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A jailbird's summer reading list

In an Iranian prison awaiting a court date on espionage charges? Recently released writer and photographer Iason Athanasiadis suggests a prison reading list.

(Stephen Hird/Reuters)

ATHENS — Jail cells — alongside yoga studios — are the last bastions of true inner peace. When I became the first foreign journalist in decades to be thrown into Iran's notorious Evin Prison I was exposed to a mixture of intense interrogations amid long stretches of nothingness. Stripped of my laptop, cell phone and all human contact, I was forced to confront my ego and get used to spending time with me, myself and I.

The only printed matter in my jail cell was a copy of the Holy Quran. It was a previous inmate’s well thumbed edition that had come loose from its hardback spine. A neat hand had written several religious aphorisms in Arabic on its pages. Imagining I was resting against the thick pillar of one of the beautifully-carpeted Ottoman mosques of Istanbul, my adopted city, I spent hours reading the handwritten calligraphy.

On the second week the Greek ambassador was finally granted a 10-minute meeting. Leaving, he presented me with a copy of my mother’s Oxford Ph.D. thesis whose Greek edition he had happened to be reading. My guards confiscated it for “inspection” and I never saw it again. Perhaps they thought the perfidious Greeks had gone to the trouble of printing a book for their man containing disguised instructions within its unfamiliar alphabet.

Those were the only two books I saw. For the son of two academics who grew up in a house with floor to ceiling bookcases and whose only indulgence is haunting the aisles of secondhand bookstores in Boston, London and Istanbul, denying me reading matter was more painful than torture. Every day, I called the jailers and requested my mother’s book. Some of them visibly struggled with the concept that a woman could have written a book and looked at me as if I were trying to trick them. Others promised to convey the message but promptly forgot about me.

So I made reading lists in my head.

Several are recommendations by my Ministry of Intelligence interrogators. Others are themed on incarceration and were suggested by my friends.

Interrogators’ recommendations:

Westoxification, Jalal al-e Ahmad, 1962: A recurring point of reference for my jailers, this is the pre-eminent philosophical work on which the cultural wars that followed the Iranian Revolution were conducted. Jalal al-e Ahmad criticised secular reformists for allegedly passively subscribing to Western cultural values and political theories. Ahmad suggested that Iran should rely on Muslim heritage. Later, he broke with his family’s Shiite clerical tradition and associated with the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party. Even more ironically, Al-e Ahmad spent a summer at Harvard University as part of a visiting fellowship established by Henry Kissinger to support promising Iranian intellectuals.

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders: Highly recommended by my interrogators as the definitive account of how the West funded leftist and right-wing intellectuals during the Cold War seeking to dissuade them from succumbing to the lure of Communism.

The Rise and Fall of Pahlavi Dynasty, Hossein Fardoust, 1995: When it emerged in the interrogation room that the relative of an acquaintance was the feared head of Savak, the Shah’s intelligence service, my blood ran cold. Even though I had not known this (unsurprisingly my friend was not advertising it), it could have been used as circumstantial evidence that I had pro-royalist sympathies should the interrogators have been that way inclined.

However, they were nonplussed. What’s more, they strongly encouraged me to read Fardoust’s memoirs as the definitive guide to Shah-era Iran. One of the reasons for the remarkably open-minded approach to one of the most hated men in the ancient regime could be the widely circulated rumour that the Islamic Republic’s intelligence ministry was largely constructed on the remnants of Savak and that Fardoust played a key role in this transition. Should this be true, it would explain his survival past the initial frenzy of revenge executions and his eventual death of natural causes in 1987.

The original Persian-language version is called "Khaterat-e Arteshbod-e Bazneshashteh Hossein Fardoust" (The Memoirs of Retired General Hossein Farbod). Out of print.