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Nonfiction

In Conversation with the Prison

By Zia Nabavi
Translated from Persian by Poupeh Missaghi
Zia Nabavi reflects on the experience of political prisoners in Iran as protests roil the country.

For those who have a friend or beloved detained or imprisoned.

1) Every early morning, he would come and sit on the metal bench in front of the phone booth and stare at the phone. With looks filled with love. Or maybe I read this in his face because I knew the story of his life. The truth is he was arrested only a few days after his engagement party. He had been held for a month in the Information Ministry’s detention center in Ahwas before being transferred to Karoun Prison. I imagine that he had sprouted wings when he saw the phone. He needed a phone more than anyone in our prison ward. Perhaps his biggest worry was about his fiancée’s family. Her father was in the military, and, well, it would be possible that he wouldn’t let his daughter marry a political prisoner. This was something he could not resolve, at least not until he was inside the prison. If there was any hope for him, it was in the few short moments mediated by the phone. There was, of course, his missing her too, perhaps even more than his need to resolve the issue of his future father-in-law, though the two were not really separate. It was the heartsick that made the issue loom larger, and it was the worry that added fire to his heartsick. I remember that I took notice of the guy’s behavior when I was in charge of the phone. That he would come from early dawn and sit in front of the phone booth, throwing a begging glance at the other prisoners, as if saying, “Can you give me part of your five-minute phone time?” Honestly, there was some weakness and restlessness in him that I didn’t like. I mean I was afraid that he could not adjust to the rough prison environment, and the restlessness would bring him consequences; and it eventually did. One early morning when we were allowed to come outside, in the loneliness of our timeout, he stepped towards the telephone booth, struggled to bend some of the wires securing the phone machine in the booth, put his hand in the locked booth, and finally succeeded to pull out the phone receiver. I don’t remember how long that imprisoned friend talked, and I don’t recall what his punishment was for this act of disobedience, but I wanted to recount this memory to show the value and significance of the phone for the prisoners. I have heard several prisoners recount a nightmare in which they reached an empty phone booth, but as they were basking in their luck, they realized they didn’t have a phone card with them.

2) A detainee or prisoner is a person who is suspended from their social status in their free life. From the moment they are arrested, all their responsibilities outside of the prison are put on pause. They can no longer take care of their job tasks or play their role in their family. The beginning of imprisonment means the end of one’s responsibilities as a free person. The problem though is that this imprisonment has not been coordinated with any parts of the person’s life in freedom. Getting arrested is like death; it arrives suddenly, is unexpected. The difference is, however, that the imprisoned continues to anxiously eye the outside world. They cannot forget their responsibilities—their job, their studies, their projects, and especially their emotional relationships. For someone who has responsibilities in the outside world, no news is better to hear than the fact that their absence has not seriously impacted their responsibilities, that everything has been going on as planned, and his work is not suspended. The phone, thus, has another value for the prisoner as well: to know how his responsibilities are taken care of in his absence. What the prisoner needs to hear on the phone is that everything is going on as planned. The person talking to the prisoner needs to be aware of this and speak to it. I know people who were once arrested when they didn’t have kids and once when they were a parent, and they all attest to the difference between the two experiences.

3) Being arrested also equals becoming alone, and this is even more important than being suspended from daily life. Perhaps humans cannot understand that they are social beings reliant on others the way they do when they are in solitary confinement. That whatever they associate with themselves and considered as part of their interiority is truly a result of being with other people. That their self, their reality, and even their world has been built in relation to others, and how all these constructs become meaningless without others and his identity becomes baseless. The interrogator, though, knows all this, not of his own intelligence, but has been taught this by the one who has ordered solitary confinement for the prisoner. He knows that in solitary confinement, the prisoner’s world and their realities lose their weight, and this is when the interrogator finds the opportunity to make his move. He aims to make a new reality and world for the accused, to shape a new human out of them; a human who is actually the shared product of the accused and the interrogator. That is why the accused is isolated, that is why they are not permitted to make phone calls, and that is why phone calls are important. Their family or whoever is talking to them on the phone needs to understand this loneliness and vulnerability, needs to insist on pulling the prisoner back into what was before. The prisoner needs to be reminded that they have friends outside the prison, beloveds and allies who remember them, talk of them, write of them . . . people with whom they formed a “we” before, who still consider them a part of that “we.” This is how a person outside the prison can help the prisoner against the interrogator’s project, by not letting the prisoner to remain alone with the interrogator—with that very short phone conversation, with delivering the message to the one living in the world inside the prison walls that, “You are still one of us.”

