Hazel McHaffie

USA

Hell on earth

Evin prison in Tehran has a worse reputation than Alcatraz, and it was this nightmarish place I was reading about when I sent last week’s post. Coincidentally, it came up in the news only a couple of days ago, in an interview with a dual national, Kurdish/British, academic, an anthropologist, who recently escaped while out on bail from Evin, trekking on foot through the mountains, and has now taken refuge in Britain. He had already undergone three months of psychological torture, and couldn’t face another 10 years.

Built during the reign of the Shah of Iran, this notorious compound, Evin prison, was originally intended to hold opponents to his regime. Since his fall from power in 1979, it’s been used for political prisoners, solitary confinement, and torture of those deemed to be enemies of the Islamic state. It has an horrific record in serious human rights abuses. Originally designed to house 320 inmates — 20 in solitary cells and 300 in two large communal blocks — by 1977 it had expanded to hold more than 1,500 prisoners, including 100 solitary cells for political prisoners. It has its own execution yard and courtroom on site, which probably says a lot.

And yet, two Iranian women, Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour, found it easier to experience God’s presence and peace there, and for their Christian faith to thrive, than in the outside world. Why?

Because inside this dark hell they turned on the light for so many others, and saw the amazing opportunities for witness that incarceration offered. In the deepest recesses of the most feared ward in the most notorious prison in one of the most oppressed nations in the world they could pray with and for their fellow prisoners and their captors openly and courageously.
… how easy it was to witness behind bars compared to the work we had done on the outside. [We] didn’t have to look for prospects or sneak New Testaments into their mailboxes. We could talk to them openly rather than hiding behind closed doors or in basements. Our fellow prisoners were hungry for the truth. Desperate for it.

And they used every opportunity they could. As Anne Graham Lotz says in her foreword:
Their love for the least, their kindness to the meanest, their gentleness to the roughest, their willingness to serve in the dirtiest place imaginable is truly a stunningly clear reflection of the Jesus they love, as well as evidence of His presence inside those walls,
and they (with John Perry) have recounted what life was like in that hell hole in Captive in Iran.

Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour were both born into Muslim families in Iran. They became Christians in 1998, and met while studying Christian theology in Turkey in 2005. They extended their ministry to India, S Korea and Turkey. When they returned to Iran, they began spreading the gospel message to anyone who would listen, handing out 20,000 New Testaments, and starting two house churches in their apartment in Tehran – one for young people, one for prostitutes. But after three years, in March 2009, they were arrested and imprisoned for 259 days in Evin Prison on charges of apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy. There was ample evidence of their activities.

Technically it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Iran, but converting from Islam to another faith, as well as evangelising on behalf of that faith, are considered crimes of apostasy punishable by death. Accordingly the threat of execution hung over these two young women throughout their detention in Evin. But in spite of it, and in defiance of the squalor, the stench, the overcrowding, the terrible food, the incompetent medical care, the punitive routines, they continued to share their deep faith and hope, and found responsive hearts and minds amongst the drug addicts, the murderers, the political rebels, the staunch Muslims, the abused, even amongst some of the guards.
Never in our lives would we form friendships as deep and rich as the ones God had blessed us with behind the high and foreboding walls of Evin Prison.
To their surprise, they found a common bond: they were united by their fierce opposition to the injustice and brutality of the prevailing oppressive regime, that has destroyed the body and soul of the Iranian people.

And outside, a growing movement was publicising their plight and seeking justice. Thousands around the world prayed for their freedom. International pressure was brought to bear on their behalf. Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Vatican all got involved. But even when it was clear the charges against them could not be upheld, somehow a way needed to be found that allowed the authorities to release them without losing face. After many false starts, it was eventually found.

After their release they faced a new and real danger. Not only would they be constantly observed for any infringement of the law, no matter how slight, but anyone they met or fraternised with was in jeopardy. They were torn.
Despite what the government did to us, we continue to love our country very much and pray for the freedom of our fellow Iranians …
They so much wanted to help everyone to find freedom in faith, but the prospect of being instrumental in the death or imprisonment of their fellow Iranians was too much for them. In the end they elected to emigrate to the USA.

