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Stories Of Others: The Captain (excerpt from the University of Solitude, Chapter 9.)

He was full of anger: an anger that will stay with him for the rest of his life. Some injustices are impossible to bear. Some grievances are hard to forgive. The Captain could not forgive—nobody else in his situation would have. If fate was unjust to most political prisoners, it was cruel to the Captain. He had devoted his life to Iran. His mission was to fight for his country, and to fight with honor. And Iran? Iran sentenced him to ten years in prison for his services. . . .

He was a former fighter pilot, the captain in the Iranian Air Force. In prison, he was a celebrity—everybody respected his life achievements. They appreciated all that he has done for Iran, and everything he did for other political prisoners. The day I left Evin, he stood by the exit of the building, just to hug me. Then he whispered in my ear, “I know that you will not forget about me.”

I did not forget him. How could I? His story was too powerful to be forgotten . . . but the many other people who promised to remember him never retold his story. How could I forget, too? Sad life stories should not be forgotten—they should be talked about.

Listening to the stories of condemned political prisoners in Building 350 often sent shivers down my spine. I couldn’t help crying, and I wasn’t ashamed by it. The prisoners were great storytellers, re-telling their stories hundreds of times to their fellow prisoners. Just as they told them to me; they became quite adept at it.

They especially shared their stories with foreign prisoners, as in my case, repeating them often so that we would remember the details. They hoped that this way their story might come out one day—in a book, on the internet, anywhere.

They believed that those who were freed might tell the world about their fate. Iranian prisoners cannot do this themselves. They can tell their story, but it will never be published, it will never appear anywhere. It will remain just that: a story. If they tried to make their stories public after being freed, they would be sent back to prison. It would all start again—solitary confinement, new law suits, new interrogations. Nobody would risk that.

Those of us lucky to possess at least partial freedom of speech should tell their stories. Not for the satisfaction or good of those who lived them, and not even for our own good. We should share their stories to enable justice for the truth itself. Not for the past, but for the future. Certain things in history should not be repeated. . . .

When I returned home from Iran, I sat down in front of my computer and searched the internet for stories about my friends in Building 350, the stories they had told to many people before me, the stories they‘ll tell the foreign prisoners who arrived in Building 350 after me. I found nothing. The other freed prisoners had forgotten those stories; they came home and maybe forgot everything. Nothing changed for them, apart from their nightmares. I, however, could not forget the Captain, nor the others who had trusted me. How could I?

In some chapters of this book, titled “Stories of Others,” I will tell you a few stories of my fellow prisoners, as they told them to me, in their own words. These are their life stories, not mine—luckily for me.

Maybe someone will think about them and something will change in the world. Or maybe not. If nothing happens, remember those stories when you feel that fate has been unjust to you. I think that you would not want to swap your fate with them.

 

The Captain Talks

When I was young, King Pahlavi ruled in Iran. This was before the Iranian revolution in 1979. Since U.S.-Iranian relations were good at that time, my government had sent me to the United States for training, something they had often done with other Iranian citizens.

I trained successfully as a fighter pilot in America, ending up as one of the best students for my course. As a result, the Americans offered me a position in United States Air Force, a unique chance for a thriving career and a new life. It was a fantastic offer but, unfortunately, Iran went into war with Iraq at the time.

And so I told the Americans that I had to return to Iran and fight for my country. I could not stay in the US. I had a duty to defend my country.

I flew back to Iran and entered the service. For six years I fought against Iraq; I logged more than three thousand hours in a fighter plane. I survived the war. When the war was over, I worked as a flying instructor for a while, training new fighter pilots for the Iranian army.

Then, one day, a serious accident occurred. My student could not control the plane during emergency landing practice, and we crashed. The student ended up in a wheelchair for life. Although the accident seriously injured me as well, I eventually recovered. Even though the accident was not my fault, my career in the Air Force was finished. Those were the rules and I accepted that.

 

I could not fly anymore. But my English was very good, so I decided to open a language institute in the town of Urmia. I wanted to teach English, start a new career. Together with my son, we started preparing students for TOEFL exams—the test, recognized worldwide, often required for admission to universities in the U.S. or other English-speaking countries.

Our institute soon expanded, and we opened branches in surrounding cities. Business was good. We were happy and so were our students—after successfully completing the course, they went to study at universities all around the world.

Then, a few years ago, a change came in the way the TOEFL test was taken. The examination was no longer done on paper but was now done electronically. The change affected all institutions providing the tests. My son, who officially represented our company, was therefore invited to New York. He was going to try the new online testing for TOEFL, learn how to use it, and eventually obtain official accreditation for our institute to provide the tests.

My son suggested going to America together, combining a necessary visit with sightseeing in New York, which would be a pleasant break for us both. I agreed, but I still decided to verify that our trip wouldn’t pose a problem for the security police. I went to their offices, informed them of our intention to travel, and asked whether they could see a problem with it. I simply wanted to make sure that everything would be fine, as America was considered one of Iran‘s two biggest enemies at the time. The secret service representatives told me, “There is no problem whatsoever. You can go to America with your son—we wish you a pleasant trip.” And so we went to New York. . . .

