Serving a minimum 10-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison on spying charges, Anoosheh Ashoori, a 68-year-old British-Iranian retired engineer, knew he must find purpose if he was to avoid insanity.
He pledged that one day, when he was released, he would run the London Marathon. It was an ambitious dream, especially for a man who was not very fit and or expecting to be freed before the age of 73.
But having survived the indescribable ordeal of his time in an interrogation centre, where he attempted to end his life three times, it got him through almost five years in jail on charges he has always denied, and where the sense of injustice and loss began to take their toll.
And now, having been released early by Iran in March, at the same time as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, it is getting him through the overwhelming adjustment he faces as he resumes his life back home in south London; a life, he said, that has been changed irrevocably.
He will run the London Marathon in October, for himself and for the charities Hostage International and Amnesty International, who supported him and his family. He will also run it for those he left behind in Evin prison, the others incarcerated mainly on spying charges, “so that all of them will know they have not been forgotten”, he said.
His odyssey began when another inmate handed him a copy of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. “You have to find ways to fight insanity, and that was one of the ways. It helped me towards my physical health,” he said.
Then he read a smuggled copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist and Auschwitz survivor. “If you are going through suffering, if you find a meaning and purpose in that suffering, it’s not going to be as painful,” he said of the message he took from it.
“Putting the two [books] together, I had the physical reason, and now the purpose. It made me think: ‘OK, if I’m going to run the London Marathon, let something good come out of it’.” So he decided to fundraise, together with his son Aryan, running the marathon alongside him, for the two organisations, “who played a great part in my release, and gave my family a lot of help”.
“I was 82kg, and had a beer gut and [was] quite unfit,” he recalled. He had also been due for an operation for a cracked meniscus in his knee before he was arrested while visiting his mother. “I lost 17kg when I was in the interrogation centre because I made three suicide attempts while I was there,” he said.
On being transferred to prison, he joined a small group of inmates who exercised daily, running in circles in a small gym, or when deprived of the gym, in a small enclosed patio. At first, he was out of breath within 10 minutes, but slowly built up his stamina, eventually running without stopping for two hours.
“I found the purpose and the determination that I should do something, something good to come out of the ordeal I was going through,” he said.
Sustained also by lectures and poetry readings the inmates organised between themselves in Ashoori’s corner – the area where he sat daily with a flask of tea discussing issues with the others – he focused on his mission. He determined: “There should be a message in what I am doing. And that message should be the two golden rules for victory. Rule one: always remember that perseverance pays off; and rule two: never forget rule one.”
Today, having swapped runs in the cramped prison for London parks, his moment of crossing the finishing line is close to becoming reality. Asked what it meant to him, he said: “It is something I cannot put into words. My life is void if I don’t do this. Something good has to come out of all that pain, all that suffering. I just cannot go back to live my ordinary life without some good coming out of it, as I will be the loser.”
He is currently writing a book, Ashoori’s Corner, about his experience, and says the charities continue to help him, his wife, Sherry, and their son and daughter. The adjustment has not been easy. “It is nearly five months since I was released. Up until a couple of months ago, I didn’t have much of a problem dealing with life. I think I was overwhelmed with the excitement of being released.
“I did get flashbacks. I mean, whatever you do, your mind is being taken back into the room that I was sharing with 14 other people. But now, I have started getting anxiety attacks now and again, which I have to deal with, because it’s not going to be helpful. I need to concentrate on the future rather than the past.”
He hopes running will help with that too. “Life cannot be the life that I had before. So, the only way I can get through this is by finding a purpose, or creating a purpose in my new way of living. So, perhaps, this marathon, running, is one of them.”
“I hope it will make people aware of the tyranny of all the ugly things that are happening in the world,” he said, adding: “They should not be indifferent.”