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Introduction (excerpt from the University of Solitude, Chapter 2.)

To begin with, a few facts might be helpful. What exactly happened before I started mentally composing this book inside Evin Prison?

The day was a Thursday, the twenty-third of August, 2012. It was eight o’clock in the evening. I walked out of my room in one of Tehran’s three star hotels, entered the elevator, and went down to reception. I expected to meet my friend and colleague Amir in the lobby; we had a dinner reservation at one of Tehran’s restaurants. I knew the place from my previous trips to Iran. It featured live music—a traditional Persian band playing traditional instruments to perform music from Iran’s various provinces. Foreigners were more than welcome.

I was very much looking forward to it.

That should also have been my last dinner in Tehran, my typical celebration at the end of a successful business trip. I was scheduled to fly on Emirates Airlines to Vienna the following morning, with a layover in Dubai. My ticket was booked, and I eagerly anticipated spending my weekend at home.

But Amir was not waiting for me at the reception. Instead, I saw two young civilians standing there. I didn’t recognize them; I had never seen either of them before. They approached me.

After a few moments, I realized that I was speaking with two officers from the Iranian secret service. They had come to assist me, they said. They wanted to “chat” in my hotel room. I could not refuse such a request, could I? We got back into the elevator and went to my hotel room.

 

What happened next was no pleasant chat, however. It was an intense, difficult, three hour interrogation. Every answer I gave saw another question come on its heels. It seemed that it would last forever. The questions concerned my past trips to Iran but also other seemingly unrelated matters.

If I made a mistake or misremembered the exact details of business trips made one or two years ago, they corrected me immediately. They seemed to know everything about me already—absolutely everything.

“It happened in February, not March! There is no point in lying—we know everything about you!” But I didn’t want to lie to them. I just could not remember all the details that precisely.

The two young civilians seemed to know everything about my work. But they also knew a lot about my private life. They even had information about the trail running races I had competed in over the summer. The whole thing was terrifying. It seemed that they had closely followed me for several years, not only during my business trips but every time I left Dubnica nad Váhom, my home town on the western-most edge of Slovakia.

During the three hour questioning, I drank everything in my hotel minibar. A couple of soft drinks, two bottles of mineral water. But somehow I couldn’t quench my thirst or soothe the dryness in my throat. I would have welcomed something stronger, too, but we were in Iran, and the minibar only stocked non-alcoholic beverages. When at last the interrogation seemed over, they gave me another shock.

“Our questioning isn’t quite over yet,” said one of the civilians casually. “We’ll have to take you to jail for a few days. We will continue there.”

My heartbeat, already quite high, sky-rocketed. Impulsively, I opened the minibar. I needed something to drink. But there was nothing left; I had drunk everything. I took a deep breath and started talking.

“Look, we still have ten hours left before my flight leaves for Dubai. We can stay here all night and continue the questioning until morning.” I was trying to convince them, to avoid going to the jail they spoke of. But they refused my proposal. I asked if I could call my family, just to tell them that I would be arriving a few days later than originally planned, but the two men refused this request as well. Then I asked if I could call someone at the Slovakian embassy. I wanted to inquire if this procedure was standard practice in Iran. Again, the answer was negative. They asked me to pack my things and get into a car, allegedly waiting for me in front of the hotel. They offered me no other options.

I accepted their instructions—the agents did not look as if they would allow any compromise. They scared me, to be honest. As I packed, I began asking questions about my cell—what it would look like, if I would have any privacy, etc. I also asked them when I would be allowed to call home.

“There is nothing to worry about,” one of the interrogators assured me. “The cell is quite similar to your hotel room. It has everything you need—sometimes even some entertainment. You’ll be given pyjamas; that’s the only difference. You will be alone. We will let you call home as soon as it is feasible.”

His words calmed me. I imagined an average hotel room with a locked door and no internet access. A few days of additional questioning and I will fly home. I’ll either call my parents soon, or eventually simply apologize and explain everything when I return to Slovakia. Delays happen all the time; my parents will understand.

I packed my things, paid the bill at the reception, and got into an ordinary black car, which was indeed parked just outside the hotel. The interrogators stayed in the lobby; they did not follow me. But there were three other people sitting in the car. Unfamiliar faces again; I had never seen them before. However, they knew me and expected me.

 

I reached for the seatbelt but could not find it on my seat. I don’t like traveling without it, especially in traffic-clogged cities like Tehran. In simple English I asked if I could exchange seats. Nobody answered me. Each of the three guys in the car was big and muscle-bound, well over two hundred pounds. The guy sitting next to me gave me a look. He pointed his finger to his throat and made a quick, slashing gesture. He muttered something in Persian and everybody laughed. Everybody except me. We took off.

Resigned to the lack of a seat belt, I just sat there in the car, watching Tehran’s night life as we crossed the city. The recent events had thoroughly dazed and exhausted me. I hoped that, soon, we would get to the “hotel room” with locked doors, as one of the interrogators described the place for my interrogation. I desperately wanted some sleep.

We were heading for no hotel room, however. Suddenly they forced me to crouch low in the car and cover my eyes. We passed several guarded gates at the prison, as I later understood. After the last one, they guided me out of the car into a small room, where a scarf was tied around my eyes. I couldn’t see a thing. One of the officers took all my things.

Then he partially lifted the scarf and indicated that I should sign a document he held in front of me, probably an itemized list of personal belongings they had just taken away. To be honest, I have no idea what I signed back then. It was all in Persian and could have been anything.

“You are signing things,” the official told me in pidgin English. “When you go out, things are here.”  I signed the paper. I didn’t care. I would have signed anything at that point.

Next, they stripped me down to my underwear and socks. They handed me gray “pyjamas” two sizes too large—an XL to my normal M. When I put them on, I had to sign something again. They fingerprinted all ten of my fingers and led me back to the car, still blindfolded. We drove for a minute and stopped. They led me to a cell.

It was most definitely not the hotel room I had been promised. In fact, I could barely imagine a place more unlike my hotel room in the center of Tehran. I found myself in a small vault illuminated by a dim white light. (I eventually learned that this light would never be turned off.) The cell had no furniture or utilities except a very small, reeking metal toilet and an even smaller sink. Specks of rust covered both. It seemed that nobody had cleaned them for decades.

I threw three dirty blankets, which they had given me when I arrived, onto the floor. I had also received a clean red towel, a stiff toothbrush, and toothpaste. The cell’s air was thick and stale. The rough concrete doors had only one opening for fresh air, no wider than a woman’s thumb.

I laid down on the blankets and unsuccessfully tried to fall asleep. It was the worst night of my life. I had to get up and use the toilet at least seven times, ridding my body of all the sweet soft drinks I had from the hotel minibar.

Although it was the hardest night of my life, it would by no means be the last one spent in that place. The promised few days eventually stretched out into almost half a year. Half a year in Iran’s Evin Prison. Forty days in solitary confinement, a hundred and seven in Section 209—the “Iranian Guantanamo”, as the other prisoners called it. I also spent fifteen days in Section 350, a section with open doors that I shared with more than one former admiral or Nobel Prize candidate.

What happened there, what went through my mind and what I mentally wrote, constitutes the chapters of this book. That’s my University of Solitude.

Did you like the excerpt? Purchase the book and support a good cause (all profit from the sales of this book will be donated to the International Committee of the Red Cross).

You can also read two more excerpts from the book:

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