"Written with the simple authority of an
oral deposition, packing the punch of All Quiet on the Western
Front, this is both a resolutely nonpartisan anti-revolutionary
brief and a gripping, harrowing story of personal courage and
Booklist, starred review
"It's hard to stop reading
as it is, you don't want to turn away from the girl's first-person
nightmare. The language in The Bathhouse is simple, the
dialogue taut, the tension immediate."
"Even as the prison strips away all hope,
Moshiri never once lets us forget the humanity of the women of The Bathhouse as they form a family, with all of a family's
capacity for support, betrayal, despair, and dignity. The Bathhouse is beautiful and excruciating, written with such grace that it
seems to exist out of time."
Simone Zelitch, author
"A gut-wrenching, eye-opening novel. The
Bathhouse shows what happens when ideology runs amok. It honors
the humanity and sacrifice of the victims."
Before The Bathhouse
I was born under the sign of the scorpion, on July 14, 1951Bastille
Day. When my mother was in labor in a hot hospital room in the center
of Tehran, thousands of Iranians were demonstrating behind the tall,
ivy-covered walls of the hospital. They shouted slogans in support
of the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosadeq, and his plans for
nationalization of oil. British imperialism was pumping out the
major wealth of our country.
My family members were among the modern intelligentsia who supported
the progressive prime minister. My father was a young Marxist writer,
my uncle, a nationalist poet, and my grandfathers both were secular
intellectuals, knowledgeable in Persian literature. My mother recalls
that in the stormy days of the oil dispute she, my father, and my
uncle were among thousands of young activists, who on bicycles or
on foot waved the flags of freedom and democracy in the streets
Two years later, in August 1953, the CIA operated a bloody coup
d'etat in Iran under the code name of T P Ajax (a code for a succession
of CIA plots to foment coups and destabilize governments). As a
result, the elected Prime Minister Mosadeq's government (he had
99.9% of the people's vote) was toppled and he was arrested. The
Shah, who had fled to Rome, was sent back to Iran to form a new
dictatorship under the guidance of the United States.
The 1953 coup was bloody and ruthless. Armed soldiers stood in
trucks and shot at people; nationalists and Marxists were arrested
and tortured in the Shah's prison. Soon, the CIA and MOSAD, the
Israeli intelligence service, created a secret police agency by
the name of SAVAK for the Shah's government. This organization became
notorious for the persecution, torture and execution of free thinkers.
In the oil dispute with the British, Iran came out a loser. In
a nominal nationalization of oil Iran received 50 percent of the
profits, but the international sales remained in the hands of foreignersBritain
had 40 percent, US companies had 40 percent and Dutch and French
companies the rest. The hopes of millions of Iranians to control
their own national resource were buried for another quarter century,
when history repeated itself in a different disguise.
Twenty-six years after the CIA coup, in February 1979 a revolution
happened in Iran that, according to some historians, was comparable
to the French and Russian revolutions. Millions of people demanded
that the Shah's dictatorship end and a new republic begin. Religious
and secular parties, liberals, nationalists and a variety of Marxist
organizations all struggled to reach the masses. Twenty-six years
of suppression and imperialist intervention had led to an eruption.
The pressure pot exploded.
When the revolution happened I was a graduate student of drama at
the University of Iowa, finishing up my last semester. Ironically,
my final project was about Bertolt Brecht's last play, Galileo.
In this play, the Vatican's Inquisition forces Galileo to repent
and take back his scientific remark that the earth is a planet and
rotates around the sun. By displaying the instrument of torture
the monks force the scientist to announce that the Vatican is the
center of the universe and the sun rotates around the earth. When
I studied and analyzed this play, I was not aware that what I'd
chosen for my final project foreshadowed strange incidents that
would soon happen in my country and would change my destiny.
