Front entrance to Zendan Vakilabad, the 1970s prison at Vakilabad, west of Meshed, Khorasan, Iran, before its partial destruction by the prisoners (including the author) in 1978/79 at the end of this series. (A still from a BBC documentary on the prison, made by Adam Curtis in 1977)

Front entrance to Zendan Vakilabad, the 1970s prison at Vakilabad, west of Meshed, Khorasan, Iran, before its partial destruction by the prisoners (including the author) in 1978/79 at the end of this series. (A still from a BBC documentary on the prison, made by Adam Curtis in 1977)


By “John Mitchell”

September 1977. Punishment Block in a prison outside Meshed, Khorasan, Iran

Buddo, mishtair! Buddo, buddo!” yelled the police goblin in a Persian command that I would soon get used to, pushing me, telling me to ‘get moving, mister!’

I’d just been processed for induction into the ‘dungeon’: sat on a chair to have all my hair shaved off with an electric shaver then stripped naked, inspected for lice, powdered with DDT and given coarse, grey, thin serge prison suit, trousers and jacket, to wear over my underclothes. There were three sizes and the processor decided mine was large. I put them on and was allocated an escort, another goblin in a dark blue NYPD-type police uniform. He took my papers and pushed me out of the induction chamber and across a small courtyard to a large caged walkway made of steel bars which led to a dark doorway in a towering, featureless concrete wall.

It was mid-afternoon and I’d just been transferred here from Taybad, near the Afghan border, in an armoured bus with a load of Iranian prisoners, after several days in a crowded holding lock-up. Like so many other Europeans in the 1970s, I’d been busted for entering Iran from Afghanistan in possession of a significant quantity of high quality hashish, heading west for Europe.

Buddo, mishtair!” My heart sank even deeper as, with much noisy unlocking and slamming, crashing and relocking of the steel-barred gates with a great sense of finality, I was pushed into and down the cage and through a heavy metal doorway into the dank and gloomy concrete and steel world of the inner prison. I had been swallowed up for the foreseeable future. My escorts’ boots clumped along on the stone-flagged floor of a broad, dismal, corridor with a few closed doors on either side.

At the end of this corridor was a T-junction with another, much longer corridor, also dark, forbidding and gloomy, but there was a brightly-lit, octagonal office protruding from one corner of this junction, with guards inside and huge thick glass window panes facing out in all directions. I was pushed through the door and presented to a short, dapper-looking officer with gold braid epaulettes on his better quality officer’s uniform and smart peaked cap.

“Aha!” said the gold braided peaked cap, raising his eyebrows, taking my papers from my escort who saluted and left, and peering at me with interest. “Country?”

“Britannia” I answered, pronouncing it ‘Burtanya’. He knew exactly what I meant.


“Mitchell. John Mitchell” I said, deliberately distorting my Christian names ‘Sean Michael’.

“Hmm. Your passport says ‘Joe-ness’” he pointed out, squinting at it and me alternately.

“Ah, Joe-ness”, I said with a shrug, “that’s just my tribal name, nobody uses it. John Mitchell”. Not wanting the news of my fall from grace to get out, I tried to disguise my name in case my arrest was to be reported in the press.

Baléy” he said. “OK; John Mitchell. So. I am Captain Farriman. This is Zendan Vakilabad, and I am in charge of all the foreigners.”

“Thank you, Captain Farriman” I answered with a smile, offered my hand to be shaken. Might as well be on good terms. “Pleased to meet you.”

He looked me over, ill-fitting prison uniform, newly shaven head, black-rimmed spectacles, no doubt in a state of shock and disbelief at what was happening to me.

“Continue to behave well” he advised, reviewing and arranging my documents in a new file, “It’s better for you.”

“Now,” he said, having finished shuffling the papers and snapping his file closed, “you will stay in Bandar Yek – Block One – with other foreigners. But first, you must get experience of Bandar Panch, Block Five. Punishment Block. Just for a few days … when prisoners behave badly, they sent to Bandar Panch for punishment. So, then, you will not like it, so, then, you will behave well in the prison. Understand?”

