Daily Archive for April 25th, 2017


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)

Continue reading ‘“BUSTED!” – PART V’



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)


Down the Rabbit Hole…

I was making progress in the Zendan. My unforeseen stay at Vakilabad prison, out in the Khorasan desert to the west of the ancient, holy city of Meshed was taking off quite agreeably. After two nights inside the imposing, modern fortress I sat on my top bunk, waiting impatiently for the sun to rise and my new life to begin.

My personal bunk in the prison’s prestige ‘block one’ was the top one of three in the cell of the prison’s main dealer in black-market fresh eggs, a middle-aged and mild-mannered murderer by the name of Rehman Mohammed. The middle bunk was unoccupied, which put a bit of space between us.

I sat on a new foam-rubber mattress wrapped in its white cotton sheet, looking through a wide window high up in the cell’s eastern wall. The first grey light of dawn was already pushing at the starlight. My life had just changed forever. Circumstances beyond my control were conspiring to free me from my aimless lifestyle so I had to review the situation.

The forced release from old ways and habits opened new options since I no longer had the distraction of having to provide for my physical requirements. After escaping the west for India ten years before as an aspiring idealist in search of spirituality, I felt perhaps I’d lost my way. Here and now was an opportunity to get back on track. To kick-start my reformation there was a library of 3,000 books left behind by previous occupants who’d done their time and then moved on. I would ‘catch up on my reading’.

On day one, I’d listened to the advice and opinions of ‘senior’ western prisoners who were allocated to this prestige block thanks to Iranian sensitivities to international criticism of SAVAK’s treatment of political prisoners. They’d offered various views about the best kind of attitude to adopt here. Their attitudes ranged from antagonism based on aggressive ideas of racial superiority that called for endless struggle against our captors, to more positive and tolerant attitudes positing Iranians as our colleagues, allies and equals with whom good relations should be nurtured so that we could all pass a more peaceful time while detained. For me, the latter approach was a no-brainer.

I sipped black tea thoughtfully as the sun came up and my new friends in block one stirred themselves from their beds and performed ablutions. The foreign contingent to whom I belonged had formed an early morning runners club. As soon as the sun was up and the external door was unlocked, they gathered in their joggers and set off in a pack, with me joining in at the rear. The air was fresh and clean as the field opened up with the fittest striding easily out in front and the less fit, including me, puffing along behind.

After twenty circuits of the yard a halt was called and the runners group broke up, some going to the gym to do more fitness training, some to shower and others, like me, just to collapse on their bunks and recover! After a good rest I took a hot shower, by which time Giorgio and Anker were at the samovar to fill their teapots. They seemed in a good mood and invited me to follow them for tea together. I brought the bread and the several bits of butter and jam that I’d grabbed from my 5 AM visit to the mess for subhana and we sat on the floor and in the bottom bunk for a kind of picnic.

“How did you slip, rosbif?” asks the Italian to start a conversation. I replied that I slept very well, woke up early, went to subhana and “made a few plans”.

“What plans, you stupid rosbif?” asked Giorgio mockingly, “there ain’t nothin’ to plan here, it’s a bloody fuckin’ prison, you idiot! All you can plan to do here is to go for a sheet.”

“You speak for yourself, stronso di merda,” I shot back with a laugh, “that’s just for Italians; it’s all you can do ’cause all Italians have shit for brains.” (‘Shit for brains’ was a phrase in constant use here, I’d noted the previous day). Giorgio and Anker smiled, surprised, and exchanged a glance. Giorgio didn’t know yet that I’d worked four years in Pakistan for a big Italian contractor from Milano and had learned a few choice Milanese expressions from my colleagues there.

“I’ve already completed most of those plans!” I continued. “I planned to get up early, go for a run, take a hot shower, bring you guys all my food for your fuckin’ breakfast, then listen to your stupid talk so I can have a good laugh while I drink your chai. That’s already done. Now, I was also planning to ask you a question, but maybe that plan’s fucked-up ’cause you’re just too dumb to answer. So anyway, just give me some more chai and shaddap!” They both laughed.

“Go ahead, rosbif” conceded Giorgio, pouring, “ask your dumb stupid questions, I’m surprised you can talk, you just look like such a fuckin’ stupid idiot with no hair.”

“What do you want to know?” said Anker. “Don’t ask Giorgio, you waste your time. He only knows how to talk shit and beat people up.” We all laughed.

“OK. This is the thing. I want to get some stuff from my bags and bring it to the block. How can I do that?”

“It depends,” said Giorgio. “Whatcha wanna get? You forget your special fancy ’airbrush?” We laughed again, since my head had been shaved.

“No, I want a book, my I Ching. It got me busted here. So it will have to get me out.”

“Whassat, I Ching?”

I explained a bit about the I Ching. Giorgio had heard of it, having studied Kung-fu and knowing a little of classic Chinese culture. They were interested.

“Maybe, you can show us how it works, rosbif” said Giorgio. “Then I give you some Kung-fu training. If you behave yourself.”

“OK, Giorgio” I said with a grin, “it’s a deal.”

“Vabene,” said Giorgio. “OK. So. You ask the guard at the block gate here that you wanna go to the Negabani to see Captain Farriman. He will let you out.”

“The Negabani is that big glass office in the middle of the corridor where the cops sit.” said Anker.

“Farriman is there at the Negabani after nine o’clock” continued Giorgio. “Explain him what you want. Ask him nicely and he will send you with some stupid cop to the Basrassi where they keep all our bags. What you take, they’ll check it in the Negabani and OK, if it’s just a book, they’ll look inside and let you take it to the block. No problem. But don’t try any funny business, because if you do they will stop all of us going out the block for one week at least.”

I did as Giorgio said. All my belongings had been recuperated from my camper and stored in the store-room, the Basrassi, in suitcases and bags. Nothing was missing. I got my I Ching, plus a pen and paper and another book.

I had money and bought candles, matches, notebooks and aerogrammes from the shop and started setting up my cell. Mr Rehman only came there to sleep as he was hustling all around the prison all day long, so I had the whole place more or less to myself all day, which was fine with him. I made the unused middle bunk into my desk, it was just the right height to stand up to and rest my elbows on while writing or reading. There were no such things as chairs in the Zendan.

To prevent feeling isolated I decided it would be good to have contact with people outside by letter writing. I bought a dozen prepaid aerogrammes at the shop and started writing letters to friends around the world.

To avoid worrying my parents, I told them a tale that my car’s engine had blown up here, in Iran, causing a major holdup, so I’d taken a local job teaching English. So my return postal address was “Hotel Zendan Vakilabad”, Meshed.

At noon ‘nahar’ came – another unappetising lunch. I dunked the bread in the gruel and examined the gristle on the bones for shreds of edible meat, with little success. After pausing to let us find a place and eat at the heavy metal tables in the noisy room the guards barked an order, “Buddho Bandar yek!” and we all shuffled off back to the block after wiping our greasy bowls under a tap.

Everyone was busy and doing their own thing as days started sliding by. I tried getting up early and lighting a candle to study, read and think while everyone slept. I even tried to meditate in the peaceful silence, as I’d learned in India, first with the Hindus by the Ganges, then later with the Tibetan Buddhists in Dharamsala. It seemed like a good opportunity to work on a bit of mind-training.

To familiarise myself with the ‘I Ching’ I took a reading every morning, studying all the aspects in depth and writing down my own thoughts and analysis in a school-type exercise book dedicated to this subject.

When the yard door opened I’d run for 20 minutes with the others, shower and breakfast, then read and study all day with frequent breaks for walking, discussion with my new friends or further exercise; or dozing on my bunk. I slowly got to know people and they all helped to show me the ropes of how things worked. But of course, it was also a constant battle against the depression of imprisonment.

I tried to focus on philosophical questions and metaphysical matters. How did I get here? What is the ultimate reality of my situation? It was hard to do this in isolation. Giorgio, Anker and some others were interested in discussing such things and slowly a loose group formed, working on themselves and exchanging views and ideas. Everything took time. It was something we had plenty of.

When the library was open, I went to check it out. It was a small room, jammed with shelves and piles of books on all sides, up to the ceiling. Entering, my eye lighted at once on the spine of a book amongst all these books that was familiar, although I had not looked inside it. It was in the middle of the middle shelf facing the door. It was the same paperback edition of a book that I’d seen my elder sister Grania offering to our Dad as a Christmas present when I’d been home in England the year before, following my brother Paddy’s sudden death in Pakistan.

The title was “Memories, Dreams and Reflections.” With a sense of fate at work on me, or karma, I pulled the slim paperback out of the row and looked at the cover. It was a biography of C. G. Jung written by his secretary of many years, Anelia Jaffé. I knew nothing about psychology, or about Jung, except that he had worked with Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychological research. On the basis that my sister who has a PhD had given this same book to my dad who had three science degrees, I decided on the spot that ‘catching up with my reading’ would start there and then, here and now, with this particular volume.

I took it back to my cell and started to read. As the journey commenced, fixed in my cell, I was sucked in. My entire world shrank quickly to the walls of this institution, then to the block, then to the cell, then to my own head and I could hardly believe my luck as I discovered an entire parallel universe was there.

Why had I not felt free outside like I do now in here, I pondered. Prison was prison, after all. When I’d been supposedly free to be anywhere else and do anything else, I’d somehow contrived to get myself locked up here, in this prison conundrum, a trap of my own device. Now, to solve the riddle all I had to do was reorganise the contents of my own head.

Jung’s account of his early life and his professional partnership with Freud before they went their separate ways, following Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious mind, fascinated me. Their epic split launched Jung into a journey of visions. These commenced with a dream of crossing an expansive, grassy plain and then finding a mysterious hole in it, down which he could climb. There was a sense that in this pit he would discover all that he was in search of. Drawn in by the allure of the potential, the content of this enigmatic hole, the dreamer leaves the outer world behind and descends into it.

This whole image resonated with my own current situation. I had arrived at this pitfall of a prison while wandering about the world as I had done for fifteen years and I was embarking on my own internal journey of exploration the unknown. Spellbound now, I shut out the external world and read on.

