06/05/2011 10:33 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2011

Losing the Ego in Tehran

"Who sent you here?" Baldy asks his question without seeming concerned for my answer.
I am in an interrogation room at Tehran airport.

"Nobody sent me here. I am in Iran to research a book."

"Do you know your friend in New York is an agent for the CIA? He's using you. Do you work for him or for the State Department?"

They know everything. All my phone calls, all my emails. I have been here for a couple of months. Now it looks as if I may be here a lot longer.

"Please come with us now, Mr. Roger. We will go back to Tehran." They all stand, and with two behind me and one in front, they walk me out of the airport to their car. I am not afraid. I don't know why, but I feel strangely calm. I feel as if this were a play I landed a part in a long time ago, and now the curtain is finally rising.

How strange, for events to turn out this way. I had come to Iran wanting to show the human face of a misunderstood culture; to show the spiritual depth of a people known to the Western media world as fanatical Islamists. Now I had been in a hotel room in Tehran for two days with three interrogators sleeping around my bed as they took turns questioning and threatening me. One of them had just thrown my passport across the room, telling me it was worthless in my present situation. Now they said they were giving up on me, and were handing me over to a new team -- one I would not like -- who would come in a few minutes. Then they all trooped out as if on cue.

An hour passed and the new team had not arrived. In that hour I came to know three things. First, I knew that even as I was a part of a web of loving relationships that I cherished, I was at the same time utterly alone in this life. Existentially, essentially alone, as when one dies. As one may be upon hearing a diagnosis of cancer. No one could share this turn of events in Tehran with me. No one could even know where I was.

But then the second thing I knew beyond all doubt was that the narrative I had assumed to be my identity was a fabrication, a fiction spun out of my neurons. Roger the traveler, the writer, Roger the lover of Rumi, all this was a provisional reality. In that hotel room, the familiar story of my life meant nothing.

And yet, and yet, the very absence of my well-worn identity felt like taking off a tight fitting suit that I had not even realized I was wearing. In that moment I understood the line of Rumi's, where he says we can leave grazing to cows, and go

Where we know what everyone really intends,

Where we can walk around without clothes on.

Now I could see that this freedom from my cherished narrative was what I had been hankering for all along without knowing it.

Even terms like alone and not alone, free and unfree, English or American, didn't make sense without my usual identity. Yet in this nakedness, not knowing anything about my life from here on in, something essential continued to palpitate, to throb beneath my skin. I am! Whatever happens, I realized then, I am. I felt the essence of who I was to be a fact independent of the apparent events and dramas of my life. Feeling this in that hotel room in Tehran was the greatest freedom I had ever known. This was my true home, a home without walls, the most spacious home of all.

Whether or not I love again, whether or not I ever write my book on Iran; even whether I live or die: whatever happens, I am -- I saw and felt it as clear as day. None of this was a thought; it was a felt sensation. I felt intensely, intensely alive. Not with excitement, no it was quite different from that. I was alive with a deep and sober peace.

My curiosity emerged again. I wondered what the next chapter in the story would be. There would always be a story until there wasn't; even though I knew with a visceral certainty that however the story turned out, it didn't define who I was in essence, naked and ungraspable.
It's not that I didn't have preferences. Of course I wanted my freedom. Really wanted it. But I could also feel a detachment about whatever might happen next. The story from here on in might well not be the story I thought I was going to live. But I knew I would continue to be, whatever happened.

I am writing this now, so of course the story goes on. But I will be eternally grateful to my Iranian interrogators for showing me what I had glimpsed before but never known as clearly as in those days spent in their custody.