Once the center of international outcry, Japanese American author speaks out


Between Two Worlds

Roxana Saberi, as with other political prisoners, suffers from “emotional scars” that “will take a long time to heal. Some will never heal,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. However, she said that writing about and discussing her experience have helped.

Saberi’s book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran,” was released on March 30.

At the time of her arrest on Jan. 31, 2009, Saberi, a citizen of both the United States and Iran, had been in the Middle Eastern country for nearly six years. Born in Belleville, N.J., and raised in Fargo, N.D., she moved to Iran to work as a reporter, where she covered such topics as AIDS. She later began working on a book on Iranian society.

Saberi was convicted of espionage on April 18, 2009, and sentenced to eight years in Evin Prison in Tehran.

Saberi subsequently launched a hunger strike from her prison cell.

Subjected to “White Torture”

During her imprisonment, Saberi was subjected to “white torture,” a “mix of intimidation and persuasion…which does not leave a physical mark but devastates one’s mind and conscience,” she writes. Despite succumbing to pressure to make a false confession, Saberi later recanted it, while still in prison. She was ultimately freed on appeal on May 11, 2009 following international calls for her release.

The 33-year-old began writing her book shortly thereafter; and a music album that bears the same name as her book was also released. At least 20 percent of the proceeds from the collection of music, which includes her original compositions, will go toward promoting human rights in Iran.

While imprisoned, Saberi was at various points blindfolded, placed in solitary confinement, and repeatedly pressured to confess. She often turned to music, and would imagine playing the piano by pretending the wall of her cell was a keyboard.

Today, Saberi speaks out not only to share her own story, but that of her former cellmates, and many other political prisoners who remain incarcerated. Twenty-three journalists were imprisoned in Iran as of Dec. 1, 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports.

She points out that in spite of all that she endured, there are many others who are suffering much worse, and whose cases do not receive the international outcry that hers did.

Margo Melnicove, the book’s primary editor, said Saberi has become a “champion of people who can’t speak for themselves about how their human rights have been violated.”

Saberi has “always been a seeker, someone looking for a way to make a positive difference in the world, someone looking for a way to do the right thing,” Melnicove recalls.

Melnicove, a freelance editor and consultant, served as Saberi’s mentor through National Public Radio’s Diversity Initiative seminar in 2001.

It was thus all the more difficult for Melnicove to have to put her friend in a position that was so painful, she said of helping Saberi to “write with authenticity without pushing her too hard.”

Melnicove described Saberi as having “tremendous discipline, energy and focus.”

They spent many hours proofing the manuscript “line-by-line, punctuation-by-punctuation.” The two would even race to see who would find the most errors first.

And “fundamentally, she’s still the same compassionate, intelligent, dedicated person that I’ve always known her to be,” Melnicove added.

From Pageant Queen to

Foreign Correspondent

As a youngster, Saberi often heard her mother’s stories of her parents’ long-distance courtship. Reza and Akiko Saberi met in Japan. He was a volunteer English teacher, and she, his student. They went out twice, in spite of the objections of Akiko’s parents. Unable to see Akiko, Reza returned to Iran. The pair wrote letters for a few months, before she flew to Tehran, where they married in 1971, Saberi writes.

At the time, Reza “was told he was the 10th Iranian man in the world known to have married a Japanese woman,” the book states.

In Fargo, N.D., the Saberis were one of a few Iranian families. It was in college that Saberi decided to become a foreign correspondent in order to learn about international issues and cultures. In 1997, at the urging of her friend, the Nikkei competed in the Miss Fargo Pageant. She won, and went on to place in the top 10 at the Miss America Pageant. She spoke about “cultural appreciation” one year later as Miss North Dakota. The scholarship money she won through competing in the pageants helped her to pursue her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

Saberi also holds bachelor’s degrees in communications and French from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., as well as a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge.

Saberi’s former employer, Simon Marks, president and chief correspondent of Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency, recalls that her work reflected her “ability to go beyond the rhetorical shouting match that often defines the U.S.-Iranian relationship, and really wanted to understand the rich complexities of Iranian society.”

Saberi’s reporting was “layered, textured and contextual,” Marks said via e-mail.

Her work, said Catherine McMullen, an English/journalism associate professor at Concordia College, “showed us how ordinary Iranians lived their lives and attempted to explain Iranian culture. This is particularly important because people in the West know little about Iran and tend to mistake the current regime for the Iranian people.”

As countless Saberi advocates maintained, McMullen said the implication that her former student was a spy “was just too absurd.” McMullen said via e-mail that Saberi’s “supporters also realized that repressive regimes always try to silence journalists, and the world cannot sit by and let them get away with that. So we were supporting our friend Roxana, but also every journalist imprisoned for attempting to report the truth.”

Yet another one of Saberi’s former professors, Larry Stuelpnagel, assistant professor at Medill Graduate School of Journalism at Northwestern University, was a part of a team that facilitated protest marches and reached out to the media on Saberi’s behalf. Many students also joined Saberi, a graduate of Northwestern, in her hunger strike. The gravity of Saberi’s situation was always a reality for her supporters.

“A Political Pawn in a Life-or-Death Chess Match”

Stuelpnagel, who is also an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, said via e-mail, “Because she was accused of spying she could have been executed… I always felt she was a political pawn in a life-or-death chess match between the new Obama administration and the Iranians who were using her to see how they could pressure the U.S.”

Stuelpnagel praised Saberi, who reported for such news outlets as ABC Radio, the BBC, Fox News and NPR, for her courage, and other foreign correspondents “who literally risk their lives so that we might better understand what is going on in the world.”

Saberi herself believes that the Iranian people will eventually prevail.

“When enough people get together and take steps toward a positive common goal, they can make a difference. I saw that in my case, and in others as well,” she said.

“The goodness of humanity gives me hope because I know there is goodness in many places and I saw it in my cellmates,” as well as in the support she and so many others who have been unjustly treated have received, she said.

Saberi is unsure whether she will be able to complete the story she initially set out to write.

Nonetheless, she remains determined to raise awareness of human rights abuses, and continues to feel “more at peace” as each week and month goes by.

Saberi has relished the time she has spent in North Dakota with her family, which includes her parents and brother, Jasper, since her release. She will spend part of her summer teaching in Northwestern’s National High School Institute (Cherubs), a summer program for high school students.

For more information about Saberi, her book or album, visit RoxanaSaberi.com.

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