top of page

Prison Visit 1977

When Ja'far was finally released from “the hole”, or solitary confinement, he was able to have visiting privileges. The Correctional Institution at Graterford, near Philadelphia, was old enough that the smells of caged humans permeated the concrete and could neither be smothered by layers of paint nor scourged by disinfection. The prison hadn’t changed since I visited it to teach yoga with Ron. That had been six years ago, but it seemed like a century. My first visit to Ja'far was harrowing…

Every voice, every footfall, every clanging gate echoes wall to wall.

Cacophonous yelling, banging, unending ear-blasting.

Harsh. Stinking. Maximum security.

Concrete visiting room, grimy chairs,

Air humid with human sweat.

Inmates and visitors yelling to be heard.

Deafening, exhausting noise.

Nowhere sunlight, nowhere sky, nowhere trees, nowhere bird songs.

But he smiles, sunshine erupts.

How does he keep his soul alive

In this dungeon of souls?



The driver looked again at the address on the paper and turned into the first of many twisting alleys barely wide enough for a car. After countless turns, I knew that I would never be able to find my way out of the maze by myself. The taxi slowed as it inched along a footpath just wide enough for one vehicle. Pedestrians flattened themselves against the baked mud walls on either side to let the taxi pass.

The whitewashed sides of the path stretched two or three stories high above the grimy street, with only an occasional door at street level or a solitary window far above the clatter of the street. I felt pressed into a nearly featureless tunnel with no roof. The slice of sky I could see above seemed far away.  At the bottom of the tunnel, the taxi moved slowly. Jamal and Yusuf were quiet and wide eyed. Baby Jubair was asleep in my arms.

The driver said something to me and drove a few more feet and stopped. He turned and spoke once more and handed me the piece of paper that contained the valuable address. We were here. He hopped out, quickly unloaded our luggage, and opened the back door of the taxi.


Clumsily, I exited the taxi. I saw no apartments or houses, no windows, except for one at the top of the high, naked wall. There were no faces looking down from above, no plants adorning window boxes. Nothing. I didn’t understand…

     Only sky above.
     And a single heavy wooden door by the taxi.
     No doorbell, no number, no name,
     Not even a doorknob or handle,
     Only one large keyhole: 
     No key.

The Sahara, Algeria 1983

We passed quickly from the populated cities and towns of northern Algeria into semi-arid mountains and hills, where row upon row of evergreen trees had been planted to hold back the desert.  Finally, the terrain became dry and barren, with endless expanses of hard-packed, red earth interspersed with strange rock formations blasted by the wind and sand. Six hundred miles south of Arzew, we stopped and climbed out the car, our legs stiff and our bodies tired.

Embracing the harsh beauty of the rocky desert, I took deep breaths of the clean air, reached my arms toward infinity. I whirled around to see a 360-degree view of desert wilderness under a huge, cloudless, blue sky. Jamal, Yusuf, and Jubair, joined me, spinning, laughing, and waving their arms and legs in a wild dance. Taha, in his father's arms, giggled and reached out toward us...

Desert home soothes spirit, empties mind,

Holds me, touches my heart:

Where humans are small,

Where nature is great,

This is where I feel joy.

Islamic Republic of Iran, 1984

As the year unfolded, I reflected on George Orwell’s classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a well-worn, contraband copy of which Hassan had brought us. I recalled reading it as a college student in 1970, when it was a cautionary tale of possible futures. Reading it again in 1984 was a revelation.

I could see why the book was forbidden in the Islamic Republic. Not only was it an example, in mullah-speak, of the pollution of Western thought, there were striking parallels between Orwell’s dystopian future and the political and social realities of Iran in 1984. As in the fictional world, independent thinking in Iran was discouraged, and a cult-like worship of Imam Khomeini was encouraged. People were under totalitarian control in which their private lives were not their own, even among family members.


But despite the similarities to Orwell’s nightmarish vision, the reality of life in Iran was more nuanced. Official control was not total throughout the country, and opposition to the government was widespread, if only among certain groups.


When religious extremists commandeered control of the country during the Revolution, the ideals that had inspired the people – and Ja’far and me – were trampled. The new government blocked the people’s vision of a just government that allowed for diversity of religious views and personal expression. Instead, the regime followed the playbook of Orwell, who tells us,

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” 

Clouds in Morocco, 1986

Emotionally exhausted, I was lulled by the steady rumble of the road rising to meet the tires of the speeding van. As we traveled through the Moroccan countryside, the two-lane paved road continuously sprang westward, leaving behind the dangers we had evaded but not truly leading us to safety. I allowed myself to be numbed. My breakdown at the border had allowed painful, suppressed emotions to surface. Now I felt wounded and fragile, with uncertain recovery. I trod the edge of depression and felt despair hovering just beyond. I wondered how I could proceed from this precarious position.

I knew with absolute certainty that we were in a struggle for survival, and my five young children needed me to be strong. For their sake, I tried to steel myself and wall off my pain again. But this time, I wasn’t sure the wall would hold. Our destination was Rabat, the capital of Morocco, poised on the edge of the Atlantic.


Before reaching the city, we stopped at the shore of the vast ocean, its large, dark waves piling onto the earth relentlessly. Though the spring weather was still cool, the kids ran barefoot along the sandy beach, squealing and dashing into the icy shallows, ignoring my warnings not to get wet.


Ja’far, who had scored some hash in Oujda, rolled it into a joint mixed with tobacco, and smoked quietly, staring at the waters that extended from this North African shore all the way to the Americas. Hash was cheap here in Morocco, though we could ill afford anything other than food and gas. But if it kept him happy, it made life easier for all of us. 

Drawing a deep breath from the cool sea breeze, I kicked off my shoes and let my toes taste the surging waters. Regardless of what had happened or what would happen, I felt calm in this moment as I connected with earth, sea, and sky. I murmured a prayer of thanks as I stood at the western edge of the most western land of the Arab world – al Maghrib. But all too soon the moment passed, and my thoughts turned to the mundane. We needed to find a place to camp and buy basic groceries. Then, I would set up camp and cook a decent meal for the family. And of course, Ja’far and I urgently needed to find work.

bottom of page