Tag Archive: Torture


Inspired by Missmagicgirl´s monthly wrap up post, where she lists her favorite events and memories from a previous month, it is my ambition to (starting from this month) to feature a similar monthly wrap up here at Ruby Soup. The wrap up will cover books, comics, movies, activism and all sorts of fun news from the previous month. With no further ado, let´s get started.

1.Favorite Activist Moment: Protesting Torture in Mexico with Amnesty International.

A former fellow activist (who I had worked with previously in a University based Amnesty group) posted on social media that she was going to attend a protest about the torture of civilians by the military in Mexico. After asking if I could participate, and despite living in Stockholm, I jumped on a train and went up to Uppsala (it´s about 30-60 minutes away from Stockholm). The event was a mash up of protest walking, with activists (including me) brandishing signs stating ”Stop torture” and ”Stop torture in Mexico”, while others dressed up as military folks or their (through fake rope, chains and make up) tortured victims. We marched for about an hour and 15 minutes. Some of the activists asked onlookers to sign Amnesty´s petitions that would be sent to Mexico´s authorities. The activist group was friendly, and the protest was very fruitful.  We got five pages of signatures.

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2. Favorite Graphic Novel: ”All My Darling Daughters” by Fumi Yoshinaga.

This one-shot manga is written in a series of short story form. All of the stories follow a woman and the friends and family around her. The manga is melancholy, at times bittersweet, at times gloomy, exploring the ways that life can go wrong. “All my darling daughters” begins with a woman who, convinced that her mother’s new husband (who is young enough to be our heroines younger brother) is conning her mother, decides to leave the family home. Other stories follow the woman´s sister, who is struggling to find a husband to avoid the stigma of being ”too old to marry” (it is hinted that she may be asexual); the protagonist´s male friend who accidentally gets involved with a student who suffers from severe low self-esteem and a former class mate who is heartbroken to see his female friend become more and more disillusioned, loosing her ambition for independence. ”All my darling daughters” shows life at its most uncomfortable, most unresolved and most frightening. The subject of abuse (emotional, physical and even sexual) is intertwined with the themes of power, relationships and family. The manga gives us candid depictions of the limited working options given to women and unequal division of labor. In fact, many of the female characters express frustration regarding the sexist double standards women face in the work place, like being dismissed as unqualified solely due to gender, as well as the injustice of the wage gap. The occasional humor is pitch black and the human interactions captivating. Along with the question of gender, the manga also explores mother-daughter relationships with a complex look at human psychology. Despite the stories often leaning towards a depressing angle, the reader will most likely have quite the difficulty putting this manga down.

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3. Favorite Film:”Spotlight”, directed Thomas McCarthy.

This Oscar nominated film, based on a true story, follows the whistle-blowing of the systematic cover-up in the Catholic Church regarding the sexual abuse of adolescent and pre-adolescent boys and girls suffered at the hands of priests. While perhaps not the best of movies dealing with this subject, the film still gives a fascinating look at how journalism works (real life journalist have praised this films accurate depiction), features several accounts of survivors telling their stories and gives some chilling insights regarding child abuse. As one quote from the film states: ”If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one too”. The acting is great, but the pacing is at times a little slow. Still worth a watch.

4.Favorite TV Moment(s): John Oliver tackles the economic meltdown of Puerto Rico and the journalistic simplification of science, while the wonderful Holly Walker at ”The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” nobly rages at sexual assault in the military.

Right now we have golden era for political comedy shows. ”Full frontal with Samantha Bee” is fiercely feminist and funny. ”Nightly show with Larry Wilmore” discusses politics and race in a honest dialogue while having a diverse cast of correspondents, with four kick ass women being part of that cast. ”Last week with John Oliver” is hilarious, while giving American TV a much needed international lens. I myself try to watch as many episodes of all these series. The ”Last week” episodes mentioned, that tackled the economic meltdown of Puerto Rico, saw many hospitals and schools having to be shutdown. Oliver went thoughtfully through the issue, and ended the subject with a actual live performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda who has written and directed ”Hamilton”, who himself has Puerto Rican parents. Oliver also discussed how science, through click-bait culture, has been made misrepresented and belittled into more of a headline than the complex field that it is. With a fun parody of Ted-talks to top it off.

Holly Walker, one of the most energetic correspondents on “The nightly show”, took the viewer through a sketch on how infuriating the lack of action around sexual assault in US armies is. It was short, but fun. Holly Walker, just by her sheer presence, is smashing the erasure of middle aged women of color in mainstream media.

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5.Favorite Novel: ”Florian Knol” by Guus Kuijer.

This children´s novel tells the story of  10-year old ginger Florian, who one day has a bird suddenly land on his head. The next day he meets Katja, an big and tall girl who goes to the same school, who confesses her love to him. The duo later bumps into an old woman who can´t find her key (which she calls a ”fork”) and has only one shoe on despite being out in the streets. The pair decide to help the woman  in secret, but things get out of hand when Florian has to juggle his indecision with dating a bigger, taller girl, his parents constant fights and keeping the old woman’s increasingly severe Alzheimers disease unknown to the adults who they fear would send her to an alienating retirement home. A tragicomic novel that addresses aging and anxieties of oneself in a clear, hopeful way that also has a colorful cast of characters. Recommended.

