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Roxana Saberi: Caught 'Between Two Worlds'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Roxana Saberi, was a young, American freelance journalist in Iran.
She had reported for NPR, the BBC, Fox News and other outlets, and she was
writing a book about Iran when she was arrested at her home on January 31,
She was taken to Evin prison, where many political prisoners are held. Accused
of spying for the CIA, which she insists she did not do, she was given the
choice: confess and be released in days or face many years in prison. After
undergoing interrogation, she confessed, but soon after, she recanted. She says
she was willing to accept the consequences to have a clear conscience.
Saberi was charged with espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison, but
after international pressure, an appeals court suspended her sentence. She was
released after 100 days. She tells her story in her new memoir, "Between Two
Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran."
Roxana Saberi, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, your father's from Iran, your
mother's from Japan, you grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. Why did you want to go
Ms. ROXANA SABERI (Author, "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in
Iran"): Well, as a child, I was exposed to Iranian culture through my father.
There were not that many Iranian families in Fargo, North Dakota, but we knew
the ones who were there. And they would meet every week, and we would have
dinner. And so I would hear the Farsi language and eat Iranian food.
But it wasn't until I grew older that I became more interested in my father's
culture. I had gone to Japan as a child a few times, but I never visited Iran.
I decided, in college, that I wanted to become a journalist, and more
specifically, I wanted to become a foreign news correspondent. And as time went
on, I realized that Iran would be the perfect place for me because I could
both, learn about my father's native land, learn about the culture and the
people and the history, and also report from a place that seemed fewer foreign
correspondents could go at the time.
Because I had an Iranian passport through my Iranian father, I knew I could go
there, and I knew that it was going to be a country full of many news stories
for years to come.
GROSS: When you were working as a journalist, and when you were working on a
book in Iran, did you think of yourself as taking the kind of risks that could
get you in prison?
Ms. SABERI: No, because I knew what I was doing was in compliance with the
laws. I didn't have anything to hide, and I did my work very openly. But it's
important to know that in Iran, you can detain anyone for anything. And in
fact, there is a Human Rights Watch article with this very same title, about
how people can be detained very easily in Iran.
The thing is, is when they want to make a political case for you, they make it.
They don't care about reality. They don't care that you've been acting in
compliance with the laws.
GROSS: Why do you think you were â I mean, we'll talk about the official
reasons that they gave for arresting you in a minute - but why do you think you
were singled out for arrest by the Iranian government?
Ms. SABERI: You know, I'm still not sure. During my imprisonment, after some
time, I reached some various conclusions about possible motives that they had,
may have had, in my arrest. But on the day I was arrested, I certainly didn't
know. The doorbell rang at nine in the morning on January 31st last year. And
the monitor lit up in my apartment, and I saw that it was a man downstairs, and
he said: You have a letter.
So I thought it was the mailman, and I opened the door. And he handed me a slip
of paper, and I couldn't make much sense of it. I just saw on the piece of
paper the word Evin. And my heart started to beat because I knew Evin prison,
the most notorious prison of Iran. And I said, please, can I just have a moment
to take a look at this because my Farsi isn't very good? And I tried to shut
the door, but I couldn't because his foot was propping it open.
He came in with three men behind him, and they started going through all my
belongings, and they told me I had to stay where they could see me, and they
confiscated many of my belongings.
And they kept saying just cooperate. Cooperate and you'll be fine. And if not,
we'll have to take you to Evin prison.
GROSS: And they took you to Evin prison. Why was that? Did you not, you know,
Ms. SABERI: According to them, I didn't cooperate. I learned that their
definition of cooperate was to confess that I was a spy for America, and
specifically that the book that I was writing about Iranian society, they
claimed, was a cover for spying for America.
And it seemed like they really believed this accusation. Of course, this wasn't
true. I wasn't a spy. My book wasn't a cover for anything, and so they took me
to Evin prison that night.
GROSS: And what was your book that you were working on?
Ms. SABERI: It was a book about different kinds of people in Iranian society,
from veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, women taxi drivers, women university
students, a wide range of Iranians. And my captors seemed to have a problem
with this. They kept asking me, why did you interview, quote, "so many people?"
What business did you have interviewing them? We know that you wanted to leave
the country soon and publish your book overseas.
And I said yeah, I wanted to get a publisher overseas, because the book is
supposed to be in English, and I wanted show a more complete picture of Iranian
society. And it's impossible to talk to just a few people and say all of
Iranian society looks like this. I need a good cross-section.
