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)


“The prison is BAD!”

I spent that whole day recounting my travels to Anker and Giorgio, from going ‘on the road’ in 1965 to escaping to Landi Kotal from bandits in the Tirah eight years later.

“Then what happened?” Anker demanded as I finally lapsed into silence.

“Is that it?” said Giorgio, trying to pull a face as if he thought the whole thing had been terribly boring.

“Yeah, actually, that’s it.” I said apologetically. “It’s been relatively quiet, over the five years since then; well, up till now that is. We had a safe journey down the Khyber, rode to Swat and eventually leased some land by the river in Madyan in the middle of Swat and built houses and stables there. It’s been my base ever since. I’ve just used the horses to explore the region, north and south. Lots and lots of other stories in those five years, though! That will take another full day to tell you about.”

“Anyway, this year, after my brother died, I just got so fed up with this boring life, like Giorgio says, of looking after horses in the Frontier area. I really wanted to escape. So I made my plan and Kevin and I did one last trek with the horses to Chitral. Chitral was my actual destination when I left India to Pakistan, in 1968, so that completed one big ten year cycle, with many, many detours.”

“Now, I’m on my way back home, to the UK. I suppose this will be my last wild crazy travel adventure, stuck here in Zendan Vakilabad, with all you bums and no-good jailbirds”

“I wouldn’t put it past you” said Anker

“Well, is that all?” echoed Giorgio. “Rosbif, that is so fuckin’ boring! Your life has been nothing, man.”

“Right, that’s nothing” I said, “you haven’t seen anything yet. Maybe we gonna blow the whole prison up and destroy the entire friggin’ country, go back home and leave it all in ruins. What do you think? Are you with me?”

“Giorgio’s kidding” said Anker. “Your life has been wild. But you’re mad to have done this trip, after you got out of the previous hole you were in and got that fantastic job at Tarbela, you’re mad!”

“Yes!” said Giorgio. “You were just so well set up in Swat, Rosbif. Why bother to take such a stupid risk?”

I had been thinking about this stupidity of mine a lot ever since I was busted and I could not agree more. As well as getting that job at Tarbela in 1968, a million-to-one chance that saved my life and put me back on track, I’d also met the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist teachings from Tibet, which should have put me on a better path.

In addition, the last time I’d tried to smuggle anything, five years before, I’d been so close to getting caught that I knew, I exactly knew through my intuition that the next time I tried anything I would be busted straight away. And still I’d insisted on going through with this kamikaze trip, because I had confidence in the prediction about the end result when I’d consulted the I Ching.

“It’s true” I admitted, “it must be because I have some karma to work out here. Even the I Ching told me, clear as daylight, just the day before, that I’d get busted on the very first bloody border I had to cross, which was right here. But I still went ahead.”

“What?” said Anker, surprised, “the I Ching told you that?”

I had shown them the basics of the I Ching and how divinations work, and helping them do readings readings on their questions, so they knew what it meant that I’d been warned. I nodded, shook my head and shrugged. It was a fact.

“So what’s the use of taking an I Ching divination, to see if you will get busted, and it says you will, but then you still go ahead with it anyway, and get busted?” asked Giorgio dubiously. Having studied Kung Fu in depth he knew the basics of Taoism, in which the I Ching is deeply rooted with an overlay of Confucianism.

“It wasn’t quite so simple as that,” I explained. “The meaning of the reading obliged me to go for it, despite the fact that I was going to get busted. My decision to go ahead actually depended on the changed hexagram. I’ll show you. This is the last link of the story that I explained yet. It’s very interesting! All I’ve told you so far covers up to when I sent that letter from Peshawar to Kevin in Chitral, to sell the horses.”

“That’s right” said Anker. “You were in Peshawar with your camper van, having just left Swat after getting delayed, and heading for Europe. So where did you take the reading, in Kabul, or in Herat – and what did it say?”

I realised this was a good opportunity to respond to my new friends’ enquiries by teaching them how the I Ching really worked, in practice, taking a recent, crucial and very relevant case as a perfect example: my own bust.

