The Chronicle Review

'I Am Not a Spy. I Am a Philosopher.'

125 days in an Iranian prison

Basso Cannarsa, LUZphoto, Redux

“We just want to ask you a few questions,” the police told Ramin Jahanbegloo at the Tehran airport. And so the scholar’s nightmare began.
October 03, 2014

The heavy steel door swung closed behind me in the cell. I took off my blindfold and found myself trapped within four cold walls. The cell was small. High ceiling, old concrete. All green. An intense yellow light from a single bulb high above. Somehow I could hear the horror in the walls, the voices of previous prisoners whispering a painful welcome. I had no way of knowing whether they had survived. I had no way of knowing whether I would. So many questions were crowding my mind. I heard a man moaning. It was coming through a vent. I realized that he must have been tortured. Would I be tortured, too?

I was, and am, a philosopher, an academic. Life had not been easy for Iranian intellectuals, artists, journalists, and human-rights activists since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005. As a thinker on the margin of Iranian society, I was not safe, and so, rather than stay in Iran, I had accepted a job offer in Delhi, India. I had come back to Tehran for a visit. On the morning of April 27, 2006, I was at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport to catch a flight to Brussels, where I was to attend a conference. I had checked in my luggage and gone through security when I was approached by four men. One of them called me by my first name. "Ramin," he said, "could you follow us?"

"I’ll miss my plane," I said.

"We just want to ask you a few questions."

People around us were watching, but nobody moved. I realized that I had no choice but to go with them.

I was placed in a car. Two of the men got in the front; the other two climbed in the back with me between them. They pushed my head down, and the car headed toward an airport garage where another car was waiting. With fewer witnesses around, the men were more aggressive now, pulling me out of the first car and throwing me into the second. They pushed my head down again, and this time one of them covered it with his jacket, which smelled of rotten onions. It had a hole in it, so that I could see out of one of the side windows. As the car sped away, one of the men said into a walkie-talkie: "We have the package. The package is arriving."

For the first time, I realized that my life was in danger. I knew that in the early years of the Islamic regime, many people had been taken away and executed without notice or trial. Their mutilated bodies were found in the suburbs, and the police pretended to look for the assassins. Those abductors were similar to the men surrounding me—intelligence officers who picked up intellectuals and activists and killed them on the spot. I panicked. An agitated voice kept escaping me, though I was not aware of speaking. It echoed, bouncing around the car, falling back into my throat and escaping again. "Where are you taking me? Where are you taking me?" And the simple, hollow reply, "Shut up!" over and over again.

Ulrich Baumgarten, Getty Images

Evin Prison, in Tehran

I had never thought that I would be relieved to approach the grim walls of Evin Prison, but relief is exactly what I felt when I recognized it, through the hole in the jacket. I knew then that I would not be murdered, at least not immediately.

I was blindfolded, led by the hand through cold corridors, up and down stairs, past what I assumed were other cells and other barred doors. I was taken into a concrete room and ordered to sit on a hard chair. After what seemed like hours, I heard footsteps behind me. It sounded as if two men had entered. But they said nothing. I held my breath and waited. Eventually a third man came in and sat down behind me. He was the first to talk.

"Oh, very interesting. Mr. Jahanbegloo, the great intellectual, is here," he said. "What are you doing here in prison?"

"There has been a mistake," I said immediately.

"No, no, there is no mistake," he said drily. "You have been brought here because you are accused of a conspiracy against the Iranian state. You are implicated in a barandazinarm."

I had never heard that term before. The direct translation from Farsi would be a "soft overthrow." Later I realized that he must have meant a velvet revolution. I asked him, in my confusion, to clarify.

"You know better than I what a soft overthrow is," he said.

I realized that there would be no rational basis to our discussion. These men were not trained in political theory or in law. Their only skill was the ability to intimidate.

"You see, Mr. Jahanbegloo, we know for a fact for whom you are working. We’ve been through your emails. We have two rooms full of documents, with video clips and writings, newspaper cuttings, and voice recordings on you and all that you have done with your life. It all testifies to your guilt. So you’re better off telling us from the beginning what your role is in this soft overthrow and giving us the details of how your employers instructed you to carry it out."

"What employers? What are you talking about?"

He exhaled his cigarette smoke slowly, patiently, and I felt it enveloping me from behind like a fog of uncertainty.

