- Thirty-four years ago, none of us at Iran’s newspapers could have known about the evil forces lurking behind the Islamic Revolution’s promises of change.
- January 24, 2013, 3:46 p.m. ET
Only a few newspaper headlines become iconic, a story in their own right. The headline “Shah Raft“—”The Shah Has Left” in Farsi—is one of those. It was printed on the front page of Iran’s two main daily newspapers, Kayhan and Ettelaat, on Jan. 16, 1979, after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Tehran for good.
“Shah Raft” captured the victory of the Revolution. It encapsulated history in the making. It ran in bold Persian letters, in size 84 font, across the top of the page. Over a million copies were printed.
In Iranian journalism circles, the headline has sparked years of debate: Who wrote it? Who picked it? How did it come about?
This month marks 34 years since “Shah Raft” hit the press. I was a deputy editor at Kayhan at that time. Here is what I remember from the newsroom in Tehran that night.
All day on Jan. 16, Kayhan’s offices had been packed, buzzing. We’d brought a television set to the newsroom to watch the departure of the shah. The reporter assigned to the story was glued to the television in anticipation. His sleeves were rolled up. He was ready to write.
Another reporter was at the Tehran airport reporting live from a payphone. There were no cell phones in those days. I was responsible for talking to the reporter and relaying his minute-by-minute dispatches to the copy desk.
The newsroom staff resembled a team of wandering spirits, proceeding from the television set, to the phone, to the editorial desk.
Associated PressAn anti-shah demonstration on Jan. 19, 1979, in Tehran.
In our morning editorial meeting that day, we had discussed how we would handle the headline if the shah really did leave Iran. Would we use the shah’s name with the singular or plural form of the verb “to leave”? In Persian, a plural verb is often used with a singular noun to suggest utmost respect for the subject.
Until then, we had always been obliged to use the plural form of the verb when writing about the shah. But things were changing fast. Kayhan’s editor-in-chief, Rahman Hatefi, said at the meeting: “Once the shah leaves there is no coming back. He is as good as dead.”
That settled it. Worried about the possible repercussions of our coverage, we agreed with Ettelaat to use the same font and to go to press at the same time. Safety in numbers.
Still, our page designer was anxious. A political prisoner under the shah, he had dreamed of this day. He prepared the layout of “Shah Raft” in advance and kept it in his desk drawer. He paced around the newsroom, chain-smoking, sometimes walking over to my desk to put his hands on my shoulders. His eyes sparkled.
None of us knew then what we know now: that publishing the headline “Shah Raft” would spell the end of our careers. None of us knew that most of us would end up in jail, tortured and interrogated. We could have never known that out of 110 newsroom staff present that day, only one person would still be working at Kayhan today.
Around noon, I heard the reporter screaming on the phone. “Houshang, Houshang, the shah left!”
I couldn’t believe it. “Did you see with your own eyes?” I asked.
“I saw with my own eyes. The shah left. He left!”
I hung up the phone and screamed, “The shah left!”
The newsroom erupted with joy. When Kayhan and Ettelaat hit the newsstands with identical front pages, splashed with “Shah Raft” above the fold, a nationwide celebration followed. People held up the papers and danced in the streets.
The two managing editors who oversaw the news that day eventually coordinated for another historic headline: “Imam Amad” (“The Imam Has Come”) for the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Revolution, from Paris.
But the Islamic Revolution, which vowed to root out brutal dictatorship and usher in an era of justice and freedom, did not honor its promises. A systematic attack on Kayhan began almost immediately after the shah’s departure, with demonstrations outside our office and threats made against us. Within three months, nearly all of Kayhan’s news staff, among the best in the country, were fired.
Rahman, the editor-in-chief, died while being tortured in prison. Another editor, Gholamhussein Salehyar, was banned from journalism and died alone at home, in isolation.
And the rest? Most of us who reported, wrote and documented “Shah Raft” and “Imam Amad” became unemployed, exiled and nomadic. When a notorious interrogator was appointed top editor at Kayhan a few years after the Revolution, we journalists became ice-cream sellers and shopkeepers. Many of us left the country.
I wish we had known when we printed “Shah Raft” that an evil force was lurking behind our newsroom door, ready to crush the promise of change. Thirty-four years ago, neither I nor Rahman nor Gholam, nor anyone in the newsroom that evening, could have foreseen what is happening in Iran today. We expected freedom and got a religious dictatorship instead.
I can still see Rahman’s hands drafting the iconic headline. I can still hear Gholam’s voice shouting orders to the newsroom. I live for the day when the editors of Iranian newspapers coordinate on another big, bold headline: “The Dictatorship Is Gone. Freedom Has Come. At Last.”
Mr. Asadi is an Iranian journalist living in France. He is the winner of the 2011 Human Rights Book Award for “Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution, and Imprisonment in Iran.” He spent time imprisoned in Iran both before and after the 1979 revolution.
