As Matthew Trevithick sat on the floor of a 6-by-7-foot concrete cell in a prison high on a hill outside Tehran, he fixated on one question: How many days would he have to endure, alone and afraid, behind bars? Was it 100? That he felt he could survive. But what if it was more? Would he ever see his family again?
Since being plucked off the street Dec. 7 by three plainclothed men, Trevithick had been in notorious Evin prison. Day after day, the 30-year-old Hingham native did sit-ups and push-ups to help keep fear from haunting his thoughts.
For 41 days, Trevithick was interrogated by Iranian officials who insisted he was trying to overthrow their government as he tried to assure them he was only a student at Tehran University with no such intention.
Much of his time was spent in solitary confinement. “It takes a very intense mental toll on you because it’s such a bizarre experience,” he said. “You’re alone with your brain.”
Finally, Trevithick was released Jan. 15, the same day Iran freed four other prisoners in a swap negotiated by the US State Department. He is now recovering at home in the United States. This week is the first time he has spoken at length publicly about his ordeal — about what it was like to be a prisoner in a country that, as Trevithick put it, “is at war with itself.”
Trevithick first visited Iran in 2010 as a tourist, was taken with the country, then spent the next five years trying to secure a visa to return and study Farsi. Last July, a week after the landmark agreement was reached on the nuclear deal, he was finally successful.
The 2008 Boston University graduate is no stranger to the Middle East. He had lived in Iraq and in Istanbul, where he runs a nonpartisan research center, before he left for Iran in September.
Before his arrest, life in Tehran was boring, Trevithick said. He went from his dorm to his school to a cafe to study.
Most Iranians he met were cheerful and professed to like the United States. They were very different from the men who stopped him one day in the street and shoved him into their white Hyundai Sonata.
That was the day after Trevithick had called his mother to say he would be home for Christmas. The men stopped him on his way to buy a ticket for the flight back to Boston.
“Are you Matthew?” one asked him on the street, just outside his dorm. Yes, he said, and they were off, with him in the back seat and a religious song playing, driving down the hill toward the tall concrete walls and white metal gate that guard Evin Prison.
It was a busy day at the prison. A long line of other white Hyundai Sonatas waited to get in. Trevithick can’t describe his surroundings after that, because guards blindfolded him. They took his phone, computer, and clothes and gave him prison clothing.
Back in Boston, it didn’t take Trevithick’s mother, Amelia Newcomb, long to realize something was wrong. She alerted the US State Department soon after her son missed his daily text message check-in. That day she had sent him a message and waited for the little check that indicated he had read it.
“It just sat there,” Newcomb said by phone Thursday. “I decided pretty much within a few hours that something bad had happened.”
Twice the prison guards allowed Trevithick to call his mother, but forced him to lie and say he was going on a trip to the mountains.
“I asked ‘are you OK?’” Newcomb said. “He said ‘I’m not sure,’ and that was just awful, and then he had to go.”
The long days in the cell tested Trevithick’s mental stamina. His solitary confinement cell had off-white walls and no bed. A small sink gave him water of questionable quality. On the floor was a thin carpet and a towel he used as a pillow.
The door had a square hole the size of a face with two bars. Sunlight trickled through metal grates on the ceiling and he used the light to keep track of time.
Guards wouldn’t answer when Trevithick asked how long he would be there. Alone in the cell, he divided the days into blocks of time and did exercise routines to keep his mind from thinking too much.
Two sets of sit-ups, push-ups, planks, and stretches before breakfast, four before lunch, 10 before dinner.
“It just feels so permanent,” Trevithick said in a phone interview Thursday from New York. “You just realize there’s nothing you can do to get through that cement wall.”
Meals came in foam boxes with a plastic spoon. Breakfast was a hard-boiled egg, a small block of cheese, sometimes a pack of honey or butter. Lunch and dinner were traditional Iranian vegetable dishes, spread over rice. The food wasn’t bad, he said, but it was never enough.
Eventually, Trevithick developed a good rapport with a guard who brought him a cup of tea with dinner. The guard wanted to practice English and asked questions about Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Iraq war.
Trevithick was allowed to shower every four days. Most days, he was taken to interrogation, where prison officials had hacked into his e-mail and asked him about notes he had written a decade ago that contained the word Iran.
The interrogators claimed Trevithick had access to bank accounts with millions of dollars and ties to the US government. They never had any concrete evidence, Trevithick said, and he denied their accusation. But in Iran, he said, justice works differently.
“Absence of proof becomes proof,” he said.
Trevithick made detailed mental notes of days that were important. On day 29, guards took him out of solitary confinement and into a cell with two other Iranian prisoners. It was comforting, he said, to talk with other people.
At that point he realized he was in good company. The prison was full of artists, poets, intellectuals, journalists, and political dissidents, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. “You kind of take solace in that,” he said.
Trevithick’s prison stay ended as quickly as it began. One day, a guard came and told him to gather his belongings. Instead of leading him into a new cell, he led him out into the sunlight.
Swiss diplomats took him to the airport, where he flew back to Istanbul and then to Logan International Airport.
The experience, he said, taught him that despite the country’s perceived opening and despite the many Iranians who harbor no ill will toward America, not everyone feels the same.
“I am not the first American to be arrested and put in prison, obviously, and I do not think I’ll be the last,” he said.