The first time I saw Maryam Zaree was in the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. In the play Denial (dir. Yael Ronen), she addressed her mother from stage, asking why they never speak about her birth in the Evin Prison in Teheran – a prison housing political prisoners in Iran since 1972 and accused of serious human rights violations. Maryam cried on stage. So did I.
«I know I was born in this prison. And that is basically all I know» – Maryam Zaree
The second time I saw Maryam was in the emotionally charged Berlinale documentary Born in Evin that had its world premiered at the festival. This time the young actress and director questions not only her silent mother, but she also conducts a thorough investigation into the circumstances of her birth in one of Iran’s – and the world’s – most cruel prisons. Evin is notorious for its numerous executions and brutal tortures – even pregnant women and mothers in front of their children were seriously abused there in the 1980s. Until now the Iranian government remains silent about the human rights violations committed.
The revolutions that went wrong
Around 2010–2011 the Western World looked with hope at the East and the Arab Spring. However, the progress many of us wished for and expected did not happen. The region was instead plunged into political instability, Islamisation and a long war in Syria. Several decades earlier a revolution went wrong in another Middle Eastern (but not Arab) country – Iran.
In the late 1970s many Iranians were dissatisfied with the Shah’s oppressive and corrupted regime. They hoped for progressive changes, and Maryam Zaree’s parents were among them. But the revolution didn’t turn out as they had expected – the Shah’s monarchy was replaced by the Islamic regime lead by Ayatollah Khomeini, and those who opposed the new regime were hunted down. Maryam’s parents were arrested in 1983, and she was born in the Evin Prison the same year. The story starts more than 30 years later, when the Iranian–German actress lands with a parachute in a deserted area saying: «I know I was born in this prison. And that is basically all I know.»
But it seems as if Maryam Zaree’s own body knows more about her past than she does.
Once she was travelling on a bus in Morocco, where Islamic music was playing. All of a sudden Maryam had a panic attack – she couldn’t stand the music, her body was sweating and shivering in pain. Maryam had to beg the bus driver to switch off the radio.
«Study the past if you would define the future» – Confucius
Later her father explained that musical torture was common in the Evin Prison. An endless loop of Quran Surahs would be played to the prisoners, and it is very likely that Maryam was exposed to this torture as a foetus in her mother’s belly, or even as a baby. Even though Maryam has no memory of it, her body reacted accordingly.
There are many traumatic black spots the director of the film feels the need to address. However, she is not alone, as there are many who were abused and killed in the political prisons in Iran. The former prisoners and their children share the same collective trauma, and – like other collective wounds – it lasts longer than one or even two generations.
A collective trauma
The theatre play Denial, where I first saw Maryam acting, is about a perfect story many people usually tell about themselves. The reason is simple – they want to be like everybody else. But Maryam chooses to uncover all the ugly parts. All the parts that are not fine. Her mother – a psychologist with a doctor’s degree and a local politician in Frankfurt – does not respond to her daughter’s challenge and keeps silent.
Maryam then starts approaching people with a similar past in order to find the missing pieces of her puzzle. Meeting psychotherapists, other ex-prisoners and their children, she is faced not only with the terrible details of torture, abuse and executions in Iran’s prisons, but also learns about the psychological mechanisms people develop to deal with traumatic events.
As an example, many children of the Iranian opposition members have become successful and responsible adults abroad. They didn’t win the fight in Iran, but they keep proving in their new life that their parents’ ideas were right.
Afraid of being arrested, Maryam didn’t risk entering Iran
Born in Evin is constructed like a political psychotherapy session. Towards the end of the documentary Maryam’s mother finally collapses and opens up about her psychological coping mechanisms. Coming to Germany as a single mother was a big challenge in itself. She wanted to start a new life, get a good education, a good job, and go on. In order to fulfil this task, she had to forget.
But traumas don’t just disappear. Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: «Study the past if you would define the future.» Maryam tried hard. She went through a complex study of her own and similar biographies in order to redefine the future.
Nevertheless, her story fits into the bigger picture. Her trauma is not personal, but collective. Afraid of being arrested, Maryam didn’t risk entering Iran, but we can assume that there are many open questions in the society that is still living in an oppressive country.