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Prelude to “BUSTED!”

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.


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“EIGHT FINGER EDDIE COMES TO SWAT”
Eight Finger Eddie 1969.

Eight Finger Eddie 1969.

 Ten years after the Flower Raj blog story “On Mataji’s Houseboat in Banaras, 1967
It was Easter time, in 1977. I took my camper van to be loaded with contraband in the prescribed manner by a trusty connection. On the way back home, the packed Swati mini-bus I’d taken in Mingora passed a group of grim, bearded and hungry-looking mountain people squatting by the roadside, wearing pakhools and all wrapped up in heavy, dark brown Swati blankets. I heard someone sitting behind me quietly say to his companion, with an American accent, “look at those poor guys. You can feel their suffering.”
It sounded like something a Buddhist might say so I twisted round and saw a middle-aged western traveller with a younger woman in the seat behind. “Hello!” I said, “are you new to Swat?”
He said “Yes, hi, my name’s Eddie, my first time here. How are you doing?” The name reminded me at once of the guy on the houseboat in Varanasi when I first got to India ten years before. “What!” I said, “Not ‘Eight-finger Eddie’?”
“That’s right!” he said with a grin, raising a victory sign with his right hand which had two missing fingers, “how did you know me?”
“I remember you” I said, with some amazement, “I was with you on the houseboat on the Ganga in Benares with the Mataji, back in ’67.”
Eddie laughed, said “Wow! Nice to meet you again!” and we clasped hands. [See my other Flower Raj blog called “On Mataji’s Houseboat in Banaras, 1967”] “You live here in Pakistan?” he asked.
“Yeah man, after a year in India I escaped to Pakistan and I’ve been based here ever since, nine years now. I built a little house here in Swat four years ago” I added.
 “Since Benares I’ve lived pretty well the whole time in Goa” said Eddie, “I live in a porch, all that’s left of an old Portuguese house on Anjuna Beach, it’s called ‘Eddie’s Porch’, ever been to Goa? No? How did you end up in Swat?”
“That’s a long story” I said, and we laughed. [See my other Flower Raj blog, “A Wanderer in Swat, Land of Guru Rinpoche”] “But, Eddie, if you have a few days to spare, come and stay at my place by the river and I’ll tell you.”
They did come to Qamarlandi (“Below the Rock”) down by the river, and stayed for a couple of weeks, which consisted of us telling each other our traveller’s tales, and our life stories. Eddie’s was extraordinary and can be found on the internet. He was a great dancer. We visited the White House Hotel for a big weekend party and Eddie showed the way by getting up and dancing to the music.  People got up to join him and danced and soon the whole place was jiving.
Eddie started life as a member of an Armenian refugee family in San Francisco but he left and travelled to India in the early sixties, where he’d stayed ever since, like a godfather of all the hippies. It was a privilege to host him at Qamarlandi.
 
