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.
Esfandiari first returned to Iran in 1992, encouraged by the more liberal climate fostered by the relatively pragmatic President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his then minister of culture, Mohammad Khatami. After her father’s death in 1995, she visited more frequently, to help care for her aging mother. She says of the late 1990s and early 2000s:
These were years when the possibility of fundamental change seemed real and when Iranians believed, for a brief moment, that they could take charge of their own lives and government. It was not to be, and it was heartbreaking to me to witness the snuffing out of so much promise and hope.
Following the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, however, the tenor of society changed so much that “I made it a point on these trips to stay away from even mildly ‘political’ people.” Unfortunately, her efforts were insufficient to protect her from the roving eye of the Intelligence Ministry, “heir to the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK,” although far more murderous even than they, and responsible for the deaths of thousands of dissenters.
This institution defined Esfandiari’s existence from December 30, 2006, when she was to have returned home to Washington, D.C., until September 2007, when she finally did; and her interactions with its emissaries make for astounding reading. The experience was absurd, horrendous, and disturbingly banal: in a final, blackly comic flourish, her principal interrogator, Mr. Ja’fari, presented her, on the eve of her departure, with a gift: “a large, beautiful inlaid box” containing a leather-bound volume of the poetry of Hafez, Iran’s famed fourteenth-century poet: “I examined this curious gift, turning over and over in my mind its intended meaning. It was truly bizarre. The Intelligence Ministry was sending a message: ‘No hard feelings. Let’s be friends.’” As she says of them, “It’s the way we play the game,” and there is, about the surreal dance of her eight months in their hands, the quality of a game—destructive, potentially lethal, but a game nevertheless.
The Intelligence Ministry existed for Esfandiari primarily in the form of two men: her chief interrogator, Ja’fari, and his superior, Hajj Agha. Ja’fari she first met in early January 2007 at an interrogation center in a “house…modeled after the Petit Trianon,” where he questioned her for long hours at a time, over a fortnight:
He was in his mid-thirties, of medium height, with a bit of stubble on his face. He wore an open-necked shirt beneath a modified safari jacket. A smirk never left his face. His manner alternated between solicitous official…and faceless bureaucrat.
Hajj Agha, the more gracious and apparently accommodating of the two men, with whom she had more dealings once she was imprisoned in early May 2007, emerges in spite of his urbanity as the more sinister: his name is honorific rather than personal (“Hajj” refers to one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca; “Agha” is a title for a military officer), so he is, in fact, nameless; and as Esfandiari was not permitted to see his face, and forced to face the wall, he remains, hideously, a cipher.
Ja’fari’s line of questioning was, from the outset, clear: “He imagined that the Wilson Center was an agency of the American government, that we were implicated in some nefarious plot against the Islamic Republic, and that we routinely held secret meetings to plan strategy to this end.” Esfandiari marvels, “How does one persuade a man with Ja’fari’s mind-set that the Ford Foundation…is not part of a ‘Zionist conspiracy’? How could I convince him that my husband was not an Israeli agent?”
More specifically, Esfandiari came to realize that Ja’fari and the Intelligence Ministry feared “that the Wilson Center was part of a conspiracy to bring about a velvet revolution…in Iran”:
It was the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Institute (OSI) that earned Ja’fari’s most intense scrutiny. The OSI was part of the Soros Foundations…. [It] had been active in newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union…. In these countries, mass popular movements led by intellectuals and opposition parties had succeeded in bringing down Soviet-style governments. These movements became known as “velvet revolutions” or “rainbow revolutions” because of their peaceful, nonviolent nature and because protesters had adopted a particular identifying color—orange in the Ukraine, rose in Georgia, for example. In the twisted mind of Ja’fari and his colleagues, the Soros Foundations had caused these velvet revolutions, and since George Soros was a Jew, a shadowy, Jewish conspiracy hovered in the wings.