In May 1979, excited by the news of the revolution, I skipped the
graduation ceremony and fled to Iran. I wanted to be part of this
massive uprising and with my fellow country people struggling to
achieve the long delayed freedom and independence. I arrived a few
months after the first revolutionary riots. The Shah had already
fled the country and Iran had an interim government. The political
atmosphere was extremely open and Iranians enjoyed immense freedomsomething
they had never experienced before. I recall hundreds of demonstrations
and rallies every day by different political organizations, young
men and women passing out flyers, old and young carrying on fervent
political debates in public places, and an unprecedented solidarity
and brotherhood in spite of differences of ideology. People partied
on rooftops every night and discussed the future of the revolution.
But between 1979 and 1983, when the political power fell completely
into the hands of the Islamic clergy and the last political party
was shut down and its members imprisoned, the young revolution went
through a massive transformation. This change buried the hopes of
the nationalists, liberals and Marxists. Some believe that the revolution
(the fundamental change of the country's social and economic system)
failed. The religious fundamentalists under the leadership of Ayatollah
Khomeini created a blood bath, which resulted in the execution of
thousands of Iranians who were labeled enemies of God.
According to the new imposed ideology, I was considered an enemy
of God. I was a professor of playwriting and dramatic literature
and a dramaturg (drama advisor) for the Theater Division of the
Ministry of Culture and Art (soon to change its name to the Ministry
of Islamic Guidance). I had been a ballerina in my younger years
and pictures of me in a tutu dancing on the stage of the opera house
still existed in the albums of the Ministry. These albums along
with ballet costumes, stage props, musical instruments, and a film
archive were burned by the Party of God as "satanic objects."
I ran the literary page of a progressive newspaper and was a member
of The Council of the Writers and Artists of Iran. I participated
in political and cultural activities and collaborated with a feminist
group in the Women's Organization. When the "turn to the right" happened, the Islamic agents began to interrogate the secular intellectuals
in all the organizations. A process of purge began.
I remember the day that I was teaching playwriting to a small group
of women in a workshop that the Ministry had assigned me to teach.
An hour after the class, armed guards broke through the classroom
door and pointed their machine guns toward us. They ordered us to
move back and face the wall. Then they began to search the class.
We were studying a few American and European plays, among which,
as I recall, were plays by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
The guards collected the books and papers and told us that these
were "communist documents." Spontaneous executions were
happening here and there and I thought that while we were facing
the white wall the guards would shoot us. But one of the students
who wore a scarf (the rest of us hadn't covered our hair) was allowed
to talk. She said that her fiancé was a revolutionary guard
and she herself belonged to the Islamic Party. She saved our lives
by convincing the ignorant guards that the papers and books were
not "communist material," but texts of drama.
Less than a month after this incident I was teaching history of
theatre in a sunny classroom of the college of Dramatic Arts, when
through the open window I saw the bearded agents driving into the
courtyard with their black vans. Soon all the classes were cancelled
and the guards took us in the vans to the former Rudaki Hall, Tehran's
magnificent opera house which now served as a mass prayer house;
they ordered us to sit on the marble floor of the lobby and fill
out stacks of forms. These forms were basically religious questionnaires
that inquired about the theological knowledge of the employees and
asked them to cooperate with the regime and follow the Islamic rules.
I remember that Mr. J., a veteran actor and activist, first rose
up and left the hall. Following him, the rest of the professors
walked out and left the forms blank.
Along with many of my colleagues I was fired from both of my jobs.
The newspaper for which I worked was closed as well. This was the
winter of 1983, when my first full-length play was getting ready
for the stage. The rehearsals were held in the building of The Council
of the Writers and Artists and my former drama professor and friend
was hoping to produce it for a major stage. But after the purge
of the secular artists and writers from cultural organizations the
guards locked and sealed The Council and arrested a number of members,
including my director and the actors. This marked the end of my
career as an Iranian playwright.
Now the clock ticked, as if in a count down. Each day more and
more of us, "the others"those who didn't want to
join the Army of Allahwere arrested. There were also rumors
that the prisoners were tortured in Evin, the central prison of
the republic. This horrible, modern facility was handed down to
Khomeini's regime by SAVAK. Some of the Shah's SAVAK agents had
grown beards and become members of the Party of God; they tortured
the political prisoners with savage classical methods and the new
"Islamic" ones. Soon reality put an end to the rumors.
