In late August, 2016, three weeks after her husband, Xiyue Wang, disappeared in Iran, Hua Qu received a telephone call. She heard a prerecorded announcement in Farsi: “Dear caller, this is a phone call from an inmate in Evin Prison.” The message repeated itself every two minutes, interrupting her husband, a graduate student at Princeton University who had gone to Iran to research his doctoral dissertation, as he struggled to explain that he had been arrested and was being charged with espionage. During the next three years, Qu has spoken with her husband each week by phone. In the first year, they talked once a week for ten minutes; in the past two years, they’ve spoken several times a week. Qu, who does not speak Farsi, has come to memorize the announcement’s rhythms.
In the days since Iran shot down an American drone and President Trump nearly carried out retaliatory air strikes, Qu has been terrified that armed conflict between the countries could be devastating to her husband’s case and his already deteriorating health. For months, Wang has been beset by skin rashes, migraines, back pain from sleeping on the ground, and arthritis in his knee. Increasingly depressed, he worries incessantly about his wife and their young son, Shaofan. “He reacts very strongly to every piece of news he reads in the Iranian newspapers about what is going on,” Qu said. “The major reason for his anxiety is worrying about me and Shaofan, since we have been managing without him for a long time, especially when Shaofan experiences difficulties in school.”
In March, Shaofan, the couple’s only child, turned six. After living almost half his life without his father, Shaofan is often reluctant to speak to him when he calls. When Wang tries to reminisce with his son about their time together, Shaofan tells his father that he can’t remember it anymore. When his mother speaks with his father, the boy often interrupts them, demanding his mother’s attention.
Recently, Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in history, began trying to make new memories with his son. Late at night in Tehran, when the prison was quiet enough for writing, Wang began drafting a letter to Shaofan. He tried to explain the notion of history, and what it was that took his father, a historian, to Iran in the first place.
“Shaofan, my dear boy,” he begins. “Don’t you find the word history is similar to the word story? . . . History and story are very similar, in fact history and story were written the same as late as 600 years ago. But the main difference between history and story is that history should be supported by evidence but a story does not have to be. For example, when we say, ‘Shaofan was born and spent his first year and a half in Beijing,’ we have Shaofan’s birth certificate and many photos to support this claim. But Shaofan’s favorite monkey king and superhero stories are imagined. They need not be supported by evidence and therefore, they are stories.” In the letter, Wang asks his wife to show their son maps and pictures of ancient Greece or Japan, or to write for him the Chinese word that denotes history. Soon, Wang plans to write tales from Chinese history for Shaofan, particularly in the boy’s favorite genre: adventure stories.
Wang is one of at least five Americans currently detained or missing in Iran. His doctoral work focusses on nineteenth-century governance in Central Asia, and he travelled to Iran on a student visa in early 2016 without incident. Several months later, when he planned to return to Iran, there seemed to be no cause for concern. “He was not a high-risk person,” Stephen Kotkin, his academic adviser at Princeton, told me. In May of 2016, he went back to Iran to conduct research in the country’s archives and to study Farsi.
At Princeton, Wang had spent long days at the library working and then would rush home to cook lavish meals for Qu and their young son. Wang’s dissertation research was slated to take him first to Iran and, later, to Russia. After arriving in Iran, he worked feverishly, in the hopes of culling all he could before returning to Princeton. Wang’s life in Tehran was regimented: he rose early each day and, while he heated his porridge, he called his wife, who was usually on her way to bed. By seven o’clock, he was in a taxi, heading to the archives. When he returned to his apartment in the afternoon, he and Qu would call each other, and stay on video chat while they went about their days. “We used to do that when he travelled anywhere, as if we were physically together,” Qu told me during a recent conversation in a student cafe at Princeton.
By late July, Wang’s research at the diplomatic archives was nearly complete and he was eager to get home, but he had received no reply to his request to access the national archives. The documents he was asking for were neither classified nor related to contemporary politics. Most were newspaper clippings published between 1880 and 1921, material that was originally in the public domain. So, with his language tutor, a former employee at the archives, Wang stopped by the office of the deputy head of the archives. When they arrived, the deputy head greeted them warmly and brought them into the reading room, saying that they could search for documents there. He even suggested that the archives might sponsor his visa in future. Wang’s language tutor agreed to copy the outstanding documents, so that Wang could return home. Kotkin, his adviser, approved the plan. “This is very common throughout the region,” Kotkin told me. “We all engage in versions of that because we cannot be there for the time necessary. . . . We need to have some copies and scans. It’s a shortcut that is widespread.” But, on his second attempt to retrieve documents, Wang’s language tutor was stopped and questioned by the police.
The following day, Wang was ordered to report to a police station in Tehran, where officers confiscated his laptop and passport. When he called his academic adviser, in Princeton, and the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, they told him to remain calm and assured him that these were tactics commonly used to intimidate foreign academics. On August 7th, Wang phoned Qu, telling her that he’d been called to a meeting with police at a hotel; he asked her to notify Princeton and the Swiss Embassy if she did not hear from him. Three hours later, he called again, sounding happy. He was packing. He told Qu that he had been asked to leave the country immediately and that there was a man waiting downstairs to escort him to the airport. Wang said that he planned to call the Swiss Embassy and ask them to have someone meet him at the airport with a plane ticket. He was coming home. That was the last time Qu would hear from Wang for nearly three weeks.
