My Life as a Traitor
by Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. 243 pp. $23
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
This searing, moving account of torture and imprisonment could come from any totalitarian country where secret police meticulously record the activities of even the most innocent dissidents, apolitical people who simply want a little free space in their lives. Ghahramani's account of her interrogation in Tehran's Evin Prison is deeply personal and not particularly political in a grand philosophical sense. She comes across as someone who wants to be able to live her life to the fullest, not as a determined democrat burning to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Islamist thugs who control Iran. Indeed, in her approach to life she seems very much like an average American university student.
The contrast between Ghahramani and her prison interrogators could not be more extreme. She is thoroughly Westernized, fully committed to such Enlightenment values as individual self-worth and the inalienability of human freedom. Her interrogators are traditional Middle Easterners, valuing faith above reason, blind devotion above thought, conspiracy theories above facts, personal ties above the law, and groveling before authority figures above asserting their individuality. My Life as a Traitor lays bare the deep cultural divide running through Iranian society.
The book also fleshes out why "totalitarian" is such an apt adjective for Iran's Islamic Republic. Ghahramani shows how the regime is determined to control even the smallest aspects of each person's life. She is shown pictures of her entering and leaving a male student's apartment—a grave offense against the state even though they were simply friends studying together. Comments she made in class that were implicitly critical of the regime were carefully recorded. And of course, partying is an unpardonable crime: Western music would be sin enough, let alone that the women may have been unveiled; people may have danced (even worse, possibly even as couples), and alcohol may have been served.
In such a society, the very concept of liberty is subversive. Ghahramani's account makes clear the striking similarities between Iran's Islamic Republic and fascist Germany or the communist Soviet Union. The obvious differences in the ruling ideology in these three cases is in many ways less what makes them different from the West than the totalitarian control that the three share.
Related Topics: Iran | Patrick Clawson | Summer 2008 MEQ
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