I got the message. Bandar Panch, Block Five, was not a good place. Farriman smiled at me meaningfully and called out two dark blue-uniformed prison guards from the inner office complete with black shiny peaked caps, truncheons, pistols strapped in holsters and large bunches of large keys on their belts.

It was just like in the movies.

To more exhortations of “buddo, mishtair“, I was frogmarched off a long way down the main corridor to the right, and taken through two more sets of crashing steel gates on the right that were unlocked, opened, slammed and locked again. The punishment block, a very large room, thickly crowded with hundreds of very strange looking people. It was like one of those bad scenes from ‘Midnight Express’, the old drug-bust movie set in an Istanbul prison, except this was brightly lit with fluorescent tubes. Most of the denizens seemed out of their brains on heroin, in opium dreams, injured or just plain insane, gabbling, passed out or in a trance. Me being the odd one out, the only European, I immediately became a centre of interest. Various evil-looking characters spotted me and loomed up gesticulating threateningly and leering as if to scare me, but then a couple of young men, a bit less evil-looking, saw this and took pity on my plight. They approached with smiles, intervened protectively and opened communications, holding out their hands to shake.

“Hey mishtair, hello, come here. Welcome. What is your name? My name is A-li. Ha, ha, ha!” I was glad for the diversion and they seemed well-disposed. They told the more villainous types to back off and leave me alone. I was their guest, they said. While indulging in small talk with them I was looking around for somewhere to install myself relatively safely, if possible with my back to a wall.

“Where can I rest?” I asked them, after pleasantries and small talk with our limited common vocabulary were exhausted. I made the international sign for sleeping then tilted my head back enquiringly, raised eyebrows, pointing to myself, looked around and shrugged with upheld palms all in one flowing gesture.

The rear part of this hall was packed with lines of three-tiered bunks with narrow passages in between. My new guardians took my arm to lead me through the crowd and they showed me where I could claim a place for the night. The bunks were made of welded angle-iron frames holding wooden bases on which lay foam rubber mattresses wrapped in white cotton sheets and even foam pillows with cotton pillowslips. Very civilised; it could have been very much worse, judging by accounts of most prisons that I’d heard of, whether in Asia or the west. Here, even the apparently dreaded Bandar Panch, the punishment block was cleaner and more comfortable than a standard budget hotel in this part of the world. ‘Not so bad, maybe I could handle this after all’ was my next thought as I clambered up and installed myself on a top bunk and surveyed the scene, as my new acquaintances mounted an adjacent one.

I sat facing them from one top bunk to the other, out of reach of the mob and had a kind of conversation based on my few words of Persian, their few words of English and plenty of sign language. I conveyed what my crime had been and they conveyed theirs. They leaned forward and whispered that they were political prisoners. They had been arrested for dissent against the Shah of Iran.

At the time, Iran was ruled by the Shah, a puppet dictator installed by the British working with the CIA. With control of Iran’s vast oil reserves as a prize, they orchestrated a coup d’état in August 1953 to remove Prime Minister Mossadegh and his democratically-elected government. As a friend and ally of the USA Iran then became an out-and-out police state and all prisons were run by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police trained by the CIA whose main function was to brutally suppress political dissidence of all stripes and colours. As we talked, I suddenly became aware of bloodcurdling screams somewhere in the distance.

“SAVAK” one of them whispered, just loud enough for me to hear. He drew his finger across his throat with a meaningful look. “I am Muslim; I am follower of Ayatollah Khomeini. This, my friend, he is a socialist. But both, we want democracy. We are against the Shah. He is brutal dictator, very bad, very cruel.” They looked at each other and smiled conspiratorially. “So, we both are arrested by the SAVAK. Don’t say anything!” He looked swiftly around then surreptitiously pulled up his shirt to show me nasty bruises and weals across his chest and back. “Maybe …” he drew his finger across his throat. More muffled screams were heard. “Torture” they said. I must have looked horrified. They were quick to reassure me. “Only political prisoners get tortured. You are a civil prisoner, no problem.”