The nightly TV shows of repentance began and this proved that the
political prisoners were forced to repent and join the Party of
Allah. Scientists, writers, historians, liberal and Marxist political
leaders under severe psychological and physical torture broke down
and appeared in fuzzy videos confessing to their sins (the sin of
having a different idea or religion). They announced their repentance
and their acceptance of Islam. Their stony and sometimes badly bruised
faces left no doubt to the viewers that these mature (some elderly)
leaders had not voluntarily appeared in front of the camera. What
happened was amazingly similar to the Medieval Inquisition; new
Galileos were forced to lie and announce that a religious belief
was the center of the universe.
When Galileo Galilei broke, his faithful student Andrea cried, "Unhappy is a land that breeds no hero!" Galileo murmured,
"Unhappy is a land that needs a hero." Whether our generation
of Iranian youth, who had witnessed a revolution's rise and fall,
needed heroes or not, there were men and women who did not break
and remained faithful to their ideas and principles. They chose
to go to the "Wall of the Almighty" and die and not to
repent. My close friend, a sociology professor, age thirty-eight,
was among them. My youngest aunt, a philosophy student, age nineteen,
was among them. My mother's cousin, a retired colonel, who had converted
to the Baha'i religion was among them. My colleague, Mr. J, a sixty-five
year old actor was among them. And hundreds of other men and women,
who stood against the wall, raised their heads and chanted the song
A dark dictatorship, a religious fascism had opened its black wings
over my country. One of the ugly peculiarities of this regime was
a deep-rooted animosity toward freethinking women. Some women at
the time of their executions were denied the right to stand on their
feet next to their brothers. They were executed in tightly tied
burlap sacks. This image haunted me and appeared in recurring nightmares
for years, until finally I released myself from this horror by writing
it as a scene at the end of my first novel, At the Wall of the
The imposition of a uniform consisting of a long dark colored overcoat
and a large scarf was only one of the humiliating rules that were
imposed on women. Women were forbidden to walk or to talk with men
in public places or sit next to their male classmates in the universities;
they were forbidden from certain occupations; they were arrested
or even flogged openly in the streets for not having appropriate
cover. Medieval means of punishment like stoning and amputation
Iranian women, historically, have been free-spirited, outspoken
and socially aware. They participated in the Constitutional Revolution
of 1905, when absolute monarchy changed to constitutional monarchy.
They struggled for the nationalization of oil in the 50s; this was
my mother's generation. In the 1979 revolution the number of female
participants grew drastically. There was not a single family whose
daughters were not participating in street riots along with their
brothers. Besides justice for all, women demanded equal rights with
men, but after the Islamic regime's "turn to the right" the clergy took away these rights, which women had recently obtained
under the Shah. Many secular women opposed the humiliating rules
of the new government and were arrested as a result of their protests.
Even in the prison facilities women didn't have equal rights with
their male prison mates; they were tortured more severely and executed
more savagely. Virgins were raped before their execution and mothers
and their children were separated. Children were used as a means
of torture for the mothers and vise versa.
Some women left the country; those who couldn't remained to fight
for their freedom. Some showed their anger in self-destructive ways.
I remember seeing the picture of a physician who burned herself
in a public plaza as protest for the humiliation and suppression.
She was in flames, a human torch.
When my close friends, colleagues, and relatives were arrested
in the massive roundup of 1983 and I had to go underground, I realized
that it was necessary to leave the country. I had already lost my
jobs and my name was black listed. Soon the guards would invade
my home and take me to Evin with my two-year old son. It was my
father who first suggested that I had to leave to save my baby's
life. I remember the day that he walked to the neighborhood pharmacy,
with his back slightly bent, as if it would never become straight
again, and bought diapers and formula for his grandson. He packed
my light knapsack while my mother cut my long hair for convenience.
