What You Might Not Learn from an Iranian President at Yale

In 1981, I met a young woman who spent almost a year of her life in Iran’s Evin Prison, the infamous torture chamber where political prisoners are held. I was relieved she was free but felt helpless knowing this teenage girl spent a year in suffering and was now broken, mentally and physically. Shortly after we met, she sent me a letter. My heartbreak returns every time I read it and relive the pain and anguish I first experienced after I received the letter all those years ago.

Today, after 30 years, that damned prison remains open. Prisoners there live — and die — as no human deserves to.

Her letter symbolizes the struggles experienced by an entire nation in its quest of having a free country. She wrote:

. . . While I was in the prison, I wished many times that I could be free, that I could get out and forget about what happened in there. But now that I am out, I wish I were one of those girls who were lucky enough to go in front of the firing squad. They took everything from me in that prison. I have nothing left.

. . . When I was released from prison, I rushed home to see my mother, but she wasn’t there. She had a stroke a few months after I was arrested. I did not know I could cause so much agony and grief. I feel as though I killed her. Every day I blame myself for the pain I brought her. I prayed to God to let me see her one more time when I was in the prison. I asked God to send me home to her and let me put my head on her shoulder and cry, to ask for forgiveness. She was the only one I had. Now there was nobody to tell what happened to me. I had nobody to cry to. My mom was not there to hug me and tell me that it’s okay — it’s not your fault, Roya, it’s not your fault to have a binamoos touch your body, private and sacred, which God forbids a namahram to see. She was not there to tell me — it’s not your fault that they whipped you every day, beat your bare feet with cables. I could not tell her that I bled so hard that I would faint, never knowing what they did to my unconscious body.

When I was in solitary confinement, these filthy, evil men would come to my cell — every time a different rotten, dirty, nasty guard. Not even animals would do what they did to me. I am embarrassed even to say what they did. They raped me, but it was more than rape. They said the most disgusting things to me. When they were through, they kicked me in the back as hard as they could, threw me down next to the toilet, and told me, “You piece of shit do your namaz now.” Reza Khan, I am a Muslim. I believe in God, and my faith kept me alive in there. I did my namaz every single day, but these shameless people worship Satan, not God.

. . . There are thousands of innocent young girls being held in there. When I was finally released from solitary, they took me to a small cell, a cell designed for just a few, but which held more than thirty women. I had no complaints about being squashed in with these women. Seeing their tormented bodies and minds gave me the strength and the feeling that I was not alone.

Every few days they would call out names over the loudspeaker. We knew what that meant, and we would gather together, hold each other’s hands, and pray that they would not call our names. But always at least one or two from our cell would have to go in front of the firing squad. We could hear the sound of the screams, the pleas for forgiveness, and then the gunshots filling the air.

They would line up the rest of us and make us hold one leg up for a long time. If you got tired, they would lash you on the tired leg and make you stand on it. All of us were crying. Some would faint from the pain and bleeding . . . This was the routine. . . .

One day they released me. Even thinking about it gives me shivers.

A mullah who was in charge of guiding the prisoners to the Islamic path, became fond of me. In the third meeting I had with him, he told me of his interest in me and said that he would arrange my freedom if I agreed to become sigheh to him. I don’t think I gave much thought to it. Being free was enough reason for me to make a bad decision. I made that decision not understanding that I had to give myself to another demented person; not understanding that I was committing myself to more torture and mental anguish by accepting the sigheh, by being temporarily married to a man who already had a wife or two.

For a few months, there was no physical pain, no beatings, no lashings, and no breaking bones. But I was disgusted with myself, of betraying myself, selling my pride to a mullah in return for my freedom. Was it really freedom? I did not know at the time. I did not know the heavy price I had to pay to get back to my life. The only life I knew.

Nothing is the same; it won’t be the same for anybody that has been in that damned prison.

. . . I can’t live like this anymore. You are habs, a prisoner, forever. This is what’s happening to every prisoner in there . . .


Roya hanged herself shortly after mailing the letter.

Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym for an ex-CIA spy who requires anonymity for safety reasons. A Time to Betray, his book about his double life as a CIA agent in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, was published by Simon & Schuster earlier this year.

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