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Singing Was Life Itself for Us (Part One)

A Report from Ward 209 of Iran’s Evin Prison

Translated from Farsi into English Retrieved from Harrasswatch

Harasswatch⸻ Evin’s entry door slid open. The sky was emerging out of the darkness at the crack of dawn. “Cover your eyes with your scarf, and keep your head on the driver’s seat,” commanded the man. Some names such as Morteza, Asghar, and the cars’ features were exchanged like passwords, and we entered. It was uphill, and the clapped-out car didn’t run well. Haj Khanoum[1] got out of the car, and then it was my turn. The man commanded again to keep my eyes covered with my scarf. He opened the car’s door, and I disembarked. Another Haj Khanum oversaw my delivery. She put a blindfold over my eyes, and we got moving. She was familiar with the journey and its surroundings, constantly pointing out stairs, chairs, and walls on our way. She stopped and told me to face the wall. A few minutes later, a woman came and accompanied me the rest of the way. I do not remember well, but my hunch tells me that we were at an infirmary. Back at home, one of the men had promised me that he would hand over my phone later. I sat on an armchair and filled out a form about my health. “And this right here is your phone,” said the same man while putting the phone on the chair. I put my phone on airplane mode. Then I stopped, and a camera took a picture of me. I went on the scale, and my blood pressure was measured. The doctor asked whether I was on any specific medication or needed a pill. “A sedative or painkiller,” I replied. He proceeded to inquire about my request, to which I obliged and told him that I had trouble sleeping for days and had a headache. He was a young doctor with an unkempt black beard and wore a scruffy crimson shirt over his pants buttoned up to his neck. Donning a sinister smile, he said, “while you were rioting in the streets, you couldn’t sleep, right?” I looked at him and didn’t respond. I took the pill and, with blindfolded eyes, followed the woman.

We entered a corridor and then a room. We later called the woman Lavender. Her lavender perfume filled the corridor, and we, who were deprived of cleanliness and any kind of perfume, smelled the whim of this woman greedily. She had a thin and penetrating voice. Eyes alone visible, she wore an Arabic chador and covered most of her face with a mask. I took off my clothes. She ordered me to sit and stand twice in the nude with my back facing her. She had to ensure that I hid nothing between my legs. I handed over my phone, ID, and bank cards and signed the receipt. She said there were no more Maqnāe[2], so I had to keep my scarf with me. She gave me light gray and dark-blue sets in addition to a floral chador. I put on that gray dress with dark-blue slippers and followed her to another corridor while I was handling my chador with my eyes blindfolded. The woman held three black and brown blankets. She opened the room’s door and left once she handed over the blankets. Four women were sleeping in a six-meter room. One of them, however, sat upright and, with a vexed expression, prepared to comfort me. Two other women also woke up. We got to know each other and talked a bit about our situation on the inside and our lives on the outside. This friendship was the most beautiful achievement of this period…


Zehra Dogan- All rights are deserved by the artist

The Cell

The room was a strange heptagon with cement walls painted white. The wall facing the door had two perforated metal hatches in the right and left corners close to the ground. Through these hatches, one could hear muffled voices from other corridors. There was a toilet in the right corner of the room. My first impression was that we were supposed to be exposed to each other while relieving ourselves. However, first impressions are usually wrong. Next to the toilet was a small, suspended basin with triangular faucets. The room had two doors, but only one of them was the passage. The doors were all walls from the inside. After all, a door without a handle, and when no one can open and close it, is not a door at all. It was rather a metal rectangle with a narrow hatch for air passage at its bottom. For us, however, it was mostly a way of eavesdropping on outside traffic and sounds. The upper part of the door had a perforated access door. The holes were stuffed with some plastic spoons. My cellmates said that they use these spoons for hanging their underwear and towels to dry. There was also a peephole under the hatch. Installed on the wall was a metal rectangle with lights on it next to the entry door. A two-way communication tool, maybe! We had to press the button on this device to go to the bathroom. Once it was pressed, a black hole-like sound echoed throughout the room, and then we heard someone’s disembodied and authoritative voice saying, “Hello!” or sometimes “Yes!” The responses were sometimes angry and other times tired or moaning. In the first few days, we politely told them that we wanted to go to the bathroom. We found no reason for showing this courtesy later. We would call them without care and in a manner so pithy, tell them, “Washroom!” The further we went, and the more crowded the rooms became, the less we could bear to avoid going to the washroom. We became so frank in telling them that we needed to go tinkle. Sometimes, we would drum the door, singing about our overflowing bladders.

