In Evin Prison

Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images
Haleh Esfandiari at a press conference in Washington, D.C., after her release from detention in Iran, September 10, 2007

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…

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