And they kept saying no, no, somebody paid you to write this book and to
actually use it as a cover for espionage. They said, for example, why did you
interview with reformists? And I said, well, I also interviewed with
conservatives. And they said yeah, well, you shouldn't have done that, either.
So it seemed like they had a problem with anybody I had interviewed.
GROSS: One of the things I think you were accused of was practicing journalism
without a license.
Ms. SABERI: There's this misperception out there. I think there is some
confusion about - was I arrested because of reporting without a press pass, and
was this illegal? And the answer to both of these questions is no. And I
understand why there might be confusion, because when I was in prison, this was
the reason that the Iranian authorities first gave for my arrest, and I didn't
know about this until I was released, and I was surprised to hear it.
The work that I was doing as a reporter without a press pass was in compliance
with the laws. In Iran, if you want to go to, for example, weekly meetings of,
like, the government spokesperson or the spokesperson for the foreign ministry,
you need a press pass. You just can't get in if you don't have one. And I
wasn't going to those without my press pass.
But there's no law saying that you can't do the reporting that I was doing, for
example, getting reaction from Iranians to the news and doing short news
stories; and legal experts, such as Shirin Ebadi, who is the Nobel Peace Prize-
winner for 2003. They have confirmed that the reporting that I was doing was
not against the law. I knew this, and I worked openly.
Even if it would have been illegal to be reporting without a press pass in
Iran, which it wasn't, the Iranian authorities should have tried me in the
press court, where trials are supposed to be public and with a jury instead of
the revolutionary courts.
I think the Iranian authorities' statement that I was detained for illegally
reporting without a press pass was just another pretext to try to justify my
detention to the public, but it didn't come up much at all during my
interrogation or at court, and they showed themselves to be most concerned
about my book.
And the other thing that is interesting is that my captors told me they knew I
was going to leave the country soon. I was planning to leave in March of last
year. And if my â anything that I had been doing was really that much of a
problem or had really made them suspicious, I don't think they would have
waited until the end of six years to arrest me, like, the month or two before I
was going to leave.
GROSS: So something you were accused of was copying secret documents. And you
write that you'd been correcting grammar in some articles for a think-tank
called the Center for Strategic Research - which is affiliated with the
government, affiliated with the Expediency Council. I don't really know what
the Expediency Council does.
But anyway, so they accused you of photocopying top secret documents. You
insist that these documents were never labeled secret, that they weren't
Ms. SABERI: Exactly. I didn't have any classified documents. I had a research
article that was public information, but my captors lied and claimed I had a
classified document, evidently to pretend that there was legitimacy to my case.
And they tried to make me think that the research article I had was classified.
The judge in my first trial said that a handwritten letter on the front of this
article stood for the word classified. It was the handwritten letter meme(ph)
in Farsi. And I told him I had never heard of an article being marked
classified with one handwritten letter. And I thought, besides, how could I
know that my captors didn't write this there themselves, and meme could stand
for many things.
Well, it wasn't until more than a month and a half after my release that I
became absolutely certain the article I had was not classified at all. And by
that time, I had talked to various Iranian legal experts, including the Nobel
Peace Laureate, Shirin Ebadi. And actually I wanted to have her as my lawyer,
but I was barred from having her. And they all told me there's no way an
official document in Iran could be marked classified with a meme, and to be
considered classified, an article like the one I had had to have the word
classified either printed on it at the time of publication or stamped on it,
and it had neither. And as Shirin Ebadi told me, it was all a trick.
I wrote about this in the book, so that readers can understand how shameless
some Iranian authorities are in fabricating what they call evidence and charges
against people. I wanted to show readers that even when you have not committed
a crime in the Islamic republic, the authorities can create one for you if they
want. And I have since found out that other political prisoners have been
falsely accused of having classified documents.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Roxana Saberi, and she
has reported on Iran for NPR, for Fox News, the BBC and other places. She was
imprisoned for 100 days in Iran's Evin prison, where many political prisoners
are held, and she's written a memoir about that called "Between Two Worlds."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Roxana Saberi, and we're talking
about her 100-day imprisonment in Iran. She's a journalist from America who was
living and working in Iran for several years, and she was charged with copying
classified, secret documents. She was charged with working for the CIA.