The wildness of this paranoia is of course all the more intriguing because it is not, in some details, so very far from reality: orange in the Ukraine, rose in Georgia, and green in Iran? This year’s thwarted presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi may not have sought to provoke a “velvet revolution,” but in their passionate cries for democratic reform, his supporters were not far from doing so, and their resistance, albeit less visibly, continues. While it is madness to blame the United States and Britain for supposedly coordinating and manipulating this discontent, Ja’fari is not wrong to be alarmed, or wrong to imagine that the West would wish for the reformists’ success.
Nevertheless, to appreciate that a faction of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry (because it becomes clear, during Esfandiari’s ordeal, that there are bickering factions behind the scrim: “one ready to let me go, the other determined to hold on to me”) would seriously believe that the OSI was responsible for the revolutions in former Soviet countries, and intent on a similar strategy in Iran, is already to grasp the strange, novelistic, mutual incomprehensions that exist between Iran and the United States: we could not have imagined that they could genuinely imagine that. Suddenly, with Esfandiari’s explanation, Tehran’s apparently lunatic assertions about Western involvement in the events of June of this year take on a new tenor: it is vital that we understand that this is not mere rhetorical flourish. At least some portion of the Iranian establishment may believe, or believe they have to believe, these statements to be true.
Esfandiari’s interrogations changed in nature, intensity, and locale. She was called upon to answer questions in writing, to provide documents and information pertaining to her work and life, and to speak on camera in a filmed “interview” that was broadcast nationally, along with those of two other prisoners: the political philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo (who had already been released, and who described the broadcast as “a page out of Stalinist Russia and George Orwell’s 1984 “) and the social scientist and urban planner Kian Tajbakhsh. But the focus of the discussions never changed.
The questioning did, however, cease for a time: after the “Petit Trianon” interrogations and before Esfandiari’s arrest, there were “eleven weeks of silence. It was a period of anxious waiting, which I tried to fill in various ways…. I spent my days in a figurative crouch…waiting for the blow to fall.” This hiatus, during which she did not know what her fate might be, was nothing short of psychological torture:
My entanglement with the Intelligence Ministry meant I would never again feel safe in Iran, even at home. I could no longer carry out an unguarded conversation over the telephone. I believed the intelligence people were reading my e-mail. My nerves were always on edge…. I hated being cooped up in the apartment, but I was uncomfortable going out….
Mutti and I became increasingly isolated. The small group of academic “insiders” who had generously tried to help me began to disappear from my life….
I could no longer see the beauty of the landscape I had always loved. I saw only the gray ugliness of the streets, the piles of uncollected garbage, the potholes, the dirty water in the canals, the smog and the snarled traffic.
In this period, Esfandiari came to realize that while she “had always thought of my dual Iranian-American nationality as an accurate reflection of the two worlds and two cultures between which I shuttled,” the reality was different: “My adopted country and the country of my birth were engaged in a dangerous, undeclared war; and I, and many others like me, were caught in their cross fire.” The Americans’ support for Saddam Hussein during the eight-year Iran–Iraq war; the Iranian funding of Hezbollah; the bombings in Lebanon in 1983 and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996; the George W. Bush administration’s “democracy promotion” program, “a policy of promoting regime change by trying to give money to dissidents”—all of this history played into the fate of a single woman on a visit to her aged, widowed mother in Tehran.
Finally, on May 2, 2007, Ja’fari announced that Esfandiari was being arrested and taken to Evin, to solitary confinement, where she would spend the next four months. Her vivid account of this experience, from her initial blindfolding upon entering the prison, provides us with a wholly unsensational picture both of her treatment and of her own psychological resistance. We learn what her cell looked like, how she slept and washed, what she ate, how she did her laundry, how the interrogations were conducted, what the guards were like—in short, all the details that enable us to imagine the imprisonment clearly. Esfandiari tells of her considerable weight loss, of her resistance to the prison doctors, and of the skin complaint that she worried might be cancer.
