Graduation by Ava Homa

I am counting the cracks on the ceiling. My lawyer is presenting some documents to the judge. It is hard to breathe here. This room stinks as if the walls were made of corpses. The judge leaves his seat and is walking to the door that convicts cannot use. It is only for him. The attached light-brown desks divide His Honor’s space from that of the non-honored ones.

“Azad is absolutely innocent, Your Honor,” my lawyer says for the third time. “He is not a part of any political group, Your Honor, separatist or not. Nothing in my client’s judicial files and records demonstrates any links to the charges of terrorism brought against him.”

There are only three of us in the room. Five minutes have passed, but the judge seems not to be hearing the lawyer. He stops, and I wait for him to say something. He comes back, tucks some papers under his arm and walks to the door again. “I am going for my afternoon prayer,” he says.

“Your afternoon prayer!” I shout. He stops. “I…I have been in prison for 454 days.” The words jump out of me. “For 112 of those days I was not allowed to contact my family, have a lawyer, or even know what my crime was supposed to be!”

The judge touches his grey beard where I think he houses dead mice. Every step he takes toward the door makes me speak louder. All my wounds hurt when I limp toward his long desk. The convulsions in my arms and legs, courtesy of the jolts of electricity applied to them, grow viciously frequent, but they can’t stop me.

“I was proven innocent of all the charges of ‘bombing and terrorism.’ Why don’t they let me go? They haven’t bothered to make up a single document against me.”

The judge almighty does not hear me. Worms wriggling in his ears halt my words from getting through.

“Absolutely zero evidence has been presented against my client, Your Honor. Zero,” the lawyer says. The judge is holding the door handle. He looks back, looks around and at the camera installed over his high chair. “Listen!” he whispers. “They ordered your death. It’s not my fault.” And he turns his back, leaving the room abruptly through his private door.

“They? Who’s they? And it’s not your fault? It’s not your fault? It’s n-o-o-o-t your fault!” I scream and the scream bounces off the wall and back at me.

My lawyer is motionless. A security guard runs and presses my wrists against my back. “I wasn’t speaking with my hands,” I say softly, feeling almost numb.

“Hush, brother, hush,” the young, sunburnt guard whispers with a heavy Azeri accent. He is short but sturdily built, and his tough look shows that he is a hard-working village boy, probably on obligatory military service here. The lawyer shakes his head and waves his hands in the air. “What kind of prosecution was that? Five minutes? Only five minutes behind closed doors and not even a word of explanation? Not even a word? There is zero evidence!”

‘Hush, Azad, hush,’ I think, ‘not because there isn’t much to say but because speaking here is terrorism, a threat to national security and animosity toward God.’

The door shuts again.




The call for prayers reverberates through Evin prison, turning me cold with fear. Mother is staring at me with her aging features. I can finally feel her hands and embrace her. Teaching a forbidden language seemed right at the time, but her accusing eyes tell a different story. “Look, Farhad’s sons are here again to perform their latest gymnastic moves for their father,” I say. “Despite everyone else in the room and all the chairs, despite the bruises on their father’s face…See, Mother, I realize now that these children are not just innocently entertaining their father. They are aware, you see?”

Mother is too quiet, and this kills me. “Please, Dayah gian, please stop protesting in front of the prison,” I say when the fifteen-minute visitation is over. “If they do anything to you, Dayah gian…” I want to repeat it again, for the thousandth time, but the lump in my throat stops me.

“Sitting by the other mothers makes me feel stronger, bawanm. I get to console families whose loved ones have been hanged,” she says.

“Hanged!” I repeat.

“Hey, don’t you worry,” she says. “Your letters are widely circulated and national, even international, campaigns have been started to save you.” The guard is unlocking the door for her to leave. “You are different from other prisoners, Azad; you have a voice and you’re very popular. You’ll be free soon. Your lawyer has written letters to hundreds of Members of Parliament and other authorities, saying he will resign if anyone finds any evidence to prove you a criminal.” The door is waiting, open only for her. She speaks louder. “I receive calls and letters from people that I don’t even know. Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq are supporting you.” She runs to me, hugs me, and slides something into my pocket.




A lamp in a metal grating spreads dull light in my cell which in only five steps, wall to wall. I murmur a lullaby late at night. “Are wak bakhchei bi aw azizam teshnei waranm…” The homemade chocolates Mother gave me are by my bed. She also had a mini pencil and paper for me. The number of cracks before my eyes is infinite today. I take a few deep breaths and write:

No, I will not let them kill me inside. After all, the high walls here can’t stop me from seeing the moon and stars. Being enclosed behind the bars doesn’t stop me from knowing that out there the Zagros Mountain is dancing slowly to the sound of the tambour. My nights are not just walls, not just counting cracks. The cricket is my witness. She knows that, despite the injustice inside the prison, the day and night do not steal each other’s turn in their freedom.

When I am freed, I will dance with my mother, with my students, without sharing the story of the walls, the numbers of cracks. Chocolate melts in my mouth. Delicious…the best taste in years! I continue scribbling:

Sleep, Azad, sleep. Not because it’s time to sleep, but because being awake is a sin here and the punishment is beyond what human bones and flesh can stand. I should remember that words are sinful in this forgotten part of the world. Thinking is ‘crime,’ writing is ‘enmity against God,’ and talking is ‘terrorism.’ I need to remember what I am told when I am beaten: that in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is no such thing as poverty, protest, oppression, discrimination, lies, or immorality. These are the enemies’ terms, part of their ‘plot.’

The newspapers are blank, the walls are spies, television is the greatest liar, and speaking out is off-limits. I feel strongly that there is a mysterious, underground power that has recently given the poet the right words, the writers their subject, the elderly bravery, and the youth hope.

