The Bathhouse
Farnoosh Moshiri
(Black Heron Press) $21.95

Jerome Gold's Seattle-based Black Heron Press has published a number of works in the last few years about prison and prisoners. These are not easy books; they deal with the kind of experiences that take considerable emotional effort to write as well as to read. The readers, of course, can never experience the full force of the writers' suffering, but their commitment to a book that does not entertain them or give them a pleasant break from the unpleasant real world is certainly admirable, if not altogether saintly.

This September, the prison-themed book that Gold's Black Heron Press will publish is The Bathhouse, in which the author, Farnoosh Moshiri, looks at the miserable lives of women in an Iranian prison. Though Farnoosh Moshiri now lives in Houston, she is an Iranian expat. Her second novel is based on interviews she conducted with women who were imprisoned in Tehran after the Iranian revolution of the late '70s and early '80s.

Like many other Iranians who were living in the U.S. at the time, Moshiri was glad when the despot, the last shah of Iran, was ousted. She left Iowa, where she was studying playwriting at the University of Iowa, and returned home eager to participate in what she assumed would be a progressive new Left government. But the heroes who had overthrown the shah turned out to be ruthless, right-wing fundamentalists.

Two years after Moshiri returned home, the government rounded up Iranian writers and told them to sign agreements about what they would and would not write. Moshiri refused to do so and was forced into hiding. Members of her family were imprisoned and tortured; her father eventually died of injuries he suffered in prison. With her child, Moshiri escaped to Afghanistan, where she lived for five years in prison-like conditions.

Eventually she and her kid found their way to India, where she lived in an apartment with a bunch of other refugees. The place was so crowded she went into a closet to write. In the late 1980s, she made it back to the States. Some of the writing she did in that closet in India is now being published in the States. Her first novel, At the Wall of the Almighty, was published in 1999 by Interlink. The Bathhouse is her second novel published in English. Jerome Gold describes the style of The Bathhouse as "almost like journalism, very straightforward."

The first-person narrative begins with the female protagonist being abducted from home. She has no idea who her abductors are, what she is accused of, or where she is being taken. The book, which Gold compares to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, shows how being in prison affects these very different women. Upper-class women are humiliated by thugs; political prisoners try to hold onto their convictions when they have nothing else to hold onto; insane women become more crazy. Most of the women never get to leave the prison; they are executed.

A few women are released when they convince their captors that they, like their true-believing captors, can see the face of their great leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in the face of the moon. Some women try to convince their captors they have converted, and when their deception is discovered they are punished severely. Rape is used systematically not only to hurt women immediately, but also to ruin them for eternity: The fundamentalist torturers believe that a woman who is neither married nor a virgin cannot enter heaven, and that a woman who has been raped can never marry.

The Bathhouse is about some of the women who were destroyed in this prison, and a few, like Moshiri, who weren't. Her next book, a collection of short fiction, is due to be published by Black Heron in 2003.

Farnoosh Moshiri reads at Bumbershoot Sat Sept 1, 2:30-4 pm, at Born Footwear Bagley Wright Theatre.

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