My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran
by Haleh Esfandiari
Ecco, 230 pp., $25.99
Extraordinary events in Iran over the past six months have brought us images, voices, and narratives until recently unimaginable; they reveal, among other things, how little we understand about quotidian life in that country since the revolution. In the United States, we are nevertheless aware, with a dark tremor, of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, the black hole of the hard-liners’ repressive system. Emblematic of the regime, it is a site of torture and interrogation, of isolation, and of emotional as well as physical violence. It is a prison for the breaking of souls.
Prominent intellectuals, politicians, activists, and journalists have vanished into its maw. Many, like the Canadian-Iranian photographer Zahra Kazemi, who died in 2003 after being brutally beaten, or the twenty-nine Iranian prisoners executed in July 2008, have not survived to speak of their ordeals there. Many others remain incarcerated, among them scores of reformists arrested during the summer’s demonstrations and, in particular, the Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, originally arrested in 2007 at the same time as Haleh Esfandiari, and recently shockingly condemned, at a show trial, to at least twelve years in prison.
In this company, Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., is one of the lucky ones. An apparently unlikely candidate for arrest—a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother at the time of her imprisonment in 2007, Esfandiari was in Iran to visit her ninety-three-year-old mother—she was sucked into the surreal vortex of the nation’s Intelligence Ministry, interrogated for months, and held in solitary confinement for four months. Her release was apparently the direct result of an exchange of letters between Lee Hamilton, her employer and the director of the Wilson Center, and the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei; although Esfandiari’s husband, the historian Shaul Bakhash, along with many others (including the editors of The New York Review) campaigned tirelessly for her freedom, both in the United States and around the world. As she makes clear, it is impossible to know exactly what confluence of events led her captors to set her free: so much of their understanding of the world and of her role in it remained opaque to the last.
In the wake of her experience, Esfandiari has written a memoir of considerable delicacy and sophistication. My Prison, My Home is, primarily, an account of her annus horribilis, from the initial staged “robbery” when she was on her way to Tehran airport on December 30, 2006, that left her conveniently without a passport and unable to leave the country, through her lockup and eventual liberation almost eight months later. But Esfandiari also provides us with a lucid, concise history of Iran through the twentieth century and into the first years of the twenty-first, and with it an outline of her own remarkable life across continents and cultures. She is restrained in her telling—the book is filled with vivid details and facts, rather than emotional outpouring—a decision for which her narrative is only the more powerful; but her position as someone who fully understands both America and Iran affords her the opportunity to elucidate, for American readers, some of the apparent mysteries of her native culture.
In order for us to make sense of her imprisonment, we need to grasp both its historical background and Esfandiari’s own particular life story. (This assertion may seem painfully rudimentary, but facts that are common knowledge to any Iranian, such as the people’s abiding resentment of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that restored the Shah to power, seem frequently to have eluded our nation’s policymakers.)
Cosmopolitan and intellectual, Esfandiari’s own upbringing reminds the reader of Iran as the West once knew it. She is the older child of an Iranian botanist, himself the descendant of regional governors and politicians from the eastern city of Kerman, and of an Austrian mother. Her parents met at university in Vienna before the war. Raised between her mother’s German-style home and her grandmother’s traditional Iranian household, Esfandiari, like her parents, attended university in Vienna:
While I stayed clear of the student movement,…my time in Vienna had a huge hand in shaping my intellectual development and my love for Western culture.
Having completed her doctorate, she returned to Iran in 1964 at the age of twenty-four.
Esfandiari lays out the vital information of her nation’s history alongside her own. The pivotal power struggle in the early 1950s between the Shah and his prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who sought to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, took place when Haleh was only a child, but
even as an eleven-year-old I was caught up in these currents, as were the rest of the students at the normally staid Jeanne d’Arc [a Catholic girls’ school run by French nuns]. We had all become politicized and wanted the British out.
Unfortunately, the CIA did not agree with the schoolgirls. (The importance of the Jeanne d’Arc school in educating the young women of Iran’s future elite in pre-revolutionary times is evident: a quick glance at contact information for alumnae shows them to be predominantly working professionals, with most of them living in the diaspora.) The Esfandiari household’s relation to the Mossadegh uprising was complicated, moreover, because “the family was divided…. Mossadegh, the aristocrat who had emerged as a defender of the masses, was a close relative.”
