What Haleh Esfandiari knows for sure

Illustration: Luke Wilson

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Haleh Esfandiari, on Solitary Confinement
Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. In early 2007, while in Tehran to visit her 93-year-old mother, Esfandiari was detained by the Iranian government. She spent nearly four months in solitary confinement before being released.

You never get over the experience of sudden arrest, interrogation, false accusation, and imprisonment. It shatters your confidence in the order of things, your belief that you are safe and secure. Solitary confinement can drive you out of your mind. I feel a quiet pride that I survived with my dignity. My rules of discipline—and they have seen me through the ups and downs of a long working career, revolutionary upheaval, and prison—are simple. I organize each day carefully; I make sure I exercise every day, even in a prison cell. I know that the small, human gesture comes to matter a great deal: When one of my guards noticed I was unable to hold a knife to peel my fruit, because my arthritis was acting up, she peeled and cut it for me. A human gesture in an inhuman place! 

As told to Tish Durkin