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A Guest at the Ministry of the Hidden Imam


PUBLISHED: June 17, 2010

[Editor’s Note: One year ago today, Iason Athanasiadis became the only foreign journalist to be detained during Iran’s post-election unrest. He writes here, in the first installment of this account, about the weeks he spent inside and outside Evin Prison before and after the crackdown.]

I don’t know if you’re alive or dead.
Can you on earth be sought?
Anna Akhmatova, 1915

TEHRAN—June 12, 2009

Iran was at history’s doorstep, and my entry visa was delayed.

The sharp antagonisms simmering beneath the surface of Iranian society for three decades had burst to the surface when the Islamic Republic decided to emulate the electrifying American campaign that Barrack Obama had just won and treat its citizens to live televised debates between the presidential candidates. For a secretive regime that always closes ranks to protect its own, Ahmadinejad’s accusation of corruption against two-time former president Hashemi Rafsanjani live on television—an accusation every Iranian knows is true—breached an invisible psychological barrier. Crowds had surged onto the streets, dancing night after night, a weeklong street party.

Unprecedented demonstrations surged merrily past every limit and restriction on public meetings laid down by the Islamic Republic. Suddenly, anything seemed possible—and I was waiting for my visa.

I had lived in Iran from 2004 to 2007, and I was eager to be back in Tehran to witness their “Obama moment.” The friends I made there were, for the most part, creative, open-minded, secular internationalists open to the West but, unlike many of their compatriots, not enchanted by it. Far from being elites, most were solidly middle class and did not speak a foreign language Because they did not hew to either extreme in the simplistic narrative promoted by the Western media about Iran—neither working class traditionalist fanatics or upper-class Westernized party animals—their voices struggled to emerge. As far as the world was concerned, they did not exist.

But they were a fascinating barometer of Iranian society. By the summer of 2009, this generation—which I had described as “the unruly children and grandchildren of the same revolutionaries who riotously brought the Islamic Revolution into being in 1978”—seemed poised to make its stand on the streets. The entire world was suddenly captivated by their resistance and verve. “Today, this generation makes Iran one of the youngest societies on earth,” I wrote in 2007. “Far more than the prospect of nuclear energy, they constitute the most extraordinary transformational force invisibly working away within the country’s fabric.”

But until my visa was approved, I had to content myself by flying London to deliver a paper at a conference marking the Islamic Republic’s thirtieth anniversary. Facing an audience of experts on Iran that included several gentlemen from the Iranian embassy, I lightheartedly began by describing myself as having exactly the kind of characteristics attributed by the Islamic Republic to Western spies—an Oxford education, fluent Persian and Arabic, three years of living in Iran without holding a fixed job, and a British passport. The audience tittered; the Iranians diplomats regarded me stonily.

The next day, I was informed that my visa had finally been approved. The Iranian ambassador in Athens kindly issued it for me in London and within twenty-four hours I was streaking across the Mediterranean. The night flight from London touched down in Doha’s stifling summer darkness, and I transferred onto an Iran Airways flight for the hop over the Persian Gulf to Tehran. By the time I cleared customs and engaged an airport cab to take me into the city, the sun had risen. Everywhere on the streets were remnants of the previous nights’ festivities—green ribbons, posters of the candidates, and trampled confetti. Pockets of diehard revelers remained at street corners, facing off with rival slogans.

I collected my press accreditation at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, then sought out a source whose tips had in the past been reliable. Mousavi’s last-minute surge had turned the tables on Ahmadinejad. But my friend’s prediction stretched credulity: not only would Ahmadinejad win, he said, but he would do it in the first round and by a landslide too.

I scoffed at the tip, thinking that my source—a deeply intellectual current affairs watcher and Marxist who despised the Islamic Republic—had finally gone over the brink of his despair into delusional nihilism.

But I then remembered a conversation I had following Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 with a close childhood friend of his. At a time when 2009 appeared an impossibly distant date, he had warned me that there are more than 12 million bassijis (a nationwide religious militia that in peacetime enforces public morality, supports Ahmadinejad, and tries to re-Islamize public life) and the Sepah (Revolutionary Guard) had a goal to eventually have 20 million with the intention of controlling a presidential election through the bassij votes.

“The Sepah people privately say that in the next elections we’ll have 15 million bassij which is a threshold number that will allow them to elect the president decisively.”