She made a false confession so that â in the hopes that would get her out of
prison, and then she couldn't live with her conscience, and she recanted while
she was still in prison. She was released after 100 days. Her new memoir is
called "Between Two Worlds."
You were told early on, after your arrest, that if you didn't cooperate, and
confess that you were a spy, you'd be sent to prison. And then in prison, you
were told that you had to confess. And this is a scenario that I imagine a lot
of people have played in their minds, like when you play the worst-case-
scenario game, and you imagine what would it be like if I was in prison, and I
was told to confess and that if I didn't confess, that I'd be, like, put to
death or imprisoned for many years; and if I did confess, I'd know I was lying,
and maybe they wouldn't really help me anyways.
So you had to do that whole mental calculus, knowing that your life was on the
line, your future was on the line. Can you talk a little bit about what went
through your mind when you were told that if you didn't confess, you'd face
Ms. SABERI: Yes. I knew, first of all, that there had been people before me,
dual nationals, others who had been shown giving confessions on state-run
television in Iran. There was a number of British sailors and Marines who were
arrested in 2006, and they were shown given confessions on television, too, and
it seemed to me - it was clear that these confessions were forced.
These people were released shortly after, and some of them recanted their
confessions. And I knew this was the way things worked in the Islamic republic
from the very beginning of the revolution 31 years. Political prisoners,
especially, have been forced to give confessions about their activities,
implicating themselves or others.
Not everybody is forced to give a confession, but it's usually somebody who
symbolizes something - like an ideology or a group, or a country, like me.
I was under intense psychological pressure. They threatened to keep me in
prison for many years. My interrogators said: We can keep you in prison for 10
years, 20 years. When you come out, you'll be an old lady. Can you imagine what
you'll look like? And they also reminded me that espionage can carry the death
penalty. And then they started telling me that: We have agents all over the
world. You've seen how capable we are. We can even find your family.
The difficult thing for me was that nobody knew where I was, and I felt I had
no way out. They told me if I say this false confession, they would set me
So I told myself, I'll make this confession. The most important thing is for me
to get out of here safely, and when I do, I'll recant my confession, and I'll
recant these lies.
GROSS: Now, before we get to recanting while you were still in prison, I'd like
to talk a little bit about your relationship with the interrogators. Like, how
did they try to manipulate you, and how do you try to get some kind of human
understanding or sympathy from them? Or did you not even try, thinking that
that was impossible? Maybe you could describe what your interrogator was like,
because you basically had your interrogator.
Ms. SABERI: Yes, my chief interrogator was younger than his colleagues. Maybe
he was around my age, in his lower 30s maybe, and he dressed like Westernized
youth of northern Tehran. And because our interrogators would never tell us
their real names, because they're intelligence agents, I made up a name for
him. I called him Javon(ph), which means youth.
Of course, I never called him this to his face. He was very good at
manipulating me. He was an expert, and I realized later that what I went
through, even though they never touched me, I was not physically tortured at
all, that there is a word for this manipulation and intimidation and these
threats that they make against you, and it's actually a phrase called white
It's a kind of torture that doesn't leave any physical marks on your body but
can devastate the mind and the conscience. And they did that to me, especially
in those first couple of weeks, when I was cut off from the world. And I
thought: These people can kill me if they want. They can do what they want, and
nobody would ever find out.
I knew what had happened in Evin prison before. I had heard about Zahra Kazemi,
the Iranian-Canadian journalist, who had been detained in Evin prison - and she
had died mysteriously there. And I had heard about a mass execution, which took
place earlier in the revolution, like 1988 or so. And I had heard about many
political prisoners being held in Evin for years, and some had not come out.
So this, combined with my captors' threats, being in solitary confinement, not
being able to have a lawyer, I was barred from having a lawyer, I was barred
from telling my parents and my boyfriend my whereabouts, it all combined to
make me cave in under their pressures at first.
GROSS: Right. So that's when you decided to confess, falsely confess.
Ms. SABERI: Yes, after the continued threats and pressures, and of course, they
wanted me to spy for them, too.
GROSS: Yes, describe the proposition that they made you.
Ms. SABERI: They said another condition of my release, in addition to making
this confession - which they claimed was true and of course is false - was that
I spy for them. And I said: Well, what do you mean? And they said: Well, we've
got all sorts of people collaborating with us, artists, athletes, journalists
like you. We don't ask much of them. We just want them to gather some
information about who's doing what, saying what, going where, with whom.
