Haleh Esfandiari spoke about her book, "My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran," last night in the Harvill auditorium as part of the Persian Lecture Series.
Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. From May 8 to August 21, 2007 – 105 days - she was detained in solitary confinement in the Iranian prison Evin.
"In everybody's life, there are certain dates that you always remember," she said. Usually these dates are birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones, she said. For Esfandiari, she will always remember two dates.
On December 30, 2006, Esfandiari said she was robbed on her way to the airport after visiting her 93 year-old mother in Tehran. When she went to the passport office, she was instructed to speak with the Office of the President, which she understood to be the Intelligence Ministry.
"I knew something was not right," she said. "It had a sobering affect on me."
She went to the Intelligence Ministry every day for four months to be interrogated. The Iranian officials believed her research center and others were government instruments.
"They were very suspicious of the nature of our work," she said. "It was intimidating, it was threatening, it was frightening."
She said every day she went for interrogation, she was uncertain she would go home.
"They kept on talking about the puzzle, and I was supposed to fill in the missing pieces of that puzzle, which would then tell them the way the United States was going to do a regime change in Iran," she said.
On May 8, 2007 when she went to the Intelligence Ministry, the officials had a warrant for her arrest.
Her cell at Evin prison in Iran contained one blanket, a copy of the Quran, two high windows, and a mosquito net.
"I decided that this was going to be my home for God knows how long," she said.
During her time in prison she was forced to face the wall during her continuous interrogation. After the interrogations, Esfandiari said she repeated them in her mind so she would not have any inconsistencies.
"Being completely cut off from the world, that was the worst thing," she said. "Solitary confinement is not physical torture, but it is mental torture," she said.
To survive solitary confinement, she relied on both mental and physical means. She woke up at 6 a.m. and went to bed at 11 p.m. She mentally wrote two books in her head, one a children's book for her grandchildren and the other a biography of her paternal grandmother. She would also exercise by walking around her cell and weightlifting using a water bottle.
She did not eat the prison food, except for bread and tea for fear she would be drugged. During her imprisonment, she lost 20 pounds. The prisoners had a weekly shopper who they paid in exchange for buying goods. Esfandiari asked for fresh fruit and vegetables that could be peeled to deter tampering.
She was allowed one to two hours out of her cell to spend time on a terrace with a glass ceiling. The guards met her demands for extra blankets and books.
"My release came as sudden as my arrest," she said. She was told she could go to her mother's home, but not leave the country. Ten days later, the authorities told her she should leave as soon as possible. She attributed her release to various international pressures, including a letter from the president of the Wilson Center.
"When they finally shut that door (of the airplane), I thought this time the closing of that door means my return to my home and to my freedom," she said.
While she said she is fearful of returning to Iran right now, she will return in the future.
"This is not goodbye, this is so long Iran," she said.
Esfand Mazhari, a systems and industrial engineering graduate student, said he is from Iran and had heard about Esfandiari's situation.
"It's always good to see someone in person so you can compare viewpoints," he said.
Kamran Talattof, a Near Eastern Studies professor who helped coordinate the lecture, said he has read some of Esfandiari's earlier works in addition to the book she spoke about.
"I was reassured to find that Evin prison has not changed her approaches to politics or to life," he said. "I read some of the passages again because I felt I was reading a universal story about decency, perseverance, and hope."