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There´s my month. How was your month, dear readers?

(Trigger warning for discussions of poor prison conditions and torture)

It is probable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does not need an introduction. She´s the writer everybody reads, she tops all the best seller list, and she´s well loved by book lovers of the world. Her most famous work, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, has been adapted into a film. Her books have won numerous awards and to many, she´s an introduction to African Literature. Gushing about “Americanah” or “Half of a Yellow Sun” is expected from everyone. While indeed her novels are masterpieces, very few people have actually talked about her short story collection, “The Thing around your neck”. It is a shame, because in her stories she deals with many important issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia and colonization. Her short story collection is diverse not only by including many LGBT-characters and having a cast full of POCs, but also in different story settings. She has a historical story, stories about rich people, stories about poor people, a story about writers, stories of politics. The narration also differs in tone in many stories. And while perhaps not all the stories are great, they all capture a certain truth about ordinary lives.

Ms. Adichie

Ms. Adichie

“Cell One” is narrated by a young girl, who is in fact not the real protagonist of the story. Her narration is done by casting a cynical, fed-up eye on her rowdy and small criminal big brother, Nnanamadia, and her parents who continually enable his behavior. The family is fairly wealthy and the brother in fact is heavily implied to continually even steal from his own family. His criminal behavior comes from his involvement with gangs at his university, which early in the story leads him into being imprisoned. This comes as a terrible blow to the parents, but the narrator sees this as her brother getting his just deserts. While it´s never explicably stated, this resentment most certainly comes from parental favoritism and a sense of the brother using his male privilege to get his parents to let him get away with terrible behavior. This dynamic reminded me of Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir, “My brother”, where Ms. Kincaid discussed parental favoritism combined with gendered double standards: her mother would allow her brother to be a slacker while being quite tough on her daughter. While the parents are not harsh towards the girl in this story, she on the other hand has become resentful of her brother.

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The plot revolves around the family´s visits to the prison. Nnanamadia first is haughty, but slowly he starts to change over the course of the visits. He starts mentioning an old man who has also been brought to the same prison. This man has been arrested since the police couldn´t find his criminal son, and therefore imprisoned him instead despite a lack of evidence he had broken any laws, and to add insult to injury they also threat him with less respect due to him being poor.

All four of Ms. Adichie´s books covers in Finnish

All four of Ms. Adichie´s books covers in Finnish

As time passes on, Nnanamadia begins to mention and talk about the old man whenever the family visits him. He becomes more and more melancholy in his speech, talking about how the guards are nasty and mean-spirited towards a fragile man who´s harmless. He talks about how no one visits the man, and how the guards neglect the old man in favor of other prisoners. Through the dialogue, the reader begins to notice a huge change in Nnamanadia; before he was conniving and self-centered, but after his witnessing of the fate of the old man, he has begun a venture of human maturation into an empathetic person who sees outside of his own world. With every visit he goes further into his metamorphosis. A particular telling moment is when the parents bring food for Nnamanadia during their visit. Nnanamadia looks at the food, and quietly states that he wants to give it to the old man, who is not properly fed in the prison. The guards blandly and blankly state that this is not allowed; Nnanamadia just silently stares at this offering of food from the family torn and distrait at the inhumanities brought up in the gift. He´s attachment to the old man makes him want to for the first time in his life prioritize someone else besides himself.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie´s works were even referenced in

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie´s works were even referenced in “The Simpsons”

In the climax of the story, Nnanamadia is taken into cell one, where he is severely beaten as a form of torture. And frankly, when the guards tell the parents why this horror is visited on Nnanamadia it becomes as intellectually appalling as emotionally wrenching experience for the reader.

Drawing from The New Yorker in these publication of this story

Drawing from The New Yorker in these publication of this story

What makes “Cell one” such an incredibly story is that it packs many social and political issues such as corruption, harsh prison conditions and class into a narrative lodged acutely in the intimate and personal. The issues are deeply tied with the character growth of Nnanamadia and his tale of growing understanding casts the reader into an optimistic stance of the possible and hopeful side of human behavior. It is contrasted by the guard’s cruelty, which makes them a great foil to Nnanamadia. There´s an old saying in the feminist movement, “The personal is political”, which this story captures by showing how politics and corruption affect the old man’s life as well as Nnanamadia´s coming of age. By showing how the machinations of corruption detours, deforms and defeats human lives – and it is the most fundamental aspects of human existence that are at stake in these questions – Adichie´s writing is an ideal example of social commentary done with concerned focus and sure precision.

Cover for

Cover for “The thing around your neck” in Swedish

“Cell one” is a breathtaking tale, and despite not being a novel, has all the great elements of a literary magnum opus. It would, in my opinion, be also amazing to see this story adapted into a film. The prose is perfect, even in the advents of the young girl’s resentment, and the wondrous personal honesty of the voice of the narration flings the reader along an engrossing plot filled with heartbreaking events. This is political fiction at largest and finest.

