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Desolation And Disillusionment (excerpt from the University of Solitude, Chapter 6.)

During the first three days of questioning, I had no doubts that the Iranians were mistaken. Therefore I kept trying to explain things to them. My arrest was a huge misunderstanding, I told them; they must have gotten their facts mixed up. I was working on a serious project! My clients were businessmen and investors, nothing more. I believed this with all my heart and didn’t doubt my own words.

On the third day, however, sometime after noon, the interrogation suddenly turned harsh. A long series of questions should have led me to guess what the interrogators wanted to hear, but when I didn’t say it, the atmosphere turned hostile. Several times they reminded me that, if I did not provide “real” answers, they’d start using different methods of interrogation. Off in the next room, I could hear someone being lashed. Was that just a coincidence?

In our little room, the interrogators were only “lashing” me with questions. One followed another with none of my answers getting written down. I was being unofficially interrogated—although, in Iran, the boundaries between official and unofficial often blurred.

The investigators were asking me seemingly simple questions, but it was hard to find the right answer.

“Do you know why you don’t have any photos with Steve?” (Steve was one of the people with whom I worked on the project).

“Do you know why Steve never traveled with you to Iran?”

“Did Steve ever tell you about his long stay in the U.S.?”

“Do you know why Steve sometimes changed your meeting place at the last minute?”

“Do you know what ———, the company Steve said he worked for, really is?”

To which I would respond:

 

“I don’t know. How would I know? In Europe, we don’t usually take photos with our business partners.”

“Why would Steve travel with me to Iran? I always managed to carry out my job on my own. I didn’t need his help. It would have not been economical for us both to travel to Iran.”

“Steve never told me anything about his stay in the U.S.”

“To change a meeting place at the last minute isn’t that common, but it happens sometimes. Steve is a very busy man.”

———? That’s a well-known international company. What else would it be?”

They despised these answers, but I simply couldn’t get their point. The mood darkened with every subsequent question. The lead investigator was fuming. Eventually he lost his temper.

“I will tell you what Steve’s company really is! It was no ———. It was the CIA! Do you know how many Iranians are held in American prisons?! They didn’t do anything, they are just businessmen. Do you know how many Iranian scientists were killed in the last few years by people like Steve? Steve is no project manager. He is a high-ranking CIA officer!”

The investigator’s fist pounded the flimsy table so hard it almost broke.

 

I sat there, dumbfounded. I couldn’t say a word. What the investigator said had a certain logic. It scared me. The investigator studied me intensely. His sweaty face looked angry and full of hatred. Not towards me, but towards Steve and all his kind. It was full of hatred toward the entire western world conspiring against Iran. I had to look away; his piercing stare was unbearable.

After a moment of silence, I looked up and said, “If what you’re saying is true, I knew nothing about it.”

“I know,” he said, “that you didn’t know about it. At least I think so. After all, we followed you for years! If I doubted your testimony even slightly, you would be hanging head down from the ceiling right now, and the interrogation would be happening very differently! But what I don’t understand is how someone with your I.Q. did not realize what was going on?”

The room went silent. What could I say? His world differed vastly from mine. My world was business. His world was secret services, businessmen imprisoned in the USA, and dead scientists. Where I sought opportunity, he saw treason. Where I saw a friend, he saw a murderer.

I could understand his suspicious view of the world. But how could he understand mine? How could he understand that there are some qualities, some virtues such as friendship and trust, which someone might treasure in his heart, overruling his intelligence and his reason?

I didn’t know the purpose of the CIA. Never in my life had I visited their website. I didn’t even know what the acronym stood for. Nor did I know the name of Iran’s security service or if Slovakia had similar institutions. Business was my world, not police, politics, or espionage organizations. But I knew that my investigator would not understand that. And so I just sat there, silently.

The atmosphere in the room worsened; the investigators began arguing in Persian. After a while they calmed down, and the lead investigator told me, “You would be hanging head down from the ceiling, and the interrogation would be happening very differently, if you were in this room with different investigators. But while my colleague and I are here, none of that will happen.”

“So what shall I do?” I asked. “Why cannot I be released, when you know that I was oblivious to what was happening?”

The main investigator raised his voice again.

