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Baking Behind Bars: Sepideh Qolyian's Recipes for Resilience

April 21, 2024
6 min read
On the second day of the "Book Without Censorship" exhibition in Paris, Fariba Adelkhah, a researcher and former political prisoner, introduced Sepideh Qolyian's book, "Summoning the Evil Scandal of Apple Pie."
On the second day of the "Book Without Censorship" exhibition in Paris, Fariba Adelkhah, a researcher and former political prisoner, introduced Sepideh Qolyian's book, "Summoning the Evil Scandal of Apple Pie."
,Adelkhah highlighted that Qolyian's writing is intimately tied to pastry and cake baking, activities that became symbolic in prison
,Adelkhah highlighted that Qolyian's writing is intimately tied to pastry and cake baking, activities that became symbolic in prison
Despite the lack of formal celebrations, the aroma of Qolyian's sweets brought a sense of festivity and comfort to the inmates, according to Adelkhah
Despite the lack of formal celebrations, the aroma of Qolyian's sweets brought a sense of festivity and comfort to the inmates, according to Adelkhah

On the second day of the "Book Without Censorship" exhibition in Paris, Fariba Adelkhah, a researcher and former political prisoner, introduced Sepideh Qolyian's book, "Summoning the Evil Scandal of Apple Pie."

Adelkhah highlighted that Qolyian's writing is intimately tied to pastry and cake baking, activities that became symbolic in prison. 

Despite the lack of formal celebrations, the aroma of Qolyian's sweets brought a sense of festivity and comfort to the inmates, according to Adelkhah.

In her introduction, Adelkhah discussed the themes Qolyian explores in her book, including ethnic, national, class, and gender discrimination, intertwined with the narratives of imprisoned women.

She emphasized the significant impact Qolyian's work has on its readers, describing it as a testament to "The long path of change."

"Whenever you encounter an issue with any of these recipes, message me on Twitter or Instagram, unless I'm in jail," Qolyian begins her book. 

"If I am, send me a letter to the prison where I'm being held. Letters breathe new life into a person.

"I wrote these recipes within two months of returning to Evin prison. If there are any mistakes, blame it on my beginner's status, not a lack of talent. 

Just kidding. I hope one day I can bake sweets for you in the streets of Ahvaz to celebrate our nation's victory. That day is not far off. I hope we all make it through."

Sepideh Qolyian's book begins with these words, followed by her narratives about women prisoners confined within the walls of the prison. 

Each narrative is paired with a recipe for baking sweets, created with the limited resources she painstakingly gathered in prison, from makeshift ovens to scarce ingredients.

This combination makes her book unique: women imprisoned behind bars of discrimination and violence who blend resilience with the sweet fragrance of life.

Fariba Adelkhah was a cellmate of Sepideh Qolyian's. 

Although she modestly refers to herself as Sepideh's assistant in baking, in her accounts, she is her equal.

A researcher imprisoned on charges of "espionage," Fariba shares her own narratives of women and prison, ultimately expressing her hope "to never lose Iran, the land of her study, forever."

Adelkhah reflects, "Talking about Sepideh is not an easy task." 

She explains that Sepideh is very young and energetic, whereas she is quite the opposite, allowing her to only touch on a few aspects of Sepideh's characteristics. Adelkhah recounts, "According to Sepideh, I was one of her best assistants in cooking."

Introducing Sepideh, Fariba Adelkhah describes her activities that began with trade union activism among workers. 

Adelkhah says, "To describe Sepideh's character, which actually makes the same feature of the book and inspires her, is that no birthday party in prison is complete without a cake made by Sepideh.

"On meeting days, which were Sundays, Sepideh would make sweets and cakes for many and provide all the cake ingredients herself. 

"In fact, when the name Sepideh comes up, the memory of cakes, sweets, holidays, and celebrations comes to almost everyone's mind, and behind these stories is an image of an energetic, busy and lively girl with blonde hair and once blue and black eyes."

What stands out about Sepideh, according to Adelkhah, is the personality she presents to her audience through her excitement and smiles amid every arrest and imprisonment—characterized by resistance, life, and beauty.