(This post is the fourth part in mt series “Torture Awareness Month”)

After the scandals of the leaked photographs from the Abu Grahab prison, torture has been a hot political button. So much so that one of the big promises President Obama made during his presidential election was to close down the most obvious and famous of the detention centers performing torture (most infamously “water boarding”) on its prisoners, Guantanamo Bay. During the Bush Administration many human rights activist and groups held massive campaigns to bring attention to the secret prisons (black sites) and the torture that was carried on incessantly there. One of the most horrific and problematic situations this culture of torture instigated was to draw out a slew of politicians who came to justify, lie or downplay the abuse prisoners faced in these secret prisons. Recently the use of torture under the Bush administration came again to the attention of the world and we found ourselves again confronted with many a politician again responding to the most ignoble and abusive of tortures with either denial or with the literal argument that “what´s done is done, let´s forget it and move on”. Such mentalilites was even mocked on “The Colbert Report”.

One of Amnesty´s many campaigns

One of Amnesty´s many campaigns

Since the resurgence of the use of torture by supposedly Open Democracies, and their justifications as appropriate abuse (John Yoo’s legal justification for torture absolving the Bush Administration most notably), many documentaries have been made on this subject in the contemporary era. In this blog post, I will shortly review these three documentaries: “Taxi to the Dark Side”, about the death of a young Afghan taxi driver due to torture, “Standard Operating Procedure”, where the soldiers at the focus of the Abu Gharab torture scandal are interviewed, and “The Road to Guantanamo” recounting the tale of random atrociousness which placed three young men at Guantanamo.

“Taxi To the Dark side” (2007) is in my opinion the best documentary out of these three. The documentary was the second film in the BBC series “Why Democracy?”, was directed by Alex Gibney and won an Oscar for best documentary. It interviews former guards, politicians, former prisoners, and the family of a killed prisoner to give a whole picture of the politics and the rising culture of torture coming to the fore at the time. The film critiques the use of torture most effectively by the means of focusing on the one particular case of the afghan taxi driver, Dilawar, who is arrested arbitrarily and tortured without constraint. The case of Dilawar is shown bit by bit and we follow the vile pathway of how he is detained only because his customer was deemed suspicious, how he is subjugated to a torture founded on meaningless abuse and power, and finds his fate ultimately in his unjustified killing.

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The Documentary film makers cleverly let those propounding pro-torture state their arguments and then later ply a decisive deconstruction to these that arguments mauling the pro-torture stance through facts. The case of the death of Dilawar is dealt with delicately and with candor, and the film even flits with a not completely unsympathetic view to the ordinary soldiers caught in the machinery of torture at Bagram imposed upon them from within and without restraint. In contradistinction to the nowadays abusive practices the filmmakers find an alternative to the abusive practices in a former war interrogator who worked during WWII. The Former interrogator from WWII expresses great sorrow and revulsion to the emerging status quo and that the states has fallen into the disgrace by using torture. The film is an emotional watch, but well worth the while.

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“Standard Operating Procedure” (2008) is a documentary directed Erroll Morris, who also directed such classic documentaries as “The Thin Blue Line” and “Tabloit”. In this documentary he examines the history of the horrific photos leaked from the Abu Gharab prison. The soldiers that are in the photos and who took the photos are interviewed, and Morris, giving insight to the mentalities of the Prison, details other incidents within the world of the US Military and the White Houses move towards a normalcy of abuse to clarify the abusive photo moments of Abu Gharab which hold us in disgust. Morris´ film is much more stylistic and cinematic than “Taxi to the dark side”, but leaves less of an emotional impact. While in “Taxi to the dark side” one guard admitted that he wished that he would have gone with his own conscience, none of the guards interviewed in “Standard Operation Procedure” show any signs of reflection on their crimes. The film shows that the torture, that allegedly was meant to help the US find Saddam Hussein, didn´t lead anywhere and resulted in random torture and at least the death of one prisoner (captured in one of the photos). SOP follows how the original Abu Gharab was founded as to be used as a torture machine and execution site for and during the regime of Saddam Hussein, which was then quickly converted to be used, in a like manner, as a torture chamber by the American Military. The film isn´t as clear in its critique as “Taxi to the dark side”, but it does show how soldiers use all forms of rationalization to justify their actions and the political turmoil of the Bush Era which lead to the scandals.

poster sop

“The Road to Guantanamo” (2006) illustrates the torture scandals from a more personal point of view. The film focuses on three British citizens of Pakistani descent who were captured by military forces and detained unlawfully for years. The film director hired actors to portray the young men, who re-enact past incidents while filling these staged sets with stories directly from the protagonists.

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The director, Michael Winterbottom, won the Silver bear for best director in the 56th Berlin film festival for this documentary and it is hardly a surprise since the film manages to be an intense true tale resembling a dark thriller while also delivering a harsh truth about corrupt, racist systems. The three interviewed men walk the audience through their experience; they explain that they traveled to Afghanistan to do humanitarian aid, but ending up just witnessing bombings. They later get arrested, but when discovering that they are being held by American military, grow hopeful that they will not be unfairly threated. Unfortunately this does not happen; they are detained, tortured and starved. This experience shakes the world view of the three men as they come to experience incarceration and torture without reprise or meaning and to this moment haunts them as possible from anywhere and from anybody. Tightly focused on the emotions and thoughts on the three protagonists, this is a documentary which is viscerally from the torture survivor’s point of view, and this documentary came to inspired more films to allow torture survivors to tell their stories*. Holding its own in creative filmmaking while pluming a subject which makes us recoil in shock, “The Road to Guantanamo” holds out as all-around good and solid work of film.

