My Iranian Prison

Sandra McElwaine talks to Haleh Esfandiari about her 105-day imprisonment and interrogation in Iran and her powerful new memoir, My Prison, My Home.

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Tears come to Haleh Esfandiari’s eyes as she describes her 105 days of solitary confinement in Tehran’s dreaded Evin prison. Her voice wavers as she tells about the three months of constant interrogation and sleeping on the floor, with a blanket as a mattress; the terror of isolation, the deprivation, and desperation when she thought she might simply disappear, never to see her family again. “There were moments I would wake up and cry,” says the Middle East scholar, during an interview in her rose-filled office in the Woodrow Wilson Center at the heart of Washington, D.C. A tiny bird-like figure dressed in black, she is discussing her new book, My Prison, My Home, a harrowing account of her captivity which continues to haunt her life today.

“I was 67 then and decided I had lived a good life so, even if they keep me here forever, even if they kill me I have a legacy to leave behind and a lot of love to hold on to. That’s how I was able to put up with it.”

Discipline was her salvation. Esfandiari, who says she learned perseverance form her Viennese mother, stuck to a 6- to 8-hour regime of Pilates, with empty water bottles as weights, yoga, and marching up and down the confines of her cell. To counter her depression and further focus her thoughts, she composed two books in her mind, a biography of her Austrian grandmother and a children’s book for her two granddaughters. “I didn’t dare write anything down on paper. I kept switching around paragraphs.” Because of stress and poor diet, she lost 20 pounds and so alarmed her jailers that shortly before her release they kept asking which restaurant she would like to order meals from.

Her survival depended on mental toughness. “I am tough person because I have lived through a lot,” states the 69-year-old grandmother. “I was 67 then and decided I had lived a good life so, even if they keep me here forever, even if they kill me I have a legacy to leave behind and a lot of love to hold on to. That’s how I was able to put up with it. But there were many, many moments of despair.”

An expert on Middle East politics and women’s issues, Esfandiari, who carries both American and Iranian passports, lived in Iran until the 1979 revolution forced her, her husband, and daughter to flee. For years she regularly visited her elderly mother in Iran without incident, until 2006 when on her way to the airport to leave the country her ordeal began. She was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with death. After applying for a new passport she was barred from leaving the country and spent many months interrogated for up to eight hours a day at the Ministry of Intelligence. Their questions focused primarily on her work with the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan institution engaged in the study of national and world affairs. In May 2007 she was charged with “crimes against national security and planning a velvet revolution,” and then incarcerated.

Once she overcame her shock, Esfandiari realized she was arrested because she was perceived as an agent provocateur. Her inquisitors kept insisting she confess to stirring up anti-government activities but she refused to bend. “They had and have paranoia about a velvet revolution,” she says, “and I fit the example of what they had in their mind. I was a woman, a feminist, working for a think tank in Washington, organizing conferences and analyzing the situation in Iran. They seriously believe the U.S. was after regime change and that I was one of the masterminds. They thought I was there to empower civic organizations [and] to look and see if Iran was ready [to revolt].” Esfandiari vehemently denies involvement in any type of espionage, back-channel organizations, or the CIA. “Absolutely not. Never. Even when I came back from Iran I was never approached to be debriefed. I work for a nonpartisan organization and did not get involved with that.”

Her eventual release was due to a massive international outcry, which included Nobel Prize winners, human-rights activists, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, plus a tsunami of press attention organized by her husband, Shaul, a Maryland history professor. The clincher was a personal letter from the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his August 2007 appeal, Hamilton stressed Esfandiari's extensive efforts to explain Iran’s history and culture. He received a rare unsigned response from the ayatollah’s office stating he would deal with the issue and that “necessary measures will be taken as soon as possible.” Soon thereafter on August 21, Esfandiari was released. Her passport was returned and she left Iran. To be freed, she was required to put up bail, and there remains $330,000 lien on her mother’s apartment. “Mr. Hamilton’s letter was invaluable, but I think I also became an embarrassment to them,” she says, “They didn’t expect all the attention from all over the world.”

Within days of her return to Washington, she was back at her desk at the Wilson Center. “I had to prove to myself they had not broken me. Nothing had changed.” She did not give up her day job to write My Prison, My Home, but worked until 2 or 3 a.m. for 11 months, reliving the low moments of her ordeal and seeking a sense of closure. And since the book’s debut in early September she has become a star—recognized and approached on the street, in airports and restaurants. “People have been very kind. I’m very touched and moved.”

When she walks this reporter to the door to say goodbye, she remarks that she still bears the scars of her internment. “You are never the same person. It’s like a wound that leaves a mark on your skin that even plastic surgery can’t remove.” What she learned during that cruel period and describes in her book is an immense respect for the rule of law. “That was crucial for me. That’s the message I want to give people. Appreciate and cherish the rule of law. And preserve it.”

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Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.