Then, they saw a guard was making his round. Indicating that I should look the other way and ignore them, they climbed down and slipped away, leaving me to my own devices. As evening approached I felt more of novelty, a freak, an outsider. I lay down to review the scene, reflect and assess my situation. I’d been sucked into a waking nightmare peopled by lunatics, cripples, the wounded, the beaten, the bleeding, the bandaged up, the sick, the maimed, and the physically and mentally deformed and malformed; junkies, perverts and misshapen gollumses of all ages, shapes and sizes. I just had to survive this temporary torment and find some sanity, something to cling to. Captain Farriman had said it was ‘only’ for a few days. A chilling prospect, but what to do? Hours dragged by, I wondered if I was asleep and just having one of those anxiety nightmares, maybe I’d wake up soon? I pinched myself and tried to wake up. It was not the case; this was the reality and I would have to deal with it.

The steel doors crashed and banged as kitchen orderlies came in bringing dinner for everyone, a piece of ‘nan’, flat unleavened bread that was half-dry and a plastic bowl of black tea, all dished out to the pushing and shoving throng like feeding time at the zoo. All sorts of dramas amongst the denizens were played out as it was distributed. Eventually, the lights were dimmed, the circus died down and I lay on my bunk entering a twilight state disturbed by snoring, coughing, spitting, moaning, wheezing, groaning and occasional screams.

Half asleep and half awake, I dozed away in and out of nightmare. Had I died and entered ‘purgatory’? No, it was more like the Bardo, remembering the place people go when they die according to Tibetan Buddhists. After my Jesuit education followed by a decade spent picking over Bohemian and beatnik ideas, imbibing consciousness-enhancing drugs and sampling Zen, Sufism and Hindu Yoga on the road, I had finally met Tibetan lamas at Dharamsala in the Himalayas. They held lineage teachings in an unbroken line from Buddha’s time and on my visits there I’d gone to beginner’s classes and absorbed a smattering of their vast ocean of spiritual learning. The Tibetan tradition rang true to me and I felt committed to learning more. The partial, undigested knowledge I’d picked up had added a fresh perspective to the jumbled confusion of ideas bouncing around in my head.

In any case, the feeling of this Bandar Panch certainly put me in mind of the Bardo, that somewhat nightmarish ‘intermediate state’ where one resides during the period that follows after death and before rebirth, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Being thrown in this pit was a metaphor for death. My previous life was now over and whenever I would emerge a brand new life would start. Meanwhile I’d have to survive and suffer amongst the horrors that surrounded me.

Lying on my bunk thinking about this, the Buddhist teachings on the Bardo that I’d received in Dharamsala started to come back. Yes, here I was, being treated to asneak preview to the Bardo state. I could see it all. What a privilege!

Prison sketch-map by the author. Prison entrance at top/middle, “Bandar Panch” (Block 5) is marked as “B. 5” (middle left)


2 Responses to ““BUSTED!” – PART I.”

  • Thanks for your stories Sean . . . they are a major contribution to a largely undocumented part of history , in my opinion they equal anything in David Tomorys collection , which appears to be the most authorative and wide ranging publication on the road East . . .i very much appreciate the fact that although you were two or three years ahead of the general hoi poloi who tramped , bumbled and floated along the route , you are taking the time to to write and get to Flowerraj , these insightful accounts for general consumption . . once again many thanks .

  • Thanks, Paul. Dave Tomory’s an old friend and I contributed several stories to his book. In fact the introduction starts off with my name. But my stories were edited down and precis’d so much they lost their flavour – I thought. So here, I’ve committed myself to a long series of blogs on this one particular “BUSTED!” story There will be about 10 in all. There is a prelude to this, this is Part I, Part II has already been posted and Parts III, IV and V have been submitted. Parts VI to X are in the pipeline. The whole thing has to be read to appreciate the Grande Finale.
    Watch this space!

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