And so I pretended to agree because I thought, okay, I'll just pretend, and I'm
going to get out of here, I'm going to escape, and I'm never going to do this.
And later on, they started to describe what they wanted from me.
They wanted me, they said â for example, they would give me a press pass to
work in Iran for six months, and during this time, I was supposed to gather
information about other journalists or diplomats in Iran and give it to them.
And, you know, I was playing along so that they would believe me, so that they
would free me. And they said, oh, it doesn't matter, anywhere you want.
And later, they asked me, for example, if I could gather classified information
for them from the Americans. I mean, they were â they seemed really serious
about this. And I should say that they've asked of â they've demanded this of
other political prisoners, as well. I'm not the only one.
And they made threats. They said if you leave this place and tell anyone about
these arrangements, the boss of my interrogator, he said - I will personally
sign your death warrant. And then my interrogator Javon told me that they could
come after me wherever I was in the world, and maybe I'd be on a reporting trip
in Afghanistan, and they would make it look like I had died in a car accident.
And I knew they were capable.
GROSS: Are you a little worried about that now, because you have told what
happened to you? They also threatened they could go after your parents. So you
have told what happened. You don't put the Iranian government in a very good
light in your memoir. So are you worried that you or your family are or in the
future might be in jeopardy?
Ms. SABERI: A little bit, yes. I know that if they want to come after me, they
will, and I admit when I walk down the street sometimes, I look over my
shoulder. Sometimes, when I check my email, I wonder, can they still monitor
me? Or if I meet somebody new, I think: Is this person maybe an agent?
Especially if they're Iranian, sometimes I wonder, which is terrible.
It's a terrible feeling, but I know other prisoners, political prisoners, often
fear the same things, and this is a result of what they do to us there, the
threats that they make against us.
But I wanted to tell this story because I feel like I have a responsibility to
share the experiences that I went through and to expose the injustices that I
experienced, and so many of my cellmates experienced and so many people are
I wanted to show how easily they fabricate charges against people, whether
it's, you know, spying or soft revolution, or trying to undermine the regime
through propaganda against the state or having a classified document. Other
people have been falsely accused of all of these things.
I wanted to expose these methods that they're using and to say that we have to
speak out against these actions, and it can make a difference when we speak
out. I saw it in my case. People speaking out for me really helped me.
So I think it's worth this risk, and I don't know if they would actually come
after me or not. I hope they don't, but it's a possibility. Maybe they have
bigger priorities right now.
GROSS: Roxana Saberi will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
memoir is called "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Roxana Saberi, author of
the new memoir "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran."
She was an American journalist working in Iran, her father's native country,
when she was arrested early last year. She was accused of copying secret
documents and spying for the CIA. She insists on her innocence, but she caved
into pressure to confess in return for an early release. Soon after confessing,
she recanted, willing to face the consequences in order to have a clean
conscience. After international calls for her release, an appeals court
suspended her sentence. She was released last May.
Let's talk about what your confession was like. You say that in writing the
story of your confession...
Ms. SABERI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...your interrogator kind of helped you write the story.
Ms. SABERI: Yes.
GROSS: He kind of led you through it. How did he do that?
Ms. SABERI: Yes. Well, for example, he asked very leading questions, and
sometimes he'd give, like, multiple choice questions that only two choices, and
if I gave the wrong answer he would make his disapproval very clear. I'll give
you an example for...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SABERI: I'm laughing about it now, but at the time, it was terrible. He
said, for example, how much money did you get from this American to use your
book as a cover to spy? And apparently...
GROSS: When he says this American, he means a CIA agent, because he seems to...
Ms. SABERI: Yeah. Well, he accused me of getting money from somebody who was
either in the CIA or linked to the CIA. And they gave me a list of people I
knew, Americans, and he said you have to pick one of these. And so I picked
somebody completely innocent, and to this day, I feel horrible about it. At the
time I thought this person is not in Iran and won't be coming here anytime in
the near future. Maybe he'll understand that I need to do this to survive,
because he's safe and I'm in danger. But that's another reason I recanted. I
felt horrible about this lie.
So he would say, for example, how much money did you get from - I call this
person Mr. D in my book. And I said, I had no idea how much people, you know,
spies get. I have no idea.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SABERI: So I said $5,000? You know, I was just guessing. And he said,
that's all? Like, apparently, it wasn't enough. And you can tell what they want
from their questions, and when you don't answer them the way they want, they
let you know. And they constantly, consistently threaten you. When you're
there, every threat is very real.
