- My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran
- Ecco, 240 pp.
Incarcerated in Iran
When Haleh Esfandiari was sent to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran in 2007, she was a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother. But she wasn’t any old sixty-seven-year-old grandmother. She was a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother from a family that had been both well-off and politically prominent in the 20th century.
As she describes in her book My Prison, My Home, Esfandiari had grown up in an ambience of privilege and education. Her mother is Viennese, so her culture and traditions were as European as they had been Iranian. As a young woman, she worked on the foreign desk at Iran’s most important daily during the reign of the last Shah (where her articles were censored, and her all-male colleagues looked down on her for being a woman and for coming from what they considered a bourgeois background).
She had worked actively for the Women’s Organization of Iran, an important engine of the feminist movement in the 1970s, trying to engineer progress for working-class women similar to the advances in the U.S. (This was not easy. For example, it was considered a major triumph when the legal age for marriage for an Iranian woman was raised from nine to thirteen. It went up to eighteen for a while, but Muslim clerics have brought it back to nine. One of Muhammad’s thirteen wives was nine years old, which is why many Muslims consider that age marriageable for a woman.)
Esfandiari was also a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother who had married and raised a family with a Jewish man, an action tantamount to adultery according to strict Muslims, and punishable with death by stoning.
After Ayatollah Khomeini took power after the 1979 revolution, Esfandiari and her family left the country. Both she and her husband acquired teaching jobs at prominent universities in the U.S, where she has lived ever since. She was given grants by both the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center, and remained at the Center as part of its Middle East program.
Her jail term of one hundred and five days was the culmination of an eight-month ordeal. In December of 2006, she returned to Tehran to visit her ailing mother. On her way to the airport for her trip back, a staged robbery, perpetrated by state secret police, detained her passage. She was not allowed to leave Iran. In the subsequent months, repeated interrogations by a secret policeman did not produce the information that he was seeking, so ultimately she was sent to prison.
It seems that it took this series of events for Esfandiari to wake up to the reality of the country where she was born. She describes her childhood in sentimental, rose-colored terms: sprawling gardens, devoted parents and grandparents, a dutiful nanny, memberships in exclusive clubs, a reading list of the great works of both Eastern and Western literature.
Yet during her ordeal the author discovers another Iran:
…today I found myself maneuvering between potholes on the sidewalk in an ugly part of Tehran. All I could see in my dark mood were the shabby apartment buildings on both sides of the road and the … open canal, with its muddy water, in the middle of the street.
I felt the country I had cherished all my life was no longer mine. I had loved Iran with a passion. I loved its brilliant blue sky and its brown earth. I loved the desert and the sea. Nothing to me was more beautiful than the clear night sky of my ancestral home in Kerman. The great ruins at Persepolis had made me proud; the poverty in Zahedan had made me weep. The beauty of Isfahan’s mosques took my breath away. Yet these horrible people had made me feel alien in my own homeland.
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. I also could not help contrasting the elegance with which some of the city’s residents, including friends, lived with the rampant poverty and economic hardship evident everywhere. Life in Tehran was expensive, and prices were going up every day. I saw an old man walk into a dairy store to buy a single egg and shoppers who waited till late in the evening to buy the battered fruits and leftover bits of fatty meat. I often witnessed the morals police stopping young boys and girls on the streets and hauling them away. Not for the first time, I heard of vigilantes barging into a wedding party, leaving the bride and groom in tears at the wreckage of a celebration they had planned for months.
Could a woman as well-educated as Esfandiari really have been that naïve? Didn’t such ugliness and hardship exist in Iran throughout her life? While she is very good at describing recent Iranian history, I got the sense that she was insufficiently hard on the political follies of the last Shah, who governed as she came of age. According to other books – for example The Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski – in that era, despite Esfandiari’s happiness and success, there was a secret police system equally brutal to that of today’s ayatollahs, and the Shah squandered the country’s oil wealth while much of the population went hungry.
Esfandiari demonstrates other blind spots when describing her interrogations and her imprisonment. She writes repeatedly of her exasperation with her principal inquisitor, who is known to her as Ja’fari and claims to be a university professor. She describes his endless questioning of her as meaningless, comic and absurd. Principally, Ja’fari imagines that she is an agent of the Wilson Center, an organ of the U.S. government that is plotting strategy against the Islamic Republic. Because she is married to a Jew, he accuses her of being a Zionist and a spy for Israel. He also considers both the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation “Zionist,” and she laughs in his face when he professes to believe that the latter has something to do with General Douglas MacArthur (whose death in 1964 has escaped Ja’fari). He is convinced that the Council on Foreign Relations is where U.S. foreign policy is made.