She thought that having short hair would make it easier for me to
cross the border, but I thought that if the guards did arrest me
now, or while crossing, they wouldn't be able to pull my hair or
hang me from it.
So in a dark night, holding my son on my back, I walked on minefields
and followed the turbaned smugglers who led me out of my country.
I left my homeland, my family, my art, and my identity behind, not
knowing that I had to give birth to another self in a different
life and build a new house and dwell in it for many years.
Exile is the condition of being uprooted; it's an unhealable wound,
a sadness that can never be surmounted. Exile is the condition of
permanent loss. This is even more true for an exiled writer. She
is cut from her land, her past, her heritage, and language. She
has to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement and create
a new self. The new environment, if not hostile, is indifferent
to her. She has to build a home out of her own breath, out of her
words and imagination. So writing becomes a safe new home and allows
her to return to the old home.
I began writing my first novel, At the Wall of the Almighty,
in Houston, seven years after that voyage in the dark. My son and
I had been living in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India where
at times the only private place available to me to contemplate and
write was a closet the size of a coffin. In the summer of 1987,
as political refugees, we moved to Houston, where my sister lived.
The first three years in America were as difficult as the "camp
years"; they were years of struggle for survival and adjustment.
I suffered unbearable linguistic block. I was a single mother with
two degrees but no job, a writer who had lost her language, a playwright
without a stage. It took me three years of agonizing writer's block
and hard work to be able to switch my creative language into English
and write short stories in my second language.
An exiled writer works harder and never thinks about success. Exile
teaches humility. The writer who once was known, read, and admired,
is now a needle in that proverbial haystack. The exiled writer,
in her new house of words, lives in constant fear of failure. But
at the same time she possesses more resilience, the resilience necessary
to oppose the corroding effects of uprooting and isolation. But
not all of the exiled writers are able to build a new house out
of their own words. Some remain homeless in the new land.
I was among those who fought and won the battle. With my first
stories I was admitted into the creative writing program of the
University of Houston. But before taking any writing workshop my
novel had started to write itself.
It all began with a recurring dream. I was walking in the dark hallways
of this prison and a guard took me by a leash and pulled me from
one torture chamber to another. All the lost ones were there-Mr.
J, my friend, my aunt
It was a universe of mazes and we couldn't
find a way out. When I began At the Wall of the Almighty
I wanted my sociologist friend to be the protagonist. I wanted him
to be the unbreakable man who under severe torture forgets his name,
but does not repent. But as the novel progressed my character acquired
his own identity and wrote his own past and present to the end.
I wrote for four years without interruption and without thinking
about publication or success. I showed the first twenty pages to
a creative writing professor and read the horror in her face. She
said, "How can one write about such a subject in such a matter
of fact language?" After this reaction I decided not to workshop
the novel anymore. I had fear that negative remarks would discourage
me from continuing the novel. This novel was, after all, my long
delayed therapy, the cure of my pains; it was the house I was building
to live in; it was my new roots, if I had to grow roots in this
land at all. How could I let people destroy it? So I finished the
first draft and revised it many times and asked one close friend
to read the manuscript. She was amazed and I dared to show it to
more people. I remember an American writer friend who read the manuscript,
rushed to my house and urged me to call his agent. When I showed
hesitance he picked up the phone and dialed the agent's number in
New York. It was then that I realized that the novel was publishable.
But my friend was too excited and wrong and probably didn't know
the market very well. No agent or publisher grabbed the novel excitedly.
A few publishers sent me personal notes and admired the writing,
but said that the subject was not marketable. It took me three years
to find a publisher.
Who was interested in what happened in a prison facility somewhere
on the other side of the world? Americans wanted American novels,
which spoke of their own lives, their families and their own happiness
and unhappiness. Who cared who I was, how many borders I crossed,
or why I had to write this novel?
For At the Wall of the Almighty I had done some research
and even talked to a few people who had managed to get out of Iran.
