ANOOSHEH ASHOORI, freed Iranian detainee, interview – Runner’s World, Feb 2023

On 2 October, six months after he last wore it, Anoosheh Ashoori put on the uniform of an Iranian prison inmate one more time. He added a pair of handcuffs, bought for £2 on Ebay, put a sign in his backpack that said: ‘WOMAN LIFE FREEDOM’ and joined the start line of the London Marathon.

Back then, in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, the retired engineer was a pawn, held for almost five years on fabricated spying charges as a bargaining chip in a long-term diplomatic dispute between Britain and Iran. (Another holder of dual nationality, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, suffered the same fate and was finally freed to return to the UK on the same day as Ashoori in March 2022.) As Anoosheh began to run the streets of London in his blue stripes, he had become a symbol, one of the most prominent voices calling for change in the country he left at 18.

Meeting this gentle, scrupulously polite man and his son Aryan a few days after the race, I’m taken aback by how much positivity he can find in a story of horrendous bad luck. He was doing nothing more sinister than visiting his recuperating mother when he was bundled into a car and arrested on the street in August 2017, before spending the first 100 days of his ordeal being hounded into some form of confession in an interrogation centre. During that first period of confinement he attempted to take his own life three times, at one point refusing to eat for 17 days. But while we talk he spends more time talking about the suffering of others in Iran today than his own troubles.

‘I find it my duty to be a voice for those people who are there,’ he says. ‘They stole almost five years of my life but I am nothing in comparison with all the lives being lost every day.’

Once he was moved to the main Evin compound he shared space in four rooms with about 65 other prisoners. Here he made sure that his days were full of activity. ‘A group of us formed a poetry society. A friend who was a short story writer started teaching us how to write stories. There were prisoners who taught us Spanish, economics, and quantum mechanics.’

He also started to run laps of the 15x17m prison yard. He would run for 15 minutes clockwise, then 15 minutes anti-clockwise, to even the strain on his knees. At first he was short of breath after 10 minutes, but eventually he was jogging for two solid hours, the maximum time permitted for exercise.

His writer friend gave him a copy of the Haruki Murakami book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. ‘It inspired me, as he has run many marathons. I thought, “Why not me?” Even though I thought I might be 74 before I could be released, I took that as a goal.’ He also read Man’s Search for Meaning, the Holocaust memoir by Viktor Frankl, which helped him to frame his marathon ambition as part of a broader scheme for survival. ‘I realised that if I can either find or create a meaning in my suffering, it’s not going to be as painful as it used to be. Putting those two books together gave me the purpose for running and the purpose for my life after I am released.’

In the end he was 68 when he did the marathon. He and his son had planned to do it together, but Aryan caught Covid shortly before the race and had to watch it on television. Aryan suffered in a different way while his father was in prison, trying to maintain media interest in his campaigning alongside his mother Sherry and older sister Elika for Anoosheh’s release. On the bright side, he gained so much experience in this area that he now has a job at Amnesty International. He sees parallels between those dark years and the marathon: ‘You have to keep going, grinding out every step. But the difference is, with the marathon you know where the finish line is.’

Before the race, between them they raised around £25,000 to support two organisations: Amnesty, which campaigned for the quashing of Anoosheh’s conviction, and Hostage International, which supported the family at home. Now the Ashoori family’s work has broadened to try to build support and awareness around the masses protesting in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini. The young woman was arrested for allegedly disobeying hijab regulations and died in police custody.

‘We can’t celebrate my dad coming back when we know most Iranians are mourning something else,’ says Aryan. ‘We have a platform, and we would be doing a disservice to those brave women if we don’t talk about them.’ 

As for Anoosheh, he thinks he’ll run again, and get some more positive use out of that horrible uniform he smuggled out of Iran. ‘I’m open to suggestions for what I should do next time,’ he says. ‘But hopefully I can do it with Aryan, and by then, this cruel regime will be toppled.’