I had no access to definitive statistics on the size of the bassij but in the streets of Tehran it was an open secret that Ahmadinejad was encouraging their rebirth. It seemed that they were about to flex their muscles. What we did not know at the time was that Mousavi’s supporters would indulge in some muscle-flexing of their own. And that confrontation would prompt the largest wave of arrests since the Revolution. Including my own.

TEHRAN—June 13, 2009

What is the sound when a metal club strikes a chador?

When the chador is wrapped around a woman, there is a crump of metal against flesh followed almost instantly by shrill, panicked, feminine screeches of pain. It’s a surreal sound, especially when overlaid by the sound of everyday traffic, the revving of high-powered police motorbikes, and the panicked footfalls of hundreds of demonstrators fleeing.

That first chaotic Saturday in June 2009, Vali Asr Avenue, a street bisecting the Tehran from north to south, the longest boulevard in the Middle East, Tehran’s spine, was filled with the eerie thumps of metal striking women through their chadors, the revving of high-powered police motorbikes and the panicked footfalls of hundreds of demonstrators fleeing. The presidential elections had returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power with a shocking first-round victory with an 11 million-vote margin.

Angry Iranians had clustered in the corners of every central square. Agitation, a radio-like static, coursed through the crowds as they confronted plainclothes intelligence men riding around on motorbikes. Hundreds more office workers watched hungrily from the windows, balconies, and rooftops of surrounding buildings.

Ahmadinejad supporters gloatingly drove past in cars plastered with the flag of the Islamic Republic—appropriated by the President as his campaign symbol. After all the hope for change and emergence from international isolation, many opposition supporters were gutted by the dawning realization that their incumbent president had been given another four years to fulfill his master plan of returning the Islamic Republic to the orthodoxy of its early years.

“I feel like that single lonely person sitting in the Berlin cafe as Hitler came to power who knew that it was the end of democracy and freedom,” said Kurosh, a friend in his twenties, as we drove around avenues heaving with protesters and police.

Kurosh had recently lost his entry-level job at an Iranian ministry after the pro-Ahmadinejad appointees cottoned on to his support for reformist challenger Mirhossein Mousavi. For him, the election result was not just an abstract democratic disappointment but a deeply personal setback: he would not get his job back. He would be blacklisted. Even as we drove around the streets watching the seething crowds, he was wondering aloud whether he should flee the country. For him, the fledgling protests were not so much a diverting pastime as a chance at salvation.

“Are you in this?” he asked the three young men furtively glancing at the street activity from the car next to us. We were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic amid the honking horns and the young Mousavi activists flitting between the stalled traffic to distribute printouts of Mousavi speeches.

“No, we’re passing through,” they shrugged disingenuously. “Are you guys involved?”

“Shouldn’t we be?” Kurosh shrugged back with a gleam in his eye.

The ice broke.

The young men loosened up and described where the flashpoints were. They had already witnessed indescribable violence as they drove around this city in uproar.

“As bad as the 1999 riots?” we asked, referring to the student uprising, the worst civil unrest to hit Iran since the Revolution.

“Worse,” they replied unhesitatingly.

AN AIRPORT ARREST—June 17, 2009

Getting detained at Imam Khomeini International Airport has become a bit of a cliché. No shortage of intellectuals, leftists, corrupt Islamic Republic insiders, women’s activists, or Marxist militants have been picked up as they leave the country, either forever or for short conferences—both equally reprehensible activities in the eyes of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. A Tehran airport detention is also a lesson in globalization. The carnival of Islamic Republic officialdom inhabiting its steel and glass shell combines the shabby police methods on display in the capital’s violent streets with the technology of totalitarianism.

Chador-wearing airport employees bustle across the concourse in high heels, past illuminated DUTY FREE shelves crowded with plastic bags of pistachios and the sticky toffee-like sohan caramels. At the gates, olive-suited Revolutionary Guardsmen wearing baseball caps stamped with their insignia inspect the passengers.

Mainstays of the Islamic Republic aside, this Iranian version of a Western-rejecting Muslim theocracy has bent over backwards to accommodate a Turkish-engineered vision of the West. A manicured female voice with fashionably American-accented Persian announces departures; fleets of hostesses sashay up and down spot-lit corridors in uniforms adhering to the letter if not the spirit of hijab; and hordes of the Islamic Republic’s wealthiest, most Westernized wait to board one of the airplanes that will whisk them away to materialism’s freedoms.

