Dig­nity kept amid de­prav­ity

OTHER VOICES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - ANNE SUSSKIND

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

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