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Iranian Prison Flooded With Books After Call By Jailed Sufi Booklover

Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam

In a recent letter from prison, Iranian dervish Mohammad Sharifi Moghadami asked his countrymen, including writers and publishers, to send books to Iran’s largest detention facility.

Within days of its circulation, some 7,000 books had arrived at Great Tehran Penitentiary, also known as Fashafouyeh Prison, from every corner of the country, including the northern city of Rasht and the southwestern city of Abadan.

Sharifi Moghadam is there serving a seven-year sentence in connection with violent clashes in 2018 between dervishes and security forces that killed five troops and resulted in the arrest of 300 members of the Gonabadi dervish minority. He was convicted on charges that include “spreading propaganda” against the establishment.

Conditions at Fashafouyeh -- for those jailed over the 2018 clashes and others imprisoned for antiestablishment protests in 2019 -- are "inhumane," according to former inmates.

He said reading has provided him with some peace at Fashafouyeh, where books are “rare” but drugs are easily accessible.

Reading Bulgakov In Prison

“It is unlikely that by reading [Mikhail Bulgakov’s] The Master And Margarita one doesn’t fly over the city,” the 30-year-old Sharifi Moghadam wrote, adding that reading becomes even more enjoyable in prison due to the absence of other distractions and empty time that prisoners face.

“The beauty of the pages of a novel becomes more enjoyable for the prisoner," he wrote, adding that “books break the concrete-iron prison environment.”

Sharifi Moghadam is a member of the Gonabadi dervish order, which has come under increased state pressure.

But he is among the prisoners fortunate enough to have been receiving books from their families and friends. He has been sharing them with fellow inmates, including a 70-year-old who visits him every week to borrow a new novel, and Ali, who never got past the seventh grade and who loves historical books.

The prison mostly offers inmates religious books and state-sponsored memoirs from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War that Sharifi Moghadam said have been gathering dust on the bookshelves of the prison’s “cultural rooms.”

Prison Flooded With Books

Since his appeal, which was republished by the Iranwire news site and Iranian daily, Fashafouyeh has been flooded with novels.

They include multiple copies of Bulgakov’s masterpiece, George Orwell’s dystopian Animal Farm, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, as well as classical and modern Iranian poetry, including Hafez and Forough Farokhzad, and history books.

The prison’s estimated 15,000 prisoners -- some of them political prisoners and others convicted of drug trafficking or financial crimes -- will reportedly be able to access them all.

Sharifi Moghadam’s wife, Faezeh Adibpour, who posted her husband's letter on Twitter on April 22, told RFE/RL that he was surprised by the support he had received.

A gathering of Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran to protest the arrest of one of their members in February 2018.
A gathering of Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran to protest the arrest of one of their members in February 2018.

For many Iranians, she said, sending books to prison was a response to state repression.

“I think this created a safe space for people to help political prisoners and to express solidarity,” Adibpour said.

“Many have sent their own books, or they've bought new books that they've then sent," she said. "They’re ordinary people -- many of them aren't political activists or writers or publishers."

Solace In Books

Political prisoners in Iran are often denied access to books and newspapers in the first weeks and months of arrest, when they are routinely held in solitary confinement.

Some have described being given copies of the Koran or the Nahj al-Balaghe, a collection of sermons and teachings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and companion, Imam Ali, who is a central figure in Shi’ite Islam.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested in Iran several times, including during mass protests over a disputed presidential election in 2009. A senior adviser to the executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University, he was also one of five Iranian-American dual citizens whose release was negotiated under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Tajbakhsh wrote a 2019 essay in The New York Review of Books about finding solace in books.

He told RFE/RL that his interrogators would threaten to restrict his access to books in order to pressure him.

“I think I would have gone crazy without things to read. The jailers knew that and used this knowledge to reward or pressure me -- as well as others," Tajbakhsh said. "They knew it was a more effective tool for more intellectual types than a physical beating. Although I often thought I would probably have preferred to get a beating than be denied access to something to read."

George Orwell's Animal Farm was among the books sent to the prison.
George Orwell's Animal Farm was among the books sent to the prison.

Prison has also turned some prisoners into writers, documenting life under incarceration.

Prominent rights activist Narges Mohammadi published a book in 2020, titled White Torture, that includes interviews with 12 female prisoners detailing their experience.

Prisoners have also recommended books from their cells.

Opposition leader and unsuccessful presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi in 2011 said Gabriel Garcia Marquez's News Of A Kidnapping, chronicling the kidnapping by a drug cartel of prominent Colombians, provided insights into his life under house arrest.

Media reports suggested the book quickly became a bestseller in Iran.

Musavi and his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi have been under house arrest since 2011 for challenging the Iranian establishment. Their restrictions have reportedly eased in recent months.

Iran’s leading rights advocate, lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, recommended Czech dissident Vaclav Havel’s iconic 1985 essay The Power Of The Powerless, which discusses resistance against totalitarian systems of power.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.