Behrooz Ghamari, Remembering Akbar: Inside the Iranian Revolution. New York: OR Books, 2016.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Behrooz Ghamari: (BG): Originally, I did not conceive this as a book. Every New Year’s Eve I began writing little vignettes and character portraits about my years as a political prisoner in Iran. I was released from prison on New Year’s Eve of 1985, so that was the significance of the day for me. For one day every year I removed myself from the routines of everyday life and spent the whole day writing. Writing these stories for me was a mode of meditation and remembrance honoring a life that seemed so distant and disconnected to the entanglements and concerns of my current existence. I did this for more than twenty-five years. Each year I would send whatever I wrote during that one day first to my own family and close friends and then, as I settled more in the United States after I migrated here in 1985, to an increasingly larger circle of friends. Gradually, my New Year’s Eve ritual became something that some people began to look forward to. If I was late sending that year’s story for a couple of days, I received emails asking about that year’s story.
I didn’t want to publish the stories because I feared that they might be appropriated politically in ways that I did not necessarily agree with. I didn’t want my writing, in any shape or form, to serve as a justification for the demonization of Iran. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, successive governments in the US have pursued a policy of regime change in Iran. In principle, I do not support this kind of colonial intervention. I firmly believe that these kinds of policies, whatever their intentions, inevitably lead to disastrous consequences. By the second term of Obama administration, I thought that the danger of an open policy of regime change in Iran had passed and when a number of my friends told me that I should consider publishing these stories in a collection, I was amenable to the idea.
Of course, in order to publish these meditations, I needed to put them together in such a way that made sense to a reader who did not know me and was not familiar with the historical and political context of the story. I spent a year or so trying to figure out how to create a coherent, publishable manuscript. I tried a number of possibilities and different experiments in genre till I reached the format in which the book exists now.
Rather than a memoir, I think of Remembering Akbar as an autobiographical novel, very similar in terms of genre to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. The main narrator of the story, Akbar, takes the reader through different moments of imprisonment and introduces different characters with intimate details. Although the circumstances are all real in the story, some times the characters are based on composite real people. Writing in the form of a novel also gave me the ability to move with more ease between different planes of reality and imagination. By moving freely between what is real and what is imagined, I thought I could get closer to the experiences of prisoners who do actually live in that kind of space.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
BG: After a few years of writing every New Year’s Eve, I realized that a theme had emerged that linked these stories together. Rather subconsciously, I stayed away from retelling the stories through a narrative of tragedy. It seemed peculiar at first to think and write about years of imprisonment, three of which were spent on death row, during one of the darkest moments of Iranian history and not accentuate the pain, the suffering, the extreme violence, and death. Not that I don’t write about all that, but those topics while always present were not at the foreground of my recollections and stories. They were always present without being addressed. Death always appears in every scene abruptly and ephemerally, as something that I don’t dwell in.
I always felt that there was a disconnect between my own experience of imprisonment and the way much prison literature conveys life in prison. Even the insiders’ accounts often replicate the view from the outside that prison life is defined by tragedy. Often, prisoners are depicted as victims of violence without the agency of political actors. I wanted to stay away from that kind of narrative and instead stress the significance of life, rather than death, humor, rather than horror, and inner sources of strength and creativity, rather than suffocating external conditions of inertness.
I am also reluctant to see the world, no matter under what kind of circumstances, in Manichean terms. One might think that in a situation like a death row political prison, the line between good and evil is easily drawn, the boundary between the perpetrators and victims of violence is stable, and moral imperatives are self-evident. I wanted to create a world that could depict the imposing absurdities that shaped prisoners’ lives and produced many layers of ambiguity in a world ruled, at least the way it appears from the outside, by certainties.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
BG: I am a scholar of the Iranian revolution. My entire body of work in one way or another deals with the conceptual, political, and historical significance of that revolution. Although I do consider Remembering Akbar as an extension of that work, the experience of writing this was totally a different kind of labor. I think in literary writing, as in art and music, we can see the reflection of our own world in imagined realities. Of course, Akbar inhabits a real world, but I tell the story of that world without reproducing exactly the same geographies and temporalities that conditions it.