It was my seventh day in a Tehran in crisis. I felt shattered after nearly no sleep over days spent driving or running through the streets of a smoking city. The airport was a parenthesis of normality. Aside from the telltale lack of cell phones trilling, nothing felt different among the crowds of passengers, hushed as if they were experiencing the kind of premature self-imposed guilt the Islamic Republic expected of them for the pleasures they would sample once they left Iran’s restrictions on joy behind.

I passed passport control uneventfully and strolled through DUTY FREE. Blissfully oblivious about the infrastructure of coercion lying behind those shiny, illuminated walls, I was minutes from embarking on a total immersion into the dark soul of the Islamic Republic’s securityscape: the windowless cells directly under the baggage distribution system’s thumping racket; the underground private car park below the Arrivals Hall where Revolutionary Guard and intelligence ministry officials park their vehicles; the deserted halls to which police officers escort those they arrest to intimidate them as they rifle through their possessions.

Perhaps I could have slipped past the intelligence man on the lookout for me if I had not dallied too long in the cafe bashing out a last piece, then dashed through the terminal in a last-minute panic to catch my flight. Despite the chaos out in the streets and government accusations that the West was mounting a Velvet Revolution in Iran, I was remarkably sanguine about the prospect of getting arrested

In retrospect, all the signs were there. A friend who was feeding Iranian intelligence information about my movements had been told by them that “I was free to stay on in the country for as long as I wanted.” It was a baffling statement at the time, especially since no journalists’ visas were being extended, but in retrospect it was a bit of triumphalism once the noose around me as sufficiently tightened; it was clearly meant as sarcasm.

Family and friends were also having trouble getting through, not just because the authorities would block the cell phone networks but because those calling me were very often being patched through to the eavesdroppers on my line. My partner, AK, wrote she was “a bit concerned about your phone,” while my father described his interlocutor as someone “with a not especially Oxford accent. They must be fascinated by you.”

“No worries,” I replied. “This is happening to others trying to call me. AK got some woman. All speak English. They’re probably the people at the intelligence ministry working shifts on my phone.”

I didn’t notice the man who stepped into the departure terminal’s slipstream, materializing on my right hand side, until he was asking me in eliding Persian tones who I was. He placed a gentle arm on my left side and asked me to step to the side.

As I registered that he was wearing the shabby, loose clothes and soft untrimmed beard of the intelligence services’ religiously devout fraternity, it occurred to me I was being arrested. His beard was soft and straggly, the type that hasn’t been shaved much since childhood. He channeled me toward a roped-off escalator, lifted the green hand blocking it and—as if at a sparsely attended cinematic premiere—humbly urged me to descend into the terminal’s silent hidden Hades. I think he even performed a gracious little bow.

“You won’t be travelling tonight,” he said kindly, without a trace of either animosity or triumph.

My stomach seemed to plunge somewhere deep inside me, so I focused on putting one foot in front of the other in the direction I had been shown. Usually an individualist, I soon became extremely adept at this submissive attitude.

It was a moment I had imagined happening so often that when it finally transpired it was almost anticlimactic. We sat in companionable silence in a deserted passport control area, across from officials who had abandoned their posts to cluster around a wall-mounted flatscreen TV broadcasting a qualifying soccer game in Iran’s World Cup group. Earlier that day, Iran had played South Korea in a game whose victory would have propelled it into the 2010 contest. I had already caught snippets of it in central Tehran, in what now seemed like another world. Then, I had moved through the streets in the slipstream of an enormous pro-Mousavi rally. Exultant marchers told each other about the green wristbands some members of Iran’s soccer team had taken to the field in Seoul. Everyone was heady, expecting a particularly potent evening of political protest topped off with soccer success. But the rebel green bands had disappeared after halftime and so did the team’s fortunes. It struggled to a deflating draw against its adversary.

In the darkened passport control hall, my captor and I chatted about soccer. I wanted to ask him about himself but without broaching politics. Had he travelled abroad? “Never, except seven times to Arabestan (Saudi Arabia) for hajj and umrah.” Even though Mecca was reached by airplane and needed a visa, perhaps as the dar al-Islam (every Muslim territory is considered part of the abode of Islam) it did not count as truly foreign.

“It used to be easy to go back and forth but after September 11 they became harsh towards us,” he said in a typical Iranian lament about Arab maltreatment. As we spoke, I sipped tea and smoked a nerve-steadying cigarette, ignoring the pinprick of curious stares by the policemen regarding this strange, detained, Farsi-speaking foreigner. I was racking my brains about how I could send a quick e-mail to my family, letting them know what was happening. Just one word—“arrested”—was all it would take to set the wheels of my salvation turning. But my phone and laptop were stashed away in my bag, and my guardian did not let me out of sight, even when he hovered near his colleagues for a chat. At some point, he disappeared on an errand. After checking that he was beyond my line of sight, I casually pulled the laptop out, as if I would try to get a little work done after my tea and cigarette break. Barely had I lifted the screen than my guardian materialized at my side like a phantom, the only emergency betrayed in his manner a slight hastening of his motions as he firmly instructed me to stash it away.

