Reading Hegel in a Tehran Prison

By Ramin JahanbeglooJuly 17, 2013

Reading Hegel in a Tehran Prison

On April 27, 2006, Canadian-Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo (b. 1956) was waiting at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran for a plane to take him to Brussels, where he was supposed to speak at an international conference. He had arrived early, knowing that he would be double-checked by the security personnel; lately, double-checks at Iranian airports had almost become a matter of routine for Jahanbegloo. And yet, this time routine was to be broken; Jahanbegloo was to face more and different kind of questions than usual. As it turned out, missing the Brussels flight was the least bothering thing that happened to him on that April day: in no time he was arrested and, for the next four months, detained without charges in the political section of the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran.

Sorbonne educated, author of many books of philosophy and political theory published in several languages, a prominent promoter of the intercultural dialogue, and a philosopher of non-violence in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, Ramin Jahanbegloo doesn’t exactly come across as someone to pose threats to countries’ security. The Iranian authorities accused him, among other things, of spying for the West and preparing a “velvet revolution” in Iran. When his colleagues at Canadian and US universities learned of the accusations, they stumbled upon familiar ground: they had already seen that in Kafka. The whole thing was blatantly absurd; their soft-spoken, absent-minded Iranian colleague could have been anything, but not a revolutionary. A petition against Jahanbegloo’s imprisonment that they initiated was soon signed by more than 400 international figures, with Noam Chomsky, Umberto Eco, Jürgen Habermas, Timothy Garton Ash, Leszek Ko?akowski, Antonio Negri, Richard Rorty, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Howard Zinn among the signatories. International organizations and human rights groups joined in; major international newspapers reported the case extensively. Without ever being officially indicted, Jahanbegloo was released on bail on August 30, 2006. He currently lives in Canada.

Ramin Jahanbegloo has just completed a book of memoirs, Time Will Say Nothing, in which he recollects the experience of his arrest and detention as a political prisoner at the Evin Prison. He thus joins a distinguished class of writers who have, for centuries, practiced what must be the most puzzling of literary genres: prison literature. From Boethius to Dostoevsky, from Thomas More to Antonio Gramsci and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, prison literature has been part of our literary canon; it has shaped the way we think about freedom and creativity, about the meaning of writing and the task of the writer. Los Angeles Review of Books is pleased to publish an extract from Ramin Jahanbegloo’s memoirs.

— Costica Bradatan


IN THE MONTH of June, I was left alone, abandoned even by my interrogators. As the summer heat breathed through the window at the top of my cell, I lay in isolation wondering what had happened. Had I been too obstinate? Were they getting impatient with me? Was I not telling them everything they wanted to know? No answers came, no one came, and for the next three weeks I barely had any human contact.

Books became my only companions. In the many desolate hours that I spent in my cell, most of my time was filled with reading Gandhi, Nehru, and Hegel; for long periods they all helped me to forget the grim present. Since childhood, I had always had an obsession and a fascination with books. For me, they had been more than an escape, as they are for many people. Jorge Luis Borges considered them an absolute necessity; they afforded him the highest pleasure. As he famously put it, he always imagined Paradise in the form of a library. This is because for good readers, under normal circumstances, books enrich life, injecting passion and enchantment into the mundane and the quotidian.

Moreover, in a solitary jail cell, books simply help one to survive; one can never underestimate their power and importance in such a place. For prisoners in solitary confinement, reading books can guarantee their mental sanity. Strangely enough, the abstract philosophy of Hegel proved beneficial in pulling my mind out of the horrible dungeon in which I was living. Throughout the many years that I had read and taught Hegel’s Phenomenology, I had never had such an intimate relation with a philosophy in the making. In my cell I would read out loud each paragraph of the book in order to fully hear the sound of the abstract Hegelian concepts. I felt as if I was part of Hegel’s epic voyage of philosophical discovery; I was myself a stage of the process of spiritual history which the philosopher reproduces in his book.

