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Through the looking glass
The first in a series of new books by former detainees lifts the veil on the secretive and often bizarre world of the Iranian Intelligence Services.
February 21, 2010 4:53 by Iason Athanasiadis
It was not quite my second day in Tehran’s Evin Prison when a jailer hauled me into an office before a tall thin man with sparkling black eyes, white socks, and the Iranian bureaucrat’s obligatory trimmed beard and collarless white shirt.
Introducing himself as the prosecutor of my case and assuming a dramatic air, he announced against me the most popular charge leveled against foreigners in Iran: espionage.
“But don’t worry,” he advised smoothly and with a twinkle in his eyes. “Like Roxana, you’ll get out soon and then write a book that has a million-copy print run.”
Iran’s judicial fraternity is clearly more media-savvy than the West gives them credit for. Roxana Saberi is the journalist who spent four months in an Iranian prison, was found guilty in an Iranian court of possessing classified documents but was released from her eight-year sentence after a global outcry over her plight.
She is now writing a memoir of her time in Iran, part of a crop of prison literature that the security crackdown of the past four years of the Ahmadinejad presidency has generated.
‘My Prison, My Home,’ another memoir of Iranian prisons, precedes Saberi’s offering which is set for publication early next year. Its author is Haleh Esfandiari, a soft-spoken but tenacious former journalist who currently directs the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program in Washington D.C.
Esfandiari was detained in Iran on one of her frequent visits to see her mother. She was questioned for several weeks by a disconcerting duo of men. One was a permanent interrogator called Ja’fari and another man referred to as Hajj Agha, a religious honorific, she never saw. Hajj Agha would be phoned and was “invariably courteous, although an undertone of threat was implicit in everything he said.”
Esfandiari was accused of orchestrating a velvet revolution in Iran on behalf of her employer, the Woodrow Wilson Center. In their minds, the think tank was acting as a deniable front for the American government.
“You’re talking about the surface things, the superficialities,” they insisted when she protests innocence. “We want to know about the core, the kernel, the hidden layers. Tell us about the hidden layers. With alarm, I began to see the shape of Ja’fari’s fantasies and the case he was trying to build against me,” Esfandiari writes.