Some of these documents were not used in the novel and one in particular
tempted me to write something else. In the summer of 1996 I wrote
The Bathhouse in forty days. The chap-book type memoir of
a woman with the pen name, M. Raha (meaning free), who had been
imprisoned but freed and now lived somewhere in Europe, helped me
with the facts of this bathhouse, which was turned into a prison.
My imagination created the setting and the characters and this particular
seventeen-year old girl, whose life changes forever after spending
a month in the nightmare of this bathhouse.
It is true that seventeen year old girls, or even younger, were
arrested for possessing only a pamphlet or reading a book, or simply
having been a sister to an activist. It is true that virgins were
raped so that they wouldn't go to heaven. Sitting in boxes for days,
being flogged and stoned in public are all true incidents. Execution
by mistake happened many times. Execution without trial was a common
In The Bathhouse I have told the tragic reality of a medieval
regime, a twentieth century Inquisition and I have used my fictional
imagination to give life to the characters. Those who resist and
are executed, like Leila, the surgeon, and Hamid, the protagonist's
brother, are representatives of all who died heroically in the "Bathhouses" of Iran-my aunt, my sociologist friend, Mr. J, and many others.
This book is a tribute to them and dedicated to their memory.
My readers often ask me about my obsession with prison. The answer
is simple. Writers write to make sense of what happened and if there
is any obsession it is with their own memories, their destiny, the
life they've lived and why this life and not another. Whatever I
write is ultimately about myself; it's about what could have happened
to me and didn't. Like most writers this question haunts me, "What
What if in the spring of 1983 I hadn't fled the county? What if
in a dark night the black hooded guards had invaded my house and
taken my sleeping son and me to prison? What if like one of the
characters of "The Bathhouse" they would deny me
my baby and torment me by not feeding him? What if they'd pressured
me to cooperate, to become their spy, only because I wanted my son
? Or, sometimes I travel a lifetime back and ask: What
if the United States and Britain hadn't destroyed a legitimate government
in my country in 1953, which would have allowed my land to grow
and prosper and would have allowed me to become a writer in my own
home? Yes, what if and what if and what if.
If there is any obsession, this is the one.
1. What was the inspiration for this story? How does the story
reflect your own experiences? The experiences of others?
After the arrest, torture, and execution of Iranian intellectuals
(some of whom were my close friends) in the early eighties I could
not stay silent. As a writer in exile I began to reflect on the
subject of prison and the predicament of political prisoners.
I'd heard that many of the youth who were executed in the facilities
of the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Iran had been arrested
by mistake, or possessed only books or flyers. Many were still
in high school when they were abducted and taken to prison. In
At the Wall of the Almighty, my first novel, I wrote the
story of a man who had been politically active in the revolution,
but in The Bathhouse I chose to write from the perspective of
one of those young girls, who were arrested for no reason.
2. You interviewed former political prisoners to construct
the background for the story. In what other ways have former prisoners
found the voice to tell their stories?
I talked with a few people who had been released and I read
the memoir of two women who had been in prison for a few years.
I learned about the atmosphere of these facilities and the torture
techniques by reading these memoirs. I imagined the rest and created
the story line. The protagonist of The Bathhouse is not based
on a specific person, but she is modeled on many girls, who were
very young and were arrested. The prison transformed them. Some
of these girls broke, repented and became agents of the government;
some lost their sanity in the prison, and some survived to tell
us what happened. There were a few who acted heroically to the
3. Your two most recent novels, The Bathhouse and At
the Wall of the Almighty, are written in English. How does
writing in a language other than your own affect your writing?
