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IRAN: For those outside prison walls, a marathon of suffering and waiting

April 1, 2010 |  6:56 am

The woman and her 5-year-old son, Mehdi, stand outside their apartment building in North Jannatabad, a lower-middle-class district in the north of Tehran.

She is clad in black chador and a firm black scarf, signatures of her devoted Muslim upbringing, a background similar to that of her jailed husband, sentenced to 10 years in prison for crimes against national security. She is among the hundreds of relatives of those imprisoned. They include the family of economist Saeed Laylaz, featured in Thursday's Los Angeles Times.

She speaks in hushed tones. The neighbors in her four-unit apartment building are very nice and understanding, she says. But she doesn't want to draw unwanted attention to herself. So she keeps a low profile.

The day her husband, a journalist, was arrested she had a gut feeling that this time would be different from last time, when he spent a few months in jail during the presidency of the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. "I was shocked and panicked, though I did not cry or weep in front of the security men intruding our apartment," she says. 

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Every step of her life is a reminder of the trauma she's had to endure.

She walks past the kindergarten that looks after little Mehdi every workday until about 4 p.m. “I had to tell the manager of the kindergarten what happened to my husband as soon as he was arrested at home," she recalls. "The caretakers and instructors at the kindergarten were helpful and sympathizing from the beginning of our ordeal."

She shops for dinner and the next day's lunch. Everyone addresses her respectfully, and she does not get involved in the ongoing political debates in the shops and bakeries.

She hates politics. "In our country there is no definition for political crime or activities, so you do not know what is the risk for some activities," she says.

She and her husband married 11 years ago when he worked at an Islamic culture and communication organization. At that time he was doing some public relations work, but not journalism. Later he wrote some articles and was jailed briefly.

"Since that first time I have always been against his journalism activities, especially since our son was born," she says. "I wanted to raise my son in a home free of anxiety and distress, but unfortunately this is it. I have to raise my son with meager subsistence salary per month. My husband is a naughty adventurer.”

She bars her relatives from saying anything about her husband and his conditions in jail. "I do not want my son and I be looked upon pitifully," she says. "I hate being classified as 'poor her' or 'poor her and her son.'”

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Every six weeks, she's allowed to visit her husband for 20 minutes at Tehran's Evin Prison. There is a big hall full of plastic chairs and tables. The prisoners are brought form one door and the visitors from the opposite door.

For months, she didn't allow Mehdi to visit his father. Finally, without explaining anything, she took him to Evin to see his dad, giving him vague explanations about why he had lost weight and was in a blue uniform.

But since about two months ago, Mehdi himself began to figure out what Evin Prison was from the way taxi drivers referred to it or the phone calls he has with his father.

"When he was arrested I was angry with him," she says. "Why on Earth did he jeopardize his son's future with his journalism?"

Money has been a constant burden. When he was arrested she had about $100 at home in savings and there was $370 in monthly wages waiting for them at his newspaper office.

For a few weeks she and her son moved to her mother’s home to save money. Luckily her husband's family owns their small flat, so they didn't have to pay rent. She took a job as a typist and placed her child in day care.

After a month, a mutual acquaintance found her a better job as a clerk in a government office. But as soon as her new employers found out her husband was in prison on charges of propagating unrest against the system and colluding with Western intelligence, they sacked her.

She eventually found another office job paying about $275 a month.

"If my son and I survived so far with such a subsistence salary, we can do for the years to come," she says.

Her son is curious about everything and goes from table to table at restaurants to watch the young men and women sipping their tea and eating their snacks.

"A 5-year-old boys needs his dad on hand," she says. His father "used to wrestle with him and tell stories and read books to him ... take him to the playground nearby and play seesaw. Now I have to play his father’s role. And I simply cannot do it."

She wakes up at 6 every morning. By the time she gets home at the end of the day, she is too exhausted to play with him.

She lulls herself to sleep reading novels. A translation of "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte was the last one. "Novels are ways to escape from bitter loneliness and reality of daily life," she says. "It is good to forget everything for a while and relax. After all, we have long way to go."

-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Video: Relatives of prisoners hold an impromptu protest outside Tehran's Evin Prison earlier this year. Credit: YouTube

Photos: Above, an inmate peers from around a wall at Tehran's Evin Prison in this 2006 photo (Credit: Atta Kenare  AFP/Getty Images); Below, families of inmates gather in front of Evin Prison last month (Credit: Persian2English.com).

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