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Life on the outside

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Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "My Prison, My Home," signs a book for Fran Venuto, right, of Toms Brook, at the Shenandoah County Library in Edinburg on Saturday. Andrew Thayer/Daily

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Haleh Esfandiari discusses her stay in an Iranian prison. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Haleh Esfandiari talks about her imprisonment.
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Haleh Esfandiari talks about her imprisonment in 2007 by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. Andrew Thayer/Daily

By Preston Knight-pknight@nvdaily.com

EDINBURG -- Haleh Esfandiari can see something few others who lived through more than three months of solitary confinement in a feared Iranian prison ever could -- humor.

Esfandiari spoke about her national headline-making experience in 2007 to a small gathering of people Saturday afternoon at the Shenandoah County Library. Toms Brook resident Karen Staudinger, a library volunteer, is a friend of Esfandiari's, and was able to arrange the meeting.

During Esfandiari's ordeal, Staudinger raised awareness by setting up a table in the library with newspaper accounts and other information. She said when her friend was finally released, she brought out roses.

On Saturday, Esfandiari tried to paint as rosy a picture as possible of her imprisonment, noting that those who kept her captive lacked a sense of humor. At one point, she said she told a prison doctor, who inquired about her stay, that it was like a four-star hotel or health spa.

"I'm having the time of my life," Esfandiari, now 70, said she told him.

Of course, that was far from the truth, an attempt at having laughter serve as the best medicine. But Esfandiari needed international help to rid herself of her problem.

A resident of Potomac, Md., and the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East program, she was stopped on Dec. 30, 2006, by four knife-wielding men on her way to the airport in Tehran after visiting her mother, which she had done numerous times in the previous 15 years. Esfandiari was born in Iran and left in 1978, only returning in 1992.

Everything was taken that December night, including her passport, in what Esfandiari thought was just a robbery. She had failed in her attempts at regaining her passport before being told to meet with the president of Iran's intelligence ministry. He told her they were after her because she was a part of the U.S.-led "velvet revolution" to overthrow the country's regime. Esfandiari underwent daily eight-hour interrogations, the ministry believing that as part of a U.S. thinktank, she was privy to inside information.

"If I'm privy to that," she said, "then every Tom, Dick and Harry would be privy to that."
Iranian officials think universities, foundations and research centers in the U.S. work for the government, just as they do in Iran, Esfandiari said.

They thought she was among a group of Iranian women and activists who were trying to recruit other women as part of the revolution.

In January 2007, while she was still free, Esfandiari said her mother's apartment was raided, and all of Esfandiari's belongings, including her computer, which she had used to keep in touch with her family in America, were taken. On May 8 of that year, she was arrested, and, for the first time, decided to get a lawyer and bring publicity to her situation.

Esfandiari spent 105 days in solitary confinement at Evin Prison, which she said is notorious for torture. She said she underwent a torrent of mental abuse -- being told she was an adulterer for marrying a Jew, threatened that she would spend as many as 16 years in prison and informed that nobody on the outside cared about her plight.

Plenty of work was being done, though, and after Lee Hamilton, her boss at the Wilson Center, wrote a letter to Iran's supreme leader, she was released within 10 days.

Esfandiari has penned a book about her imprisonment, "My Prison, My Home," in which she also recounts what it's like growing up in Iran and how she was a part of the women's movement there in the 1960s.

"It's an amazing country to visit," Esfandiari said.

She spent more time there than she had planned a few years ago, but during questioning Saturday she said she would not have done anything differently. During the period between her passport being taken and when she was imprisoned, Esfandiari said she thought she was under 24-hour surveillance, making escape impossible.

And caving in to interrogators and an "insecure" government was never an option, she said.

"Luckily, I didn't go crazy," Esfandiari said. "I really didn't have anything to tell them."

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