"The United States and Israel, of course. Do you think we’re stupid? We know you’ve been meeting with American and Israeli scholars, with politicians, with activists. You’ve done it all out in the open. There are video recordings of your meetings with them, countless articles and books that you’ve collaborated on with them. Shall I go on? You know best what role you’ve played in working with them, and that your intention has been to change the government of the Islamic Republic to better suit their interests."

My writings talk only about nonviolent change and reform. My interrogators would say that nonviolent reform is the same thing as a velvet revolution, but for me there is a distinction. How could I convince these men that I was innocent; that what they had interpreted as wrongdoing was merely my wish to see my country do better, to treat its citizens with respect and dignity, to show that reform did not necessitate a complete change of government or a swing toward subservience and the foreign domination we had endured in the past? But there was nothing to say. In their eyes, I was already guilty.

There is nothing comparable to solitary confinement in a country like Iran. Its high-security prisons were built for one purpose: to dehumanize, torture, punish, and destroy those men and women who dare to think independently. Evin signifies not only the failure of 3,000 years of Persian civilization but also the defeat of common sense. The interrogations, tortures, and other degrading punishments are motivated by pure sadism. Until I grasped this, I had a hard time understanding why my interrogators enjoyed humiliating me so much, as if it gave them prestige. They constantly attempted to shake my ideas, to chip away at their foundations, to make me feel guilty about the political decisions I had made. Their purpose was to make me believe that I had betrayed my country.

I could barely sleep, no more than three hours each night, as the feeling of being watched every hour woke me up. I was taken for further interrogation at any time of the day or night. I spent up to eight hours a day in the interrogation room, my only contact with other humans. During the first 50 days of my imprisonment, I was not permitted to go up to the rooftop terrace, but later I was allowed to spend 15 minutes every week there. I could take off my blindfold and look at the sky through the bars that covered the rooftop. Only a prisoner who has been confined for long behind high walls can appreciate the psychological value of these outings. I loved these outside walks. I filled my mind with the beautiful floating clouds and took them back to my cell. I was almost jealous of the clouds. They reminded me of a poem by Yeats: "I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above; those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love."

For breakfast we had tea and cheese, and in the evening we usually had a piece of chicken sausage with rice or pickles and thin bread that tasted of paper. For lunch we usually had rice mixed with lentils or served with a stew, the main ingredients of which were cheap meat, tomatoes, lentils, onion, and lemon. Every week one of the guards would ask for a small amount of money from what I had with me when I was arrested, and a list of things I needed. I don’t smoke, so I usually asked for tissues and biscuits. I used the back of the boxes to write down aphorisms.

I had to fight moments of despair. I frequently had headaches and stomachaches, and I was once taken to the prison doctor, who gave me a few aspirin. He looked very young and inexperienced. I supposed he had to keep silent about all the suffering he saw.

There is always suffering, and man is wolf to man: an old story. But suffering is not all there is. And we can fight against the dark even when we are powerless. I remembered this saying by Jorge Luis Borges: "A writer—and I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art."

I asked for something to read and was told that I was allowed only the Quran and a book of stories on early Islam. I read the Quran from beginning to end five times. It was a precious commodity in my hours of despair and solitude. Reading and writing were my paths to the truth inside the lie I was living. For me, the road to freedom is paved with words. Reading and writing are modes of thinking, and a prisoner cannot survive except through his thoughts. His mind is his only weapon against tyranny. We lose everything when we lose our pride in thinking.

"Why do you have so many Jewish friends, Mr. Jahanbegloo?" my interrogator asked.

"What do you mean? I’ve had many colleagues and acquaintances throughout my years in academe and outside it, and some of them happen to be Jewish."

"Yes, but too many of them are Jewish," he said.

"I have no idea what you mean. I don’t see what their religion or ethnicity has to do with it. As I’ve tried to tell you, we are all scholars. Our job is to educate." I knew what he was going to say next.

"Merely to educate? No, I don’t believe that’s it at all. You claim that you want to educate, but educate whom and for what? Look at this list of your past associates—Isaiah Berlin, George Steiner, Noam Chomsky, and all these others. You think we don’t know who these people are and what they do? They are all dangerous thinkers, and they all have an agenda."

"If you actually read the writings of those men, you’d know how wrong you are," I said, immediately regretting it.

"Oh, so you think you have all the knowledge here? You have all the right interpretations and we know nothing? Watch how you speak to me. If you start to get aggressive with us, believe me, it won’t turn out well for you. We have many other methods to employ."

A dead silence. They hadn’t tortured me physically, but there was nothing to stop them.

