One-Minute Book Reviews

February 11, 2008

Inside a Hellish Iranian Prison — Zarah Ghahramani’s ‘My Life as a Traitor’

A young writer says she was locked up and tortured for taking part in student demonstrations at Tehran University

My Life as a Traitor. By Zarah Ghahramani. With Robert Hillman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 242 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has followed the controversy about the credibility of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone may approach My Life as a Traitor with deep skepticism. Here we have another memoir by a young writer who had a hellish experience, wrote it up with the help of an established novelist and got it published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Until recently the main question you might have about such a book was: Is it good? Now another question presents itself: How much of it can you believe? A tough call.

Like Beah, Zarah Ghahramani writes vividly and with what appears to be disarming frankness about a terrifying ordeal — a month-long incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison that she casts as her punishment for taking part in student protests at Tehran University. With Australian novelist Robert Hillman, she tells a good story about her incarceration and torture and the restrictions that even well-off families like hers have faced since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But she doesn’t say whether her book includes composite or invented characters or dialogue, or whether she took other liberties with facts. Nor does she explain how she reconstructed in detail scenes that occurred when she couldn’t have had a pencil or notepaper. She offers pages of dialogue with a prisoner whom she calls Sohrab and identifies as “a madman” in the cell above hers, but we have only her word that he existed. Who’s going to ring up a few mullahs and ask them to confirm it? And if prison officials tortured Ghahramani, they may also have starved her or drugged her food until she was hallucinating about prisoners or holding imaginary conversations to keep her sanity. If she considered these possibilities, she doesn’t deal with them in her book.

So we are left with another interesting and well-written memoir that raises almost as many questions as it answers. Farrar, Straus could have eased some of the concerns by insisting that Ghahramani include a note saying whether she had changed any names, dates or places or used composites. In the absence of such information, you can only hope that over time her story will withstand scrutiny better than Beah’s.

Best line: Many scenes offer sharp observations on growing up in a country ruled by mullahs, especially during Iran’s war with Iraq. This passages describes a standard mourning ritual: “For example, the husband of a young woman living next door to us was killed on the battlefield, and this poor woman was expected to forsake smiling at anything from the moment the news reached her until years in the future, the actual number of years contingent on how long the war lasted … the proscription on smiling meant that she could not behave in any natural, human way for years to come – she could not even smile for her children.”

Worst line: Ghahramani says when she sees photos of herself that the authorities took before throwing her in prison: “I feel violated.” “I feel violated” is journalistic cliché right up there with “closure” and at times used in the same sentence in newspaper stories, as in: “Mrs. Smith said she felt violated by the break-in and wanted the police to catch the thief so she could have closure.” In My Life As a Traitor it sounds just bizarre. Ghahramani doesn’t feel “violated” by being thrown in prison but does feel “violated” by seeing photographs of herself that were taken secretly?

Reading group guide: The publisher has posted one at

Black box warning: This memoir comes from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publisher of A Long Way Gone, which has so far failed to provide persuasive answers to the questions about the credibility of that book that have been raised by reporters for the Australian, Australia’s national daily newspaper, and others.

Published: January 2008

Furthermore: Ghahramani fled Iran after her release from prison and now lives in Australia.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I find this mini review very interesting, Janice. What has me scratching my head is the question who contacted who? Did Zarah contact the “established novelist” or the other way around? Something about this doesn’t add up. Does an “establish novelist” lurk around these infamous prisons waiting for someone to come out and sign a contract, or do these prisoners seek out “established novelists” upon their release? Who’s serving who, here? BTW, I love your site. Have I told you this before? janetleigh

    Comment by janetleigh — February 12, 2008 @ 12:49 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, janetleigh. My understanding is that Ghahramani and Hillman met after Zahrah moved to Australia. [Update: Please see comment #4 below, which says that they met in Iran and provides a link to a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about how they did.] In cases like this a publisher or agent often brings together a writer and someone with a story to tell. I don’t know if that happened with these two. It’s an interesting question, though, isn’t it? Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 12, 2008 @ 10:42 am | Reply

  3. No – she met Hillman while still in Iran, and he encouraged her to move to Australia. He’s written a long article about how he came to know her. And it isn’t so implausible that a writer visiting Iran would come to meet someone like her – people who are obviously foreign are often approached by dissidents who want to tell their story, even though they are taking a risk by doing so.
    If you’re interested in investigating possibly “fictional” memoirs by Middle EAstern women, you might like to look at “Burned Alive” – an investigation was run in the Diplomat (another Australian publication) here:
    And Jean Sasson’s Princess series always seemed pretty far fetched to me.

    Comment by rosabibi — February 18, 2008 @ 2:41 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for the clarification about how ZG met Hillman. Nothing I had seen had as much information about their association as the story in the Sydney Morning Herald for which you’ve provided the link. Hillman’s story in the SMH could provide helpful background for any book club that is reading this book.

    The story in the Diplomat is interesting for other reasons. It says that none of the reviews of “Burned Alive” noted that it was billed as a work of “recovered memory.” This is remarkable if true. I would argue — and so would many others in the U.S. — that if a book on so-called “recovered memories,” this should always be mentioned in stories about it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 18, 2008 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  5. The “Diplomat” story made me wonder how many other memoirs are the product of recovered memory. I’ve just been reading an old “Granta” article about Wilkomirski, the Holocaust survivor who wasn’t (mentioned in the Diplomat article, too). I’d be interested to know where Wilkomirski is now. Does he still believe (or claim to believe) that he survived the Shoah, despite all the evidence to the contrary? I had a bit of a google but couldn’t find any recent profiles.

    Comment by rosabibi — February 22, 2008 @ 8:31 am | Reply

  6. I wonder, too, how many memoirs are the product of “recovered” memory. The subject is so controversial that I suspect most memoirists keep mum on this one.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 22, 2008 @ 9:55 am | Reply

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