4) In prison discourse, “loudspeaker imprisonment” refers to the wait for one’s release. It points to the prisoner who imagines or knows that their release process is underway, so they just need to wait for their name to be called through the loudspeaker. There is an agreement among the prisoners that time moves completely differently for this person who awaits their freedom. For them, time is elongated, it passes more slowly, so slowly that it seems to come to a stop. “Loudspeaker imprisonment” is one of prison’s hardships and tortures. May the day never arrive that the interrogator uses it as a weapon against the prisoner: promising them freedom, making them count the seconds as they futilely await their freedom. One of the most prevalent tricks of the interrogator is to give false promises of release, promises that break down part of the prisoner’s defensive mechanism every time they are not fulfilled. What is worse is that sometimes the prisoner’s family help in fueling this hardship. In their simplicity, they think that telling the prisoner that they would soon be released or repeating the interrogator’s or the prosecutor’s promises would help the prisoner stay positive and hopeful. But what the prisoner needs is to be assured that those outside the prison are doing everything they can for their freedom. It is this assurance that is heartwarming, not giving a promised date and time on the phone, an utterance that would immediately be followed by a “loudspeaker imprisonment” that causes the time to elongate, the seconds to not pass for the prisoner . . .

5) Kant believed that human knowledge is not based on a passive perception of the world and that there are preceding emotional and mental concepts that actively form our view of the world. He liked comparing this core philosophy to the revolutionary Copernican heliocentrism, believing that his perspective was as original as Copernicus stating that the earth was not at the center of the universe, and that it actually went around the sun. It would be helpful to expand Kant’s idea to the prison world and say that the prisoner’s understanding is not solely based on the reality of the world but is extensively relying on the interrogator’s interventions. So, if instead of Kant’s “mental spectacles” we use the metaphor of “the interrogator’s spectacles,” it would be easier for us to explain how the interrogator attempts to represent the world as he wishes to the prisoner. He takes away from the prisoner all possibilities of connection that could help them evaluate their views based on the realities of the world. He shuts down all the prisoners’ windows to the world outside, aiming to replace unequivocal truth with his own deceptions. That is exactly why the few minutes of phone calls are invaluable to the prisoner, why the interrogator limits them as much as possible. It is because the prisoner could use their phone conversations to at least test out the foundations of the world made up by the interrogator, to reveal the fakeness of the narratives presented to them. Imagine a prisoner who has to spend all moments of their solitary confinement with the nightmare forced upon them by the interrogator that their family too has been arrested. Imagine their sense of relief when they are able to talk to their family. Yes, phone calls are important and sometimes relieving to the imprisoned, way more than what we can grasp in our world on this other side of the prison walls.

 

© Zia Nabavi. Translation © November 2022 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.
English

For those who have a friend or beloved detained or imprisoned.

1) Every early morning, he would come and sit on the metal bench in front of the phone booth and stare at the phone. With looks filled with love. Or maybe I read this in his face because I knew the story of his life. The truth is he was arrested only a few days after his engagement party. He had been held for a month in the Information Ministry’s detention center in Ahwas before being transferred to Karoun Prison. I imagine that he had sprouted wings when he saw the phone. He needed a phone more than anyone in our prison ward. Perhaps his biggest worry was about his fiancée’s family. Her father was in the military, and, well, it would be possible that he wouldn’t let his daughter marry a political prisoner. This was something he could not resolve, at least not until he was inside the prison. If there was any hope for him, it was in the few short moments mediated by the phone. There was, of course, his missing her too, perhaps even more than his need to resolve the issue of his future father-in-law, though the two were not really separate. It was the heartsick that made the issue loom larger, and it was the worry that added fire to his heartsick. I remember that I took notice of the guy’s behavior when I was in charge of the phone. That he would come from early dawn and sit in front of the phone booth, throwing a begging glance at the other prisoners, as if saying, “Can you give me part of your five-minute phone time?” Honestly, there was some weakness and restlessness in him that I didn’t like. I mean I was afraid that he could not adjust to the rough prison environment, and the restlessness would bring him consequences; and it eventually did. One early morning when we were allowed to come outside, in the loneliness of our timeout, he stepped towards the telephone booth, struggled to bend some of the wires securing the phone machine in the booth, put his hand in the locked booth, and finally succeeded to pull out the phone receiver. I don’t remember how long that imprisoned friend talked, and I don’t recall what his punishment was for this act of disobedience, but I wanted to recount this memory to show the value and significance of the phone for the prisoners. I have heard several prisoners recount a nightmare in which they reached an empty phone booth, but as they were basking in their luck, they realized they didn’t have a phone card with them.

