Modern-Day Iran, Through the Eyes of a Prisoner

Amir Ahmadi Arian on the banality of evil in his novel "Then The Fish Swallowed Him"

"Jonah and the Whale", Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) ca. 1400
“Jonah and the Whale”, Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) ca. 1400. Public domain via the Met.

The novel Then The Fish Swallowed Him follows Yunus Turabi, a taciturn 45-year-old Iranian bus driver with a simple life: he loves high-quality black tea, has an obsessive love for the streets of the sprawling metropolis of Tehran, and has recently joined an underground reading group. All that changes when he is arrested in the wake of the 2005 Tehran bus drivers’ strike and sent to Evin Prison, notorious for its interrogations and torture.

Over a period of weeks, he is alternately questioned and beaten by his assigned interrogator at Evin, an older man named Hajj Saeed, and he spends extensive time in solitary confinement. None of it is easy to read, in part because of its accuracy; the scenes are based on Arian’s interviews with friends in Iran who have spent time in solitary confinement. In flashbacks, Yunus’s life is revealed to be less than simple—his parents both dead, his best friend betrayed—and his relationship with Hajj Saeed twists and turns towards its inevitable end of a forced confession.

Then The Fish Swallowed Him isn’t quite Amir Ahmadi Arian’s first book. In Iran, he’s published novels, short stories, and nonfiction, in addition to translating novels into Farsi and working as a journalist, but this book is his debut in English. The book’s gorgeous, unique turns of phrase—“a screaming, black chador,” “the noises snaked in from all sides, scarring the air”—show how Arian’s work as a translator influences his writing.

I met with Amir Ahmadi Arian to discuss the practice of writing inside and outside of Iran, solitary confinement, and the banality of evil.

Nozlee Samadzadeh: You’ve written about prison sentences and about the Green Movement in short stories in the past. What made you want to handle these subjects in novel form in Then The Fish Swallowed Him?

Amir Ahmadi Arian: There’s so much that’s not been told. The thing about stories of Iran in English is that almost all of them are written by Iranian Americans, people who grew up here. They didn’t have a first-hand experience of what transpired after the revolution. So when I was reading those books, I was constantly noticing this yawning gap. There are stories of post-revolutionary Iran that no one has told in any form, nonfiction or fiction. And they’re really great stories! They’re incredible stories in so many ways.

I’m by nature a political person, I’ve been a journalist for a long time and been involved in politics. And I love political novels. I’ve always been a reader of political novels—especially Latin American. I feel very close to that tradition. It’s almost like I naturally go to political themes. I’ve been involved personally with a lot of this stuff too. So I’m not done with them! They’re going to show up again.

NS: There are so many books in this book—a literal syllabus for the reading group of bus drivers—from Iranian authors like Jalal Al-e-Ahmad and Bijan Jazani, who I’ll admit I’ve never heard of, to Marx and Engels and Foucault and Fanon. If you could ask a reader of this book to read just one of those books, which one would you pick? Yunus’s favorite is the Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

There are stories of post-revolutionary Iran that no one has told in any form. And they’re really great stories!

AAA: I would say The Wretched of the Earth, that’s a book I really admire so deeply. It moved me so much, for so many reasons. And then I love Foucault’s book, actually. It’s not elaborated on in the study group, Discipline and Punish. That book really touched me, too. Funny thing is that when that book came out in Farsi, it kind of disappeared from the market because it sold out immediately. And it turned out that the police, the Niru-ye Entezami, had bought it.

NS: Just to make it disappear?

AAA: No, to read it! Somebody had read it in their system and decided that it was a good read for them.

But anyway, another thing that I wanted to highlight in this book is that when we talk about a worker’s strike or a worker’s union, the intellectual dimension of it is not widely known. I talked to a lot of bus drivers, and a couple of them were among the leaders of those unions. I was really surprised—and embarrassed, I should have known—but I was surprised at how well-read and knowledgeable they are. I didn’t make up anything about those lists. I heard it from them, I asked them what they were reading. They did have study groups, in different formats, and they read books every week and they sat around and discussed them. One bus driver told me that he always had a book by the window, in the front. He said that he found his wife through that, actually. One day a woman—he was reading, I believe, The Grapes of Wrath—a woman comes on board and notices that book and they start talking, and then they married!

