Book Review: Jason Rezaian's Gripping Memoir of Captivity in Iran, "Prisoner"
“Jason, I want to have a baby.” Those were the words of Bloomberg reporter Yeganeh (Yegi) Rezaian to her husband Jason Rezaian (“So do I” in response), Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post, after their July 2014 arrest in Iran on false charges of espionage. Both had been in solitary confinement, their “reward” after weeks alone was 4 minutes together, and although they’d decided before their arrest that kids weren’t in their future, something about the horrors of captivity had separately brought each to the opposite conclusion.
The above exchange between husband and wife happens on p. 79 of Jason Rezaian’s gripping new memoir, Prisoner: My 544 Days In An Iranian Prison. Ostensibly about Rezaian’s long ordeal in Iranian captivity, the book is so much more. It was depressing, inspiring, informative and insightful at the same time, and I’ll be quoting it for a very long time in various pieces of economic commentary.
Rezaian is the son of a now deceased, but very successful Iranian immigrant father (Taghi Rezaian, owner of a prominent Persian rug business, would happily tell people “I’m Iranian by birth and I’m American by choice, and I’m proud of both”), and an American mother. His northern California upbringing might read as odd to some readers mainly because it was so normal. At the same time, readers who grew up in California will understand the expressed normalcy in that the state is truly a melting pot of kids from all manner of ethnic backgrounds. So when Rezaian writes that “I can’t recall a single instance of anything even resembling discriminatory treatment from classmates or teachers,” it makes perfect sense. Though the family was proud of its Iranian heritage (Taghi’s generosity toward newly arrived relatives from Iran was endless, even when business wasn’t good), and celebrated it, Rezaian jokingly recalls that “We were different from many of the other kids in that we weren’t Jewish and had just one set of parents.” When U.S. media would run video of “fuming Iranians burning American flags,” Rezaian remembers his “mild-mannered and fun-loving aunts and cousins” cursing the television while remarking “’That is not who we are.’”
That Rezaian’s family was and is rather assimilated into U.S. life, and very pro-America, is similarly not a surprise. In southern California, where I grew up, Iranian immigrants are many, and once again assimilated. All this brings to mind Thomas Erdbrink’s (Erdbrink is bureau chief for the New York Times in Tehran, and like Rezaian, is married to an Iranian) excellent documentary, Our Man In Tehran. Modern media perhaps have some of us believing Iranians are uniformly hotheaded as they burn American flags while shouting “Death to America,” but Erdbrink’s documentary revealed something quite different. Though their leadership may be nuts, and repressive, and in many instances anti-American, not all the people are. They love the United States, they want to live here, plus they even transact in U.S. dollars that are much more acceptable as a medium of exchange than frequently devalued rials.
To show the other side of Iran greatly informed Rezaian’s decision to leave northern California and the rug business in 2009 for the country that his father had left in order to attend college in the United States. Rezaian would work in Iran as a reporter, and describe “in plain English the various elements of the Islamic Republic’s ethos to an audience that for decades decided it did not want to or could not understand it.” He would aim to show the more human side of a country that had taken on inhuman qualities in the west. Rezain would be the “lone American reporting on a permanent basis from Tehran,” and as he exults, “I went to Iran so you don’t have to!”
Warts and all, Iran eventually became what Rezaian considered his home. Though he met her in Dubai, Rezaian’s wife and her family hail from Iran, and the plan was for them to create a bi-continental life with Tehran as the home base.
Iran “can be a hard place,” but Rezaian found that “it is capable of incredible tenderness” with some “of the softest people you’d ever want to meet.” At the same time, Rezaian (presently banned for life from the country he once adopted) doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t directly say it, but this reader’s speculation is that one driver of his “punch” (beyond the captivity that he endured) is that he’s encountered people overeager to wholly dismiss the Iran skeptics. The previous speculation is rooted in his admonition to readers that they not “be confused by reports from visitors who have nothing but love and admiration for Iran.” As he sees it, they “only went for a visit and never tried to accomplish anything there.” Rezaian tells readers to be suspicious in the face of “elaborate scheme[s] to win you over.” He recalls that he sometimes had to remind himself that “Iran will disappoint you if you let it.”
