Sunday, March 20, 2016

Between Two Worlds by Roxana Saberi (Book Review #16 of 2016)


Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran
After recently finishing Jared Cohen's Children of Jihad, in which he chronicles a brief detention in Iran and his experience with various dissidents and underground life, I came across Saberi's chronicle of her extended detention in Iran (years after Cohen visited the country). While this book is useful to draw attention to arbitrary and wrongful detentions in Iran, I found it raised more questions about the author. It is not an incredibly interesting book. Saberi initially cooperates with her captors and consents to their lies before meeting Iranian detainees who actively resist. Saberi's resolve is strengthened and she retracts her coerced confession, demands a lawyer, and goes on a hunger strike while garnering international support for her release; she is granted release after 101 days in captivity. She writes the book seemingly to draw attention to the perversion of justice in Iran and bring some attention to the women she shared her cell with.

I have the same question of Saberi as I have of Jared Cohen's visit to Iran -- why risk it when you know that sometimes Americans are detained for seemingly arbitrary reasons? Around the time of Saberi's detentions, American hikers along the border were also detained for a long ordeal. Saberi went to Iran in 2003, when she was 26 years old and out of journalism school. She maintains she spent six years working on a book about Iranian life, while working on a Masters degree, conducting interviews with at least 60 different people, which apparently is what drew Iranian's attention. She seemed to be trying to emotionally reconnect to her roots-- her father is an Iranian-American. She apparently dates several men, getting involved with dissident Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, who may or may not have been her actual fiancee (their wikipedia profiles currently do not mention it although Ghobadi claimed as such during her captivity and Saberi tells her interrogators that they "discussed marriage"). I do not want to engage in victim shaming, prosecutors were clearly making false accusations, but if you live in a foreign country that has no official diplomatic relationship with the country on your passport, and do things that are counter to that culture, you will raise suspicion.

Saberi seemed to want to blend into the journalist crowd without actually being a journalist. She knew enough Farsi to get around, but really had to learn better once she was imprisoned. She was able to sell some stories and once got on Fox News in the US (which her accusers claim is an "arm of the Pentagon"). Iran had revoked her journalism credentials, which I would have taken as a warning. Whether she knew it or not at the time, the government was claiming every media outlet in the US was an arm of the US government, especially newspapers with the word "intelligence" in them (like the Seattle Intelligencer).

She downplays it in her book, but she was a beauty pageant queen in the US and one wonders if a less-pretty face would have gotten so much attention; the epilogue mentions that the blue scarf she was so often pictured in became a hot-selling commodity in Iran, "Roxana scarves." Her education and talents connected her to people in higher society, like Ghobadi. Perhaps as someone who had been on television news she was somewhat of a celebrity. In the end, Secretary Clinton and President Obama both worked with other embassies and the UN to get her early release.

The mental anguish of captivity are clearly described by Saberi. She is constantly taunted with "if you cooperate with us, you'll go home shortly" a pattern that continues repeatedly. She confesses to espionage, denounces the Zionist regime in Israel, and more on camera. Her interrogators ostensibly recruit her to spy for Iran, threatening to kill her "anywhere in the world" if she reveals she has been recruited; something she initially agrees to do but later regrets. There is a magistrate who deals a bit more honestly, and the layers and politics of the Iranian justice system are a bit confusing-- particularly for herself. After five weeks in captivity, she realizes her captors knew that she was never a spy but the die was cast so they must keep up the false pretense. A newspaper article found in her apartment is called a "classified document," and her personal life is scrutinized, her 60 interviews for her book become 600, and other lies.

When she is sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for espionage, reality hits home. After getting educated by her cellmates and doing plenty of time soul-searching with the help of her Bible, she resolves to pay the price and tell only the truth. She is granted many rights, retains a lawyer; argues in court with judges, her interrogators, and other witnesses; she gets to call them liars and counter their claims. She is fed, allowed her own books, and allowed supervised calls and visits with loved ones. Some reviewers of this book have pointed out that she would not have gotten near as many rights had she been imprisoned by Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Saberi goes on a hunger strike when the situation appears desperate, and becomes dangerously underweight at the dismay of her parents who come to Iran for support.

To Saberi's credit, she pays many thanks and draws attention to the plights of her cellmates-- other women who have been accused of political crimes. From them, the reader learns that fortune telling with the Koran is a popular past-time in Iran, and other means of passing the time. Saberi learns Farsi from her cellmates. She also writes of how she relied mentally/spiritually on passages from the Bible in her captivity, while a cellmate also teaches her the Shahada and how to read the Koran (Saberi was allowed to have both a Bible and her English Koran). Her jailers watch various television shows while the inmates live through the sounds of what is on TV. Eventually, Saberi learns that the media is covering her story and some journalists are hunger-striking in solidarity, which she discourages. She does pay many thanks to the many parties who influenced the Iranian government for her eventual release. Her would-be fiancee gets out of the country to go to the Cannes film festival just before she leaves. She is not ultimately sure why she was arrested-- perhaps it was to stop the publishing of her book, whatever it contained, perhaps it was part of some unseen inter-governmental struggle. But she writes that her detention is similar to many other political detainees and writes to put pressure on the regime for change.

If one is looking to learn a lot about life in Iran, the subject of the book she had supposedly spent six years working on when she was arrested, you won't find it in these pages. I would like to read that book, but after another six years since captivity I suppose it is not forthcoming; though she supposedly had sent a draft to her mother before imprisonment. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.

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