Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book review: My Life as a Traitor

Review appeared in abridged form at the Post weekend edition as "Political memoir of no presumption" on March 6, 2008

A blindfolded 20-year-old girl is pushed into an interrogation room in Teheran's notorious Evin prison. She can't see her interrogator; she can only smell him. For the next 39 days she endures beatings and humiliations for daring to organize student protests; when allowed to "rest" in her minute cell, she recollects her upbringing in a loving, liberal middle-class Teherani family, sharply contrasted with the suspicious surveillance state outside, and her journey from "pink shoe sensibility" - the muted protest of a girl not allowed to display outward signs of loveliness - to growing political involvement along with an infatuation with a student leader by the name of Arash Hazrati. She is released in the end, thanks to the advocacy of a previous love interest, a man close to the regime; later on, she escapes to Australia.

This, in a nutshell, is the plot (readable on the dust jacket, so it's no spoiler) of My Life as a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani, co-written with journalist Robert Hillman. Readers of any prison memoir are normally tempted to compare it to masterpieces of this chilling genre, like "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Solzentisyn and "Journey into the Whirlwind" by Evgenia Ginsburg, or Julius Fučík's tragic "Notes from the Gallows" It seems best, however, to approach this literary foray with a fresh mind.

Ghahramani has not been through the years of horror that precede the "One Day" (which, as we remember, was a "good day" in his wretched life), neither did she acquire the staunch ideological and literary armor of the author of "Journey" prior to her trials. Above all, she thankfully spends just over a month in prison, while the protagonists and authors of those and other classics survive there for over a decade (except for Fučík, murdered by the Nazis in 1943). Tentative, unassuming and delicate, My Life as a Traitor has the distinction of being an honest memoir. This is how a political novice of a student would feel if she were cut off from friends and family and tossed into the grinding wheels of a bureaucratic system that sees her as little more than a malfunction to be dealt with. Physically, Ghahramani escapes relatively lightly; she is "only" beaten twice, she is not tortured (not by today's hazy standards), she is not shot, she is not raped. But the sheer helplessness, the complete uncertainty of her immediate future and the isolation are powerful enough.

Which is important, as Ghahramani does not pretend to be a hero. When she breaks, she breaks; cautious at first, defiant now and then, when physical pain arrives she begins to answer whatever she is asked, comforting herself that the very questions indicate that her fellow protesters confessed as quickly. But while painfully honest about her own fragility and helplessness before the machine she's thrown into, some discrepancies and question marks remain.

At one point, she talks about a filmmaker opposed to the regime. She wisely declines to state his name, but in the very same sentence she freely gives the title of his film. More disturbingly, perhaps, we learn nothing about what happens to Arash: Does he survive? Does he escape Evin? And what happens to Ghahramani's family? Do they stay in Iran? Does her father, a one-time soldier of the shah, suffer the consequences? While none of us who did not suffer the same ordeal as Gahrahmani should cast a stone at her, the integrity of the narrative demands greater clarity.

A feature which makes this book stand out among the recent flood of Iranian dissident testimonials, is thtat brutalized though she is at the hands of the theocrats, Gahrahmani does not hurry to place blame at the door of Islam as a religion or culture, or of Iran as a country.

"Had I grown up in a fundamentalist Christian state or an orthodox Jewish state I would have faced the same problems," she muses early in the book - and takes good care to explain insidious aspects of the Iranian Republic through recent and shameful examples from Western history. In her many departures from the prison narrative, she provides fascinating insights into the cultural riches and complexities of Iran (insights that occasionaly smell of textbooks, though - the patient tone of recapping some fundamental basics is obviously intended for the propaganda-soaked Wester reader). She speaks of the intertwining layers of its culture, the relationships between religions, the customs, the poetry; but also the scale of state intervention into people's lives, from the forced and somewhat touching formalities of courtship to the horror of women self-immolating to escape forced marriage; She relates at length the monstrosity of the Iran-Iraq War, with Iraqi missiles exploding in the streets, tearing down neighborhoods, and rituals of mourning imposed forever on widows of those lost to war, and she grants us a beautiful introduction to Zoroastrianism, laying special emphasis on Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta - good thoughts, good words, good deeds, something that nurtures her opposition to the Savonarolan zealotry of the regime and helps her retain sanity through her ordeal. All these are features of Iran that are never seen in Israel, where any "color" pieces of the country are normally set around the plight and position of the Jewish community in the country.