Esfandiari explains the increasing difficulties of the Shah’s regime during the course of the 1960s and 1970s—although she does not provide the sort of lavish detail about his infamous material excesses that can be found in Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski’s Shah of Shahs (1985) or Christopher de Bellaigue’s riveting In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs (2005)—and she makes these problems concrete in relation to her own life. Her first career upon returning to Iran was as a journalist. She translated and wrote for the nation’s largest daily newspaper, Kayhan, where she met her future husband, Shaul Bakhash, while they were both covering a visit to Iran by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. (That Bakhash is Jewish and she a Muslim was, at the time of their marriage in 1965, “highly unusual,” but by no means scandalous: her conservative Muslim grandmother blessed their union.) After leaving Tehran for several years so that Bakhash could pursue his academic career at Harvard and Oxford, the couple returned in 1972.
Although she went back to Kayhan, Esfandiari found that she could not stay there long: “Increasingly the shah and the government showed less tolerance for even the mildest criticism, and the grip on the media of the emboldened Information Ministry grew tighter.” When Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda’s protégé, Amir Taheri, was appointed editor of the paper, Esfandiari quit, and went to work for the Women’s Organization of Iran (WOI), a women’s rights group founded in 1966.
In a moving aside—and one that feels particularly significant, given the growing influence of women in the current Iranian reform movement and their heightened presence on the streets during last summer’s demonstrations, as was noted in the anonymous “Letter from Tehran” published in The New Yorker in early October—Esfandiari comments on her work with WOI, which lasted until 1975:
After the revolution, the clerics sought to undo as many of our accomplishments as they could…. But I believe the WOI played a role in making a new generation of women conscious of their rights, and these women were determined not to be relegated to second-class status again. For these reasons, my three years at the WOI remain among the most rewarding of my working life. I became, and remain, an unrepentant feminist.
From there, Esfandiari went on to the Shahbanou Farah Foundation, a cultural organization set up by and named after the Shah’s third wife (herself a graduate of the Jeanne d’Arc school), through which she oversaw museums and cultural centers. From this vantage, she watched the Shah’s Iran crumbling around her:
By 1977, for example, Tehran’s “poetry nights” at the German-sponsored Goethe Institute had taken on a decidedly political color. Large gatherings listened while poets read from works praising liberty and criticizing oppression. Lawyers and intellectuals addressed open letters to the prime minister and the shah calling for the reinstitution of basic freedoms and the release of political prisoners.
In this setting, Esfandiari explains, the popular appeal of Khomeini—who had publicly and volubly denounced the Shah since the early 1960s, and had lived in exile in Turkey, Iraq, and France—gained inexorable momentum. While the Shah’s opponents were politically diverse, ranging from Communists to intellectuals to civil servants, “Khomeini’s clerical lieutenants came to dominate the movement, and Khomeini emerged as its undisputed leader.” During 1978, demonstrations grew exponentially in size and force, and Esfandiari writes that “the regime, hammered by strikes, shutdowns, demonstrations, and violence on the streets, was in a hopeless situation.”
While Esfandiari is clear about some sources of the unrest, she does not dwell on the people’s grievances against the Shah. It is enlightening to read Kapus´cin´ski’s account of life in the Shah’s last years of rule, written at the time of the revolution, and to note how familiar the Pahlavi regime’s methods sound to any of us reading the newspapers today:
More than a hundred thousand young Iranians were studying in Europe and America…. Today more Iranian doctors practice in San Francisco or Hamburg than in Tebriz or Meshed. They did not return even for the generous salaries the Shah offered. They feared Savak [the Shah’s secret police, comparable to the contemporary Intelligence Ministry]…. An Iranian at home could not read the books of the country’s best writers (because they came out only abroad), could not see the films of its outstanding directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), could not listen to the voices of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence).
For Esfandiari and Bakhash, with a small daughter at the time, the upheaval of the revolution was too uncertain: Esfandiari took their daughter to London in early December 1978 for two weeks, to “wait things out.”
In fact, however, she would not return home for many years. Khomeini returned to Iran in February 1979 and within ten days the Shah’s monarchy collapsed. Now “armed revolutionary committees roamed the streets. Every day, grisly pictures appeared in the Tehran papers of executed members of the old regime—many I had known personally or had covered as a journalist.” Bakhash had been offered a visiting professorship at Princeton, and the family moved to the United States, where they have lived since. Esfandiari taught Persian at Princeton until 1992. She then wrote her first book, Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution (1997), with the support of fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center, and was asked by Robert Litwak, then the Wilson Center’s director of the Division for International Studies, to start a Middle East program there, where she still works.