When we returned home a week later, the security police arrested my son. I immediately went to their offices in Urmia, determined to find out what happened.

“Why have you arrested my son?” I asked. “He has not done anything. We went to America just to ensure we could carry on with TOEFL tests at our institute. I informed you about our trip and the purpose of it in advance. You themselves told me that there was no problem. So why have you arrested my son?” I spoke calmly despite my anger.

The officer replied, “This does not concern you! Mind your own business, unless you also want to have problems.”

They did not provide any real answers to my questions, so I tried again. Still keeping my voice calm, I asked for the reason behind my son’s arrest. I wanted an explanation. But the officer became very irritated and told me to get out.

That was when I could no longer keep my composure. I exploded. “Why are you treating me like this? Do you know who I am? I am an army veteran. For six years I fought in the war against Iraq. You are nothing compared to me—you cannot do anything to me. You’re children! You will be in trouble for arresting my son!”

The officers matched my tone. “Just wait—we will show you who we are and what we can do!”

 

I left without getting any answers. I therefore decided to follow official procedures and ask permission to visit him in prison. A few days later, they informed me that I could see my son.

After arriving in Urmia Prison where my son was detained, the Security Police representatives told me to wait. After some time, they opened one of the doors in the corridor and I was asked to enter. Expecting to see my son, I walked in.

Somebody covered my head almost immediately with a dark sack. I could see nothing. Several men started beating me with wooden clubs. They beat me until I remained lying motionless on the floor. Then they took me to solitary confinement and literally threw me inside the cell without any medical treatment for my wounds.

I spent fourteen months in solitary confinement—fourteen long months in which I never once saw the sun.

They accused me of collaborating with the CIA, of passing important information about the Iranian Air Force to the Americans during my trip to New York. Apparently, I had handed over secret military information known to me from my service in the Iranian army. Their accusations were bizarre. What was it that I could have disclosed to the Americans? For a long time I tried to explain that what they said was illogical. I told them, “I was trained in the U.S. The planes I was flying were made in America. For the past twelve years I have not flown an airplane at all—technology has advanced immensely since then. What important information do you think I could have passed on to the Americans?”

They did not listen. They had their own version, their own truth, and they wanted to convince me of it. I was tortured for several weeks. They’d tie me to a bed and beat me with metal bar, all over my body. Again, and again, and again. Day after day, week after week. I was covered in bruises. It continued until I was close to death. That was when they decided to transfer me to the prison hospital. I was in critical condition. When a doctor came and examined me, he told them, “If you continue beating him, he will die.” That doctor saved my life.

While I was in Urmia Prison, my daughter was planning to marry. The wedding was put back twice—the family believed I would be freed soon. But I wasn’t. So they decided to request a temporary leave from prison for me, at least for one day, so that I could attend the wedding. The security police told my family that I would get the day’s leave. I was excited to see my daughter get married!

The wedding took place as planned—without me. The promised day’s leave was never granted.

The second round of interrogations utilized emotional pressure. Physical violence did not produce any results—I did not give them what they wanted in writing. I refused to admit to anything I didn’t do, despite of being tortured nearly to death.

So they tried an emotional angle. They told me, “Write down that, during your trip to New York, you passed on important military information to the CIA. If you won’t do this, we will imprison your son again and begin imprisoning other members of your family as well.”

I didn’t know what to do. I was hesitant to admit to a crime I didn’t commit. So they pressed on. They brought my son to the interrogation room next door! He was screaming and crying; I could clearly hear his voice. They told me, “The fate of your son is in your hands. . . .”

And so I wrote down exactly what they wanted from me. I wrote that I collaborated with the CIA—that I conveyed confidential military information to a CIA official during my trip to New York. I signed my confession.

It took over a year and a half before I finally went to court. They had purposely allowed me to recover from my injuries so the judge would not see the bruises. I told the judge my story. He examined the “evidence” and pronounced his verdict: “Innocent!” His exact words to me were this: “You are a war hero. Why are you here? They must free you immediately!”

 

I came back to Ward 350 in Evin, where I’d been transferred to recover. I told my friends in prison my wonderful news. We celebrated!

My family arrived in Tehran the very next morning, so that they could pick me up and take me home. But nothing happened. I wasn’t freed that day, or the day after, or the day following that. . . .

Later, another prisoner, who had gone to court himself, told me what had happened. Apparently, the security police had sent the judge a decree rendering his verdict invalid. The police had told the judge that his verdict was obsolete!

The decree stated that I did collaborate with enemies of Iran and that, therefore, I had to remain in prison for ten years. I collaborated with the enemies of Iran? What was this idiocy?

Ten years. Ten years in prison! What did I do? For six years I fought in the war for Iran, daily risking my life for this country. I trained dozens of top pilots who themselves also fought for Iran. Then I led an institute that helped thousands of Iranian citizens to learn English. I traveled to the US—just once. I went only so that we could continue to provide TOEFL examinations, so that we could continue with our language institute. My reward for serving my country and its people was hard torture, fourteen months in solitary confinement, and ten years in prison. The reason? “Collaboration with the enemies of Iran.”

This is how Iran values citizens like me.

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You can also read two more excerpts from the book:

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