Inevitably, the mental toll of her incarceration is less readily communicable, but here, too, Esfandiari provides pragmatic explanations of her decisions and thoughts: “From the first day, I decided that if I were to avoid succumbing to despair, I had to impose a strict discipline on myself…. I knew I had to be mentally strong, keep my wits about me, remain focused on the interrogations,” a decision that meant she would not dwell on her family and friends, and would instead devote much of her time to doing exercises to remain physically strong and fit. “While I exercised, I composed two books—not on paper but in my head. One was a biography of my paternal grandmother…. The other book was a children’s story for my granddaughters.” Eventually, she was allowed to borrow books from Kian Tajbakhsh, also in Evin at the time (although she did not meet him: “I never once spoke to another inmate”).
Only once does Esfandiari speak of breaking down, following her one visit from her mother: not wanting her captors to see her vulnerability, she asked to take a shower: “In the shower, I let go of myself and cried copiously. I cried for what I had done to my mother. Instead of the calm, happy old age she deserved, she was experiencing a living hell.” Even small moments of kindness in the prison proved hard to bear: when one of the guards, Hajj Khanum, brought her a flower, “a tiny rose, the size of my middle finger,” or when another she had nicknamed Sunny Face brought in a rice dish that Esfandiari had taught her to cook, she was all but overcome.
Through these women guards, a number of whom were distinctly sympathetic to her plight, Esfandiari brings us a portrait of women’s lives in contemporary Iran rather different from that of Azar Nafisi’s lively literature students in her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003):
They seemed all to come from the same working-class or lower-middle-class background. They were all religious, prayed regularly, and observed a strict form of the hijab. They were raised in traditional homes, but their lives were in flux. All had finished secondary school; one had been to university; one had trained at a seminary and another aspired to do so. They had learned to care about their looks, their clothes, their weight, and their health. At least one aspired to go to America.
In her isolation, Esfandiari was almost wholly unaware of the extensive efforts underway to secure her release, including interventions from European governments. She did not know how long she might remain in isolation and was leery of all promising indications—such as Hajj Agha’s question in June: “How do you know Obama?”
She fought back with rage and defiance—”I knew I must not let them break me”—and with her insistence, even when it was most difficult, on retaining perspective:
Outside prison, Ja’fari’s and Hajj Agha’s repeated references to “the triangle,” “plots,” and “conspiracies” seemed outlandish, even amusing. In solitary confinement, under interrogation, cut off from the outside world, accused of the most serious crimes against the state, I found these endlessly repeated assertions sin- ister: part of a world of secret cabals, plotters, and conspiracies in which I was supposedly involved without being aware of it. I had to be careful not to lose my grip on reality or to succumb to Hajj Agha’s deceptive view of the world.
This, of course, is the struggle for any prisoner in such a situation; but it is also the struggle for the Iranian people at large: How not to succumb to the regime’s view of the world? Theirs is a society of constant contradictions, of mirrors and masks, of both authority and a theater of authority, to which they must subscribe. They, too, are terrorized by prolonged uncertainty, never knowing the limits of what is allowed—can women show their hair in public this month without fear of arrest? Can weddings allow dancing in private homes this year, or will the morals police break down the door? Can the press question the regime this week, or will the newspapers be shut down? Can you demonstrate freely today, or might you be arrested, tortured, and killed?
For Esfandiari, even in her darkest hour, there was always the American knowledge of the actuality of “reality as it might be”: it hovered almost in sight, a passport and a plane journey away. Whether, before Lee Hamilton’s letter to Khamenei apparently led to her release, this knowledge made the ordeal more or less endurable is hard to say. But as an Iranian, she was also always aware of the ironies of her native society; she could be at once fully in the world and yet not of it, and this may have been her salvation. She knew that her guards, for the most part, were not her enemies; and while shocked, she was perhaps not surprised when Ja’fari and “the boys,” his colleagues at the Intelligence Ministry, presented her with the gift of a book of poetry at the end of her time in Evin. Perhaps they thought that, in spite of the horrors they had inflicted upon her, the greatness of the poet Hafez was something on which they could all agree.