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My Prison Reading

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
A cell at Evin Prison, Tehran, Iran, 1986

Tehran, July 20, 2008—“May I take a book with me?”

The arresting officer, likely amused by my assumption that detention would last no more than one book, nodded his assent.

The solitary cell was empty except for a blanket on the floor and a copy of the Qur’an. But I was allowed my one book and my glasses. Huddled in the blanket, angled to catch the fluorescent light coming though the small barred window of the thick metal door, I read.

Sometimes it was hard to sleep, the dim light bulb high above always on, nights and days became indistinct. So I read slowly, stretching out the only source of distraction that was a link to home. But it was a bitter source of comfort, for the book I had brought with me was Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a sad and painful story of our part of the world, which I would rather have finished and put aside quickly. 

As it became clear that my stay in Tehran’s Evin Prison would not soon be over, a sense of panic gradually came over me as I struggled to imagine what I would do once my book was finished. I began to dread the prospect of a vast, empty time stretching out toward apparent infinity. In a solitary cell, where physical space is contracted yet time is frighteningly expanded, the imagination runs wild—hope, panic, optimism, panic, hope, fear, resignation, trepidation, equanimity compete and repeat, on and on.

There were other distractions. Several times a day, I would stand submerged under the rushing water of the shower, closing my eyes to become lost in the roar echoing around my skull. I washed my few items of clothing. I cleaned the rough carpeting. I paced to tire myself out. I squished mosquitoes. After some physical exercise, I felt more resolved and calm. But once that mood passed, it was again me and the walls.

I tried sitting calmly and meditating as I had been taught to do—seeking to empty the mind—but in particularly maudlin moments hazy images arose of tranquil saints being burned at the stake. After a while, I thought, “This is a waste of time! I can’t keep dread at bay this way, and even if I could I don’t want to empty my mind, I’d rather fill it!” It soon became clear that the best way to focus my mind and emotions was to read, to think.

With the pen and paper I was given to prepare for the interrogations, I began taking notes and making a list of books that I would like to read. After a few months of badgering my jailers, I was finally allowed to pass my list of books to my wife, Bahar, during the weekly hourlong visit. She sent me four or five at first—history books and nonfiction, as well as novels, mostly in English, whatever she found lying around in my office at home. They were inspected. Some were allowed. Even a history of the French revolution called The New Regime.

Later, I asked Bahar to request deliveries from Amazon, shipped to my cousin in Paris as retailers wouldn’t deliver to Iran because of the sanctions. He couriered these books to Bahar in Tehran, who, in turn, relayed them to me through the prison system.

I began to stack my books in a row on the floor against the far wall (three meters is farther than two!). Quietly, they began to take on the familiar quality of a bookshelf—the various sizes, colors, subjects. I started looking forward to the next book I had yet to read.

And as I stared at the little library, I began to experience a most remarkable change in my perception of time. The more books there were facing me, the more the time ahead of me began to take on a palpable, comprehensible texture. The panic of an immeasurable span of time seemed to reverse itself. Rather than too much, there was too little time ahead. The vast, unfathomable expanse stretching to the horizon began to contract.

As the line of books waiting to be read lengthened before me, every day, every minute became too short. The worst moment of each day—the moment I opened my eyes after waking—was relieved by my eagerness to read. When I saw Bahar, she reacted to my request for a dozen more books by asking, “How long do you expect to stay in there? Will you really read all these books?” Knowing that I might never, in fact, finish all them, I realized then their value to me nonetheless: the more unread books I had in my little library, the better-equipped I was to overcome the helplessness, to manage the passing of each day.

I began to sense that fiction was not always suitable. Reading fiction requires keeping one part of the mind free and relaxed to be able to experience the associations alluded to by the narrative. But that open door was also the way in for dread.

Books also helped open my cell to the world outside. Imagining a worldwide network of booksellers, all in motion to bring a book to me, was exhilarating and reassuring.

