My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison — Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, HighStakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out
By Jason Rezaian
311 pp. An Anthony Bourdain Book/Ecco/ HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.
Before the Iranian government arrested him as a spy, Jason Rezaian made a terrific Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post. No one in Iran was as qualified as he, and possibly nobody outside Iran could have gotten the requisite journalist visa. Rezaian was born and raised in Marin County, Calif., to an Iranian father and an American mother, his family maintained business as well as family ties to the old country and he’s a dual national Iranian-American citizen, as familiar with and connected to each country as almost anyone else in the world. He also has an Iranian wife. In an on-camera interview for CNN’s travel and food show, “Parts Unknown,” he told Anthony Bourdain that he both loved and hated Iran, “but it’s home.” The authorities tossed him into the notorious Evin Prison before the episode even aired.
Fitting then that he is being published by Anthony Bourdain Books. “Prisoner” is more than just a memoir that reads like a thriller. It’s also an intimate family history, an anguished love letter to an ancient and broken homeland, and a spirited defense of journalism and truth at a time when both are under attack almost everywhere.
Ostensibly, Rezaian’s crime was espionage, but the “evidence” against him didn’t even rise to the level of specious. He started a half-joking Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund an avocado farm in Iran, wrote a brief story about an Iranian-made video clip for Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy” and kept a messy inbox. Conspiracy theorists normally try to find better evidence, but his accusers, he writes, were “the most hardheaded and least sophisticated people I had ever encountered,” with the intellectual and emotional maturity of second graders.
Rezaian’s captors didn’t physically torture him, but they held him in solitary confinement with a light that never turned off and threatened to cut off his arms and legs. His ludicrous show trial ended the only way it could have in a courtroom with the word “revolutionary” in its name — with a conviction for crimes that made no sense. Rezaian was no spy. He was a hostage, taken in the early days of the high-stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and released upon their conclusion. Everyone knew he was innocent, especially the Iranian authorities. At one point, Rezaian paraphrases the charges against him: “We’ve got no actual case against you, need to come up with something plausible, can’t and have no exit strategy.”
At the same time, they nearly convinced themselves not that he was a spy in the usual sense but that he was guilty of crimes no less sinister. They were genuinely shocked and appalled at Rezaian’s behavior, not for wanting to grow California avocados in Iran but for working as a journalist unshackled from control of the state. Anything he wrote — and all of it was uncensored — could land on the desk of the president of the United States.
“Describing in plain English the various elements of the Islamic Republic’s ethos” was intolerable to his jailers. “If you can’t own it, control it or understand it you must destroy it,” he writes. “That was the attitude I found myself up against.” His hope to cultivate human bonds between his two peoples, Americans and Iranians, was a second damning strike. Worst of all was his avowed belief in political liberalism. “My personal hope was that Iran would someday become an open society,” he writes. “But to my captors this was my biggest crime.” When they finally freed him, they banned him for life.
Few serious books about the Middle East end on a moment of optimism, and “Prisoner” is a serious book. As both American and Iranian, Rezaian truly believed he could live in and between his two home countries. But he can’t. Not now.