Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: ‘I don’t know how I survived’

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe studies the thick menu, leafing through its pages in search of the various tastes she is craving. There’s an aubergine platter that she’s had before and wants to try again, a squid tempura, a spinach salad and the black cod with miso, which she tells me is unmissable.

Although it is just the two of us at Roka, a stylish Japanese restaurant in London’s Mayfair, we add sashimi, a spicy yellowfin tuna roll, yellowtail carpaccio with truffle and crab and black cod dumplings to our feast. “I have been food-deprived,” says the Iranian-British national who endured a six-year ordeal as a prisoner in Iran, as if to justify her appetite.

For Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was given her life back only in March, food was, for a long time, a matter of survival, and having plenty of it is freedom.

During seven months in solitary confinement after she was first arrested on spying charges in 2016, she ate very little. “The food was awful. So I just ended up having bread and cheese and jam for quite some time, for breakfast, lunch, dinner. They would give us the really teeny-tiny jams that they give you at the hotels, the small ones. The same amount of cheese. A little bit of bread.”

When she was transferred to the general women’s ward in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, food gained a meaning beyond subsistence: it filled time — which she had in abundance — and it solidified the sense of community among women prisoners.

The rations were still meagre, mostly grains and beans and frozen meat, but the prisoners had a kitchen and a shop where they bought fresh fruit and vegetables. “We didn’t have anything like an oven to begin with, but somebody donated some money and they bought an oven, which was nice, so we could bake bread and sometimes pizza and gradually we had this recipe book that we could follow and we started making sweets for the Nowruz [Iranian new year].”

We are meeting on her 101st day of freedom. It was March 16 when the 43-year-old Zaghari-Ratcliffe was finally allowed to board a plane from Tehran to be reunited with Gabriella, her now eight-year-old daughter, and Richard, her husband who had relentlessly campaigned for her release, going on hunger strike for 15 days in 2019 and 21 in 2021.

Snatched from the airport in Tehran when she and her then 22-month-old daughter tried to board a flight back to London after a family visit, Zaghari-Ratcliffe became a pawn in a geopolitical stand-off between the Islamic Republic and the west. In recent years, scores of dual nationals have been arrested in Iran and used as bargaining chips, to exchange for Iranians jailed abroad, or, in her case, to secure the release of £400mn debt that Britain owed Iran.

By the time Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released, her family’s anger was directed not only at Iran but also at successive British governments, which they believed had not tried hard enough to secure her freedom. “I think it should have happened earlier,” she says. “Six years is a very long time.”

It is a sunny day in London and the terrace of Roka is crowded. I find Zaghari-Ratcliffe seated at a table by the window inside, in the dining room with an open kitchen. It’s noisy and we have to raise our voices to be heard. She doesn’t seem to mind. She is often pensive, taking her time to consider her answers. At times, she appears detached, as if describing an experience lived by someone else.

It is when speaking of the separation from her daughter, first at the airport when she was arrested and again three years later when she and her husband decided that Gabriella should be sent back to London to live with him, that she lets the emotion in, at one point breaking into tears. “The thing I could never accept was the separation from my daughter. I could never come to terms with that. I could never understand that we live in a world that allows a mother to be away from her child for six years.”

Born to a religious family and raised in Tehran, Zaghari-Ratcliffe had studied English literature and worked in Iran for international bodies including the World Health Organization before travelling to the UK on a scholarship in 2007 to study media communications. It was then that she met and married her husband Richard, an accountant, and settled in London. After graduation, she worked at a BBC-affiliated international development charity and then at the Thomson Reuters Foundation — jobs that Iran would falsely claim involved training Iranian journalists and, in their twisted logic, plotting to overthrow the regime.

When, as foreign secretary in 2017, Boris Johnson mistakenly remarked that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “simply teaching people journalism”, he inadvertently reinforced the regime’s accusations, possibly adding more years to her imprisonment. It was the message she gave Johnson when she met him after her release. “I wanted him to know that I actually lived under that shadow of his mistake for four and a half years. Every single time they told me: ‘you lied to us, he [Johnson] told the truth’.”

In her first months of incarceration, stuck in a tiny 2-metre by 2-metre cell in the city of Kerman, in the south-east of Iran, with no access to a lawyer or family visits, she was convinced that she was caught up in a case of mistaken identity. “I just kept telling myself . . . This is wrong. They arrested the wrong person.”

Soon her jailers hinted at the likely reason for her arrest: to pressure the UK into paying £400mn owed to Iran for an order of Chieftain tanks that was not delivered after the 1979 Islamic revolution. “I could never tell whether they arrested me and then they made that up or they already knew about it and then they arrested me to feed the wrong agenda. I don’t know. But very, very early on, about two weeks, they told me that we want something from the British government.”

British foreign secretaries came and went, and all tried to win her release. Parts of the government resisted returning funds to Iran that could be used to finance radical groups in the Middle East. Others were concerned about finding a channel to send the money that would not break the international sanctions regime on Iran. When Liz Truss became foreign secretary in September 2021, she seemed more determined than most to secure her release. In the end, along with Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, the debt was indeed settled, even if the official version remains that the two events were not linked.

We nibble on the many appetisers laid out across our table, each deliciously prepared, and beautifully presented. While I enjoy the raw fish, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is more interested in the squid and the salads, which I move closer to her side.

Sipping her matcha green tea mixed with passion fruit, she tells about the many impressive women she met at Evin. She was held with Narges Mohammadi, a human-rights activist who fought for women prisoners’ rights, “a lovely person, stoic”, and a group of wildlife conservationists who held a sit-in in 2019 to protest about the killing of demonstrators on the streets. “The political ward was very strong at one point,” she says. “There was power in . . . mobilising women in prison to be standing up for their rights, to speak up . . . the women learnt from each other.”

