In a book review for Ms. Magazine, Nikki Keddie, professor emeritus of history at UCLA, called Haleh Esfandiari's life story, as told in her book "My Prison, My Home"… a story of faith in the human capacity to withstand…”
On Oct. 26, Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, retold that harrowing story of her time as a political prisoner in Iran to a packed room of scholars and well-wishers at Kerckhoff Grand Salon. She was a guest of the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Center for Middle East Development.
On Dec. 30, 2006, Esfandiari was preparing to return to the U.S. after a visit to her elderly mother in Tehran when three men forced her taxi to the side of the road, threatened her life and stole all of her belongings, including her passport.
Her efforts to get a new passport quickly turned into a house arrest which lasted for eight months. During that time, Esfandiari spent eight or more hours a day being interrogated by Iranian intelligence officials, then returned to her mother’s apartment in the evening.
Esfandiari explained to the audience that the Iranian government figured the United States and Britain would not launch a military attack against Iran because they were bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, Iran believed they would foment a velvet revolution through Iranian and American intellectuals and other elites. Iranian intelligence thought that Esfandiari’s Wilson center might be part of the plot.
At times, Esfandiari got frustrated with the long and seemingly pointless interrogation process. Once she quipped to her interrogators, “How could an 85-pound grandmother threaten the security of the greatest power in the Middle East? After all, it’s not a banana republic.” The use of the phrase “banana republic” alone led to many hours of questions.
But the situation only got worse for Esfandiari when she was transferred to solitary confinement in the infamous Evin Prison on May 8, 2007. She was blindfolded and led to her cell where she was allowed only a blanket and a copy of the Koran.
In prison, the intense interrogations continued until one day when the officials asked Esfandiari to speak in front of a camera. Although she insisted she had nothing to hide and complied, she was afraid that they would cut and splice her recorded testimony. She was also terrified that any mention of her friends or colleagues could cause them trouble.
“This was the lowest moment,” said Esfandiari. “I felt soiled, like I’d implicated people. I asked if I could take a shower.”
Despite 105 days in a bare cell and hours of grueling questions, Esfandiari survived. “I decided I would not despair,” she explained. She exercised religiously, wrote two books in her head and read as many books from the prison library as she was allowed.
Finally, after the tireless work of her supporters and a direct appeal by President Barack Obama; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and Lee Hamilton, president and director of the Wilson center; and others, Esfandiari was released on August 21, 2007, and quickly returned to the United States. Her mother had to put up her apartment as bail.
Nayereh Tohidi, professor of gender and women’s studies at California State University, Northridge, who introduced Esfandiari, commented following the lecture that it was very timely, given the recent post-election upheaval in Iran. "Her case is very similar to 100 members of the elite who are now in jail, accused of being behind the velvet revolution,” Tohidi said.
Esfandiari also asked the audience not to forget the many academics, intellectuals and others who are now in prison in Iran. In particular, she asked everyone to remember Kian Tajbakhsh, another Iranian-American academic, who was recently sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of acting against national security. Even the smallest efforts could make a difference in obtaining his release, she said.
This lecture was part of a series of bilingual lectures in English and Farsi that was sponsored by UCLA’S Center for Near Eastern Studies.