1977 Tehran, IRAN—As far away from my world, further than the 10,000 miles suggest. The first 48 hours after Habib is arrested I’m still in a sort of shock-yet-arrogantly-pissed-off state. It becomes clearer however, that there’s little I can do to impact the situation. I am a stranger in a strange land after all. 


Nasser makes clear to me that I will not be allowed to visit my husband. As it turns out, neither can he. Savak, the Shah’s secret police, hold all the cards. After a couple days, I go to Nasser’s house in Karaj, a suburb about 30 miles from Tehran. His house is in a small but newer housing development on the edge of town. Oddly, he and I both maintain a peaceful coexistence which has not always been the case in our relationship. Back before Habib and I were married, Nasser’s disdain for me was obvious. However thin the thread, it is just as obvious now that we both share a strange kinship in tragedy.

As the days drift by like so much dead wood in a fetid river, Nasser is kind to me. He introduces me to Mohammed and Soriah, two doors down from his house in Karaj. They both speak English, which is a godsend, Mohammed having been in the US while he completed a PhD in economics. An added benefit is that he is funny, energetic and engaging, Soriah, warm, compassionate and sympathetic. 

I wander down to my new friends’ place most days while Nasser has gone into Tehran to his engineering firm, and to push for Habib’s release. Sometimes my new friends feed me but I have noticed no matter what I eat, I’m starting to get the runs! I deal with this and my overall stress load by smoking up a storm! If I’d had a pacifier I would have used that too!


After I-don’t-know-how-much-time, my diarrhea becomes chronic and I’m losing a lot of weight. Nasser takes me to a doctor who diagnoses me as pregnant. Impossible! I’m on the pill!! After ten days or so, it’s also clear Habib may be held longer than I’d ever believed possible. I read every book in English I can scrounge in Nasser’s house, as well as a few I brought myself. All this between walks alone in the little housing community and visits to Mohammed and Soriah’s. Still, I grow increasingly more nervous, frightened, and am filled with a sense of dread. 

Some nights Nasser stays in Tehran while I grow lonelier and more isolated. At some point, he takes me to Tehran to stay with his aunt and her family for a few days. One of her daughters is attending university, an English literature major, at last a verbal lifeline and connection! We talk about the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. What a strange story to bind over. 

I press both Nasser and his aunt’s family to at least let me call my family back in Michigan. They have no idea what’s happening. Emphatically, No! The phones are bugged—it’s impossible to call as Savak will likely be listening, making it riskier for Habib. These Iranian relatives try to distract me, cheer me up, and while small snippets of time I feel some relief, it never lasts long. 


Nasser sends for his dad and I meet my father-in-law, Aziz, for the first time. He knows no English and my limited Farsi offers only a small link for communication. A short, slightly portly man, Aziz has a generally happy face, cheerful even, given the circumstances. But our greatest link is obvious, a grim potent fear we could lose a young man we both love. The weight of this lies just beneath our individual and collective interaction like quicksand lurking just below.

Aziz takes me to a large bazaar one day and buys me all sorts of things—a dress, gold jewelry, and other trinkets. This kind of shopping is new to me. Not only is the bazaar’s narrow lane lined with shops on both sides, it is filled with lots of booths, creating a carnival feel. Owners hawk their wares to draw in customers. It’s loud and boisterous with everyone talking at once, indicative of the Iranian culture. Once these hawkers smell a live prospect, they ratchet up the volume and start haggling. I find it intriguing but alien. Their energy is unnerving for me, aggressive even, yet I find the whole environment fascinating and oddly for a time, I forget about Habib.

The smells in this place are intoxicating, filled with foreign spices and sweat in the 110 degree heat, fragrant and pungent. We stop at one stall and Aziz buys me pistachios, which I love. If ever Iran was to claim a National nut it would be pistachios. There are empty shells all over the paved walkways for foot traffic. We open the nuts and donate more to the ground beneath.


It’s been more than two weeks since Habib’s arrest and I’m becoming more scared by the day. I deal with the fear and stress by smoking, perpetually smoking. My dysentery increases. One day while I’m down at Mohammed and Soriah’s they have visitors, a couple, who have come for lunch. I’m off by myself after we eat, on the other side of the room, observing. They speak in Farsi and I understand very little, they speak so fast. I might as well be on the other side of the planet which, quite frankly, I wish I was!