LAST SUMMER IN SWAT & CHITRAL, BEFORE ‘THE FALL’
After Eddie left back to Goa I continued quietly with my plans which involved shutting things down as far as possible and disposing of the remaining horses. A couple had turned up in Peshawar in the winter who were riding their own horses, slowly, all the way from the north of Afghanistan to Goa. He was a tall, black Jamaican called Ted, who had a white horse with black eyes, and she was a tall, white Belgian woman called Ariane who had a black horse with white eyes, called Geronimo. They were good fun and open to a trek into the high hills of the Frontier. We decided to trek to Chitral together, a horse-country where I reckoned I could sell my horses and be free to start a brand new life. They were happy to join me and also Kevin who turned up from Dharamsala in India, and who readily joined us to ride Wazir. I took Savoy.
It was a great last trek, 500 miles through Charsadda, Mohmand, Malakand Pass, Lower Swat, Chakdarra, Dir State, over Lowaritop Pass and down to Drosh in Chitral, taking several weeks having plenty of fun and lots of adventures. Geronimo got sick after Drosh so Ted and Ariane trucked him to Chitral to see the vet; Kevin and I rode the last part by ourselves.
On 5th July there was a coup d’état in Pakistan as Zia-ul-Haq deposed President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. If it was a bad omen, I ignored it.
The next day I rode from our base with Kevin and Ted for the last time to Chitral’s little airport, to fly back to Peshawar. I said goodbye to them and goodbye to my horses. I’d told Kevin he could keep the horses as long as he liked, then to sell them off whenever he wanted. I was all lined up to leave for Europe for an unknown period. This would be the end of Rafiullah Khan’s ‘Company of the Horses’ for me. [See my other Flower Raj Blogs, “The Company of the Horses” and “Captured by Bandits on the Afghan Frontier”.]
The minibus that I took on reaching Peshawar arrived in Madyan, Swat, at dusk. I took my saddlebags off the roof, swung them over my shoulder and strode down the passage along a gurgling stream through the old village houses. Heading for home. In the twilight, Sultan Zarin’s teenage son Liaqat Ali loomed up. Such was my fate.
“Welcome, Sinjan” said Liaqat Ali respectfully, pronouncing my name the Pakistani way. He was curious. “Where have you been?” he asked in Pushto with a smile as he stuck out his hand.
“To Chitral” I said, shaking it.
“Oh, Chitral! What have you brought back?” he asked all innocently, indicating my woollen saddlebags bulging with all my horse tackle and personal stuff.
“Saman” I said, meaning ‘just my stuff’. ‘Saman’ in all that part of the world is a generic term for ‘luggage’, ‘stuff’ or ‘my things’ but due to their own habits it is also often used as a euphemistic term for ‘cargo’; smuggled goods, whatever they might be. I thought nothing of it, oblivious to the fact that hashish from Chitral was famously preferred in Swat, and my VW camper had been parked in the village while I was away, perhaps giving rise to suspicion in the minds of the suspicious. I continued on my way through the village. But Liaqat Ali had already jumped to a massive wrong conclusion and hurried home to tell his father what he had seen. My fate was sealed, I should have opened the saddle bags up and shown him the horse gear inside. Uttering this one word, “saman” without heed to its secondary meaning was over confident. It changed the entire rest of my life radically and literally overnight.
Everything was ready to leave for Europe next morning. The date was 7-7-77, a lucky day to start my trip, I thought. Not so; there were too many sevens. While I was at breakfast the dogs started barking wildly. I looked out and saw seven armed policemen filing along the path at the top of the escarpment. They reached the pathway leading down to my establishment on Qamarlandi they turned down onto it. I tied the dogs up and they came up to my entrance and onto my land. Going out to meet them. I recognised some of their faces; they wore simple dark blue uniforms with berets and pistols and had old British Empire standard Lee Enfield 303 rifles on their shoulders. Why on earth were they coming to see me, I wondered.

“Welcome” I said warmly in Pashtu, “how are you, come in, sit down, what the matter?”

“Fine, Sin Jan. How are you? There is a report that you brought charas, a banned substance from Chitral” said the captain of the squad, somewhat uneasily.

“No,” I said, “that cannot be. I brought nothing.”
“If you do not confess and hand over the goods, then we must search your house” he responded, looking a little embarrassed.
“No, no, no, my friends” I said wearily, confident of being able to frustrate this raid and avoid any disruption to my programme, “I didn’t bring any banned substance from Chitral, and anyway, to search my house you would need to have an official search warrant.”
“Here” he said, pulling a paper from his pocket, “this is the warrant.”
I stared at it, surprised, but it seemed like a genuine warrant. However, I had no contraband in the house; everything I had was already very well concealed in the petrol tank of the van parked up in the village.
“Well, in that case, of course, you are most welcome” I said with a smile, “please come inside and search as much as you like! There is nothing banned here to my knowledge. Tea?”
“No tea” said the captain as he directed his men to go through the rooms, “we already took our tea, thanks. I am sorry, Sinjan” he said, “This is our duty.”
The men swarmed in and went all over the house, searching in boxes and cupboards and under the wooden platforms that served as beds. Hanging on the wooden pillars and walls were items from my collection of old Swati artefacts, including old swords and daggers and other old weapons hung on the walls. The collection included a 7mm rifle I’d brought years before in Darra. This is a tribal village south of Peshawar and Kohat which is famous for its firearms, pistols and rifles of all designs. They are individually handmade in simple village workshops by craftsmen who work sitting on little stools with simple lathes, forges, anvils and files. The bolt of my own rifle had been removed and was stored separately.
“Have you got a licence for this gun?” asked the policeman, holding it up.
“Of course not” I said, “it’s not a complete gun, it has no bolt, it’s for exhibition only.”
“So why do you have live ammunition?” he asked, holding up a plastic bag with thirty rounds in it that one of his men had found on a shelf.
“In case some bandits come to rob me” I said, still confidently trying to bluff him, “this house is in a lonely spot, it’s just in case. But I lost the bolt so it can’t be fired. Anyway,” I reminded him, “you’re looking for something from Chitral, aren’t you, and this is from Darra.”
He handed the boltless rifle and the bullets to his men to keep aside as evidence. My heart fell.
In the back room, under the platform were a dozen locked suitcases and tin luggage boxes left by hippie and traveller friends who’d spend a season in Madyan and go off to Goa, Europe or Kathmandu, asking me to keep their stuff until they returned to Madyan for another season.
“These are not mine” I explained, “they are left by friends for safekeeping.”
“Get the keys, open them up” ordered the captain.
“I don’t have the keys, it’s not my stuff” I protested.
He turned to his men. “Break the locks and we shall see, what is inside.”
The locks were broken and the contents pulled out, clothes, books, personal stuff. Eventually in one of the boxes a small piece of hashish was discovered. It was all they needed. Now they had something to justify their raid.
As well as this and the rifle and a handful of bullets, for further effect they took a selection of the antique daggers and swords that were hung on the walls.
I was charged with having an unlicensed weapons and a banned substance, plus, to make it sound even worse, a non-existent bottle of whiskey. Held in a police cell overnight I became front page news in the Khyber Mail, an English daily published in Peshawar. Ellie from the White House Hotel kindly came and bailed me out but the case dragged on and my plans were delayed for two months. This untimely misfortune, after Z. A. Bhutto’s ignominious fall, was a second warning which I also disregarded.

