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Sharing a Prison Cell with the (Future) Ayatollah

07/28/2010 11:15 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When earlier this summer Ayatollah Ali Khameni proclaimed that the opposition leaders of the Green movement "would be responsible for bloodshed and chaos" if protests against the government persisted, memories from more than three decades earlier flooded my mind. Khamenei and I had been cell mates together in 1974 at the Komiteh Moshtarak, a security prison used under the Shah, whom we had both opposed. This is a story I tell, along with others, in my memoir Letters to My Torturer.

Our friendship began when the prison guard opened the door to a cell and threw me in. I made myself stand up, removed the jacket from my head and put on my glasses. I saw a man, extremely thin, bespectacled, with a long black beard. He was seated on a pile of black blankets. I realized he was a cleric because he was wearing a cloak, which he had made out of his prison uniform. He stood up, smiled a pleasant smile, stretched out his hand, and introduced himself: "Sayyed Ali Khamenei. Welcome!"

For the first time in my life, I found myself in close contact with a cleric. The clerics were a thousand light years from an activist like me. I held out my hand and burst out: "I am a leftist. My name is ..."

My cell companion laughed and invited me to sit beside him on the pile of blankets. We divided the blankets between us. Usually, prisoners had no more than two blankets. I have no idea why so many blankets had ended up in our cell, but to Khamenei, each one of the blankets represented an unexpected treasure, though we ended up losing them almost immediately. Khamenei, always cheerful and up for a joke, had given each of the guards a nickname. Dog Fart Number One. Dog Fart Number Two.

He used to perform his ablution in the bathroom, in a very serious, solemn manner. But most of his time, and particularly around sunset, was spent standing by the window. He would recite the Qur'an quietly, he would pray, and then he would weep, sobbing loudly. He would lose himself completely in God. There was something about this type of spirituality that appealed to the heart. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by misery, he would call to me and say: "Houshang, stand up, let's go for a stroll."

My love for and familiarity with literature, and poetry in particular, paved the way for lengthy conversations, and I quickly realized that he had a unique mastery of contemporary literature, especially poetry. Sometimes I'd sing the revolutionary songs that I had learned in Ahvaz prison and he would listen to them with pleasure. Occasionally I gave him lessons in journalism. He listened with interest and asked precise questions. One of the things I taught him was: "Do not pay attention to the headlines. Look at the main content, search for those words that are repeated, though in various ways. Read between the lines."

He listened carefully, learning how to interpret newspaper content. He was very attached to smoking. Each prisoner was allocated one cigarette per day. I was a non-smoker so I gave him my share. He would carefully divide the two cigarettes into six sections and light up each section with great pleasure.

Sometimes we exchanged jokes. He liked inoffensive jokes; they made him burst out laughing. One time, Dog Fart Number Two overheard us laughing. He rushed into the cell and slapped us both. But Khamenei didn't like even slightly dirty jokes, sexuality being the frontier that divided innocent jokes from dirty ones.

A month passed in this manner inside the tiny cell intended for solitary confinement, where the two of us were kept. Khamenei was called up for interrogation once or twice. I too was called up once more.

Three months, more or less, passed; three months that had more depth than three years. Never again was I to become so attached to someone in such a short time or to become as close to someone else. One day, the door opened and the guard called out my name: "Pick up your blanket and get ready. This meant that I was being allocated to a different cell.

We embraced each other and wept. I felt that my cellmate was shaking. I assumed that it was the winter cold that was making him shiver so I took off my sweater and insisted he should take it. He refused. I don't know what made me say: "I think I am going to be released." He took the sweater then. I felt the warm tears that were running down his face and his voice, still ringing in my ears, said: "Under an Islamic government, not a single tear would be shed by the innocent."

So when I heard that Mr. Khamenei had visited the former detention center where we had been prisoners together, I wanted to ask him, "Do you remember those days?" I would tell him that when the Islamic republic came to power, agents of his regime came and arrested me again, and took me to that same prison. And when I read the reports from last summer, last winter, this spring, and today, about members of the democratic Green Movement being detained and tortured, I want to ask him how all of those many people and their loved ones can be infidels and not innocents, as he and I once were.

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