With cell phones blocked because of the mass protests in Tehran, there was no other way to make contact with the outside world.

As I puzzled over this, they arrived. A duo of short men scrambled up the escalators from the baggage hall below, suffused by an officious but simultaneously boyish air. The burlier of the two flashed a roguish smile at my apprehensive stare, as if he’d spotted particularly tasty prey. The thinner man was balding and hook nosed with a tight, muscled body and a face both instantly familiar and unplaceable—as if I had seen him too often in crowds for the sightings to be chance. He made no effort to acknowledge me, aside from a sneer. His colleague was friendlier, bounding over with exaggerated courtesy and a shark’s grin to pump my hand up and down.

The handover completed, I shouldered my bags and we moved off towards the escalators. The high-ceilinged baggage retrieval and arrivals hall stretched out before me—almost the length of a football field. My mind was racing with possibilities. I was about to leave the comforting crowds of a well-lit airport for an unknown destination.

If things were as serious as they seemed, I knew the consequences of passively acquiescing to my arrest: a blanket denial of my internment by the Islamic Republic, and interrogators working on me around the clock to force a confession that they could then brandish in the face of the international community to justify my incarceration.

So I shouted. Dropping into a cross-legged position on the airport floor, I passed my hands through the straps of my heavy camera and laptop bags, opened my mouth and began shouting.

“I am a Greek journalist for the Washington Times, and I am being arrested!” I hollered in Persian into the gaping hall. “Call my embassy and newspaper!” I could hear my voice reverberating, bouncing off the pillars and high ceilings of the baggage claim area. An expression of incredulity registered across my captors’ faces as they realized what I was doing.

Fear at their reaction and a frisson of guilt for making them upset were the last emotions I experienced before my head was swept downwards and my feet lifted in the air. The hook nosed man placed me in an expert headlock while Shark Grin lifted my feet and began shoveling me across the gleaming floor with savage efficiency. I had made a beginner’s mistake of making my stand right next to the escalator instead of waiting until we had progressed to the middle of the hall. All they had to do was hustle me a few meters to the side to get me out of the now gaping crowd’s line of sight.

Though the well-off crowd populating the airport’s Arrivals hall was bristling with sophisticated cell phones, not a single video of my getting punched and dragged backwards in a headlock has surfaced since that night. All I recall from the traumatic event was the deafening silence that descended over the terminal as first my shouts, then my screams rang out, and the pleasant discovery that punches to the mouth hurt less than one imagines. In the distance, an intriguing haze of pink ovals shimmered, then solidified into dozens of enquiring faces peering at my predicament.

As I was hustled into the shadows behind the escalators, one of the men made sure to punch me in the mouth, splitting my lips scarlet and turning my shouting into indistinct throaty protests. I’d lost the fight but sensed a changed dynamic as angry male voices disputed each other.

“I’m not letting you take him away, he’s ours,” one voice said.

“How dare you come in here in plainclothes without prior agreement?” another raised voice asked.

I was on my feet, nursing my bloodied lips when a bearded man in his thirties maneuvered into my view.

Agha (Sir), do you hear? We’re airport police and we won’t be allowing them to take you away. You’re safe.”

I knew I wasn’t as I heard the outraged pitch of contestation start up from my detainers, raging with the indignation of betrayal by their own countrymen.

“How dare you hit a foreign citizen?” I spluttered in a show of outrage, knowing that I was only buying seconds of time.

“Shut up you asshole, if you refused arrest in England you would also be treated violently,” Hooknose blasted at me before turning back to establishing his credentials with the policemen.

“I demand to speak to the Greek ambassador,” I continued shouting, more to keep the incident audible to the hushed crowd beyond than anything else.

“Agha, calm down and stop shouting,” one of them told me mildly, touching his uniform. “We’re the police, don’t you recognize this olive-green uniform? Don’t you know it is a byword for safety and the citizen’s protection?”

Behind his back, my detainers furiously argued with my new protectors that they were the legitimate ones, and I was the criminal, not vice versa.

