Eight months in Iran's notorious Evin jail
BOOK OF THE DAY: My Prison, My Home,Haleh Esfandiari, Harper Press, £16.99, 230pp
EVIN PRISON is Iran’s most notorious jail and is best known for its political prisoners. Students, journalists and academics have all been incarcerated there, while abuse, rape, executions and forced confessions have been linked to this powerful institution in northwest Tehran.
In 2003, an Iranian-Canadian journalist was imprisoned for taking photos outside the jail and later died while inside, allegedly from beatings she endured there.
Haleh Esfandiari was 67 when she was brought to Evin. Her ordeal began on the way to the airport, returning to the US after a visit to her mother, when she was robbed at knife-point and her US and Iranian passports were taken. What seemed like a straightforward mugging quickly emerged as part of a sinister state project to detain Esfandiari in Iran and force her to confess to involvement in a plot to overthrow the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Esfandiari is an Iranian- American academic who grew up in Iran but has lived and worked in the US for many years. She has written about women and Islam, worked as a journalist and is the founding director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Her role there, she says, “merely involved organising talks and conferences on Middle Eastern issues and hardly merited the attention of the Iranian authorities”.
In the days after the robbery, Esfandiari was summoned to the intelligence ministry. Days turned into weeks, then months of interrogation as Esfandiari was repeatedly questioned about her role at the Woodrow Wilson Center, her views on Iran and the US, her “Zionist” connections – mainly her Jewish husband, Shaul.
The interrogations continued when she was taken to Evin and held in solitary confinement for more than three months before being released without trial in 2007. My Prison, My Hometells the story of Esfandiari’s eight- month agony. She describes the methods of her interrogation: how she was “emptied of information”, repeatedly asked the same question to confuse her; blindfolded and led, disoriented, through the prison corridors; placed facing a wall with her back to her interrogators, only known to her by their voices.
Ten thousand signatures were collected during Esfandiari’s imprisonment calling for her release, while her family, colleagues and supporters waged a tireless campaign with the backing of the UN, Human Rights Watch and others. Then senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton called for her release, and her situation was widely reported in the US and European media.
But this was the era of George W Bush, and Iran-US relations were at a record low and international pressure initially seemed to have little effect.
At times, Esfandiari’s account of her ordeal makes for a tough read. She weaves her personal experience with the political and historical background of Iran, which makes the book a little dense and uneven. Best are the more personal descriptions: the white rose from a guard, as a gesture of hope; the strength of her mother, tirelessly waiting at the prison gates with food and clothes; how Esfandiari got down on her knees and cleaned the foul, nauseating toilet herself in an attempt to maintain some sense of dignity.
She says she will always by haunted by the memory of Evin Prison, but her experience has made her more appreciative of the small details of freedom: the enjoyment of a leisurely cup of coffee or “a moment in the sunlight”.
Sorcha Hamilton is an Irish Timesjournalist .