The most influential years of my life were the last three. In Syria, we were part of a community of artists and intellectuals and activists. That year expanded my mind exponentially. As a prisoner and hostage, I experienced a terrible side of the Middle East — the corrupt dictatorships. I've experienced the best and the worst of the Middle East, and I'll never turn my back on either one.
How would you bridge the misunderstandings between us and them?
We need as much cultural exchange as possible. When you think about how many American movies and how much American music people in the Middle East absorb, and how little we absorb of theirs, it shocks me. Many Americans' impression of the Middle East comes from our own films, many of them horribly racist and ignorant. Iran has incredible cinema, so powerful and moving. [It has] brought so much esteem that their government doesn't even censor it as they do everything else. It's Iran's gift to the world.
Aren't Americans justified in thinking that some elements in the Middle East are indeed hostile to us?
That reminds me of something one of my prison guards said. One spoke some Arabic, and I spoke some Arabic, and I said something like, "I'm not bad; why am I here? I don't hate Iran." And she said, "There's some good in Iran and some bad." There's some good in America and some bad. People need a more nuanced analysis of the world.
Why is solitary confinement your cause?
I was in solitary confinement 410 days. I had hallucinations. I had violent panic attacks. I beat at the walls until my knuckles bled. I know the toll it takes. Prolonged solitary confinement is without a doubt psychological torture. It's used in our own prisons as a routine practice; it's used for something as small as not returning a book on time.
Should it be banned?
I agree with a U.N. expert that it should be proscribed except as a very last resort. It's morally wrong. It's also costing us a lot of tax dollars to keep people in isolation. It doesn't help an individual's reform.
Was it hard for you to be around people again?
Extremely difficult. I'd been dreaming for 13 1/2 months of not being alone, but when I was released, I found it difficult to interact with other human beings. My family, people I had been yearning to see — I found myself overwhelmed, difficult to make physical contact, very jumpy.
You heard in prison that people like Desmond Tutu and Ban Ki-moon were speaking on your behalf.
That was phenomenal, to have some of the people I admire the most in the world speak up for me. That keeps you sane in prison. Even though every cell in my body felt like I was lost to the world, I knew in my mind that wasn't true and I was able to hold onto hope. I believe we were released because there was enough pressure internationally [that it became] a tipping point, simple as that. Eventually we became a liability for Iran, and they finally let us go. It's the recipe for freeing political prisoners everywhere.
After such an experience a lot of people would decide to never leave their ZIP Code again. You feel the opposite.
I'm the same person I was before. When I see something in the news, I can't have any detachment from it. There are many lives behind political decisions that are made every day.
Shane, your husband now, proposed to you in prison with a ring he wove from the red-and-white threads from his T-shirt. Do you still have it?
In that first year [of freedom,] I was in Boston to meet with Noam Chomsky. I looked down at my finger and it was gone, in the snow. I spent 45 minutes looking and I couldn't find it. But I knew the real one was going to come. I've gotten better at dealing with disappointment, let's put it like that!
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.