The Phenomenology became an inseparable companion of the long hours of solitude that I spent in my cell, especially during the nights when my inquisitors did not poison my fragile existence, and the prison was haunted by a terrifying silence. While sitting on my blanket on the cold cement and leaning against the wall of my cell, I would take this huge book in my hands and start reading it slowly, in such a manner that only I could hear it. Phrases such as: “Universal freedom can [...] produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction” made my suffering soul tremble with excitement. Wasn’t I myself a victim of this tendency towards destruction, combined with an unyielding and constant suspicion, which leads inevitably, after each revolution in history, to the killing of innocent individuals? I was sharing the same space of death where many had agonized until the last moment before their execution.

This prison has the task not only of extinguishing life, but also of wiping out the individuality that threatens the whole that the revolution espouses. Thus every act, necessarily enacted from the standpoint of individuality, is treated as guilty — a guilt that only confession followed by death can absolve. And the lesson that I could see in all this was simple: a revolution is capable only of condemnation, and the guilty party, like me, must either negate the revolution or be negated by it. I also understood that revolutions produce political mechanisms and judicial structures that are supposed to destroy individuals, not protect them. The tree of revolution must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of innocents. Revolutions have, on this account, been falsely supposed to be able to forgive. Revolutions and their laws cannot forgive, only human beings can. This idea of forgiveness is the greatest lesson that I learned from reading books, not from observing revolutions.

There are times in our lives when our inspirations come from a space beyond words. We find ourselves relying upon something that goes beyond the five senses or the sheer rules of logic. This is a feeling I had each time I read a great book in my life. Reading books has impacted the way I look at everything, from freedom to the question of God. Saint- Exupery’s The Little Prince was the first book I actually enjoyed reading when I was 10. It completely blew my mind and opened my eyes to the power of ideas and the joy of reading. This book ignited the light of my imagination like no other had done at that age. It was the first time I had felt such a bond with a character; I saw values in The Little Prince that I wanted to emulate in my own life. The main character’s decision to leave his star and travel to various planets, seeking answers to life’s questions, triggered a voyage of discovery in my own adolescent life. I could not understand what life was really about at that age, but I could feel the significance of the book’s last words: “But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart.” From books I have learned how to travel from star to star in order to overcome my loneliness and discover that I am not to be forever isolated and learn to see with the heart.

It is interesting to consider the life of a book: both as a physical object and as a presence in someone’s mind. Today, as digital media is gradually replacing print, it is worth asking whether literature and philosophy will have the same impact on readers as they had throughout history. Is it possible to imagine a book like Descartes’ Meditations being read on an electronic screen and eliciting the same existential shock from a reader? Or Marx’s collected writings rousing a desire for social justice in someone clicking away on an ereader? Is it even likely that many will continue to read classics like War and Peace or Les Misérables if they cannot have the satisfaction of holding the printed text in their hands? Many, like me, still prefer the feel of a material book, of its physical presence, because it radiates a certain aura, perhaps a feeling of nostalgia as well.

I always felt nostalgia for books that I read during my adolescent years, books I could never read again with the same pure and innocent eyes. Like many authors, I am a creature of libraries: I can trace back my life through those I owned and those I used around the world. The story of the book is the history of libraries; the reflections and histories of men and women throughout centuries are contained in them. The greatness of Western, Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilizations is recorded in their collective libraries, not in the ephemeral biographies of their citizens taken individually. Two forces have successfully influenced the education of cultivated man in history: art and philosophy. Both are united in libraries. A library is not, then, a space where books are merely collected, but a wardrobe of ideas, where every piece of wisdom from all of the world's histories, past and present, is available on request.

After all, what does it mean to love libraries? It means to take them as an introduction to the cornerstones of human civilization. I rarely entered a library without feeling an inward sensation of reverence, without catching the meaningful traces left in its books by the great men and women of the past.

To me, home was that place where my books were kept. I grew up with three libraries in my family house: mine, my father’s, and my mother’s. Books were great resources in my upbringing; later, when I started living in Paris, I built up my own library over a period of 20 years. The concept of a home library was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. Before I knew it I had between 700 to 1,000 books, which I had fitted in bookcases all over my tiny apartment at Rue Vavin in Paris. While I was a student in France, I could not afford to have fine oak tree bookcases like my father’s; my bookcases were of the inexpensive kind that you can find at IKEA.

