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.

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2 Responses to ““BUSTED!” – PART III”

  • Brilliant . . . . following you every step of the way . . .

  • Hi Paul
    It is so heart-warming to get a message of appreciation in return for my labours typing these stories in hospital a couple of weeks ago. Not to mention the traumas of being in ‘Nicaragua’ all those years back.
    I was high on post-operation drugs (maybe morphine drip, I think) having been under the knife for four hours. I felt I had to get this instalment down and off to Nico for publication so I sat up till 2 AM hammering away at the keyboard, that’s the same night after a general anaesthetic administered in the morning.
    In fact, merging in and out of consciousness at the laptop, I began to be unsure whether I was in a hospital writing about a prison or vice-versa. The confusion peaked when I was describing “subhana” in Block One (dry bread, black tea, a portion of butter and a portion of old jam) when the morning duty nurse came in with breakfast – dry bread, black tea, a portion of butter and a portion of old jam.
    Well, I am glad that at least one person finds it as good as I think it ought to be myself!
    Part VI is on the way. It gets deeper and deeper.
    All the best,

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