Author Archive

The wall street journal:A powerful testament to what transpires in the prisons of Iran

Memories of Iran

Enduring the shah’s prisons—and those of the Islamic Republic


When Houshang Asadi’s feet hurt, he doesn’t have to wonder why. They’ve been that way for 25 years, since the days when he was regularly beaten in an Iranian prison. The Islamist government’s jailers knew well that the soles of the feet make an inviting target—rich in sensitive nerve endings and easily crushed bones. Memories of his imprisonment and torture in the early 1980s, Mr. Asadi says, still brought on tears every morning when he sat down to write about life before he escaped to Paris in 2003 from “the mega-prison that is today’s Iran,” as he calls his former home in the extraordinary memoir “Letters to My Torturer.”

The book would be remarkable on any terms, but it is made especially memorable by the chilling irony and heartbreaking naïveté that characterize Mr. Asadi’s tale. His first experience of being imprisoned for political reasons comes as a young communist in the 1970s, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s government decides he is a threat. For several months Mr. Asadi shares a cell with someone the regime also considers a threat—a warm-hearted cleric who weeps when he prays. The cellmates become friends, and, when they are separated in jail, the cleric assures Mr. Asadi that under an Islamic government—the shah’s overthrow is already being contemplated—”not a single tear would be shed by the innocent.”

After an Islamic government does seize power in 1979, the cleric, now released and indeed a prominent member of the revolutionary hierarchy, invites his idealistic former cellmate to edit the regime’s newspaper. After all, Iranian communists like Mr. Asadi had supported the Islamic revolution. But Mr. Asadi turns down the offer—he doesn’t approve of the republic’s ideology and if he accepted he “would be lying to myself and to you.”



It’s hard to know what to make of this sort of integrity, one oblivious to the true meaning of what it is opposing, what it is defending and what its costs might be. Mr. Asadi has no idea, when he declines to work for the Islamic regime, that the door he closes behind him will open only into a room with a rope hanging from the ceiling and blood on the walls. He also seems, for much of the book and perhaps even at book’s end, not to appreciate that his dear communism is similarly unforgiving whenever it acquires power and that radical Islam and communism share an urge toward totalitarianism.

The Islamic rulers’ honeymoon with the communists is brief; soon a general crackdown is launched. Thus in 1983 begins Mr. Asadi’s descent into a realm of state cruelty that makes the shah-era detentions look like child’s play. His old friend the Islamic cleric, meanwhile, flourishes during this period—and continues to do so today, for the cleric is Sayyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.

Mr. Asadi is so politically guileless that when his arrest comes, he persists for some time in the belief that somehow an American-sponsored coup like the one that brought the shah to power in 1953 is under way. Instead, he spends more than two years being interrogated and tortured by the Islamists. Much of the “intimate cruelty” is administered by someone he calls “Brother Hamid.” Working through all the levels of his hatred for this man is one of the functions of Mr. Asadi’s memoir.

Mr. Asadi is beaten, whipped and hung by his wrists for hours at a time, his toes just shy of the floor. Sometimes he is up-ended so that he hangs with his nose in his own excrement. “Brother Hamid transformed me from a young idealist to the lowest form of life on earth,” he writes.

Eventually he cracks, but not before absorbing an astonishing degree of brutality, some of it for trying to “confess”—he falsely says that he spied on the regime for the British and the Soviets—without ¬implicating anyone else. Here no one can doubt Mr. Asadi’s extraordinary courage. The book ends with his release after the government apparently decided that he was too junior in the Communist Party to merit further torment. But he emerges into a country where the rulers’ paranoia has not been assuaged by the mass murder of thousands of his comrades in 1988 for their supposed danger to the Islamists’ rule.

“Later on,” Mr. Asadi writes, “the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country I had visited at the height of its power, took with it the last fragments of my beliefs. I had freed myself from myself.” He had nothing left, he says, but “love, beer, and literature.” He would continue to live in Iran for 15 years, forswearing political activity and eventually fleeing to Paris with his wife when the opportunity arose. A long-time author, editor and translator, he now writes for the Persian-language news website Rooz Online, which he co-founded.

Mr. Asadi’s dispassionate description of his experiences makes the book a permanent addition to the harrowing genre of the torture memoir. “Letters to My Torturer” is further distinguished by its precise anatomizing of the curious closeness that grows between torturer and tortured. “In the end, I began to see something of myself in my torturer, and found myself recognizing him as a human being too,” he observes. This intuition is all the more remarkable insofar as Mr. Asadi has given us an indelible portrayal of the fervent commitment to Islamism that makes his torturer pitiless.

