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About Letters to my Torturer

I’m talking about Torture

I was a young man longing for freedom, deeply patriotic, and in love with literature. I thought the world could be changed. I supported the Iranian Revolution in the fervent belief that green shoots of freedom would sprout up, no one would go hungry, and dictatorship would be consigned to dusty museums.

But suddenly I found myself in hell. In 1983, arrested in a government crackdown on opposition parties, I was assigned to the care of a man who was employed as my “interrogator”. I was helpless prey, caught in the trap of the “brothers”. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, “brother” is the generic title of all male believers, and each of the interrogators were therefore called “brother” and an assumed name. My whole existence lay in the hands of one such brother, “Brother Hamid”. In defending the “holy” government, Brother Hamid saw himself as God’s representative, with absolute control over every aspect of my life. Sleep, medication, food, even going to the toilet, were impossible without his permission. His motivation was hatred based on religious ideology, his tools were a whip and handcuffs. He saw me as a traitor, a spy, the embodiment of corruption and evil. Everything he assumed about me I had to “confess” to, and eventually I did, under the onslaught of brutal whippings, my feet raw and swollen from the lash, strung up from the ceiling of my cell by a rope for days and nights on end, deprived of sleep, of every human dignity, and in torment that my wife was being tortured too. If I needed anything, I had to bark like a dog. And whenever I barked, Brother Hamid laughed.

Brother Hamid transformed me from a young idealist to the lowest form of life on earth. After 682 days in solitary confinement, subjected to every deprivation, my “confessions” were used, in a show trial lasting just six minutes, to sentence me to fifteen years in prison. In the mass killings that were carried out by the government in the summer of 1988, I came very close to being hanged – called up before another kangaroo court, I was forced to lie. Each prisoner was asked three questions: Are you a Muslim and say your prayers? Do you renounce your past? Do you believe in the Islamic Republic, and who is your point of reference. And I lied to all three questions. I said I hated my past and was devoted to Ayatollah Khomeini, and I was spared the rope. Eventually, after spending six years incarcerated in some of the most infamous jails in the Islamic Republic, I was freed to rejoin the mega-prison that is today’s Iran. I escaped in 2003, and am now forced to live in exile.

Then one day, a few years ago, someone emailed me an image. He asked if I knew the man in the photo. I did. It was Brother Hamid, by this time one of Iran’s ambassadors. Staring into his eyes, I knew I needed to confront my torturer and the living nightmare that was his legacy to me. I searched through my scattered notes, written intermittently over the years since my release from prison, but they were filled with hatred and I no longer identified with them. I didn’t wish to view the world, as my torturer had, in black and white terms. I didn’t want to respond to the whip with the sword of my pen. No, now that I was the judge, I hated the idea of taking my revenge on him. Instead, I decided to write letters to him, to convey to him in some small way the intimate cruelty of those days and their aftermath.

Writing this book was a painful struggle. Every dawn as I started work on the manuscript, I would return to Brother Hamid’s hell. I would weep and write and the soles of my feet would throb. I even had a heart attack. Every fibre of my being protested, but I forced myself to keep going. I wanted to lay bare the life of a person under torture, and to describe the effect of that torture on the mind and body of a human being. In the process, I had to overcome my inner turmoil and remove every trace of hatred, line by line. I did my best to view the scene impartially and to be true to myself, as there is nothing more frightening to me than a victim of torture becoming a torturer himself. In the end, I began to see something of myself in my torturer, and found myself recognizing him as a human being too, as another person born in the same autocratic culture. And finally I gathered up my letters in this book, which I hope will eventually reach Brother Hamid’s hands, sooner or later. Perhaps he will recognize himself in these pages.

During my long years in prison, I realised that thousands of men and women, before me, alongside me, and after me, were tortured to death. I wish the story of torture and imprisonment could end with my story, and that of Brother Hamid. I wish the history of torture, which follows in the footsteps of the inquisitions of the Middle Ages, would end with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But even in recent times, from the valleys of Afghanistan to the prison camp of Guantánamo Bay, prisoners have been interrogated using techniques that, just fifty years earlier, the US military had condemned for eliciting false confessions. And we are all familiar with the sexual degradation and torture of Iraqi prisoners that was captured in chilling photographs, and appeared on our television screens and in newspapers around the world.

As I finished the first draft of this book in 2009, Iran descended into political unrest and chaos once again. And the people who are protesting against Iran’s autocracy today are sadly being subjected to the same treatment we were a generation ago, as hundreds of new Brother Hamids keep the torture chambers busy. Young men and women are being tormented using ever more refined techniques of physical and psychological manipulation and the application of pain so that they will “confess” to being spies for the USA and Israel.

In the era when my “Brother Hamid” and his fellow interrogators were torturing political prisoners mercilessly, no one knew about it. It took many years for our stories to leak out and be heard. Today, torture is still being practised in many parts of the world, but the news travels more quickly. In the current political climate, then,Letters to My Torturer is more than the account of one man’s experience of tor ture. It is the exploration of an issue that sits heavily on humanity’s conscience.

At the height of one of his torture sessions, Brother Hamid asked me: If one day things change and we end up being your captives, what will you do to us? My answer is this: we will demolish all the world’s infamous prisons of torture and we will sentence the intelligence officers and interrogators to go to their ruins to plant flowers and sing love songs. And the sham trials, the torture, and all forms of degrading and inhuman treatment that went with them will at last be a thing of the past.

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