Activist Nasrin Parvaz’s haunting artworks reveal glimpses of life inside Iran’s most notorious prison
This article includes descriptions of torture and execution
It 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.
Evin is split into solitary and communal wards, and men and women are held separately. In communal wards, overcrowded conditions mean that cells can often be packed tight with prisoners.
Although Evin was built for around 300 inmates, by 1983 it contained 15,000 people, which in today’s terms would match New York City’s Rikers Island, believed to be the world’s biggest penal colony. “There were about 500 people in six rooms,” Parvaz recalls, “with only six toilets and one washroom.”
The number of people held in the 106-acre complex fluctuates wildly, and swells after times of mass arrest, for instance during the 2009 and 2019 protests in Iran. But there are thought to be several thousand people currently detained in Evin, including more than 100 political prisoners. In March of this year about 45 per cent of the 189,500 detainees in Iranian prisons were temporarily released to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In solitary sections, like the infamous Section 209, run by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, everyone is blindfolded outside their cell.
“All the prisoners are blindfolded as soon as they get inside,” explains the renowned philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, held there in 2006. “So nobody knows who else is there and you have no contact with other prisoners. It’s a very special place.”
There is little to occupy prisoners, except their own thoughts. “The most difficult bit was solitary confinement,” adds Jahanbegloo. “Solitary confinement by itself is psychological torture. Because you cannot speak to anyone, and the only people you see are the people who interrogate you. The rest of the time you’re between walls and you don’t see anyone. So that’s a huge psychological torture. I think also the fact that you always feel somehow threatened by what’s going on in the prison.”
For prisoners kept for long stretches in solitary confinement, the isolation can be overwhelming. “There was only a light on forever,” explains Marziyeh Amirizadeh, also held in Section 209 with Maryam Rostampour after they set up secret house churches and distributed thousands of Bibles in Tehran. “You couldn’t breathe. Once it happened to me that I felt a kind of phobia. Because I felt that all the walls were putting pressure on my head. I was so scared at that time, and I started praying, and I asked God to help me, because I wanted to break the door off the cell and go outside. Because I couldn’t breathe.”
Many prisoners become desperate at the Kafkaesque nature of their treatment, explains the British-Iranian Ana Diamond who was arrested in 2016 on spying charges – which she denies.
Ana was held in Section 2-A, which is run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a hugely powerful branch of the armed forces. “What you have is these walls to bear witness to your sorrow and your despair, and then you have guards who are telling you: ‘Oh, do you want to confess?’ And I’m like: ‘No, but how do you get out of there?’ And you know that if you confess there is no way out, that will just further probably put you into even worse situation. Because then they can say: ‘Well she confessed.’ So when people tell you psychological torture is not real torture that’s so wrong.”
Despite wearing blindfolds around their prison blocks, many of the interviewees can still recall their surroundings with precise detail: their ears became their most important sense. “It’s like I need to shut my eyes because that’s how it was,” explained Diamond as she drew a map of Evin to illustrate the space. “This is like an exercise of memory.”
The quality of the food varies hugely. Esha Momeni, Maryam Rostampour and Amirizadeh were in Evin at similar times in 2009, but had very different experiences.
Momeni, arrested while working on her Master’s thesis about the women’s rights movement in Iran, recalled that “the food was really good. Lunch was just like restaurant type; you would get a plate of rice in a bowl with fried fish or kebab. The food was actually a joke to us, like being in a hotel.”
But neither Rostampour (“most of the cans and food they would sell to the prisoners were out of date”) nor Amirizadeh (“our cellmates found teeth in some of the food and sometimes they would find hair”) felt the same.
Back in the early 1980s – when Evin held 15,000 people – food portions were meagre. “For lunch it was either watery soup or there was a little bit of rice with very small pieces of chicken in it,” recalls Marina Nemat, imprisoned in 1982 after speaking out against the ruling Islamic Republic. “And then for dinner there was again a small piece of flatbread with two or three dates for each person. So in Evin, back then, we were always hungry.”
