A special book: Incarceration

I’ve edited thousands of documents (reports, articles, chapters, books, letters, theses, etc.) over the years, probably comprising millions of words. I enjoy it. There’s a great sense of pride and accomplishment in reworking text, spotting errors and typos that others have missed (e.g. see My greatest contribution to Monash University), and offering rewriting suggestions that are welcomed by an author (not always the case, of course). A recent editing task has been one of the most fulfilling and worthy efforts I’ve ever undertaken – Incarceration: My Five Years as a Political Prisoner in Iran.

I was introduced to Sarah Djalalian a few years ago, when she was looking for someone to help her write a memoir. It didn’t take long to realise that Sarah had an amazing story to tell about her early life in Iran. Though her story is long and complex, the essential focus of Sarah’s riveting tale is Iran’s Evin Prison.

Here in Australia, most of us are familiar with the notorious Evin Prison, courtesy of a high-profile case concerning an Australian academic. Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a Melbourne University lecturer on Middle Eastern studies, was sent to Tehran’s Evin Prison in September 2018 and sentenced to 10 years on espionage charges. She was released in a prisoner swap with the Iranian authorities two years later.

Sarah was imprisoned in Evin nearly four decades earlier, as a student protestor during the demonstrations against the repressive Ayatollah Khomeini government, installed in 1979. Her incarceration is the heart of the book, but there is of course a lot more to her life and experience, and this is what we tried to piece together in her story.

We have met and talked at length over the past years, and in that time I’ve learned far more from Sarah than she has learned from me. We’ve had countless chats on the phone, emails aplenty, much messaging and, most productive of all, coffee mornings. These were especially important for discussions about structure and detail. For example, at first the book was going to be purely chronological, starting with Sarah’s early life and background on Iran. But we realised that we needed more impact at the beginning. Thus it was that we made the first chapter focus on 30th Khordad 1360 (the Persian date for 20thJune 1981), the fateful day she was arrested. It went through many drafts, as each time Sarah would write something, there’d be so many questions that I as a reader wanted to know. For example, how did you feel when you woke up that morning? What did you eat? Did your family know what you were going to do? What were you wearing? How did you meet with the others? And so on. For all this, I must emphasise that this is wholly Sarah’s book, not mine, and I believe that her ‘voice’ comes through clearly and emphatically, especially her views on life and love.

The book includes informative descriptions of life in Iran in the 1960s and 70s before the Ayatollah took over. Clearly Sarah enjoyed a pleasant life in her beautiful country, up until early in her university studies. She and many of her fellow students became supporters of the Mujahedin, as they witnessed the ever-growing power and oppression of the government. In case you’re wondering, the Mujahedin is not a ‘terrorist’ organisation, at least not according to the US, EU, Canadian and Japanese governments.

Incarceration follows a mostly chronological path, including details of Sarah’s happy early family life as she grew up in Iran. This leads into the growth of her political activity at university, leading to the fateful day that forever changed her life – the beginning of more than five years of captivity in Iran’s infamous prison system. Her release was not the end of her struggle, mostly due to the ongoing close scrutiny she was under from the authorities. This, and the looming obligation for her younger brother to join the army, led to their escape from the country, by no means an easy task. It was a secretive journey, aided by kindly Kurdish people smugglers, that led Sarah to Turkey and eventual freedom.

This brief summation of course does no justice to the severe hardship, torture and deprivation that Sarah suffered. The horrors inflicted on Sarah and her fellow prisoners are outlined in Incarceration, some of it making difficult reading. It is a tribute to Sarah’s strength, and the bonds that were formed among the sufferers, that she has survived and has been able at last to document her story.

Postscript: Sarah invited me to say a few words at the book launch, and both of our (short!) speeches are shown below, courtesy of the publisher, BusyBird.

Finally, if you’d like to buy a copy of the book, here’s the link provided by Sarah.

Fermat’s fiendishly difficult problem

Pierre de Fermat (1607-1665)

It was a famous unsolved maths problem that had stood for hundreds of years – Fermat’s Last Theorem (FLT) – then along came Andrew Wiles, who solved it in 1994. That’s the beginning and end of it really, though the details of the efforts to solve it provide a fascinating tale. The main reason is that FLT is a seemingly simple problem, easily understood by anyone with a cursory understanding of high school maths. Continue reading

When Trollope met Turgenev

One of the joys of retirement is the time for reading. My reading follows no particular path, comprising a mix of fiction and non-fiction, as I seek out writers who enhance this simple and rewarding pleasure. Authors I’ve enjoyed include David Lodge, Phillip Roth, Amis father and son, Patrick Leigh Fermour, Christopher Hitchins and Hugh Trevor-Roper, plus a few relative ‘unknowns’ who’ve told remarkable stories, such as Carmen Callil (Bad Faith) and Heather Rossiter (Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer). Continue reading

Hello to all that

In recent years we’ve been treated (if that’s the right word) to multimedia offerings that seemingly reveal the realities of World War I. Two specific examples are the much-lauded film 1917, and, more significantly, Peter Jackson’s magnificent They Shall Not Grow Old, amassed from archival footage from the Imperial War Museum. But what about the printed form? The book that resonated with me is Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, which I’ve recently re-read after a couple of decades. Continue reading

When Kipling met Twain

Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer.

Rudyard Kipling interviewed Mark Twain in 1889. This surprising fact was revealed to me as I perused one of the books which emerged when I recently successfully ‘downsized’, moving across the road from a house to a townhouse. It was an opportunity to take stock of my motley collection of books, discarding a few (not as many as I should have), reminding myself to re-read some favourites and planning to read a few unread titles. Continue reading

Who is that on the $50 note?

Australian currency is a curious mixture, with the coins dominated by the monarch and varieties of fauna, apart from the $2 coin, which has QEII on one side and Gwoya Tjungurrayi, an Aboriginal tribal elder, on the other. The notes exhibit a motley collection of Australian notables, some more well known than others (by me, anyway: BanjoPaterson, Edith Cowan, Nellie Melba, John Monash). Less well known are Mary Reibey on the $20 note (a rags-to-riches story of a girl transported to Australia as a 13-year-old convict) and the Aboriginal man depicted on the $50 note, David Unaipon. Continue reading

Who sent the first rocket into space?

Very few people seem to know who sent the first rocket into space – well, I didn’t anyway. The following quote provides a not-very-helpful clue:

… we have invaded space with our rocket and for the first time – mark this well – have used space as a bridge between two points on the earth; we have proved rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. To land, sea and air may now be added infinite space as a medium of future inter-continental traffic. This day … is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel.

Who said these words, when were they spoken and what was the occasion? Continue reading

Surfing goes full circle

My first memories of being in surf are as a child in the late 1950s, floundering around at Marion Bay (Tasmania) on what we called a Li-Lo. It was longer than the ‘surf-o-planes’ (surf mats) that had been invented in Australia in the 1930s, more like a floating mattress than a surfing device. My only recollection of it is being spun sideways and thrown off as the whitewater broke over me. I have no pictures, but recall it being blue and white striped on the top and plain blue underneath. Continue reading