There are some bumps in the narrative—it is not clear at some points when Mr. Asadi is addressing Brother Hamid, for instance, and whether some passages were written on command, as part of his elaborate “confession” in jail, or some years later in Paris. He also makes fugitive references to Guantanamo Bay, San Quentin and Israeli solitary-confinement cells, which suggest that, remarkably, Mr. Asadi is not quite ready to draw the distinctions between totalitarianism and democracy that his book so vividly demonstrates.

Nevertheless, Mr. Asadi has offered the world a powerful testament to what transpires in the prisons of Iran—a nightmare that the country’s radical Islamic leadership clearly would be only too happy to export.

Mr. Rosenberg is a writer and editor living in New York.

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Categories: A look, Review

Amazon :An incisive, unforgettable book

5.0 out of 5 stars Inside the Prisons of Iran, A Great Read, July 16, 2010

By  Susan C. Bentler “Madam Book Nerd” (Alexandrai , VA) – See all my reviews
This review is from: Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution, and Imprisonment in Iran (Hardcover)

I must stop immediately and praise this book as highly as I possibly can. Journalist Houshang Asadi has a pedigree of experience that came of age alongside the Iranian revolution of 1979. As a man who fairly represents the archtypal experience of 20th century Iran, he has written an incisive, unforgettable book that panders to none and fastens to the truth more definitively than any restraining device ever will.

As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I’ve heard some chilling tales of abuse and persecution from survivors of Iranian prisons. Having read both historical account and contemporary report, I’ve often wondered why the phenomenon of torture in Iranian culture has not been scrutinized by some of the great Iranian scholars currently writing. Mr. Asadi has begun a much needed conversation from a high vantage point and has set the bar for future discussion of this topic.

Torture was consistently, heinously, almost inexorably applied by Iran’s imperial governments of the past and is now used by the IRI system to intimidate and coerce its citizenry. Houshang Asadi is to be praised for allowing his readers to see into the squalid humanity and the more humorous nature of his interrogator’s personality, the so-called “Brother Hamid.” According to the book, “Brother Hamid” is later spotted as an overweight Iranian ambassador to a certain Central Asian nation.

A deep love of country underlies “Letters to My Torturer” as Asadi notes the suffering of those alongside him. The author lets us see the immediate and long term devastation of this post-revolutionary experience without edging into self-pity or vengeance. Mr. Asadi was incarcerated (which sadly in Iran, infers torture) under the Shah and the IRI. While imprisoned as editor and political leftist by SAVAK, the feared intelligence service of the Shah, he shared a cell with a 37-year-old cleric named Khamenei, now the infamous “Supreme Leader” of Iran. One can’t help but be fascinated as the then unknown cleric is described cheekily satirizing his prison guards or weeping unabashedly when Asadi is transferred from the cell. The relationship between the two men continued after prison until the IRI decided to virtually eliminate all other forms of perceived opposition.

At one point in the book, Asadi explains how, unbeknownst to his wife and friends, he joined SAVAK unoffically as a Tudeh party operative, working as a double agent to gain intellience on the Shah’s pervasive service. After the revolution, in order to diffuse suspicions, his newspaper ran a public notice explaining Asadi’s relationship to SAVAK in hopes of stemming the ire of the IRI who were actively consolidating their power. Needless to say, the attempt failed and the author began a terrifying sojourn through the IRI’s prison system.

In one reminiscence, Asadi describes coming across a damning poem posted at a university campus about this SAVAK involvement and encounters a young Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, not realizing that he is facing the man the poem satirizes, claims to the author, to have been tortured by the author! Amazing!

Asadi’s narrative moves easily back and forth from the past (not all of it grim, either) to the terrible moments of torture. Apparently, Mr. Asadi expected to be released quickly. Iranian leftists in the early eighties thought themselves to be acknowledged allies of Khomenei’s regime. That illusion ended abruptly as political arrests escalated through the eighties and executions abounded.

While the subject matter of torture itself is disturbing, anyone holding their breath for democracy in Iran should read this account for its inspired, hard-wrung humanity. Mr. Asadi makes clear that the wounds of his experience linger painfully as he lives in exile, an exile shared by many of the brightest Iranians who seek to escape a similar threat of incarceration and its torture.