But, above all, it is the images of her parents, of her family, of her friends, of the intellectual life she engages in, that remind us that under the frozen surface of any totalitarian regime there always remain small oases of humanity, friendship, criticism integrity and love - powerless for the time being, but outliving the system in the end.

While making no allowances for the pettiness and brutality of the regime, My Life as a Traitor offers us an introduction to a much more complex, fascinating and human Iran than the hostile, monolithic entity we've come to know from the Israeli media - a picture which, strangely enough, is drawn almost entirely from the mullahs' own state television. It is a book that will resonate with anyone who knows no other home than his or her country, but never felt quite at home with its particular regime.

It is also a powerfully honest book, for it recounts not only the author's humanism and determination, but her weakness and breaking points as well. Israelis will benefit if this book is ever translated into Hebrew.

My Life as a Traitor
By Zarah Ghahramani and Robert Hillman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, Bloomsbury in the UK
256 pages; $23 / £7.80

National student federation head quits amid misconduct accusations

Printed in the Jerusalem Post, February 28 2008

National Student Federation chairman Itay Shonshine, who ran a 36-day student strike in universities and colleges last spring, announced his resignation on Sunday.

In a three-page letter to his colleagues, he said a leader "has to know when to move on," and cited harm to his studies as the primary reason for the move.

But federation activists said a far likelier motivation was a motion by the leaders of the student unions that make up the federation to demote him over allegations of severe misconduct and mishandling of student funds, as well as dissatisfaction with his leadership of the strike.

According to the activists, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, Shonshine was presented with an ultimatum on Sunday - either an immediate resignation, or a forced removal on Monday morning.

National Student Federation leaders have been trying to depose their once-firebrand leader for close to a year. There was frustration over the end of the strike, which saw the students go back to university in return for promises from the Finance Ministry to "consult" them over any tuition increase, a promise that was broken in November.

While federation activists spoke of internal intrigues and backdoor politics that "wouldn't have shamed a medieval court," the union leaders had less personal issues.

A Ma'ariv expose last month uncovered a string of accusations against the federation chief, including trying to sell the student-owned ISSTA travel agency to tycoon Arkadi Gaydamak (while using his lawyer flatmate as a private mediator at an expected fee of $1.5 million), appointing his personal accountant to perform an internal review at ISSTA, and giving the Student Federation's lawyer's son NIS 400 for his bar mitzva - using the checkbook of the College of Management student union, which he chaired at the time.

Shonshine denied all the allegations, and federation activists lodged a complaint with the police's Fraud Investigation Unit. The complaint is being processed, and an official investigation has yet to begin.

Speaking to the Post, Shonshine denied all allegations and played down his decision to stand down. "I did not resign, I just decided to shorten my term and advance the elections. I was a chairman for two years, and achieved everything I could as a chair of the federation - politically, socially, in the media, and more. Then there is the issue of my studies, which I want to complete. I also intend to run for the Petah Tikva municipal council, and it would be unethical to be politically active on two different fronts."

Shonshine denied the existence of an ultimatum. "There was no such thing, just talk by some opposition activists. The overwhelming majority of chairmen and students still support my leadership," he said.

He went on to call the police complaint "nonsense" and attacked the Ma'ariv journalist who wrote the expose. "What people don't know and Ma'ariv doesn't tell them is that Youval Lidor was a spokesman for the federation four years ago. He is still in contact with several factors in the organization, and he should have told this to his readers."

Lidor, who served as the federation's spokesperson in 2000, said the allegations were "absurd" and that he did not care to comment.

Ma'ariv also declined to speak on the issue.

Lebanese speak to the 'Post' about their divisions

Printed in the Jerusalem Post on February 15, 2008. First time vox-pops from Lebanon appeared at the Post in quite a while...

