'You find yourself in a Kafkaesque situation where you don’t know who's arresting you, why you’ve been arrested'


January 21 2008

'You find yourself in a Kafkaesque situation where you don’t know who's arresting you, why you’ve been arrested'


January 21 2008

Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian-Canadian academic, was arrested at Tehran’s airport in April 2006 on “security” grounds and thrown in the notorious Evin prison. Accused of plotting with the United States to destabilize Iran, he was released on bail after four months in prison. His plight was the cover story of Maclean’s on June 12, 2006.

Q Let me just start at the beginning of your ordeal. You were at the airport in Tehran, and what happened?

A:I was going to a conference in Brussels and I used to be double-checked practically all the time, but this time three gentlemen came to me and said, “Follow us,” and I followed them and they put me into a car, blindfolded me, and took me to Evin prison, Section 209.

Q: Did they identify themselves?

 A: No, they didn’t identify themselves, they just said, “We have some questions to ask you,” and I said, “Well, I’m going to lose my flight,” and they said, “Well, just a few questions. If everything’s okay you can get your flight.” And when we got out of the airport, they took my luggage, and so I realized... 

Q: It’s more than a few questions.

A: Yeah. And once there, they asked me to take off my clothes, and—this is a routine in the prison—I put [on] the pyjamas.

Q: Had you been to prison before?

A: No.

Q: You knew you were in Evin prison?

A: Yeah, they told me. Somebody came and touched my shoulder and said this is the last station, so I realized that I must be at Evin prison, but I didn’t know that I was in Section 209.

Q: What’s the significance of Section 209?

A: Section 209 is a special high-security prison for political prisoners in Iran which is supposed to be organized and administrated by the Ministry of Intelligence, so usually students, activists, political activists, intellectuals are taken there, journalists. Not being a political activist, I was quite surprised.

Q: Did they start interrogating you?

A: No. The jail-keepers took me to a small room in solitary confinement—everybody’s in solitary—a room two by three metres, and with no bed, nothing, just two blankets and a light which is on 24 hours per day. And a few hours later the interrogation started.

Q: Do they do it in your cell?

A: No, no, always outside the cell.

Q: And you’re blindfolded?

A: Blindfolded, face to the wall, and you hear voices, and they just ask you questions.

Q: How did they start?

A: It started with an affirmation, actually, from their side saying, “Well, okay, now we have an intellectual in our prison,” and I said, “Maybe something’s wrong, because I’m not a political activist. What am I doing here?” And they said, “Well, you know, you’re preparing a soft revolution,” and I said, “What is that?” I mean, the word didn’t mean anything to me. “Soft revolution?” I said, “Well, I’ve worked for non-violence all my life and I’ve never been revolutionary. What kind of revolution is that? I have no idea.” And, well, from there, the questions started.

Q: Were there more accusations?

A: Much more, spying, contacts with foreigners.

Q: They meant Western contacts and American contacts?

A: Yes, mainly. And later on, of course, because I have Canadian citizenship, and Canadian citizenship means a lot. To them that means being a spy. Even if dual citizenship is tolerated in Iran.

Q: Why would they look at you as being any kind of a threat because you’re Canadian?

A: Well, it’s not being a Canadian which is a threat, it’s how Canada proceeds as a lawful country and as a rightful country and as a country which has always been supportive of human rights, which might create a problem for a country like Iran or for some people inside the country. And secondly, as it used to be in ex-Communist countries or in Stalin’s time or Mao Zedong’s time, it’s very easy to accuse you of anything. If you’re not a Canadian, you’re something else. You’re always accused—as I was accused—of working against the security of the state. That’s why I called it politics of the absurd, because you find yourself in a very Kafkaesque situation like Joseph K. in Kafka’s Trial, where when you get arrested you don’t know who’s arresting you, why you’ve been arrested, how long are you going to stay in prison. You have no lawyer. For a long period of time I couldn’t see my family. So, no information comes from outside, no information gets from you to outside, so you’re totally in an isolated situation.

Q: How long did your first interrogation last?

A: Usually interrogations were three or four times a day, and each time up to three hours, four hours sometimes.

Q: And would they get you any hour of the day or night?

A: Yes. And I slept only three hours. But there was another reason why I slept three hours, because in solitary confinement you can lose your mental sanity very quickly since you have no contact with anybody else and you don’t know who’s in the next cell, and with the thick walls you don’t hear anything. I tried to ask for some reading, because in the beginning I couldn’t write anything and I got the Quran and some religious books, and I was reading these religious books many, many times, and trying to make them intellectual reading. When my wife visited me after 40 days she brought me autobiographies of Mahatma Ghandi and Nehru in English which they permitted me to have, and that was lovely because I got my mind out of the cell. Later on they gave me a pen for the interrogations and I used it to write a few things on the back of the Kleenex and biscuit boxes.