Categories: Review

reuters : Torture victim’s saga mirrors Iran’s history 

By Paul Taylor

PARIS | Thu Jul 15, 2010 3:13am EDT

PARIS (Reuters) – Houshang Asadi is an equal opportunity torture victim.

He was tortured under the Shah and tortured again after Iran‘s Islamic Revolution. He still feels the pain, every night.

Now the 59-year-old former communist journalist, who lives in exile in Paris, is finally getting even with his former torturer — a man he came to know and fear as Brother Hamid — via the Internet.

Asadi’s tale of woe mirrors the modern history of Iran. He recounts the horrors and intrigue with humanity, touches of poetry and humor in a book entitled “Letters to my Torturer,” which has just been published in English (*).

When he was first tortured by the Shah’s Savak secret police in Tehran’s Moshtarek prison in the late 1970s, he shared a cell with a Muslim cleric named Ali Khamenei. They became friends.

By the time Asadi was tortured again in the same jail in the early 1980s, Khamenei had been maimed in a bomb attack and had become president of the Islamic Republic, established after the Shah was overthrown in a 1979 revolution.

Today, Khamenei is Iran‘s supreme leader, presiding over yet another crackdown on reformists, imposed after protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election last year. Some of the same prisons and interrogation techniques are at work again, according to the opposition.

In two years of revolutionary turmoil and relative freedom before Asadi’s second arrest, he kept in touch with Khamenei.

The book depicts an intellectual, humane, literature-loving Khamenei who enjoys a joke, unrecognizable as the stern fundamentalist ideologue of today.


When Asadi was sentenced to death for supposedly being part of an alleged Communist plot to overthrow the Islamic regime, his wife contacted the president to appeal for help.

Khamenei sent the judge a handwritten note saying simply he had been aware of the journalist’s political ideas all along. Asadi does not believe that was what saved him from execution.

“I wasn’t senior enough in the party. They executed members of the first leadership level. I was not in the first cadre. I was a journalist on Mardom, the party newspaper,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Asadi survived the mass killing of thousands of political prisoners ordered by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988, after telling the court he had renounced the communist Tudeh party and become a faithful Muslim.

A connoisseur of torture, he is acutely perceptive of the differences between practitioners.

“Savak’s purpose was to extract information, whereas the Islamists want to break you, to insult you,” he said.

Brother Hamid called him “useless wimp” and made him bark like a dog when he wanted to “confess” to stop the pain.

The aim was to make a sinner repent and embrace Islam, even though that was no guarantee of avoiding execution ultimately.

Techniques employed included hanging prisoners by a chain attached to their arms behind their back, whipping the soles of their feet until they cannot walk or stand without agony, and breaking their teeth, then denying them dental treatment.

Asadi was also subjected to the humiliation of being forced to eat his own excrement, and that of fellow leftist inmates.

Brother Hamid wanted him to confess to having been part of a communist coup plot, bizarrely said to have been wrought by the Soviet and British secret intelligence service.

He was ordered to write “confessions” on sheets of plain paper that were left in the torture room. If they were unsatisfactory, he was subjected to fresh agonies.

“They want to make you play the role they have written for you in their own screenplay,” said Asadi, a cinema buff who published a film magazine in Tehran until it was raided and shut down in 2005, the year he and his wife fled to France.

Before each torture session, Brother Hamid invoked Shi’ite Muslim saints. “In the name of heavenly Fatimeh…” Thwack!

When the torturer tired, he would switch on a tape recorder repeating a mesmeric Shi’ite chant recalling the battleground where Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, was killed: “Kerbala, Kerbala, we are on our way…”

Moshtarek prison is today a museum, with exhibits denouncing the Shah’s torturers. But their techniques are still in use at Tehran’s sprawling Evin prison — the main detention center for political offenders, according to released detainees.

Now it is Brother Hamid who has been made to sweat since Asadi outed him in a Voice of America interview as Iran‘s ambassador to a central Asian state. The envoy was quickly recalled to Tehran and sent into retirement.

Asadi, who with his wife Nooshabeh Amiri works for a news website (, posted a picture on the Internet of his tormentor with President Ahmadinejad, on an official visit to Tajikistan.

“Praise be to Allah a million times, you’ve grown fat. Your double chin sticks about above your official embassy uniform,” he wrote. Despite being blindfolded for most of his time in prison, he said he had clearly seen Brother Hamid three times.

