Review: Roxana Saberi’s “Between Two Worlds, My Life and Captivity in Iran”

Mar 31, 20100 comments

Between Two Worlds  My Life and Captivity in Iran By Roxana Saberi Release Date: 3/30/2010 Hardback, Harper ISBN 0061965286 $25.99

Between Two Worlds, My Life and Captivity in Iran details the arrest of Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, and her subsequent 100-day stay at Iran’s notorious Evin prison in early 2009, where she undergoes intense interrogations, solitary confinement, while meeting some of Iran’s most prominent political prisoners and activists. Tapping into a reserve of her own experience, and supplemented by thoughtful analysis and the lessons she learned from the political prisoners she met in Evin, Saberi exposes the injustices, oppression, and blatant abuses suffered by journalists, minorities, students, and activists at the hands of  “certain people in power… exploiting that power to suppress individuals who they feared were threatening it.” Saberi very honestly admits her own naïveté when it came to her own case. Before her arrest, the possibility of being monitored, bugged, tapped, and followed in her travels was not a great concern, though she took precautions here and there. Many have confused this admitted naiveté with slyness and cunning, which makes her admission refreshing, and all at once shocking. The heavy-hearted topic, complete with realizations of her former naiveté, accounts of forced confessions (and subsequent guilt), in addition to painful descriptions of hunger strikes and threats of self-injury, made the book difficult to process in two hundred page chunks. I found myself having all too vivid dreams of Evin for two consecutive nights (probably a good indication that the book isn’t exactly night time reading.) About half way through the chronicle, I had to put down the book for two more days in an attempt to regain control, not only of my own dreams, but to process the all too real possibility of ANY of us being detained if placed in a similar situation. With that realization came the thought: What would I do? Would I too give a false confession in attempt to get out of prison as quickly as possible? Would I later recant my confession, as Saberi did, out of principal? Would I flat out refuse, as many of the activists in prison, to be coerced into lies, all of which just plays into a big PR game? As I read further, I was shaken by the prisoners’ threats to slit their wrists with jagged metal cans and to starve themselves to ninety pounds, in what are sadly some of the most viable methods of having demands met. In a Western culture where forced feedings are reserved for anorexics, and people are often detained AFTER having self-injured, the lengths to which these women went to get visitation rights and phone calls is difficult to process. Despite freedom being stripped from them, these women managed other ways to control and protest even within the walls of Evin. Saberi herself protested her own original eight-year sentence by taking a hunger strike so far that the prison doctor forced her to take an intravenous drip. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a couple (guilty) snorts and laughs despite the heaviness of the account. Saberi successfully breaks the tension and images of dank cells with humor, including her surprise at sprouting a “monobrow.” When Saberi asked her interrogator for a bra (not afforded in prison), causing her two Baha’i cellmates a hearty laugh (the same two women detained as part of the group activists call the “seven Baha’is”), I was relieved that my own chuckles were more than appropriate. If they can laugh, I had to often remind myself, then I can too. Beyond simply pointing fingers and recounting events that would paralyze most with self-pity, Saberi offers a compelling case into the potentially positive impacts the international community and mainstream media can affect by simply paying attention. The Iranian authorities are well known to manipulate and spin information, footage, and reports to best benefit the image of the administration or country. Saberi and her family took this PR game on, and won. Her own case drummed up an immense amount of international attention and advocacy and was covered by BBC, VOA, CNN, AP, and more. Saberi reports that support from various embassies, world leaders, and human rights organizations calling for her release; coupled with hunger strikes organized in solidarity by Reporters without Borders, Saberi clearly proved to her interrogators, who had dissuaded her family from seeking international attention, that she was indeed worth more than “a single paragraph” in any newspaper. “I was pleased to learn that my parents had been doing media interviews while in Iran,” Saberi explains in her book, “The Iranian authorities definitely seemed bothered by news coverage of my case… I had begun to believe this media attention was helping me more than hurting me” (237). In all fairness, the process of highlighting prison abuses of many detainees may be infinitely more difficult, as Saberi’s journalist status made her case easier to publicize and she was afforded some leniency, it seems, because of being a dual national. As Saberi succinctly describes, “This display of news articles was building me up, not breaking me down. I no longer felt so alone. Friends and strangers were standing with me, and I didn’t have to face my captors by myself anymore” (241). I highly recommend picking up (or borrowing) a copy of Between Two Worlds, no matter how much or little you know of the situation in Iran. Seasoned activists will see a portrait up-close of why they do what they do; the casual reader will glean a sense of what the citizens of Iran face daily; and even those of us who wake up each morning to case updates and on-going heartbreak will be challenged, not just to do more, but to answer truthfully to ourselves: What would I do? And more importantly, what will I do now?

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