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from the November 2017 issue

A Slice of Darkness

Iranian author Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar depicts an imprisoned writer’s experience of psychological and physical torture.

He felt he was standing on darkness.

There was no sound. It was dark and quiet everywhere. He couldn’t see anything, he was blindfolded. He was just standing there, waiting. For a long time. For hours. It was as if he had always been standing there. Time had protracted and from beneath the blindfold it had seeped into his eyes, his ears, his head. His body was filled with silence and darkness.

His hands were tied in front of him. The prison guard had held him by the arm and led him here from the solitary confinement cell, to this room. They had walked down a long corridor that turned right and became even longer, darker. He had walked on his heels, limping. The guard had brought him as far as this room and he had left. And the heavy steel door had closed with the reverberation of metal, behind him, inside his head.

Now, darkness was before him. Face to face. He was standing on it. He felt as though it was pushing him from behind. He could smell a rotting cadaver some distance away. He sensed there was someone in the room, but there was no sound. The soles of his feet were swollen and raw. He couldn’t stand properly. He was still in pain. His knees were bent, his back was bent, his neck was bent. He wanted to sit, on the floor, to lie down on his back, on his stomach.

Before throwing him in solitary confinement, they had tied his legs to the bedpost and whipped his feet with a cable. He had screamed. Loud. As loud as he could. He had heard that shouting would reduce the pain. But his pain had not diminished. His feet had swollen and there was still pus and watery blood oozing from the cuts. In his cell, he had walked, groaning and in pain. One step, another step, slowly, carefully, and he had gone around and around . . . moaning. He had heard that if you don’t walk after a flogging, your feet swell. They had swelled.

He felt there was someone there, but there was no sound. They had told him that after the whipping and solitary confinement, it would be time for the interrogation. The waiting room. The regret room. Haji Saeed’s room.

Time seemed to have stopped. He didn’t know whether it was day or night. He was cold.

He heard the rustle of a sheet of paper. Soft, swishing. The silence had been so profound that he couldn’t tell where it had come from. From everywhere. He heard someone getting up. From a chair. A soft reverberation slowly moved toward him. It sounded like slippers shuffling on the floor. Then it was quiet again. He felt someone was watching him. For an instant he clenched his fist around the darkness.

Darkness said, “What’s your name?”

The voice echoed louder in his ears. His lower lip quivered and from deep inside his throat he said, “Morteza.”

Darkness shouted, “Louder!”

A dark hand slapped him. Hard. Unexpectedly. His cheek burned, he reeled and fell on the floor, on the dark. His ear was ringing. Silence had disappeared. His hands bound, he turned and leaned on one shoulder to try and get up. But he couldn’t. He fell back. This time he struggled using his shoulder and his elbow and managed to sit up on his knees. His left ear was still buzzing. Darkness grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled him up. He stood, on his heels. But his knees were bent. His back was bent.

Darkness gripped his neck, shoved him to one side, and pressed his face against a cold concrete wall. It felt coarse.

“Nose to the wall!”

Then, scuffing his feet, he slowly stepped back. The wall smelled of mold.

From a distance, Darkness asked, “Why did they bring you here?”

The voice sounded older.

He said, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? . . . I see . . .”

It was as if Darkness were nodding to confirm his own words.

“Why do you think they brought you here?”

He remained quiet.

“What kind of work do you do? What’s your job?”

The voice was kinder now.

“I write.”

“You write . . .  I see . . .  with the right or the left hand?”

He wondered why he had asked that.

“With the right. But I’m left-handed.”

Darkness read the text aloud, “‘When the photo of a political leader is printed larger than the size of a stamp, the danger of dictatorship is certain.’ Interesting!”

He thought there must be one of those large pictures here, too. Much larger than a stamp. In a wide wood frame. There must be one. They have hung it on the dark. They have hammered a nail into the dark and they have hung the frame from it.

“Who is this Nabokov? Do you know him? . . .  He has such a difficult name.”

He said nothing.

“Oh, and sometime ago, I think it was in an interview . . . What was it you wrote?”

He could hear sheets of paper being shuffled.

“‘I will not submit to censorship!’ Really?”

He didn’t know what to say.

“Did you . . .  write this?”

He said nothing.


The voice had moved closer.

“I asked you a question: did you write this?”

And Darkness grabbed his head from behind and slammed his face into the wall.

“You filth!”

His face smashed into the coarse concrete. For an instant the darkness turned red.

His nose had gone numb. When he touched it with the back of his bound hands, he couldn’t feel it. He felt something warm above his mouth and a slimy wetness slowly trickled down over his swollen lips.

“Why didn’t you sign the paper they gave you?”