Arranging books is always an art that needs time and spirit. Some arrange books by topics, others by authors; some by color and others alphabetically or by category. I had friends who stacked their books randomly, piling them horizontally onto shelves. One of my classmates had the idea one day of stopping his library at 365 books; his plan was to have one book for each day of the year. As for me, I found a great pleasure in adding different topics to my bookshelf. But one of the chief problems I encountered was that of my library’s gradual expansion. I did not have the good fortune of Captain Nemo: “The world ended for me the day my Nautilus dived for the first time beneath the waves. On that day I bought my last volumes, my last pamphlets, my last newspapers, and since that time I would like to believe that mankind has neither thought nor written.” Books occupied all my rooms: they were in the living room, in the bedroom, and the entrance way. I even had books in my bathroom, though it was not my favorite place to read. I moved them from one room to another, from one shelf to another, one pile to another. I would sometimes spend an hour looking for a book without finding it. Yet, this was a most pleasant activity because living among books is like being Don Juan in a harem.

I kept living under the delusion that a library is never lost or destroyed. But we all know that the hatred of books has always been a powerful feeling among dictators and fanatics alike; it would take a very long time to compile a list of all the libraries destroyed by tyrannies and wars. The loss of the library at Alexandria was a particularly grievous blow to human civilization. The real tragedy, when libraries are destroyed, of course, is not the fact of not knowing whom to blame, but the amount of human knowledge and wisdom that is degraded or lost forever.

I sold my Paris apartment in 1997, when I decided to go and live in Canada; with it a 20-year chapter of my life, as a young man and a student, also closed. I had the naïveté of listening to the advice of a wicked Iranian real estate agent by the name of Houri, who wanted to sell my apartment before the beginning of the Eurozone in 1999. As we closed the deal she promised to keep my books safe, in a cellar, in return for a sum of money. Two years later, after my divorce, on a trip to Paris, I called her and asked about my books. I had learned from someone else that she had sold them to second-hand bookshops; now she pretended that the job had been done by a Tunisian who had since left France. I was so furious and devastated that I cried for two hours sitting in a café in Paris. I was suddenly reminded of a 1935 novel by Elias Canetti entitled Auto-da-Fé (Die Blendung in its original title). The story is about Professor Peter Kien, a leading Sinologist whose most cherished possession is his great library. His cloistered life is shattered, however, when he decides to marry his illiterate and grasping housekeeper, who eventually robs him of everything. The novel ends with the protagonist self-immolating in his library because he cannot deal with the mediocrity of his time.

I had to deal with a similar situation when I lost my cherished books, some of them signed by thinkers and writers whom I knew personally. Among these was a book by Isaiah Berlin, The Four Essays on Liberty, which he dedicated to me when we first met in June 1988. I had ceased to believe in the survival of that book; I had given it up for dead and I stopped hoping that I would hold it in my hands again. Ten years passed and I even ceased mourning the loss of my precious library. I rarely went back to Paris; each time I found it useless to call the ignorant real estate agent and to go and check her house, though previously she had continued lying to me and asking her elder son, who resided in London, to get some money in return of a dozen of my books.

Then something happened, which was more of a fairy tale. One day I received an email from a certain Robert Quick, self-employed dealer in pre-owned and scarce books, who notified me of the existence of a book by Isaiah Berlin, with a dedication in my name, which was auctioned on eBay. I wrote back to him and explained that the book was stolen from my library. A few days later Robert responded gracefully to my email, giving me some more details about the book: “Please understand my delay over the weekend in responding. I bought the book from a used book shop in the Finchley area of London several years ago. I paid seven pounds and did not notice the inscription until a few months ago. Please understand my caution as I've learned that fraudulent claims of ownership of books are fairly common. Assuming that you are, in fact, the Ramin Jahanbegloo to whom Dr. Berlin inscribed the book, I can appreciate your desire to have it back and would be willing to get it to you. I'd be willing to send the book to original owner—with adequate proof. Sincerely, R. Quick.” I sent Robert proof of my identity and a check of a small amount which covered the postage and the price of the book. I was certain that the book would be waiting for me in my office at University of Toronto after my return from a short trip, a certainty that was not delusional and gave me hope to find a piece of my stolen library. I found myself with two volumes of the book by Sir Isaiah: the one which he signed for me and another, which I bought 20 years later after losing hope in my lost book.

