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Sunday, November 29th, 2009
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My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran

by Haleh Esfandiari

Locked Up

A review by Nikki Keddie

Esfandiari's profoundly moving memoir goes beyond the limited story suggested in its subtitle to interweave a vivid autobiography and a brief history of Iran before and after the 1978-79 revolution. Potential readers should not be put off by fear of a depressing tale of horror; this is, above all, a story of faith -- in the human capacity to withstand mistreatment and in what people working together against tyranny can accomplish.

Born to a prominent Iranian agronomist and his Austrian wife, Esfandiari grew up in relative privilege. She attended college in Vienna and took a job at a liberal Tehran newspaper. But when the Shah imposed a new editor, she left her position as a reporter to work for the Women's Organization of Iran. During the revolution that tore the country apart, her family fled Iran, and she eventually became director of the Middle East program at Washington, D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where she convened discussions on Iran and the Middle East. She also wrote the well received 1997 book Reconstructed Lives:Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution.

Even after Esfandiari's father died, her mother stayed on in Tehran. It was during a December 2006 visit to her then-93-year-old "Mutti" that Esfandiari was mysteriously robbed of her passports. Refused exit from Iran, she was subjected to months of grueling, daily interrogations about her supposed plotting with the Wilson Center to overthrow Iran's government. She was ultimately confined at the notorious Evin prison, where the interminable questioning continued. Her interrogators, basing their actions on U.S. acts hostile to Iran and on conspiratorial fantasies, insisted that the Center, which receives congressional funding, was planning a "velvet" revolution of the sort that overthrew Soviet-style governments in the independent countries of the former USSR.

Determined not to say anything that would falsely implicate herself or the Wilson Center in subversion against the Iranian government and unaware of the international campaign for her freedom, the 67-year-old Esfandiari sustained herself with a strict routine of exercise and reading. Her eight-month ordeal, including 105 days in solitary confinement, ended largely because of a major international campaign for her freedom, including interventions by human rights organizations and U.S. presidential candidates, and culminating in a personal letter from Wilson Center director Lee Hamilton to Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei.

The ranks of Iran's political prisoners -- some tortured, raped, even killed -- continue to grow, but Esfandiari retains hope in the ability of Iranians, in time, to change their government and society. Like Hamilton, she favors dialogue and negotiation and sees U.S. support for subversive activities as counterproductive. The recent huge demonstrations in favor of honest government, sparked by women, reinforce her analysis. Iran's rulers say they will talk with the U.S. on some issues. We should, as Esfandiari suggests, consider even dialogue that provides only an opening wedge to improvements in human rights, women's rights and the nuclear issue. President Obama's willingness to talk with Iran is in line with the lessons of Esfandiari's outstanding book.

Nikki Keddie, PH.D., is professor emerita of Iranian and Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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