rajai-Shahr in 2009 where she killed herself.
I have many stories to tell of pain and suffering. In order to unburden myself, I shall write these and give them to a friend who shall be responsible in spreading these tales, much like a dandelion spreads its seeds after it changes from a yellow flower into a bulb. Before I leave this world and step into the next I would like to say these things, perhaps without literacy excellence as I am in a hurry.
Evin’s women’s prison is made of many sections each of which has two floors.-Upstairs and downstairs. Section 1 is for drug offenses/addicts; Section 2 is financial crimes and downstairs is for those convicted of murder, armed robbery and assault. Section 3 is for those under 21 regardless of their crime. Two months after I was sent to the public section of Evin, the Warden decided that the woman in charge of the prison store was to be replaced. So I applied for the job. Fruits and vegetables were brought in every two weeks and the most common barter was the telephone card among prisoners. I was very scared to work there as I would stand out from other prisoners along with the fact many who had been there very long were like family and defended each other to the death. I was accepted to work there after all. Prisoners feared the store running out of things and they would fight and revolt. So I came up with some rules that every one really respected. They liked to shop like civilized people, without swearing, yelling and being disrespected by me or others. There were women who would come to the shop who were so rough, they were frightening but after I spoke to them for a while and listened to their life stories I realized that they had created the tough façade just to survive in prison. At the end, we all got along.
Many of these women did not choose their fates; it was chosen for them. Fate can be changed by just a few factors. The deeper and deeper I got to know the women the more I realized that they were forced to go in the direction they did instead of choosing it. I realized that even in these harsh conditions, something small can bring some happiness and create some positivity. For example, I decided to celebrated one inmate’s birthday. I told everyone and as a result inmates started making little presents, making cards and managed to get some sweets in prison. Everyone became closer after that, but it was short lived as Zahra N was executed during all this. She had three teenage daughters. She had killed her husband. The judge had tried to convince her daughters to agree to their mother’s execution [as per Islamic law] but they refused. Zahra was taken to be hanged as she was knitting a shawl for one her daughters. The shawl was half finished.
End of Part 7