“Your documents speak against you. They contain the wrong names, the names of people who mean something in Iran. If your case ended up in court, the judge would have to take this into consideration. Maybe he would say that you would stay in prison five years. Or maybe he would decide that you should be imprisoned for life. That’s how the judge would decide, not me. But the decision is his jurisdiction—not mine.”

This devastated me. I remembered the young barefoot simpleton who I met the day before, playing with his cell phone, who didn’t even speak English—that had been the judge. The memory didn’t help at all. A judge like him could decide as arbitrarily as he liked—regardless of guilt, the names in the document, or anything. I wanted to say, “You don’t understand why I, with my I.Q., didn’t figure anything out? But even I don’t understand some things! How can the judge sentence me to life in prison when you and your colleague know that I’m innocent? What is the point of this interrogation? What is this system? Where is justice?”

 

As I was about to blurt that out, the main investigator interrupted. “We,” he said, “are trying to resolve your case differently. I don’t want you to end up in court. Sometimes, we manage to arrange a meeting with one of the highest judges in Iran or with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We would like to resolve your case with one of these people. But it is a situation of give and take; if we are to do this for you, you must help us, too! You have to give us correct information about Steve. Start using your I.Q.!”

The conversation continued for a bit longer. I tried to give them information useful for identifying Steve. He’d told me a lot. But whether it was true, or whether he had invented his business projects, his family life, or his entire life story, I didn’t know. I never would.

Evening came, and so ended my third day of interrogation. The guard returned me to the cell and slammed the door behind me. In that moment, the reality of everything fell on me hard. I leaned my forehead against the wall and broke down crying. Suddenly, I saw everything clearly. Why did Steve never tell me which hotel he stayed at? Why did he always pay me in cash? Why didn’t he ever take a photo with me or show me pictures of his family, which he talked about so often? Was everything he ever told me smoke and mirrors? Dozens more questions popped into my head. I could deal with all of them and answer every single one, justifying my blindness to myself, apart from one question: why would a reputable company with no presence in Slovakia decide to choose me to work for them in Iran?

However I looked at it, it made no sense. Okay, I had relevant work experience. My business dealt with projects related to domestic and international recruitment. I had some qualities and skills, and I was certainly capable of leading such projects in Iran. All that was true. It’s also possible that I was one of the better consultants in Slovakia, maybe even one of the best in international recruitment. Yet still, despite all this, why exactly they had chosen me made no sense.

The world is full of consultants just like me; I’m not particularly special. Why did a company, not based in Slovakia, choose me specifically? They could have found dozens of similar consultants in their own country, even a few in Iran itself. Why exactly Slovakia? Why me? After all, this arrangement didn’t benefit them under any condition—even if I had worked for free.

Only one scenario made any logical sense—the scenario where the Iranians were right. It only made sense if the people who hired me were not who they said they were. Why hadn’t I realized it? Why had I never given this any thought? How could I be so dumb? What blinded me so? As I stood there crying, I asked myself these questions in disbelief. Moving to the small metal sink, I blew my nose and wiped away my tears. I took two or three deep breaths. But the tears came back. I will never cry as genuinely as I did back then.

I thought of a typical morning at home in Dubnica. I’d make myself breakfast and watch CNN or BBC news, sitting comfortably in my old, gray armchair. I never went out to work; I was never in a hurry. Eating chocolate-flavored cereal poured over milk, I watched the morning news with my usual detachment. I saw it all—a businessman arrested in Iran and sentenced to life in prison. An American tourist, arrested in Iran and sentenced to death. A young businessman, arrested in Iraq, charged in connection to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, sentenced to death.

Now I suddenly remembered all those stories on the news. I had always watched them without any emotion, sitting in my old armchair. But this was completely different. I was not sitting in Dubnica nad Váhom, and I was not eating Slovakian cereal with milk. Now it was me in Iran, imprisoned in a solitary confinement cell measuring 10 x 5 feet. This was not just a story from TV news anymore. It was my own story.

Maybe all those men on television really were just tourists or businessmen, no different from me. They came to Iran or Iraq with clear consciences, got arrested, and were sentenced to either death or life in prison. How quickly one’s life can change. . . .

 

I went back to the sink and blew my nose and wiped my face again. Crossing the cell back and forth, I tried to pull myself together. But I just couldn’t. . . . Once again, I leaned against the wall and broke down sobbing.