“OK,” I said. “If you really want to know the answer, sit down and listen to this. It was in Kabul. I drove through Khyber Pass and up to Kabul. I had no fixed plan, hardly a clue about what I was doing, just a vague idea of getting to Europe and seeing what business I could drum up, assuming I’d arrive there safely. I was going to play it by ear; everything was up in the air. I perfect scenario for an I Ching reading to be taken.”

“I checked in at the old Green Hotel. I took out the book, laid out the wrapping cloth over the carpet, sat cross-legged on the floor and took the 50 yarrow stalks to divide and count them all out in the proper, ancient way. Eventually, after twenty minutes or so, hexagram number 62 emerged, six lines, yin and yang, which indicates what is going to happen. But these six lines included two ‘old yang’, changing lines, which meant that there would be a long-term result that would be different to the immediate result. Are you with me?” They nodded. I took out my copy and turned the pages to the text for this hexagram to quote it to Anker and Giorgio. They listened attentively.

“It starts off encouragingly: ‘When birds fly high their singing is out of tune. Perseverance; preponderance of the small; the humble are favoured with great good fortune’. It doesn’t seem too bad, though it obviously doesn’t favour big, ambitious schemes, but then, when I saw the text on the changing lines, which are crucial, it was so bad! ‘The bird is flying too high: misfortune. There is nothing we can do about it’, said the first changing line. The text for the second changing line said: ‘Unless he takes precautions, one of his subordinates may slay him – a misfortune indeed!’”

“So, two ‘misfortunes’ in the two changing lines, indicate what is about to befall” I continued. “It’s a warning of imminent disaster. Bad news! And the text that said ‘a bird in flight: misfortune. There is nothing we can do’ was the first line out of the six that form the hexagram. Now, to get to Europe I had six borders to cross that corresponded with these six lines, so I divined, correctly, that I would run into trouble at the first line – which corresponds with the Iranian border.”

Anker and Giorgio did face-palms again and exclaimed in unison: “so why did you go on, then? You stupid Rosbif!”

“Exactly. Wait. I’ll tell you. When there are changing yang lines, you have to write a new hexagram with those lines changed into their opposites, yin or yang, and this hexagram denotes the long-term result, which is dissimilar to the immediate result. Are you with me?” They nodded and I drew the new, ‘changed’ hexagram. It was number 51, ‘the cauldron’ – very auspicious! A totally brilliant hexagram. Look!” I flipped the pages again. “It says: ‘Thunder upon thunder – great good fortune and sublime success! Thunder comes with a terrible noise, laughing and shouting in awesome glee and frightening people for a hundred miles around. The sacrificial wine is not split. The Superior Man seeks to improve himself.’ These words “sublime success” are as good as the I Ching ever gets. And I had them. How could I not proeed, if I had faith in this divination?”

“So if you believe this shit, Rosbif” said Giorgio with an incredulous grin “you go to prison for maybe four years because the book says in the long, distant future, everything will be OK?”

“Well …. Yes, actually!” He had got the point. “I was so committed that even after sleeping on it, I could not bring myself to turn back. I calmly had my breakfast, checked out and drove across Afghanistan in a single day. ‘Whatever happens,’ I told myself, ‘I’ll make it work. There’s no going back now. I’ve decided on this course. It’s gonna be my fate and there is no alternative.’ I did not have a ‘Plan B’ and I had, in fact lost all flexibility, refused to see the writing on the wall; I had painted myself into a corner. In effect, I was on a kamikaze suicide mission, about to step off the edge of the world.”

“I left Islam Qala, the walled Afghan border post, drove across no-man’s-land to the Iran side, into a wire-fenced encampment like a lamb to the slaughter. I parked by the customs shed and wait to be checked. ‘Welcome, mister’ says the customs guy when he comes out, looking at me with a funny looking glint in his eye. At the back of the van he faces the engine compartment – behind which was the loaded petrol tank. Then he takes my hand and puts his fingers on my pulse and says, ‘how many kilos, mister, in your petrol tank?’”