"All I was trying to say is that there are different ways of understanding the writings of certain thinkers, and you have chosen to see them in one particular way. If you look at them another way, they may not seem as harmful as you think."

"Who are you to decide what is harmful or not? Have you not written papers in support of the Zionists?"

"Of course not," I replied. "What do you mean?"

"Look at this article here, for example, about your visit to Auschwitz. Do you not realize that in writing this article you have criticized the president’s views and given the Zionists credibility?"

Ahmadinejad was and is a Holocaust denier. The paper I had written spelled out the fact that millions of Jews had been killed by the Nazis, and that the death camp at Auschwitz was a center of inhumanity and cruelty.

"But I never refer in any place to the president and his views. I wrote about a place that I visited and saw with my own eyes, and I wrote about my reaction to it."

"Yes, and in so doing you give ammunition to the Zionists to legitimize their claims and strengthen their grip over those they oppress. Have you ever been to Israel, Mr. Jahanbegloo?" he asked, his tone implying that he already knew the answer.

"I ... when I was a child, yes. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. I remember only the huge grapefruits on the trees."

"Well, you’re not a child anymore, so don’t play games with me. Even if you haven’t been back since, you’ve been in contact with Israelis. You’ve supported their regime all your life."

"That’s not true at all. I also had many Palestinian friends when I was in France. I knew Edward Said. I even organized a conference at the University of Tehran in his honor after his death."

"Not all Palestinians are true revolutionaries! The ones with whom you’ve been in contact are complicit in the Zionists’ wrongdoing because they don’t confront it with full force. They may as well be on their side."

"They are different kinds of revolutionaries—" I started to say.

"Enough! No more of these quick answers. You still have not explained why you’ve written these articles about the Holocaust, why you side with the Zionists in all matters, why you insist on seeing them as the victims."

He was right. I hadn’t given him an adequate account, for I knew he would not understand. How could I explain that my main concern was with inhumanity, how pervasive it is and how preventable, when he was already caught in its vise?

The 1,071st aphorism I wrote in prison says, "A philosopher puts himself in danger because of his thoughts; for his philosophy is like a tightrope on which he walks, with the world threatening deep below." My ideas had landed me in prison. And I had come to the conclusion that, to get out, I would have to convince my captors that I regretted having those thoughts. As painful as it was for me to contemplate betraying my ideals in any way, no other option remained.

One day I was taken to a room where a taciturn barber gave me a quick shave and a haircut. Why now? I kept wondering. What were they preparing me for? When the barber finished, my interrogator came in with some clothes from my luggage and told me to change.

"Put these on. You have to look good for the camera."

"The camera?" I asked. "I don’t want to be filmed."

"Shut up and do as you’re told," he yelled. He rarely let his anger flare up like that. But then he continued: "That wife of yours is creating a lot of problems for us. And now you will do something for us to cancel out those problems."

Now I understood the reason for his anger. The campaign to secure my release had gained a lot of momentum, and pressure was mounting on the prosecutors to charge me formally. And to charge me, they required more evidence. A confession, they thought, would work best.

I walked the distance from my cell to the interrogation room blindfolded. Once there, they took off the blindfold but told me not to move my head in any direction. The room was like the other interrogation rooms, except that here they had replaced the usual metal chair with a brown leather chair; behind it stood a blue screen and in front of it was a table with a microphone. A single plant next to it was supposed to make the place look pleasant.

The interrogator sat me down on the leather chair and barked out instructions.

"You are to repeat everything we tell you. You may not change any of the words, and you have to say it all as naturally as possible. Listen closely and memorize the words well, because we don’t have all day. Most important, we will be standing to the side, and you are not to look at us at any point. Keep your eyes averted, or else we will have to stop the tape and start again, and it will not turn out well for you if you keep wasting our time. On the other hand, if you comply and do exactly as you’re told, there may be some hope for you after all."

They had orchestrated everything quite cleverly. They had used the element of surprise against me. It all happened in a whirlwind, leaving me no time to contemplate my next move. It was very effective.

The image of my wife was burnt into my consciousness. I had to do whatever I could to get out of there, to be with her and my daughter again. I was not going to be like Socrates, ready to drink the hemlock. I had too much to lose.

"Tell me what to say," I told them.

I had nothing to confess. I merely repeated their words. Keeping my eyes down the entire time and reciting it all as bluntly as I could, I said that my work on nonviolence was directly tied to the interests and designs of the United States, that American agents had approached me and put me in contact with people at the National Endowment for Democracy, and that this had given shape to my plans and aims.

