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Day 1,330 #FreeNazanin – Colouring Books

Richard Ratcliffe
London, United Kingdom

Nov 23, 2019 — 

Last month Gabriella came home, a hard decision.

It ended the lifeline of visits - the past three years we have been a fragility propped up by the visiting room.

When Nazanin was first taken no visits were allowed. Her life blacked away. Gabriella didn’t sleep  much those first weeks, calling out for Nazanin each night, developing fevers, going to the door daily to look for her mum, distractable only by watching Peppa Pig. Now my in-laws cannot bear it on.

In solitary when family visits restarted, they were discretionary, used as a weapon against Nazanin, reward or punishment for cooperation. Sometimes both - with the family suddenly called last minute, then made to wait for hours.

They were moments of eggshell. Her interrogators were always present, intruding their control. They would play with Gabriella in front of Nazanin, putting her on their desk, Nazanin full of resentment at their intrusion even there. When the family brought a cake to celebrate with Nazanin, her interrogator insisted on tasting it first, telling the family next time they should bring him a better one. Abuse can be judged by its shades of entitlement.

Early visits were occasions for the adults to be taken into enclosed rooms and warned over other family members. There were visits where Nazanin’s mother passed out. Gabriella became uncertain of going to ‘Mummy’s bedroom’, going somewhere always Manamy cried. She wore a nappy for prison visits for months long after she no longer wore one elsewhere. The nappy was always searched on the way in, always needed before the way out.

The family tried hard at the beginning to protect Gabriella’s innocence and keep her in pastels. They told her mummy was away at university. She drew pictures of Nazanin as a student. But soon she was telling people who asked in the park that her mummy was in prison – to the chagrin of her grandmother.

Even without words she understood always more than we realised. She sensed the sudden stress at surveillance in public places. She felt the blue of the days of crying on the sofa, when she refused to be left alone, demanding attention with a cuddle or game. Even now she remains sensitive to abandonment, and hates saying goodbyes. When told off by her grandmother, she would wake repeatedly during the night to check if she was still angry, and again in the morning. She would linger in the visiting room, going back again and again for extra kisses.

Gabriella told Nazanin sometimes she didn’t like going to prison. It gave her a washing machine in her tummy: “Mummy, prison is a nasty place. It keeps you away from me.” She asked Nazanin not to discuss prison during visits: “Can you please not tell all this about prison when I am here? Can you tell Manamy by phone instead?”

Outside she learned about taboos. Recently Gabriella asked Nazanin what to tell girls at nursery who wouldn’t play with her because her mummy’s in prison? The teacher had intervened and said it wasn’t true. Gabriella clarified it was: “My mummy is in prison because they think she has done something wrong. But she hasn’t. When they find out, they will release her.”

When we got furlough last year, for Gabriella the most important thing was to show nursery that her mummy was real, and could visit like other people’s. After its sudden cancellation, she gave Nazanin her small Paddington Bear. “He can sleep next to you, because I cannot.”

Visits became an island of togetherness with Gabriella sitting on Nazanin’s lap, sharing stories and games. She was an exuberance of doing things - focused on making origami animals, or tales of dollies and parks. Not for her our parental greys and greens envying the loss of ordinary lives. Family visits were a reminder that despite the tears, life is also an opportunity for colouring in.

Long before she had words, Gabriella had pictures. Initially Nazanin drew the pictures, Gabriella the colouring. First pictures of her toys at home, increasingly drawings of her and Nazanin. It was a partnership: “Mummy, you choose how you want me to colour your shoes, and I will do it for you.”

Gradually Gabriella came to draw her own world: of mummy in a garden, holding flowers like on release day, sometimes in a bridal dress with daddy as groom, like the photo on the mantelpiece. She was always looking up at Nazanin. It was through drawings she made sense. Sometimes she drew pictures of other adults, with thoughts as clouds, for their worrying, she explained. She carried her colouring books everywhere – her go-to activity to make safe meetings with Ministers or Ambassadors or judiciary officials.

Last birthday, Nazanin didn’t keep her promise to attend. This year Nazanin asked her where she might want a party? “In prison, mummy, then you can come.”

The community of women decorated the visiting room with bunting and unicorns. One of the prisoners gave her a magic notebook and a pink pen: “If you write in it, your wish comes true.” She drew a picture of mummy and daddy and herself and a big sun, and wrote “Love.”

With Gabriella’s return last month we are halfway there. Our flat again full of pens and pink.

These days Gabriella’s drawings hang in three different places. Nazanin has some decorating her prison bunk. They still light up the walls at manamy’s home and new drawings again fill our London flat.

Lots of women in the ward are surviving for their own children’s pictures. Their memories keep the eyes on the colour to nurture beyond prison and its days of solitaire. In Nazanin’s One Day dream of a world without walls, it always was Gabriella who provided the colouring.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But the opposite is also true, as I am discovering again.

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