I often dream that before I die a day will come when I can see all my books gathered in one place. This, however, was difficult to imagine when I was sitting in a cell and hoping to put together my divided self by reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit.

Later on, Nehru’s autobiography kept me company. I related to him on many levels, shared his lived experience each day, down to the last visceral details. Even the insects in my cell took on a special significance when I read Nehru and was reminded that he had had the same reaction to them in his confinement. Cockroaches and ants had been crawling through my cell everyday; as annoyed as I was with them, I nevertheless looked at them lightly in Nehru’s invisible company. When I did lose my patience with them, I covered the floor with newspapers. The only one I was allowed to have was Kayhan, a conservative paper, which published articles denouncing me and other reformist Iranian intellectuals. Reading through such a newspaper in those circumstances, I realized I could only use it as a floor mat. I even wanted to laugh at the fact that they were giving me such reading, but no laughter came.

Fighting against loneliness and depression, I read Nehru’s words out loud to hear a human voice, even if it was my own. At one point the guards grew suspicious of my strange activities — talking to myself, scattering newspapers everywhere, and covering the floor — so they came in, blindfolded me and searched the cell for illicit materials. They discovered the bag in which I had been keeping my writings, with all the torn-off scraps of paper, filled to their edges with words, and confiscated it immediately. Then they left me again, wordless and exhausted.

I started to understand why the interrogators had stopped calling on me when I heard the cheering and shouting — the unmistakeable sounds of football fanatics — coming from the guards’ quarters. Only then did I realize that the World Cup had been going on and must have been close to the final stages by now. I tried to listen in to figure out who was playing, but only indistinct yells came across, and I was left clueless. It was a shame because I had been a big football fan during my teenage years; later, even with my busy academic schedule at the Sorbonne, I had never missed a World Cup. When this distress over such a trivial matter in those circumstances first reached me, I had to laugh. What did football matter in solitary confinement? Nothing, I thought then — but that was before I learned a fundamental lesson in human interaction.

After a week of solitude and uncertainty, I finally gathered the courage to speak to one of the guards. He was a man I had caught glimpses of throughout the two months I had been there, the one who brought me food everyday without uttering anything except instructions. “Bring your plate to the slot,” he said mechanically, as he had every other time. I had seen him in parts through that slot in the iron door — his hands, his torso, sometimes his lower jaw and his nose — but only now did I see his eyes. And seeing his eyes, the words came to me; I uttered them without thinking.

“Have you been following the football games?” I asked.

He hesitated for a moment as he went on filling the plate with food, then replied curtly, “Yes.”

That was all that was needed: a simple, affirmative word, as though it were the only confirmation needed. It was the basic recognition of another living soul.

“Who’s winning?” I continued, knowing he had to reply now.

“Argentina,” he said; and then, after a pause, “but I think Germany will come back and win it.”

“The Germans are resilient.”

“Yes, tough players. They have character. Brazil is my favorite team though. I like their style of play.”

“Few nations know football like the Brazilians. When I was younger, Pele and Jairzinho were my idols. They were unstoppable, and even now nobody plays like them.”

“Yes,” he replied, now looking into my eyes through that tiny slot.

“So, who do you think will win the tournament?” I asked.

“If Germany comes back in this game, I think they have a good chance of going on to win it. But of course Brazil plays tomorrow against France, and I would never bet against them.”

“Will you let me know the result?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, “if I’ll be able to. I may not catch that game tomorrow.”

A silence ensued. I could see that he had opened himself up to me a little too much and was now embarrassed. He looked away and was about to leave.

“I think you’re more of a prisoner than I am, then.”

His eyes flashed for a moment as he turned to me again, but then he looked down as if suddenly understanding.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” I continued. “I’m on the other side of the bars. But you spend all your days here, giving food to prisoners like me.”