Prisoners tend to be given a little fresh air during the day, with different courtyards for different wards. “From my courtyard you could see a bit of the Alborz mountains,” Parvaz remembers. “We were surrounded by mountains. The time I was there it was far away from any houses. But the town has grown and now the houses are nearer.”
The back walls of Evin undulate along the foothills, which soon turn into mountains, while the front walls separate the prison from northern Tehran. There are guard towers throughout the complex. Escape isn’t a possibility. “I never heard [of anyone trying to escape],” says Nemat. “If you escaped they would go and kill your family.”
In Iranian prisons in the 1980s one of the most common forms of torture was Bastinado, where the soles of the feet are whipped. The cluster of nerve endings in the feet makes it particularly painful, and it can lead to kidney failure. Nemat, just 16 years old at the time, experienced this torture on her first night in Evin. “A man named Hamed… he handcuffed me, tied my feet to the bed, took off my socks and my shoes, and then lashed the soles of my feet with a length of cable about an inch thick… I could not comprehend… it was just a different kind of pain.” In 2018 the US Department of State alleged that widespread torture still occurs in Iranian prisons.
In the 1980s, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Iranian prisoners were executed. A massacre of prisoners in 1988 was described by the former UN judge Geoffrey Robertson QC as the worst crime against humanity since World War II.
Although Iran doesn’t execute people to anywhere near the same scale as it did in the 1980s, it still executes more people than any other country except China, including political prisoners. Rostampour and Amirizadeh were friends in Evin with Shirin Alam Hooli, a Kurdish prisoner alleged to have been part of the Kurdistan Free Life Party. She was executed by hanging in May 2010. They remember a caring young woman. “She was executed with three or four other Kurdish men. All of their families came to prison just to get their bodies. We were also there and they didn’t even give their bodies to the family members. They didn’t know where they buried their bodies. She was 28. She was the kindest person we met in prison.”
The arrest of pregnant women in the 1980s means that there is a generation of adults – many now part of Iran’s diaspora – who were born in Evin. For some, repressed memories of the prison only emerged decades later. The filmmaker Maryam Zaree, who was born in Evin in 1983, was sitting on a night bus in Morocco when she was 22 when music started playing. “I started having a panic attack or something… I told my best friend who was Moroccan to tell the bus driver to turn off the music. And she thought just I was overreacting… I could only hear that it was Arabic music.
“But my friend would tell me later on that they were playing Quran chants. Then I told this to my father a couple of months later and he said that that was something they would play in prison.”
Some children in Evin improvised games based on what they witnessed in prison life. “They used to play prisoner and the guard,” Parvaz recalls, “taking the prisoner to interrogation.”
Last year Zaree made a documentary investigating the circumstances surrounding her birth in Evin. “What I experienced throughout this journey I went on,” she says, “is many of the people I have met and interviewed haven’t given up, they strongly feel engaged in creating a different world, and a different society still. And there is a lot of beauty and a lot of love.”
Despite all the horrors of Evin, tens of thousands of people have found a way to come out the other side. “It’s amazing how Evin prisoners manage to keep hope alive,” Nemat says. “And hope is the difference between life and death. If you can keep hope alive, especially if you know that the outside world has not entirely forgotten you, you will live.”
“My generation, we are older now,” explains Nemat. “I’m 54. I just want to make sure, kind of like Holocaust survivors, [we don’t forget]. I would really in my lifetime to see Evin being turned into a museum, a place of education. And I would like young Iranians to know their history.”
Nasrin Parvaz became a civil rights activist when the Islamic regime took power in Iran in 1979. She was arrested in 1982 and spent eight years in prison. Her books include One Woman’s Struggle in Iran, A Prison Memoir, and The Secret Letters from X to A (Victorina Press 2018). Parvaz’s stories and poetry have been published in multiple anthologies and she has had several exhibitions of her prison paintings.
In her art Parvaz is drawn to subjects that are “secretive” or unseen: prison, racism, poverty, refugees.
Parvaz is currently campaigning to stop the execution of 11 men in Iran, sentenced after protesting against the Iranian state. You can sign and share her petition here.
All images by Nasrin Parvaz