Years of Torture in Iran Comes to Light
By KRISTEN McTIGHE
Published: November 21, 2012
PARIS — Houshang Asadi was a Communist journalist thrown into the cold confines of Moshtarek prison in Iranwhen he found an unlikely friend in the tall, slender Muslim cleric who greeted him with a smile.
Imprisoned together in 1974, under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, they found common ground in their passion for literature. They shared jokes, spoke of where they came from, their families and falling in love. Mr. Asadi, who did not smoke, would give cigarettes to his cellmate who, uncharacteristic of a cleric, did. On days when Mr. Asadi felt broken, he said, the cleric would invite him to take a walk in their cell to brighten his spirits.
So, when his release came six months later and the cleric stood cold and trembling, Mr. Asadi gave him his jacket. “At first he refused it, but I told him I was going to be released,” Mr. Asadi recalled. “Then we hugged each other and he had tears coming down his face. He whispered in my ear, ‘Houshang, when Islam comes to power, not a single tear will be shed from an innocent person.”’
What Mr. Asadi found unimaginable was that the cleric would become president of the Islamic Republic that later imprisoned him again, sentenced him to death and brutally tortured him for six years in the same prison. Today that same cleric is the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Asadi’s account of torture and imprisonment has offered a rare glimpse into what activists say was a decade of grave human rights violations in Iran. And at a time when international attention has shifted to the nuclear issue and sanctions, they say a campaign to bring justice and accountability through a symbolic tribunal has helped unite a once fractured opposition.
“I never expected he would get power, never,” said Mr. Asadi in an interview in Paris, where he lives in exile.
Mr. Asadi, a 63-year-old writer, journalist and former member of the Tudeh party, was routinely arrested and tortured under the shah. He had supported the revolution, so when he was arrested again in 1982 and accused of being a spy for the Russians and the British, he was convinced that it was a mistake.
In a plea for help, his wife wrote to Mr. Khamenei, who had risen to power as president after the Islamic revolution, but two weeks later the letter was returned with a note in the margin saying only that he had been aware of the journalist’s political beliefs. Mr. Asadi’s death sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison. During his time in prison, he again developed a relationship with the only person he had contact with — as he had done with Mr. Khamenei. This time it was with his torturer, a man he knew only as “Brother Hamid.”
“He is your torturer and he thinks he is your god, he thinks he is religious, he is pure, and you are evil, you are the enemy,” Mr. Asadi said. “So he can do anything to you.”
Mr. Asadi said he was called a “useless wimp” and hung by a chain attached to his arms twisted behind his back while the soles of his feet were whipped until he was unable to walk.
Brother Hamid forced him to bark like a dog to speak or when the pain was too much and he was ready to make confessions. His ears were hit and his teeth were broken. Mr. Asadi said he had even been forced to eat his own excrement and the excrement of fellow prisoners.
Beyond physical pain, he endured psychological torture. He was shown coffins and told his comrades had been killed. He would hear screams and was made to believe his wife was being tortured in the cell next to him.
Allowed sporadic visits of only 15 minutes, his wife said his torment was evident. “I didn’t recognize him,” Nooshabeh Amiri, Mr. Asadi’s wife, said of her first visit, six months after his arrest. “He was fat, he was dirty, he had a long beard. But especially in his eyes, they were not the same. You could see that nothing passed through; it was just fear and being helpless.”
Ms. Amiri, who was initially arrested with Mr. Asadi and released the same day, said her husband’s imprisonment had also changed her. “The person who was inside of me before was a happy person. I loved life. But suddenly, I became older. It is not just the prisoners who are being disturbed. Families suffer, too.”
The torture continued daily for six years, until he was abruptly pulled out of his cell in 1988 when the supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the mass killing of thousands of political prisoners. Prisoners were asked three questions concerning their religious faith and loyalty to the regime. “If you answered no to any question, they killed you,” Mr. Asadi said. “I lied to save my life.”
In 2009, he published his memoir, “Letters to My Torturer,” detailing the relationship that grew between him and Brother Hamid. He hopes to find an American film company to bring his story to a wider audience.
“It’s hard for me to talk about even today,” said Mr. Asadi, who had a heart attack while writing the book, provoked by the stress of recalling his imprisonment. “But this is something that the world needs to know about.
When earlier this summer Ayatollah Ali Khameni proclaimed that the opposition leaders of the Green movement “would be responsible for bloodshed and chaos” if protests against the government persisted, memories from more than three decades earlier flooded my mind. Khamenei and I had been cell mates together in 1974 at the Komiteh Moshtarak, a security prison used under the Shah, whom we had both opposed. This is a story I tell, along with others, in my memoir Letters to My Torturer.
Our friendship began when the prison guard opened the door to a cell and threw me in. I made myself stand up, removed the jacket from my head and put on my glasses. I saw a man, extremely thin, bespectacled, with a long black beard. He was seated on a pile of black blankets. I realized he was a cleric because he was wearing a cloak, which he had made out of his prison uniform. He stood up, smiled a pleasant smile, stretched out his hand, and introduced himself: “Sayyed Ali Khamenei. Welcome!”