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All three films bring different angles and views to the torture used by the Bush Administration, and deserve to be viewed. The subject matter is always dealt with wisdom and, due to their unyielding candor regarding the subject set into such dark places of the human mind, show uncomfortable truths about the war on terror.

Statue of liberty

*For example, A Finnish documentary named “After Life – 4 stories of torture” (directed by Mervi Junkkonen in 2011) interviews four refugee men who tell about their experiences with torture and the impact it has had on their lives. A similar documentary was also made in 2012, named “Beneath the blindfold” (directed by Ines Sommer and Kathy Berger) which also consist of four survivors speaking out.

(Trigger Warning for discussions of violence against women and torture)
This is the third part in my “Torutre Awareness Moth”-series

Edwidge Danticat is a writer who, according to such bookshops as Strand, is “the number one writer you should be reading right now”. She was born in Haiti in 1969 in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. While born in Haiti, she moved to Brooklyn, New York City at 12. She started writing at the early age of nine, and published her first novel “Breath Eyes Memory” in 1994. Ms. Dandicats early education was in French, but she spoke Creole at home while today she writes in English. Ms. Danticat has claimed that, having she felt herself othered and alienated in the States, she turned to resolve and distraction of writing for comfort. Nearly all of her works deal with Haiti in various ways; she has written novels for adults, short story collections and even one Young Adult novel.

Ms. Edwidge Danticat

Ms. Edwidge Danticat

“The Dew Breaker” deals with Haitian modern history by examining the life of one prison guard and torturer. The book is a mixture between a novel and a collection of short stories (novel-in-stories as it´s called), with each chapter being told from divergent perspectives though each are connected to the torturer. The structure of the tale, though radiating from the hub of the torturer, follows ideas, themes and textures in a unbound timeline drifting about over the composition of the tone and text and we find that many of the stories deal with Haitians who have emigrated to the US.* The first chapter, “The Book of the Dead” was first published in 1999 in “The New Yorker” as a short story before becoming a part of “The Dew Breaker” in 2004. It´s a very experimental work of fiction which is written in a picaresque style while detailing a complex past. “The Dew Breaker” as a book is unimaginably brilliant.

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The stories start with the torturer´s daughter, Ka. Ka was born in the states, but her parents are Haitian. She admires her father to the point that she makes a statue in his honor. However her father feels that he doesn´t deserve this honor and throws the statue into a river. When Ka expresses hurt over this, her father begins to explain how he feels unworthy of the statue. He then explains that while for years Ka has believed that her father was one of the victims of the former brutal dictatorship in Haiti, he was in reality a torturer and executioner. The scar that he has across his face wasn´t a scar inflicted by a guard, but by a prisoner. He says that he killed the man who inflicted the scar. This news comes as a horrible blow to Ka, who after her whole life trying to connect to her parents switches over to disgust for them and wishes she wouldn´t actually know about their past. She is baffled her mother could love her father. Ka is forced to re-value her whole assumption about her parents, and starts to conclude that in a way her father has always used her and her mother as a way to bury the past. The pathos and melancholy that echoes in the first chapter is the reoccurring murmur throughout “The Dew Breaker”.

"Ain´t Joking" by Carrie Mae Weems

“Woman with chicken”, from the series “Anin´t joking” by Carrie Mae Weems, 1987-1988

Not all the chapters are equally good. The chapters “Water Child” (that tells the story of a Haitian nurse working in the US) and “Seven” (which is about a couple uniting after seven years of separation) are not very captivating, and it is confusing to see how they connect with the other stories, but the rest of the book holds its own in the depth of the concern.

dewbreaker

The chapter “The Book of Miracles” is from the torturer´s wife´s, Anne’s, point of view, where we are taken back to when Ka didn´t know about her father’s past. From Anne´s point of view the reader learns that in Anne’s mind, her husband is no longer the same person he was when he was a torturer. To her, she has created a miracle where a man who used to hurt others no longer does so. She believes he has change utterly and therefore doesn´t wish for him to be discovered. Danticat illustrates for us in Anne the peculiar distortions of rationalization and paper thin morality of excuses that Anne dwells in. She honestly loves her family, but seems to also naively believe that her love makes it okay to prevent the man who´s committed atrocities from facing justice. When the family goes to church and Ka thinks she sees a man who the Haitian community is looking for due to “committing crimes against humanity” (rape, murder and tortures of millions) Anne grows panicked that her husband will be found as well if this man is found. Even in this midst of our acknowledgement of Anne’s bizarre ethics we cannot help but find sympathy with Anne in the trajectory of her story and of the writing. The Moral High Point of the reader is disengaged in understanding even if Anne’s determination to bury the past seems reprehensible.

"Murder at Sharperville" by Godfrey Rubens, 1960

“Murder at Sharperville” by Godfrey Rubens, 1960

In “The Night Talkers” a young man named Dany is visiting his elderly aunt, who raised him after his parents were murdered. In this story Danticat illustrates a beautiful bound between the aunt and Dany, who loves her like a mother. Dany´s description of his aunt is filled with warmth, which contradicts the rest of the harshness in this novel. Dany is visiting his aunt to tell her he has found the man who killed his parents and burned down their house. The reader understands quickly that the man he´s talking about is Ka´s father, and this is the first time the reader gets to know about what crimes he has committed. Dany is conflicted in what to do now that he has found the man; he would like to seek revenge and kill his parent’s murderer. However his worry that he might be mistaken prevents him from doing so. At the same time while trying to tell his aunt about his discovery, Dany is asked to keep company for Claude, a young man recently released from prison.