None of that, of course, was true. My fellowship at the NED required me to collaborate with the Journal of Democracy, which I did, and nothing more. But that was considered espionage here, although spies rarely have time to do research and write on philosophical or political issues. At the end of my fellowship, I said now, I had prepared a report comparing Iranian civil society with that of Eastern Europe at the time of the velvet revolution.

I was also supposed to have been in contact with people at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, in particular with the director of its Middle East program, Haleh Esfandiari—who, they told me to mention, is married to a Jew. The aim of the organization, I told the camera, was to foment unrest and eventual revolution in Iran.

"Now that I am looking back at my activities over the past few years from America to Iran," I finished with suppressed bitterness and pain, "I see that my activities have placed me in the camp of Iran’s enemies rather than on the side of its national interests. And I am disappointed in myself for these things, and I think that I have to rectify this in the best way possible."

To my relief, the camera was turned off and I was congratulated on having done a good job. With mixed feelings of satisfaction and disgust, I returned to my cell and hoped for the best. Soon word got out that I had confessed to being a traitor and spy. The tape itself would not be released until a year later, when it was combined with forced confessions from Esfandiari and the scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, both of whom were held at Evin Prison in 2007. The video was shown in a program titled In the Name of Democracy that was aired on a state-run television station.

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I passed the days walking silently in my cell. Freedom was all I wanted, but hoping for it made me desperate. Absurdity was holding me in its grip. My desire for freedom mocked absurd injustice, but absurd injustice denied my freedom. Then one day, one of the guards opened the steel door of my cell. "Get ready!" he shouted "Someone will take you to the Revolutionary Court." The words so terrified me that I was silent for a few seconds, thinking this was the end.

An hour later a man came, blindfolded me, and took me to a car. When he took off the blindfold, I found that I was sitting in the back of an official car with the guard next to me. I was handcuffed, and he had a pistol on his belt. This was my first time out of Evin Prison in three months. I was in my prison uniform and unshaved, and people who stopped at the red light next to our car looked at me as if I were a circus animal. I imagine they thought I was a criminal, perhaps a drug dealer. For them, because I was in prison uniform, I was just a prisoner. Life is full of surprises. One day you are a respected man and the next day, when you are in prison, people find an excuse not to know you or your family.

The driver parked in front of the Revolutionary Court. I was taken to the first floor, where I sat for an hour with my guard waiting for Saeed Mortazavi, prosecutor general of Tehran. When I was escorted into his office, he was talking to his secretary and did not even notice my entrance. He looked shorter than he did in his photos and had a three-day beard and mustache. His glasses made him look even more atrocious than suggested by his nickname, "Butcher of the Press." Mortazavi gave me a harsh look and said, "Mr. Jahanbegloo, you are accused of spying against the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

"But I have never been connected with any foreign intelligence," I replied.

"Listen to me carefully," he said with a snarl. "If you contradict me, you will go on trial and face charges of communicating with a hostile government, and I can easily ask for the death penalty."

"But I am not a spy. I am a philosopher," I said.

"That doesn’t interest us. What interests us is what foreign institution you are connected with."

"None!"

"And who recognizes you as a philosopher? Americans, Canadians, the French?"

"I ... I’ve taught everywhere. But I haven’t done anything except serve people."

"Is that so? And why do you have Canadian citizenship? This is proof that you are a spy."

"But many Iranians have dual nationalities," I said.

"You are not an Iranian; you are an ugly Canadian."

"But I have lived and worked in this country. I have written books in Persian."

"Your writings are of no use to us. They do not serve Islam, and they do not serve Iran."

Mortazavi turned to my interrogator and said, "Take him to the other room and read him all the accusations."

I was shown a sheet of paper on which there was a long list: spying, working with foreign intelligence, plotting against the security of the Iranian state, preparing a velvet revolution, collaborating with Jewish institutions, writing lies about the Holocaust, and so on.

"Sign this," he said.

"But I haven’t done any of these things," I replied.

"Look. If you don’t sign, we have to start the interrogation from scratch. That means that you will stay in prison for a year or two with no contact with the outside world."

I felt that I was signing my death sentence, and that it would be used against me as long as the Islamic regime remained in place in Iran. But many prisoners before me had done the same thing to save their lives and get to see their families again. I was no different. I thought of my daughter, Afarin. What will she think 20 years from now? Will she say that her father was a hero, a coward, or simply a man who met his destiny?