Captive in Iran is at one a damning indictment of a harsh and punitive regime, and a triumph of good over evil. Would I have had the courage to see incarceration in this prison hell as a God-given opportunity? I very much doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mental health awareness

You’d have to be an ostrich to miss all the attention given to mental health of late. It’s Depression Awareness Week this at this very moment. Heartening to see; we can all do with better understanding and sympathy.

Since Inside of Me came out, my own working days have been much taken up with fathoming the extent of provision for adolescents grappling with psychiatric ailments and issues. I had absolutely no concept of the number (hundreds in Britain) of centres and units and teams devoted to this vulnerable group. Impressive. And all this is going on largely unsung and unremarked.

Naturally I did a stack of research before and during the writing of Inside of Me, but now it’s published I’m exploring different aspects of the topics and finding them fascinating. Not only increases my own awareness but all helps when I’m being interviewed or fielding questions at book events.

There’s been plenty of exposure in the media too.  The A Word, on BBC1, is currently unravelling the effect on the Hughes family of young Joe’s autism. It’s still ongoing so I won’t say too much about it meantime. But, knowing a number of people on the spectrum personally, I’m particularly interested in the reactions and behaviours of his parents struggling to accept the situation and deal with the comments and criticisms and insensitivities of other people, what it’s doing to the whole family.

BBC1's The A Word drama

Born on a Blue DayI’ve also been reading a book written by a young man who has synaesthesia as well as Asperger’s: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. ‘I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable and secure, of always being somewhat apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.‘ Not surprisingly Daniel craves order, security and predictability; but in many ways his life is outstandingly vibrant and uniquely different.

Numbers are never far from his thoughts no matter where he is or what he’s doing, but he sees them as shapes, colours and textures. Calendars delight him – all those numbers and patterns in one place. On the other hand social interaction is problematic, but if a person reminds him of a number he feels more comfortable around them.

Daniel also has savant syndrome for which he has become a minor celebrity. He can perform extraordinary mathematical calculations and memory feats in his head – outdoing sophisticated computers! He can learn to speak a foreign language fluently from scratch in a week – eat your heart out teens sitting exams this term!

Daniel Tammet was born in 1979 on a Wednesday. ‘Wednesdays are blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing.’ Remarkably for the times, both his parents understood his needs and patiently provided a secure and encouraging environment for him, indulged his obsessions and believed in him. What’s more, in spite of the extra care their firstborn required, they went on to have a further three boys and five girls, who, by their noisy and continuous presence, forced Daniel to gradually develop interpersonal social skills. Nevertheless, he would be completely thrown by small distractions – squeaking shoes, inexplicable reactions, noisy breathing, would lose him a game of chess which he would otherwise easily win.

By the time Daniel was 13 he had eight siblings. By the time he was 19 he was ready to leave home and go abroad on VSO work. By the time he was 22 he was ready to live with his partner, Neil. By the time he was 25 he was ready to recite 22,514 digits of pi without error in public for 5 hours and 9 minutes thereby setting a new British and European record. So remarkable has his life been that he became the subject of a one-hour documentary, Brainman, filmed in Britain, the USA and Iceland in 2004. A year later he was confident enough to travel abroad unaccompanied, stay in unfamiliar hotels, stroll down unknown busy streets, and be interviewed for TV in the USA. He attributes much of his prowess to the constant unwavering love and support of his family, especially his parents. But reading his book you get an inkling of his own determination to overcome the odds.

Born on a Blue Day gives a compelling glimpse into a unique mind and life. Precisely and carefully written. Sometimes stilted. Sometimes meandering through detailed descriptions, sometimes diffidently explaining the differentness of Daniel’s thinking. Always gently enquiring, shy and grateful. Much like the Daniel Tammet who comes across in the film.

Brainman

 

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