Intellectually, it’s a very rich tradition, union activism in Iran. It has been from the beginning and I wanted to emphasize that.

NS: I’d love to know how you think about writing fiction in Farsi versus in English, particularly descriptions and dialogue. I thought it was so funny that we see Yunus’s mom pouring tea the traditional Iranian way (“My mom would pour tea from the teapot, then weaken it with the boiled water of the kettle”) without explanation. And at the bus drivers’ protest in the book’s opening pages, you don’t translate the word zolm in the main speaker’s speech.

AAA: I thought that the expressions and words, that you can kind of understand them from the context.

NS: Being Iranian, I wouldn’t be able to tell!

AAA: Yeah. I didn’t translate zolm—I don’t even know if it has a good equivalent in English.

NS: “Tyranny,” I guess? But it’s not quite…

AAA: Zolm is not inflicted by a tyrant, necessarily. It was a deliberate decision. There were actually more of those, but I took them out later. This book takes place in Iran, and everybody speaks Farsi, right? I’m basically translating something, and translation is never complete. So I wanted parts of it to kind of jut out.

NS: So we have “asshole” and then we have pedar sag (for non-Iranian readers: literally “[your] father [is a] dog” but metaphorically similar to “son of a bitch”), and just because neither can be directly translated doesn’t mean we can’t have both.

AAA: It’s good to have it sound a little alien to a native speaker in English. To remind them constantly that this isn’t happening in your language, it’s some form of translation—not literally, but a cultural translation.

NS: Did you feel responsible for representing Iran in a way that would or would not be misunderstood? What if someone reads this book and thinks, “What a horrible theocracy where adultery is illegal, that’s so messed up.” Did you worry about making Hajj Saeed, the interrogator, too evil?

AAA: I did. The character that I spent the most time on was the interrogator, not Yunus. In the news or many other books, you’ve got a simplified dichotomy of an evil government versus an angelic people. The established notion is that the Iranian people just want to “be like us,” they want democracy and Coca Cola and whatever. They want everything we want, but they’re trapped there under the thumb of this incomprehensibly evil government. They’re pretty evil, but it’s just not true, it’s not the fact. Iran is a very dynamic society, a lot is going on. If you leave the country for two years and go back—do you travel there?

NS: I’ve only been once, I was born here. I went as a kid, in 2000, which was at this point a million Iran years ago.

AAA: It changes pretty fundamentally in many ways. I have been living out of the country for ten years, and I’ve visited maybe every two years. Even I was surprised every time that there were things I needed to learn. It’s a society that is in flux all the time, and that dichotomy of Beauty and the Beast doesn’t work.

One thing that I wanted to really work on for this book was to show that the prison system in Iran is a bureaucracy. If I manage to get that across, I’ve done my job. There are a lot of bureaucrats. These interrogations are procedures that are devised and finalized before the interrogator comes into the room. They’re following a script, and all of this torture, all of this stuff is part of a bureaucratic system. It’s a form of the banality of evil that I wanted to execute in this book. And as a result, people who do it are just human beings.

NS: I thought it was so cool that you put those words in the mouth of Habib Samadi, a union activist who advises the bus drivers before their strike: “Your interrogators are human beings. They have strengths and weaknesses too. Be open to them and see them as humans. This can help you manipulate them.”

AAA: Absolutely. These are people just struggling in their own lives like everybody else, and that’s their day job. When they are done with their day job, they go home and watch BBC and American movies, they have a fight with their daughter because her scarf is not tied right, or she comes home late. It was very important to me to portray Hajj Saeed as a human without minimizing the pain that he is inflicting in the process.

NS: When did the comparison to the story of Jonah and the whale occur to you? (“Yunus” is what Jonah is called in the Quran.)

If you’re in Iran and involved in politics, you’ll be surrounded by all sorts who’ve spent time in solitary confinement.

