Five months later After eight months of solitary confinement and just before the Persian New Year, Nowruz, the guards put me in a new cell at the other end of the maximum security facility of Evin Prison in Tehran. At 10 feet by 10 feet, it was much larger than my old cell, allowing me to walk around the corners in a figure eight. With nothing else to do, constant walks were my only routine, which quickly became an addiction.
I walked and walked Recalling, imagining, anticipating and planning all possible scenarios and often conversing aloud to myself in all the languages I knew. During these figure eight walks, I looked at the windows or the walls half covered in marble. Sunlight poured into the room, leaving golden trails on the floor and then climbing the walls. It danced, warmed up, then disappeared, promising to come back tomorrow. The marble screen showed images: the arched, naked back of a seated woman surrounded by facial profiles and clouds.
With no sight, I took refuge in sound. The new cell received less light due to the tall, beautiful plane and mulberry trees just outside. But it was right next to the main entrance, so by Evin standards it was more eventful and entertaining – if only by listening. I could hear the bored guards down the hall gossiping about their shift supervisors, responding to other inmates’ requests, or watching football or drama on state television. (I never heard the news, as they were strongly discouraged from watching the news.) Once, a few seconds of an instrumental version of Radiohead’s “A Punch Up at a Wedding” in a silly TV commercial brought me to tears. I wasn’t sure what I craved more: hugs or books. I suspect that it is very rare that both are withheld at the same time.
My only consolation was our equality in this misery, or at least the perception of it. The guards and interrogators always said that no one was given books or newspapers in our station. I had believed them because I had neither seen nor heard them.
However, one afternoon I heard something that shattered that tiny comfort. Four pairs of slippers had appeared in front of a cell two from me, indicating four inmates who had most likely just emerged from solitary confinement to be held together in a large cell. A few hours later I heard the rustle of newspaper through the ventilation ducts that connected the cells. It really broke my heart. This common shaft and what I could hear through it deeply unsettled me for the next three months. Of all the injustices of a maximum security prison station, from the blindfolded walk breaks in the yard to the horrible gray polyester uniform and cheap blue nylon underwear, this one felt the worst.
But what if there were no common ventilation shafts between cells that I would use to hear the other cell? What if the station was so big that we never felt the presence of others? What if they could make us deaf just as they made us blind? What if they could enclose our senses while imprisoning our bodies? Broader questions emerge: If we don’t know anything about our colleagues’ salaries, or where they live and by what standards, can we even know if we’re being treated fairly? Can injustice be felt when there is no common space where we can see and learn about the lives of others?