[Two week’s into Haleh Esfandiari’s interrogation at the hands of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, ministry agents showed up at her mother’s apartment and proceeded to search it. They were accompanied by her interrogator, Mr. Ja’fari. This excerpt describes this incident].
On the morning of January 19, I woke up feeling lighthearted. It was a brisk and brilliantly sunny Tehran morning. The usually noisy street was quiet on Friday, the Iranian sabbath. No vans were unloading goods; no impatient drivers pressed down on their car horns; schoolchildren were not clambering down the stairway on their way to school. Even the two noisy young boys in the apartment above ours were mercifully silent.
I took Mother to a family lunch arranged by a cousin. Naturally, the first question my relatives put to me was, “When are you leaving?” I thought I would be gone in a week, but not wanting to jinx things, I noted that it ordinarily takes six months to issue a new passport. “That is what I am told,” I said with a shrug.
After lunch, Mother, feeling upbeat like me, wanted to walk. The sidewalks were bustling. Shops were crowded. Small cafes were full of young people. Street food vendors were hawking sandwiches, pretzels, pistachios, soft drinks, and fruit juice. Mellat Park, just across the street, was crowded. The park was a favored meeting place for young people and college students during the week, families on weekends, and political demonstrations when they were permitted. It was here that women’s rights demonstrators had been attacked, beaten, and hauled off in police vans earlier in the summer. On this Friday, the morals police, always on the lookout for young girls showing hair beneath their scarves or young men and women fraternizing, were out among the crowds, but they seemed inclined to leave people alone.
After our stroll, two of my cousins came to the house for coffee. They left around four. I told Mother I would like to take a nap, a rare thing for me to do. An hour later I was startled from my sleep to see three strange men, disheveled and brutish-looking, staring into my bedroom, one of them with a video camera in his hand. “She is sleeping; she is not even dressed,” my petrified mother was saying. One of the men pushed her aside. “Get up,” he said to me. “Put on your chador.”
I sat up, stunned, clutching my blanket around me. “I don’t have a chador,” I said, “and I need to get dressed.” He threw my raincoat at me. “Wear this.” I told him to close the door. I slipped my raincoat over my nightdress, put on my slippers, and came out of the room. The three men were standing in the living room. My mother was as white as a sheet: “Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here?” she kept asking. Like me, she thought they had come to arrest me. “Cover your hair,” one of them ordered. I was determined not to carry on a conversation with them in my nightdress and raincoat. “I need to get dressed,” I repeated. They exchanged glances, and the man who appeared to lead the team nodded. “Okay.” The commotion had attracted attention. A neighbor and friend of my mother’s stood next to her. The building caretaker stood at the door, anxiously peering in. The three men had insisted the caretaker accompany them to the apartment; they needed him to lead them to the right door and to give them legal cover. When my mother answered the doorbell, one of the men had stuck his foot inside the door to prevent her from closing it.
I went to my room; picked up a blouse, a pair of trousers, my coverall robe, and a scarf; and got dressed. Back in the living room, the team leader showed me a search warrant. He would not even let me make a copy. “You can only read it,” he said. He made both Mother and me sign it. This done, he dialed a number on his cell phone and mumbled something into it. Within minutes, a smirking Ja’fari was at the door. “I told you it would get worse,” he said.
Ja’fari took off his shoes by the door and asked which was my room. He hurried in with two of his henchmen. One man opened my closet and took out every scrap of paper I had there, and went through my clothes, including my underwear, and even my shoes. Ja’fari went through the papers, discarding some and keeping others. Among the papers he took was an invitation my parents had received to a reception to mark the coronation of the shah in 1969—nearly forty years earlier. To Ja’fari the invitation was no doubt damning evidence of connections to the royal court. Ja’fari, I noticed, showed no interest in a framed letter from the minister of agriculture of the Islamic Republic honoring my father for his services to the field of Iranian botany. Ja’fari was adept at cherry-picking his evidence.
Ja’fari also started to put away some clear white wrapping paper I had brought with me from the United States. “Why are you taking that?” I asked. “There’s invisible ink writing on it,” he said. I laughed, despite the gravity of the situation. “It’s wrapping paper,” I said. “It comes in many colors.” Embarrassed, he left the wrapping paper behind.
Of five or six books I had borrowed from a friend, he took a book on the Iranian revolution by the French scholar, Yann Richard, a guide to the city of Tehran I had purchased at a local bookstore, a copy of the literary/political journal, Goft-o-Gou (“Dialogue”), and an issue of the official gazette that published full transcripts of parliamentary debates and to which I had a subscription. Ja’fari seemed to regard Gofto-Gou as a subversive journal, even though it is sold at newsstands all over Tehran, and to think it suspicious that one should read the parliamentary debates, which are open to the public and broadcast on radio and television.
Ja’fari also took my laptop computer and eyed with considerable suspicion the Skype phone attached to it. The phone can be used to make telephone calls over the computer at almost no cost. “Are you sending messages to anyone?” he asked. I explained that it was a cornputer phone; I used it to call my husband. He took the Skype phone with him too, leaving only the computer mouse on the table. The three men then searched my mother’s study, examined all her German books and the family pictures, and checked the bathroom. The whole operation was filmed by the man wielding the video camera, even while the group leader sat in the living room, incongruously trying to make small talk with my visibly trembling mother.
Watching these trespassers moving about my mother’s apartment—opening our closets and drawers, pawing through my clothes and belongings, reading our family letters, casting a prowler’s eye over our family pictures—I was swept by conflicting emotions. I was scared, of course; they might cart me off to jail. I feared my mother might at any moment suffer a heart attack. I viscerally felt the violation of my privacy, almost physically, as if I had been raped. I felt a hatred for the men who were doing this to us, with an intensity that astonished me.
Once they had completed their search, the men drew up a list of the items they were taking from us. They made my mother sign the list and walked out. “You will hear from us soon,” Ja’fari said. During the entire ordeal, the smirk had never once left his face.