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Published April 03 2010

Saberi’s book details her time in Iran and her new worldview

Sitting in her solitary cell a world away from her Fargo family, Roxana Saberi passed the time pretending to play piano on the prison wall.

She simulated playing classical songs or softly sang the “Star Spangled Banner,” holding onto hope as she awaited her fate.

It’s one of the scenes the 32-year-old vividly describes in “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran,” her book relaying her four-month imprisonment in Iran last year.

The 336-page book published by HarperCollins was released on Tuesday.

It was written mainly in Fargo; the place the Concordia College and Fargo North High School graduate still calls home and where she has spent most of the past 11 months.

Her hometown, “good ol’ safe Fargo,” is mentioned throughout the book. But it was in Iran where Saberi’s story became an international incident when last year, Iranian intelligence agents tore Saberi from her apartment on Jan. 31, accusing her of espionage.

She begins the book describing celebrating Christmas in Iran and then weeks later, being suddenly arrested.

When she didn’t confess to spying, she was taken to Evin prison, a jail notorious for torture and mass executions.

Blindfolded, Saberi was interrogated for hours, accused of using a book she was writing on Iranian culture as a cover for gathering info for the CIA.

Saberi told The Forum this week that the ordeal will forever affect her.

“I definitely know I can never forget the experience,” she said, adding she still has nightmares about it. “But I try not to let it rule my life. I feel like writing about this was the right thing to do. It was difficult at times, but also healing.”

Finding purpose in Iran

For a time, Saberi adamantly denied her interrogator’s accusations.

She had moved to Iran six years prior to work as a freelance journalist, contributing to National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Saberi details in her book the idealistic quest to make a difference in the world by telling the untold stories of Iranian citizens from her father’s homeland.

“As a journalist in Iran, I felt I had discovered some purpose in my life through my work by providing news coverage from a country where few foreign journalists could live and operate,” she writes.

After authorities revoked her press pass in 2006, Saberi stayed to write an independent book on Iranian culture.

She said she didn’t think she was breaking any laws by doing so and if authorities had a problem with the book, it was never communicated to her.

Interrogators, frustrated with her denying any involvement with the CIA, threw Saberi in solitary confinement.

“I had never been any more cut off from the outside world,” Saberi writes. “I had never been any more alone.”

In the 7-by-9-foot cell, Saberi carved in English the words “God save Iran” into a heater alongside other carvings by past inmates.

Regret started to sink in about staying in Iran.

“I was angry for following my heart,” she said in an interview with The Forum this week.

“If I got out of here soon, I vowed, I would abandon journalism and writing and never interview anyone ever again,” she writes in the book. “I could become a schoolteacher in Fargo, where I would take care of my parents as they grew old.”

In this week’s interview, she laughed at her efforts to “bargain with God,” adding that today, she doesn’t regret staying in Iran.

“I loved the country, and I felt what I was doing there was important,” she said.

‘White torture’

While Saberi heard accounts of torture among other prisoners, she said she was never physically harmed during her four-month imprisonment.

However, she said she did experience “white torture.”

“That is the kind of torture that doesn’t leave a mark on the body, but it does things to the mind and conscious,” she said this week. “And that is a combination of their manipulation, intimidation, putting people in solitary confinement, cutting them off from the world – no lawyer, no contact with their family, many threats.”

While in prison, interrogators threatened Saberi that she’d be left in jail until she was an old woman and that they could track down her family if she didn’t confess to espionage.

“The Iranian state must have had more pressing priorities than chasing down a couple in their sixties in North Dakota – but my captors didn’t seem to care whether I lived or died, so why would they be any more sympathetic to the rest of the Saberi family?” she writes.

The threats worked.

Eventually, Saberi determined that telling lies and making up a false confession would keep her family safe and perhaps freed her.

“When you’re in prison, you believe all these threats,” she said this week. “And I knew what they were capable of in the past.”

So, abandoning the value for truth she had worked so hard to uphold as a journalist, Saberi agreed to the fabricated stories.

“It was then that I came to a terrible realization: The truth meant nothing here. Only lies could save my family and me,” she wrote.

After videotaping a confession, she was allowed to be with other prisoners. Conversations with the fellow female inmates made her change her mind, deciding to tell the truth – “even if it cost me my freedom, even if it cost me my life.”

She recanted her confession, received a lawyer and in a closed-door trial, an eight-year sentence.

A visit from her parents, who flew from their north Fargo home to Iran to help their daughter, informed Saberi that her ordeal had become an international story.

She also heard about the vigil Fargo-Moorhead residents had done in her honor, adding that hearing about such events was “empowering.”

“I hope that ordinary people realize they can make a huge difference by speaking out,” she said this week. “Those actions that take place in Fargo or other cities in America can have an impact for individuals on the other side of the world.”

An appeals court later reduced the sentence to a two-year suspended term, releasing Saberi.

“They knew I wasn’t a spy from the very beginning, and they were feigning it the whole time,” she said this week, adding that they did so “to get me to make this confession that they could use for various political purposes.”

She returned to Fargo last May and immediately began work on her book.

Interrogators had threatened her that “if you talk about what has happened here, we will track you down and find you, wherever you are in the world,” Saberi writes.

“Yes, maybe there will be repercussions,” she said this week. “They might try to discredit me; I don’t know if they’ll come after me or not. But it is a threat that is possible.”

However, she feels an obligation to tell her story to bring attention to the prisoners who remain there and the authorities who fabricate charges “against many innocent people mainly because they want to try to silence their critics or try to control society,” she said this week.

“They think that independent voices and views threaten their power, and so they label them as agents of America or people who are trying to undermine the regime through a soft revolution,” she said. “Ultimately, the way for them to stay strong is to tolerate the diversity of voices instead of silencing them.”

Saberi, who has dual citizenship in Iran and the U.S., hopes to someday return to Iran and publish the book she was initially working on about

Iranian culture.

Until then, she’s touring the U.S. promoting the book and then plans to spend time with family and friends in Fargo.

“I’m just joining a large chorus of voices,” she said. “There are a lot of people who have been working to expose the wrongdoing of Iranian authorities.”

Upcoming Saberi book-signing events:

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515