Adelkhah says, "Cake baking is an opportunity to find a sense of freedom. Not only for those who are locked in prison, but also for those who are confined by family, ethnic, and tribal traditions. 

"By baking cakes, we became someone for ourselves. We were oblivious to the space in which we were enclosed. It can be said that the prisoner always tries to feel themselves somewhere else with their activities.

"Some with educational work, with reading activities, with friendly gatherings, with handmade leather bags, and well, Sepideh also with baking cakes, at the same time, she was doing other things. 

"The desire to do something to be busy is the characteristic of a prisoner."

Adelkhah explains that Sepideh aimed to create financial means for her friends through baking cakes, especially for those rejected not only by the community but also by their families. 

She says, "This part of Sepideh's life in Bushehr prison shows how she attracts resources for her connections and mobilizes all the prison guards in this direction."

Adelkhah recounts an event inside the prison involving Sepideh. 

During one of the discussion meetings held on Thursdays, "Enlaz a prisoner, was invited. At Sepideh's suggestion, playing the role of a reporter, she organized an interview as if it were happening in 2060.

Adelkhah reflects, "Sepideh brought up the discussion of activists' analysis from an unexpected angle, which made us all laugh and ponder a bit about envisioning ourselves in the future."

She adds, "None of us had considered what would happen in 2060."

"The transformation of threats into opportunities by a young woman" is how Adelkhah describes Sepideh's approach to writing her book alongside baking apple pie.

Adelkhah suggests that Sepideh's book encompasses three layers, forming a narrative that resembles a story. 

The first layer delves into the disparities between the center and the periphery, exemplified by the contrasting management styles of Tehran, Sepidar, and Bushehr prisons. 

The second layer explores the distinction between general prisoners and those held under political and security charges. 

The third layer delves into gender discrimination, highlighting the persistence of patriarchal traditions such as honor killings, forced marriages, and women's self-immolation.

Adelkhah posits that Sepideh's narrative prompts humanities researchers to ponder why such discriminations persist in the Islamic Republic despite the promises of the revolution. 

She speculates, "How does a woman from a tribal tradition—Sepideh identifies herself as such—and a resident of the Dezful border area, attain such insight and dare to articulate her criticisms?"

Adelkhah suggests that Sepideh's harsh fate, including her arrest and imprisonment, becomes an opportunity for enlightenment—a dawn amidst threats.

Adelkhah finds many noteworthy passages in the book. 

For instance, she highlights Sepideh's observation about Maryam, who spends minimal time in the kitchen and often burns her food, preferring to read a book while others cook. 

Adelkhah interprets this as a reflection of prisoners' desire to distinguish themselves from their peers.

Adelkhah raises questions about the reasons behind these disparities, emphasizing that if a prison is a prison, it should treat all inmates equally. She refrains from delving into specifics but mentions that members of the People's Mojahedin group advocate for asceticism among prisoners and oppose certain facilities within the prison system.

As she painted a picture of the prison environment, she highlighted the diversity among prisoners and the coexistence within it. 

Adelkhah viewed the "long path of change" and the "works left on the ground" as the reverse side of Sepideh's book. 

When asked about the impact of her prison experience, she candidly shared her perspective.

She expressed, "One day, you wake up to find yourself labeled a spy and stripped of everything—your work, your family, your ability to communicate. 

"Especially for someone like me who was always on the move, being denied the ability to travel was the greatest pressure."

Adelkhah emphasized her yearning for the freedom to continue traveling between Iran, Afghanistan, and Paris. 

While Sepideh found solace in cooking, Adelkhah, as a researcher, found solace in observation.

Adelkhah elaborated, "If they take away my research field, another one presents itself. I always told the interrogator that while you took away my intended field of research, you became the subject of my research. As someone accused and condemned simultaneously, I seek understanding."

She likened her situation to her academic pursuits, where each obstacle becomes a new avenue for exploration.

Fariba Adelkhah's prison experience transformed into a new field of research—one that she acquired through firsthand observation and introspection.

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