The term “home quarantine” has now been added to the daily vocabulary of people around the world. Authorities in cities and countries around the world have required people to stay home to fight the deadly coronavirus disease by limiting its spread. Until a few months ago, coronavirus was not in common vocabulary, and many were looking for an opportunity to catch up on their work and lives; a time to relax, a time to watch movies and TV series, an hour to study, even a chance to tidy up a room in the house. But now many people are not satisfied with these opportunities, are not enjoying themselves, and want to return to normal as soon as possible.
Compulsory lockdowns and the unclear end date for this period of enforced relaxation also make many people compare the experience to time in prison. Some speak of depression and despair, and others go a step further and compare quarantine with solitary confinement. IranWire has spoken with people who have experienced true solitary confinement, in prisons, asking them about the similarities and differences between quarantine and solitary confinement.
Most people who have experienced prison and solitary confinement do not find it comparable to home quarantine. But the strategies they used to maintain their morale in those difficult days are likely to serve as a source of relief for those who are frustrated and despairing today.
Siamak Naderi is a survivor of solitary confinement in the 1980s. Arrested in 1981 at the age of just 20, he was accused of affiliation with resistance faction the People’s Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO): a charge that haunted him for nearly 40 years.He spent three years of his seven and a half-year prison sentence in solitary confinement in Gohardasht Prison, northwest of Tehran.
Following his release, Naderi joined the MKO at its then-headquarters at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. By this time, though, he was no longer the inexperienced young man he had been before his arrest. Naderi began questioning the performance of the MKO and expressed doubt in it, which led to further confinement and a new prison term.
Naderi moved from Camp Ashraf to Albania in 2015 and now lives in the German city of Bochum. On being interviewed with IranWire he peppers his conversation with humor and jokes, even when telling bitter memories of prison. Despite 40 years of pressure and restrictions, Naderi has never become sad or embittered. He always retained a faith in small miracles that would happen the next day, he explains. This belief, along with other small tricks, helped him fight for survival and happiness.
Doesn’t quarantine bother you? Not reminiscent of the past?
You may laugh, but the best memories of my life are in prison.
In my opinion, quarantine is like a world tournament. Now all human beings are in the same position. During quarantine, people will have the necessary amenities. Human beings are not prisoners, but have to stay at home to take care of our right to life and survival, just as we fought in prison to survive. In prison, we resisted and even sacrificed our lives for our ideals. Today’s human beings also have to show a resilient and lively resistance to the coronavirus epidemic.
What do you mean by lively resistance, in the midst of all this death?
Our happiness does not negate the celebration of our dead. Staying in a culture of mourning is not an achievement. I think people should mourn and get on with it. I was in a place where three of my best friends were taken from my side and never came back. I remained there with their clothes, their effects and the smell of their bodies. It was as if Gohardasht [Prison] was emptied. But the same kids, when they were taken to the gallows, advised you to live as long as you could as “kids.” Kids turn everything into a game. Resistance and permanence is the only way left for human beings. The law of quarantine is love: the love of life, and the love of human permanence and survival. Note that no catastrophic phenomenon has occurred in humans that has not been defeated. Mankind has been made to win, and the age of the virus will no doubt come to an end.
At one point [when I was in prison] we were in a group of about 120 people, in a 12 by 12 meter room. We slept like canned sardines. We slept on our sides, folded like a book, with one person’s legs towards the next person’s head, and so on. Of those people, only one who was obese was allowed to sleep on his back. It took an hour and a half for Ebrahim Jahanian, a very patient prisoner in charge of the room, to get us organized. We kept a milk bottle and a chipped glass in the corner for anyone who wanted to go to the bathroom. When someone wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the whole room was in chaos; it took a lot of time to rearrange it again.
What were you doing to make the current process easier?
Although the rationale that governs any quarantine is one of obstruction and restriction, mankind should not give in to walls and fences. We did not limit our imagination to prison walls, and I say that as someone who lived in a room of one meter by one and a half meters for three years. There was no Internet at that time. Our first gateway to the world of social communication was formed by Morse code. The women of Gohardasht, who were kept downstairs, were so proficient that they used Morse codes with rhythm and were so fast that we struggled to keep up. It was also a way to ignore the walls and allow our minds to think creatively.
But to escape the siege, more than the mind, we need things to actively happen outside of us.
You are right. But this happens in one’s mind and becomes externalised. Let me give you an example: in 1983, we slept on the ground and put on plays together from under the doors. A man shouted loudly from the next cell: “Sir, my master, I have ordered to bring commander Muzaffar to interrogations.” The other side replied, “He deserves such a punishment. Be sure to hang him.” We all started laughing. Commander Muzaffar was a simple guard from Khorramabad. Bad circumstances can’t stop you from being creative and happy, which is so important.
Sometimes inside the cell, I laughed out loud as I remembered jokes in my mind. The guards thought I was harassing them. They beat me and said, “Why are you laughing at us?”. I was punished for this many times. Later, when I went to Camp Ashraf, I was absolutely blacklisted for 17 years and my situation was not unlike a quarantine. But in those same years, through gardening, I kept the flame of life alive in myself and turned an empty 1,200-meter parcel of land into a garden full of flowers.
