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

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