I've known English since early childhood, so transition from
Farsi (a Persian language) to English, as a creative language,
did not seem impossible. I'm not saying it was easy; I worked
hard and willed it to happen. I knew English well enough, could
read literature and had a degree from an American university,
but to be able to think in this language and write fiction was
a challenge that I decided to take. I had no alternative. I wasn't
a tourist here. The bridges were burned behind me and as a writer
I needed readers. I didn't want to write for the Iranian community;
most of them knew the stories I was telling. I wanted to address
the American people. Besides, there were great role models for
me in literature; writers like Conrad and Nabokov had done this
before. Now English is my creative language, I love it, and I'm
comfortable with it. Since I've learned this language through
serious literature I'm less likely to use clichés and other
forms of "bad writing" that native writers are prone
4. How does writing for an American audience influence your
When I write, I always have American readers in mind. My American
reader is the intelligent, compassionate, open-minded, peace loving
American. She is not necessarily very educated, but she loves
to read serious literature and has a thirst to know about other
cultures; she wants to educate herself in ways other than the
standard ones. She is a political animal and wants to know what
American schools and media do not tell her. This imaginary reader
helps me when I write. Fortunately, I've had an opportunity to
meet some of these men and women in person at my readings. Their
support and true human compassion (which is different from patronizing
a Middle Eastern refugee) encourage me to write more.
5. How does the narrator's gender influence her story and
Of course the predicaments of a young man would be very different.
Women in Islamic fundamentalist regimes suffer more than men.
This particular interpretation of Islam is extremely misogynistic.
We recently saw the most severe example of such interpretation
and behavior in Afghanistan. The Bathhouse begins with the narrator
menstruating, while the guards are taking her to prison. The bleeding
cycle gives the novel unity. She is bleeding again when they release
her. All through the time I was writing this book, which was forty
days, I was in the skin of a seventeen-year old. How does a seventeen-year
old girl react when she is in the hands of the authorities, who
do not believe women have the same rights as men? How does she
react when she witnesses all this cruelty?
6. Given your political views, why did you choose to write
a story that left the historical and political details of the
Shiite Revolution largely unexplained, focusing instead on one
The 1979 revolution in Iran was not a "Shiite revolution"
when it happened. There were several political forces involved-
from the far left to left, to liberals, nationalists, Islamic
Marxists, moderate Islamic groups, the left wing of Khomeini's
Islamic Republic Party and the right wing of his party. In the
course of two years, gradually the right wing of Khomeini's party
gained power and then a massive purge of all the other forces
began. This purge included the execution of moderate Moslems and
even the left wing of Khomeini's party. Many revolutionary guards
and Moslem students who fought for the revolution were executed
and Khomeini approved this purge. So this wasn't a Shiite revolution
at first. It was a massive revolution against the 2500 year monarchy
in Iran. People wanted a republic, a democratic and independent
government free from imperialist intervention. In my first novel,
At the Wall of the Almighty, I dealt with the revolution
and all the forces that were involved in it. Of course the way
a novelist deals with political matters is very different from
the way a sociologist would write about such events. Through magical
realism, surrealism and stories within stories I've told the tale
of the revolution. But The Bathhouse is a novella. The shorter
the work of fiction is the more focus is on the main character.
In The Bathhouse the form required an intense attention to the
predicaments of the protagonist. I didn't intend to analyze the
revolution here I'd done this in my longer work.
7. How can readers become more informed about Iran? What books,
films, websites, or other sources of knowledge would you recommend?
I'd recommend all the films that are made by Iranian filmmakers
(check IRMTV.com). Many of these movies have won international
awards and some are available in video stores. We need to know
and acknowledge that Iranian directors made these films under
the utmost restrictions and censorship and tried to find alternative
ways (like symbolism) to get their messages through. Those interested
in politics in Iran and pre-revolutionary activism of Iranian
opposition parties may want to read Rebels With a Cause by Maziar
Bhrooz. For more information about the CIA's 1953 coup in Iran,
which resulted in the restoration of the monarchy and the empowerment
of SAVAK, the Shah's secret service agency, read The New York
Times, Sunday, April 16, 2000. Other recommended books are:
Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran Between Two Revolutions, Princton:
Princeton University Press, 1988
Milani, Mohsen, The Making of Iran's Islamic Revolution:
From Monarchy to Islamic Republic. Boulder, CO.: Westview Press,
Nashat, Guity (ed.), Women and Revolution in Iran. Boulder,
CO.: Westview Press, 1983
Moghissi, Haideh, Populism and Feminism in Iran. London:
St Martin's Press, 1994