I was taken back to Evin. My supper was waiting for me in the room, colder than usual. The blindfold was taken off. The steel door closed behind me. That night I ate and slept with shame.

The question that is constantly on the mind of a political prisoner is not "Why am I here?" We know we are in prison for our ideas. Rather, the question that haunts us is "When will I be freed?" My emotions were never stable in prison. With so much time on my hands, I could go from being disappointed to angry, to hopeful, to melancholic, to fearful, to rapturous, and back, all in one day. Pain was gaining an advantage over all my other emotions and was slowly stifling me. I had already missed my daughter’s first steps and first birthday.

In mid-August, after the disheartening meeting with Mortazavi, my interrogations resumed and became stricter than ever. Now that I had signed a confession saying the accusations against me were true, they treated me like a real spy, a criminal who deserved no respect or dignity. Though they didn’t beat me, they threatened and insulted me, calling me the worst names they could think of and assuring me that I would spend the rest of my days in prison.

"The aghayan are not happy, Mr. Jahanbegloo," I was told, an abstract reference to the higher authorities who were deciding my case. "They have seen the tape, and they’re displeased. They think your guilt was not authentic. Your movements, for instance, were unnatural. You kept looking down at the table, sputtering out the lines like a mischievous child who’s been scolded by his superiors and is merely telling them what they want to hear, without any genuine remorse about what he’s done. You have to give us more. Otherwise you will not be freed."

When they took me back to my cell, I understood, finally, that they genuinely believed I was a spy. And, having already admitted to being one, I realized I had nothing to lose by going along. I would be the spy they were looking for. I would give them what they wanted.

The opportunity arose at the start of my next interrogation, when the questions delved into new territory.

"We’ve discovered a weak point in your story that exposes your guilt," the interrogator said. "We have seen, Mr. Jahanbegloo, that with all your travels and so-called philosophical meanderings, there is one place you always return to. We know now for certain that your main collaborator, the foreign intelligence you worked for this whole time, has been France. Now, before we get to tell you how easily we can prove this, you can save us all a lot of trouble and tell us the facts yourself."

He put his hand on my shoulder. I shuddered when I felt him behind me, and then it all came pouring out of me, from a place that to this day I can’t identify.

"All right, I will tell you. I don’t know why I got mixed up with them. I suppose they found me, or perhaps saw in me an opportunity to exploit, a chance to find connections in Iran and achieve some ... purposes here." I had to keep going, to inhabit the lie, to create an unlikely yet convincing story.

I had their attention now. "Who were these people? What were their names?" With hesitation, which I tried to mask as anxiety over revealing important names, I gave them some random French names just as they came to my mind. They were not the names of anyone I had ever met or even heard of, but names such as those children make up during a word game. I was astonished by how gullible they were; they bought into it all. I simply had to make sure I didn’t go too far and incriminate myself in something even more serious.

"Good," I was told finally. "Very good." It seemed that what I had told them not only confirmed but even went beyond their suspicions. For three days in a row, I told them as many things as I could think of, making sure that I reiterated the basic facts every time to keep the story plausible. By the time it was over, my interrogators were satisfied that they had finally gotten some concrete details out of me—details that they could use to substantiate their conspiracy theory. I could sense that this whole nightmare was slowly closing in on itself, leaving them to descend farther into madness while I found my way out.

I tried to keep my dignity, but it was difficult. I had lied to my interrogators, who would use what I’d said to present me to the world as a traitor. But I had sold no one out to buy my freedom. This was not heroism. It was simply an attempt to keep my integrity as a human being.

Finally, on August 27, I was taken to the interrogation room, where I was told with evident disdain that Javier Solana, secretary general of the Council of the European Union at the time, had brought a "gift" for me. Solana had offered a deal to the Iranian government regarding its nuclear program and had demanded my release as part of the agreement. As a result of this pressure, I would not be put on trial. Negotiations with my family were under way. My wife and my mother had put up their apartments for my bail, and all that was left was the paperwork. After that, my interrogator said indifferently, I would be released. This would happen by August 30.

That night, I dreamt about seeing my family the next day. Instead I had to endure 24 hours of silence—probably the heaviest hours I spent in prison. But at last, the following day, my cell door was opened, and I was told that I had been freed.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is an associate professor of political science and holds the York-Noor Visiting Chair in Islamic Studies at York University, in Toronto. This essay is adapted from his new book, Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison, just out from the University of Regina Press.