After they leave, Soriah comes over and we talk. She tells me the husband has given me a prescription for my dysentery. Evidently he used to be a doctor but can still write prescriptions. I ask her why he’s not practicing medicine anymore and she tells me he lost his license after being arrested by Savak and held in prison for three years. 


She tells me he had been tortured repeatedly. One way they tortured him was to hang weights from his testicals for extended periods of time, leaving him unable to have children. I am horrified, knowing Habib could also be tortured and maybe in this way too. I think my heart stopped for a whole minute at this thought, shocked as if I’d been hit with a high voltage cattle prod. 

This whole episode is a turning point for me. While I want Habib back, I am shocked to think I want to get out of Iran more than anything—with or without him. I would be ashamed of this if I didn’t also know I was hanging on by the thinnest of psychological threads. A new sense of awareness dawns on me, one so pervasive not just because of a heightened terror but also because for the first time I realize not only could I leave Habib behind but also because I realize I’m as imprisoned as he is, just in a different way. I do not yet know I can’t get out of this country by myself just yet!

Of course I can only process this feeling of emotional betrayal alone, filled with shame yet loaded with an innate sense of self preservation. I tell myself it’s natural, warranted, to be expected. It’s the way of the animal kingdom, to survive. Yet in all my naïveté I feel the tonnage of guilt. I wish I could talk to my friend, Carol. She and I process everything with all the psychological effects of the neurotic which we both acknowledge that we are. But of course I can talk to no one about this—not one single soul! My fear mounts, could I go insane here? 


Back in Nasser’s lonely house I’m glad he’s not there a lot. Gives me time to just be ‘me’ — the me I recognize still tethered to some sense of my American-ness. I can wring my hands and smoke more without the disapproving presence of Habib’s oldest brother. Nasser and I had always had a tenuous relationship at best while he was in America. It had become much more accepting since Habib’s arrest, much more. Far from warm, it was closer, respectful in a way, and more compassionate on both of our parts. Even so, his demeanor was still more guarded and reserved than is typical in the average American male. While it felt respectful of me now, more open, his attitude was still paternalistic in nature, unequal. Regardless, I am grateful for the improvement.

I continue my walks around the little housing community alone, imagine living here and can’t wrap my head around it. How naive I have been! My visits at Soriah and Mohammed’s house also continue. What would I do without them? The medicine helps my dysentery a lot though I still have some runny stool, just not as often, not as extreme. At least I don’t have to squat on the floor level toilets as often, which is a relief in and of itself.


Nasser has been gone for a few days in a row but all of a sudden, he and Mohammed burst through the door, anxious and rushed, bringing with them a weather front of fear. “What’s going on?” I ask. “We have to get rid of all the books,” they spit out, staccato fashion. They race from one room to another collecting books and bagging them. Their combined fear escalated, infecting me too, implying they are at risk with Savak, and maybe I am as well! Oh my, a new level of terror has infected me! 

After gathering every book they can find that might be remotely perceived as anti-Shah, they leave. Again, I’m alone, again to imagine something worse than what has already occurred. How much more can I take? I do not know. I only know the tension tightly wound inside of body and soul is ratcheted up yet again. What is my breaking point?


We arrive at Mehrabad Airport after hours and hours in the air. It’s sweltering hot, I don’t know, maybe 100 degrees or more? We walk from the plane, down stairs and into the terminal and get into a queue for passport and visa checks. Even inside it’s hot!

All the smells are different in the atmosphere, all except for the identifiable odor of human sweat. I’m excited, nervous, exhausted as we inch forward. Soon, we’re at the table where officials sit and a few stand behind, surveying the line.


Habib is ahead of me and hands the seated man his passport. A discussion occurs between himself and someone standing behind him. It’s Farci, and even though I had a tutor in the language for six weeks prior, I cannot tell what’s being said. What I do know is that there is a palpable shift in mood, ominous and destabilizing.

