By Maral Ali
Al-Talib meets with former UCLA graduate student Zeinab Mousavi to talk about the Mousavi family’s experience of having their father be imprisoned in the Terre Haute, Indiana CMU.
Al-Talib: Since his transfer to the Terre Haute CMU, how often has your family been able to visit Mr. Mousavi?
Mousavi: A couple times. My mom and my siblings have been there twice. You can only visit on weekdays, not on weekends, not on holidays, so it makes it super difficult because not only do you have to spend all that money for tickets and hotel and rental car, but you also have to take time off from work or from school to go see him. And sometimes they just change their schedule. So last time that my family went even though they had planned to see him for two days in a row [the prison] told them that they could only see him one day that week.
Al-Talib: What have these visits been like? Do the visiting restrictions affect you in any way?
Mousavi: I haven’t gone to see him. I’ve been traumatized by the experience of visiting him in [the prison in Los Angeles] and sometimes I get haunted by it so I cannot get myself to go, even though I really want to. But I-I just cannot go. I don’t know how my family does it.
Al-Talib: Do you face any challenges communicating with him?
Mousavi: I haven’t heard my dad’s voice since December. We email, and emails take about two days to get through security. And you know it’s difficult with emails because it’s text and you don’t get to see the person. There aren’t restrictions on what we can say to each other, but you know it’s being archived…so it always makes you feel uncomfortable just knowing that whatever you want to say, even if it’s personal, is being recorded somewhere. It’s disturbing.
We write in English. Sometimes I’d like to say something in Farsi, but I just don’t because I don’t want it to cause a delay to the emails. Sometimes there are bugs in the program so you don’t get an email and that can cause frustration. Once or twice, we hadn’t gotten some emails from him and hadn’t heard from him in some time. It’s really difficult to get in touch with the prison and they also don’t give information, so it was like we couldn’t do anything but just wait and see what the problem is. Is it that my dad’s not doing ok? Did they take away my dad’s right to use email? Or was it just the system? What was going on? We didn’t know for a few days, and that was heart wrenching.
Al-Talib: What sort of impact has the CMU had on your father? How has he been treated there?
Mousavi: It’s getting stricter actually. First [the prison] said they can’t hold prayers for more than three people in a group. So that means no Jama’ah prayer except for Friday Prayer. [The prisoners] would have study groups together to read books, but later on they said that they’re not allowed. So it’s not only just breaking their communication with the outside world or with their family, it’s also really breaking them as a human and not event letting them communicate amongst themselves.
Mostly he doesn’t tell us how bad it is, but once I was pushing him so he finally said that his cell is like living in a bathroom because there’s a bed and there’s a toilet right there. And even when [he] wants to do his prayer and his sujood, it’s very close to the toilet because it’s a very small space. And he’s said before that mice live there.
Also, he didn’t complain about this, but another person saw this and my dad confirmed, the food there is sometimes rotten. Yes it’s a prison, and yeah they shouldn’t expect good food, but this is far worse than regular prisons.
Al-Talib: You have a younger brother and a younger sister. Your brother was in his mid-teens when your father was imprisoned. Your sister has gotten married recently. How have they dealt with your father’s absence?
Mousavi: It was a big thing for my brother that my dad missed his high school graduation. I think the scars, the wound is so new that we don’t talk about it. I don’t talk about it to my sister or my brother. I don’t know, I don’t know why it is but maybe it’s just so painful that we don’t talk about it amongst ourselves. But it was difficult for my sister to not have my dad by her side when she was getting married.
Al-Talib: What about your mother, Mrs. Mousavi?
Mousavi: Well it’s been really difficult because she has to deal with my dad, give him support and give the family support and make us feel like there are no shortcomings. It’s been really hard. It’s been really painful to actually see my mom age because of this experience. Again even with my mom we only talk about it on the surface, like what the lawyer said or what we have to do, but we don’t really talk about the deeper feelings. I think the emotions are so deep that you just want to keep them to yourself even though at the same time you want the entire world to know what’s going on. Words don’t do justice…to the feelings.
Al-Talib: You’ve been extremely involved in this case and have worked on it since the beginning. What has this experience been like for you?
Mousavi: In everyday life, I guess you could say I’m fine. I actually quit school, which was a big blow because I was getting my PhD. But there’s been so much going on and a lot of financial burden on us and we’ve been going in debt…I feel like I have to get a job and help out with the tremendous lawyer fees. And also emotionally it’s been two years of traumatic experiences. It has left me broken. That’s the simplest way to say it.
Al-Talib: How supportive has the Muslim community and your Southern California community been during these times?
Mousavi: There have been family friends who have stopped talking to us and a couple told me that they don’t want us to call them anymore. And some people were scared to come to the Masjed. But after some time more people came. I think at the beginning people were really scared. I guess I can’t blame them because they’re probably scared.But there have been supportive people as well. They try to emotionally help [by coming to the trials] and legally by writing character letters…
The non-Muslim community, those who have heard about it have been supportive. Even if it’s just asking me how things are going…they’re very willing to help…whereas the Muslims haven’t been as helpful. I just think they’re scared. It’s really difficult to be Muslim in American nowadays. A lot of the targeting that’s been going on has been on Muslims. And you don’t have to do anything wrong to get targeted and people realize this so they want to stay under the radar as much as they can.
It has left me feeling like I don’t belong in society. After the raid and the FBI coming and talking to me and showing up all the time, you always feel that you’re looking over your shoulder and …you’re being watched. You get used to it and you figure that it is what it is and you try to move on. But sometimes it gets to you.