“Now just stop shouting and let’s all go together to the police station to solve this peacefully over a hot cup of tea,” the officer told us disarmingly.

We emerged from behind the escalator, a large group of huffy, quarrelling men who had temporarily patched things up. Those in the terminal eyed our strange group cautiously as they led me through the crowd, bleeding and breathing heavily from the scuffle. I knew the police were the least ideological of the Islamic Republic’s forces and remembered hundreds of thousands of protesters shouting a slogan calling on the police to protect rather than repress them. When several officers began accepting flowers from the demonstrators and posing for pictures with the Green Movement’s luscious girls, the Islamic Republic was so worried it mobilized its ideological henchmen to replace them. Just as in the streets, so in the airport it was only a matter of time before the true representatives of the regime pulled rank.

Suddenly I was being led past a clearly foreign woman in a colorful scarf. Slowing my pacing down, I shouted my name at her, begging her to report to the Greek embassy that she had seen me getting arrested at Tehran airport. To her eternal credit, she snapped to attention, whipped out a notebook and pen, then ran after my scowling guards asking me to spell out my name.

It was thanks to her—an American married to an Iranian waiting to pick up a guest—that news of my arrest emerged.

Later, my first interrogator was to claim with saccharine hypocrisy that “the Iranian people are a good people. They want to save foreigners, even when they don’t know that these foreigners are working against the interests of their own country.” But none of the hundreds of people present at the terminal that evening did anything to help me, even to make an anonymous call to the Greek Embassy from a public phone. It fell upon the only American present to do the right thing. Those in the airport represented an elite whose branded handbags, expensive cell phones, foreign trips, and pink-scarved religious hypocrisy are products of the compromise they have made with the regime—no involvement in politics in return for juicy state-apportioned contracts and the freedom to pursue a Westernized life within the confines of their uptown houses.

*  *  *

Once we were in the airport police station, the mood rapidly turned against me. My companions had asserted their credentials, a small group of airport intelligence officers had gathered to back them up, and irate police officers were questioning me about how I had managed to communicate my whereabouts to “your accomplice” so she could witness my arrest. I worried that, alongside me, they would also arrest the American woman, now that we had established that having foreign citizenship was no longer a barrier to warrantless detention.

I insisted on speaking with the Greek ambassador, but there were orders against my speaking to anyone. Instead of spelling this out, a genial police officer oohed and aahed, agreeing I should call my diplomatic representative immediately but regretting that the airport police station’s phone was exclusively internal. I called his bluff, asking him to try dialing the number, and his story seamlessly changed. The phone could call outside, but he was still banned from allowing me to use it because they lacked the necessary equipment to record the kind of information that I might communicate over the phone. All this was delivered in the most reasonable tone, designed to make me feel how vastly I had overstepped the boundaries of polite behavior and how tolerant they were being. Meanwhile, from the furious deliberations happening behind me, I overheard mention of a car being brought “round to the parking.” It was clear that they would try to move me again.

“Agha, just come out to the hallway and we’ll let you call your ambassador from these public phones,” one officer suggested disingenuously. The man who had punched me in the mouth was now leering triumphantly at me from a huddle of officers and intelligence men. As they edged me out of the police station, the signal was given and several police and plainclothes officers who had appeared to be bystanders wrestled me to the floor. The last I remember of the airport terminal was the expression of shock on the face of the flower seller as I was carried kicking and screaming to an unmarked, pastel-colored door in the wall. I was dragged by my shirt horizontally, away from the floodlit reception areas, and into a narrow stairway that was most definitely not part of the airport’s manicured front. As I bumped down a flight of stairs, a policeman sprayed pepper gas into my face. By the first landing there was no more fight left in me.

“It’s over, he’s done,” the head officer shouted to the others as he clipped metal handcuffs on me. They bundled me into an underground car park straight from a 1980s Miami Vice episode and shoved me against a damp wall.

Jakesh! (Asshole!)” one policeman spat at me, breathing heavily from the exertion. Another fished a cigarette out of his pocket and stuck it in my mouth. I refused to smoke as long as my hands were in cuffs. They removed them, and we sat in an unlikely little group in a pool of yellow light in that underground car park, a dust storm swirling outside, waiting for a car to come and take me to what was still an unknown destination.

A dark sedan sped up and I was pushed towards it. The passenger seat door opened and an enormous, very angry bearded man burst out of it. He looked at me with silent fury so I smiled and stammered out a pathetic-sounding “Salam.”