I didn’t cry so hard because I had finally realized the gravity of my situation. I didn’t even cry out of fear of meeting the same fate as those anonymous people from the British and American news. The reason for my endless sorrow was completely different. I cried because I lost something that day. I lost something precious, something I could never regain.

You see, I had always believed that, in principle, people were good. I believed that, generally, the goals they pursued were worthwhile and just. In this respect, I imagined that everybody was the same as me. Let‘s not pretend, though—I also cared about money. After all, one needs money to live. But I believed in the so-called “win-win” business model. I always sought out situations which benefited everyone and hurt no one—situations with no losers. For example, I would try to seek out, contact, interview, and select for my client a suitable employee. Thanks to my efforts, the client would employ this person, and the new employee would help the client meet his company’s goals. The company, in turn, would create added value in the world. The company is satisfied, as is the employee, who acquires valuable employment experience and a good salary. I myself also received just compensation for my services. Everybody is happy; everybody is a winner. Nobody loses. That’s what a “win-win” business model looks like.

But right now, at this moment, the realization hits me hard. People are fundamentally not good. The world is not beautiful. My illusions have shattered. Murders? Surveillance?? Prison??? Where did I end up and why? This was no “win-win” business situation—not at all. There are no winners here. Nobody could have won in this. The intelligence “business” between the United States and Iran has no winners. There are only victims—starting with common Iranian citizens, followed by naive Europeans, who are exploited by the CIA.

Whatever the truth about Steve, whoever he was, none of that mattered that day. My pattern of thinking about the world and about people was wrong. The light of a shining beacon, my idealistic view of the world, was suddenly extinguished. That was all that mattered. And it broke me. But that day, on August the twenty-sixth, 2012, I lost another illusion as well.

 

I had always considered myself an intelligent, responsible person, someone who read people perfectly and could judge the character of a person after just a few minutes of interviewing. After all, that was essentially my job—recruiting highly qualified employees and specialists. So even this illusion was shattered. I am not intelligent, let alone responsible! And how about reading people? Well, I didn’t read Steve well at all! How could I get involved in something like this? How could I not realize anything?

I was just a fool, nothing more. The most naive person in the world—the Professor of Naive. I was not who I thought myself to be all those years. It hurt. I cried and I cried, but I could not stop. My conception of the world collapsed like a house of cards. Nobody will ever build it again. . . . We can lose a lot in life. Health, freedom, money, our loved ones, even ourselves, our lives—but, in my view, the most painful loss of all is the loss of our illusions.

We all have them—illusions, our vision of the world and our vision of ourselves, whether we realize it or not. Every one of us believes in something, is convinced with all his being about his “truth.” We act and make decisions based on this conviction.

I had certain conceptions of life, certain illusions about the world: ideas about people and about myself. All these had been constructed and nursed over many years. But now, in one moment, all of them collapsed. This realization was not just one of my hardest moments in prison, it was one of my hardest moments ever. I needed someone to hug me. I wanted to speak with someone, to pour out my heart to anyone willing to listen. I was desperate for someone to tell me, “I understand, it’s going to be okay, don’t worry.” It wouldn’t have even mattered if the person was lying when they said it.

I needed someone, but there was nobody. In solitary confinement, I was alone with my tears, with my sorrow, my lost illusions and my collapsed house of cards, which until then not even a tornado could have rocked.

Loneliness is a terrible thing, especially during tough times. But I was not going to stay alone—I would not have survived. I found friends, confidantes, and companions. Whether it was my imaginary audience, the little Iranian fly, or God, or Nietzsche, each always listened and opened their hearts to me. Confined within solitary confinement, I would no longer be alone.

I talked often, especially with Nietzsche; we discussed his philosophy and my situation. One of his main themes is solitude, after all. Nietzsche often advises the reader to flee toward solitude, where he would then develop, grow, and change. I had various understanding of his teachings in the past. I used to try and be alone with Nietzsche. I hoped to develop, grow, and change in doing so. I’d stay in my bedroom and concentrate on his words. Or I would go out into the meadows around Dubnica, lie in the grass, and read an hour or two, seemingly undisturbed.

Was I truly alone, however? My brother was at home often, and I was aware of neighbors coming back from work, subconsciously listening to the sounds of the elevator. In the meadows, there would be flies, butterflies, ants—all sorts of life’s creatures. And even if the meadows were truly deserted, without a sign of life, if I was reading in the deepest night in absolute silence, I would never be truly alone. Nietzsche would always accompany me: his philosophy and his beliefs.