“Thanks, Iqbal” said Anker. “And welcome to Zendan Vakilabad, Rosbif! Hey, you know the second changing line, where it says ‘one of his subordinates may slay him – a misfortune indeed!’ do you think it might have referred to your landlord’s son, who wrongly told his father that you brought some stuff from Chitral, which delayed you until after Iqbal had come through, or do you think it might refer to Iqbal himself?”

“Good question, Anker! ‘One of my subordinates’, well, it could be either of them, or it could be both, or someone else we don’t know, but it can also be something internal – like my own inflexibility, or greed, or conceit – whatever it was that made me walk into the trap.”

“You see this” said Giorgio, who had picked up the book and was looking over the reading. “Even the first hexagram that puts you in the Zendan says ‘The Superior Man seeks to improve himself’. That’s what you gotta do while you’re in here. It’s an opportunity. In Kung Fu, you use your opponent’s strength for your own advantage; you transform misfortune into fortune, negative into positive. So now, you know what to do, Rosbif” he concluded with a grin and a big slap on my shoulder. “Improve yourself!”

He was dead right, and I did know. I knew what I had to do and had already started early morning studies of the I Ching while everyone else was sleeping. This and C.G. Jung’s biography began moving my mind with ever more positive ideas. Every morning I’d formulate a question, take an I Ching reading, study the commentaries and seek to apply the result, externally or internally. I also constantly reviewed previous readings including the seminal one in Kabul just before the bust. I analysed it repeatedly and minutely and continued to extract meaning from it. This kind of meaning encouraged me on my path for a very long time.

I could transform my situation from a prison term for trafficking into a full-blown study retreat.

Ted the German bus operator had been coming in and out of Giorgio’s cell to listen to parts of our long discussions. As a motor engineer, he was more interested in the motors side of my story.

“What about that blown-up Mercedes 280SE that you found in the Munich street-market?” he asked. “Did you leave it in Kabul?”

“Oh, that. No! I went back to Kabul to pick it up and kept it at the Palace Hotel in Swat. That little Afghan mechanic, he rebuilt the engine with used parts from a massive dump of broken-up cars. It was running nicely. Then my brother Paddy took it for a spin one day in Swat and a bus whose brakes had failed ran into it, ending with the bus’s front wheel on top of the Mercedes engine! I got it repaired in Rawalpindi all over again but it wasn’t running very well. In the end, I sold it to a Pakistani that Lus found for me, near Tarbela Tam. I got thirty thousand rupees for it, not a lot, but a bit more than I actually paid for it, and it came in really useful because I was broke by then. The stables in Swat still needed the roof putting on. The guy paid me thirty thousand in five rupee notes in a paper bag and I came back to Swat on the bus holding this huge paper bag full of money on my knee.”

There was another funny story about that journey with the big paper bag of 5 rupee notes, but I was exhausted with telling stories and had to go to my cell for a rest. I would tell it another time.

For several weeks I was billeted with the poor old Iranian life prisoner who dealt eggs on the black and ran errands for upper-class Iranians. Then one day, someone was freed so there was a prisoner-shuffle and the police shifted me to share a cell with a short, balding young Italian called Giovanni, from Milano. He had been busted for his stash, which meant he just had a six-month sentence, two months of which he’d already served. He occupied the lowest bunk. He was on the road and had few possessions with him so I had a bit more room. Seeing the books, notebooks and papers I’d already accumulated he invited me to have the middle bunk as a desk so I could work standing up to it, and the top bunk to sleep on. He spent most of his day out and about or sleeping on his bunk so I could read and work in peace without disturbing him. He was very curious about my travels and experiences from point of view of the spiritual quest which had led me to basic Buddhism in Dharamsala. We had long discussions and the time passed well. Amenable and uncomplaining, he showed me round the prison introducing me to friends and acquaintances and the facilities that I hadn’t yet seen or used. I saw the hospital, the bank, the visit rooms and various workshops. There was a carpet factory with massive looms, a sock factory with dozens of sock-making machines and a metalworking shop. Handicraft items were handmade in many cells and bought and sold by dealers or peddled from little stalls set up in the yards by inmates, in fact the whole thing was rather like a handicraft centre and a souk and a large proportion of prisoners evidently had occupations to keep them busy.