Jung then quits the conventional, conscious world and delves into an alternative reality representing the unconscious mind. He finds a parallel and complementary universe which, though unconscious and thus inaccessible, normally ‘off limits’, is brimful with fascinating contents that correspond with those of the material world. I was sucked in, and could not put this book down. The days passed like a dream while I ploughed through it, determined to extract every drop of meaning, which fuelled my personal odyssey here.

Through a series of such dreams, mythically representing his own life Jung describes this underworld with ever more evocative archetypal imagery and momentous sequences, ‘manifestations of the spirit of nature’. These lead him on progressively to realisations about mechanics and the development of the human mind from its prehistoric origins. He discovers what he calls ‘the collective unconscious’, a limitless, living ocean of the spirit containing or made up of all human experience since beginningless time. He theorises this as a primeval resource that we all tap into in our life’s journey, for example, when asleep and dreaming, or through inspiration and intuition, reason or emotions. It is the beginning of his own epic, experiential trip through mind and time which gradually coalesces into the reflections and rationalisations that emerge from this biography.

All this whisked me away into a new world of the mind, Jung’s mind, archetypal mind. By following Jung’s dream down that hole in the ground I had escaped from the idea of being in a prison after just a few days. Without anything to distract me, I had discovered a parallel universe, the world of unconscious mind and was revelling in it just as Jung himself must have done. It was intriguing.

I also got the idea that this new trip was a conclusion of my own epic journey of discovery to India that I had set out on a dozen years before. All my random experiences and the stuff that I had accumulated en route, that had formed a seemingly inchoate, jumbled heap in my mind, began to fall into perspective, prompted by reading of Jung’s hypothesis of individuation, representing the development of the individual’s psyche through growth and experience into maturity and completion.

It all echoed in my own mind like nothing I’d read or experienced before. Had I been thrown in prison, or had I passed through a portal into a new world? Or fallen down a magic rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland? No. But the residual trauma of being imprisoned fell away as I saw it was all just an essential component of my life’s journey that was absolutely necessary; a continuation of my adventures another level, rather than any cessation of my progress.

I was sucked right in by the vivid, archetypal imagery and the descriptions of the sequence of dreams that followed, or resulted. I was riveted to read how he analysed and decoded the ancient metaphorical science of alchemy; I was thrilled to learn how he merged his findings seamlessly with his travels, discoveries and adventures in the realm of the unconscious; and I was blown away when he came to his final conclusions. And this was just his secretary’s brief biography.

It was just an appetising morsel. At the end of the biography was an index listing all Jung’s major works, twenty heavy textbooks on his particular brand of analytical psychology with titles like “Psychology and Alchemy”, “Symbols of Transformation”, “The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”, “Psychology and Religion: East and West”, “Alchemical Studies” and “Mysterium Coniunctionis”. Each title pulled me in just as Jung had felt drawn to enter the pit in the ground in his initial vivid dream. This was it! I knew I had to get them!

Having tasted the tempter and found it so spellbinding, I had to figure a way to order, consume and digest the whole meal in its entirety, to attain full satisfaction. But how to get hold of these specialist text books in this godforsaken hole of a dungeon in Khorasan?

I decided to write immediately to my dear younger sister Trevena in London to tell her all about the fix I was in and asking her to help me out. Could she possibly buy me the title I wanted to get started with, Volume 9 part one, ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious’ and post it to me? Very kindly she did so without hesitation and within a week the book was on its way.

Meanwhile, on a lighter note, I’d already got a letter back from my lifelong friend from teenager days in Preston, Peter Duce. “Dear Convict” he wrote, “Congratulations. It’s only rock and roll. … Food parcel follows.” A large package arrived just a few days later, full of English groceries, including a two-litre can of orange juice. I had a hunch and opened it carefully and tasted it. It was very strong cocktail of vodka and orange. Peter had steamed off the label, made a small hole, poured most of the orange juice out, refilled it with vodka, sealed the hole with a soldering iron and glued the label back on. Well done and very thoughtful of him, indeed!

Zendan Vakilabad’s small community of imprisoned European hash smugglers and smokers had a tradition of sharing such bonuses, letting everyone enjoy, if there was enough to go round. With this, we could have a party! I confided in Anker as the senior prisoner in whom I had confidence and asked him what he thought would be a good way to go about it.

He thought about it a little, then exclaimed “I know! Let’s organise a little chess tournament!” Chess and backgammon were played everywhere in the prison. Chess was played every day, in the cells and in the yards, with players everywhere focussing on their game. I’d played a few games already to get to know people and help pass the time. Anker was the reigning chess champion of the foreign contingent; he was so good that he sometimes beat Iranians, which is saying a lot.

We recruited all sixteen foreigners, excluding poor Richard and Vince who remained always aloof in their ivory tower, and had a draw. I was lucky to be drawn against the weakest players and somehow managed to win three games one after another to find myself facing Anker, who else, in the final. By that time we’d all had a few drinks and it was getting hilarious and we were getting euphoric. We filled our glasses up with ‘orange juice’ for the final match. Anker, unused to drinking for a couple of years managed to make a couple of silly mistakes, lost his queen and as a result and to everyone’s amazement, to raucous cheers and applause I, the new kid on the block, was crowned the new chess champion!

I hadn’t felt comfortable with all the Iran-bashing that went on, it was a negative and depressing habit that created bad vibes all round. People vented their frustrations by railing against Iran and Iranians. Pouring scorn, disdain and sarcastic ridicule was a common pastime that began to grate on my ears. Whilst merry on the vodka I boasted jokingly that I was ready to take on the Iranian champion. Slurring my words inadvertently, I called out “bring on the Iranimals!”

In defence of our hosts against the Iran-baiting that went on, like a winning beauty queen who dedicates herself to saving orphans, amidst laughter from the drunken chess competitors I launched a ‘block-wide’ mock campaign amongst westerners to “be kind to Iranimals”. I made an impromptu speech, declaring a “Be Kind to Iranimals Week”, the theme of which would be to counter the negative, racist mockery that so many indulged in, mostly due to bad example and the constant, unopposed scorn and put-down.

“Be kind, talk nicely with Iranians and praise their good qualities, starting now” I instructed, wagging my finger, to general bemusement. I even made some lapel buttons saying “Be Kind to Iranimals”. It faded away to nothing after very few days but the point was inoffensive and well made, in good humour. I hoped it made people more conscious about their racist behaviour. The atmosphere improved, as did relations in general, except, of course, for where Richard was concerned. He continued to play the brave and innocent victim taking a stand for justice against his vindictive and evil oppressors.

I spent my mealtimes and spare time with Anker and the easy-going, laid-back Italians, French and Germans. Richard and I remained on cordial terms and always spoke if necessary. His influence as self-appointed leader and spokesman for the Europeans waned and he became a bit isolated. The general atmosphere improved, however, as group activities were organised like Giorgio’s Kung Fu classes and Bernard’s Karate classes, which they started giving daily at fixed times. These were strenuous, enjoyable and free of course and attracted over a dozen participants. Iranian friends were welcome to join us and some of them did.

Anker was deeply into his music. We would listen to audio tapes with him to decipher and the lyrics and he wrote reams of songs, talking about them and composing. Morale, bonhomie and cheerfulness rose appreciably and everyone found themselves keeping busy and having a good time. For a change.

Then poor Richard lost his temper and smacked a guard hard in the face. He was taken away, roughed up but not too badly and put in Bandar Panch for a week. Somewhat chastened he calmed down after this and kept more to himself but carried on fighting his case and railing as usual to anyone willing to listen. He asserted his innocence, spoke of friends in high places and pressured British Embassy representatives, who did come to see him, to release him by pulling strings. He was a bit of an enigma. We could never figure out if he was telling the truth and was the victim of a sting, or if he belonged to MI6, or if he was just a genuine, failed dope runner who got caught like everyone else and became paranoid, believing his own made-up story. I felt sorry for him but grateful in a way because he helped me see how to make the best of things. Why make enemies when for the same effort we can make friends and get along with people?

Giorgio’s cell was the preferred gathering venue for discussions and passing the time, a good place to hang out. I had long conversations there, especially with Anker and Giorgio. Anker talked about his life in Copenhagen as lead guitar with a rock band called the Vikings that played in clubs all around the region. Giorgio described his hardly believable Kung Fu feats as a performer on the Italian night club circuit. His act included leaping high across the stage in a single bound and breaking an empty Coke bottle, thrown up by an assistant, in two, in midair, with his fingertips.

One day I asked Giorgio to tell me about ‘Crazy Hans’, the German freak that Richard had alluded to on my first day, being the only European who was ever released before serving his sentence.

“Crazy Hans!” exclaimed Giorgio, and proceeded to describe him in his best English. “Crazy Hans was a tall, thin, freaked-out German hippie and drug addict. He had entered Iran from Afghanistan, like all the foreigners held in this prison. He passed through customs with a kilo and a half of henna disguised as hash which he’d been sold by some cheating Afghans, concealed in his bag. Then he sat down right on step of the customs shed to roll a joint out of this henna. Even though he was only smoking henna, they still arrested him for hash. He got 2 years sentence and a $15,000 fine. He lived in a complete fantasy world of his own, never washed himself and got absolutely physically filthy with his legs and feet all covered in sores and scabs. When I was busted, after Bandar Panch they put me in his cell in the lower bunk. He was on the top. When I woke up next morning I heard these little noises. After a while I stuck my head to see what it was. Crazy Hans was sitting on the edge of his bunk, picking at the scabs on his legs. The noise was the scabs off his legs, falling down on the plastic floor covering, one by one.” We groaned in disgust.

“Hans had this fetish for hiding things,” he continued, “disgusting things like a half-chewed piece of meat, in a match box, wrapped up, first in silver foil, then in a piece of tissue paper, then in ordinary paper, and the small matchbox was put inside another bigger matchbox, then that was tied up with some string and then wrapped in a piece of dirty rag. He’d then kept this packet in one of his pockets, or hidden in the corner of his bed. He’d also sit on the floor of his cell tracing mountains and valleys and rivers with his finger on the mat and talking to himself. “There’s another mountain here, big, with a lot of rocks, and – hey, wait, from where is this river coming now?” He made himself so dirty, so utterly filthy that we sometimes used to force him into the shower room, strip him down and gave him a good soaping and scrubbing. At the same time others went through his cell cleaning it up. He was thin as a rake, sick, wouldn’t talk to anyone but muttered away talking nonsense to himself all the time. Totally mad. In the end they actually threw him out of the prison just to get rid of him! That was before he finished his sentence! Poor guy.”