On a day on which two large gatherings [Imad Mugniyeh's funeral and the Rafiq Hariri memorial - DR] highlighted the divisions in Lebanese society, many Beirut residents stayed at home, voicing their disillusionment and frustration with Lebanon's ongoing crisis.

"I went to the [Hariri] rally last year, and I participated in the Cedar Revolution," an architect told the The Jerusalem Post. "I thought that this way my country can be truly free. But now it's politics of division, not diversity.

"My Lebanon is the Lebanon of culture, of investment, a place of dialogue between East and West - a Lebanon of freedom. When you're walking in Beirut, you can go to one street and hear English, take another street where they speak Arabic, and get to a street where everyone speaks French. This is what I love about my country. Instead we get this 14th of March [Alliance] to 8th of March rift. One side is sponsored by the Saudis, the other is sponsored by Iran. Where is Lebanon in all of this?" the architect asked.

The March 14 was the date of Lebanon's 2005 Cedar Revolution, which attempted to overthrow Syria's presence in Lebanon, while the 8th of March Power is a name for the pro-Syrian coalition in the Lebanese parliament.

Asked about the possibility of widespread violence erupting once again, a Lebanese journalist said: "It is already cold civil war. Perhaps we never went out of the old one, and the Syrian occupation was just an anesthesia. "We released the old demons without having been able to reform our political system."

"I am not concerned about any of them, none of them represent the true Lebanese will," said another Lebanese journalist. "I don't understand what freedom the 14th of March Movement is talking about, when all of them are servants of the Hariri family, themselves servants of the Saudis.

"And the 8th of March Power, even if they do have real popular demands, are still too close to the Syrian regime. Where is the real Lebanese voice between these two? Absent. Better to stay home and catch up on some deadlines," she said.

Left wingers rally for Gaza and Sderot

Printed in the Jerusalem Post, January 26, 2008

More than 1,000 people took part in a demonstration organized by a coalition of left-wing groups at the Erez border crossing on Saturday, in solidarity with Gazans and Sderot residents, under the slogan: "Stop the siege on Gaza: A demonstration for Gaza and for Sderot."

A convoy of about 100 cars and 25 buses brought protesters to the crossing with northern Gaza in the late morning; a large number of soldiers and police were present, but the demonstration proceeded without incident.

A rally under the same slogan was being held by Gazans inside the Strip.

Speaking by phone to the demonstrators on the Israeli side, Dr. Iyad al-Sarraj, head of the Palestinian Community Mental Health Program, said: "We are joining hands today in the pursuit of peace, justice and security for all - security for Palestine, security for Israel, security for Gaza and security for Sderot."

The last speaker at the rally was 17-year-old Shir Shudzik, from Sderot. Standing on top of a truck loaded with donated supplies and speaking through a megaphone, she said: "I've lived for the last seven years under the threat of the Kassams. It's exhausting. Every time I go to a train station or to a supermarket, and I hear the PA system switching on, I jump, because it sounds like the beginning of the rocket alarm. But I know I'm not alone in this situation, that people are suffering even worse on the other side."

"I don't trust neither my government nor Hamas to bring peace. But the fact that we are here together, Arabs and Jews, might be a beginning and it brings me hope."

While the organizers originally intended to hold the two demonstrations side by side on both sides of the security fence, this was prohibited by the army due to security considerations.

The Israeli convoy carried food purchased by participants, which they intend to send to Gaza in the coming days in coordination with authorities.

"Civilians on both sides are victims of the conflict and we deplore any action against [them]," said Adam Keller, one of the organizers. "We call for an immediate cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli government, which was proposed by Hamas several times, and we call for an immediate end to Israeli incursions and Palestinian shootings."

"I believe in nonviolence. I have always publicly opposed suicide bombings and rocket fire," Sarraj told The Jerusalem Post. "I believe that the people of Gaza could stop the rocket fire by popular pressure, but the siege is making the militants much more popular, because we are all thrown together as victims."

Discussing Sderot residents, Sarraj said: "Every drop of blood on either side is sacred. Jewish blood is the same as Arab blood. I hope that very quickly people on both sides will be allowed to live in peace."

[Note: The printed piece had some more pars, taken from an AP report about protest elsewhere in the Middle East]