Giorgio, Anker, Giovanni and others were getting more interested in the I Ching so I regularly helped them take readings and interpret the results for them to help process their problems. We quickly formed a gang and with Giorgio’s irrepressible clowning we all had fun and enjoyed spending time together. Giorgio was very entertaining and his cell was set up for constant parties, picnics and music with friends.

Basically we were free to make social visits to other blocks and cells any time. The entire blocks one and two and their two exercise yards were open to us all the time and to go anywhere else in the prison we simply had to ask the guard’s permission to leave the block; then we ould wander around at will.

Often there were get-togethers in the cells at night. Full advantage of our freedom of movement was taken. Giorgio was resourceful. He had a knack for finding materials and equipment to make complex things. For example, he had somehow brought a portable audio tape player inside the block, though such things were strictly forbidden. He took it all to pieces with his set of tiny screwdrivers, and then using a soldering iron and electrical wiring he rebuilt it into a much better system. He incorporated two large, empty Danish cheese tins, taking them apart down the seams and remodelling the tin sheeting into amplifiers. The system produced a remarkably good sound. He had persuaded someone in the kitchens to let him have these tins. There were plenty of music tapes since we all had friends in the west who would send us tapes and we spent hours listening to Zappa, Dylan, Queen, Meatloaf, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Supertramp and other favourites of the era.

Me being English with a good ear for the lyrics of English rock songs, at Anker’s request I helped him and Giorgio to listen repeatedly to the lyrics of all these artists’ songs to understand, decipher and write them down. We spent many hilarious hours listening to these albums and others by these artists on Giorgio’s sound, system again and again, eventually getting all the lyrics written down exactly, to everyone’s great amusement, singing them and goofing off. I also helped to explain the subtleties in the meanings of the words.

Sometimes a bit of hash was smuggled in, hidden in a package. Audio tapes worked well. They had to be unscrewed with the tiny screwdrivers and put back together with a small piece in the corner in such a way that they still worked, because Farriman would check. He would play them through in the office on his own player before releasing them to the block. The piece stuck in the corner was then extracted in the cells, shared out to all the lucky smokers and smoked in tiny hits with great relish and appreciation through an improvised ‘pipe’ made from a coke can with a depression in its side where a few pinholes had been made.

At such times we sat up late into the night partying quietly, smoking, talking and listening to music, while others slept. Giorgio would call the night shift guard over when he passed our cell on his rounds, wandering up and down the block at perhaps 2 AM. He cracked a joke with him in Farsi and asked him to kindly fetch us a pot of boiling water from his den so we could all have hot coffee. He would always oblige, chatting and joking with the endlessly witty Giorgio, who had by now learned good colloquial Farsi in the local Khorasani dialect.

All the basic necessities, clothes and accommodation, were laid on adequately, except apart from the rice the food was notably poor. Daily life was reasonably clean and comfortable with bedding, towels and Pink Camay provided. Apart from the proximity of the political prisoners it was more like a relaxed, friendly and clean budget hotel than a prison, with good hot showers added. Everybody respected and got along with everybody else; trouble and strife were at a minimum. Fights were very rare and the guards were tolerated and allowed to do their jobs. Designed and constructed on American lines this was intended to be a modern, well-run, rehabilitation showcase of a prison, where foreigners enjoyed the best possible facilities and privileges, so all in all there was little or nothing for me to complain about.