We talked about many things but inevitably the subject came round to how we’d tried to fool the customs and how we all got busted. They told their stories first, and then I had to tell mine. When I told them how I’d the petrol tank of my camper van, which was supposed to be foolproof, but the customs officer at Taybad had just gone straight to it as if he had information, they groaned and swore. Anker banged his forehead; Giorgio put his hands over his face. I was puzzled.

“What’s the matter with you two?” I asked them.

“We know why you got busted!” said Anker. “You were a month too late. You know that Pakistani, Iqbal, with his servant, acting superior, over there across the block? You know how he got busted? They used the same system. It was still cast iron, till they came along. Ach, Gott in Himmel! Giorgio, tell him.”

“Ah, shit, I do not fuckin’ believe it!” said Giorgio taking his hands off his face. “Iqbal told the customs about the place, himself! This is the story, it’s one of the dumbest smuggling stories you’ll ever hear. He was living in England and someone told him about this place. He bought himself a camper and drove it all the way to Pakistan like you did and bought some hash and loaded it up. But there were a couple of kilos left over that wouldn’t fit in. What did the stupid bastard do? Instead of leaving it he hid the two kilos under the driver’s seat in a plastic bag! When they got to Taybad, the customs found the two kilos in five minutes and busted them. When they found they couldn’t bribe their way out, and would have to go to prison, Iqbal thought it was like Pakistan and he could make a deal with the customs. He asked for a secret meeting with the customs inspector and he told him there was another twelve kilos hidden inside the van in a place they that they would never find. So, said Iqbal, if he, the inspector, would promise Iqbal that he would drop his case, and let him off, he would tell him where the other twelve kilos was. He suggested they could take it out and sell it and keep the money because nobody needed to know, they didn’t have to declare it. Iqbal told us all this himself, while he was trying to negotiate his way out. And probably, he also told them that they could also bust the next people coming along with stuff in that place.”

“What! You are joking! I’ll kill him! What a swine! Bastard!” I spluttered, clutching my head, doing face palms and banging my fist on my thigh.

“Yes” said Anker, nearly falling over laughing with Giorgio. “And what do you think the inspector did? They said ‘yes, Iqbal, yes, sure, we promise, we’ll let you off; just tell us where the place is’. So he told them: ‘it’s all inside the petrol tank’!”

I was speechless. This was just a month ago. If I had come a few weeks earlier, before Iqbal, the customs would never have known and I would have passed straight through. So that’s how he knew as soon as I arrived!

“Do you think the customs let them off?” asked Giorgio with a snort. “Of course not. They drained the tank, dropped the engine, cut through the separating steel plate, cut into the petrol tank, opened it up and found all the stuff, just as Iqbal said. And then they busted him for the twelve kilos as well! Boy, was he sick. He should have just shut up. Then you would have passed.”

“Serves them right!” I said. “Stupid idiots!”

“That’s right” said Anker, “Iqbal says to the Inspector ‘but you promised to let me go, that’s not fair!’ The guys just laughed at him. They just laughed their heads off.”

“And you, Rosbif” said Giorgio, “you were the next stupid person coming along with that kind of camper. So you can thank Iqbal. It was the best place ever, totally foolproof, true, but Iqbal gave it away. Just before you arrived. Dio Madonna, porca miseria!”

It was my turn to put my head in my hands and swear. Unless the customs had the information, they could never have found me out in a million years. I’d always known there were a million ways anyone could get busted; this was mine, this was where my luck ran out. I should have listened to my gut, the previous time I did a scam, five years before: I’d been so lucky, I knew I’d get caught the next time. And this was it.

Then I remembered how my trip this time had been delayed for two months by another set of completely unexpected circumstances which prevented me leaving Pakistan on schedule [see “Prelude to BUSTED!” blog for the full story].

“You know what?” I told them. “I was all set up and ready to go in early July, well before Iqbal did his trip, and I’d have gone through, but I was delayed for three months, by pure chance, just on the day I was supposed to be leaving.”

“What?” said Anker and Giorgio, together, “How come?”

“Actually, it all happened because of one word, one stupid word that I used, that cause a huge misunderstanding. I was in Swat, and someone asked what I had in my saddlebags, and I used the word for luggage, which has another meaning – cargo, illegal cargo. It’s a long story.”

“I’ll get some chai” said Anker, “we’ve got all day. We want to hear it, the full story, all the details.”

“And we’ve got tomorrow, too!” Giorgio said and settled back. “Tell us about it.”

“Where to begin?” I wondered aloud. “The story of the horses company goes back five years to Afghanistan. OK, we’ll start at the very end of the horses story, when I said goodbye to my horses.”

“What, you had horses in Afghanistan? What were you doing with them?” asked Anker, bringing a big pot of hot chai from the samovar and settling down with Giorgio to listen.

“Actually, to tell you the horses story, I’ll have to go back ten years, to the time I first got to India, in 1967!”

“Sounds very, very innaresting!” said Giorgio, “go on, Rosbif, we’ll try not to interrupt you anymore. Anker, shaddap! Listen to the rosbif now.”

And so my tale began.

“It was 1965, I sat in a house in Preston one summer evening, smoking a joint with my friend Kevin Rigby when he started talking about how wonderful life would be in India. He described the scene, as he imagined it, and it sounded so appealing that I just said, out of the blue ‘well let’s go there, then.’ He looked round at me a moment and just said ‘OK. Let’s go.’ And so, just like that, off we went…”


End of part IV. Do not miss the next half a dozen (or so) thrilling instalments.

Prison sketch-map by the author. Prison entrance (see photo at top of blog) is at top/middle; “Bandar Yek” (Europeans’ Block One) is marked as “B 1” and the exercise yard and Block Two are to its left. Library is opposite top of Block 1.(bottom, right).


WARNING NOTICE AND LEGAL DISCLAIMER: this entire story despite its total lack of probability and redibility is certified by the author as being fully factual and true in all its essential elements and furthermore all and any resemblance of any character described or appearing herein to any actual persons either living or dead, is fully intended, true to life and more or less as described in the text. Furthermore, if any statement, allegation or detail is claimed to be or can be shown or demonstrated to be fictional, false, untrue or made up this is due simply to possible bad memory, poetic licence, writer’s embroidery, coincidence or plain inaccuracy on the part of the author who apologises in advance for any such erroneous representation.



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)


“I was FREE!”

Back in block one after my initial “nahar” (lunch, so-called) I was subjected to further indoctrination by my new mentor. Richard Savin, still relishing having a fresh audience, resumed his detailed, critical discourse on the background and intricacies of his court case, interspersed with frank and unflattering appraisals of Iranian prison conditions and food arrangements.

The lecture was interrupted only by the occasional round of refreshing chai with a plate of ‘Bourbon’ chocolate biscuits.

Those few prisoners who responded to the call for breakfast, explained Savin, had to drag themselves out of their beds when “subhana” was called about five o’clock in the morning, long before first light. Donning their rough serge jackets or wrapping a blanket around them they would trudge off blearily down the dank, cold corridor in a line to the mess. There they would gather the meagre and loathsome substances that purported to be nourishment and trudged back clutching their measly haul of dry bread, a tiny pat of semi-rancid butter, a portion of antique ‘donkey’s dick’ jam and a bowlful of strong black tea. The rest, who were understandably not inspired to undertake such a joyless exercise, they simply snuggled down in their bunks when they heard the call for “subhana” and pulled their blanket a bit closer around them.

He was just getting into gear when Anker, the tall, curly ginger-haired Dane whom I’d seen going to the library in the morning took pity on me. Deciding this hapless newcomer needed to be rescued from Richard’s clutches and treated to a second opinion he knocked on the bars and interrupted us on the pretext of inviting me out for a bit of fresh air around the prison yards. Like most Scandinavians, he spoke good English. I thanked Richard again for all the invaluable information he had so helpfully supplied and excused myself. I never sat in his cell again.

The door at the end of the block led into an unattended shop area where shelves were stacked with basic prison necessities like pens, paper and notebooks, tea, sugar and glasses, tins of ‘real’ Nescafé, decorative tins of Iranian halva and packets of chocolate biscuits, dried fruit and nuts, large cardboard boxes of dates, matches – and genuine American packets of Winston cigarettes.

Opposite these shelves, under an open window a decorative, polished copper samovar, with puffs of steam rising from the vents as it bubbled gently away on its low table. A saucer full of coins was on the table.

“Whenever you feel like some chai, you just take boiling water from this tap and leave a coin on the saucer for the guy who runs it” said Anker, pointing. “He keeps it clean, fills it up and heats it every day. When it boils, you’ll hear him shout ‘ab joosh!’ and people bring their teapots or glasses to make chai. The shop opens irregularly, you have to catch the shopkeeper when he’s here; otherwise he lives in cell number 22. We don’t take anything without paying for it first.”

“Ha, ha,” I said, “it’s funny that in a prison full of Iranian criminals, not one of whom according to Richard can be trusted, he always leaves his shop unattended without fear of theft.”

“That’s their society” said Anker, “and anyway, if you trust in people they usually respond positively.”

Beyond the shop space was a door to the staircase at the end of the building on the left and an external door to the yard on the right. The stairs leading up to the political section had been blocked off. We stepped out into the corner of the main exercise yard. It was large and sunny, full of hundreds of men like a busy square in a city. Block one formed one side of the square, while the equally long and tall block two formed the opposite side, sixty or seventy yards in length. The third side was where the main corridor ran, connecting the two blocks. The level of the corridor was a couple of metres higher that the yard and it had a flat top and a few square windows that opened. It stretched maybe fifty yards in width between the two blocks.

