The Golden Cage: Three Brothers, Three Choices, One Destiny, by Shirin Ebadi, trans Nathaniel Rich Kales

The Times, Saturday 16 July 2011

Tehran’s notorious Evin prison stands to the northwest of the city, in the foothills of the Alborz mountains. It was opened under the Shah of Iran, whose intelligence service, Savak, tortured opponents within its walls, and it expanded rapidly after the Islamic revolution. The prison is approached by a long incline known as the “ramp of repentance”, so named because Revolutionary Guards taunt political detainees that the walk itself is enough to make them repent.

In her riveting memoir of a middle-class Tehran family, the exiled Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi recalls how her best friend Pari became painfully familiar with the ramp when one of her brothers was held in Evin prison. Javad was a member of the Tudeh, the Iranian communist party, and he was jailed for taking part in a student demonstration during the Shah’s rule. Pari and her mother, Simin, had to steel themselves to visit him, returning each time “destroyed” by the misery they’d witnessed; Javad was released after a year bearing visible signs of torture, including a broken nose and a long scar on his right cheek. Ebadi recalls that he also had difficulty in walking, writing that “in prison they had whipped the soles of his feet as a form of torture: as soon as the wounds showed signs of healing, they’d reopen them with more violent lashes”.

In 1988, Pari was forced to return to the “ramp of repentance” after Javad was arrested a second time, on this occasion by Revolutionary Guards. Ebadi accompanied her to the prison but was not permitted to enter, leaving Pari to brave its horrors on her own. She was shocked by how much her brother had aged, gazing in dismay at his grey hair, wrinkled neck and eyes “veiled by exhaustion and suffering”. Javad’s request that she bring him “something warm” on her next visit led to a two-hour interrogation by the guards, who suspected that the phrase was a form of code. Two months later, before Pari was able to visit him again, Javad was removed from solitary confinement and put in front of a firing squad with five other political prisoners. He was 38.

Javad was the middle of three brothers whose political affiliations were to test family loyalties to destruction. Raised in an idyllic home in Tehran with an orchard and a view of the Alborz mountains, the brothers embraced opposing political creeds, becoming totally estranged in adulthood. From Ebadi’s standpoint as a democrat and human rights activist — in 2003 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — each brother isolated himself in a “golden cage” of ideology, which made him forget his humanity. She suggests that their hostility to each other is emblematic of the conflicts tearing apart many Iranian families in this turbulent period.

The chronology of these events is not always easy to follow; Ebadi is sparing with dates and has a tendency to offer novelistic accounts of scenes from the family’s history that she did not personally witness. But the story she tells is remarkable: the eldest brother, Abbas, is a fervent monarchist who follows a military career and rises to the rank of general in the Shah’s Army. He could not be more unlike Javad, whose prison record and membership of the Tudeh render him unemployable under both regimes; meanwhile neither one has any sympathy with their baby brother Ali, who grows up to be a devoted follower of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Ali spends his afternoons at the mosque, praying and learning to memorise the suras, causing raised eyebrows among other members of the family who are not particularly devout. His mother hopes that his piety will protect him from the “political manias” of his older brothers, but the clerical dictatorship that follows the Shah’s fall is enmeshed in politics. Ali grows into “a stubborn man who couldn’t make sense of any ideas that weren’t in line with the Revolution, Islam, and the orders of his superiors”, ending up on the front line in Iran’s terrible war with Iraq. Defending his hero Khomeini from Saddam Hussein has tragic consequences for Ali and his young family.

The book covers a 60-year period from the Shah’s power struggle with his popular and reforming Prime Minister, Mossadegh, to the present day. Abbas reveals himself as a zealot early on, joining the mob that stormed Mossadegh’s palace in 1953 and emerging with the ousted prime minister’s pen as a souvenir. “We arrested Mossadegh!” the schoolboy boasts to his horrified parents. In one of the book’s autobiographical asides, Ebadi recalls that her father, a law professor, lost his job because of his passionate support for Mossadegh and tried to ban political conversation at home to protect his family. But his influence — his commitment to democratic politics and women’s rights — shines through every page of his daughter’s book.

What begins as a portrait of a single family widens out into an extraordinary evocation of daily life under two unpleasant political systems. Inside Iran, mass executions mark the early years of the Ayatollah’s regime, while political assassinations are carried out by its agents in European cities. Scarves and chadors become hated inconveniences as Pari and Ebadi deal with implacable officials who will not look them in the eye. Pari becomes isolated at the university where she works, tainted by her association with Javad and accused of subverting her students even when she is no longer allowed to teach; Ebadi is dismissed as one of Iran’s first female judges. Pari’s mother becomes an ever more tragic figure, spending her widowhood in a cramped flat where she struggles to come to terms with the fate of her three sons: one executed, two in exile.

Years after being forced out of her job as a judge, Ebadi managed to get a licence to practise as a lawyer, working on behalf of women and children and defending high-profile dissidents. Harassed by the authorities, in 2009 she decided it was too dangerous to go on working in Tehran and joined Pari in exile in London. While still in Iran, Ebadi had represented Pari in an attempt to get permission from the state to build a monument to the regime’s murdered opponents at the site of a mass grave. Permission was denied but this moving book is a monument in itself, commemorating friendship and the human spirit.

Kales, 256pp, £19.99.

Comments are closed.