"Untitled", by Carrie Mae Weems, part of her "Kitchen Table series", completed in 1990

“Untitled”, by Carrie Mae Weems, part of her “Kitchen Table series”, completed in 1990

“The Bridal Seamstress” switches the perspective to one of the torture survivors. Aline, a journalist, goes to interview a Haitian woman who’s made a career out of making wedding dresses. The woman’s name is Beatrice, who Aline remarks, is a bit odd but friendly. Beatrice talks Aline into taking a walk, and while describing her neighborhood, Beatrice mentions that one of her neighbors was a prison guard in Haiti. Aline asked if Beatrice and the prison guard were friends, which Beatrice scuffles at. Later she tells Aline that men like that would abduct people in the night. Beatrice explains that when she was younger, the prison guard (Ka´s Father) asked her to go dancing with him. She said no, and was that night kidnapped by the guard. Beatrice was tied to a rack, and her feet whipped until they bled. The Prison Guard then forced her to walk home on the tar road. Aline asks Beatrice how she can be sure her neighbor is this same guard, to which Beatrice says: “You never look at anyone the way you do someone like this…No one will ever have that much of your attention. No matter how much he´s changed, I would know him anywhere”. Beatrice later on explains that she feels like this man has always followed her after they both moved to the states. Since she works at home and advertised her work in papers and through all her customers, he was according to Beatrice always able to find her.

 

"Self-portrait exaggerating my negroid features", Adrien Piper (1981)

“Self-portrait exaggerating my negroid features”, Adrien Piper (1981)

 

“The Bridal Seamstress” is the second best chapter in “The Dew Breaker” after “The Book of the dead”. In Beatrice the reader gets to see a realistic torture survivor: one who has been able to move on, but can never truly forget. She is confident in her job and chatters politely with Aline, but lives in fear of Ka´s father hurting her again. In “The Night Talkers” it´s implied Danys parents were killed because they were mistaken for someone else. With Beatrice Danticat, in her sharp tale, shows us the true façade of the torture victim, as opposed to being about guilt or crime is about the abuse and power, therefore it can be shown as attacking the weak and the other as with a woman who has angered the wrong person. There are an alarming amount of cases where men commit acts of violence against women who reject their sexual advances, and in “The Bridal Seamtress” Danticat depict one where the woman who won´t dance with the prison guard is tortured for it. Beatrice´s story tackles abuse of power and violence against women, and simultaneously also manages to fully capture the emotions of a torture survivor.

"Study for Portrait of Oppression (Homage to Black South Africans)", by Benny Andrews (1985)

“Study for Portrait of Oppression (Homage to Black South Africans)”, by Benny Andrews (1985)

In the chapter “Monkey Tails” Danticat portrays Haiti in the midst of a revolution. The revolution is brutal and harsh, and where once the former torturers who had the upper hand are now sought and painfully killed. The tale is set in the year 1986 and the turmoil of the time sends many fleeing the country. The Story follows the sights of one small boy as he recounts and witnesses the bloody revolution and while also telling of his struggles living with a single mother during the times. In the chapter “The Funeral Singer” the reader gets to know a woman whose father was first tortured by having all his teeth removed and later disappeared. While learning English in the states, she dreams of going and fighting in a revolution. These two stories show two sides of the revolution; the ideal and the brutal reality. They fit together as stories perfectly.

Untitled painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, From Here Until Never, 2011

The final chapter, which shares the book’s title, is told mainly from Ka´s father’s point of view, where we see him as the brutal guard who ends up meeting Anne and falling in love. It is in this final chapter we see that Anne´s actions and views were much romanticized in previous chapters. This prison guard, who later becomes Ka´s father, is ruthless and unreflective. It is in this chapter where the reader is confronted with the fact that while portrayed sympathetically in the first story, it has become clear from all the other chapters that Ka´s father wasn´t a likeable person in anyway. What the man has done will always linger in many people’s lives, and there is no happy ending for his situation. The love story of Ka´s parents is also deconstructed when the reader learns who exactly gave Ka´s father his scar. The novel ends with a sense of enduring melancholia, a brokenness that is unspeakable. “The Dew Breaker” is a meander through space and time, through sentence and story, and one which remains at the last, gritty and truthful.

"There must be a heaven", by Andrew Study

“There Must Be a Heaven” Benny Andrews 1966

* Other writers who have done similar works are the Nobel Prize winning Alice Munro (who did this in “The Beggar maid” where all stories are focused on a woman named Rose) and the successful debut writer Ayana Mathis (whose novel “The Twelve tribes of Hattie” were told from different perspective in one family).