I was surprised at myself for having uttered those words, but I could see that he somehow accepted them. “It’s true,” he said. “I, too, suffer.”

He looked around a little, threw me another glance and left without saying anything else — but ponderously, with slow, gentle steps, as if he did not want to disturb the fragility of this moment of discovery. I had touched a nerve, but he wasn’t angry. We had merely had an ephemeral human connection.

Nor would this be the last time I connected with someone like this in prison. To keep me in decent shape, they ordered the resident barber to come and take care of me. He arrived one day, accompanied by a guard, and waited at the door as my blindfold was put on and I was taken outside into the corridor. He was an old man with dark khaki pants and unpolished black dress shoes. When he sat me on a single chair beside the door of my cell, he put the cape around my neck gently while muttering to himself.

“Is this your job? You do this all the time?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied with the tired voice of a tired old man. “Only for a few months now, though. I used to be a tailor. But I had to close my shop and then I had no job.”

“So how did you end up here? This is an unusual place to seek work.”

“By chance, just pure chance. My brother-in-law is a guard here, and he suggested it. He said I could come and go as I pleased, unlike the others who have to stay here all the time.”

He told me a little more about his life as he went on cutting my hair and shaving me: he was married with two children, one of his sons working in the bazaar and the other a soldier. He was a firm and religious man. Eventually he grew quiet when he realized he was revealing too much about himself to a condemned man.

“So what are you in here for?” he finally asked me.

“I’ve been accused of trying to start a velvet revolution.”

“Oh [...] and is that what you’ve done?”

“No, I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“Then God will help you,” he affirmed after a moment’s pause. “If you are innocent, then God will help you, and you will get out.”

I wanted to add then that, whether God decided to help me or not, I was innocent all the same, but I stopped myself short. Our 15 minutes were over, and I had enjoyed the feeling of having a dialogue with another human being. Discussing religion would only complicate things. Back in my cell, I thought only about those few words we had exchanged and imagined what it was like to live as an old man who had to work as a barber in a horrid place just to make a living. I imagined going home to a wife and two sons, trying to understand what their days might be like. I longed for more human company.

A few days later I was told that I would be permitted to make a phone call. I immediately called my wife at home and was glad to hear her voice when she answered. She was working out a deal to come for a second visit, she told me. Excited, I asked if my mother would be able to come with her this time.

“Don’t get too worried, but your mother’s in the hospital right now, in the ICU,” she told me with sadness and anxiety. “Her blood pressure has gone up because of all the stress…of your situation. But she should be fine.”

“I understand,” I said. “I want to see her, but not like this. I don’t want to put any more pressure on her.”

It was true that visiting me would be too emotional for her. My mother is a strong woman, but everything they were doing to me was taking even more of a toll on her; having gone through the same experience with my father, she could barely handle it anymore. I felt guilty for having done this to her. It was as if I had purposely brought a calamity down not only on myself but even on all my loved ones.

And so it was a fitting question that one of the guards asked, as he was accompanying me back to my cell when the phone call was over: “Is it true that all philosophers are mad?”

“Not necessarily,” I responded. And I added immediately, “To be a philosopher is to have a critical view of all forms of conviction that end up in dogmatism.”

He didn’t understand my point. While he was closing the door behind me, he came back with a gross affirmation: “So, that means that you don’t believe in God and Islam, and you are a heretic.”


Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher's Descent into Iran's Notorious Evin Prison  will be published by University of Regina Press in March, 2014.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is the author of more than 24 books in Persian, English, and French on philosophy, comparative politics, and nonviolence.

LARB Contributor

Ramin Jahanbegloo is a well-known Iranian-Canadian philosopher. He is the author of more than 24 books in Persian, English, and French on philosophy, comparative politics, and nonviolence. Among his books are Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity (Lexington Books, 2004), Gandhi: Aux Sources de la Nonviolence (Felin 1999), The Clash of Intolerances (Har-Anand 2007), India Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2007), and The Gandhian Moment (Harvard University Press, 2013). He is currently Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies at York University in Toronto.


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