HAMID DABASHI: What is your worst memory of your time in jail?
MOHSEN MAKHMALBAF: The torture was perhaps the worst, it bothered me most. You see, we hear about torture—and that torture is different from being beaten—but if you want to understand the feeling of being tortured, perhaps the story I wrote called ‘Jarrahi-e Ruh’ (‘Surgery of the Soul’) can convey that feeling to you. In a moment, a person is put under so much pressure that all of his beliefs are lost to him . . . which is only natural. Generally speaking, when you’re cold, you often feel angry. When you’re warm, you might feel hungry or sleepy, your inner balance may be off-kilter. Multiply all of that a thousand times and imagine the feeling. And even all of this pales in comparison with the pressures brought about by the organizations in the jails, especially when the schisms erupted—
Hold that thought. First, tell me, what is your worst memory of the torture you endured?
The opposite of what you’d expect, the burning and all these things . . . The worst torture I endured was when they used cables.
What do you mean, cables?
I mean like telephone cord, the thick ones. You know, the sort you see in hardware stores, they come in different sizes, from 1 to something like 40. Well, they had everything from thin wires to thick cables. When they started, they’d tie you to a bed and it would go one of two ways. One was a chair they called ‘Apollo’. Consider, for example, this chair [points] or one more like a barber-shop chair—the wooden ones . . . Sort of like a business-class seat in a plane . . .
They’d pull your hands back like this, tying down your right hand like this, and your left hand like this, just to the point of breaking your wrists. Then they’d put a motorcycle helmet on your head. And when they began to beat you, and you began to scream—
Where would they hit you?
On the bottoms of your feet, with a whip. When they beat you, your screams would reverberate in your ears . . . but these details are not so important. When they’d whip you, they’d begin by hitting you here first, here next, here next, very accurately.
By whip you mean with those wires?
Yes, the cables. They kept changing them. After a while, one became numb to the whip, so they’d trade it for a thinner wire which would hurt again. After that, they’d run you . . . you can see that part of it in Boycott, the running . . . so that the swelling of your feet would go down and then they’d start again. There was a doctor who came regularly to check you, monitor your condition, give you a serum. They didn’t want your blood pressure to fall too much or to rise too much. All these ‘services’ were to . . . Well, when they first beat me, I felt as if a tree was being swung at my feet, not a wire. It hurt so much that one felt as if one’s eyes were about to explode out of one’s skull. They’d even tape your eyes shut tightly. It was like . . . you know, when your hand touches something hot, the reflex a body has to that?—well, imagine that sensation in some part of your body every five seconds, imagine that going on from the morning to the evening. You begin to feel as if you’re on another planet, and just then they return you to reality. They wouldn’t let you descend into numbness and unconsciousness. They would return you to reality, then they would resume beating you. But the greatest pressure you would feel would be from within. The fear that you might give in, that you might let slip some information that they wanted.
Were they interrogating you?
Of course. They tortured me precisely because they’d heard that I had not given them any information. Since they captured me in the course of an action, they didn’t believe us when we said that there were just the three of us involved . . . At that point, the most important thing to you is to not turn in anyone. When they arrested me, I kept on telling them that there were just the three of us. They’d ask: ‘Where did you meet each other?’ and I’d tell them: ‘In the mosque,’ and they’d say: ‘So, a hole opened in the sky and the three of you fell into this mosque?!’ and so they did what they did . . . [Pause] Well, what else can I say?
What I want to tell you is that the beatings, the torture in prison—these were not important. If you want to know about how all that felt, I’ve described it in ‘Surgery of the Soul’. Torture, after it’s done, is meaningless. Ten days later, you’re the same person as you were before. It’s really nothing—no one is altered by the experience of torture. It’s no different from the pain of childbirth that women experience . . . It nearly destroys them but later they still enjoy sex, even go on to have more children . . . It’s humanity. Torture cannot change even a single person. In its moment, certainly, you are in its hold but, a short while later, you’re the same person. But worse was the environment, the insults. If you dared to question someone, to question their ideology, they’d make you out to be a SAVAK informant . . . it was so childish . . . then you’d be ‘boycotted’. Imagine living in a cell with 30 other people and suddenly all 30 of them are boycotting you. Imagine no one speaking to you for six months straight. Imagine going to take a shower and finding when you’re done that they’ve taken all of your clothes—so that you’re forced to walk around naked, looking for them. You go to the bathroom, and everyone in the bathroom leaves.
They did these things because—
Because you stood up to them. These movements . . . it’s like [Sergei] Parajanov, who said that the Soviet government termed him a pederast and so he spent 15 years in the company of an angel. You see, this pressure draws you inward, it takes you deep into yourself.
During this time, was there evidence of the opposite of what you’re saying—signs of humanity, kindness, brotherhood, camaraderie?
Certainly, there were and I’ve mentioned them in my stories and films. There is the story I wrote of a schoolgirl who was in prison—she fell in love with a boy who was a political activist, who distributed leaflets. Her love was stronger than a political love, one of those loves that are based in the heart and are deep and strong in the mind. She would take a beating, but not give in, not give up her love. These are some representations of prison. But if you see Boycott, it does give you a sense of the environment, the feel of prison then . . . The factionalism, the party lines, when placed in the context of imprisonment inevitably lead to fascism. This is because, under that sort of pressure, you can’t have too many people making decisions. Democracy is impossible to institute in an oppressive environment . . . When it’s necessary to speak in code, debating and voting are impossibilities. Under this weight, and of themselves, many resistance movements collapse. These movements, even if they are committed to democracy, are necessarily clandestine and centralized so as to elude detection and to operate quickly. But this centralism is antithetical to democracy.
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