4 out of 4 stars
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SAVAK security Captain Jamsheed Al-Armaghani carries out orders to subject political prisoners to interrogation and torture in Evin Prison, Tehran. For a while, he has no qualms about his mission. Jamsheed considers that he serves the law in the name of Iran, His Majesty Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and the Constitution. Everything changes when his own brother, Mahmood, becomes a target for his superior officer, Commander Farouk Nabizadeh. Caught between his loyalty to his family and his official duties, Jamsheed will get into deep water for his brother’s sake.
A close-up of the turbulent years preceding the return of Ayatollah Raollah Khomeini, The Pahlavi Sword by Jemil Metti is a novel filled with drama, action, and suspense. The author skillfully uses Jamsheed’s story to describe the social and political circumstances culminating in the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the replacement of the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Dedicated to all the innocent people wrongfully incarcerated in Iran and everywhere else around the world, the book raises our awareness of the horrific conditions in Evin Prison, nicknamed Evin University because of the number of intellectuals imprisoned within its walls.
Set between 1977 and 1982, the story unfolds in various locations from Iran, Irak, and the United States. Jemil Metti does a great job of depicting all the turmoil in Tehran before and after Khomeini’s return. Student unrest, massive demonstrations, and the upsurge of the pro-Khomeini followers unleash more and more violent actions against everyone who is perceived as a political dissident and critic of the government. With the outside world comfortably turning a blind eye to what was happening in Evin Prison, SAVAK, the Shah’s security and intelligence service, was in charge with the arrest and interrogation of political opponents: “SAVAK decides who dies, who lives, and who gets arrested: all this in the name of national security.” (p. 80) The novel is definitely not for the faint of heart as it includes profane language and graphic scenes of abominable forms of torture, ranging from finger cutting and bone fracturing to nail removing and gang rape.
What I liked most about this book was the clever narrative strategy the author has chosen to narrate the events. I would have expected the first-person narratorial voice to belong to one of the victims of the Shah’s regime. Instead, the author took me by surprise by giving a voice to Jamsheed Al-Armaghani, a SAVAK agent and perpetrator of hideous crimes in the Shah’s name. Readers usually relate to a first-person narrator who is also the protagonist of the story. In this case, things are more complicated since we have trouble believing in Jamsheed’s redemption or moral transformation. He changes sides and seems to become aware of the regime’s wrongdoings only when his family is under imminent threat. Otherwise, we might as well assume things would have continued the same for Jamsheed and his relatives. One aspect I could not come to terms with was the inhuman treatment of the prisoners and the guards’ cruelty and surreal detachment while committing the most atrocious acts. Despite being necessary for the realism of the story, the torture scenes were highly overwhelming and, therefore, the element I disliked most about the novel.
The plot has many twists and turns and keeps readers tuned in with multiple revelations and a periodic turn of events. Apart from Jamsheed, there are other interesting characters too. Commander Farouk Nabizadeh features well in the role of a despicable antagonist who would stop at nothing to achieve his aims. Family relationships play an important part in the novel. The Armaghani, Teleghani, and Gailani families brilliantly portray the kind of social and political pressure that could turn brother against brother, husband against wife, or father against daughter. Different female protagonists emphasize the harsh conditions in which Iranian women are forced to live. Most of them are victims of the patriarchal regime like the twin Teleghani sisters and their mother, Maysoon. Others carry astonishing stories of survival like Thuraya Al-Gailani, who turns from an excellent student and avid reader into a Mujahedeen fighter and symbol of the revolution. Last but not least, there are those like Nurse Fareeda, an Assyrian Christian who seeks a place “where differences are highlighted and celebrated, not condemned, scorned, or persecuted.” (p. 275)
The Pahlavi Sword by Jemil Metti impresses with the brutal honesty of the narration. Despite the explicit nature of the torture scenes, the author’s courage to bring to light the inmates’ ordeal in Evin prison is highly commendable. He gives a voice to the voiceless and warns people of unimaginable abuse and murders committed in the name of law and order. Since the novel is also excellently edited, I am rating it 4 out of 4 stars. I am recommending it primarily to those interested in Iranian history and Middle Eastern conflicts. Human rights activists who fight for freedom of expression, gender equality, and a more peaceful world will appreciate the realism of the story too.
The Pahlavi Sword
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