Opposite the corridor, across the square, or I should say at the other end of the rectangle, was a sheer, featureless thirty-foot high brick wall with copious barbed wire and broken glass set in concrete along the top. It ran in a straight line past all the ends of all the blocks, several hundred yards in length. Beyond that wall, looking up from the middle of the yard, two high watch-towers could be seen, rising up to a height of fifty or sixty feet, one to the left and one to the right. A plate-glass-fronted observation post was perched high up on the top of each of these threatening watch-towers.

“They have searchlights and machine guns” said Anker, squinting up at the platforms, “and they watch us all twenty four hours a day. There are at least six of these towers surrounding the prison. Outside of this inner wall, which we see here, there’s a bare gap of thirty metres or so and then another, even higher wall, from which these watch-towers rise. That marks the outer limit of the prison. Beyond that, it’s the empty desert, stretching all the way to the Afghan border.”

The high walls and their watch-towers were towards the south so the yard was full of afternoon sunshine. The corridor, and beyond it the administrative buildings were to the north. Block one was to the east and block two was to the west.

“Let’s stroll,” said Anker, after I’d taken in this scene and got my bearings. “It’s sunny for most of the year here. Just great weather for us northern Europeans.” Indeed, some who liked sunbathing were stretched out, working on their tans. We meandered between men sitting on cloths, on carpets and cushions or leaning against the walls in the sun. Some were dozing, others read books, others had little stalls set up, trying to sell stuff. Yet more men walked up and down, back and forth from end to end, parallel with the blocks, alone or in pairs, fingering their worry beads, talking away. But the whole middle area of the rectangle was taken up by two volleyball pitches side by side and the noise of thwacking and slamming the ball reverberated round the yard. A line of interested spectators stood along the sides of the matches, shouting and applauding the teams as the players, some stripped to the waist, leapt and jumped and hit the ball energetically back and forth over the net with power and ferocity.

“So,” I said to Anker, “what do you do in Denmark, then?”

“Ah, like Richard said this morning, I play guitar in a Copenhagen rock band” he said in his slightly lilting Scandinavian accent, “The Vikings. I hope to rejoin them, when I go back.”

“Hey, by the way,” he confided, “listen. I saw that Richard Savin was laying his trip on you all morning. I want to say, don’t take too much notice. He talks a lot, he thinks he knows everything. He’s obsessed with his own stupid case and proving his innocence and proving everyone else is wrong. He’s got this huge superiority complex. You might have noticed! But believe me, Iran and Iranians are not as bad as he says. I’d say, be good with people and they’ll be good with you. I made a lot of good friends here, they are good people. But the more you rock the boat, the worse it will be for you. And the guards, he complains about all the guards, he mocks them, but they are just family people, doing their job. It’s not their fault we got ourselves busted. So there’s no point to make their job difficult, and anyway, they have all the power here.”

“I’m glad hear this, Anker. I agree. I was thinking the same already. But a lot of what Richard told me about how things work here was interesting to learn. But then, he does go on a bit, especially about how innocent he is!” I rolled my eyes and Anker laughed. “If he really knew all the people he says he does, he’d have been out of here long ago.”

“Yeah,” said Anker, “here, in this prison, we Europeans, we’re just a bunch of freaks and smokers, so he’s the odd one out. Look man, the guy’s a fuckin’ arms dealer, and proud of it – as if profiteering from death and destruction by pushing lethal weapons is respectable, while we aren’t. He boasts what a wonderful person he is, as if everyone should respect him and support him. Anyway, he’s not that bad, I just wanted to tell you, don’t take too much notice of him.”

“Don’t you worry, Anker, I won’t. I know how these bloody expat types are. I worked on a civil engineering project in Pakistan, for an Italian consortium, I know all about those guys. We even had some British subcontractors! But I’m just an old hippie head who went off to India in the sixties. I’ve spent ten years there. I’ll tell you about it some time.”

“That’s interesting. Look! That’s Giorgio. He’s a real character,” said Anker as we walked past the volleyball game in the centre of the yard, ringed by spectators. Giorgio was stripped to the waist playing volleyball and raced off the pitch to say hi again, a shortish, thickset dark-haired young fellow with a fine physique and a big grin. He stretched out his hand.

“Hey! Too many bloody-fuckin’ rosbif man, what you doin’ here, get back to Bandar Panch!” he laughed, “how many kilos? Dio cane! Sorry man, I gotta go.” His team called him back into the game, he leapt high in the air and banged the ball back powerfully over the net.

“He’s a genuine kung-fu artist and a real showman,” said Anker. “Giorgio is great, he’s a clown, he never stops fooling around and making people laugh. Twenty kilos. Been here about nine months. And this is Bernard, who’s a karate black-belt, come and say hello.” The relaxed, smiling Frenchman was reading a book and shook my hand warmly. “He’s a smoker, got caught with his stash, only six months, he’s already done three. He’s really cool. OK, come on, let’s go through there and I’ll show you the gym.”

We passed through the gap between the end of block two and the thirty-foot high wall and entered another yard that was much narrower, maybe twenty yards wide. Cemented pathways ran around the edges and some small trees were growing in the compacted earth in the middle. Plus, there was a good amount of open-air gymnastic equipment, some of it Iranian style: sloping boards, pull-ups, bars, benches for pressing weights, sets of weights for lifting and pairs of clubs for whirling. Some men were standing around, others were doing body-building exercises.

“Come and see this Iranian club-whirling exercise that we do” said Anker, indicating the pairs of wooden clubs of various shapes and sizes standing on the ground down at the end. “Watch me!” he said taking a middle-sized pair and demonstrating how to use them, grasping the handles, inverting them with a flick and holding them both upright against his chest. Then he started pushing them one by one, back over his shoulders, dropping his hands and bringing the clubs back up and round to the front of his chest again with a twist of his forearms and shoulders, going on with both arms alternately in one smooth movement. “It’s an old, traditional Iranian exercise for strengthening shoulders and arms for fighting with swords and sabres” he explained. “Try it.”

I hesitated but tried it and after a wobbly start one club banged me on the head and the other on my bum; it felt like my shoulder was being dislocated by one then I lost my balance and dropped the other which nearly crushed my toes.

Along came Giorgio, having a break from his volley-ball game and laughing at my attempts. “Ha, ha!” he said, “Nice first try! Keep going, man! Like this, feel the rhythm.” He gave a demo and made me watch as Anker continued with another pair.

I tried again for a few whirls or so before my unpractised arm muscles flagged and I had to stop and whack the clubs back down on the ground. “I can’t do it, Giorgio, they’re too heavy” but he insisted on coaching me on to make me get it.

“It’s easy enough, try now with this really light pair, it’s for beginners. Some of these Iranians can do one hundred whirls of the heaviest clubs, without stopping.”

I had another go while Giorgio corrected my grip and posture, showing how to place my feet, move my chin and balance my trunk; “look, up, down, round” he said as he moved the clubs smoothly, “both together, alternately, left and right, you see, up, down, round.” Soon I was doing a few turns in sync and getting the rhythm.

“Well done, you got it, far out! The other rosbifs don’t never do this because it’s an Iranian exerise, but it’s a good way to get a strong whole body, arms, shoulders, back and legs all working together. Bernard, the French guy, he does it, he does karate, he’s really strong, man, and he’s a cool guy too. He’s real Zen.”

“We run, too, a few of us get up early and run around the yard for twenty minutes or half an hour first thing in the morning, before the showers. Even the rosbif, Richard and Vince, they come and run, too. You can join us, if you like. It’s good for your morale, to keep fit and strong in this fuckin’ place, you know. Or else you can be a junkie and hide in your cell like some people do.”

“Hmm” I say, “sounds good, I like to keep fit and strong if I can, that’s great. Where you from Giorgio, Milano?”

“Near Milano. You know Milano?”

“Sure, I have many friends from Milano” I told him, “I was there a few times. How long have you been in the Zendan, Giorgio?”

“I’ve been in the Zendan, nearly one frickin’ year already. I have to go bak for another game. Let’s talk, later, in the block, OK?”

“Sure, any time.”

We turned back to the other yard and Giorgio went back to his game. I thought of all the people I knew, family and friends outside the prison. “What about letters?” I asked Anker as we strolled along, “what’s the situation for sending letters out of the prison?”

“Yep” said Anker, “In theory, we’re only allowed to send two letters a week, but in practice we can write more. Captain Farriman lets them go, he’s cool. He’s in charge to supervise all the foreigners, the Europeans.”

“Captain Farriman?” I asked. “I think he was the one who processed me into the prison, and sent me to Bandar Panch the other day.”

“That’s the one, he’s cool,” said Anker. “If you have any problem, ask for him, talk to him nicely. He’s a family man. He speaks reasonable English and it’s his job to censor the mail, in and out. You have to give him your letters, unsealed, at the Negabani. He’s supposed to check what we write, about Iran and about the prison, but probably, he only bothers to check Richard and Vince’s letters, what they write, because they are seen as trouble-makers. We aren’t supposed to complain about anything. He also opens and checks any incoming mail. If we complain, and bother him, he can get upset, then he delays things, he holds up mail and stops the parcels and keeps things for days in the Negabani. For sending letters, it’s simplest to buy stamped aerogrammes at the shop for two rials.”

“Did you say ‘parcels’?” I asked, “can we get parcels?”

“Yes, of course, lucky people often get parcels, and Farriman opens them and checks there’s nothing illegal in them. But sometimes friends hide a little smoke inside things in a parcel, then if it gets past Farriman we have a little party and we can all get high!”

“How’s the mail service, between here and Europe?”

“It’s good, it takes maybe a week to get a parcel and a few days for letters. Generally, everything gets through quite fast. I heard it’s much better than in India for example. Things don’t get stolen here.”

This was heartening. I would correspond with friends and family, it would be good for morale.

We stopped to watch Giorgo’s volleyball match. The athleticism of the players was phenomenal. They obviously practised a lot and played hard. These games seemed to go on all day, continuously, one after the other. Then we continued strolling up and down the yard, back and forth, chatting away.

It was mid-afternoon and the rectangle was alive with prisoners walking up and down, eating sunflower seeds, making things, spinning threads and stitching stuff. It was convivial and peaceful. Nobody took any notice of me, the new foreigner, everyone respected everyone else and there was no aggression or bullying. It was live and let live, people just did their own thing, relaxing and enjoying in the perfect weather. What was out of sight was out of mind.