GROSS: So you had to give your verbal testimony, and then did you have to write
the testimony, too?
Ms. SABERI: Yes. I had to write it, and I had to say it on video.
GROSS: Yeah, in the video, they made you do it over because you didn't look
natural and relaxed enough. They wanted you to smile more.
Ms. SABERI: Right. Well, my...
GROSS: It sounds like a bad TV show, you know, since you're not smiling enough.
Ms. SABERI: It was terrible. Like other people who have had to give false
confessions, I also had to go on camera to say mine. And my plan was to look
like I was under pressure when I was saying this. So I tried to avoid eye
contact with the camera, I looked down. I had some notes that they said I could
take. I looked down at my paper a lot. I had a lot of ums and ahs, and they
didn't like this. So they brought me back another day and they said, you have
to do this over again, because you didn't look natural enough. And I thought to
myself, well, I didn't want to look natural. That was the whole point, so
people know that I'm under pressure.
And I did it a total of four times on three different days, because they kept
saying you're not looking natural enough. Use more hand gestures. Have more eye
contact with the camera. You know, smile a little bit. And at the end, I was
just so tired, and I realized they would not let me free until I did this thing
the way they wanted, that I added a few hand gestures and I looked at the
camera a little bit. And then Javan, the interrogator, came out from this
curtain where the camera was, and he smiled and he said now I can tell you're
an experienced broadcast journalist.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SABERI: And I was so angry at that point, but I couldn't so anything.
GROSS: Okay. So you finally gave them what they wanted. You gave them the
verbal confession. You gave them the written confession. And you gave them, you
know, like a nice, telegenic video confession. They said that they would
release you after all of that. But after you gave them everything they wanted,
what did they do with you?
Ms. SABERI: They didn't release me right away. They kept saying we'll release
you tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, and it took a while. In the meantime,
they took me out of solitary confinement and they put me in a cell with some
other women. Eventually, I recanted, and I found out after I was freed that I
recanted two days after the Iranian authorities announced that I was going to
be freed within days. So...
GROSS: But you didn't know that.
Ms. SABERI: I didn't know that at the time. No. But it just - it proves that
they were planning to release me. They got what they wanted out of me, which
was this false confession. They got it on tape. And if I hadn't recanted, who
knows, maybe they would've aired it. Maybe they still will, after this book
comes out and they hear interviews, they'll probably be furious with me and try
to, you know, discredit me in whatever way they can. I don't doubt it.
GROSS: What do you think their real goal was? To get you to spy for them?
Ms. SABERI: You know, I think the interesting thing is after I recanted, Javan,
my interrogator, told me we knew from the very beginning that your confession
was false, and I was shocked. I mean, to - it's - best - essentially telling me
that he knew I wasn't a spy, but he had made me say I was a spy. And he
confirmed it later on. And the deputy prosecutor also acknowledged to me that
he knew I wasn't a spy - in private, of course. They would never say this in
court or anything.
So I started to wonder: Why did these people arrest me in the first place if
they knew I wasn't a spy? It's as if they've been fanning this whole thing.
They never had any deep suspicions of me, it seemed. And I came to various
conclusions. One, they could get this false confession out me, which would
serve many purposes for them, as it has - they've tried to use for other
political prisoners, as well. They could use it to intimidate people who were
advocating better relations with the West, specifically America, at a time when
President Obama had just taken office and he was advocating more engagement
They could also use it to consolidate support from their hard-line base. They
could use my arrest and the confession to intimidate other journalists or dual
nationals or writers. And I know that it did work. It scared some people in
those categories. They could also use it as blackmail against me to get them to
spy for them. And also, it's important to understand that Iranian hardliners
like to argue that America has agents all over the country in the guise of very
ordinary people like journalists, activists, even academics and people who have
links with the West.
And this argument, in my opinion, is basically aimed at allowing them to crack
down on society, to tighten their control of society and to silence their
opponents. And to support this argument, they need real-life examples, people
like me, people like other journalists who have been accused of espionage,
activists, humanitarian workers, people who have been involved in exchange
programs with America.