The man standing behind the table steps to the side, and beckons Habib. Again, In Farci, again I know not what they say. The rancid odor of sweat is replaced by the rancidness fear and I suppose, a bitter adrenaline taste. I ask Habib what is happening and the man answers, telling me in English they just want to talk to him, and they walk away from me.


I’m frozen. But not for long. The man at the table asks me for my passport so I hand it to him. He checks it, stamps it and hands it back. I walk away from the table in an anxious fog and search the crowd across the wide expanse of Mehrabad Airport looking for Habib’s older brother, Nasser.

I’m sure if you were to ask his brother now he would admit to concern, maybe even fear, but at the time, he just looked a bit worried without a lot of expression. You learn to not give too much away in the Middle East. It could be dangerous if you do.

In what seems like only seconds, a suited man exits a door caddy-corner from the chasm between Nasser and I. The official is brusque, purposeful. Once over at the luggage area he grabs Habib and my luggage and returns to the unmarked door on the other side of the expansive room.

In an immeasurable flash, I feel terror. I know Habib has anti-Shaw literature in our luggage. We had a fight about it in DC, me saying he can’t take it, and him scoffing—that he has a friend at the airport to avoid any problems with officials, thus totally blowing my concerns off! Typical! After all, what did I know, it was his country!


Nasser and I lock eyes as he remains behind the roped area on the other side of the terminal. Oddly, I have no clear recollection of how long it took the same official to come retrieve me and ask me to go with him, probably only a fraction of a second but seemed eternal. What I do know now is that I was to have an unforeseen event that was to change my life, my marriage and my view of the world and everything in it.

There are points in a lifetime that challenge absolutely everything you thought you knew about yourself and the world you inhabit. In the fastest flash I knew I was alone, a single organism in an unknown place. So alone, the feeling was thunderous, instantly isolating at least for a time. It was destabilizing and disorienting yet somehow a perverse survival mechanism kicked in. I knew not whence it came.

When I think about this event now I realize how the animal reacts, thought seems suspended. You know to put one foot in front of the other, thoughts flash in a microsecond, responding as if programmed. But the heart pounds, the respiration quickens and you are on autopilot. 

In your head, it is as marooning as being on Mars. You don’t dare deal with the emotional earthquake of fear that is going on inside of you. Instead, both physical and psychological survival takes over like the rabbit chased by a wolf. It’s only later when there’s time to reflect on the event that you can absorb more of it. Even then it’s limited in processing the residuals of the event as if you’ve still skipped too many frames of the film being replayed in your mind.


The official takes me through the door that I saw Habib go through. We enter the room he sits in with other officials nearby, three or four maybe? I recall them asking me my name, a few other details about myself but I have no recollection of what those details were. 

Habib is nervous, completely still, with a look on his face I’ve never seen before. One of the men hands me some papers—in Farsi—and asks me in English if these are mine, asks what they say, did I bring them? I answer no, not mine, I don’t know what they say, I can’t read Farsi. It is clear to me this is incredibly dangerous territory. If not for me, certainly for my husband.

The sense of powerlessness and impotency that swamps you in certain situations is unexpected, sudden, as a westerner and particularly as a woman. That feeling (and knowledge) is to only grow over the next couple of months. It is also to alternate between impotence and a naive brashness, thinking I can go to the US Embassy and they will help resolve this. After all, US policy has changed. As President, Jimmy Carter has been pushing a policy promoting human rights issues on ally countries of which, Iran under the Shaw, is one of them.


Yes, I will tell Nasser to take me to the Embassy, that’s what I will do. The men subsequently let me go but, as night follows day, keep Habib. I leave the room and walk quickly across the remaining wide expanse of the lobby area to my waiting brother-in-law. I start to tell him what has just transpired and he tells me to wait until we get out of the airport.

We are in the car, Nasser and I, and I tell him what I want to do, to go to the Embassy. “No, you can’t,” he tells me. “It’ll only make it worse.” I realize I am trapped, just as much as my husband, but in a different way. The enormity of what is unfolding swamps me, as we whisk away from Mehrabad airport. My entire life, and my husband’s, has pivoted,  spiraling into the abyss. Terror sets in. I am the rabbit, heart pounding, and it occurs to me I am in uncharted territory, a stranger in a strange land, trapped between heaven and hell, lost and alone. Powerless!