That solidarity helped her survive. But so did her faith. When she was in solitary confinement in the early months of imprisonment, she read the Koran, the only book she was allowed by her guards. “I don’t know how I survived. I am confident that my faith helped me. I had to hold on to something.”

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s first whiff of freedom came because of the Covid pandemic, which hit Iran hard in its first wave. Afraid that prisoners would die on their watch, or perhaps that their value would diminish, the authorities furloughed those with short remaining sentences into house arrest. With a year left on hers, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was given an ankle tag and sent to her parents’ house in Tehran. “I was the first female political prisoner ever to be given the ankle tag, to the point where the guards were, oh, how do you think it looks?” she recalls. “I could talk to my daughter every day, see her [on video] every day but I also had to call the prosecutor’s office every week to say, do I have to come back to prison, or not? And they would say, oh, call us back next Saturday. Every Saturday for one year.”

The tag came off when her five-year sentence was over. She could meet friends, visit bookstores and dine at restaurants — though none served the kind of Japanese cuisine she craved. But with the £400mn debt still unpaid, a new chapter of trauma was unfolding.

In April 2021, an Iranian court sentenced her to a year in prison on a new charge of spreading propaganda against the regime, and added to it another year of travel ban, a decision upheld on appeal a few months later. She was not incarcerated, but nor was she free. “The new sentence was dangling over my head to scare me. They wanted the money,” she suspected. By then, the Trump administration, whose hostility to compromise with Iran may have been an additional obstacle to Britain’s attempts to strike a release deal, was out of office. And in London, Johnson was now prime minister and keen to bring Zaghari-Ratcliffe back.

In the year she spent at home in Iran, Zaghari-Ratcliffe started to come to terms with the anger she felt towards her home country. She resolved to leave it on the plane to London. “I have to just carry on,” she tells me. “I don’t want to live with that black hole in my heart for ever.”

She has imparted this serenity about Iran to her daughter who, though aware of her mother’s treatment, speaks fondly of her mother’s heritage. “She’s very proud of being half-Iranian, which is very sweet. I’m very proud of her. Because I thought that bit of her past is a bit chipped, because of what happened to me.”

We are nearly two hours into our lunch and the waitress is eager to serve the pièce de résistance: the miso-marinated black cod. When it is finally placed before us, Zaghari-Ratcliffe serves both of us and, as we savour it, I steer the conversation towards the present. The woman in white embroidered shirt and dangling earrings sitting before me is, on the surface, impressively poised and well adjusted. Her nails are painted and her eyelids brushed with a light grey shadow. She is reflective and confident.

When I gently probe her feelings, and bring up what normality means to her today, however, she tells me about her nightmares. For a long time after she returned to London, she would wake up in the middle of the night, not knowing whether she was in prison or free. “In my nightmares, they [the authorities] tell me that you’re free and I can’t find my shoes. I’m looking for my shoes. I can’t find them. They tell me, we are waiting for the bus to come. The bus never comes. The fulfilment isn’t there,” she says. “I think subconsciously I have not really accepted that freedom has happened.”

Her life with her family feels at times surreal, almost like a holiday or a dream. She is the accidental celebrity, stopped on the streets and asked to take selfies with strangers. Her name is shouted out on the Tube when people see her. “It’s sweet . . . and it’s humbling,” she tells me. She has finally seen her husband serene and smiling, after watching him troubled for so many years. “He keeps telling me every single day that it’s good that you’re back, it’s good to have you back, and reminding me that these are very very precious moments. We have gone through a lot to come out of it stronger.” She knows that both of them still need to recover. “We are different people but we share the same pain. Even though he wasn’t in prison, he suffered in a different way. It takes patience, flexibility, understanding.”

I tell her that it’s difficult to imagine how a person adjusts to life after prison, when on the surface they appear to have reclaimed their normality — indeed she seems, in her poise, all too normal to me — but deep down they must still be struggling. She nods. “I think often people talk about, you go through imprisonment, and then freedom happens and then everything is just good. That’s not true. When freedom happens, especially when you’re away for a long time, then the whole battle of adjusting to the new life, and then depression happens,” she says. “And what is normal? What is normal for me? I am not the same person. Richard is not the same person. My daughter is eight. When I left her she was not even two. We have all changed in really different ways.”

Her life has shifted from an exceedingly slow existence to days bursting with energy and excitement, which can be exhausting. She was relieved when she discussed how tired she felt with another recently released prisoner. He told her that even an activity as simple as speaking on the telephone forces him to lie down for two hours afterwards. “I’m not on my own. There are other people going through that. But I think because we often talk about this part less. Because everyone says, you’ve put on nail varnish. You’re wearing make-up. I’m so happy that you’re back to your normal life. How do you know that this is my normal life?”

We have lost track of time. Most of our fellow lunch diners have departed and our waiter is hovering. Zaghari-Ratcliffe considers taking a look at a dessert menu, but we settle on the quick option: a black coffee for her and an espresso for me. Our discussion of life after prison appears to have worn her out but speaking of her daughter lightens her mood. What, I ask her, was the most enjoyable experience when she returned to London? “I took my daughter for a haircut and she loved it, absolutely loved it,” she says. “She had very long hair and we always talked about when mummy comes back we’ll go and have a haircut. This is what I was looking forward to for a very, very long time.” It was the most normal mother-daughter experience, but one that both had been denied for six long years.

Roula Khalaf is the editor of the Financial Times

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