Kevin returned from Chitral to spend a couple of days at the house, then he went back to Chitral to take care of the horses. He was in good spirits, and he was the only person who knew what I was up to. He wished me luck.

My court case was eventually heard by a friendly magistrate in a newly harvested wheat field. I pled my own case, was fined the princely sum of $10 and was allowed to go.

Inflexibly fixed on to what I’d set out to do, I immediately drove to Kabul, all loaded up, heading for Europe. From Peshawar I wrote a letter to Kevin in Chitral, to tell him to sell the horses and stay in the house in Swat if he wished. I never saw him again, since when I came back sixteen month later he had tragically and mysteriously died, near my place in Swat. Some people thought the landlord’s family had murdered him. They were certainly capable of it, but I could never be sure since they had nothing to gain by it.
I drove up to Kabul through the Khyber Pass and the Kabul Gorge. The checking of ‘tourists’ on both sides of the Torkham border post is always cursory, to say the least. In Kabul, I checked in at my usual Green Hotel.
Ever superstitious (whilst studiously ignoring all ill omens), after dinner I consulted my oracle, the I Ching (Chinese ‘Book of Changes’) to see what I could divine from it about my gamble. I tossed the three coins six times, noted how they fell, heads or tails, making a hexagram, six yin or yang lines.
The ‘judgment’ relating to my hexagram was decidedly inauspicious: “The fox gets its tail wet crossing the frozen river, misfortune”. My heart fell. Further, in the details of the hexagram’s six individual lines, the first line was ‘changing’ from yin to yang, indicating a deeper, particular judgment. The text relating to this change was unambiguous: “The bird is flying too high: disaster!”
Even worse: I saw that I had six borders to cross, and this reading even indicated that I’d fall at the first hurdle, the Afghan-Iran border. It could not be, I told myself shaking my head in disbelief; it could not be. However, and it was a very big ‘however’, the reading had yet another dimension to it.
When there’s a ‘changing’ line in a reading, as in this, the changed line creates a brand new hexagram which indicates the long-term result, the ultimate outcome, as opposed to the short-term, immediate indication of the first hexagram.
This led me somewhere quite different, to ‘The Cauldron’; a vessel full of good things. “Thunder upon thunder” the judgment read, this time: “Unqualified Success! The laughter is heard a hundred miles around! It is favourable to cross the great water!”
Thunder, in the Chinese tradition is a very auspicious phenomenon; it brings the rain to water the crops, to release tensions and all the bounties of nature and make everything good. As for it being ‘favourable to cross the great water’ this obviously means it’s a good time to undertake a long but perilous journey.

“Hmmm,” I thought. It meant proceeding with the plan, if I could call it a plan, would be great success, despite a short-term problem. If I had any faith in it at all, I had to go. If I did not believe in it at all, I still had to go; in fact, I had no choice.

Next morning, feeling a bit like Luke Rhinehart’s hero in his seventies novel ‘The Dice Man’, which my brother Paddy was so fond of, or perhaps like a member of the Charge of the Light Brigade, I got up, had my breakfast and hit the road south out of Kabul, heading for Iran.

