A couple of months ago, I saw a book excerpt posted on The Washington Post’s Web site. It was the start of Jason Rezaian’s 2019 book, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison–Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out. Although I love a good prison book, I was probably attracted most to Jason Rezaian’s surname, which I suspect could have Armenian origins. Ever since my two year stint in Armenia, I take notice of people who have the telltale “ian” or “yan” as the last three letters of their names. A lot of times, those names indicate an Armenian link.
Jason Rezaian is, in fact, half Iranian. He holds Iranian and United States passports, speaks Farsi, and is married to an Iranian journalist named Yeganeh Salehi– Yegi, for short. Rezaian is a journalist, and he had been working for The Washington Post as the Tehran Bureau Chief when he and his wife were arrested on July 22, 2014. They had been planning to go back to the United States when Iranian government security forces raided his and his wife’s Tehran home. They were accused of espionage and creating “propaganda against the establishment”.
That same night, an American photojournalist and her husband were also arrested on the same charges. The photojournalist and her husband were released a few weeks later, but Rezaian and his wife were taken to Evin Prison, a notorious detention center in Tehran where intellectuals and political prisoners are often held for long stretches. Yegi was released on bail in October 2014, but Jason spent 544 days languishing in the prison, where he was forced to wear a blindfold any time he wasn’t in his tiny, filthy cell.
Both Jason and Yegi were repeatedly interrogated about their supposed “espionage” activities, which, of course, were non-existent. Most of Rezaian’s articles were about food and travel. He’d even served as a guide to Anthony Bourdain for the show, Parts Unknown, when it featured Iran. The charges of espionage stemmed from a Kickstarter project Rezaian had started. He had noticed that Iran didn’t have any avocado trees. He was missing guacamole. So, on a complete lark, Rezaian started his campaign and collected a few donations from people, to include a U.S. government official. Iranian officials had taken the term “radio silence”, which Rezaian had put in an email, as a sign that he was a Central Intelligence Agency plant.
At first, Rezaian was sure he would be out of detention very quickly. It was all a huge misunderstanding. But then he and his wife were ordered to put on “pajamas” and taken to their cells. The first night stretched into weeks, then months as Iranian officials demanded that Rezaian admit to spying and promised he’d be set free if he’d just tell them what they wanted to hear.
Rezaian lost a lot of weight and endured many uncomfortable, sleepless nights. He spent long stretches of time in solitary confinement and got to the point at which he looked forward to speaking to the interrogator, simply because he was kept in solitude for so long. Meanwhile, Rezaian’s family– his wife, brother, and mother, worked tirelessly to get the United States government, then led by Barack Obama, to let him go.
I have read other books written by former Evin Prison inmates. I remember one I read about ten years ago, by a woman who had been arrested for taking part in a student demonstration at Tehran University. But although Zarah Ghahramani was subjected to psychological torture, beatings, and interrogations, her time at Evin Prison was mercifully brief. She was only there for a month. Rezaian was imprisoned for well over a year and might still be there were it not for the tireless efforts of his family.
One thing that surprised me about Rezaian’s account is that it seemed to me like he adapted to being at Evin Prison, to the point at which he became almost friendly with a couple of the guards. One interrogator named Kazem told Rezaian, who admits to not being very religious and a big fan of the late Christopher Hitchens, that he should read the Koran. Rezaian was starved for reading material, so he agreed to read the religious book. Kazem proudly presented him with a beautiful, ornate Koran, that he hoped Rezaian would keep with him as a memento. Rezaian read the Koran, but was not moved by it. He left the “gift” at the prison and Kazem was crushed. It was as if the interrogator could not conceive of why Rezaian would not see him as a friend. However, Rezaian did tell Kazem that there was no way he’d ever forget him. It’s hard to forget someone who frequently threatens you with execution.
Rezaian frequently reminds readers that Iranians are typically very kind and hospitable people. Even in prison, it seemed like Rezaian would encounter those kindnesses. For example, after her release, Yegi was allowed to visit Jason in prison. One guard was rather lenient about giving them time together, “forgetting” about them so they’d have two hours to enjoy each other’s company. Rezaian describes the guard as almost accomplice like. Another time, he was practically forced to call his mother, even though he didn’t want to call her. But then, once they started talking, he didn’t want to hang up. The “great judge” also decided Rezaian should exercise, so they started allowing him 20 minute sessions on a machine. Rezaian was not known for being particularly athletic, but he came to appreciate those opportunities to use his muscles and sweat.
Rezaian’s “trial” was, of course, completely absurd. And just after Rezaian’s arrest, the Islamic Republic went on a killing spree, hanging over 700 people in the first part of 2015. Rezaian would often see the doomed people on his way to and from court. They were executed near his cell in Evin’s execution square. In an effort to get Jason Rezaian to talk, his interrogators would remind him that the court had so far been very lenient, as he should have been executed months prior. Rezaian says he was never physically abused by his captors, but he was definitely psychologically terrorized. He never knew if they were going to release him, keep him for the rest of his life, or kill him. In the wake of his confinement, he had to live with the post traumatic stress disorder that inevitably comes from such an ordeal.
Overall, I found Jason Rezaian’s book a fascinating read on many levels. I have never been to Iran, but my dad was there once, years before the fall of the Shah. He brought back a painting, which I inherited and left in storage back in Texas. I believe the story went that the artist liked my dad’s leisure suit and traded his art for my dad’s fancy duds. Armenia borders Iran, and I actually met some Iranians when I lived in Armenia. Rezaian also ran into Azeris, one of whom was a guard. Armenia and Azerbaijan are not on good terms and he brings up their conflict in his book, which was of particular interest to me.
I also enjoyed Rezaian’s stories about his family, a fascinating group of people who came together in an unlikely way. Rezaian’s father came to the United States in 1959 and built a very successful Persian carpet business in Marin County, California. Though his business suffered during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, his dad– proud to be an American and an Iranian– sent free carpets to the hostages after they came home. With the carpets, he included a letter apologizing to the hostages for what they had endured and hoping the would enjoy their new rug.
Rezaian writes very well, and his story held my attention. I particularly enjoyed his story about how he was whisked out of Iran by the Swiss, then taken to Landstuhl– a place near and dear to any military person’s heart if they’ve spent time downrange or living in Europe. Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos brought Rezaian and his family home on his private jet. He even stocked it with burritos and guacamole, which Rezaian said were delicious. Life is very surreal. I’m sure that despite Rezaian’s adventurous nature, he had no idea that one day he’d be flying back to the United States in a jet owned by one of the richest men in the universe and walking red carpets among politicians and celebrities.
I would definitely recommend Prisoner to anyone who is curious about Jason Rezaian’s story. I’m glad I read it, though as curious as I am about Iran, I’m not sure I want to go there myself. Evin Prison doesn’t sound like a good place to be.