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Fighting Demons

Anoosheh Ashoori served 4 years, 7 months and 4 days of a 10-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. 116 of those days were spent in two interrogation centres run by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC, where he made three suicide attempts. He finally returned home to the UK on 16th March 2022, coinciding with the payment of the £400 million UK debt to the Islamic regime.

"Instead of concluding my story with my favourite quotes, I will begin with them, as they  underscore the meaning of purpose to me.

1. Viktor Frankl:
a. “When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
b. “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering when it finds a purpose or a meaning.”

2. Haruki Murakami:
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

From a young age, my fascination with aeroplanes and space travel captured my heart. As one of the last generations to witness Flash Gordon’s science fiction series on TV during the early 1960s, my imagination soared with visions of distant galaxies and interstellar adventures. Daydreams of flight have been a constant companion for as long as I can recall.

At the early age of 14 in 1968, I became a member of the Model Aeroplanes Club and immersed myself in crafting many model aeroplanes, honing my skills and passion for aviation.

Then came July 24th, 1969. I was captivated as Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps on the moon. I couldn’t sleep, consumed by a singular thought: I wanted to be an astronaut. It seemed impossible for an Iranian student from a modest family, but the allure of space was irresistible.

In 1971, during my final year of high school, I convinced my father to support my education abroad. Determined to seek guidance from Neil Armstrong, I found he was teaching at the University of Cincinnati. Despite my limited English, I wrote to him, eagerly awaiting his response.

One day, my dad returned home with an envelope in hand. Excitedly, I found a reply, though not directly from Neil Armstrong but from his secretary. Disappointingly, the letter wasn’t promising at all.

I flew to London in December 1972 to continue my studies. I wrote again to Armstrong, detailing my new plans, and he recommended joining the British Interplanetary Society. Encouraging my dad to send Armstrong a gift from Tehran, he sent a Persian miniature painting to him. In return, I received a letter signed by Armstrong himself and a package from NASA containing his autograph. With his own handwriting, he said, “To Anoosheh Ashoori, with best wishes for success in your studies.” His message of support fuelled my dreams and renewed my determination.

After completing my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, I pursued a Master’s in Aeronautical Engineering, specialising in Aircraft Design at Cranfield. I received my MSc in 1982.

A change of fate
Two significant factors derailed my lifelong ambition to pursue further studies in the United States. Firstly, the strained relations between Iran and the US after the Islamic Revolution dimmed the prospect of continuing my Aerospace Engineering studies there. Secondly, my father’s declining health, marked by severe heart attacks in 1976 and 1980, caused my return to Iran to assist him in managing his factory. These challenges thwarted my plans to continue my lifelong ambition.

After returning to Iran, I was engulfed in despair, stuck in a task devoid of personal interest, with no prospect of returning to my passion. I felt bewildered, disillusioned and depressed, never having imagined a life away from astronautics.

After my father’s passing, I took over our family factory and expanded its operations in the construction materials sector. I introduced a new building material, Roofix Formwork, designed to make buildings more earthquake-resistant. This innovation aimed to save lives in earthquake-prone Iran, earning our company the Gold Award at the First Civil Engineering Forum in Iran in 1996.

My business flourished, but as I grew older, family matters took priority. After moving my kids to the UK and eventually moving there myself, managing an industry 4,400 kilometres away became difficult. The wisest decision was to sell my business, retire and enjoy family life in London.

Despite my business’s continuing success, I ended it, returned to the UK and retired to enjoy life with my family. I took on mini-projects like building a Hobbit House for my wife, Sherry, a Lord of the Rings fan, and designing a macaron machine for my daughter, Elika, who has a cake-baking business.

Not having a significant purpose didn’t bother me; I was content with the life I was leading.

A second change of fate
In August 2017, I went to Iran to visit my mom, who was recovering from a knee replacement. Since she lived alone in Tehran, I visited her two or three times a year.

On 13th August 2017, while heading to the local market to repair my suitcase zipper, a car pulled over and four men forced me inside. They showed me an arrest warrant for spying for Israel, blindfolded me and took me to a “safe” house for interrogation. This began my 1677-day ordeal as a hostage of the Islamic regime of Iran.