It seems the varying sides of Iran ultimately mis-characterized it, which put Rezaian in a position to bring clarity to readers. So well regarded was his reporting that he eventually was hired by the very prestigious and very visible Washington Post. One could argue that his prominent position at one of the world’s most important newspapers made Rezaian much too visible, such that Iran’s bad side revealed its ugly head in a way that was brutal for him and his wife, and that vandalized the life they’d planned.
Indeed, while the country itself is once again populated by some “of the softest people you’d ever want to meet,” the leadership, the intelligence services, and those who aspire to curry favor with both bring to mind the late Sovietologist Edward Crankshaw’s description of Soviet officialdom:
“This is a milieu almost impossible for the foreigner to present to his own countrymen. I have had to work with such officials in war and peace. Their sycophancy, their barefaced lying, their treachery, their cowardice, are so blatant, their ignorance so stultifying, their stupidity so absolute, that I have found it impossible to convey it with any credibility to those fortunate enough to never have encountered it.”
Rezaian had to endure the droolings of those who figuratively think 1+1 equals 1,000…for a year and a half. His captors from the intelligence wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard used his on-the-ground reporting, along with an attempt by him to raise money via Kickstarter to grow avocados in Iran, as “evidence” of something more sinister. As opposed to being a Washington Post employee (actually he technically wasn’t, his bureau chief status was as a contract reporter), Rezaian’s captors expressed certainty that he was running a “shadowy CIA mission dubbed ‘Project Avocado’” and that the State Department’s Alan Eyre had sent him to Iran. The charges were laughable.
That they were didn’t change the horrors Rezaian experienced. Considering Yegi alone, for the longest time he knew nothing of his wife’s situation, and had to shut down all thoughts of her treatment at the hands of the people in Evin Prison's employ.
As for his own living conditions, his first cell included two blankets. His mattress, if one could call it that, was a “crudely cut fragment of a machine-made Persian rug.” Worse than the faux bed was the “disorientation of not being able to open the door yourself.” For “hours on end. Then days. Then weeks,” Rezaian suffered the “feeling of weakness” that comes from having no control over one’s doings. Most of us become more than a bit irrational when we lose WiFi for even a few minutes, but in Rezaian’s case he had to endure captors remarkable in their capacity to spew falsehoods, all without any kind of Google Search capability for 544 days. As he put it, “I was stripped of my right to information. It quickly became the highest form of deprivation.” They did allow movies in the prison cells, but with Iranian censoring. The author reports that The Big Lebowski he saw while in captivity lasted 55 minutes....
Amid all this, Rezaian had to deal with regular interrogations during which he had to routinely squash accusations that he was a spy, that he was “Joe-ish,” and that Yegi had been organizing an international feminist revolution. Yet he thrilled at the interrogations in a sense, and did so because they signaled “impending human contact.” Of course what thrilled soon brought on depression as the excitement of basic (and rather mindless considering the charges) human interaction “was accompanied by a sinking acceptance that my life had been reduced to this.”
Funny and sad at the same time is that post-captivity some were so obtuse as to express relief to Rezaian that “they didn’t mistreat you” upon him telling them that he didn’t experience direct physical violence. How dense some can be. As the author makes plain, though they didn't experience daily beatings he and Yegi were “abducted from our home at gunpoint, blindfolded, taken to prison and thrown in solitary confinement, interrogated relentlessly for several months,” after which Jason (Yegi was released after 72 days of solitary confinement) was separated from his wife “for a year and a half, forced to live in rooms where the light was always on, deprived access to information and the right to defend myself, and having the livelihood I took years to build stolen from me…” In short, Rezaian and his wife encountered all sorts of horrid treatment. One imagines that the physical stuff might have been preferred at times.
Rezaian was ultimately given a trial, but sarcastically observes that “you shouldn’t expect to win” in “a court that has ‘Revolutionary’ in its name.” And while the trial was of course a sham like much else during his captivity, he was ultimately released only to leave the country with Yegi, along with his mother.