I ordered a book by a French writer I had met at the New School for Social Research years before, and reading it made me feel in touch with my former colleagues there. In a footnote, I saw the name of a Polish intellectual I knew, and again I felt more connected. The penciled margin notes in a book given to me years before by a friend took me to the cool hill station in Pakistan where we had last met. If I was thinking of all of them, maybe they were thinking of me. Simply being able to have these unread books appear in my little cell in a growing row expanded space, and contracted time.

*

What did I read? Friends sent me Simenon, Hesse, Kazantzakis, Shakespeare, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor, Le Carré. After many years on my bookshelf, I finally finished Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy—a sprawling yet homespun novel of manners set in post-independence India. His description of the zenana (harem) as “a limited but complete world” terrified me as an analogy for what my cell-life might become.

I did get through the Qur’an, a challenging text to read, to say the least, especially in one sitting. The writings and speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini over a forty-year period was an eye-opener: I learned that, contrary to the slogans of the reformists—many of whom were also then in prison—who claimed the democratic promises of the 1979 revolution had been hijacked by hardliners, Khomeini had throughout his life remained unwaveringly faithful to his orthodox version of the Islamic republic.

I also read, believe it or not, books by Fromm and Reich to learn about the authoritarian personality and the fear of freedom. A history of everyday life in Mussolini’s Italy provided some comfort by showing how banal and inefficient fascism could be. Ken Pollack’s praise for the effectiveness of the Iranian security services in The Persian Puzzle was especially surreal to read from within Evin.

That history of the French revolution I read had been recommended by a former colleague in New York only a few months before my arrest—and simply because I was following up on the suggestion made me feel less isolated. On the other hand, it was less than heartening to learn that Napoleon was able to create, in less than a decade, an authoritarian system that coerced and rather methodically administered a nation the size of France. The moral I drew from that? It can be done.

When possible, I asked that some of the books be sent over to Haleh Esfandiari, a fellow prisoner, who later wrote a memoir of her experience in captivity at Evin, My Prison, My Home. I think she found solace in the books, too.

Unread books are a familiar burden to most in academia (my own background). In my years of liberty, I have seen how poorly and how little most people read, and I am sometimes shocked by the number of intellectuals and academics who complain that they “don’t have time to read” and consequently read superficially, skimming more than they would like to admit.

In the cell, I rediscovered the joy—as opposed to the chore—of reading. Over the course of the four and a half months I spent in solitary confinement, I read almost everything I had, cover to cover, slowly, with care. I used the practice of meditation to help me read as an art or a calling, with focus, rather than as a means of mining for information. The primary value of the attentive reading of good books, I came to realize, is to nourish the source of one’s own thoughts, to help these ideas emerge and develop, have them challenged, so as to be able to put together a view of life that could then be embraced.

One day, I was standing in the car park in sight of the massive and heavily guarded gate leading out of Evin prison. I had just spent a half-hour visit with Bahar, who was five months pregnant at the time and flushed with the heat. Despite where I was, and the inexorable fact that I must return to my dingy solitary cell, for a fleeting moment I was happy: it was a crisp, bright summer morning in the Tehran foothills and the sun shone. Tall trees, the legacy of a once grand estate in whose grounds the prison had been built, stood around us, incongruously elegant and calm.

Just as Bahar was walking back to our car, she turned, squinting into the sun, suddenly recalling some news she thought that perhaps I would want to have. She spoke with sympathy: “By the way, the American professor we had dinner with and you liked so much, Richard Rorty? He died.” As I trudged away, my sadness was eased by knowing that the world would still have the books he wrote from which I had learned so much.

*

The greatest regret of my imprisonment is that Bahar had to endure those 140 days alone, when she was pregnant with our baby girl, Hasti. I now know that it can be harder for those who are outside, and that by imprisoning one person, many others might as well be shackled with the bonds of their affection. But I don’t regret the time that I spent reading. 

It is one of the best things we can do with our solitude.


Dedicated to the memory of Richard Rorty.