I also consider Remembering Akbar to be a book of history from below. The book’s subtitle, Inside the Iranian Revolution, has a very literal meaning here. In our scholarly works, revolutions are often depicted with a fervent romantic appeal. I think there is a certain truth to that kind of depiction. After all revolutions are rare instances in history, moments that societies go through fundamental rearrangement of their political and social orders. During revolutionary movements, people act and behave in ways that are unexpected even to themselves, transformative acts that generate new kind of relations with one’s self and others. I address that in my other book Foucault in Iran. But here, I wanted to move away from that romantic depiction and focus more on the price that one pays for committing revolutionary acts. I wanted to situate the appeal of speaking truth to power next to its actual consequences. This does not mean that Akbar is a position of regret or that he turns away from speaking truth to power, only that he is awash in the consequences.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
BG: My hope is that the book is read both for its literary merits as well as its substantive significance. I hope that the book could rescue the agony and hardship of torture and imprisonment from the narrative of victimhood and restore a form of dignity in that struggle. I am aware of how effectively these narratives generate sympathies for the alleged victims. But by doing so, the same narratives turn the protagonists into objectified subjects, rather than actors in a political struggle. I have written the book in a language that I hope would have a more universal appeal. There is enough love of Persian poetry or Mahler and Sibelius music there that a wide range of readership would find, I hope, something to relate to Akbar’s faithful struggle to remain sane and whole during his imprisonment.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
BG: I think I would like to continue writing literary works. I have some ideas about a historical novel, but can’t be more specific than that about it for now. I am also working on a project about bringing the work of Ali Shari‘ati, the Islamist political theorist, into conversation with postcolonial theory and introduce the significance of his work to a wider audience.
Excerpt from the Prelude:
I died at 7:30 in the morning, on December 31, 1984. I do not say this as a metaphor, but in a real existential sense. At that exact moment, I set foot into another world with a reluctant signature at the bottom of a page, a release form. The blurry lines from under my blindfold apparently granted me a medical parole with the proviso, as the guard clarified it, that my body had to be returned to prison for an official identification. It took me a few years to realize that I had actually died in that early morning. That had nothing to do either with survivors’ guilt, or with the weight of life’s banalities. I left behind the self I knew without any worldly means of retrieving it.
Death happens piecemeal. It devours one small part of life at a time. By signing that release form, I simply acknowledged that I had spent too many pieces of my life––a threshold was crossed. After three years on death-row, with a body enfeebled by cancer, I was to leave Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. The euphoric leaders of the revolution had stood at its gates only a few years earlier, pledging to turn it into a museum bearing witness to atrocities of the past. “In Iran,” they declared on that frigid evening in February 1979, “there will be no more political prisoners.”
That was not meant to be.
The boisterous voices that called in unison for the end monarchy now only sang in dissonance. Communists, socialists, liberals, nationalists, women, workers, university students, ethnic and religious minorities, young revolutionary clerics, and grand cautious ayatollahs claimed with injudicious certainty the true meaning of the revolution. The thirst for power turned friends into foes, revolutionaries into security officers, prisoners into interrogators, community leaders into spies, urban guerilla fighters into assassins, teachers into morality police, students into snitches, friendly chats into insoluble quarrels, and family gatherings into political disputes. In less than two years, we saw with sober eyes that prison walls grew taller and behind them atrocity thrived virulently.
“I am not accepting any conditions for my release,” I said, thrusting the words painfully out of my closed throat.
“Bastard!” A guard smacked me in the head. “You’re done.”
They resumed the banter they’d began the previous evening.
Twelve hours earlier, two guards had come to the infirmary room that I shared with another prisoner, Mohammad, and asked me to pack my belongings. “Pack your belongings” had become the most dreaded expression of my death-row years, and usually had only one meaning.
“You’re going to be freed,” one of the guards announced without trying to hide the self-congratulatory smirk on his face. He turned around and repeated the word “freed,” seeking recognition from the other guard of his ingenious exploitation of the double meaning it evoked.
“You came in vertically, and you’ll leave here horizontally.”
He wanted to make sure that Mohammad and I appreciated his pun.
“But you’ll be crawling,” he added, laughing. “Like the animal that you are.”