Rezaian’s return to the normal world began at the U.S. military hospital in Germany (Landstuhl). This rates mention because Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was part of the Post team that flew over to facilitate Jason and Yegi's return to the U.S., and it’s a reminder of just how compassionate capitalism can be. Bezos not only sat in on the meetings at Landstuhl about how to ease Rezaian's re-entry, he also provided private jet transportation; transportation that included flights for the Rezaians upon their arrival in the U.S. while Yegi was getting her legality worked out with U.S. officials. It’s popular to knock billionaires, but one guesses Rezaian won’t after the many kindnesses extended him by Bezos.
Where it all gets even more interesting is that while Rezaian lauds the tireless work (among others) of his mother, Obama administration official Brett McGurk (then presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS), and his brother Ali, he’s less than glowing about President Obama’s role in his release. Though he voted for Obama in 2008, and even contributed to his campaign, it’s apparent that feelings about the 44th president are raw. At one point later in the book Rezaian recalls how while still in captivity “it became crystal clear to me that I wasn’t coming home until Barack Obama decided I had to.” At another he references a question posed to Obama by CBS’s Major Garrett about Rezaian as being (according to Garrett) “one of the president’s most uncomfortable and awkward moments,” not to mention that Obama never got Rezaian’s last name right.
About Obama, it’s a guess that Rezaian did pull punches. He seems to lightly intimate that the 44th president didn’t do enough to get him out, that he was perhaps too soft or too fearful about pressing in ways that might scuttle the nuclear deal that he wanted as part of his legacy, and that he “would have been freed sooner if the administration accepted the challenges posed by Republican hawks that freeing Americans should be a prerequisite for any negotiations.” But he’s not definitive, or so it seems.
Whatever the answer, the guess here is that the delayed release of someone wrongly accused was rooted in an ongoing misunderstanding that very much influences foreign policy vis-a-vis Iran no matter the individual inside the White House. Some countries are "evil," so Presidents must deal with them harshly. It's a speculation that Rezaian's delayed release was an effect of this need among U.S. presidents to not look soft? It all seems so pointless.
No foreign policy expert, my non-expert analysis is that Rezaian’s mention midway through Prisoner that for Iranians, McDonald’s is “the first restaurant you go to” when you leave Iran (where none exist), was pregnant with greater meaning of the foreign policy variety. It’s a reminder that the Iranian people think a great deal of the United States, its living standards, and its symbols of freedom, all of which raises the question of why the U.S. political class continues to make enemies of countries (think Cuba, North Korea, Iran) populated by people who are arguably pre-disposed to like us. Acknowledging yet again my non-knowledge of foreign affairs, common sense tells me the U.S. needlessly shrinks itself, thus empowering corrupt leaders who can point to U.S. sanctions and other measures as evidence of a bad country. How long did Fidel Castro last as a result of this, the still murderous Kim regime in North Korea, and is it possible that the 40-year reign of illiberal leaders in Iran has similarly at least been bolstered by the presumption of forever war with Great Satan?
Interesting here is that Kazem, Rezaian’s regular interrogator while in prison, at one point hedges his surface hatred of the U.S. and all that it stands for. About it, he asks Rezaian “If you are allowed to leave someday, can you get me a visa to go there?” Very telling. Though he supposedly despises the U.S., Kazem wants to live there plus he expresses a desire for Will Smith (!) to play him in any Hollywood recreation of Rezaian’s story. Get it? Rezaian surely does.
In the book’s most powerful line (at least to this reader), and one that will be repeated regularly in future columns, Rezaian writes that “I only wish people around the world could wrap their head around the fact that Iran, or the Islamic State, or fascists, or the Soviets, never once posed a threat to our way of life, and probably never will. We have the ultimate soft weapon, Hollywood…” So very true. Much as some lucky enough to be American are prone to bash this most American symbol of excess, the creations of Hollywood inspire those not lucky enough to be American about what could be if they were.
The above isn’t a call to lay down all arms, but it is a call for Democrats and Republicans alike to rethink their approach to our enemies. Foreign leaders come and go, but what doesn’t change is that Hollywood films depicting lavish American living standards and styles have authored a life-long crush on the United States among the world's inhabitants. In his excellent new book, Jason Rezaian vivified this longing within people who supposedly hate us, one that’s underrated as an agent of foreign policy change.