Days of Pain and Madness
To the memory of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi and all those innocent who were murdered while in Iranian custody.
Days of Pain and Madness is a collaboration. What you read here is my own interpretation and dramatization of events from notes, e-mails and conversations that I have had with an individual who goes by the alias Sohrab.
There are some wounds and pains in life that you do not reveal and which gnaw in solitude at the soul and diminish it.
Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl
A personal translation
A flickering light would squeeze its way through the shutter on his cell door transforming his face into a reflection of the small steel bars that covered the shutter’s opening making it impossible to sleep. To avoid the light he slept on his side facing the wall, the blood-splattered concrete wall.
Almost every day for the past six months he had returned on tottering legs from another session with his torturers and, as he tried to steady himself before collapsing on the blood-encrusted lumpy piece of foam that was his bed, he would leave prints in blood on the wall from hands that would not heal.
It all began with one hand forced into a pot of boiling of water, then into a pot of soothing ice-cold water. Then his hand was taken out of the cold water and held firmly on the table; then the question. Tell them what they wanted to hear and they promised to return his hand to the pot of cold water.
Sohrab knew that to tell them what he knew, to tell them what they wanted to hear was a walk further down the hall into the courtyard where a firing squad waited, not the promised freedom.
It had begun with one hand then the other and when both hands were just a mash of burnt, blistering flesh where pain had met its match, they had turned to his feet: first the hot, then the cold, then the floor, then the question, then the hot again, then…
The hand-prints on the wall had merged into a kaleidoscope of patterns, a grotesque fresco that seemed to come alive when he turned to face it to avoid the light from the shutter that was making it impossible for him to sleep; to sleep before they came again and more blood would be splattered on the wall and spilled on the foam mattress next to the mural that was a gory testament to his suffering.
One day he did not stumble to his bed but was dragged and dropped on it by two guards and, as his urine-soaked trousers added to the stench of blood, puss and vomit that permeated his mattress, he cursed it.
He cursed the coverless mattress, the previous occupant having used the cover to end his suffering. He cursed the mattress checkered with red and brownish fading blood-stains, his blood and the blood of other unfortunate souls who, like him, would have stumbled back towards the small comfort offered by that smelly blood-stained piece of foam.
He cursed it, then hugged it with all his might for it was not its fault; it was doing its best to provide him with the little comfort it could under the circumstances.
I must be going mad he thought, talking to his mattress. Later that evening he would have further reason to doubt his sanity.
Earlier that morning he had been taken out to the courtyard to be shot. He had been told two days earlier that this morning was to be his last.
He was prepared to die. What he was not prepared for was to live. When the bullets only hit the wall against which he stood and not his eyes, his head or his heart, he started to shake uncontrollably; his long-suffering, trembling legs refusing to carry him any further in any direction — the puddle of yellowish fluid forming at his feet only adding to the indignity of it all.
That night, as the flickering light from the shutter entered the room and he again turned towards the bloody wall, something magical, something madly diabolical happened. The flickering light became a projector, a beam of light which animated the blood-splattered wall.
Suddenly, the bloody spots waved and weaved and jumped about before forming themselves into an infinite number of knots. Then the knots began moving, sliding up and down the cement wall seeking other knots that matched their muted brownish, reddish and grayish colours. Some of the knots formed themselves into a tree, a decaying brownish leafless tree whose roots gradually dissolved into a brownish wet clay from which oozed the decaying and decayed remains of corpses.
From this bleak brown, red and grey landscape figures emerged, shadowy figures slowly walking behind or next to mule-drawn carts and making their way to the base of the tree where they emptied the carts of their cargo; more human waste to be added to an already satiated earth.
Over this ghoulish panorama reminiscent of the black death the first of a handful of bearded shouting men begin to appear: first the founder of the earliest religion based on revealed scriptures, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster enveloped in flames, then Moses, followed by Jesus, followed by Muhammad and finally Khomeini.
Sohrab instinctively put his hands over his ears, religious icons shouting at him only reminded him of the pain he had endured and now his near-death experience.
Next to the prison was a mosque. Every day Sohrab had to listen to the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Every day he had to hear Allah Akbar, God is Greater*. Greater than what he thought when his torturers, on occasion, if it was convenient, would interrupt whatever they were doing to him to prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca and echo the muezzin’s words.
Every day, at least three times a day, he had listened to the believers’ declaration of faith reverberate through and within the walls of the prison.
There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, Alí is the Friend of Allah, the Successor of the Messenger of Allah and his first Caliph.**
The flattering invocation “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” that began every prayer had lost all meaning.
When he was still capable of rational thought, when his mind was not completely focused on the pain coursing through his body and the pain to come, he had wondered what went on in the minds of his tormentors when they mouthed those words while performing their obscene, painful duties.
Every morning when the guards had come to mark his stay in prison by making a notch in his scalp with a straight razor, he heard the call to prayer. The day they asked him to place his right hand, palm down, on the table then with a hammer broke his knuckles he heard the call to prayer. He heard the call to prayer the day they put his hands in boiling water; the day they put his feet; the day…
He did not need to put his hands over his ears for no sound was emanating from the lips that moved on the wall of blood, now the wall of death.
Khomeini was the last shouting bearded man. His translucent apparition slowly formed itself into an owl whose feathers took on the grayish and white colour of the old, compassionless man’s lengthy, disheveled beard. The owl became the bird in the tree.
The owl surveyed with satisfaction the grim scene beneath its wings before taking flight***. As it disappeared in the distance its eyes hovered on the horizon gazing, casting an approving final glance at the desolation.
Suddenly, Sohrab’s flickering white light became a flood of yellow light that illuminated the entire room. It was not the warm life giving rays of the morning sun, but the light from hundreds of carbon filaments pulsing with electricity that rushed through the shutter in his cell door announcing the beginning of a new day.
He was still staring at the wall, now just a dirty bloody wall, when he heard the key in the lock and a door opening. What would it be today? Another trip down the hall to meet with his interrogators or to the courtyard to be shot, or shot at?
It was to be none of those. He was actually quite relieved to hear the usual vulgar insults, which he associated with foul-mouthed American actors on televisions and in films from the time of the Shah, uttered by one of the prison cooks.
“Here is your breakfast you undeserving mother-fucker.”
The guard, who had opened the cell door and stood watch while the man with the food tray laid it down on the cement floor a few feet from the mattress chimed in: “Hope you like the shit and piss.”
It was not unusual for guards to brag about adding their own excrements to the meager rations given to prisoners.
He did not care to look at them. He waited until they were gone then turned around. The tray with the beans, the slimy mix of fried scrambled eggs and potatoes and a bowl of watery barley soup was where he expected it.
He rolled off his mattress and, kneeling in front of the tray, dug in with both hands. Plastic utensils had been banned after a prisoner had swallowed his, hoping the internal bleeding they would cause would end his suffering.
He stuffed his mouth before, with his blood-caked, bruised and now greasy hand, carefully bringing to his lips the bowl of brownish yellow liquid with barely visible bits of barley. He was happy. On the days they served you breakfast they usually didn’t torture you, and for Sohrab a day without torture was a good day.
* One interpretation of Allahu Akbar is "God is Greater," the faithful adding the greater than what if they wish to do so.
** The Shia declaration of faith recognizes Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, as the rightful successor to the Prophet which the Sunni declaration of faith “I declare there is no god except God, and I declare that Muhammad is the Messenger of God” does not.
*** Prior to the rise of Islam, owls were considered evil omens and bad luck in most Middle Eastern pagan traditions.