Haleh Came Home

I don't know about you, but I waste a great deal of energy worrying about things that never happen.

Over the last eight months, I worried constantly about my friend Haleh Esfandiari. She is the Iranian born, American academic who headed the Mideast studies department at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

While on a brief visit to Tehran to see her mother last December, Haleh was ambushed by masked armed men who seized her passport and other belongings. She was then prevented from flying home, interrogated by intelligence officers every day for up to nine hours a day for four months, and eventually, on May 8, thrown into the notorious Evin prison. She was accused of "endangering the security of Iran." Spying, in other words.

I was haunted by the thought of her lying there in solitary confinement, subjected to God knows what treatment. People have languished in that prison for years. Many have died there.

I was afraid that my dear friend Haleh, who is a grandmother and only weights about 100 pounds, might never make it out alive. I became obsessed by that thought, compounded by a deep sense of guilt that while I was enjoying a free, happy, privileged life in the West, she was incarcerated, cut off from her family and friends and doubtless very frightened at the prospect of being put on trial for espionage. In Iran, that can carry the death penalty.

Down to 80 Pounds

At the beginning of September, Haleh was suddenly, miraculously, released from Evin prison, after the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the former U.S. congressman Lee Hamilton, wrote a personal letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, appealing for her release on humanitarian grounds.

About 10 days later, she was back with her family in Washington. Exhausted and emotionally drained, she nonetheless gave a series of news conferences and interviews. And she took the time for a long chat with me. When she left prison, her weight was down to 80 pounds.

"I haven't dared to weigh myself!" she laughed. "Lets say I'm under 90 pounds now. … You remember I was always tiny."

Yes she was always tiny, and always elegant with a beautiful, musical voice and enormous charm. We met in Tehran in the early '70s, in the bad old days of the shah. Haleh was living with her husband, Professor Shaul Bakhash, and their infant daughter.

I was living with my husband, John Bierman, a BBC journalist and author. When John was expelled for reporting student unrest and other stories the shah wished to suppress, Haleh and Shaul were the only Iranians brave enough to come and see us before we were unceremoniously thrown out. We stayed in touch through the Iranian Revolution, when Haleh and Shaul escaped to the United States, and afterward, when they became U.S. citizens and established themselves as distinguished academics.

"I was so afraid you would never get out of there, Haleh," I said. "You must have had those fears too, or did you consciously repress them to get through the ordeal?"

Iron Bars

"Hilary, a prison is a prison," said Haleh. "There were moments of despair. But then I pulled myself together and said to myself you do not give in, you will survive and you will get out. So I was always hoping that one day I would get out. I just didn't think it would be so soon."

Haleh said she decided she had to have a routine and stick to it. She did hours of exercises every day, and then paced her cell hundreds and hundreds of times. In the evening she would read. She had access to Iranian newspapers. But later she was given books in English, including classics by Dostoevsky. Her cell was furnished with a copy of the Koran, so she read that too.

Did the Iranian authorities really believe that she was a spy?

"I'm sure they did not believe that, Hilary," she said with a smile. "How can a grandmother of 67 who organizes meetings and arranges conferences be a spy?"

She said she never asked why she was in prison. "I saw the first charge, which was endangering the security of the country, and this appeared so absurd to me that I decided I better not get into a long conversation about my charges. So I just ignored it."

Haleh thinks that she was held because the Iranian authorities suspected that America is trying to promote regime change in Persia through a kind of "velvet revolution" as seen in Georgia or Ukraine. "Who would be the instruments of that?" Haleh said. "Well, probably they thought it was think tanks and foundations that invite activists from Iran." That is the sort of work that Haleh does.

In fact, Haleh Esfandiari has devoted most of her professional life to promoting dialogue and understanding between her country of birth and her country of adoption. Can she continue with that, I asked her, since it landed her in a very nasty jail?

"I'm very disappointed that my work has been misunderstood by some Iranians," she said sadly. "I still believe that governments should talk to each other, and it is very important that the U.S. and Iran talk to one another. I hope this will happen."

But Haleh Esfandiari is not planning to go back to Iran herself anytime soon. She is at last together again with her husband and daughter and grandchildren. All she wants to do is enjoy the reunion that she had dreamed about so much during those long months in prison.

For my part, I rejoice that my dear friend is free again. And I'm also very relieved … that I don't have to feel guilty any more.