This act of disobedience could become a punishment lever at the prison’s disposal to summon us for interrogation. It never became normal for us. [They used to turn a light on and call our names.] Each time the light was turned on, and we heard that woman’s voice calling our cellmates’ names, we were petrified. By calling our names and hearing that hell sentence “Ma’am, get ready,” our bodies froze, and the face of the person summoned went deathly pale. All we had was a couple of minutes to calm them down and ready them for interrogation. God knows how agitated we were until our cellmates come back!!!

Next to that so-called door buzzer[3], a piece of paper was pasted, and the defendant’s rights–including their right to call and meet their families–were written in several paragraphs. Those rights drafted on the white paper were nothing, and we couldn’t simply claim them. There was a hotel refrigerator between two doors. It was like a closet rather than a fridge as nourishment was nowhere to be found. Only a few disposable glasses of water were scattered in it.

We had two metal hatches close to the ceiling for the passage of light and air. We once climbed up the fridge to see what’s going on outside these hatches and where we are in the world. The only thing we could see was a sloping roof covered by tar. Each person had three blankets. We could use them as mattresses, or pillows, or wrap ourselves in them. There was a row of LED lights on the ceiling which never were turned off. We wished for darkness in those few weeks. The room didn’t have any clocks as well. When we asked what time it was, we didn’t receive a response from the prison guards. We could see the wristwatch flashing on their hands, yet they refused to tell us the exact time. We didn’t even know why we asked for the exact time. Nonetheless, the prison guards’ muted responses made us create a sundial. Once we saw the first ray of sunshine on the wall, we called the staff and told them that we had to go to the washroom. When the woman came, we asked the time and wrote eleven on the wall with toothpaste. That was how our sundial worked and we started our day at eleven. The sunset was at five. We just had a sense of time between eleven and five, and the rest didn’t matter. After all, knowing time was nonsense for many of us.

The damn room, washroom, and bathroom didn’t have a mirror either. For nearly 25 days, we had seen only one other. We sometimes asked each other to describe our faces. We shouldn’t forget ourselves. By despising our beliefs and characters, they desperately wanted us to lose our identities and entirely forget our own faces. I was trying to find my eyes on the faucet as I used the toilet. My face’s image was obscure and comically distorted on the faucet. Inside the room, we bent our heads and could hardly see ourselves on the steel body of the toilet[4]. There was enough room to sleep until the cell was heavily populated by eight more prisoners. It was tight and cramped. Upon waking up in the morning, we used to make jokes about the pile of arms, legs, and hips thrown on our bodies. We were utterly staggered once the prison’s guard brought the eighth person to join us in the room, asking how on earth we could accommodate her in such a cramped room. When we complained about the room’s cramped condition, we received an answer that they used to accommodate a lot more than fifteen people in this room in 2009[5]. The room was covered by a thin orange carpet. We should’ve brought our flip-flops inside the room. Qiblah[6]’s direction was also drawn on the wall with an arrow facing the northeast. We didn’t have any books. And when we asked for books, they provided us with the Quran, Nahj al-Balagha, or other religious books through which we could read about marriage and religious ceremonies. Days used to last more than 24 hours in these cells; much more than you could imagine…  


[1] Haj Khanoum is literally used to call a woman who has been to Mecca. In reality, it is somewhat used by some of the female police who cooperate with the Islamic state and police. 

[2] Maqnāe is a kind of headscarf that is officially worn on official occasions. 

[3] The author does not know what she is seeing, and that is why she doesn’t know what to call it. This door buzzer was previously described as a “metal rectangle with lights on it next to the entry door.”  

[4] Iranian toilets have different shapes in comparison with their western counterpart. They are known as squat toilets and refer to the position used knowingly by squatting instead of sitting. These toilets simply consist of a toilet pan at the floor level with a hole in it. The toilets’ material differs from ceramic to steel, and in some cases, are constructed with stone. The author’s meaning about the steel bowl in this text refers to the steel material of the cell’s toilet.

[5] 2009 is referred to as the Green Movement in Iran when a lot of political dissidents were arrested and jailed.

[6] The direction of the Kaaba (the sacred building at Mecca), to which Muslims turn at prayer


Singing Was Life Itself For Us

The article’s authorship comes from the Harasswatch website

Translated into English by: Tanide