GROSS: My guest is Roxana Saberi. Her new memoir is called "Between Two Worlds:
My Life and Captivity in Iran." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Roxana Saberi, and she was in
Iran doing freelance reporting for the BBC, Fox News, NPR and other places. And
she was also working on a book when she was arrested early last year. She spent
100 days in Evin prison, which is a prison that holds many of Iran's political
prisoners. And she made a false confession, then recanted, and after a lot of
international pressure, was finally released. Her new memoir is called "Between
Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran."
In your book, after you gave your false confession, you say that you felt so
bad that you couldn't live up to the kind of quotes that used to be so
important and inspirational to you, like a quote from Gandhi saying, "I do
believe I am seeking only God's truth, and I have lost all fear of men," and
that you thought you'd be stronger under pressure. You were disappointed in
yourself. How did you decide to recant your confession while you were still in
Ms. SABERI: From the moment I gave that false confession, I felt horrible. I
felt I had lost my dignity. I felt I had lost any principles of truth and
honesty that I had always hoped that I would be able to live up to, even under
pressure. And I thought the God that I believed in must be disappointed in me,
because I had feared death. I feared man so much that I was willing to
sacrifice my own principles.
But I was scared to recant it at the time, because I was in solitary
confinement. Nobody knew I'd been arrested. And later on, when I was put in a
cell with other women prisoners - other political prisoners - and I saw the
strength of some of them, and there was another woman who was accused of being
a spy, too, and she hadn't buckled under her interrogator's pressures. They
also pressured her to say she was a spy, but she wasn't, and she used to cry a
lot and she used to weep a lot.
I remember thinking: Why don't you just cooperate and maybe you'll get out of
here, you know? This is the way things work here. But I found out that she was
much more content with herself. She told me even if she had to stay there, she
was glad that she hadn't given a false confession. And when I saw women like
this, I started to look at myself and I thought, okay, well, I do plan to
recant. But I wanted to recant once I was freed. But if that's the case, even
when my body will be free, my conscience will forever be behind bars.
I wanted to prove to myself that I could be strong, even under pressure, and
that I would rather stay in prison having told the truth instead of being freed
upon lies. And that's what I told the magistrate when I recanted my confession.
GROSS: And what were the consequences?
Ms. SABERI: Well, this made my captors very angry, and they decided not to free
me. And instead, I was sent to trial, and I was given eight years in prison.
GROSS: But you didn't serve those eight years.
Ms. SABERI: No. I was very fortunate.
GROSS: What was the intervention on your behalf that got you out?
Ms. SABERI: Well, my parents came to Iran in early April. They surprised me.
They came to Iran. And through them, I began to hear much more about efforts
being made in different parts of the world by governments, strangers, ordinary
people, students, human rights groups, journalism groups. They were all working
on my behalf to release me, and they were making, apparently, a lot of noise,
as my interrogator put it to me one day. And this was frustrating my captors so
I remember, on a few occasions, they tried to tell me or my parents, you know,
this media coverage is bad for your daughter. You must know this is not to her
benefit. And they threatened my parents basically that - Javan reminded my
parents, you're in Iran on Iranian passports. God forbid a problem arise for
you. So tell the foreign media not to talk so much about Roxana. And if you
talk to the media, make sure you talk to the Iranian media, like the state-
And one day, also, Javan brought me into the room and he was showing me all
these news articles that he had printed off the Internet. And at that point, I
had learned that it's best just not to engage with these people at all and not
to talk to them. It really drives them up the wall. I mean, their tactic was to
drive captors crazy by making these false accusations and to provoke us to have
this wordy outburst. So I finally learned I should just stay quiet.
And so he was showing me all these articles like, BBC, CNN, Associated Press.
He had highlighted the important parts for me, he said. And he kept reading off
these headlines, like such-and-such organization has called for Roxana Saberi's
release, and he was trying to get me to be afraid that these people were
speaking out for me. But on the contrary, it was strengthening me, and I felt
so humbled - a little embarrassed, too, that there was so much of an outcry for
me, but so thankful. And it strengthened me to stand up to my captors.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Roxana Saberi and her
new memoir is called "Between Two Worlds." It's a memoir about her imprisonment
in Iran, where she was charged with photocopying documents for the CIA and
being an agent for the CIA. She spent 100 days in Iran's Evin prison, a prison
where many political prisoners are put. She made a false confession in the
hopes of getting out, and then because her conscience couldn't handle it, she
recanted while she was still in prison.
You had two lawyers during your imprisonment.
Ms. SABERI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And the second one, and correct me if I'm saying his name wrong...