Secret policemen – not only putative Iranian professors, but C.I.A. operatives – often think along ideological lines and are rarely the brightest bulbs in the hardware store. Still, Ja’fari was not entirely off-base in his suspicions that Esfandiari might be involved in anti-Iranian activity. After all, by the time he got his hands on her (metaphorically – he never touched her), it was five years after George W. Bush had declared Iran part of the axis of evil with Iraq and North Korea. Her incarceration occurred after more than a decade of missed opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran, and Bush had already invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, repeatedly threatening that Iran was next. The Wilson Center may be an independent organization, but it didn’t escape Ja’fari that it is funded by the U.S. government.
Esfandiari tacitly admits that Ja’fari’s paranoia was to a certain extent justified, after she is interrogated by one Hajj Agha, a man she considers more sympathetic. When he offers similar arguments to Ja’fari – albeit more gently – she can see why he might believe them.
If her interrogators were within reason to believe she might be a spy, Esfandiari was absolutely on target to be terrified to be jailed at Evin, where political prisoners have been brutally tortured and murdered after being forced to confess to crimes of which they were innocent. Yet when she describes her hundred and five days within its confines, if it was not precisely a country club, by the international standards of prison, it could hardly have been better.
She was given her own cell, a luxury in most jails. Albeit well worn and not scrupulously clean, there was a carpet and a sink. She had soap, towels, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Ja’fari lent Esfandiari his own cell phone so she could call her mother every two weeks. She was given a desk, allowed to receive clothes and reading material (from Dostoevsky to Kazantzakis to Khalil Gibran, and even, perhaps ironically for someone falsely accused of spying, John le Carré). When she complained that the lights left on at night bother her, they were turned off.
While her cell was small, there was room enough for her to exercise in it, and she was also given time outside every day in a yard. When she refused a cot, she was given eight blankets, six of which she used as a bed and the other two as makeshift furniture. Since she had money, she was able to buy her own food, including fresh fruits, vegetables and yogurt. The women who guarded her brought her freshly baked bread, extra portions of dessert and dishes they made at home (one even brought her a white rose plucked from the prison garden). Still, Esfandiari lost weight in jail, largely due to her insistence at remaining a vegetarian.
I am by no means trying to undermine what was no doubt a harrowing experience for a woman who was, after all, a sixty-seven-year old grandmother. But at least from the evidence of her book, Esfandiari has not even the faintest clue of how much worse prison conditions are the world over, compared to her experiences.
One can only assume that part of the reason that Esfandiari was released from Evin so quickly was because of the extraordinary team that interceded on her behalf. The chairman of the board of the Wilson Center spoke to Colin Powell, who got the State Department on her case. As presidential candidates, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton asked for her release. Bill Clinton, U.S. Senators and members of Congress, Nicholas Burns (then under-secretary of state), international diplomats, and prominent scholars and intellectuals from all over the world petitioned Iran to let her go. Editorials appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and various television and radio programs – not only in the United States but in Europe and the Middle East. It boggles the mind to think of how many prisoners there are in Iran (and around the world) who have no such access to the powerful.
At the end of My Prison, My Home, some readers will be convinced that, despite her advanced education and supposed worldliness, Haleh Esfandiari has led a sheltered life. Here and there throughout the book there are glimpses of another that might be written about Iran, although clearly not by her.
While stuck in traffic a taxi driver explains to Esfandiari that, although he has a university degree in engineering, he is a fireman by day and a cabbie by night (and believes that the latter profession is the more dangerous of the two). Rabidly antifeminist, he thinks women no longer know their place in Iran, and believes they are taking mens’ places in the work force. He says he would never marry in Iran, and prefers to have adventures with prostitutes in Dubai or Thailand. He hopes to emigrate to Australia, marry an Iranian girl there, and never look back.
What about this man? What about the poor old fellow who bought the single egg? Or the strangers who approached Esfandiari on the street after her release from prison, who blessed her and said they had been rooting for her all the time? I would be interested to know a little more of what life is like on the ground in Iran, for people like them, as opposed to the rarefied experience that Esfandiari lived until her ordeal.