All the same, bad and nasty things were happening, of course, but behind the scenes and shielded from our view. Occasionally, we heard screams and supposed that politicals were probably being interrogated by SAVAK officers. In addition to beatings and torture of political prisoners, a good proportion of Iranian civil prisoners were junkies, heroin or opium addicts. This helped to keep them placid and tranquilised. It was the guards who discretely supplied their spies and dealers selling the stuff to the addicts. The junk was paid for by the addicts’ families outside and provided the SAVAK officers with a handy income. This was divided up with shares and commissions being passed up the hierarchy to the top. This mafia-type operation was carefully concealed and I personally never saw anything of it, but one sometimes heard that a certain prisoner had been beaten and left to rot for months in Bandar Panch for contravening the system in some way; stealing someone’s stash or ripping someone off. As Richard and Vince had told me on the first day, we were reliably informed that the Shah and his family controlled all the heroin and opium business in Iran and did not countenance competition. Most of the Iranians prisoners were in for drug offences, as were, indeed, all the foreigners. The difference was that foreigners were all caught with hashish whereas the Iranians’ thing was opium and heroin.

Well before dawn every morning we were woken by the guards’ shouts to call us to the mess for ‘subhana’, the dreadful breakfast at 5 AM, but I began to take advantage of my freedom by getting up even before, while all was perfectly silent, except for occasional snores, to start my meditations and write up notes and analysis of my own dreams, memories and reflections by candlelight. This discipline was a great way to start the day and gave me good, positive energy.

I had engaged in writing letters soon after arriving to keep in touch with people outside and reduce the feeling of isolation. I had to get them passed by Captain Farriman who censored all the foreigners’ letters looking for forbidden negative comments about the prison, the Shah and the Iranian government. I’d take my screeds to Farriman for scrutiny and to get his censor’s red inked rubber stamp of approval before sealing and despatch; what I wrote was way more than the allowed ration of two per week.

“So, have you written anything about the prison?” he asked me suspiciously come November, after glancing at my second bunch of letters in a week, full of closely packed writing, probably finding them hard to read through and thinking to check me out. I had considered my responses for this eventuality.

“No, of course not, Captain Farriman. Me?” I answered with all innocence, then corrected myself, since it was hard to write a letter from prison without some kind of reference to it; “at least, whatever I wrote about the prison is all good,” I added, thinking if he were to sit down and read them he might find something and then accuse me of lying to him. His eyebrows shot up.

“Good?” he snapped, frowning, “the prison is good? What do you mean, ‘the prison is good’? This prison is not good. It is for punishment of criminals!” I sense that he was trying me out, trying to rattle me.

“Oh, no, no, no!” I explained hastily, “you are right, the prison is bad, of course, it’s very bad, really bad, but I meant to say that, erm, I meant to say that maybe I have written somewhere that the conditions inside the prison are good, the conditions. The food, the soap, everything is good.”

“I see” he said dubiously, “So you wrote ‘Conditions inside the prison are good’. He nodded in apparent agreement. “It is better, because the foreigners should be healthy when released.” But then he handed the letters back to me. “So, show me where you wrote somewhere that ‘conditions in the prison are good’.”

I stared at the letters blankly and looked for any reference to the prison, without success. In fact, I’d written nothing about his lousy prison. I quickly scanned all the carefully for a mention of the prison while he waited patiently.

“Sorry, Captain Farriman” I said at last, handing them back, “I was wrong. I am sorry. I’ve written nothing about the prison. Nothing at all. What is there to say? There is nothing to say. It’s just a prison, isn’t it? I don’t like it, nobody likes it, it’s bad, very bad. It’s for punishment, so I of course don’t want write about it. Why should I write about it?”

“So what have you written?”

“I’ve written about other things, but nothing about the prison, nothing about the Shah, nothing about how to get pardons, nothing about all the political prisoners, nothing about the SAVAK secret police. Nothing. It’s not interesting to tell my friends about all that. They would be worried for me. Narahat!”

I used ‘narahat’ as the Farsi word for ‘worried’, which was a state to be avoided at all costs for anybody. I was sure that part of Farriman’s job was to prevent foreigners from feeling ‘narahat’. Unless, of course, they misbehaved; in which case they were made to suffer.