Coronavirus does not start and end with ourselves. Any recklessness endangers another’s life. Intolerance, anger, back-biting and conflict are all a form of social neglect. How we deal with quarantine will go down in history. It is difficult to tolerate sanctions and quarantine at the same time, but man has made life possible wherever they restrict him.
How did you talk and communicate with each other in prison?
When I was in prison I was very shy and aloof. But when I was released, I became an extrovert who enjoyed emotional connections with others. Communication with adjacent cells inside was done by Morse code. I still remember sending Morse codes for whole days on end, and trying to talk about the Warsaw Pact with my adjacent cellmate. We slept on our sides by the door and our bodies become numb. We used “S” for “hello” and “Kh” for “good.” Then we would ask each other’s names, and start the conversation.
People think quarantine means distance. Quarantine means the thirst for communication with our loved ones and during this period, people’s communication becomes stronger. People around me are getting in touch and are more concerned about me now. I have become more aware of relationships with people that I have been unaware of for a long time. This situation binds us together.
Does limitation strengthen a person’s desire for communication?
Yes. I believe that limitation stimulates creativity. For example, in prison we were not supposed to talk when we travelled from the solitary cell to the meeting room. If the least words were said, they would beat us with cables. We were blindfolded and in order not to fall, we put our hands on the shoulder of the person we were chained to in front. As we walked, we would tap Morse codes on each other’s shoulders and talk to each other. These days, there is no need for this challenging task. There are many modes of communication. We have a lot of apps, and there’s no excuse to ignore them.
Talk us through practical ways to deal with quarantine. For example, if I want to resist it tomorrow, what should I do?
Do not turn this process into torture. As simple as that. We have to make it easy. We have to spend our moments in good spirits and with joy. Don’t count the hours and minutes and don’t ask “When will this end?” every day. If you counted the minutes in prison, you would definitely die. I don’t think people in the time of coronavirus should constantly struggle with the concept of waiting. They should make the moments enjoyable for themselves. Let’s say this is the only way of life today and what can we do so that we don’t feel bad.
In the public ward, how did you tolerate one another in a confined space?
Prison or quarantine law is different from the normal laws of life. The main condition is forgiveness and tolerance. Understanding what the other party wants, what they are saying, getting them to disagree with us and understanding that we recognize their right, is a step in the right direction.
The first thing we did in prison was be tolerant of each other. For example, we would support someone who was more vulnerable: in one instance, a person unable to walk without a stick. He was always being interrogated. When the blows fell on his head, we pushed ourselves forward so that he would not be beaten. Let’s not forget the disabled and let’s not forget the children. Seek out the ones that are most vulnerable.
How can the tricks you learned to survive prison help in the age of quarantine?
Human beings have experienced prison settings throughout history. The law of permanence is based on weekly planning. You have to accept that you have are going to be involved with coronavirus for at least a season and plan for the next four months. By exercising, you can protect yourself, stop being passive, and avoid self-loathing and depression. Exercise strengthens motivation, aggressive spirit and vitality.
In 1987 [then-Chief Justice of Iran] Abdol Karim Mousavi Ardebili addressed the Gohardasht Prison guards. He said: “You have to break up the sport of prisoners in any way you can, because sport is a symbol of their resistance.” Exercise boosts motivation and tells you that you have not given up and are aggressively moving forward. Reading and playing also helps.
How did you play in solitary confinement?
Sometimes I played with the adjacent cellmate. For a time I was imprisoned in a place called “the Dark House,” where you did not have the right to wear clothes, even in the cold season, and had to survive in underwear. At night I would put one slipper under my buttocks and one under my shoulders, so that my body would not touch the cold floor. I remember stuffing shirts into a pair of socks to make a ball and playing alone on penalties. There was also singing. The women prisoners were kept downstairs in Gohardasht and there was a woman named Fereshteh who sang traditional Iranian songs. Her voice echoed in the corridor, as if all the birds in the world were singing together, and we were warmed inside our cells. They beat her every time, but every time she would singing again, until she was returned to her cell.
Did you have any serious illness?
Prison is a breeding ground for fungi, scabies, skin and respiratory diseases and genital infections. If one person got sick, he would contaminate the rest, just like coronavirus today, it would travel fast among inmates.
Personal hygiene, cleanliness, and tidiness were important. From two nights before any meeting, we would fold our pants and shirts and put them under our heads to be ironed. We wanted to be tidy. In the case of quarantine, order is important. Disorder and sluggishness lead to helplessness.
These are not slogans for me. Gohardasht was an experience of love and resistance. My mental strength came from love. Love does not necessarily mean love for mankind, but its true nature is related to loving life. It’s the desire to survive and to keep others alive, which, if we return to it in these days, during the coronavirus phenomenon, can lead to the survival of ourselves and others.