Wa alaykumu as-salam wa rahmattullahi,” he thundered back, fixing me with frenziedly intense eye contact. He jabbed me back a few steps and whipped out a mean-looking black metal rod of a tazer.

Staggering back, I realized that his primary purpose was intimidation. He raged for a few moments at me, then flung me into the back seat of the parked car. Shark Grin was already sitting there. He flashed me a rueful smile, as if to say, “It all ends the same way . . . what a shame you had to resist.” As I followed instructions and buried my face between my knees with my hands on my head, he welcomed my shivering mass with strange, tender strokes of my hair. Soon, he began crooning into my left ear indistinct but surprisingly comforting strings of words.

The car sped through the night towards the capital. There was silence inside the cabin aside from occasional sputtering on the two-way radio sitting in the lap of Hooknose, the driver

“This is Jaafari,” he spoke into his cell phone. “We were delayed and need a new entry time. He’s a troublesome one but don’t worry, he understands. He understands reeeeeeeal good.” And he chuckled.

In my wildest imaginings, I had not expected such a quick return to Tehran, much less accompanied by newly acquired, top-level Ministry of Intelligence contacts far beyond the kind of sourcing any other foreign journalists could hope for! At the same time, I felt a sort of exultant awe that the Islamic Republic would go so far as to send plainclothes goons to kidnap an officially accredited foreign journalist without any kind of arrest warrant. The scale of the crisis had clearly prompted them to abandon all reason.

The smell of smoke from the evening’s clashes increased as we entered the city, and I divined from our movements that we were heading into the eastern suburbs of the city. This confirmed that our destination was Evin, a Shah-era prison that perches on the foothills of the Alborz mountains, close to a charming riverside village favored by visitors who come to hike, eat coal-roasted kebabs, and smoke narghileh.

The occasional car passed us, but the roads were as deserted as they had been the previous night. We pulled up in a car park, the hajji pulled his body mass out of the vehicle to negotiate our entrance into the compound, and I dared sneak a peek. A large metal gate loomed to my left that I recognized with a jolt as belonging to the prison. I expected to be brought here but it was something entirely different to actually be here. Bazdashtgahe Evin (Evin Detention Facility) was written on a sign. A battered Mercedes bus pulled up alongside us, then another. Through their grimy windows I could see exhausted, bloodied men piled up. Some looked roughed up; others stared lifelessly out of the windows. One made eye contact with me, but his gaze contained all the solidarity of a tired bus passenger staring down at someone in a taxi during rush-hour traffic.

“It’s going to be OK now.” Shark Grin soothed me, like a father delivering his son to the first day at school. “If you hadn’t been a bad boy and thrown a tantrum we wouldn’t have had to smack you. Just try to be a good boy from now on.”

The gates swung open, the buses rolled through. We followed them but turned off to the right, up a steep looping driveway and past unlit, non-descript buildings. Further up, through a sloping tunnel, a sharp right brought us into a small narrow lane flanked by more shadowy buildings and parked cars. A group of men milled outside, emitting the same vibe as religious Shiites after a joint prayer service. They looked at me strangely as I emerged from the car and was handed a blindfold by my escort.

“Put this on,” he said, and I understood I was poised on the edge of a secret world whose employees had to be shielded from the eyes of outsiders.

As soon as the blindfold was on, my movements became slower, constricted. Suddenly, the most important thing in my world was the brawny arm leading me past the men clustered around the entrance into a brightly-lit corridor. I was inside Evin’s famed Section 209, the only ward controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence.

Letter from the American woman who witnessed my arrest at the airport

Dear AK,

The encounter was very brief. I was sitting down and I felt the presence of a group passing by. I don’t even think I was looking up. Iason must have seen that I look non-Iranian and he called out “Do you speak English?” He said loudly that he was being arrested. I jumped to my feet and ran after them as they were moving quickly away from me. He told me his name and asked me to call the paper and inform them that he was being arrested, which I said I would do. He said something like—“Tell them they are being very rough with me. They’ve hit me in the head.” He was furious and there was a group of uniformed men pulling him down the hall. They looked like airport personnel though not gov security forces, although one of them must have been so. His name was hard for me so I ran after them and asked him to spell it, which he did. I called my brother when I got home which was a couple of hours later. It happened close to 12 midnight.

I wish I had more to tell you. This gov is clearly trying to get all foreign journalists out of Iran as soon as possible and are jailing the locals. I figured that Iason had just arrived as this happened in the arrivals area and that they were trying to send him back.