I will eventually get out of here. The butterfly that flew away in the night told me my fortune….”

Heavy iron doors open and shut. Key chains jiggle. Heavy Footsteps. The same heavy boots. I am not shaking and I smile at this victory, at the courage writing insinuates into me. But then I remember it must be dark outside. It’s too late for their usual visit. The pen and paper are quickly placed under the army blanket. The footsteps reach my wing. ‘Hands up,’ I think, and almost say it out loud.

“Hands up,” the old guard says.

“What? After-hour interrogations?” I say to the old guard whom I have known for exactly 454 days. I speak informally to him for he knows I have a pen here and pretends that he doesn’t. We have one thing in common: counting the days, the guard counting toward his retirement from a job he despises and me to a future that could go either way. We both try to keep our sanity by adding numbers.

“Number A-1332,” the old man says. I look at the two huge men standing behind the familiar face.

The usual pushes follow, the usual handcuffs and blindfold, but not the same path, not the same number of steps.

Without my blindfold, I can see my inmates. Shirin, Ali, Mahdi, and Farhad, are followed by three guards each. We are in the prison yard, and dawn is breaking. Now, with their arrival, twenty-five armed guards stand altogether, surrounding five handcuffed prisoners of mixed gender. I look at the sky.

“The sun is checking to see if it’s not counter-revolutionary to rise today,” I say and the four other handcuffed people force laughs that sound hysteric.

The guards push us toward the west corner of the yard, kicking and yelling. I realize that Farhad is also limping. We are both lagging behind.

“Were you a football too?” I give him a half-smile.

“What?” Farhad asks. Before he was arrested, he did not have grey hair in his moustache and eyebrows.

“Did you meet Mongrel? Did they play football with you?” They played “football” with many of us. The interrogators, the “players,” stand in the corners of the room, tell “the enemies of God” to strip, kick our bodies around, curse us and our ethnicity, kick our heads, kick us harder where we are already injured, threaten our families, threaten to rape us.

“I guess footballers were your special treat. They were boxers with me.”

I laugh aloud, and the guard behind me hits me between the shoulder blades with his rifle butt. “You know what?” I turn back and the angry, bearded guard points the gun at my chest. I sense death. I become daring. “The sun will rise regardless.” I receive a slap and think that the miserable bastard does not understand how meaningless he and his gun are. I know what will happen to us soon. There is nothing left to be scared of.

The guards are waiting for an order and we stand still. Chocolates! I reach into my pocket with difficulty, with cuffed hands, and take them out. “Have some,” I say to the tallest guard, the one on my right.

The bearded guard tries to hit me again, this time with his gun, but the tall one holds him back. Unable to move forward, he swears at me, at the other four prisoners, and at all Kurds.

“Rise, Sun. Rise and be our witness,” Shirin shouts and receives more blows and curses. I’d like to tell her I had a student whose name was Shirin. She has written in her letters that she was interrogated in a language she never learned because she never went to school.

The sun is in no rush to rise.

“What’s wrong with sharing chocolate?”

Nobody responds. The guards are too busy figuring out the latest orders, and quarrelling among themselves.

I limp toward Shirin whose guards make nervous moves while listening carefully to their wireless devices.

“Can I take two?” she asks.

“Take ten, sister. No more dieting for you and me!” I wink, surprised at myself for being so calm. Shirin holds a chocolate in her mouth and closes her eyes to savour the taste. I know how she feels.

“This is our graduation ceremony, you know,” she says as I hobble toward the other prisoners, passing the chocolates around.

“With honors,” I add, and feel in one way relieved that the everlasting humiliation of torture ends today.

The other prisoners take chocolates from me, but the guards refuse. They, with all their worldly freedoms, would not be able to enjoy the taste anyway. I still haven’t finished giving away all the pieces when we are pulled back so the soldiers can tie the four male prisoners’ handcuffs together from behind with short lengths of rope. They tell us to walk in a line. Around the corner, in the main square, there are five chairs on a high stand.

“You can’t murder us like this. Where are our lawyers?” Farhad is struggling. “We haven’t even said goodbye to our families,” he screams. “Who ordered our death sentence? Why?” One of the guards kicks Farhad in the groin.

I remember Farhad, my nine-year-old student who fell to his death from a twenty-storey building while he was doing construction work. The familiar pain, with long bloody nails, claws at my heart. Everything seems familiar to me in a curious way. Is it because I have been having nightmares of execution more regularly than dreams of freedom? Even Farhad’s face, crimson with anger and pain, looks like one I have seen before. Suddenly, the fatigue I had not paused to feel conquers my body, dulls my senses, nullifies me. When we are up on the platform and the guards are tying our feet, I see Ali is silently crying and biting his lower lip. “Ey reqib…” I start singing the ancient anthem. “Kas nalle Kurd mirduwe, Kurd zinduwa/Zînduwa qet nanewê allakeman.” The others sing along. “Oh foes, the Kurdish nation is alive and their flag will never fall. It cannot be defeated by makers of weapons of any time. Let no one say the Kurds are dead, the Kurds are alive.” The curses and blows cannot stop us from singing. None of the angry executioners speak our language.

More ropes. These are placed around our necks. This is just a graduation from this world. I know the Iranian media will announce that “Five terrorists have been hanged,” but I also know that the sun will rise, that the cracks will one day bring the prison walls down, and that students will one day be allowed to openly learn the history of the Kurds.

The chairs are kicked away. Under the ropes, the chocolates melt in our mouths.




Ava Homa is the author of Echoes from the Other Land (nominated for Frank O’Connor Prize) and winner of a 2017 PEN Scholarship. She is second vice chair of The Writers Union of Canada.



(Front page image via)

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