Wang speaks or reads more than ten languages—Chinese, English, Russian, Ottoman Turkish, Uzbek, Farsi, Hindi, and Urdu, Manchu, among others. His language abilities and passion for his work reminded other Princeton graduate students of scholars from another time. “It’s almost like of another era, when this was the Silk Road and everybody had to be so multilingual,” Sarah Carson, a close friend of Wang’s and fellow-Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, told me. Wang studied what life looked like in empires’ most remote corners, where languages and cultures brushed up against one another and the power of the central government was most attenuated. “There are very few areas of the map where we have basically no history or very poor history, and he was going to open up something entirely new and do so in a way that almost no one else in the world was capable of doing,” Joshua Bauchner, another of Wang’s friends and colleagues at Princeton, told me. “It’s heroic.”
The son of a stage designer for the Chinese Air Force performance troupe and a tailor, Wang grew up in a crowded apartment in Beijing in the nineteen-nineties. He traces his curiosity about far-away places to his grandfather, an editor of the French-language edition of a Chinese-government-owned magazine who spoke several languages, including Esperanto, despite never leaving China. When Wang was a little boy, his grandfather would present him with a stack of old letters, all written in green ink, the color of Esperanto, and Wang would eagerly cut out the stamps for his collection. To keep his grandson company, Wang’s grandfather would tell him about the authors of the letters—fellow-Esperanto speakers from the United States and Eastern Europe and their writings, portals to a world he would never see.
In middle school, Wang bought a Hindi textbook, because he thought the script was beautiful. After trying to study the language by himself, Wang came to an impasse: he had never heard any of its letters spoken aloud. One of his grandfather’s colleagues at the state foreign-language press translated Hindi books into Chinese. Wang met with the translator who, for the first time, pronounced the letters he found so beautiful on the page. At the age of nineteen, Wang ventured abroad for the first time, visiting India as an exchange student. After his mother married an American citizen, he moved to the United States. He received a bachelor’s degree in South Asian studies from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in Russian and Eurasian studies from Harvard.
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Wang met Qu in Hong Kong, in 2009, where they were working for the same law firm. Wang was about to start a job with the International Red Cross in Afghanistan, as a Pashto translator. One of his roles was to meet with illiterate inmates in rural Afghan prisons and write letters for them to their families. Like his grandfather, Wang had an extraordinary gift for speaking foreign languages. In 2012, he and Qu married, and he applied to Princeton. The following year, their son was born.
At first, after Wang was arrested, Qu used to stare at the Evin Prison complex on Google Earth, zooming in as close as she could on the courtyard where her husband spent an hour each day, trying to imagine his life there. For a year, at Princeton’s suggestion, Qu kept her husband’s imprisonment to herself, hoping that he would quietly be released. In the end, it was Iran that made his arrest public, announcing on state television, in July, 2017, that he had been sentenced to ten years in prison on espionage charges, following a closed trial.
When she is not working at her full-time job as a lawyer or caring for their son, Qu puzzles over how to bring her husband home. She has worked with Princeton officials, talked with experts on Iran, and lobbied members of Congress and the Trump Administration. She has been assured by Administration officials that they are working for her husband’s release, but she has been left largely in the dark about what is happening. “Every day is different,” Qu said. “And, given this bigger picture into which we have no insights, it is very difficult to know if the U.S. government is prioritizing the hostage issue.” The most recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran unfolded as Qu was visiting relatives in Beijing. Wang’s father asked her if the U.S. was doing everything it could to secure his son’s release. “I couldn’t give him that confidence,” Qu said. “I can’t say that they’re not, but I can’t say it’s positive either.”
In February, prison administrators summoned Wang to their offices. For a moment, he let himself hope he was being released. Wang had heard that such things happened quietly, with no fanfare, warning, or goodbyes. When he arrived at the office, Wang saw his suitcase—the one that had been confiscated two and a half years ago. He took a breath and asked a guard if he was being freed. The guard smiled and asked Wang how many more years he had left on his prison sentence. The prison authorities were simply returning his suitcase and other belongings to him.
Inside the suitcase, he saw a stack of books on the history of Iran and Farsi-language textbooks he no longer needed after more than two years of language immersion in prison. There were clothes that seemed to belong to someone else in another life, and a photo album Qu had made for him before he’d left Princeton, filled with pictures of their family. Before leaving the room, he took only one item: a photograph of his wife and son.
In the early hours of the morning, Qu paints pictures of herself, Wang, and Shaofan. Some pictures are copied from photographs, others from memories. Still other pictures are imagined scenes of the three of them: in canoes, on bicycles, sitting on a tree branch looking at the moon. One that she showed me was more opaque, depicting a deer, a monkey, and a gourd. When I asked her about it, Qu laughed and explained that the monkey is Wang, who was born in the year of the monkey; the gourd is Shaofan, whom they call “little gourd,” an auspicious name in Chinese; and Qu is the deer, a name Wang calls her, after the female deer that populate the Indian folktales he loves to recount. In the painting, the deer is carrying both the monkey and the gourd.