“BUSTED!” – PART II

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

“HOW MANY KILOS?…”

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).

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