“You wrote nothing of all that, so what have you written, then?” he repeated, irritably pointing at the pile of letters. “What is all this writing about?”

“Oh, other things, just bla-bla-bla. Gossip. Some of my friends in England have problems in their lives. I am helping them, giving advice. Read it, it’s all there, you can read everything that I wrote. There is nothing bad there. Read it!” I said thrusting the letters back at him with a smile, hoping that to save his face he wouldn’t admit he couldn’t read them very well. I calculated correctly. Farriman’s features relaxed and he laughed at me.

“OK, John Mitchell, thank you. Never mind, it doesn’t matter. You are a good man.” He stamped the letters and gave them back to me to seal and pop in the despatch box. After that he never bothered to censor my letters beyond a cursory glance. I felt relieved. I was sure that though he spoke good English, his reading skills were not up to scratch and he was just testing my reactions.

I was struck by his comment about it being ‘better if foreigners are healthy when released’. I supposed this reflected policy. It confirmed Richard’s comment that the ill-reputed SAVAK, widely known to torture and kill political dissidents, would be sensitive to criticism from abroad about prisoner mistreatment, and that explains why we Europeans were automatically in the prestige block number one. The Shah was very buddy-buddy with the American political establishment and Amnesty reports exposing the terrible atrocities they carried out attracted worldwide attention and condemnation, and complicated things. So as part of this, to avert bad publicity they wanted European prisoners to be fit and well when released back to their countries.

It was significant that they kept politicals above where wealthy Iranians and foreigners were billeted. Neither group was likely to endanger their record by communicating with them. Whereas, the prisoners of blocks 2, 3 and 4 might have been more inclined to do so and were therefore kept far from them.

I filed this information away for future use. I was sure it could be used to our advantage at some point when the occasion arose.

A letter came from Kevin, in Swat. He’d sold Savoy and Wazir to some villagers in Chitral who’d take care of them and use them for playing the local version of polo. The Company of the Horses had finally been disbanded, not a single horse was left. Rafiullah was in Australia married and having children, Kevin was in Swat holding the fort with its stables empty and I was languishing in an Iranian prison.

Rafiullah wrote back, sending me photos of his new life in Australia as a stockman on a farm, riding horses and shoeing them, and with his wife Jill, holding their babies in their arms. He generously sent me some money and I concealed it in a safe place.

Christmas, 1978 eventually came around and I was amazed to find how it was traditional to allow the Europeans to celebrate by bringing masses of good food in from outside as a special treat and cooking themselves a feast, on the day. Those who could cook took this duty on, those who had access to items from outside, like German Peter whose wife had a job in the German Consulate in Meshed, arranged for the supplies. A huge feast with chickens, beef and roast potatoes with stuffing and rich sauces, plus pizza, lasagne and cakes was prepared using the prison’s kitchen facilities on Christmas morning, with the helpful assistance of the prison cooks. Early in the evening we were let out of the block and led into a private dining room near the kitchens where we sat at a long table covered with a white tablecloth. The meal was presided over by Captain Farriman and his boss, Major Mujahid as our guests of honour. The various courses were brought in triumphantly on large platters and the officers were served first in appreciation of this indulgence by the prison authorities. Real crockery and knives and forks were provided, things we never normally saw, and the food was delicious and plentiful, especially after the poor quality and tasteless, boring stuff that was served up day after day and scoffed with a spoon from an aluminium bowl, out of pure hunger. It was a very relaxed, convivial and even joyful occasion and the officers shook hands with everyone to thank and congratulate us warmly before we went back to the block late in the evening, having eaten as much as we possibly could and truly “F.T.B.” – full to bursting.


End of part V. Do not miss the next five (or so) thrilling instalments (currently being compiled).

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. The Library is opposite top of Block One.(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.

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1 Response to ““BUSTED!” – PART V”

  • Sean , i really do not think you need be worried about your account being boring . . . . and quite apart from the reactions of your readers is the fact that this is an important historical document . A lot of people did time in Eastern jails through that period , we do not have many accounts .

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