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His Iranian captors held Matthew Trevithick for a month in solitary confinement in “a very small box” the width of his arm span. He passed the interminable hours and days by playing mind games, the consultant and writer told an audience at the College of General Studies recently. For example, Trevithick (CGS’06, CAS’08) tried to recall his entire 30-year life, to the most minute detail: “You’re a student at CGS, you come through here, you walk through Jacob Sleeper Auditorium. I tried to remember what color the walls were, what color the chairs were—to take one memory at a time and try to inhabit it for as long as possible, and then go on to the next one.”

In an interview following the talk, Trevithick detailed his prison ordeal prior to his release in January. He divided his life into the stretches of time between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to “shrink your life down to the smallest achievable blocks.” He was allowed a five-minute shower every four days and five bathroom breaks a day—in a frigid room with a hole in the ground, just 10 paces away. He was permitted fresh air every five days in an open-air cell. Throughout, guards taunted him: You’re never leaving this place.

The fear of that tortured him—isolated from all outside contact, Trevithick said, “I didn’t know any better.”

In her introduction, Natalie McKnight, dean of CGS, said Trevithick had been arrested on baseless antigovernment charges. He was released on January 16 from Teheran’s notorious Evin Prison after a total of 41 days, 29 of them in solitary.

At BU, Trevithick majored in international relations and studied Arabic. He was director of communications at the American University of Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014. Today, he lives in Turkey and works for SREO, a nonprofit he cofounded to aid refugees and victims of the Syrian civil war. He was in Iran on a leave of absence to study Farsi, the predominant Persian language there and elsewhere, when he was detained.

In his talk, he said that American Middle East policy too often is designed by people who don’t understand the region, and executed by diplomats and soldiers who share that ignorance. He cited a former colleague assigned to rebuild Iraq’s higher education system after the American invasion—a formidably smart individual with a PhD—who nevertheless “arrived without any background material whatsoever” on Iraq’s history and culture, fearing that it would bias his judgment.

The solution is within our means, and his talk, he said, “is a bit of a technocrat’s plea to be better at what we’re doing,” regardless of policy. His advice to BU students combined the conventional—master a foreign language, visit places outside their comfort zone—and the whimsical—recommending Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go, which he called the best book about life’s journey. “I reread it every six months.”

Trevithick was one of five Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, released by Iran in January. The freeing of the other four was part of a prisoner swap between the two nations. Secretary of State John Kerry (Hon.’05) interceded for Trevithick’s release in a sensitive negotiation, and during that time his family was told not to publicly disclose that their son was in prison.

While living in Afghanistan, Trevithick, a competitive rower, started a rowing team in Kabul. (He won a silver medal in the Head of the Charles in 2008.) During his talk, he recalled that it was BU professors who ignited his interest in the Middle East and Farsi.

In that sense, he joked, his imprisonment “was BU’s fault.”