Imagine finding yourself in a cell, roughly 2sq m, with only a piece of rough carpet to sleep on. There may or may not be a toilet that may or may not be blocked and overflowing. Imagine there is no light, dim light or bright light, over which you have no control. You can’t tell day from night. You are there indefinitely. You may be there for months or even years. The fourteen prisoners of conscience interviewed by Narges Mohammadi in White Torture tell us what this feels like: you are “a human being in a can”. Time, they say, does not pass. What you hear from your cell, besides the footsteps of your guards and interrogators, is likely to be the distress of other prisoners who are being tortured or due to be taken for execution.
If there is no toilet in your cell, you must ask permission to be taken to use one somewhere else, which may or may not be given. If allowed, you will walk there blindfold. You may or may not be watched, on the toilet or in the unsanitary shower, by people you cannot see. You will see no one but (sometimes) your interrogators, who may sit behind you in a small space, or be hidden behind one-way glass. These men will insult you and lie to you and berate you for hours at a time. Their questions may be prurient, personal, irrelevant, or confusing. They will accuse you of things that make no sense and have no foundation in fact. Your detention may be illegal. If you complain or name your interrogators after your release you may be arrested again. They will threaten your friends and family. They will lie to you about your children. They will tell you that you are to be executed.
Having told you this, they may bring you to a room with a rope, where you will faint from fear. They may or may not beat you with cable. They may or may not flay your feet so that your shoes no longer fit. Despite all this, the loneliness and sensory deprivation of solitary confinement, where “time does not pass” is so extreme that you might prefer hours of interrogation over being locked in your cell. You may develop a weird dependence on your interrogator. You will develop medical conditions such as palpitations, kidney and skin diseases, malnutrition, panic attacks, partial blindness, memory loss, splitting. All of this is described on these pages.
What helps people survive such conditions? Writings found on cell walls. Religion, for some. Reading, if allowed
“White Torture” refers to a form of psychological torture using isolation and sensory deprivation through solitary confinement, widely practised in Iranian prisons. Its aim is to break a person’s will and sense of self. It has long-term debilitating effects. Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian Human Rights activist whose crime is that she campaigns against the death penalty, has experienced it herself. Her preface, written while waiting to be returned to prison in March 2022, tells us that she has been arrested 12 times and has now been sentenced to solitary confinement for the fourth time because of this book (and, probably, for her documentary film of the same title, which includes the testimonies of men).
What helps people survive such conditions? Writings found on cell walls. Religion, for some. Reading, if allowed. Solidarity with other prisoners and the knowledge that they are innocent of the charges against them. One interviewee, Marzieh Amiki, makes the startling but convincing suggestion that women are pre-disposed to survive this insane regimen because of their experience, from birth, of living under a repressive, authoritarian patriarchal system that seeks, by its nature, to control and destroy them.
The testimonies of these brave women are made more effective for being delivered in Amir Rezanezhad’s calm, understated translation. They reveal an awe-inspiring capacity for resilience and resistance. A foreword by Shirin Ebadi and introductory notes by Nayereh Tohidi and Shannon Woodcock set their stories in context. Their courage is beyond imagination. Some are still in captivity. Some are free, but in a State which may, at any time, choose to punish them for speaking out.
- Narges Mohammadi, the journalist and human rights activist who elicited and compiled the testimonies in this book, is currently in prison. While on release in 2020, she made a documentary film, White Torture, which will be screened on November 13th at 1.15pm in the Printworks as part of the Dublin Book Festival.