2) A detainee or prisoner is a person who is suspended from their social status in their free life. From the moment they are arrested, all their responsibilities outside of the prison are put on pause. They can no longer take care of their job tasks or play their role in their family. The beginning of imprisonment means the end of one’s responsibilities as a free person. The problem though is that this imprisonment has not been coordinated with any parts of the person’s life in freedom. Getting arrested is like death; it arrives suddenly, is unexpected. The difference is, however, that the imprisoned continues to anxiously eye the outside world. They cannot forget their responsibilities—their job, their studies, their projects, and especially their emotional relationships. For someone who has responsibilities in the outside world, no news is better to hear than the fact that their absence has not seriously impacted their responsibilities, that everything has been going on as planned, and his work is not suspended. The phone, thus, has another value for the prisoner as well: to know how his responsibilities are taken care of in his absence. What the prisoner needs to hear on the phone is that everything is going on as planned. The person talking to the prisoner needs to be aware of this and speak to it. I know people who were once arrested when they didn’t have kids and once when they were a parent, and they all attest to the difference between the two experiences.

3) Being arrested also equals becoming alone, and this is even more important than being suspended from daily life. Perhaps humans cannot understand that they are social beings reliant on others the way they do when they are in solitary confinement. That whatever they associate with themselves and considered as part of their interiority is truly a result of being with other people. That their self, their reality, and even their world has been built in relation to others, and how all these constructs become meaningless without others and his identity becomes baseless. The interrogator, though, knows all this, not of his own intelligence, but has been taught this by the one who has ordered solitary confinement for the prisoner. He knows that in solitary confinement, the prisoner’s world and their realities lose their weight, and this is when the interrogator finds the opportunity to make his move. He aims to make a new reality and world for the accused, to shape a new human out of them; a human who is actually the shared product of the accused and the interrogator. That is why the accused is isolated, that is why they are not permitted to make phone calls, and that is why phone calls are important. Their family or whoever is talking to them on the phone needs to understand this loneliness and vulnerability, needs to insist on pulling the prisoner back into what was before. The prisoner needs to be reminded that they have friends outside the prison, beloveds and allies who remember them, talk of them, write of them . . . people with whom they formed a “we” before, who still consider them a part of that “we.” This is how a person outside the prison can help the prisoner against the interrogator’s project, by not letting the prisoner to remain alone with the interrogator—with that very short phone conversation, with delivering the message to the one living in the world inside the prison walls that, “You are still one of us.”

4) In prison discourse, “loudspeaker imprisonment” refers to the wait for one’s release. It points to the prisoner who imagines or knows that their release process is underway, so they just need to wait for their name to be called through the loudspeaker. There is an agreement among the prisoners that time moves completely differently for this person who awaits their freedom. For them, time is elongated, it passes more slowly, so slowly that it seems to come to a stop. “Loudspeaker imprisonment” is one of prison’s hardships and tortures. May the day never arrive that the interrogator uses it as a weapon against the prisoner: promising them freedom, making them count the seconds as they futilely await their freedom. One of the most prevalent tricks of the interrogator is to give false promises of release, promises that break down part of the prisoner’s defensive mechanism every time they are not fulfilled. What is worse is that sometimes the prisoner’s family help in fueling this hardship. In their simplicity, they think that telling the prisoner that they would soon be released or repeating the interrogator’s or the prosecutor’s promises would help the prisoner stay positive and hopeful. But what the prisoner needs is to be assured that those outside the prison are doing everything they can for their freedom. It is this assurance that is heartwarming, not giving a promised date and time on the phone, an utterance that would immediately be followed by a “loudspeaker imprisonment” that causes the time to elongate, the seconds to not pass for the prisoner . . .

5) Kant believed that human knowledge is not based on a passive perception of the world and that there are preceding emotional and mental concepts that actively form our view of the world. He liked comparing this core philosophy to the revolutionary Copernican heliocentrism, believing that his perspective was as original as Copernicus stating that the earth was not at the center of the universe, and that it actually went around the sun. It would be helpful to expand Kant’s idea to the prison world and say that the prisoner’s understanding is not solely based on the reality of the world but is extensively relying on the interrogator’s interventions. So, if instead of Kant’s “mental spectacles” we use the metaphor of “the interrogator’s spectacles,” it would be easier for us to explain how the interrogator attempts to represent the world as he wishes to the prisoner. He takes away from the prisoner all possibilities of connection that could help them evaluate their views based on the realities of the world. He shuts down all the prisoners’ windows to the world outside, aiming to replace unequivocal truth with his own deceptions. That is exactly why the few minutes of phone calls are invaluable to the prisoner, why the interrogator limits them as much as possible. It is because the prisoner could use their phone conversations to at least test out the foundations of the world made up by the interrogator, to reveal the fakeness of the narratives presented to them. Imagine a prisoner who has to spend all moments of their solitary confinement with the nightmare forced upon them by the interrogator that their family too has been arrested. Imagine their sense of relief when they are able to talk to their family. Yes, phone calls are important and sometimes relieving to the imprisoned, way more than what we can grasp in our world on this other side of the prison walls.

 

© Zia Nabavi. Translation © November 2022 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.

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