Being dumped in a solitary cell with a bright floodlight that never turned off, the noise of a malfunctioning air conditioner, and the sounds of whimpering and crying from neighbouring cells, I endured long hours of interrogation, foul food, sleepless nights and threats to harm my family if I didn’t cooperate and confess. This pushed me beyond the threshold of pain, leading me to believe that the only way to protect my loved ones was to cease to exist.

To make a long story short, I attempted suicide three times, but survived. When they failed to achieve their aims, they transferred me to the main prison compound, starting the second phase of my ordeal.

There we were, sixty to seventy of us, crammed into four windowless rooms in the basement of Ward 7 of Evin Prison, famously known as Hall 12. Salavati, the notorious “hanging judge” renowned for his harsh sentences at the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, sentenced me to twelve years, ten of which were mandatory.

So, at 63, I expected release from Evin Prison at 73, assuming no additional charges. I learned I was held as a hostage, to be exchanged for a £400 million UK debt from Iran’s 1970s Chieftain Tanks purchase.

This essentially signalled the end of my productive life, with no hope of imminent freedom. The UK refused to pay the debt, citing conflicts of sanctions against Iran’s regime.

My new life began amidst bedbugs, cockroaches, and rats. I endured harsh conditions with no means of escape. My only lifeline to the outside world was government-controlled TV, newspapers, and brief phone calls to my wife, Sherry.

In Ward 7, a group of inmates engaged in daily physical workouts and upon my request to join, they welcomed me. A seasoned inmate overseeing our training shared invaluable advice: the five golden rules for maintaining mental and physical well-being amidst our ordeals.

1. Eat well
2. Sleep well
3. Do exercises
4. Read and learn
5. Avoid negative people.

And I listened to him wholeheartedly.

Part of our exercise involved running in circles in the small gym space and I would go out of breath in less than ten minutes.

I continued and tried to extend my stamina and take a record of my progress.
One day, after months of perseverance, I ran two hours nonstop. I was so thrilled that I treated everyone in our hall to a cake I purchased from our small shop.

When we returned to our hall, a cellmate waved his hand, holding a book in the air. It translated Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” This book was a significant change for me, inspiring me to set a goal: to run the London Marathon whenever I returned home, even if it meant doing so at 73 or older.

One day, another cellmate approached me and handed me a book that complemented the first. “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl breathed new life into me, giving me fresh goals and a renewed purpose, one that transcended the innovation of earthquake-resistant buildings and aimed for something far more noble.

No one truly knows what goes on in Evin prison except for the prisoners who have endured its horrors and the authorities of the Islamic regime.

So, a new Anoosheh Ashoori emerged. I had a fresh goal, a new purpose - to expose the atrocities of the brutal theocratic regime to the world. Speaking out became my mission and purpose and I was determined to achieve it.

And suddenly, the pain of Evin Prison turned into a source of motivation, a mission to fulfil. Yes, I’m resolute. I will achieve it. Upon my return home, I’ll take three steps:

1. Taking part in the London Marathon to raise awareness about the oppressive regime.
2. Gathering and showcasing exhibits in a London exhibition to shed light on the regime’s atrocities.
3. Documenting my prison experience meticulously for a memoir, leaving no detail unrecorded.

The spot in the prison yard where I often sat became known as “Ashoori’s Corner.” Inmates would gather there for conversations, sharing their life stories and struggles. I promised them I would document and share their experiences with the world someday.

As I write today, I’m thrilled to have achieved two of my three goals.

I finished the 2022 London Marathon six months after returning home in solidarity with those still suffering and the women-led revolution for liberty in Iran. Then, in 2023, I ran it with my kids, Elika and Aryan. And once more in April 2024. I received the Spirit of London Marathon Award.

With the support of Amnesty International, I organised an exhibition in London, showcasing the items I brought back with me. I aimed to guide visitors through my journey, from abduction to crossing the marathon finish line.

I’m fully immersed in writing my prison memoir and hope to find a publisher soon so that I can share my story with the world.

Returning to the three quotes at the beginning of my article, I must emphasise that my survival and triumph over adversity were undoubtedly due to creating a goal and purpose in my life, which continue to propel me forward."

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