Anker said: ‘let’s walk and talk’. He’s phlegmatic and philosophical but fed up after being here so long. I invite him to tell me about himself.

“Well, it’ll be two and a half years I’ve been stuck here in this crazy hole by Christmas” he says in his soft Danish brogue, “I’m really, really sick of it. I miss my baby, man, she’s been waiting for me, waiting and waiting; we’ve got two small kids but she still sends me a bit of money when she can get some. It’s OK for you if you’ve no family, no baby out there, but when you got kids like me, man, it’s hard sometimes, it’s hell, but there’s nothing you can do, just go on facing it, up and down, up and down, every single day, day after fuckin’ day.”

I chanced the common question that’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue: “How many kilos?”

“Forty, man. Our band really needed a complete set of new equipment and there was no other way we could raise the money. There was a chance to do a run, and I volunteered to do it, to bring back forty kilos. A dealer gave me all the contacts and set it all up perfectly. I just had to drive the vehicle back to Denmark. But it all went wrong on this godforsaken Iran border and I’ve been stuck here in this hole for the last two years now.”

“Yeah,” I intervened, “I heard Nixon set the DEA up to come and close up this border here for all the smugglers. They trained the Iranian customs in all the tricks the hippies used to get stuff out of Afghanistan and back to Europe. Before that, it was easy enough, but since then, it’s been the worst.”

“I got caught, so what the hell,” said Anker, “I walked right into it so here I am, so fucked up man, there’s nothing I can do except write songs and music, play chess and walk up and down, up and down, sleep, eat, shit, sleep, eat, shit …”

He moaned on in a pleasant, matter-of-fact and placid way, resigned to his fate but obviously missing his family and not a happy bunny. Meanwhile we were walking up and down the exercise yard from end to end, alongside the volleyball courts. Walk, talk, turn, talk, walk, turn.

Anker being thoughtful and reflective, I thought I’d pick his brains about how he kept so sane.

“I try to be creative. I’m a musician,” said Anker, “and my music’s my life, so what’s kept me sane here most of all is song-writing. I spend a lot of time and effort in writing songs and music. Most of it is crappy, but some is are good. It’s the effort, it lifts me up so I forget where I am. Being creative can be transformative.”

This sounded good, it gave me a clue. I liked his idea of transformation, negative into positive. Transforming things into their opposites. Anything was possible, but also easier said than done.

When we returned to the block at sunset, Savin made himself useful by offering to help me find a place to sleep.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s see if the Dump Nigger will take you in, Ali says he has a cell all to himself at the moment”. We went to negotiate my place in a cell just a few doors down the row from Richard.

The so-called Dump Nigger was a round, avuncular, middle-aged Iranian with a humble, smiling and deferential air, a bit like a plump, Iranian Uriah Heep. His name was Rehman and unsurprisingly he was no millionaire; after serving 27 years in prison he’d somehow survived to reach the dizzy heights of block one through a combination of great seniority, good behaviour and subservience, plus he must have called in a significant favour from someone at some point. He obligingly accepted Savin’s suggestion that I should share his cell and kindly offered me in good humour the choice of the middle bunk or the top. He used the lowest.

“Well, I´ll take the top” I said, and it was a done deal. The middle bunk was empty, but it would come in useful as a stand-up desk, being just the right height to lean my elbows on.

This self-deprecating old Iranian was the prime dealer in fresh eggs on the prison black market and he acted as a gofer and agent for some well-off Iranians in the block. He was no trouble at all; very kind and easy-going, in fact. I heard he was a convicted murderer, in for life, but he didn’t seem capable of harming a fly.

“Ix?” said Rehman to me raising his eyebrows, once Savin had gone on his way.

“Ix?” I asked, puzzled.

“Ix!” said Rehman, slipping two eggs out of his jacket pocket in his hand. “Yek tuman.” He is offering to sell me fresh eggs, otherwise not available, for ten rials apiece.

“Oh, eggs! Maybe later,” I tell him with a smile.

That night I climbed up and lay on my new bunk under the ceiling, on my foam rubber mattress and its clean white sheet. It was the first time in a week that I owned my own private, personal space. The last time before that had been at the Green Hotel in Kabul. That, I now recalled, was where I’d taken that ‘I Ching’ reading to divine my fate in this disastrous venture, when it had so accurately predicted my fall at the first hurdle; not only “The stupid fox gets his tail wet crossing over the water” but also “The bird is flying too high: disaster!”

I had to remind myself that the changed hexagram’s indication of the longer-term outcome had declared the final judgment that “It is favourable to cross the great water; the laughter is heard for a hundred miles around. Perseverance Brings Sublime Success!” This memory made me feel much better, for surely, the worst was over, and without the slightest shadow of a doubt my luck was due to change, right now. With that positive thought in mind, I fell asleep.

Waking in early the morning, I lay on my bunk ruminating with a fresh mind while the whole block was still fast asleep. I realised that to create the conditions for my luck to change, I’d have to make an effort. I would take my father’s advice to my elder brother, Paddy, a brilliant individual, larger than life, who a couple of years before had been busted in a London dope deal, jumped bail, gone on the run and got completely stuck on a dodgy passport. Our Dad had told him to give himself up and spend his prison time studying something useful to refine himself and realise the infinite potentiality of his mind. That was eighteen months earlier, but my brother hadn’t taken the advice. Instead, he’d gone and done ‘a Jimi Hendrix’ and was buried at Shahbazgarhi, near the Ashoka stone at the crossroads of the anient north-south and east-west silk roads. So, I felt, the onus was now firmly on me to redeem the karmic debt and the circumstances to do that had fallen perfectly into place.

Now, this here prison was a doddle, I thought, just the place to exercise that prerogative. I would start with a visit to the library. As soon that ‘library’ idea popped up in my head, the guard disturbed the peace of night by yelling out loudly in the darkness “subhana!subhana! subhana!” At first, I thought, half awake, that perhaps ‘subhana!’ was Farsi for “hallelujah!”, or maybe “eureka!”

Then, of course, I realised that it simply indicated ‘it’s five o’clock in the morning and breakfast is served’. However, the sign already told me that the library was the key and my new course was set.

Fending off successive waves of depression, despair, remorse and self pity I dragged myself up, climbed down off my bunk and went to collected my first Zendani breakfast, including a bowl of strong black tea that really got me going along this inspirational new line of thought.

In essence, I reflected when back up on my bunk, having been (for whatever reason) well and truly busted, the upside was that I was thereby relieved and exonerated of all responsibility; period. I no longer needed to bother about supporting myself, earning a crust, providing social services, establishing a family, paying rent or tax, feeding and clothing myself or maintaining a roof over my head. All these things were now out of the picture and ‘off the table’ as far as I was concerned, and for the foreseeable future.

On the contrary, thanks to the munificence and generosity of my gracious host – who was none other than the King of Kings himself, the Light of the Aryans, the Shah-in-Shah Aryamehr Reza Pahlavi of Iran – all such bounties would now be complimentary and provided to me gratis, free of charge, on the house, in ample quantity and at the said King’s pleasure; empowering me to do the necessary. I was fully authorised and enabled to freely exercise my personal discretion to do whatever I saw fit, namely to become a perfect example of rehabilitation and reform. In fact, for the first time in my life I was free to do exactly as I liked, without interference from anyone or anything. In a single word, I was free. I was FREE!

Who could possibly have guessed that my eventual restitution better than before and the eventual recovery of my actual physical freedom and the concomitant ‘Sublime Success’ that followed it on would coincide with or even trigger that same great King’s fall to perdition? Involving the fall of the Iranian dynasty? And of the US Democratic Government? And the success of the Ayatollah’s Islamic Revolution? And probably the entire War on Terror for good measure? While I would enjoy sublime success and fulfilment beyond my wildest dreams.


End of part III. Do not miss the next half a dozen (or so) thrilling instalments.

Prison sketch-map by the author. Prison entrance (see photo at top of blog) is at top/middle; “Bandar Yek” (Europeans’ Block One) is marked as “B 1” and the exercise yard and Block Two are to its left.(bottom, right).

WARNING NOTICE AND LEGAL DISCLAIMER: this entire story despite its total lack of probability and credibility is certified by the author as being fully factual and true in all its essential elements and furthermore all and any resemblance of any characters described or appearing herein to any actual persons either living or dead, is fully intended, true to life and more or less as described to the best of my ability in the text. Furthermore, if any statement, allegation or detail is claimed to be or can be shown or demonstrated to be fictional, false, untrue, exaggerated or made up this is due simply to possible bad memory, poetic licence, writer’s embroidery, coincidence or plain inaccuracy on the part of the author who apologises in advance for any such erroneous representation.



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)

BANDAR YEK (Block One) INDUCTION – First Morning


DAY TWO. In the morning, waking up in Bandar Panch, back into the crushing reality, the ghastly circus came back to life and got into gear again. The bright neon lights came on, people got up, groaning, moaning, blundering about and the hubbub began. After going to the disgusting, stinking toilet I found a faucet with some cold water to splash on my face. Ablutions were complete. Then, the steel gates slammed and crashed and buckets clanked as breakfast was delivered. Like feeding time at the zoo another piece of nan, this time even drier and even harder, was doled out, along with a ladle of bitter black tea. I found a place to sit and chewed at the bread like a dog gnaws on a bone.

I tried to bring back to mind how, the night before, I’d concluded that I was somehow a lucky guy. Despite the fact that it was dismal and depressing I could still recall times in my life when supposedly ‘free’ that I’d personally felt even worse. I’d managed to work my way out of those situations, so why not this one, too? I watched the babbling crowd of unfortunates who surrounded me and heard the guards shouting and screaming by the gates. They were all people with families and lives and stories. Knowing Iran with its dictator the Shah and his SAVAK, the secret police, it was true that I probably stood a better chance than they did of getting out of here reasonably unharmed. I could get on with it. I would adapt, get out and go free. But they were stuck.