Young exiled democracy activists of the banned Green Movement have found new pictures of Brother Hamid, who rose to be deputy minister of intelligence, attending a reunion of former ambassadors.

They have discovered his address, the names of his children and contacted his daughter via her Facebook page.

In the Internet age, even torturers must fear for their privacy.

(*Letters to My Torturer; Love, Revolution and Imprisonment in Khomeini’s Iran; published by Oneworld, Oxford.)

(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

Categories: A look

Amazon : Indelible and incredible memoir and history


By  P. Willson (United States) – See all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution, and Imprisonment in Iran (Hardcover)
“The one that was me remained forever in that torture chamber, and another me left…”

Extraordinary book. Mr. Asadi was a young Iranian journalist and Communist first arrested by the Shah’s notorious Savak in the late 1970’s; he shared a prison cell with Iran’s current leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, for several months.

The friendship they formed was the only thing that kept Asadi from being hung ten years later when Iran’s clerical regime went about systematically torturing and killing tens of thousands of people who had fought alongside them to overthrow the Shah, but who did not fit their planned Talibanization of Iran.

The book is a series of 26 ‘letters’ (written two decades later) to ‘Brother Hamid,’ the interrogator who controlled every moment, every bodily function, and ultimately, every thought in his prisoner’s head over two years of constant torture and isolation.

Each chapter is more than a letter — the narrative seamlessly weaves together Asadi’s personal history, Iran’s cultural and political backstory, and current-day developments through the eyes of a gifted writer looking back on the dissolution of the world as he knew it.

Asadi lays out not only the rise and rapid perversion of what most Iranians thought would be a democratic revolution, but portrays with integrity the methodical, ruthless destruction of his body, mind, beliefs, and personality in the hands of a highly skilled torturer. I kept thinking with horror of what the many thousands of young protesters arrested last summer are going through right this very minute, in the same prisons.

Now an exile in Paris, Asadi suffered a relapse of chronically severe PTSD and had a heart attack writing the book, but as it progresses, he slowly is able to work his way through some of the terror, hate, and rage, and come out the other side — as much as anyone can.

The book is harrowing, heartbreaking, and grim, but not gruesome. It’s the most complete book I’ve read on living through and trying to reconstruct a life after captivity and torture; Houshang Asadi is right there with Jean Amery and Jacobo Timerman.

Categories: Review

Houshang Asadi writes in a guest op-ed for Informed Comment

Asadi on Iran: “Today’s Internal Affairs, Tomorrow’s Global Impact”

Posted on July 10, 2010 by Juan

Houshang Asadi writes in a guest op-ed for Informed Comment

Iran: Today’s Internal Affairs, Tomorrow’s Global Impact

The international community’s demand that clemency be shown to a woman condemned to death for adultery, possibly by stoning, has once again grabbed the world’s headlines. The past year’s events in Iran, which have attracted the world’s attention to a country dubbed ‘the crossroads of history’, not only serve as the driving force behind radical changes at home, but are also playing a decisive role in a world balanced precariously on the verge of yet another war.

Since 9/11, a force rising from the depths of bygone eras to challenge the West has been busy recruiting supporters among Muslims throughout the world. This force derives its strength more from ideology than from money and guns.

The leading ideologues of this Islamic revivalism offer a fundamentalist reading of Islam that divides the world into two clear-cut camps: divine and satanic. For them, Western civilization, with its deep roots in humanism and liberalism, is the manifestation of evil par excellence. Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda is usually credited as the main militant representative of this view, which is grounded in the Sunni branch of Islam. However, as the post-election events in Iran might have indicated, the Iranian regime also favours the aforementioned world-view, which puts Shi’a fundamentalism next to Taliban ideology; whereas the latter manifested itself in the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamyan, the former has these days masterminded the “disappearance” of a few bronze statutes of national, secular heroes in the streets and public parks of Iran. The fact that the stolen statutes were all post-revolutionary installations, with one in particular being the statute of Shahriar, the favourite poet of Iran’s supreme leader, illustrates the extent of shared ideology between the Taliban of Afghanistan and their Iranian half-brothers.