Focussing on the glorious long-term forecast I drove, like a lamb to the slaughter, across all the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan with my entire rational mind on hold. In this state of suspended animation, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I exited Afghanistan at the Islam Qala border post, into ‘no man’s land’. Half way was the last, isolated Afghan outpost.
“Stop!” signalled the Afghan sentry in his pale, tattered serge uniform, holding up his hand. He emerged from his roadside sentry box alongside the metal chain which hangs across the road, and his whitewashed mud hut was away from the road down a little stone-edged path. This was my last chance to turn back. He just looked at my passport, dropped the chain, grinning through his helmet-strap like a zombie from hell and waved me on; and on I went, not sure if I was hallucinating I drove over the chain, across this stony desert of a no-man’s land, with dry, skeletal balls of tumble-weed being blown along by the wind, rolling and bouncing beside my course down the rock-strewn valley bottom and into Iranian territory.
Pure momentum and an inflexible will to finish what I’d started kept the wheels rolling down the slope into Iran, as skeletal balls of tumbleweed bounced and rolled eerily along with me in the wind, twenty metres away. A few miles further down the dusty road and the barbed wire fence-surrounded Iranian Customs and Immigration check post at Taybad hove into view. I drove straight in and swung the camper into the customs compound, where I was directed to park it in a covered bay. I handed my passport to the customs officer and waited by the van in my black leather coat with my hands behind my back, looking as relaxed and innocent as I possibly could. A thorough and systematic search of all my luggage and the vehicle itself was to be expected, but nothing involving in any way the petrol tank. The customs inspector came over, glanced at my camper van, narrowed his eyes and grinned at me.
“Mister, how many kilos in your petrol tank?” he asked, looking hard into my eyes.
“What?” I answered, with a puzzled look.
“In your tank, how many kilos?”
“Oh, litres you mean” I say, “it takes about sixty five litres.”
“No mister, hashish not petrol” he says with a smile, shrugging and raising his hand, palm up; “how many kilos of hashish in your petrol tank – ten kilos, twenty kilos?”
 “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, grinning a puzzled grin, “hashish in my petrol tank, it’s not possible.”
He called a mechanic over and told him to drop the engine from its mounting at the rear, cut away the steel panel behind it and cut open the petrol tank behind that to see what was inside. I protested about the damage it would cause. The mechanic jacked up the back of the van, put a large tin can under the tank and opened the sump. The petrol started trickling out into the can. Then he also went away.
In my coat pocket, my fingers toyed with a matchbox. I could have tossed in a lighted match, ignited the petrol, burned the car and hopefully destroyed all the evidence in the resulting conflagration, but something stopped me. I had to go through with this.
The minutes dragged by, the mechanic took away the petrol can and got busy with his oxy-acetylene equipment. Within an hour the incriminating contents were uncovered. I was arrested and charged by the inspector.
“I didn’t know it was there” I protested lamely, “Someone else must have put it there. I’ve been framed.”
“Yes, yes,” said the officer drily as he completed the ‘busted’ forms, “don’t worry. It’s no big deal, you’ll just be fined and allowed to go in a day or two.”
I couldn’t believe it. It was as if they were expecting me, but nobody knew, except Kevin and my trusted connection.
“Are you hungry?” asked the Inspector, with concern. “Go and eat. He will take you to eat”. He called an assistant, who took me down the road to a local restaurant and bought me a tasty chicken curry with rice and nan and plenty of chai to wash it down. “Have you had enough? Fill your belly. Don’t worry” he reassured me, “it’s no big crime here, you’re a foreigner. They’ll just fine you and let you go in a few days time”.
I wanted to believe him, but it all sounded too easy. They just didn’t want me to panic and try some desperate kind of escape stunt. Ten years later, I found out why: some Dutch friends went through the same experience here, but they jumped in their Landrover, crashed through the barrier and escaped back to Afghanistan at high speed, where the Afghan customs gave them refuge.
I was held in Taybad’s horrible detention centre for several days. It was crowded with recently-arrested young men, what for I had no idea. Later I realised they were political prisoners of SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police who rounded up suspected dissidents. I’d been swallowed up. I lay on a three-tier bunk in an utter daze, my mind in a whirl, trying to make sense of my predicament. It was hot, full of flies and stank of sweat. There were no showers. There was a stunned atmosphere of fearful repression, shock and apprehension. And yet the Iranian prisoners were kind to me and sympathetic, because I was a foreigner.

Squatting at the toilet my John Lennon-style dark glasses slipped out of my trouser pocket in their case and clattered down the stinking hole. That’s me, I thought, that’s my life. Well and truly down the plughole and in deepest, darkest kaka.

After very few days I was bussed with a group of Iranians to the west of Meshed city and along a tree-lined road. It turned right up a driveway to a forbidding concrete fort in the stony desert.  The massive, rolling steel gates opened up. My new home for the indefinite future, no doubt.

The bus drove through the gates, which rolled closed behind us, and we were ordered to get off. As a foreigner I was singled out by a police goblin wearing a dark blue, NYPD-type uniform. He prodded me with his truncheon towards an office door on the right, using an Iranian command that would become familiar.

“Buddho, mishtair! Buddho, buddho!” he yelled. ‘Get moving, mister! Get moving!’

Sketch Map of Bandar Yek Prison

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“BUSTED!” – PART I.

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 PANCH – PUNISHMENT BLOCK!

By “John Mitchell”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was just like in the movies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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