Roxana Saberi was an American freelance reporter living and working in Tehran when she was arrested by Iranian authorities in January 2009. She had been in the country for six years, and was about to return to the United States, where she planned to work on a book about Iran. Instead, she was sentenced to eight years on charges of espionage. Saberi spent 100 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, eighteen of those in solitary confinement, before her sentence, which had attracted worldwide media attention, was overturned.* In Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran, she documents her arrest, imprisonment, and the fine points of Iranian interrogation techniques. She recently discussed these matters with Nazanin Rafsanjani, a producer at National Public Radio’s On the Media, who began the conversation by asking Saberi about the day she was arrested.
Your book begins with your arrest. What do you remember most vividly about that day?
The intelligence agent handed me a slip of paper through the door, and I thought he was the mailman, because he told me he had a letter. I read the slip of paper and all I could really make out were the words Evin Prison. (It was written in Farsi, of course.) So I asked him, “Can I just have moment to read this?”, and I tried to shut the door on him. But I couldn’t, because his foot was propping it open, and he had this indecipherable smile on his face that I can never forget. He pushed the door open. He came in and three other men followed him, and I could tell they were all intelligence agents.
And you’re just standing there in your pajamas?
Right. I’d just thrown on a roopoosh, which is this long jacket you’re supposed to wear in front of men who are not closely related to you, and a headscarf. My hair was still hanging out the back, because I’d just woken up. They kept saying if you cooperate, you’ll be fine. We’re going to take you somewhere else to question you. If you cooperate, we’ll bring you back this evening. If not, you’ll go to Evin Prison.
First they interrogated me for several hours in an unmarked building somewhere else in Tehran. They asked me ridiculous things. They wanted me to confess, they said, that the book I was writing about Iran was a cover for espionage for the United States. They kept saying, why are you interviewing so many people? Who told you to interview these people? Who’s paying you to interview these people? I told them I was writing this book for myself. I wasn’t getting money from anybody, it was out of my own pocket.
At the end of this interrogation, we drove up north and we passed the turnoff for my apartment and went straight to Evin Prison. Evin is a terrifying word for all Iranians. Political prisoners are held there. There was a mass execution in 1988. And Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was detained there in 2003, died mysteriously after a few days, and no one was ever held accountable for her death.
You write about some of the terrifying things that happened during your imprisonment—and also some of the ridiculous things. For example, your interrogators pointed to your connection to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as evidence of espionage.
Actually, it was a friend of mine who worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He was a photographer there, and he had e-mailed me recently, talking about the newspaper. My interrogators said, “Do you know your friend works for the CIA?” I said I didn’t understand, he was just a journalist. And they said the paper was an arm of the CIA, because it had the word intelligence in its name.
How did you react to that?
You can’t reason with people who speak like that. I was in the hands of paranoid, crazy, close-minded people. It makes you very scared, because you know your life is in their hands, and they control you, and no matter what you say, they’re going to answer: “You’re lying! You’re lying!”