Q: How long were you in solitary altogether?

A: Hundred twenty-five days.

Q: You were fed?

A: I'd been fed, yeah, like all other prisoners. We could also buy a few things because they gave you some of the money you had when they arrested you. So I used to have biscuits and Kleenex boxes. I tried to do exercises every day in my small room. In the beginning, I just could tell the day and the night by the Muslim prayer voice.

Q: You must have been scared.

A: In the beginning very scared, because I really had no idea what’s going to happen to me. Later I could talk several times on the phone with my family, but only for one minute, two minutes.

Q: Did they ever threaten you physically, or physically harm you?

A: No, they didn’t physically harm me, actually. I had some experience of harsh talking and hard talking, but no physical torture.

Q: What kind of harsh talking?

A: Well, threats like, “We can put you on trial and you might spend some time in prison,” and, “You might not get to see your daughter for a long period of time.” When my wife used to come to prison she couldn’t talk much about it, she only talked about our daughter and my mom, her own family, for a few minutes, “Everything’s okay. Are you okay?” She looked at my appearance, with the beard and everything, and dirty, and I would say, “Yeah, everything’s okay.” And when I got out of prison, actually, when I was free I saw—my God!—what a huge amount of support, support coming from everywhere, especially from Canada, for which I’m very grateful.

Q: There were questions as to whether or not the support and international expressions of support would help you or do more damage.

A: You never know, but I think that it’s good to support people when they are imprisoned. When I was a youngster I used to work for Amnesty International and later on I worked at United Nations.

Q: Did they just say, one day, “Okay, you’re free?”

A: They told me—practically at the end— that they had contacts with my family and they were working on bail and they took me to the Revolutionary Court and they were asking me not to confess but they called it confession. They tell you what you’ve done, and they want you to know—in their terms— what you’ve done, like, you have contacts with foreigners, you have been to conferences where you’ve met Americans and some Israelis, and these kind of things. And each time I said, “Yes, I went to conferences with many other foreign people, this is my job—I’m an academic—and I’ve never had a political activity, and my contacts with foreign governments have never been at that level because I have no information to exchange.” So, some of the ultra-conservative journalists in Iran created their own story.

Q: And that got published?

A: Yeah. They’ve written a huge book on me with this title, Knight of the Cultural NATO. I’m still attacked, actually, by these journalists. NATO is supposed to be a political organization and a military organization, but they created a concept which is cultural NATO which I don’t understand and, like King Arthur’s knights, I’m one of the knights—don’t ask me which one. Kind of a huge conspiracy theory, you know?

Q: Did they demand bail from you?

A: No. Well, they demanded it from my wife and my mom, from my family. There’s a judge who asks. Usually for people like me it’s the highest amount, $300,000, $500,000. And usually, since you don’t have that much, they take your house contracts. So my family put up two house contracts as bail.

Q: Do you still have family in Iran?

A: Yes. I have my mom and then my wife’s family is still living there. But I don’t want to feel like an exile. So I don’t want to create this feeling for myself, that I have just destroyed my bridges with Iran and Iranian culture, which is not the case at all.

Q: You can’t be fond of the Iranian government.

A: No, no, it’s not a question of being fond of...

Q: You’re drawing a fairly sharp distinction between Iran and its people and its government.

A: Yeah, I’m a man of culture, so I think more in terms of culture when I think about countries and identities, more than governments and politics, you know? So, for me what’s most important is the people of Iran and Iranian culture, its history, its past.  I think it has a very glorious history and a very important one.

Q: Are the Iranian people responsible for their government?

A: People are always responsible up to some point for what they have in any kind of a country or, I would say, in a historical situation. Germans were responsible for Nazism, I would say the Chinese have been responsible for Maoism in China for some time, but they are also responsible for the changes they can make in their own cultures and in their countries. That’s the good thing, when you’re an optimistic person—like myself—you always try to look at the noble side of human beings and not just the dark side, because it’s true that my experience of prison showed me that there is such a thing as evil, which many people experienced during the Second World War, especially the Jewish people, and somehow you have to remain true to the ethical and try to find the ethical in yourself, otherwise you get lost, you get devoured by the evil. So I thought the most important thing was not to create a sense of revenge and resentment in myself. Somehow my prison days helped me to think more about how you can be truthful to ethics and how you can think against evil in politics and in everyday life on the basis of, I would say, human connectedness and the noble side of human beings.

