Tuesday, September 8, 2009


A day that began like any other ended like no other day. Iranian-American Haleh Esfandiari was en route to the Tehran airport

for a flight back to Washington at the end of a week’s visit to her elderly mother when her taxi was pulled off the road and three men with large knives jumped into the vehicle. They made off with her belongings, including her Iranian and American passports. The saga that unfolded between that early morning on Dec. 30, 2006, and the day in early September 2007 when a plane carried Ms. Esfandiari from Iran is a wrenching story of how the country of her birth became her prison.

In “My Prison, My Home,” Ms. Esfandiari, a scholar, author and public intellectual who directs the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, recounts the story of her detention in Iran. From May 8, 2007, it included incarceration in the infamous Evin prison, where she remained for a total of 105 days until she was set free in late August and finally allowed to leave the country. Iranian authorities accused her of attempting to foment a velvet revolution as part of an American plot to overturn the regime and set about trying to extract information and an admission of guilt.

The story Ms. Esfandiari tells is actually a set of three densely interwoven stories.

The first two are inside stories. One is her experience from the time she fell into the clutches of the authorities - under open detention or a kind of quasi house arrest and later under imprisonment - and of her discipline and determination, her calculations and reflections. The second is the story of the Iranian state and its intelligence apparatus as she glimpsed and experienced it: its interrogation procedures, incarceration practices and prison bureaucracy, hints of cracks and fissures within, and the kindnesses of some female guards.

The third story, of which Ms. Esfandiari was virtually ignorant at the time, is the outside story of the efforts to facilitate her return home to the United States. Initially quiet, the efforts turned into a highly public global campaign after she was jailed. Her confinement was so tight that Ms. Esfandiari could only catch inklings of this parallel outside story in the stray remarks of her captors.

Ms. Esfandiari’s story is a chilling rendition of the deep enmeshment of the personal and the political. Unwittingly, she became caught in the web of larger politics - of the tense and tortuous relations between Iran, the country of her birth, and the United States, her new home. Hers was not a case of innocent until proven guilty but of being branded guilty and pressured to construct a narrative of guilt for the state.

Ms. Esfandiari understood the game. She had to stay tightly focused to keep ahead in a contest of wits. The strange saga of interrogation at the hands of state intelligence fueled by its outlandish conspiracy theories, like something out of mad comics, ironically put the greater burden on the interrogators, who needed to wrest damning proof out of their own cocktail of confusion, than upon the accused, who operated in a more mundane world of realities.

Power of the raw sort was on the side of the state interrogators. They were free to instill fear through intimidation and induce weariness through mindless repetition of questions and tedious demands for time-consuming written answers with reams of details about the Wilson Center - all of which were available on the Web. Like other institutes of scholarship and think tanks, the center was viewed by the Iranian authorities as being at the heart of an American conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian regime. While they desperately set about to extract a narrative of guilt and exposure of American machinations, they actually got nothing and seemed like mad hatters in the process.

Thrust into a surreal world of prison, although things were getting decidedly odd long before her formal detention, Ms. Esfandiari had to retain her grip on reality, remain focused and intensely riveted on the immediate. She did so in different ways: by maintaining discipline in her daily routines, including rigorous physical exercise, and most poignantly by banishing thoughts of her family - her husband, daughter, and grandchildren, in order to keep steely strong.

Meanwhile, her days included endless walks, while cloaked in a chador and blindfolded, navigating narrow corridors and staircases, endless hours - up to eight a day - under interrogation with her face to the wall, washing her few clothes over and over again, and sleeping on a bed of four folded blankets (she had refused a cot, both because she feared lice and because it would take up too much room in her tiny cell) under the glare of a fluorescent light that was never turned off. She did have her daily solitary hour’s walk on the prison terrace, the smaller one reserved for women, which she took rain or shine, and where she glimpsed a butterfly that, unlike her, could fly away.

Reading “My Prison, My Home” makes striking how interlocked we all are in this world - the free and the less free. Ms. Esfandiari did her part in prison treading a fine line between persevering and succumbing. Friends in Iran offered advice and encouragement before her incarceration until the moment it became too dangerous for them. As they began to pull back, Ms. Esfandiari could discern a sinister turn of events leading to her internment. In jail, in the brief monitored telephone calls she was allowed to her mother, Ms. Esfandiari managed to convey messages to be sent to her husband, Shaul Bakhash, a professor at George Mason University, who was working night and day for her release, along with Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, its staff, and many others. Vast networks of professionals, government figures, academics and activists, and institutions and organizations around the globe worked to free her. The regime in Iran itself was far from immune to this vast unwanted attention, and, within, reformists and hard-liners quibbled over her fate.

In late August 2007, Ms. Esfandiari was suddenly told she was being released. Her first reaction was incredulity. When it sunk in that “it was not a ruse or cruel trick,” she tells us: “The narrow, suffocating interrogation room seemed suddenly larger; instead of pressing down on me, the walls seemed to be moving back; the ceiling seemed to be rising. Finally, I had room to breathe.” As we come to the end of her gripping tale, we too catch our breath.

Ms. Esfandiari’s harrowing time in prison with its uncertain outcome was over. The interrogations, humiliations and tedium of prison life and the threat of show trials had ended for her. One of the last things Ms. Esfandiari did before she left the Evin prison was to gather up a pile of books for return to her fellow prisoner, Iranian-American sociologist Kian Tajbakhsh. It was a signal that she was leaving. Later, he too would be released and return to a quiet life in Tehran.

But the incriminations and imprisonments go on. With the massive popular uprisings throughout the country protesting the fraudulent presidential election in June, hundreds were thrown into prison, and scores are undergoing show trials. Mr. Tajbakhsh, one of them, is back in prison and the victim of a show trial. Ms. Esfandiari’s finely wrought memoir - one woman’s story - gives us a window on a terrible and terrifying world and the trial by fire that some of our fellow human beings are forced to endure.

c Margot Badran, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and senior fellow at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is the author of “Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences,” published by Oneworld, Oxford.

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