If you wish to call me, my number is 011 98 21 XXXX XXXX. Cell phone coverage is often shut down these days, but my cell is 011 98 912 XXX XXXX.

I hope you hear from Iason soon if you haven’t already.

XXXX

When you are free . . .

Letter from my stepmother

Dear Iason,

This is to let you know that we are all doing all we can do. Most recently we spoke with Greek Ambassador Nikos Garilidis who was just on his way to the airport to try to find the threads. AK has been amazing, as you would expect, and your father is now updating your mother. I have lots of friends praying/meditating/thinking of you, and AK, and all of us. In case you have lost telephone numbers, my cell is 69XXXXXXXX, Garth’s is 69XXXXXXXX.

We await your call . . . and send all our love,

Elizabeth

Section 209, Evin

The sound of activity came from offices opening up left and right of the corridor I was walking down. A white tiled floor scrolled underneath my blindfold. A few steps in, I was stopped, turned to the right and told to keep facing the wall. Movement swirled around me but I couldn’t see it. A sixth sense told me I was being regarded by foreign eyes.

The hand returned, reoriented me and continued taking me down the corridor. We passed several prisoners standing with their blindfolded faces to the wall. A manicured radio announcer’s voice wafted past, reading news on the government radio station totally unrelated to the havoc in central Tehran. Then there were more men facing the wall, these ones crouching and with bloodied blindfolds across their eyes.

“Why were you at Haft-e Tir at 4 o’clock this afternoon?” An enraged voice suddenly erupted from the same interrogation rooms I would later be led to. All around, government opponents who had participated in the demonstrations were being interrogated.

We ended up in a narrow office with a sagging curtain half-heartedly pulled across the partition. A prison uniform wrapped in plastic was handed to me and I was told to take my clothes off. A bearded young man with the kind of sallow yellow skin developed by those who work too many night shifts pulled the curtain across to shield my modesty. I took advantage of this to dispose of a green ribbon I had in my pocket.

On the other side of the partition, the sallow-skinned man was itemizing my belongings: three camera lenses, three camera bodies, two laptops, a handful of SIM cards from different Middle Eastern countries, several different currencies: dollars, pounds sterling, Turkish lira, Euros, and Iranian tomans. I realized how dodgy I must have appeared to this unworldly Bassij.

He pulled out my notebook full of a week’s hastily scribbled notes in pen and more notes from a recent trip to Libya. Then battery chargers, wires, external hard drives, and business cards tumbled out. Everything that emerged from my camera bag’s warren of zippers and pockets sank my spirit still further. My sweaty, slept-in clothes came off, and I pulled on the crisp, sky-blue, institutional pants and shirt of Evin Prison.

That is when it was driven home to me that I was being committed to one of the most notorious prisons in the world. Wouldn’t it be better to play it safe from now on and no longer speak Persian? If they were desperate enough to arrest a foreign journalist, then who knew how far they might go in an effort to entrap me? After all, the Islamic Republic had been warning its citizens for years that the West was seeking to foment a Velvet Revolution within its territory. As a Farsi-speaking foreigner, wasn’t I the perfect person to parade in front of the cameras?

Another young man came in, this one thick set and with a close-cropped beard spreading across his jaw. Peering at me, he addressed me in halting English.

“Are you scared?” he asked me conversationally.

“Not really,” I said.

“You should be, you’ve done really bad things,” he grinned gleefully.

I stared back at him.

“Do you love Iran?” he said.

“Yes, I do,” I answered.

“How much do you love Iran?” he followed up, rhetorically. “Do you love it so much that you don’t mind staying here for years, for very many years . . . ?”

He tailed off with an intent expression, searching my face for evidence that his message had sufficiently intimidated me. I stared back at him grimly.

After I refused to sign a Persian-language form stating what items had been found on me, a guard thrust my blindfold back and led me back down the brightly lit corridor, then up a staircase, bumping around corners and through low doorways, past curtain separations and finally into a narrow cell with a dirty brown strip of fitted carpet. I laid blankets I had been given down in the corner as the metal door clunked behind me (a cinematic cliché I had never thought I would inhabit). I lowered my aching tired body onto the blankets. My lips had swollen and my neck ached from headlocks and being dragged down staircases. I was desperately thirsty and kept rubbing my leathery tongue over cracked lips, salty with the taste of dried blood. Before embracing oblivion, my last, slightly awestruck thought was, “I’m in a cell in a prison in the Islamic Republic.”