Suddenly my young political friends came up gesticulating and pointing to the gate where a guard had been shouting my name incomprehensibly against the racket and hubbub. “It’s for you! Burro, mister, burro! You can go!” they said. They pushed me through the crowd towards the gate and the guard grabbed my arm, pulled me out and marched me up the steps towards the steel gates and started opening the locks. My two dissenting young friends waved me goodbye with happy smiles and melted back into the crowd.

Buddho, Bandar Yek!” grinned the goblin and gave me a push. I was out, down the steps, through the double barred gates and being frogmarched away from the bedlam. Its racket died away behind me as we plodded towards the opposite end of the long main corridor past four sets of locked and barred gates going off on the right, past the brightly lit, octagonal plate-glass windowed ‘Negabani’ (Police Central Control Office) at the T-junction with the entry corridor on the left, where I’d been brought in the day before – and straight on to Bandar Yek (Block One), the fifth set of barred gates on the right, at the very end.

He rattled the gate and called for the guard. I could see into block one through two sets of bars. Two ‘Bandar Yek’ guards came out of their guardroom to receive me under the stairwell in their dark uniforms like another pair of goblin brothers with peaked caps, truncheons, pistols and bunches of keys on their belts. They took my papers from the escort, who went back. I peered into the cellblock. One set of gates crashed closed behind me and another set was opened in front

Bandar Yek looked quite a cool place to be. The contrast with Bandar Panch could not have been greater. There was a long, ten foot wide passageway of smooth, polished flagstones, with a line of cells down either side. The cells had thick, green-painted iron bars at the front and sliding doors that all seemed to be pushed wide open. The scene was flooded with morning sunshine that slanted across from the cells on the left. Three or four well dressed Iranian gentlemen were strolling up and down serenely, chatting quietly while fingering their worry-beads. All was calm and quiet, like a monastic cloister or a peaceful hotel lobby. At the far end was an open doorway, beyond which on the right another open door was visible leading to the outside.

Having placed my papers in the office to the side, under the stairs, one of the Block One guards opened the second gate and pushed me into this reposeful scene, with much rattling of keys and crashing of gates. My new home.

I glanced up above. There were two more floors with a similar layout but with a caged-in central well going up to the roof. Some men in grey lurked in the shadows, gazing silently down; it felt a little strange.

The guard beckoned to me to hurry up and follow him to the fifth cell on the left. He called to someone inside “Reeshard!” A tall, thin, almost bald, middle-aged, English-looking fellow in white shirt jeans and socks got up from a cushion on the floor where he’d been sat leaning against another cushion reading. A younger chap lying on the lowest bunk swung his legs out to sit up. There were colourful carpets and cushions on the floor and hangings on the wall, giving the cell a comfortable, relaxed air despite its small size and the bars at the front.

“Richard, mishtair,” said the guard to the tall bald guy, holding me by the arm, “John Mitchell. Inglis.” Baldy put his book down and invited me in. The guard waved to dismiss me and went back to his post. I’d been handed over and glanced around to take in the new environment.

On the right of the cell were three bunk beds, one above the other with a metre in between. The upper and lower ones were made up as beds and the middle one looked like it was used for storage. On the left, the carpeted living space with cushions was about a metre wide and two long. Beyond the bunks at the back of the cell was a bigger space with three metal lockers. At the top of the rear wall a horizontal, barred glass window was propped open, showing the clear blue sky with the bright morning sunshine pouring in. The cell’s three walls were of concrete blocks.

“Aha” said Richard, the bald one, “we heard there was someone new in Block Five, but we didn’t expect to see you so soon. How was your stay there, then?” He was well-spoken and had the air of a typical ‘expat Brit’ rather than that of a traveller.

“Short and sweet,” I said “glad to be out of it.”

“I bet you are! That place is hell on earth.” He held out his hand. “Richard Savin, pleased to meet you. This is Vince, he’s my cellmate. Have a seat. ‘Sean, S-e-a-n’? Right. You’re English? So are we, we’re the only English here, apart from David, who’s a recluse. The more, the merrier. This place is the absolute pits. Would you like some chai? Tea?” I accepted with pleasure and Vince volunteered to fetch it. He got up, took a small tray of glasses from the middle bunk and disappeared out of the door and down the block to the left. Just like a hotel, I thought.

“I suppose you’ve been done for hash?” continued Richard and I nodded. “How many kilos?”

“Seventeen” I said truthfully, “but it was planted on me. I’ve been framed” I lied. I didn’t know him yet and thought I better stick to the phoney excuse I’d made to my captors. He might have been a spy or an agent for the establishment here.

“Ha, ha” said Richard, “everyone says that, but it’s only true in my case. Don’t worry, Ted had four hundred kilos so seventeen’s nothing, but you’ll still do the same as him: between two and four years. All foreigners here have been done for hash, coming from Afghanistan and all guilty no matter what they say. Except me, that is!”

Vince came back with three glasses of tea and a large plate of ‘Bourbon’ chocolate cream biscuits and I raised my eyebrows in pleasant surprise. “This is very civilised. I thought I was going to be in prison!” I said. “What is this, a bloody hotel?”

“Ha, ha. There’s a samovar down at the end of the block and a little shop” he explained. “Have a biscuit. You can help yourself to chai whenever you like, just leave a coin in the saucer.”

“Thanks!” said I, sipping the sweet, black tea. It was freshly made and after the muck in Bandar Panch it tasted as Iranian tea should. “That’s good! So what’s the situation, how do things work here, then? Are you in charge, or something?” I asked him.

“No, not at all; at least, only by common consent” he conceded. He explained how he’d been here for two years inferring that the foreigners looked to him as their leader since he was a professional, older and knew how to deal with these devious and conniving Iranians on his own terms. Anyway, the rest of the Europeans, excluding the Brits, were a riff-raff of unreliable hippies and drug-smugglers and didn’t have much of a clue how things need to be done. Patriotic and proud he was a cut above the rest. And innocent, too! Vince concurred and backed him up, nodding approvingly and adding details from time to time. Clearly, Richard had him in his pocket. I thought I’d humour them and pick his brains, so I went along with it.

The cell was comfortable and homely with the cushions, rugs, photos, wall-hangings and personal effects taking up the space and covering the bare concrete. They were happy to have an audience so I settled in to be treated to a scathing critique of the prison, the guards, the authorities, the conditions and the prisoners, both Iranian and European. In particular there was a well-honed litany of complaint and contempt for anything and everything Iranian. I affected sympathy and amusement as I listened to his commentary, born of two years frustration here. It was quite entertaining, at least after my time at the border lock-up and a day in Bandar Panch.

“I’ll never let these lying Iranians get away with anything. They all lie, they learn it from birth, they don’t know anything else” said Savin scornfully.

“Yeah, ha, ha. So how come you’re in here, how come you were framed then?” I ventured.

“OK, Sean,” he said, “I happen to be employed as a bona-fide sales agent on behalf of a major British arms company, carrying out officially approved Government business with full knowledge and approval of the Foreign Office. I’d been to Islamabad to handle negotiations with Pakistan army buyers and I was on my way home by road. Calling in at our embassies in Kabul and Teheran en route. Somewhere in Pakistan my car was got at and someone with a grudge against me, or somebody wanting to spike my business, stuffed a load of hash into the front tyres of my Mercedes. They then passed this info and the car plate number to Iranian customs. As soon as I got to the border I was surrounded, they took off the two front tyres, took out the stuff – which I obviously had no idea about – and I was arrested. So here I am, and no-one believes me. It was such an obvious frame-up. I’ve got my contacts in the Foreign Office, hopefully it won’t be long; problem is, in Iran everything takes so much time. They delay and delay, playing all sorts of games hoping to get a bribe or just simply enjoy screwing me over. So in a word, yes, I was framed. I’ve been here for two years and I’ve fought them every inch of the way. It’s like Kafka, my life is hell, they even think it’s funny. You can’t trust a single thing they say. The food is horrible, the conditions are shit, life is absolute hell, but I’ll never stop fighting, I’ll never give up, I’ll face them down, I’ll get them in the end, I’ll prove them wrong…”

“That’s sounds terrible” I said when he paused for breath. “But I don’t understand. Are you a Government agent, or a company employee, or freelance?”

“I wasn’t officially employed or on a retainer; my work’s more kind of undercover. Officially, I’m an independent agent and I run my own business. But it’s fully approved and I work with people in high places. Problem is, I can’t really name them, so I’m stuck.”

“I see. Complicated.” I sad, noticing his slight irritation. “It’s peculiar, though, these enemies of yours, that they took the trouble to get to your car, jack it up, take off the tyres, stuff them with hash and somehow get them back on again, instead of just sticking it under the seat or behind a door panels or something easy” I ventured “Whoever it was, they took a lot of trouble to make it look genuine.”

He had no response to this so I thought I better change the subject. “Well! What about all the others here, how many are there? What are they in for?”

“Right.” Savin resumed his briefing. “There are sixteen other foreigners here, apart from the Afghans and the Pakis of course, all hash smugglers caught at Taybad, except David who was caught coming from Pakistan at Nokkundi the south. Baluchistan. He was held in an ancient prison in the desert then transferred here. Everyone says they were planted or framed.”

“How much have people been done for? How many months do they get?”

“Some smokers get caught, with their stash. They get six months, fixed. Anything over half a kilo, though is treated as trafficking. They get a flat two years sentence plus ten thousand dollars a kilo fine. Nobody can pay it, so if you have a few kilos they can keep you in as long as they like after serving two years. For every extra day you stay in the prison, the fine’s reduced by ten dollars. So to pay off the fine of each kilo, it’s a thousand days in prison. That’s nearly three years. So Ted, he got done for 400 kilos, he gets well over a thousand years.”

“A thousand years? That’s ridiculous!”

“Yes, and there’s no chance of getting off, it’s a foregone conclusion. You have a lawyer, but you never even see him. The guilty verdict is fixed in advance – and so’s your sentence!”

“So I assume that’s the bad news, what’s the good news?”

“Plastic-nose issues pardons six times a year. But it’s a lottery.”

“‘Plastic-nose’? Pardons?”