(Trigger warning for discussions of torture and death)

This post is a part of my series “Torture Awareness Month”

Mitra H. Lager is an Iranian Women´s Rights and secular activist. She lives in Gothenburg, is a member of the political group “Feminist Iniativ” and the Swedish “Humanist” (an organization dedicated to decreasing religious influence on society and to promote reason), and writes for “Avaye-Zan” (which translates as “womans voice”). Ms. Lager is a well-known debater, but mostly famous for the memoir of her life in Iran, titled “Gud vill att du ska dö” (“God wants you to die”). The title comes from a threat Ms. Lager and her fellow prisoners were told to by guards while in prison. It hasn´t been translated into English to my knowledge, which is a real shame, since it´s one of those few memoirs that are not only a recollection of one person’s memories, but actually an insight to a country´s modern history and a perceptive description of how lives are deformed and inflicted through social injustice. It´s not only a journey where Mitra H. Lager follows the path of her life which ends in a residency in Sweden, but also lays bare the trajectory of modern day Iran and how it came to be the theocracy it is today. “God wants you to die” also describes some of the most honestly brutal descriptions of torture.

MItra

Ms. Lager begins her memoir by stating that she wanted to write this memoir for those of her friends and family members who died due to Era of Ayatollah Khomeini. The memoir then dives into describing the forceful demonstrations that take place in Iran during the 1980s. Ms. Lager also describes her family and home life, which was partly conservative and partly liberal, differing from each individual in the family. Throughout the book, Lager makes a perfect blend of personal and political, and also demonstrates how those two things often blend in together. At the tender age of 17, Ms. Lager got arrested for her protest against Ayatollah Khomeini; she was deemed as an enemy of Islam and sent to Evin, the most infamous prison in Iran.

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Torture is shown as the go-to “method” used against the prisoners in “God wants you to die”. One of the most heart-breaking examples is, before Ms. Lager is imprisoned, when her cousin´s dead corpse is sent to the family after the cousin has spent time in prison. Lager admits that at the time she was in love with her cousin, and had he not died she might have married him. She then proceeds to describe what his body looks like, holding back no macabre details, like that his eyes were gored out (leaving the family to stare at empty eyesockets) and he is covered in blood. The family wants to give him a decent funeral, but first the body has to be washed. As his body is bathed, Ms. Lager and her family breakdown into tears, crying violently the entire time the young man’s body is washed. The most tragic thing Lager says about the situation is: “He was a good person, a kind person, and he was grotesquely tortured to death. Why?”

"Typical Iranian Funeral", by Rokny Haerizadeh

“Typical Iranian Funeral”, by Rokny Haerizadeh (2008)

Later in prison Lager witnesses more torture and executions. She details that a common tactic to scare other prisoners is to torture one prisoner and then give the victim of the abuse to the other prisoners to nurse their wounds, both physical and mental. While they clean and tend to the prisoners wounds, they see what can be done to themselves at the whim of their captors. This threat continuously lingers above all of the inmates haunting both their sleeping and waking hours. One horror, and dreaded endgame which lingered over the prisoners was to be marked with a wound during the torture sessions (or anytime during the incarceration, actually). Once a scar was made, the prisoner was often shortly killed afterwards.

"Masters of Persia", by Reza Derakshani

“Masters of Persia”, by Reza Derakshani (2013)

Lager states that when she was younger, she was a devoted Muslim. It was one of the main driving forces to her political activism. But while in prison, this changes. Lager is taken to “interrogation” about her incorrect beliefs and she is subjected to her feet being hit with blocks. In the extreme pain she faces, Lager begins a trail of wondering why, despite always having faith and navigating her belief faithfully and strongly, she finds herself randomly imprisoned and witnessing terrible injustices by those professing to true belief . In the midst of being tortured, Lager states that she experiences a sundering of her belief, an “epiphany”, where she concludes that no kind god would be able to bear witness to the sufferings of those who imprisoned with her, since she, and many of those with her, had always been a believer in this God of Might and Justice.

Work by Shirin Neshat

“Rapture” by Shirin Neshat (1999)

The memoir illustrates the victims of torture as ordinary people who are crushed by authoritarian rule. Ms. Lager and her fellow prisoners are helpless under the power of others, with no escape. ”God wants you to die” details also that while the torturers were not merely trying to get information, that the act of torturing also strengthen the hatred the torturers had for their victims. Lager mentions once hearing two torturers screaming at their victim: “You think this is bad? This is only the beginning, we´re sending you straight to hell!”. It is a form of intimidation, but also the ultimate expression of hate for the ones who don´t conform. They hurt their victim not only out of order, but also out of anger that the person disobeyed. Torture here is used (as always) as the purest form of power and abuse. While many of the guards in the prison show clear sadistic trends, Lager also shows that some of the prison guards are decent people caught up in an insanity which they see no help to escape. One night a guard states to Lager: “I never could imagine my life would be this, guarding the youth of Iran. Oh lord, What a horrible destiny I have gotten!”.

