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'This has become a sacred alley.' The face of Emad Shargi imprisoned in Iran

<em>"It's not emotionally easy to come by here anymore," Neda Sharghi said of this alley in Washington, D.C. Her brother Emad Shargi, depicted above, remains in Iran's Evin prison.</em>
Steve Inskeep
/
NPR
"It's not emotionally easy to come by here anymore," Neda Sharghi said of this alley in Washington, D.C. Her brother Emad Shargi, depicted above, remains in Iran's Evin prison.

Updated July 26, 2023 at 6:15 AM ET

Neda Sharghi met us in an alley, on a summer morning, when the bricks were in shadow. We inspected a mural that's now one year old.

It shows faces of Americans detained overseas, including her brother Emad, held in Iran since 2018.

His face and others have been peeling off the bricks. The artist, Isaac Campbell, deliberately chose materials that would decay.

"It shows the passage of time," Sharghi says. "You can see the effect of time on their faces. It's a reflection of the effect time is having on our lives and on their lives."

Some whose faces went up last year have been released—such as basketball player Brittney Griner, freed from Russia. Stickers on the wall serve as updates.

But for Sharghi's brother and others—such as Siamak Namazi, also imprisoned in Iran for years—there is only the decay of the image.

We have followed Emad Shargi's story over time as he's been released but not allowed to leave Iran, then detained again, tried in court and sentenced to prison.

The following is an edited exchange with Emad's sister, Neda Sharghi.

Who is your brother, Emad Shargi, and what's happening to him?

Neda Sharghi: He was traveling with his wife in Iran when he was detained by the authorities for no reason, in April 2018. He has been there ever since. The State Department has designated him wrongfully detained, which means that they have determined that his wrongful detention was due to nothing but his American citizenship.

Wasn't there a fire in the prison at one point?

In October, we were actually here at this very mural for an event. I got a phone call, where he was quite panicked. I could hear noises in the background.

I came to find out quickly thereafter that there were riots where he was, as well as a fire, and that he was very nearly killed. We didn't know his whereabouts for days. And I think that call that he placed was just to say, this may be the last time I speak to you.

When we unveiled this [mural], my father was here for the press conference, standing under my brother's image, and he fainted. We have had families come here when they have heard of their loved ones being poorly treated or going through hunger strikes. Those who have come home have come back to this mural to see what was done for them when they were not here. This has become a sacred alley, I think, for our campaign and for our families. We like to refer to it as Freedom Alley.

<em>Artist Isaac Campbell made this mural in Washington, D.C. one year ago using materials that were meant to decay. It depicts  Americans detained abroad.</em>
Steve Inskeep / NPR
/
NPR
Artist Isaac Campbell made this mural in Washington, D.C. one year ago using materials that were meant to decay. It depicts Americans detained abroad.

Every once in a while, over the last several years, there's been some story of movement, some suggestion that something is about to happen. What are those moments like for you?

You think you can get used to it, but you never do. You go from thinking that next week, next month, you will have your loved one sitting at home with you to finding out that – no, nothing. It's a roller coaster. We all describe it as a roller coaster where you get excited, you lose hope, you get excited, you lose hope. And it never gets easier.

I spoke to him a couple of days ago. We're fortunate that if the Internet is working, and if he's allowed to call, he's able to call for a few minutes.

What is his current situation inside the prison?

This is one of those questions that's always difficult to answer. Is my brother alive? Yes. Is he trying to keep his spirits high? Yes. But put yourself in his shoes. He is an innocent American citizen. I imagine he's wondering why he's there, why he's still there, and why no one is coming to get him. That takes a toll on your physical well-being, on your mental well-being.

This audio story was edited Ally Schweitzer. The digital version was edited by Erika Aguilar.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.

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