A tall, freckled, broad-shouldered young fellow with tight blond, curly hair passes by towards the gate and Savin calls out “Anker! Come here and meet the new recruit!” To me he says “this is Anker, he’s a guitarist in a Danish rock-band. And chess champion of Block One!”

Anker says ‘hi’ and ‘welcome’ and that he’s just rushing to the library before it closes.

“’The library’?” I repeat.

“Yes, the library. It’s built up over the last ten years. Everyone leaves their books when they get out. There’s about 3,000 books.”

“Great” say I. “I can catch up with my reading.”

“That’s right” says Anker as he disappears towards the gates, “there’s plenty of time for reading here! Catch you later, man.”

“By the way” continues Savin darkly, gesticulating upwards with his thumb, “upstairs here are the political prisoners. All communication is forbidden. They do not exist. Don’t even look up. SAVAK takes care of them.”

“Yeah” says Vince, “if you talk to them, you’ll be sent straight to Bandar Panch – and this place is full of spies.”

This explained the funny feeling I had when I looked up earlier. “So who’s here on the ground floor, then?”

“It’s the ‘first class’ section. Us westerners, and Iranian millionaires. They have servants and pay everyone off, but we are granted automatic admission. The authorities seem quite wary of bad publicity abroad, about their treatment of prisoners, so they tend to go easy on us. Kid-glove treatment.”

“Hmmm,” I thought to myself, so we aren’t such helpless victims after all. “What other blocks are there?”

“Block two’s for middle-class Iranians. It’s just across our exercise yard, over there” said Savin, waving with his hand. “Then there’s smaller exercise yard between blocks two and three. Three’s for Iranian peasants and riff-raff. Oi,” he broke off, calling to someone rushing by. “Giorgio! Come and meet the new ‘roast-beef’!”

A dark-haired, solid-looking guy came bouncing down the corridor from the gate and stuck his head in the door to be introduced.

“Ciao, hey, another bloody fuckin’ rosbif!” he says with a cheerful grin, “I’m Giorgio. Don’ listen to dis fuckin’ English bastard! ’E’s fool of sheet. I tell you the real scene when ’e’s finished ‘ees bool-sheet.” He winks and gives Savin a playful punch in the arm.

Savin laughs and says “get out of here Giorgio, or I’ll tan your hide.”

“I mean it” says Giorgio with another wink, dodging in and out of the door like a jack-in-the-box, “don’t believe anything ’e says. Jus’ pure bool-sheet! Ciao! I have to play tennis with the Raïs.” and then to Savin with a laugh: “Ti riempo il culo di carne!”

“Whassat?” I ask as he dashes off with a laugh.

“Don’t ask. He’s a joker” says Savin as Giorgio disappears down the block “and he kisses the ass of the Commandant, that’s the boss of the prison, Raïs. He plays tennis with him; he thinks it’ll help him get out faster. The only way to treat these Iranians is to keep on their case, demanding your rights, keep on hammering them and never let them get away with anything. Giorgio thinks by cosying up to the officers they’ll like him and he’ll get away with things, maybe get his name on the list. He’s dreaming … well, you know those Italians, pfff! But Giorgio’s a kung-fu artist, a real one, strong as a horse and incredibly agile. Bloody acrobat, he is. Now, where were we?”

“Block three’s for riff-raff. Is there a Block four? What’s lower than riff-raff?” I ask, eagerly. “And what ‘list’ does Giorgio try to get his name on?”

“Yes, indeed. I’ll tell you. Block four’s for Afghans, even lower than riff-raff for the Iranians” says Savin with a grin, “but for them, it’s a free resort. Every autumn they get busted for a bit of dope. They bring sacks of raw materials to make handicrafts for six months while eating, drinking and sleeping here, courtesy of ‘Plastic-nose’. In spring, out they go and back to Afghanistan with all their goods to sell to the tourists.”

“Brilliant! But who or what is ‘Plastic-nose’?” I interject, bemused.

“That’s code for ‘the Shah’. In the sixties, some clever bugger, in a failed assassination attempt, shot his nose off with a 45 calibre pistol, and he had it remodelled in plastic. Iranians never dare to say a bad word about him because they’d get the shit kicked out of them. Literally. Ask any Iranian what they think of him and they say he’s a great leader, a strongman, ‘like Hitler’. No matter what they really think, they parrot ‘Iran needs a strong leader, like Hitler’. So – thanks to the CIA and MI6, who put him in place, whose puppet he is – Iran is ruled by a brutal dictator. In other words, by Plastic-nose.”

While Richard was droning on, I was busy doing my mental arithmetic. Unless I paid my fine, which would be $170,000, I would be here for the next 50 years. But Richard had said something about ‘pardons’.

“Pardons, pardons. What’s the good news, about pardons?” I repeated.

“Ah, yes, the good news” continued Richard, seeing my anxiety about being stuck here for decades, “is that on six dates during the year the Shah holds national celebrations and issues pardons. The celebrations commemorate the Shah’s coronation; the Shah’s birthday; the Shah’s marriage anniversary, the Shah’s surviving his assassination attempt, and Nauroz, the Persian New Year.” He was counting on his fingers. “That’s five; and then, of course, there’s the CIA coup d’état that deposed the democratically-elected government and put the Shah in power as a dictator. That’s the 19th August 1953, when Iran’s democracy died – thanks to the USA. In Persian the date’s called ‘bist-o-hasht Mordad’. That’s the big one.”

“But who gets pardoned? How do people get pardoned, in practice?”

“Good question!” said Richard. “A week or so before each ‘celebration’, the Shah gets lists of prisoners, from all the prisons in Iran, who’ve paid the proper bribes, assessed by judges, based on their wealth. They squeeze them for all they’re worth. Everyone in the official hierarchy, right to the top, gets a cut. The Shah’s office approves all the names that it wishes to approve and sends the lists back to the prisons on the eve of each celebration. It’s just pure extortion.”

“Meanwhile, except for the Afghans, who live in another world, the prison is rife with speculation about who’ll be freed and how many. As the day approaches it reaches fever pitch, everyone’s on tenterhooks, talking up their chances, calculating the time they’ve done and comparing it to what other did for a similar crime, just hoping and praying their name will be read out.”

“About nine or ten o’clock, everyone’s in the yard nervously walking up and down twiddling their worry beads like crazy when the PA system suddenly starts crackling and a voice starts booming out all the lucky names, one by one, calling them to the Basrassi for processing out. Everyone listens with bated breath. Excited yells and cheers break out here and there from groups of friends in the yard, if one of whose names comes up. Then they dash off to their cells with 10 minutes to get their stuff, say goodbyes to friends of years and scramble out to freedom through the cage.”

“Then just as suddenly, the PA falls silent. The list is done. Hopes fade for the rest. Despair and depression kick in as they face the prospect of staying imprisoned.”

“Heck” I said, “Well. I’m busted, I’m cleaned up completely! No hope of me bribing my way out.”

“Nah, don’t worry” said Richard reassuringly, “foreigners are exempt from bribery, it’s all hidden. It’s an internal Iranian system, so, depending on good behaviour and well, good luck, foreigners get pardoned not long after their sentence is served, plus a bit. Only a few have ever done much over three years. They make you serve a bit of your fine and let you go, depending your behaviour. If you have hundreds of kilos they might keep you longer. If you make problems, they don’t like it, they can make an example of you. But it’s unpredictable.”

It implied two or three years for me. Better than 50, but still more than I’d bargained for. My heart sank.

“Get used to it” said Richard, “Nobody gets around the system, not even me, and I’m genuinely innocent. Except, that is, for one disgusting weirdo who made himself filthy, Crazy Hans. Ask Giorgio. Hans got so disgusting that they threw him out!”

The briefing lasted all morning. I was introduced to a growing number prisoners and guards who passed by and looked in the cell at the shaven-headed me. Savin made a good barrack-room lawyer with a dash of Don Quixote. He played both the victim but and the classic PoW officer refusing to cooperate as a matter of principal, to disrupt the enemy. By lunchtime I was getting weary of this know-all.

Others passing up and down outside acted relaxed, normal and friendly. The Europeans were an interesting bunch. A serious-looking German hippie-bus operator came along.

“Hey, Ted, come and meet the new convict!” called Richard.

Big Ted of the sallow complexion and floppy forelock came into sight and blocked the doorway. “Was ist los?” he said stretching his hand out, “hi, I’m Ted.”

“Du bist ein Deutscher?” I say, in my schoolboy German. “Guten tag!”

“Bavarian. Münchener. Wie gehst?” he says, “Wilkommen to the cesspit of the world. Hey! How many kilos?”

“Just seventeen. You know what I mean. And you?”

“Four hundred!”

“Wow! That’s a lot!” I say.

“Yeah, that’s what the Customs guy said” laughs Ted, wryly. “I see you later, I’m going to the pharmacy. I got the shits.” He blows a raspberry for emphasis and turns back towards the gate.

“Four hundred kilos!” I exclaim, “bloody hell, how did you manage that?” but he continues on towards the gate, saying “oh, oh, oh!”

“Ted ran the ‘German Bus’,” says Savin, “picking up hippies and travellers between Amsterdam and Delhi, in competition with Magic Bus. He packed two hundred kilos of dope in each side of his bus. Idiot!”

“Here’s Ronald, another German” he said as a more happy-go-lucky type with an easy smile and careless style came flouncing by, wearing a bright yellow shirt. He stepped in and shook hands warmly and welcomed me to the club.

I met the quiet, retiring French karate black belt and Zen practitioner, Bernard. Then from across the way came the small, thin and sharp-suited Pakistani Punjabi Iqbal who was accompanied by his affable personal servant ‘Chacha’ or Uncle. Next, the thin, fussy and bent-backed, German Peter, called ‘Peter the Painter’ for some obscure reason. He was pedantic and grumpy but well-meaning. He’d taken the blame for his stash so that his wife Ursula could go free. She got a job with the German consulate in town and stayed to support him from outside. This was useful, said Richard Savin, when things were needed from ‘outside’. Although Peter kept to himself and was a bit measly with the things she brought in for him like chocolate or coffee, he did sometimes share things out; but you had to keep on the right side of him. His wife could visit him twice a week.