"Made in Iran", from the series "Comtemporary Iranian Art"

“Make-up”, by Simin Kiramati (2007)

Ms. Lager only references her atheistic awakening in one sentence, which dawns upon her in the devastating sinkhole of torture. This understanding is sadly achieved in the morass of suffering and humiliation and we agonize with her in the emptiness of horrific experiences which come to sharpen and shape her beliefs. In a like manner, where horrors shape a persons beliefs, the documentary, “Deliver us From Evil” ( directed by Amy Berg in 2006), about sexual abuse by a church, a man is shown losing his faith and becoming an atheist after discovering that his daughter was molested by a preacher and the church is evasive and unresponsive to the “sin” perpetuated by it. Lager´s atheism, likewise, steams from a frustration with corrupt religious extremism, which many atheist share. Similar frustrations with faith are shown in Bertrand Russell´s essay “Why I am Not Christian” (1927) and Ibq Warraq´s book “Why I am not Muslim” (1995), both of which explore the myriad justifications and prevarications which enable a slew of hideous things done within the internally vindicated acts of religion. Lager´s entire memoir is a thoughtful piece of literature not only on tyranny, but also on the questions regarding the power religion has over the individual and how the totalitarianism of true and pure belief becomes a weapon of malice and hate.

One of Shirin Neshat´s most famous works

“Untitled” by Shirin Neshat (1996)

While political prisoners are not killed as often in Iran as they were back in religious and political hysteria of the 80´s, prisoners in Iran still face the all too common use of torture. Therefore it´s safe to say that Lagers outspoken book is still an insight which culls insight about the era and about the use of torture generally.

“God wants you to die” is not only a book about torture and death, but also about hope. Lager is later released from prison, and after battling crippling depression and survivor’s guilt she finds love and marries. When she is once again suspected of political activism, she even finds a way to escape. The book also has a heartbreaking scene where Lager critiques the refugee politics of the time, which unfortunately still remains an issue with us till this day.

The themes are heavy, so be warned you will cry while reading this memoir, but the language is quite fresh and Lager captivates you in her story of survival and of power abuse. “God wants you to die” is one of those rare gems of non-fiction which even fiction lovers will care for and learn from.

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For more Iranian memoirs, check out Parsua Bashi´s “Nylon Road” or Marjane Satrapi´s “Persepolis”. Both are graphic novels!

(Trigger Warning for discussions of Torture)

This is the first post for “Torture Awareness Month”

J. M. Coetzee is a South African novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 2003 and was the first person to win the Man Booker Price twice. His most famous novels include “Disgrace”, “Life and Times of Michael K” and “In the Heart of the Country”. His works often deal with corruption, racial tensions, and violence. The work for which he is most well known lies probably with “Disgrace”, which a large swath of critics have praised for its complex depictions of a post-apartheid South Africa. However this is overlooking a slim volume, which one can maintain is Mr. Coetzee´s Magnum Opus, the insightful and unsettling “Waiting for the Barbarians” (published in 1980).

Mr. J. M. Coetzee

Mr. J. M. Coetzee

“Waiting for the Barbarians” tells a story of a Magistrate (he is never given a name outside of his title), who witnesses his community as it is torn apart and pieced together upside down by the arrival of a new malicious colonel. This new colonel has arrived to investigate the assumed threat of “the barbarians” who will/may invade the small haven. The Magistrate explains that the people in his village have all admitted to fearing the barbarians; afraid that they will come in the middle of a night, rape their daughters and set fire to their houses. The new colonel tortures a young boy with a knife, who due to the torture claims he knows of a group that was planning an attack. After the random interrogation the Magistrate is allowed to speak with the boy, whose body is maimed and crisscrossed with cuts. The magistrate is told that the boy was tortured with a knife (“a very small knife”, the guard claims) and the Magistrate asks the boy if he knows the full consequences of his “confession”, but the boy is understandably too frightened to answer. Whereupon a witch-hunt begins that leads to mass arrests, legal abuses and mass torture of the people of the community now under control and intimidation of the new colonel. The Magistrate tries to put a stop to the mistreatment of the people who are arrested, but never tried with actual crimes, which only leads to his imprisonment under the new regime justified in their fears of the coming Barbarians.

waiting-for-the-barbarians-by-j-m-coetzee

These “fears” of the novel, convicted by those in power and foisted onto the populace, notably are the fears that historically have been used in propaganda to demonize the other for many a century and over many a land. “The other”, many times, may it be a different race, religious group or nation, has been posited as a threat to the sanity of members world and worldview. The Other is out too hurt and destroy “us” in these clichéd manners such as “set fire to our houses” or “rape our women”. (These demonizations also helped to cover up when people inside a certain group commits atrocities, for example the myth of black men raping white women in the US helped many white men to get away with rape, while killing many falsely accused black men). In short, it is well known that every nation has at some time feared those fears which the Magistrate describes in the content of the novel.

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In “Waiting for the Barbarians” the country or people the story tells about are never specified. Indeed the book seems to not be about any real country, but a completely fictional one. There are no dates and the years in which the events take place are absent. Furthermore, the identity of the barbarians whom people fear and the cause of the panic are never explained. These elements are what make “Waiting for The Barbarians” a masterpiece that it is, since it exposes a fundamental truth about humans and morality: that fear, if misguided, will create opportunities for powerful men to get away with grand injustices. Many critics saw parallels to the Apartheid in “Waiting for the Barbarians”; some other saw parallels to American politics post 9/11. Such scenarios which are displayed in “Waiting For the Barbarians” have unfortunately happened repeatedly and to this day people are still being tortured and killed due to the inclinations of such hateful propaganda and the vague ideologies which motivate fears of the “outside”. The message from “Waiting for the Barbarians” is important and sadly still relevant.

