Sunday, January 31, 2010

My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran

In 2007, at 67 years of age, Haleh Esfandiari survived a nightmare experienced by so many of her fellow Iranians during the last several decades. She was arrested by the Iranian secret police on trumped up charges, interrogated endlessly, and finally placed in solitary confinement inside the infamous Evin Prison for 105 days. That she survived her ordeal, and did not suffer physical torture at the hands of her interrogators, makes her one of the lucky ones.

Esfandiari is not the typical citizen of Iran. She is, in fact, the founding director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. and she has taught at Princeton University. She lives in Maryland with her Iranian husband, a Jewish George Mason University professor, whom she married in Iran in 1964. Herself the product of a mixed marriage (her father is Iranian and her mother Austrian), Esfandiari, an avowed feminist, worked for Iranian newspapers before leaving the country in 1980 for political reasons. Esfandiari’s mother, however, decided to remain in Iran even after her husband’s death so that, when her time came, she could be buried next to him.

On December 31, 2006, Haleh Esfandiari had just completed an extended visit to her 93-year-old mother and was being driven to the airport for her return flight to the United States. Before she could make it to the airport, her car was stopped and she was robbed of her possessions, including her passport. Despite the warnings of some of her Iranian friends that this was no ordinary mugging, Esfandiari wanted to believe that she had been targeted by robbers only because of her apparent wealth rather than for political reasons. She would soon learn how wrong she was.

Esfandiari’s 105 days of imprisonment would be proceeded by four months of almost daily interrogation at the hands of investigators determined to force her to confess that she was part of a United States conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian government. Despite the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the questions (as well as that of her consistent responses) and the increasing threats of a life in prison sentence, or worse, for her refusal to cooperate, Esfandiari refused to sign a confession even after being taken to the notorious Evin Prison.

My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran is Haleh Esfandiari’s account of how she maintained her sanity and physical health during her eight-month ordeal. Early on, she sensed that a system of routine and order would be instrumental in fighting off the despair and confusion she could so easily fall into during her confinement. Because during the early weeks of her imprisonment she was allowed no reading material other than the Koran, Esfandiari used physical exercise as both an escape and a means of setting goals for herself. She knew she had to be as mentally tough as her interrogators if she was to survive what they had planned for her.

The most unexpected aspect of My Prison, My Home is the relationship that developed between Esfandiari and some of those holding her, especially the female guards in control of her daily routine. A surprising number of these women came to sympathize with Esfandiari and to develop a personal relationship with her. Esfandiari, on her part, would take such an interest in their lives that she became a grandmother-like figure to some of the young women. Even her interrogators and the prison doctor sometimes displayed what seemed to be genuine concern for her mental and physical health while they continued to pressure her for a confession.

Despite the tremendous emotional and physical ordeal Haleh Esfandiari suffered at the hands of her countrymen, her prose is, at times, flat and rather unemotional, almost as if she cannot allow herself to feel again the pain and despair of those days. Perhaps, too, her tone is such because something inside her has died and she knows that she will never again see her beloved Iran as she saw it before her imprisonment. Much more than her passport and possessions were stolen from her on December 31, 2006.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)

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