And so even in the small cell, in the tiny vault, I was never alone. I know, I know—someone might suggest that I was talking only to myself, regardless of who I thought I was talking to. And he would be right. But at least five times a day the guard would come. He’d bring breakfast, lunch, dinner, and tea. At night he’d come and collect rubbish accumulated during the day. Five regular visits a day. The guard was not my imaginary friend. He was no friend at all, actually, but at least he was real!

The prison guards were strictly forbidden from conversing with prisoners. They only opened doors, did their duties, and closed the doors again. They rarely spoke a word. After a while I started smiling at them. I didn’t like their frowning faces. They could not help it; sometimes they smiled back. Their smiles meant a lot to me, more than any words in Persian, which I couldn’t understand anyway. I wasn’t alone.

My family was with me, too. They didn’t come visit, of course. I wouldn’t have wanted them to come to Iran. Also, they didn’t know my location, and prisoners in solitary confinement were not allowed visitors. Not even high ranking Iranian politicians could visit Building 240 in Evin Prison. Only secret service agents had access—nobody else. That is why nobody on the outside ever finds out what Building 240 looks like or what really happens behind the gates of this section. The photographic evidence backing up my story will never exist. This place will only be seen in the memories of the prisoners who suffered here.

During the first few weeks I would just sit down, shut my eyes, and imagine my loved ones together with me in the cell. I imagined us sitting in a circle, holding hands. We didn’t talk—just sat quietly together. They were with me but, luckily for them, only in my head.

I did not retreat into solitude—not even in solitary. It was impossible. Even without family and friends, even with the guard passing food through a small opening and never showing his face, a prisoner is not alone. God is with him! Even if you do not believe in God, just as I didn’t until my arrest in Iran, God will probably find a way. He often chooses unusual places and opportunities. After all, it doesn’t matter whether any seemingly lonesome prisoner believes in God or not. God will be there with him.

In reality, a person is never alone. And that is good. Although we might feel completely alone, we never are, not really. I am glad that it is this way, as well as that it always will be.

But what was Nietzsche talking about, then? Which solitude should I escape to in order to grow as a person? I discovered solitude in prison—the solitude of the mind. When I am free, there are so many things to think about. Things around me either demand attention or they take it without my noticing. Work, hobbies, sports, nature, cell phones, billboards, smells, tastes, television, people. . . . From morning to night I am forced to think. That was what my life was like when I was free. Often I didn’t have time to speak to other people, or visit a friend, or help someone, or read a good book. And I definitely didn’t have time to stop and think about my life, re-assess my beliefs, or adjust my values.

Here in solitary things are quite different. I don’t have a computer or a cell phone; I don’t have anything at all. There is no work, no sports. I don’t even have to decide what I’ll have for breakfast or where I’ll go to eat. Everything is brought to me; every little thing has already been decided for me.

As for money, I now don’t think about that at all—what would I do with it? Money has no value or usefulness in a place like this. I’m no longer being brainwashed by television or the ubiquitous advertising billboards; no living presentation of modern values makes its presence felt around here. Apart from my fear, anger, and love, apart from my health problems and the torture of other prisoners, apart from the daily sliver of sunlight, nothing here demands or takes my attention. Absolutely nothing tries to affect my thinking; nothing tries convincing me of some “truth.” I don’t even have Nietzsche’s books here.

I am alone with my thoughts. Confronted by my values, opinions, and ideals, they are being tested hard. Nobody tries to convince me of this or that. It’s only myself and my life thus far, only this prison cell, that works to convince me about something.

I think that this is the solitude Nietzsche spoke about—the solitude of the mind. He himself warned readers not to follow his example. He advised them to discard anything they were taught by others; advised them to find their own way to happiness, a way based on their life experiences and what they saw around them. But to achieve this, they had to be alone first. Not alone without people around them, that is too difficult. But alone, free of other people’s thoughts—and that is possible, at least in solitary confinement.

Most people will never have this opportunity. Time and time again they will follow someone else’s way, following someone else’s path, and they will not become who they really are. They will not be doing what they really want to do. Maybe only us who dwell in solitary confinement ever find a different fate. We can find ourselves here. . . . What matter if solitary confinement destroys a man’s illusions? It will soon build new ones!

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You can also read two more excerpts from the book:

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