Becoming Unsilenced: A Story of Hostage, Survival and Seeking Justice
I rose to the headlines in the summer of 2019, aged 24, for making the irreversible decision to speak up against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s preeminent military organisation and leading security agency. This was an agonising decision, no short of sacrifice; I knew that vocalising my suffering would mean separation and distance from much that was dear to me and accepting exile. Did I think I could endure perpetual longing as my permanent state of existence? No, but I also could not bear the silence.
Five years earlier, in the summer of 2014, my parents and I made a trip to Tehran. I did not know much about the country itself, merely that it was my place of birth; that my paternal great-great grandparents had migrated there in the 19th century as English missionaries from London, the capital of the British Empire, and made a legacy for themselves at a time when the relations between the British and the Persians were still precious. A century later, the descendant of the missionaries — my father — had decided to return to London, and that is where I had been brought up. Iran was never a dinner conversation starter in our household, nor was I ever particularly interested in building a professional career out of the access I had to the country, however lucrative or exciting that may have been to an aspiring storyteller. While my knowledge of the country and its ruling power quarters was limited, their interest in our family was not.
And so when we arrived in Tehran to the sizzling welcome of the July sunshine, the Revolutionary Guards had already designated us as potentially convenient scapegoats to take on the blame for all that was wrong within the Islamic Republic. With ‘connections’ to the UK and the US, the Iranian authorities sought to punish us for the collective and historical grudge the country had held against the West, most notably for the £400 million debt that they wanted to obtain from the British by all means necessary, even if it meant taking entirely innocent individuals hostage on the pretext of protecting national security.
We suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a diplomatic crossfire. The Revolutionary Guards absurdly linked us to the covert operations of the MI6 Iran, then CIA, then Mossad; falsely accused us of collaboration with G4S (leading British security company) and IMS (International Military Services Ltd); apostasy, rejection of Islam, spreading corruption on earth, blasphemy, conversion to Judaism, conversion to Christianity, embracing Satanism. With each day held in Iran with no permit to leave the country, I feared for what might be waiting for us.
Simultaneously happening in parallel with our Kafkaesque ordeal, there was the news about Jason Rezaian, an American-Iranian journalist for The Washington Post that had been imprisoned in Evin Prison on espionage charges. Similar to his predicament, more and more journalists were writing about Ghoncheh Ghavamin, a British-Iranian SOAS university student who had also landed in Evin Prison on dubious “propaganda against the regime” charges.
And steadily, unhurriedly, the day I most feared but which I never anticipated, arrived. They came for us.
From 12 January until 13 August, I was a ‘guest’ at the Evin Prison, derisively regarded as the ‘Evin Hotel’ by the Revolutionary Guards. On a regular day, I would be threatened with lifelong solitary confinement. “You’ll leave this place when your eyes can no longer see” was my interrogator’s way of saying goodbye when he was done interrogating me for the day. And on a bad day — on a particularly, very bad day — I was pushed on my knees while blindfolded and made to listen as the guard loaded the gun for my execution, and fired the shots. I heard it all, and while my ears heard and my mind registered, my feet could not feel the ground.
Later, I witnessed my father — a man of great intellect, pride and relentless humour regardless of circumstance — howl in fury and selflessly beg men much younger than him to at least let me go and keep him instead, as if he was somehow less human than me. I witnessed my always gleeful and genial mother morph into a woman of stoic pose and cold eyes beneath the tightly held black chador as she went from one government office to another, putting men of power in dull suits to shame with her unswerving honesty and one-woman advocacy. I bore witness to moments that scared me and in equal measure scarred me, many of which I am yet to find the right words to articulate.
For five long years, I stood on the very edge of the tallest building in the world, just a gentle nudge away from plunging to my death. That’s what it felt like: the perpetual feeling of fear.
Even when I left the heavy metal gates of Evin Prison behind me, I was not free. Even when I completed my house arrest, I was not free. Even when I landed back in London, homeless but safe, I still was not free. The lump in my throat, the pain on my chest, the irregular heartbeats, the headaches, the fainting spells, the panic attacks, the constant itching and hair loss and restlessness; I carried them home to London with me like souvenirs.
But the most destructive was the utter silence I had been conditioned to possess throughout this ordeal. To avoid talking about my experience and my suffering had been a facile survival mechanism to protect myself and those close to me from any further danger and violence, but, ironically, it also suited my oppressors very well. Ultimately, I had to face the stern question: how can an oppressed and her oppressor benefit from the same act? It was a fallacy — an illusion — that many great nations have fallen for in the face of repression and despotism, including those in the diaspora. We have been led to believe that silence is a protector of our safety when in reality it is an effective enabler, providing legitimacy and muscle to dictators and their opportunist apologists.
Not too long ago, I was on a panel on Clubhouse alongside some of the brightest human rights lawyers, activists and journalists working in and around the MENA scene, and I was given the opportunity to share my insight of Iran’s secretive and flawed judiciary system where most national security cases are either predetermined or strategically-timed arbitrary detentions. After my contribution, a young woman from the audience emerged and commented that it would be best I moved on and did not exploit my trauma as a launching pad for a career, as if it was a choice I had tactfully made. After a quick Google search, I learned that she had built a career for herself thanks to the privileges of being a dual national; naturally, my story as a survivor of state violence was a nuisance to her performative ambition of “creating peace and dialogue” between the West and Iran. She was not only victim-blaming, but she was actively perpetuating a culture of silence. How can there possibly be ‘peace and dialogue’ when she was interested in neither?
I was unsettled, but it was no surprise. This is what becomes of those that live or work long enough under a dictatorship: they internalise the perspective of their oppressors and become an extension to their rule, much like Stockholm syndrome victims. Silence is the product of fear, and fear is a ticking time bomb. As the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days and weeks and months tick away, fear spreads like a plague, multiplying, dividing, and corrupting everything it touches. Fear is a liar and a weapon for denial, and with a systemic culture of silence, they become instruments of impunity. Five years on, I am still learning to speak up; I am still learning to defeat my own silence and that of others. This is the only way to justice.
I write this letter to the members of the Middle Eastern diaspora. We are so much more powerful than we would like to believe. We have so much more agency than we could ever imagine. Be it my country of birth, Iran, or its neighbouring countries Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others — the unspoken agonies of the silenced majority demands the recognition of their suffering by those of us that are in a safe country and can risk speaking truth to power. The magnitude of human rights violations can never fully receive the deserving coverage in the popular media, and therefore it is up for us to carry the torch of humanity. It is up to each and every one of us to stand for humanity. We have to be the speakers and protectors of truth.
Why, you may ask, when truth seems elusive and misinformation is rife? I say, from experience, justice requires truth; it requires intentionality, moral courage, brave and active participation. While many throw the concept around leisurely, real justice cannot come to be unless we become it. It starts from within.
By Ana Diamond