Q: You haven’t been an activist but why wouldn’t an experience like you endured make you want to work for reform?

A: I’ve always been a reformist, actually, I’ve always played my role in the public space as an intellectual and I hope to play it in the future in Canada also. I feel myself very close to certain ideas in Canada, and certain political ideas, certain people, and it could be very helpful to be a social reformer and to somehow play a public role. As a person who believes in dialogue among cultures, and I think that Canada is one of the countries where this dialogue is the most important factor for the progress moral progress—of humanity.

Q: Is dialogue possible with this particular regime?

A: Yes. Maybe not with everybody inside the Iranian regime, but I would say that even in the worst situations you always find some people or an open door through which you can go and you can engage in the dialogue. In prison, I was always trying to find some humanity behind the inhuman just by talking with some of my jail-keepers. We had the World Cup series and I knew that some of them liked to watch soccer, and I asked them about the scores. I mean, humanity is humanity, it’s the same quest, which is timeless, and violence is timeless also. We are all capable of violence, all of us, in the public and the private arenas where we’re living, but when you face it in an evil way like in a concentration camp or solitary confinement, then you have to think about it.

Q: Do you feel you can speak freely about affairs in Iran given that your family is still back there?

A: Yeah, up to some point I can speak freely but it depends on what type of subjects are brought up, because there are many subjects on which I don’t talk because I don’t want to say nonsense, and many other people have been talking, as political activists, in a better way than I do.

Q: Do you think the piece that you wrote on Auschwitz was instrumental in your being arrested, given that President Ahmadinejad had made statements about the Holocaust around the same time?

A: The piece was not translated into Persian. It was originally written in English and it was published also on the Net in English, so I don’t know how many people have read it in Iran. I know that many people didn’t like the fact that I have so many Jewish friends or I did a book with Isaiah Berlin or George Steiner, which I thought was complete nonsense because I don’t choose my friends according to their faith and religion, it’s their intellectual work which interests me.

Q: Do you consider that you made a mistake to go back to Iran?

A: No, you never make mistakes by choosing to do something. I would say it’s part of my destiny.

Q: Was that a miscalculation?

A: No. If I have to do it again I would do it again. If there’s one thing which I would like very much to do it is to be able to play a role in engaging Iran in a dialogue with the West.

Q: That’s more or less what got you arrested.

A: I’m very much against any military intervention in the whole Middle East but also Iran, because I think it will not solve problems, it would create more problems. If I can play my role as a bridge-maker between different cultures, as I used to do it, Iran and different cultures, but also Canada and other cultures, I will, because I think democracy’s about dialogue, it’s not about giving lessons to others.

Q: You would agree, though, that a dialogue requires at least two sincere partners.

A: Yes, but you never know who’s sincere and it’s not by accusing the other of being insincere that you can just stop the dialogue. I think that dialogue is like democracy, it’s an ongoing process. Democracy is a daily effort, dialogue is a daily effort, I would say tolerance is a daily effort.

Q: You must be watching with some alarm, then, the discussions about Iran that have occurred in the U.S. election campaign.

A: Yes. I have a lot of problems with the American politics in the Middle East. This is coming from somebody who was born in the Middle East, of course, and who has travelled in the Middle East, and I see a lot of fear in the hearts of people when I go to countries like Egypt, Turkey. I’m not talking about the governments but people—and this anger and this fear comes from an arrogant or violent view which is coming from the other side, and it’s telling them what they have to do, what they should not do, and when they fear military intervention or the fact that somebody dictates to them what kind of politics they should have or should not have, that once again I don’t think is very democratic. The role I try to play each time I went to conferences to talk to my American friends is to say, “Well, let’s do it together.” Democracy is not a one-way street, it’s a two-way street. It’s not a gift which comes from Washington to the Middle East, it’s kind of a dialogue or an effort of dialogue which might come from Washington but you have to wait for the response to come from the other side, you cannot be indifferent about the response.

Q: Canada has approached things differently from the U.S. but it didn’t really help us when it came time to deal with your situation or Madame Kazemi.

A: Yes, that’s true. But I think that Canada still has a lot to offer because the Canadian dream is not an American dream. The Canadian dream is much more cultural, it’s much more about human rights, it’s much more about the respect of others as this country has shown it to the world, and it’s much less about politics and economics, as we feel it in America. This is very important. I think the 21st century will show us that. M