An Interesting (and Frightening) View of Iran – Haleh Esfandiari’s “My Prison, My Home”

I had the privilege last week of attending a breakfast meeting where Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center, gave her views of the current status, and short term future, of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Israeli/Gaza war had not yet broken out, so that was not a topic.

She was introduced by Joe Gildenhorn, who chairs the Board of the Wilson Center, who briefly told the story of how she was arrested and held as prisoner in Iran, her home country, several years ago, when she went back to visit her mother. She has written up her experiences in “My Prison, My Home”, a book published by Harper/Collins in 2009. The next day, I read her book, which I highly recommend.

The book has two main advantages – it is fairly short (230 pages) and extremely well written, so much so that I read the book not in one sitting, but in one day. Her unfortunate story (which at least had a good ending) is fascinating and her brief description of the course of history in 20th century Iran is instructive.

Esfandiari was the daughter of an Iranian botanist and his Viennese wife (they met when they were both studying in the 1930s at the University of Vienna) and grew up in Iran, where she became a journalist, and where she met her husband, also a journalist, but an Iranian Jew. Her mother remained in Iran after the death of her father, and Esfandiari made it a point to return to Iran several times a year to visit and care for her. In 2006, her mother was in her early 90s.

Her work at the Wilson Center included the arrangement of many conferences and public programs concentrating on the affairs of several countries, including Iran. She brings scholars, émigrés, visiting politicians, etc. to present at these various affairs. Clearly not a fan of the current Iranian government – after all, she and her husband left the country shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

She had never had any trouble in her many visits to Tehran, until this one. Her problems started as she was on her way to the Tehran airport to fly back to the United States, and her driver’s car was forced off the road by three men who robbed them in an unusual way – her purse, with her two passports (Iranian and American), her cell phone, her driver’s cell phone taken. She was left with the jewelry she was wearing untouched.

Nevertheless, her assumption was that she had simply been robbed. She reported the robbery to the police and followed the standard rules to try to quickly obtain a substitute passport, so that she could rebook a flight out of Iran. No such luck. Instead, she was directed to a nominal passport office which was in fact an office of Iran’s security apparatus, and subjected to weeks of interrogation about the details of her life in the United States, of her work at the Wilson Center, of what she knew of the activities of those with whom she worked, and of her Jewish husband and his ties with AIPAC and generally with the Zionist movement and “the Zionist State”. Each evening, she was allowed to return to her mother’s, with instructions to report anew the next day for more interrogation. She was able to speak with her husband by telephone and, in fact, he helped her prepare for her next day interrogation, their belief being still that eventually the questioning would end and her passport restored, and that they would be better off by not putting Iran on the defensive by going public. But by now, they knew that the robbery was anything but a random crime.

For whatever reason, they were looking for her to confess to anti-Iranian activity, part of a United States government or CIA operation to destabilize the Iranian regime, perhaps with the assistance of Israel, all through the activities of the Wilson Center, which they seemed to believe was simply an organ of the United States government.

As time went on, as she refused to confess to something that was not truthful, as her interrogators kept telling her that her answers were not satisfactory, Esfandiari became less and less convinced that she would be released. Iran’s Islamic regime has a history of political arrests, imprisonments, tortures and even executions, and she was obviously and rightly very concerned. (The big objection to the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi was the repression of Savak; it is clear that nothing in this regard has changed in Iran, except that now in addition to anti-regime activities, violations of the Islamic dress and moral codes also add a base for the repression.)

There seemed to be disagreement amongst her questioners as to how she should be handled, and the hardliners won, so that one day her interrogator simply gave her an arrest warrant and instructions to report to the notorious Evin Prison, where she was placed in solitary confinement in the women’s ward, and continued to be interrogated on almost a daily basis.

She writes of the prison conditions (not good), of the attitudes of the female guards (varied), and how she was treated generally. She was apparently never subjected to physical violence or torture, but you can imagine the psychological effect, as well as the effect of being held in a barren cell, fed sparingly (although she is clearly not a foodie), and subject to the whims of her jailers. She developed an exercise program in her cell (which both kept her physically in shape and diverted her mind), and was allowed to telephone her mother occasionally, but not her husband abroad.

Eventually, she was released, but this was after four months in prison. Her passport was returned to her, and she was able to leave Tehran. She has obviously not traveled back.

Interspersed with the story of her interrogation and arrest (and I was intrigued by her reports of the methods of questioning which she faced), are the stories of her life in Iran prior to 1979, and the political history of Iran during the 20th century (and of course American and British involvement in that history).

That is a lot of territory to cover in 230 pages, and Esfandiari does it extremely well. If you want to know just the right amount about Iran over the past 100 years or so, and want to know Haleh Esfandiari’s story, you should definitely read this book.

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