Ms. SABERI: Mm-hmm. Right.
GROSS: ...Saleh Nikbakht.
Ms. SABERI: Nikbakht. Yes.
GROSS: Yeah, so that second lawyer, after you were released from prison, told
the press two things that you denied. One, that you'd photocopied secret
documents, and you say that, no, those documents were never secret. They were
Ms. SABERI: Right.
GROSS: And he also accused you of meeting someone from the CIA who tried to
recruit you. And you say about that, that that never happened.
Ms. SABERI: Right.
GROSS: So why do you think he would say things about you after your release
that weren't true? This was your own lawyer.
Ms. SABERI: Right. He was not the lawyer I really wanted. The lawyers that I
really wanted I was barred from having and even threatened that if I had Mr.
Sultani(ph), the lawyer I wanted, that I would not be freed, basically. But I
believe that Mr. Nikbakht, I believe this was all a plot. It was a setup. There
must've been some kind of agreement behind the scenes between Mr. Nikbakht - I
donât know about Mr. Haramsha(ph), my other lawyer - and the authorities, that
the condition of my release would be that once I was released, Mr. Nikbakht
would spread these lies about me. It's important to understand that attorneys
in Iran have to be careful of their relations with the government in order to
keep practicing in the courts and to stay out of trouble. Some lawyers who defy
regime pressures have ended up in prison themselves.
And itâs interesting that my second attorney, I heard from a friend of mine
just a couple of months ago, who is an activist outside Iran, the second
attorney, Mr. Nikbakht, apparently called my friend before I was released and
said Roxana's going to be released soon, I'm going to announce that she had a
classified document, but you should deny this because it's not true. So this
shows me that he must've been under pressure to make these false statements
about me. And itâs a pity that some attorneys have to or do give into those
kinds of pressures.
GROSS: Do you fear that because your own attorney spread rumors about you and
accused you of, you know, taking secret documents and meeting with somebody
from the CIA who tried to recruit you, that it has - do you fear that it has in
some people's minds tarnished your credibility, that some people might believe
Ms. SABERI: I think it's natural that some people might believe the lawyer
because people who aren't familiar maybe with the situation there think that,
well, if an attorney says something about their clients, it must be true, but
maybe they donât understand the context. I can't affect everybody's opinion
about me and all I can do is tell the truth, and if they want to believe me,
they can, and if they donât, they donât.
GROSS: Youâre living in Fargo, where you grew up.
Ms. SABERI: Yeah.
GROSS: Fargo, North Dakota.
Ms. SABERI: Yeah.
GROSS: And are you living with your parents in their home?
Ms. SABERI: Yes, I am. Yeah.
GROSS: I'm just trying to imagine what itâs like to go from being in a horrible
prison in Iran to living again with your parents where you grew up.
Ms. SABERI: Well, first I should say that I did enjoy my life in Iran very much
before I was imprisoned and that's one reason I stayed there, is because I came
to love the country and the people. And the people who imprisoned me I donât
see as representing at all the majority of the Iranian people. So - but going
from prison to Fargo was quite a transition. But it's wonderful being back with
my parents and being able to spend more time with them. And I appreciate
certain things that I took for granted before.
Ms. SABERI: Like basic freedoms: the freedom to walk down the street, to jog
down the street, the freedom to walk without being blindfolded, the freedom to
shut off your lights at night, the freedom to make a phone call without being
monitored or with some tall intelligence agent hovering over you, threatening
that you would stay in prison for years if you donât say what they say. The
freedom to read a book, to write, to have a piece of paper and to have a pen.
The freedom to floss my teeth, because floss is banned there. The freedom to
speak - freedom of expression. The freedom of speech. The freedom to write a
book without being accused of using it as a cover for espionage, whether or not
they actually believe that accusation - so many freedoms, whether basic or more
profound that I took for granted before, and I hope that my book in a ways is a
celebration of this freedom.
GROSS: Roxana Saberi, thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.
Ms. SABERI: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Roxana Saberi's new memoir is called "Between Two Worlds: My Life and
Captivity in Iran." You can read the introduction on our Web site,
While in solitary confinement, Saberi composed some music and played it by
tapping her fingers on the wall, imagining piano keys. Here's her recording of
one of those compositions, "Remember to Fly."
(Soundbite of song, "Remember to Fly")
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
I Pledge Allegiance To Linguistic Obfuscation
TERRY GROSS, host:
Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the words under
God could remain in the Pledge of Allegiance â the first time a court had
addressed the constitutionality of the phrase head-on.
Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been listening to debates about the language of
the pledge for a long time and he thinks they missed the point.
GEOFF NUNBERG: There's something almost willfully obtuse about the way people
talk about the language of the Pledge of Allegiance, whichever side they're on.
The 9th Circuit majority called it a proud recitation of the ideals on which
our republic was founded.
You'd think this was one of those culture-war curriculum battles, a debate over
the syllabus of the first-period civics class. But what makes the pledge
important isn't the meaning of the words. It's the way we've managed to keep
them from meaning much of anything at all.
Obscurity has been built into the pledge since Francis Bellamy created it in
1892. It was ostensibly designed to rouse the patriotic attachments of
schoolchildren, particularly the recent immigrants who might need extra
But Bellamy obviously wasn't thinking of all those little Solomons, Svens and
Sergios when he chose to start with the words I pledge allegiance. That was an
arcane scrap of feudal English that had made its last appearance in the loyalty
oath that Confederate soldiers had to sign to recover their rights after the
Civil War. But the reference was obscure to most people even in Bellamy's time,
and the words have always been utterly opaque to schoolchildren.
In fact, the phrase pledge allegiance is what linguists call a hapax legomenon,
or hapax for short â an expression that only occurs in a single place in the
language, like wardrobe malfunction, Corinthian leather, or satisfactual. Or
let's not leave out my favorite, ginchiest. People don't pledge allegiance to
Hadassah or the U.S. Marines or Kappa Kappa Gamma, much less to other inanimate
objects. We only use the words when we're either quoting the flag pledge or
riffing on it. So there's no independent reference point, no way to know what
you've just signed on for that you weren't down for already.
Of course kids are mystified by most everything in the pledge. But one nation
under God has the distinction of being a phrase that not even grown-ups are
clear on. Congress inserted the words at the height of the Cold War in 1954 to
underscore the difference between American values and those of the atheistic
Communists. But its actual meaning is up for grabs.
Does it affirm our faith in God or assert that we have his special protection?
Is it a ceremonial deist formula with no especial religious character? Or is it
merely a historical nod to the beliefs of the founders, as the 9th Circuit
majority said? You can take this wherever you like, because under God is
another hapax legomenon that doesn't occur anywhere else in modern English.
People don't say things like Western Europe isn't under God anymore, or she
only goes out with men who are under God.
That ambiguity has certain advantages. But it actually came about because of a
linguistic misunderstanding. The words were taken from the Gettysburg Address,
where Lincoln asked his listeners to resolve that this nation, under God, shall
have a new birth of freedom. Except that in the Gettysburg Address, under God
didn't modify this nation, but the following phrase: have a new birth of
freedom. In Lincoln's time, under God was a common idiom that meant with God's
help or the Lord willing.
Actually, my guess is that he would have inserted the words under God if he'd
written the Pledge of Allegiance too, although he probably would have put them
at the end. He would have been uncomfortable about describing the country as
indivisible, just and free without adding a God willing somewhere.
I doubt if the people who pushed for inserting under God in the pledge realized
they were changing the meaning of Lincoln's words. Most of them would have had
to learn the Gettysburg Address by heart back then, but nobody ever stopped to
parse it, no more than children parse the Pledge of Allegiance now. Anyway, it
doesn't matter. What's important is that Lincoln sanctified the words, however
we've repurposed them. Whatever you take the phrase to mean, it gets the G-word
in there, which is enough to satisfy some people and offend others.
And it doesn't matter much what schoolchildren make of the phrase either. As
Eric Hobsbawm once said, patriotic rituals exist to instill a sense of
membership in a club, not to enumerate its bylaws.
Really, the whole pledge is just one big hapax legomenon, a string of syllables
that only comes to life in classrooms and school assemblies. But there's a
lesson for children in that: The attachment to flag and country is a unique
bond that requires a special language of its own. In theory, the pledge could
do most of its work if we had children say it in Anglo-Saxon or Arapaho, or if
we replaced it with the lyrics to "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." They're going to turn
the words into jabberwocky anyway: I led a pigeon to the flag, one Asian under
So do the words matter at all? Well, yes, in a way. Reciting the pledge doesn't
teach kids anything about the meanings of its words. But learning to speak
American involves something more than that â it's knowing how to incant them
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at
the University of California at Berkeley.
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