E-mail from AK, describing how the media is reporting the Tehran clashes and asking questions about the demonstrators’ behavior. (AK worked as a war photographer in Sarajevo in the nineties.)

Iason,

There are a lot of conflicting reports coming through the Iranian diaspora net, mixed in with a lot of adrenaline charged emotions.

From what I gathered is that the M demo. were for the most part peaceful with small outbursts of rubber and really ammo. There is a CNN clip showing the real ammo. I will try to get the link. The people on your FB page are going manic with information. I heard on NPR radio that the demonstrators spanned 5 miles. This is to say that the demos. could have been peaceful as well as had episodes of firing into the crowd. 5 miles is a huge span of territory.

the questions that I still ask is where is this all going? there is a natural life to these situations. the west is not going to get involved. the most the iranian youth can hope for is for the west to say it will not accept the AM administration until there is a re-election. so … are the iranian demon. ready to go it alone that overthrow their government?

at this point if they give in what will be the consequences for their actions, for the students? if they do not give in will they start the organize? will they seek the help of the pro-Mousavi veterans of the Iran-Iraq war?

have the neighborhoods started protecting themselves from the government police and the basiji?

these are my questions coming from my own experience.

love you, ak

NIGHT BATTLE

Perhaps ending up in a cell was not so bad after a week drenched in powerful experiences that had left me reeling and in need of time to process them. There were the thousands of angry Iranians crowding into squares on that first morning after the elections or pouring onto balconies and roofs. First they shouted the name of Mir Hossein Mousavi in a bristling angry staccato, then watched in horror as motorbike-mounted riot police swooped through the crowds, striking down people in their wake.

Another enduring image was of a burning bridge arcing over a wilderness of highway and rocky wasteland in the middle of one of northern Tehran’s most upper-class districts. Hundreds of Mousavi supporters and riot police clashed on the bridge at midnight, watched over by inscrutable glass-and-steel luxury flats sunk in darkness. There was the sound of men screaming, the crump of stone on plastic shields, and the rumbling exhaust of several hundred gridlocked cars whose transfixed inhabitants watched the scene in horrified fascination.

A day later and the scene had changed again—a compact, black-clad crowd marched up a boulevard in funereal silence under a canopy of summer green foliage. As police helicopters whirred overhead, the crowd threw its hands to the sky and shattered the silence with a sudden cheer, inviting the helicopter’s occupants to descend and join them. At the entrance to the complex housing the national broadcaster and bristling with armed soldiers, student leaders debated whether to storm the gate but were preempted by attractive female delegates offering roses to the Revolutionary Guard. A few meters away, the feisty daughter of former two-time President Hashemi Rafsanjani delivered an impromptu address to the crowd—for which she was later arrested.

Then, on the eve of my arrest, we were driving through a near-deserted city of 17 million people. Everyone was inside and terrified, drawing a contrast with previous days when they challenged the regime on the pavement and tarmac. After three days of rambunctious people-power on the streets and nightly face-offs with the Bassij, the only visible movement in this ghost capital was the occasional car crawling along empty boulevards. Dozens of patrol cars cast revolving red and blue light across highway overpasses. Shops were closed, stones and charred rubbish bins strewn on the ground. Smoke wisped into the orange glare of the city’s lamps.

Then, at an intersection, they appeared: Khamenei’s men, the foot soldiers of the Islamic revolution. A pack of motorcycles steamed up, loaded with middle-aged bearded men wearing loose shirts, scuffed shoes and, on their fingers, rings studded with amber and turquoise stones. Above their heads they held red and blue banners with cursive Persian writing: religious slogans glorifying Shiite saints like Abulfazl, Abbas, and Hossein. As the pack accelerated from the traffic lights into the darkness of the highway, a blood-curdling cry swelled from their multitude: “Mashallah Hizbullah, Mashallah Hizbullah” (Bless the Party of God).

My neck hairs prickled as two vans pass by. Motorcycles overtook us on every side, engulfing us in their midst. Frowning self-righteous men stood erect on the vans, staring at us. Why were we out at this time? Were we “unruly elements”? And what business did a woman have driving two men around? The insurrection had abolished the Islamic Republic’s morality checkpoints, where Bassijis drag unrelated men and women from their cars and subject them to interrogation or arrest. Now, if they didn’t like the look of you, they took their metal rods directly to cars, windshield, and human flesh. Dropping my notebook and pen to the floor, I stared glassily through the window, willing them to ignore me. We slowed to let them draw away, and they disappeared up the road, their chants floating back on the breeze.

To be continued …

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