In fact, what we are witnessing right now in Iran is a hard-fought battle between the liberal and fundamentalist readings of Islam. Just over a century ago, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, the first of its kind outside the West, collapsed when it came face to face with the fundamentalist reading of Islam. What followed was a compromise between the two aforementioned readings, which resulted in the formation of a secular state with a nod to the rulings of a sharia-compliant constitution. The self-contradictory nature of this constitution would later give birth to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Since its inception, the Islamic Revolution has sought to suppress civil society by replacing civil law with sharia law as the legal basis of the Iranian society. But the long-lasting conflict between liberal-minded clergymen and their fundamentalist colleagues has only surfaced recently as Ayatollah Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has taken drastic measures to turn the ‘Islamic Republic’ into the ‘Islamic Caliphate’.

There are now two distinct camps in Iran. The first faction is composed of Shi’a fundamentalists who support Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei’s views have three major influences: First, the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are generally seen as the founding fathers of Islamic fundamentalism in modern times. Before the 1979 Revolution, Khamenei personally translated into Persian from the original Arabic the important works of the leading intellectual of the Brotherhood, Sayyed Qutb. Qutb’s views, especially his profound hatred of the West, are easily discernable among Iran’s ruling clergy today.

The second group that has influenced Khamenei is known as Fadā’iyān-e Islam (devotees of Islam), the first followers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Iran led by Mujtaba Navab-Safavi, who carried out some of the earliest acts of religious terrorism in modern Iran. Khamenei has repeatedly referred to Navab-Safavi as his role model in politics. That he has named his eldest son Mujtaba might be an indication of Khamenei’s admiration for this man.

The third sphere of influence is a group known as Hujjatiyeh Society, which sees as its mission to pave the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi, the 12th Shi’a Imam, who is believed to have gone into a millennium-old occultation and whose ultimate return in the End Times is expected to bring peace and justice to the world. Recently it has been revealed that each Wednesday, Khamenei visits Jamkaran, a well in the city of Qum that is regarded by many Shi’as as the hiding place of Mahdi. Eyewitnesses have reported that Khamenei has been seen in a state of deep prayer, allegedly communicating with the Hidden Imam.

The members of the second camp see themselves totally at odds with the other faction whose views and actions they regard as nothing short of catastrophic for Iran’s future. The vast majority of the country’s intellectuals, the middle class, the youth and a significant portion of those who work in “the system”, belong to this second camp, and are collectively referred to as the Green Movement. From the perspective of the Shi’a fundamentalists, the members of this movement are no better than infidels. As such, they can be imprisoned, tortured, raped etc.

The outcome of the ongoing power struggle between these two opposing factions carries great significance not just for Iran but for the international community. A victory by the Iranian “Taliban” will take Iran on a downward spiral and would place the country’s wealth and geopolitical powers entirely at the disposal of those who believe Islam’s global hegemony is possible through violent jihad, which is why they wish to secure nuclear capabilities. Bearing in mind that Iran has long served as a source of inspiration for many social and ideological movements in the region, it becomes clear how critical is the outcome of the battle between these two camps in Iran for the country, the region, and the world at large.

Houshang Asadi is a journalist. He was imprisoned during the Shah’s rule where his cellmate for nine months was the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. In 1983, after the Islamic Revolution and following the Iranian government’s crackdown on all opposition parties, Asadi was arrested and imprisoned in Tehran. He was kept in solitary confinement for almost 2 years, during which time he was severely tortured until he falsely confessed to operating as a spy for the British and Russian intelligence agencies. He opposes US military intervention in Iran. His memoir, Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution and Imprisonment in Iran, has just been published by Oneworld Publications

Categories: Interview

Metro: the book of the week

Letters To My Torturer: Writing through the pain barrier

No one knows how many people arrested during the 2009 Iranian uprisings have been imprisoned and tortured.

What is pretty certain, however, is that torture is culturally endemic within Tehran’s most notorious prisons.

One year on from those uprisings comes this courageous memoir from an Iranian journalist who was arrested in 1983.

Houshang Asadi was a fervent supporter of the 1979 Islamic revolution (and former close friend of the present supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, whom Asadi recalls in the 1970s as ‘a kind and smiling man’) but his record of political activism under the Shah was feverishly seized upon by the authorities, who condemned him to 682 days in solitary confinement.

In this book, Asadi, now in exile in Paris, addresses a series of letters to Brother Hamid, the man who for two years subjected Asadi to bouts of inconceivable mental and physical degradation in an attempt to force him to ‘confess’.

To what, Asadi was never quite sure, lending his imprisonment a queasy, reality-bending dimension.

Categories: A look

BBC World Service

This was broadcast on Friday in the Outlook programme.

BBC World Service: interview houshang asadi

Categories: Video