Again, his lower lip quivered.

“Because what they had written was not true . . . ”

He tasted blood.

“I wasn’t there . . . I don’t know those people. . . I told them, ‘I am neither a spy, nor . . . ’”

“You don’t know them? Is that so? . . . How about illicit affairs? Are you claiming you haven’t had any?!”

“I haven’t.”

“You have to fess up to one or the other . . . it’s your choice. You will sign and . . .  that’s all there is to it. And you’ll get out.”

He remained silent. For a long while. Then he murmured, “I can’t.”

There was silence. Then Darkness quietly said, “You can’t . . . I see . . .”

Suddenly, he heard the sound of boots coming toward him. Only then did he realize there was a second person in the room. Perhaps the same prison guard who had brought him there. It seemed Darkness had motioned to someone standing to the side, waiting for an order.

Without realizing how, he was torn from the dark with a single move and hurled to the floor, and the boots started kicking him mercilessly from the left and the right, in the ribs, in the face and legs and back. It was as if two people were beating him.

He was writhing in pain and rolling on darkness. Again, as if with the gesture of a hand, the boots stopped and moved to the other side of the room.

Then all went quiet again . . . he was lying on his side, clawing in pain at the dark. He felt the fragment of a chipped tooth on his tongue.

There was a beep!

With his tongue, he pushed the fragment to the corner of his lips.

“For the love of God, Morteza! . . . Have pity on me . . .”

It was Mehri’s voice! He tore his head from the floor and turned toward Darkness.

“Do whatever they say . . . for the love of God, Morteza . . . give in . . .”

She couldn’t stop crying.

“I’m dying of grief, Morteza . . . have pity on me . . .”

There was another beep and Mehri’s voice was cut off.

“The poor thing is so worried about you.”

His heart was pounding. Again he heard the rustle of sheets of paper.

“Now . . . if you want to sign this, get up and come over here.”

He leaned on his elbows and hoisted himself onto his knees. But he remained in this half-crouch.

“Do you want me to help you get up?”

He could still hear Mehri’s voice. “For the love of God, Morteza . . . you’re killing me with grief . . .”

His head was down. He could smell the dark floor. With the tip of his tongue he moved the tooth fragment between his lips and . . . he spat.

Again, as though with a motion of the dark hand, the boots approached him and . . . a hand grabbed him under the arm to help him stand, but he pulled his shoulder away. He didn’t want to get up.

The one wearing boots, perhaps a prison guard, must have glanced over at Darkness, wondering what his next move should be, waiting for orders . . . and Darkness must have waved him off, because he went and stood to the side.

Silence again. He had an itch above his lips. His head was hanging and his face was close to his bound hands. He could still taste the saltiness of blood in his mouth.


He heard the soft clink of a metal object.


He didn’t know what was making that noise. It sounded like two pieces of metal tapping against each other.

The silence grew deeper. All he heard was the occasional clink! . . . Clink!

He heard a chair’s bones creaking and from deep within the darkness the slippers moved toward him.



He was trying to lean on his wrists and get up when the treads of the plastic slippers came to rest on his fingers . . . and pressed down . . . so hard that his bones were about to break.


Again, he heard the metal object. This time it was close. Next to his ear.

“You . . . have to learn . . . that when you are told to sign . . . you will sign.”


“No matter what . . .”

The sound resembled the metal tips of a pair of pincers snapping. Or pliers.

He could feel the pungent smell of tea rose cologne that had blended with Darkness’s sweat.

“Which hand did you say you write with . . .  the right?”

The bones in his hand were breaking.


He felt the chill of the metal object . . . pliers or pincers . . .  on the tip of his middle finger.

“You have to learn to sign whatever is put in front of you.”

He pressed the tip of the pliers under his fingernail . . .  it hurt.

“You will learn . . . everyone learns . . .”

Darkness pushed harder … the pain sharpened. He felt a burning sensation under his nail.

“You all learn fast . . . very fast . . .”

The tip of the pliers bit into the tip of his nail. His finger was shaking. He felt his nail separating from his flesh.

“Did you hear how she was begging you?”

Gradually, his hand, arm, and shoulder began to tremble, too.

“Did you hear how she was weeping?”

The pain of the nail as it separated from the finger spread throughout his body.

“Why? . . . Why are you doing this to yourself, Morteza?”

His breath was short and rasping.

Darkness slowly tugged on the pliers. He felt his nail ripping out from the root.

Silence returned. His entire being had become that finger and that throbbing nail.

Softly, he said, “But you will learn.”

And he yanked off the nail.

He felt his shoulder splitting from his torso . . . and all that darkness suddenly flooded his gaping mouth.


© Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.

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