Azar Aryanpour had heard about the dirty conditions and brutal treatment of inmates in the prisons of her country, Iran. As the wife of a famous orthopedic surgeon, though, she never imagined she'd actually see the inside of an Iranian prison.
But there she was, standing in a grimy waiting room during a visit with her then-husband, Shoja Sheikh. He had resigned as Iranian Minister of Health and Welfare and was then imprisoned by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The Iranian dictator was using former cabinet ministers as scapegoats in the aftermath of 1978 riots sparked by his political corruption. The ensuing revolution led to the shah's ouster -- and to the end of Aryanpour's life as she knew it.
The waiting room was "furnished with a filthy, tattered sofa, a broken table, and a worn-out rug with a musty stench," Aryanpour writes in her autobiography, Behind the Tall Walls. "The place would have made a perfect set for a spy movie, except it was for real."
Reality dawned on her in the wretched room, where one guard tried to sexually assault her. She screamed, she writes, only to have another guard tell her: "You act so arrogantly! Think you're still the wife of a minister? Your husband's no more than a prisoner."
She denied the assertion to the guard's face, but she knew he was right. Sheikh was sentenced to death by the fanatic government of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. Aryanpour found records to disprove the most damning charges, however, and Sheikh received only a life sentence.
Still, Aryanpour was declared an enemy of the state; she lost her position as a college English professor.
"I knew at that time that there was nothing else I could do for my husband," she recalls. She fled to the United States, where two of her children were in college, eventually getting a job as a research librarian at Rutgers University.
In the meantime Sheik's sentence was reduced. He was freed in 1984 but couldn't leave the country. By then a westernized woman, Aryanpour wouldn't return to Iran. The two divorced.
"So after 13 years of waiting and hoping that I still had a husband and a country," she says, "I realized that I had lost both, and I started to put together the fragments of my life to write this autobiography."
She wanted the truth about the revolution to be known. "It was a deep personal need," she says. "I also wanted to immortalize the love, the only love that I ever felt for a man. I mean deep love, in that sense."
-- John Ferri
Author Azar Aryanpour will sign copies of Behind the Tall Walls Thursday, June 3, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 591 S. University Dr., Plantation. Admission to the 7:30 p.m. talk is free. Call 954-723-0489.