t is forbidden to take photos inside or around Evin, Iran’s most notorious prison. Those who break these rules can pay the ultimate price. In the summer of 2003 an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer, Zahra Kazemi, died inside Evin after taking pictures of the families of missing students, demonstrating outside the prison gates. The Iranian authorities claimed that Kazemi’s death was accidental, but a medical examiner concluded that she had been tortured and killed.
Evin Prison, which was founded in 1972 under the Shah’s monarchy but really came to the fore of statecraft after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has been a home to all manner of political prisoners through the decades, from academics to philosophers to missionaries to activists. The nature of the people it has held, the size of the place, and the treatment of many who have been detained within its walls, is such that its reputation precedes it.
In Iran, it is prohibited to take pictures in areas deemed to be “sensitive”. But when it comes to Evin, where we don’t have photographs, we do have art: the experiences of prisoners recreated with evocative beauty.
Nasrin Parvaz was part of a wave of idealistic youth who fought for change after the Islamic Revolution, when the Western-backed Shah and a 2,500-year monarchy was overthrown and an Islamic Republic installed. Three years later, aged 23, Parvaz was arrested for her dissent, detained in Evin and sentenced to death. Over the next eight years, she was tortured, starved and made to live in abject conditions.
Parvaz now lives in exile in London. But, for her and other former prisoners, memories of Evin don’t leave. “It isn’t only when you’re in prison,” she says, “it’s also about what you’re bringing with you when you’re out of prison.” Her artistic exploration of her time in Evin began with the idea that there were no pictures or vivid paintings depicting her experience of being a political prisoner.
Her paintings memorialise a place where she suffered greatly but where she also found beauty, friendship and solidarity. What follows is a collection of her work, memorialising the sights and sounds of her imprisonment.
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...And later in the notebooks, Xavar depicts the unbearable moment when Mahvash, who was like a mother to her in prison, was called by the guards for execution: “She kissed me and wished that I would ‘stay alive’ as she went. ‘Stay alive’ are the last words uttered by those who go to be executed to us who are still living. They are the same words, spoken in different accents and with varying degrees of fear, hesitation, anxiety, confusion, or even happiness that I have heard so many times here.” - Nasrin Parvaz
In 1979, Nasrin Parvaz returned from England, where she had been studying, and became a member of a socialist party in Iran fighting for a non-Islamic state in which women had the same rights as men. Three years later, at the age of 23, she was betrayed by a comrade and arrested by the regime’s secret police.
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“For those of you who weren’t able to see it, it was an exhibition of paintings by foreign national prisoners and ex-prisoners, taken from a variety of sources. The exhibition was on display from the 1st to the 7th of May, and was opened by our MP, Rosie Duffield.”
“Nasrin gives a frank account of her time in Iran’s prison system which has opened my eyes to the extremes that can be endured and overcome. It is a testament to her resilience and that of others who remained resolute and refused to recant their beliefs. Nasrin survived and I celebrate her ability to share these experiences from which we can all learn. I recommend this memoir to you.”
In Tehran there is a historic circular building once known as the Joint Committee Interrogation Centre. Its designers were German, so the balcony railings were decorated with Nazi symbols. Reza Shah ordered it in 1932 and it was ready in 1937. Political prisoners were tortured there.
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