Two friendly Iranians came in to introduce themselves and welcome me, the tall, suave young Khosravi Karamatloo and his friend the short, stocky Ali Mohammad. They both looked like dependable types and invited me for tea and to play chess or backgammon at some point.

There were a few others, laid-back dope-smokers and travellers who’d got busted for their stash; Italians, French and Germans. On the whole they were reasonably fit, cheerful and busy, with things to do and places to visit in the prison.

“There are a few lucky ‘lifers’ in this block, too, Iranians who’ve done good behaviour for twenty years or so, and those who must know someone of influence where it matters, or did someone a favour. There’s more personal space in this block. Every cell has three bunks but mostly only two prisoners. It’s less claustrophobic. The other blocks are chock-full.”

“When do they lock the cells?” I asked, imagining we’d be locked in at some point, maybe after lunch.

“Never” said Richard. “The Zendan is so secure – it’s supposed to be a copy of Sing-sing in the USA, and escape-proof – so when the Shah officially opened it as a showcase rehab prison, he toured it with his wife, the Shahbanou, she told him it was already safe enough without locking all the poor prisoners up in the cells. She asked him to order them to be left open. He must have been in a good mood because he agreed, so the cells are never locked. So the legend goes.”

“What’s rehab about it?”

“Aha, good question. There are factories for making carpets and socks, and training workshops for carpentry and metalwork, but these are just run as businesses by the establishment. There are exercise yards, tennis courts, gyms, a hospital, the library. Everything except for a swimming pool. We can go around everywhere but we have to get permission to leave the Block for anywhere except the yards. Permission is normally given if you ask nicely, at the right time. But we have the freedom of our block around the clock and the yards are open all day, every day.”

“Some prison!” I said, appreciatively. I was beginning to wonder what he was complaining about.

“In fact,” he commented, “the cells are our own private living space, where we can have a bit of peace and quiet. We have foam-rubber mattresses, clean cotton sheets and pillow cases, personal towels and – this is the best – every month or so for our personal hygiene we are issued with a fresh bar of ‘Pink Camay’ soap ‘with an added drop of French perfume’!”

“Blimey” I said, “what else? This just is ridiculous. I thought you said it was terrible? Where’s the catch?”

“Ha, ha. There’s also flexibility about what you can have in your cell. Cooking food is forbidden but quite a few people have a mini-kitchen at the back of their cells with little oil-fired cookers. Giorgio for example has his custom-made sound system with four speakers and a whole rack of music tapes. He holds fairly noisy evening parties, unless someone complains. So long as you toe the line, you can get away with it. However, if you annoy them, or cross them, they’ll rip your cell apart and trash all your stuff. So be careful. The cops run this place as a business, and as their own fiefdom. There’s no oversight.” He turned to his cellmate. “Tell him about who the deals the drugs here, Vince!”

“It’s the cops, they sell heroin to the prisoners. It’s part of Plastic-nose’s drug cartel. Actually, when Plastic-nose got rich with petrodollars in the sixties he really started asserting himself,” explained Vince. “He beefed up the SAVAK secret police and started oppressing any opposition, whether religious or political, throwing them in prison and giving them a hard time. The Ayatollah Khomeini was forced into exile in Paris and anyone with socialist leanings is rounded up. His family took over the lucrative Iranian heroin and opium trade. They used SAVAK to eliminate all the local dealers and anyone else who was trafficking in the stuff. The biggest dealers got shot and the rest were thrown in jail on ridiculously long sentences.”

“Right, Vince. They have two main classes of prisoners here” resumed Savin, “the Kishvar and the Lashkar. Drug offenders and political dissenters. There are a few murderers and thieves and whatever, and the foreigners of course who get caught with hash on the Afghan border, but the opium trade and politicos probably account for ninety percent of the prisoners.”

“So the jails got overcrowded” added Vince “and the Shah invested in new prisons like this one around the country to accommodate all these new prisoners. In fact, Iran’s prison population is basically captive drug addicts who are imprisoned by their dealers. Voilà! It goes on here every day, but we rarely see any sign of it.”

“All this is encouraged by the USA” added Savin, switching now to his speciality, arms sales. “Iran’s their main ally in the Middle East and the Shah is keen to build up the biggest military in the region. Of course, the Americans encourage him to spend his vast reserves of petrodollars on the latest US-made armaments, tanks, planes, warships and all the rest, so he can threaten and bully his rivals as their proxy. You know Iran shares borders with the Soviets? The Shah lets the Americans build their military bases in the north, with missiles, right along the borders, and targeted on Russian cities. In fact, this whole Iran scenario must have been dreamed up by some genius at the CIA.”

I leaned back and took a deep breath. This was quite a lot to take in for someone who’d been living an isolated life in a remote village up in the Pakistani hills for a decade. I started to flag but what he was saying was interesting to hear.

“Tell me more about this place” I asked him, as he paused for breath again, “how many prisoners are there?”

“They say there’s around about four thousand” answered Savin. “There are about ten main blocks, five of which are for prisoners, which have three storeys each.”

I did some quick mental arithmetic. “That works out at over 250 prisoners per floor, but if each floor has, say, 60 cells, that’s over four per cell instead of three.”

“Right, so it’s obviously overcrowded, except in this block, this floor.”

“Then there’s the hospital block, the workshops, the admin buildings on the other side and so forth. The long corridor is the main artery and all the blocks run off it at right angles, with three gaps for exercise yards in between blocks one to four. The yards are open dawn to dusk. Most of the Europeans go for an early morning run, twenty times around the yard, about four kilometres. Then we take a shower in the hammam. Then it’s time for breakfast. Anything else?” Richard seemed to be running out of steam, but by now I’d acquired a detailed picture of the situation, of which, a few hours earlier, I’d known nothing.

We were by now starting into our third or fourth tray of chai brought by Vince from the samovar at the end of the corridor. Vince evidently acted as Richard’s gofer.

“So what about you?” Richard asked me at last as I’d also run out of questions, as “Where are you from?” he asked me, at last.

“Erm, I’m from Preston in Lancashire, originally, and I’ve been living in northern Pakistan” I said. “Thanks for all the information. All very interesting. Indeed!”

It was now midday and prisoners were emerging from their cells and waiting in the corridor, clutching their metal bowls and spoons. “It’s nearly time for nahar, that’s lunch” declared Richard Savin, “you’ll need a bowl and spoon, come on, we’ll get you sorted out, then it’s off to the ashpazkhana – the kitchen. We’ll see what muck they’re serving up today. It’s Tuesday so normally it’s ‘beans and bones’. Very thin gruel, in other words, with a few beans and some bones in it – the staple diet here. With rice and fresh nan, if you want. They serve up exactly the same rubbish for dinner every evening, except they call it ‘sharm’. Variations on a theme. But freshly cooked, the rice and the bread are edible. They bake the nan in the morning. It’s already stiff and dry by the evening. By next day, when they serve it up for breakfast, it’s dry, and hard as a board. We call ’em ‘surfboards’. Breakfast is definitely not worth getting out of bed for,” says Savin, “unless there’s cheese, that’s on Friday, or if you want the little tiny pat of butter. And the donkey’s dick jam is disgusting.”

“Butter? Donkey’s dick?”

“Carrot jam, that they serve for breakfast. In little plastic portions, years old. Donkey’s years.”

A guard came out of the den between the gates and yelled down the block at the top of his voice “Nahar, nahar, nahar!” The prisoners surged forward as the gates were unlocked. I was issued with an already used and dented aluminium bowl, a spoon and a plastic mug. Several dozen diners trooped down the corridor in a procession, with guards ensuring nobody went astray. Others seemed to be staying in their cells, no doubt getting their food by other, privileged and possibly illicit means. On the way, Richard pointed out the library door. “Ask the block guard for permission to visit the library in the morning. It’s basically a hippie-type library but if you like to read, worth a look. They generally let you out if you ask nicely and once you’re out of the block you can wander around and explore the prison.”

After passing the brightly-lit Negabani T-junction, the procession turned right into the ashpazkhana, a large, very noisy and unpleasant mess with a high ceiling and rows of aluminium tables with attached metal seats to perch on. He we turned left to skirt the wall in single file into a narrow passage between the wall and a barrier of aluminium tables pushed together that stretched half-way round the room. This queue eventually moved past hatches in the far wall with holes through which food was ladled out into our bowls, under the watchful eye of two policemen with truncheons who were standing on top of the tables just alongside the holes. Prompted by the others when I came level with the holes I shoved my bowl into the first hole and received a scoop of rice in it. At the second hole, a ladleful of watery gruel was sloshed over the rice. Then, constantly urged on by the policemen on the tables, the queue filed out from the channel by the wall and the diners, if one can call them that, dispersed around the mess hall to perch on the round metal seats and eat from the tables. Some preferred to stand. People picked through their bowls looking, mostly in vain, for scraps of meat or other edible titbits. Some tipped their bowls out onto the bare table tops, picking anything they fancied out before re-joining the end of the queue if the police weren’t watching, to chance their luck again. Iranians munched their rice, regardless. The acoustics were terrible and loud noises of yelling, banging and crashing echoed deafeningly around the place.

In mitigation, I did notice that, the rest apart, the rice itself was well-prepared, separate-grained and perfectly good when taken in isolation. Much later, near the end of my stay, I came to understand how very important and indeed, crucial that separate grained, non-sticky rice was for my Iranian friends.

Overall however it really was a mess with food scattered on the greasy aluminium table tops or simply tipped out on the floor. After ten minutes of food-based mayhem the guards shouted “Bandar Yek, Buddho!” and we were all herded back to the cellblock under escort.

My first morning’s induction into this particular and peculiar mode of existence inside Zendan Vakilabad was over at last. My discovery of this world hidden away behind the concrete walls in the desert of Khorasan had been quite a revelation. It seemed as if I’d died and been reborn, out of the blue into a strange new realm.

Prison sketch-map by the author. Prison entrance (see photo at top of blog) is at top/middle; the main corridor connects “Bandar Panch” (Punishment Block 5) marked “B. 5” (middle left) with “Bandar Yek” (Europeans’ Block One) marked “B 1” (bottom, right).