I put the few items I owned in a tiny brown bag without engaging the guards. I put my blindfold on without being asked. I knew the routine and only wished to be spared hearing the grating voice of the guard. They took me to the main hallway of prosecutors’ offices and asked me to sit there until someone called me.
I had another, much better incentive for putting my blindfold on without being asked. I wanted to make sure that I used the one I had owned for a couple of years. The one from the middle of which I had carefully pulled out a few threads to make the outside world visible, no matter how shadowy it seemed.
I scouted the crowded hallway, knowing that I was not the only one with the secret see-through blindfold. Majid spotted me first. He inched his way over slowly and finally reached my corner.
“You’re still alive,” he said.
I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or a statement of fact.
“Everyone thinks you’re dead.”
Majid had been 16 at the time of his arrest in 1981. I had witnessed how the soft line above his upper lip turned dark and coarse into a real moustache during the period we spent together in a death-row cell.
“Tonight is the night, Majid,” I told him. Although I did not want to sound pathetic, my wobbly voice suggested otherwise. “They’re setting me free.” I repeated the guard’s words almost involuntarily.
I had been retried for the fourth time a few days earlier. The judge had told me that all options were exhausted and my sentence was going to be carried out soon. “Unless,” he blurted out like an afterthought, “you agree to recant in public.”
Weary of these ultimatums, I’d told the judge that I was already dead and his threats were meaningless.
The judge asked me to take my blindfold off.
“Hajj Agha!?” the courtroom guard protested. For fear of reprisal, the judges and interrogators never allowed prisoners to see their faces.
“That’s all right,” the judge assured the guard. “The protocol is irrelevant here.”
The judge had asked me again to remove my blindfold. He too must have thought that I was already dead and thus seeing his face would do no harm.
“When you stand before your Maker on the Day of Judgment, He will ask you the same thing,” the judge warned me. “Why did you not recant? You were given so many chances.”
His face looked tense despite the calm and concerned tone of his voice. He did not look like any of the faces I had imagined him to have. A brownish copious beard, light skin, and dark blue eyes gave away his northern origins. How unusual for an obdurate judge to come from the shores of the Caspian Sea. I thought I should sometime tell mother, who always blamed my father’s obstinate character on his Azeri roots.
“Tonight is the night, Majid.”
I pulled out a few pieces of handicrafts I had made, two prayer beads, though I had no faith in prayer, made with date pits, and a miniature picture frame put together with rolled up paper.
“This is all I have.”
He refused to accept them.
“You’re going to be fine,” he told me, which was the kind thing to say.
“Take it.” I insisted, and he did.
In exchange, he gave me his precious volume of Hafez’s Divan. “Remember our poetry nights?” Majid whispered as he put the book on my bag. “Drink,” he said, reminding me of how we used to find reading Hafez intoxicating.
I closed my eyes and made a wish. Opening the book somewhere in the middle, I silently asked Hafez to tell me without ambiguity what would happen to me. That was asking for too much. The poet never spoke unambiguously. I opened the book repeatedly with no resolution. I read page after page of the most beautiful words, strung together for the sole purpose of evoking infinite possibilities. I do not know why at the center of such certitude, knowing my fate, I needed Hafez to speak to me with clarity. He refused.
When they called my name, I kissed the book and put it next to Majid’s bag. Even the screeching voice of the guard who called me did not wake him up. I did not realize that almost twelve hours had passed since I’d started reading the poetry.
That was how I died, by stepping out of an inconceivable world and entering another universe of perplexing banalities. I left my former self behind in a place that exists only in incommensurable terms.
For many years, I tried to open a conduit to the world I left behind––to the moment of death, to the humor that preceded it, to the horror that defined it. I tried to describe the unfathomable.
Every New Year’s Eve, I still try to relive the last day of my previous life. I vacate the present at 7:30 in the morning on December 31st and do not return until a new year has begun. Every December 31st gives birth to a story. I write for twelve hours, exactly the same number of hours I spent with the poet Hafez during the last day of my previous life. Sometimes I write five pages, sometimes twenty, and other times only a few lines. I never know what will come when I sit to write. I only know that I should let my body feel the coldness of the hard floor on which I sat for those last twelve hours.
[Excerpted from Remembering Akbar: Inside the Iranian Revolution, by permission of the author, (c) 2016.]