On January 31, 2009 Roxana Saberi suddenly found herself in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, unable to contact her family and friends and accused of espionage and threatening Iran’s national security. Ms Saberi, a 31-year-old U.S. citizen (and holding an Iranian passport because her father was born in Iran), had been living in Iran for six years, working as a journalist and writing a book about modern Iran based on interviews with a broad cross-section of society, when her nightmare began. The international outcry that ensued may well have contributed to her release that May, just weeks before the contested June 12 presidential election. Her four-month ordeal is vividly described in her powerful new book, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran.
Even though we know the ultimate happy outcome, Between Two Worlds is suspenseful and riveting throughout. The author masterfully conveys the fear, confusion and uncertainty experienced by an innocent person trapped in a repressive system where human rights norms have no meaning. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Ms Saberi’s account of her frequent interactions with her main interrogator, a young man whose name she never learns and whom she has dubbed “Javan” because he affected the clothing and coiffure of the youth of affluent North Tehran; he is maddeningly focused on extracting a confession that Ms Saberi was a spy for the U.S. government and the interrogation sessions become a battle of wills. At the core of the dilemma she faced were the impossibly difficult calculations and decisions she had to make about whether to provide her interrogators with the information they appeared to be seeking, which would have entailed falsely confessing to espionage. She had to make these difficult decisions in a complete vacuum, not knowing whether a false confession would guarantee her release, as her interrogators promised her, or whether stubbornly insisting on the truth could result in a long prison sentence, or something even worse.
Thankfully, Ms Saberi was not tortured or physically abused, but she had no way of knowing whether, at any moment, the verbal and psychological abuse would escalate into violence or sexual assault. The well-known fate of Zahra Kazemi was never far from her mind. Ms Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian journalist, was arrested in 2003 while taking photographs outside of Evin Prison. She was raped, brutally tortured, and died of blunt trauma to the head while in custody. Ms Saberi was naturally afraid that she could be subjected to similar treatment, especially since she was being held incommunicado with her family and friends unaware of her location.
Her book is also an incisive account of the altered and disoriented consciousness experienced by a person used to living her life freely and suddenly thrown into a world where she is rendered utterly helpless. Ms Saberi poignantly conveys the efforts she makes to carve out a space—however small and precarious—where she can exercise some control over her circumstances. “Javan” however can determine when she can call her parents—and what she can say to them—whether she can read a newspaper, and even whether she can have dental floss. Ultimately she comes to the realization that she can only maintain autonomy of her own mind and spirit. She unflinchingly holds herself up to scrutiny, describing the additional torments she inflicted on herself for her perceived loss of nerve under intense pressure, and what she believed to be her failure to live up to her expectations of herself—expectations she later realizes were impossible to meet under the conditions imposed on her.
Among the many strengths of the book are the acutely observed descriptions of the people she encounters and of her own impressions of the puzzling and terrifying circumstances in which she found herself. Some of the situations are so absurd that they are indeed very humorous, including an amusing account of how she had to work with a “police artist” to come up with a sketch of a man who allegedly persuaded her to spy for the U.S. government. Although it must have been tempting for her to demonize her captors, she never does so, and even “Javan” is never depicted as a monster. The reader is forced to speculate on his motives; is he truly convinced that he is doing his patriotic duty by ferreting out agents trying to undermine society, using any means necessary? The female guards who work in the women’s section of Evin Prison are often officious but are never cruel to Ms Saberi, and sometimes even perform small acts of kindness. Ms Saberi insightfully observes that being a guard in a women’s prison is considered a very respectable job for the lower-middle class religious women who work there. Her account of the guards and interrogators reveals how the pervasively repressive system also victimizes its own agents, forcing them to subvert their own humanity to further the aims of the ruthless hard-liners in Iran’s government.
Not all of Ms Saberi’s experiences were negative however. She spent the first part of her detention in solitary confinement but was eventually allowed to share cells with other women jailed for political reasons, including a student activist, relatives of members of the Peoples Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), and two Baha’i women, Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, who are currently on trial accused of crimes which could result in the imposition of the death penalty. All of her cellmates are affectionately portrayed and provided Ms Saberi with the emotional support and often inspiration she needed to face every uncertain day. Ms Saberi is also gratified and moved by the enormous outpouring of support she received, both from people she knew and from total strangers around the world. Amnesty International activists stepped to the plate for Ms Saberi, sending thousands of appeals on her behalf. These appeals may well have contributed to her release; whether she would have been released after the game-changing June 12 presidential elections is an open question. Ms Saberi dedicates her book to the women she met in prison—some of whom still languish there, joined by many others arrested since. I hope that those who read this wonderful book will be inspired to join in Amnesty International’s efforts to help them.
Amnesty International USA will be co-sponsoring events where Roxana Saberi will speak about her book and her experiences in New York on April 5, in Chicago on April 12, and in Los Angeles on April 26.