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While The Magistrate is the narrator, the novel still provides point of views from the people accused of being, or being “in league” with, the barbarians. One of the most memorable examples is a woman the Magistrate rescues from begging. She is nearly blind after an incident which occurred when she and her father were suspected, without any proof, of being threats. Her father was beaten. To make him feel powerless, hot iron was nearly put against the woman’s eyes; while not burning her, it severely damaged her eye-sight. The interrogators/torturers had held the iron near her eyes for a while, threatening her father that they would blind her. The Magistrate even comments that he can even see that her eyes do not resemble common eyes. The girl explains that her father became very quiet and didn’t move much after this incident during his torture and afterwards he just stared down at the floor avoiding any and all eye contact with her. He later died, leaving her by herself. She soon after found herself tossed into the streets now being seen as tainted by the mark of the Other. The Magistrate later elaborates on this incident. He suggests that the reason that the father died was that he could not stand the fact that he had failed to protect his daughter. The Magistrate puts himself in the father’s position, and concludes that such a situation was so horrid, the idea of having to just watch as one’s child is being tortured and being helpless to do anything is such a nightmare, that it is “no wonder he wanted to die”.

waitingFortheBarbarians_bushwick_v01

According to the Swedish section of the Red Cross (who, among other things, specialize in rehabilitation of torture survivors and spreading awareness about mistreatment of civilians) this form of torture, hurting someone else to make the other one feel shame and fear, is found to be a largely typical form of torture. At times it’s a friend or a family member that is threatened harm, or actually hurt in front of the actual focus of the torture. While the girl in “Waiting for the Barbarians” is not a minor, the idea of one’s child being tortured is unfortunately not as unlikely as one could wish. According to one of the studies made by Amnesty International, children have been flogged in secret Syrian prisons. Torture of children has also occurred in Turkey (around the early 2000), as well as in Bahrain. Coetzee in this scene not only illustrates a realistic torture scene, but also invokes an important emotion through the Magistrates narration: Empathy for the victim. When the girl tells her and her father’s story, the Magistrate feels the pain in her memories. That pain is so great that it kills her father. That injustice is so harsh that doesn’t end after the interrogation. It stays and affects the girl’s life even after she is let out of the prison.

"Interrigation II", by Golub

“Interrogation II”, by Golub

The Magistrates empathy doesn’t end at the girl. When he gets to the main courts holding area, where the so-accused barbarians are kept, he witnesses a whipping. A child who is witnessing the public torture is asked to whip the prisoner in order that he can learn how to do so “correctly”. The Magistrate, reaching the limits of his own apathy, and runs up to stop the child become part of the horrid scenario as he knows that what is happening is that the child is being taught to not feel empathy, he is being taught to inflict pain without recognizing the prisoner as a fellow person. This corruption of the child, of planting a new generation of fearers and torturers, is too much.

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Painting by Vann Nath

The corrupt idea of torture is completely deconstructed in the novel “Waiting for the Barbarians”. There are few novels similar to it (if there are any novels like this at all). Not only is torture shown as a misguided way to get proper information (the young boy tortured at the novels beginning lies to put an end to his ill-treatment) but it also shows how anyone in the midst of aimless fears, empty empathy, and the discounting of the humanity of others, can become all too easily the dismissed of society and the subject of torture. “Waiting for the Barbarians” makes the reader feel the pain that the victims go through, makes the reader feel empathy for those who have been stripped of their humanity and being in torture, and bares the ideological corruption which motivates individuals and societies to embrace the sightless horror of torture. This delving into the aspects of disenfranchisement and torture, both social and as individual, is essential for us to confront as often in media news torture is separated strongly from the viewer making the torture actions seem only to be “enhanced interrogation”, or in fiction media which uses torture mainly for a prop device as a way to add excitement and to keep audience’s attention (and which also separates the viewer from the actualities of torture, see Especially American televisions 24, Warehouse 13, Homeland to name a few).

Painting by Vann Nath

Painting by Vann Nath

In this novel Mr. Coetzee demonstrates what torture actually is: it is the degradation of a human being, either causing death or at any rate causing lifelong emotional and physical scars.

Barb600

Image from Philip Glass´Opera adaption of “Waiting For The Barbarians” from 2005

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is bold in its call for empathy and humanization of torture survivors/victims. It is a challenge to see the diseased mentality of hate, and what such mentality can lead to. In its use of the imaginary lands it creates a truly universal story. For anyone who is interested in reading a more humanizing, realistic and ultimately compassionate look at people who are subjected to torture, this book is will not disappoint.

My dear Fellow Humans,

Yesterday was the International day for “Support Torture Survivors”; worldwide there were demonstrations, lectures and campaigns to help those who have faced torture and to bring an end to torture itself. For this purpose, I have decided to dedicate the remains of June and the most of July to speaking of the different depictions of Torture in Media. There will be book reviews, discussions of films, and perhaps discussions of televison shows. Most post will try and discuss media that centers on survivors stories and experiences. In about a week theere will be the first of post in this series, which will end 26-27th June.

But for now, just this video and one link:

(This Video is of Darrell Cannon, a man who was tortured by the Chicago police. He is one of 100 men and women of color who have been through the same injusice. To help them get reparations, click here!)

Take Care/ Maaretta