AAA: The metaphor was kind of obvious, right? The experience of a solitary cell is reminiscent of what the Biblical story is about, of being in a dark, tight place on your own for a long time. Also a book that really affected me—I read it before I started this project—is In the Belly of the Beast, which is in the epigraph. The title refers to that. I found it to be a great metaphor. Also the whole journey of Jonah, or Yunus, both in the Bible and Quran, is similar to what this character goes through: getting involved with a political process, and getting almost excommunicated, expelled from the community, and having this period of self-reflection-slash-torture in a dark spot, and then getting spit out back into society. That was a pretty good metaphor for all that.

NS: I have to ask about solitary confinement. Your descriptions of the way he felt physically as well as mentally are at times difficult to read—I had close the book and take a break. You thank the Iranians you spoke to who had spent time in solitary confinement in your acknowledgments. Did you spend any time alone yourself?

AAA: I thought I would, but I didn’t end up doing that.

NS: I can see how it might feel disrespectful, to be like, “I’ll shut myself in my bedroom.”

AAA: And it’s not the same. I can sit in my room for five days, but it’s not the same at all. It was very difficult to talk to them—people don’t want to talk about that experience at all. I’m grateful to people who did. Another surprise when I was researching this book is how little literature we have about solitary confinement, actually, of any genre. When I talked to people, I realized why: people have a hard time talking about what happened to themselves. Because I wasn’t there myself, everything you read here about Yunus’s time in solitary confinement, I could basically have published as nonfiction too. They’re testimonies of different people that I combined into one character, but pretty much everything is according to testimony.

NS: That makes it even more horrifying.

AAA: Yeah, I know! It was very hard.

NS: How did you find them?

AAA: They’re my friends. If you’re in Iran, and you’re involved in politics in any way, you’ll be surrounded by all sorts who’ve spent time in solitary confinement. I know a lot of my friends who’ve spent time, from maybe twenty days to a couple of months in solitary.

NS: I’m asking you to project beyond the pages of the book here—we don’t see Yunus’s years in prison on the page, but it’s clear they’ve really changed him. One of my favorite passages in the book is about the distinction between solitude and what he’s experiencing in prison. He says, “compulsory loneliness was the opposite of the voluntary one I had cultivated.” Do you think that he manages to “wrest [his] solitude back” when he gets out?

A novelist should be a public intellectual too.

AAA: No, I don’t think it’s possible. It’s an irreversible experience. I don’t “think”—I’m quoting the people I talked to. Almost unanimously, they said the same thing. Scientifically, solitary confinement of more than 14 days is considered torture because your brain is basically rewired. You’re not the same person when you get out. No, I don’t find harbor any redemption for him when he gets out.

NS: You’ve been publishing more literary essays, like the piece in the Paris Review Daily about the concept of avareh, the Iranian concept of spiritual displacement, in addition to op-eds on current events in Iran. What is next for you after the publication of this novel?

AAA: It’s an interesting question because I’ve been asked that quite a bit. It comes from a totally different idea of who a writer is in Iran and here. In Iran, you can’t walk around and say, “I write novels,” it doesn’t make sense. A novelist should be a public intellectual too.

NS: That’s not as much the case here.

AAA: It’s not, there are professional novelists here, who, they don’t give a shit what’s going on around them. And they don’t write nonfiction, or they’re not involved in anything but fiction. That kind of figure really doesn’t exist in Iran.

NS: It’s French too, the idea of the public intellectual.

AAA: Yes, it’s very French, it’s Middle Eastern. In the Arab world, everybody writes everything. I grew up in that tradition, and I can’t really stop writing about other things. It comes to me immediately. When something happens I start writing—I feel responsible to do that. It would be interesting to do a statistical analysis of Iranian writers, of their corpus: how much of it is fiction, how much is plays, op-eds, essays, travelogues—they write everything—compared to a professional novelist in the U.S. You’d be surprised. Maybe people we know as novelists in Iran, half of what they wrote was nonfiction. I belong to that tradition, and it doesn’t make sense to me to just write fiction.

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