Dignity kept amid depravity
AS a child growing up in Tehran, Zarah Ghahramani believed she could pre- empt her fears by imagining them in advance. She lived in fear of bombs, but the bombs did not fall on her after all. The stranger who followed her down the street did not grab her and cut her throat, and a thousand other scenarios she imagined for herself and those she loved did not eventuate.
‘‘ Like most people, I have been conditioned by a lifetime of reprieves,’’ she writes in My Life as a Traitor ( Scribe, 256pp, $ 29.95). So, despite having been imprisoned, beaten and abused, what she dreads most — rape by the fat, stinking, sadistic guard — will not happen, she thinks. ‘‘ But it does. The reprieve doesn’t happen. Not this time.’’
The books by women who have suffered terribly under oppressive Islamic regimes are plentiful these days, but Ghahramani’s distinguishes itself by its plain, powerful style, its selfsearching honesty and her sharp eye for her society. ( It was co- written with Robert Hillman, from Victoria, who also helped her get to Australia, where she now lives.)
Born in Tehran in 1981, two years after Ruhollah Khomeini’s return, she managed as a child to master a double life: at home taught that a girl was as important as a boy but at school having to conform. Her narrative moves easily between the horrors of her arrest and torture for student activism and chapters taking you back to the sweet intelligent child she once was, making her prison sufferings seem more real and matter more. She admits to her vanity often, her fear that her looks will be spoiled so that she will never be able to be a ‘‘ pretty middle- class Persian girl’’ aspiring to a food processor, pop- up toaster and a designer kettle. She does deals with herself: if her establishment boyfriend still wants her when she gets out, she’ll have his babies one after another, and wear chador with Louis Vuitton and frilly underwear underneath, and tell people she’s ecstatic that her children can recite passages from the Koran. She talks constantly to herself and the madman in the cell upstairs.
A book that I started with a sense of duty was, by its end, engrossing. LIKE Ghahramani, Marina Nehmat, author of Prisoner of Tehran ( John Murray, 282pp, $ 35), experienced the horrors of Evin, a notorious prison, and the dehumanising blindfold she had to wear whenever she left her cell. Reared as a Christian, Nehmat was arrested and sentenced to death at 16 when she became the centre of a student strike at school protesting against Koran study replacing maths lessons.
In prison she was made to watch executions and spared only when she agreed to convert to Islam and marry a prison guard. It’s a layered story, with her feelings for the guard becoming more tender as she gets to know him and discovers that he too was once a prisoner. While there is no comparing degrees of suffering, Ghahramani’s tale is the better told. THE Sleeping Buddha by Hamida Ghafour ( Random House, 334pp, $ 32.95) is more of a roots story, with its author, an accomplished journalist, sent from Canada to cover the reconstruction in Afghanistan in 2003. Her family had fled Kabul after the Russian invasion in 1981. It’s a wellresearched account of a botched nation- building experiment, but threaded through with the personal, the refugee story of a search for a materially better, safer life haunted by loss: the red cherries from Balkh in the summer, the apricots, sweet and fuzzy, from Bamiyan and the pomegranates from Kandahar.
Her writing is intense, a Western sensibility registering its shock at the claustrophobia she encounters. Trying on a blue silk robe in a chadari shop, it felt as if rubber bands were squeezing her head, and her vision became a small square of blue haze: ‘‘ The air became stale very quickly. I had no peripheral vision and my breathing grew short.’’ She resisted the urge to pack up and go home: ‘‘ I was deeply uncomfortable that I lived in one of the richest countries in the world and was born in one of the poorest. I wanted to prove that I could stay, too.’’
Later came a deep wish to understand what it meant to be Afghan.
These books are depressing, but still a relatively painless crash course in contemporary history. Thankfully, along the way all three writers commend the few people they meet who retain their grace under such challenging circumstances. Anne Susskind is a Sydney literary journalist and reviewer.
Self- searching honesty: Zarah Ghahramani