For the first time in my life, I found myself in close contact with a cleric. The clerics were a thousand light years from an activist like me. I held out my hand and burst out: “I am a leftist. My name is …”
My cell companion laughed and invited me to sit beside him on the pile of blankets. We divided the blankets between us. Usually, prisoners had no more than two blankets. I have no idea why so many blankets had ended up in our cell, but to Khamenei, each one of the blankets represented an unexpected treasure, though we ended up losing them almost immediately. Khamenei, always cheerful and up for a joke, had given each of the guards a nickname. Dog Fart Number One. Dog Fart Number Two.
He used to perform his ablution in the bathroom, in a very serious, solemn manner. But most of his time, and particularly around sunset, was spent standing by the window. He would recite the Qur’an quietly, he would pray, and then he would weep, sobbing loudly. He would lose himself completely in God. There was something about this type of spirituality that appealed to the heart. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by misery, he would call to me and say: “Houshang, stand up, let’s go for a stroll.”
My love for and familiarity with literature, and poetry in particular, paved the way for lengthy conversations, and I quickly realized that he had a unique mastery of contemporary literature, especially poetry. Sometimes I’d sing the revolutionary songs that I had learned in Ahvaz prison and he would listen to them with pleasure. Occasionally I gave him lessons in journalism. He listened with interest and asked precise questions. One of the things I taught him was: “Do not pay attention to the headlines. Look at the main content, search for those words that are repeated, though in various ways. Read between the lines.”
He listened carefully, learning how to interpret newspaper content. He was very attached to smoking. Each prisoner was allocated one cigarette per day. I was a non-smoker so I gave him my share. He would carefully divide the two cigarettes into six sections and light up each section with great pleasure.
Sometimes we exchanged jokes. He liked inoffensive jokes; they made him burst out laughing. One time, Dog Fart Number Two overheard us laughing. He rushed into the cell and slapped us both. But Khamenei didn’t like even slightly dirty jokes, sexuality being the frontier that divided innocent jokes from dirty ones.
A month passed in this manner inside the tiny cell intended for solitary confinement, where the two of us were kept. Khamenei was called up for interrogation once or twice. I too was called up once more.
Three months, more or less, passed; three months that had more depth than three years. Never again was I to become so attached to someone in such a short time or to become as close to someone else. One day, the door opened and the guard called out my name: “Pick up your blanket and get ready. This meant that I was being allocated to a different cell.
We embraced each other and wept. I felt that my cellmate was shaking. I assumed that it was the winter cold that was making him shiver so I took off my sweater and insisted he should take it. He refused. I don’t know what made me say: “I think I am going to be released.” He took the sweater then. I felt the warm tears that were running down his face and his voice, still ringing in my ears, said: “Under an Islamic government, not a single tear would be shed by the innocent.”
So when I heard that Mr. Khamenei had visited the former detention center where we had been prisoners together, I wanted to ask him, “Do you remember those days?” I would tell him that when the Islamic republic came to power, agents of his regime came and arrested me again, and took me to that same prison. And when I read the reports from last summer, last winter, this spring, and today, about members of the democratic Green Movement being detained and tortured, I want to ask him how all of those many people and their loved ones can be infidels and not innocents, as he and I once were.
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
Inside the Prisons of Iran, A Great Read, July 16, 2010
|By||Susan C. Bentler “Madam Book Nerd” (Alexandrai , VA) – See all my reviews
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.
|By||P. Willson (United States) – See all my reviews
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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.
Asadi, Houshang. Letters to My Torturer: Love, Revolution, and Imprisonment in Khomeini’s Iran.Oneworld, dist. by National Bk. Network. Jun. 2010. c.320p. tr. from Persian by Nushin Arbabzadah. index. ISBN 978-1-85168-750-3. $24.95. INT AFFAIRS
Iranian journalist Houshang Asadi was arrested in 1981 and spent the following six years in prison. While in prison, a man Asadi calls Brother Hamid brutally and extensively tortured him until he would admit to anything. Through frequent exposure to extreme pain and humiliation, Asadi confessed to spying both for the Soviets and for the British. Finally, because of a chance encounter with the Ayatollah Khameni, Asadi regained his freedom. Each chapter here begins with a short section addressed directly to Brother Hamid and is followed by passages recounting the memories and thoughts that the letter brings to mind. The passages are beautifully crafted, lyrical, and sad. When he speaks about his torture in detail, his story is also deeply disturbing. For the lay reader unfamiliar with the details of Iran’s complex political history, however, Asadi’s story is ultimately confusing and inaccessible. Although there are occasional explanatory endnotes, a special foreword addressed to foreign readers would make this book less opaque to a general audience. VERDICT An important firsthand account of Iranian prison conditions during the 1980s that scholars of Iranian history will want to read.—April Younglove, Rochester Regional Lib. Council, NY