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In Prison, Iranian Found Solace in Art

Washington Post
Wednesday, October 2, 2002; Page A12

When Soudabeh Ardavan, an Iranian student of architecture and interior design, was thrown into prison at age 23, she painted prison scenes and portraits in miniature, smuggling 100 of them out over eight years with children who came to visit their mothers. She was in Washington to speak at a gathering commemorating prison massacres in Iran in 1981 and 1988.

Art became Ardavan's focus, a means of self-expression, when she was growing up in Tabriz. Now 43, she is a citizen of Sweden, again enrolled at an arts school but also working in menial jobs and nursing homes to make ends meet.

She was arrested at home when members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard came looking for a 17-year-old boy in her building; they told her they had a report of her taking part in a demonstration. She was blindfolded and taken to Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

There Ardavan painted the sad faces that surrounded her, using moist tea dregs for color. Her brush was fashioned from a toothpick, strands of her own hair and string pulled from her prison garb. It was her most valuable possession in captivity, where art was her only refuge.

She related the story of four young friends who communicated by tapping on the prison walls in code. One, Sohela Darvishkohan, hanged herself because she was forced to endure five floggings a day, at each prayer time, for refusing to turn from her secular ways and become a pious Muslim. "Become a religious Muslim, or die," the wardens told her, according to Ardavan, who depicted the three surviving women in a state of shock with tears streaming down their faces. During her presentation here, she showed slides of her tiny paintings, offering a close-up view of the grim conditions of prison life.

The 1988 massacres, conducted in secret over two months, claimed thousands of victims for their political or religious views or for refusing to sign false confessions. When her mother heard of the killings, she died of a heart attack, Ardavan said.

One day Ardavan's 10-year-old daughter asked her what she had done to go to jail. "Criminals don't always go to jail, but in Iran, those who oppose criminal acts go to jail," she told her, adding, "She understood immediately." Ardavan said she will go back to Iran only when the government changes. "But even President Bush can't do anything for us," she said.

Courtesy of Washington Post

Executions by hanging are carried out in Islamic Republic of ayatollahs in accordance with the Islamic "eye-for-an-eye" law of retribution, otherwise known as "qesas".

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