'Then They Came For' Journalist Maziar Bahari

Maziar Bahari, shown in a photo released in August by the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency. i i

Maziar Bahari, shown in a photo released in August by the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency. Hossein Salehi Ara/Fars News Agency/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hossein Salehi Ara/Fars News Agency/AP
Maziar Bahari, shown in a photo released in August by the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency.

Maziar Bahari, shown in a photo released in August by the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency.

Hossein Salehi Ara/Fars News Agency/AP
Then They Came For Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival
By Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy
Hardcover, 384 pages
Random House
List Price: $27

Read An Excerpt

This interview was originally broadcast on June 15, 2010. Mazair Bahari's memoir Then They Came For Me, about his time in captivity, will be released on June 7, 2011.

On June 21, 2009, Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari was arrested by Iranian intelligence officers in the aftermath of the election demonstrations that swept across Tehran.

For 118 days, he was held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. His Iranian interrogators accused Bahari, who had covered Iran for Newsweek for more than a decade, of being a spy for the CIA, Israel's Mossad and Britain's MI6.

Bahari, who was never told why he was arrested, was interrogated and tortured repeatedly during his incarceration. He was questioned about his associations with other journalists. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for his release, Bahari was freed on Oct. 17 and was present in London a week later when his wife gave birth to their first child.

A year after his arrest, Bahari reflects on the Iranian election demonstrations that took place one year ago this week. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that, among other things, thinking about the singer Leonard Cohen helped him endure his daily torture sessions.

"He basically provided the soundtrack to my imprisonment in my mind," he says. "It was just amazing to me that this very cynical, Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter can help me in the middle of this dictatorship in a prison in Iran. And that was really liberating. Because that was a secret between me and Leonard Cohen that my interrogator and my prison guard, they did not know anything about."


Interview Highlights

On the one year anniversary of the election protests in Iran:

"Simply, I have to think about the anniversary of my arrest in Iran as well, because, as much as I was proud to be Iranian on the 15th of June, 2009, I got worried about the future of the country on the 19th of June, 2009, when the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who people thought he was a pragmatic leader — and a pragmatic leader who was thinking about his own survival — would accept the voice of the people and wanted a recount of the votes. But Khamenei did not do that. Khamenei told the people to go back home or they have to pay the price of the violence and the consequences of their action. And on the 19th, when Khamenei delivered that ceremony and the Friday prayers, Iran entered the new phase and Iran became a quasi-military dictatorship, like any other military dictatorships in the Middle East, from a theocracy. And one year later, we can talk about the Islamic Republic of Iran as an Islamic government, as a theocracy. We can talk about it as a quasi-military dictatorship."

On being sentenced in absentia in Iran after his release from prison:

"They released me on bail. Before I was released, they asked me to sign a paper saying when I leave Iran, I'm going to cooperate with the government and I'm going to spy for the government. The first thing I did when I arrived in London was to send them an e-mail, through the e-mail address they provided for me, that I have never spied for anyone and I'm not going to start spying for you. And that really bothered them. And not immediately, but within a month I started talking about my experience and the psychological and physical torture I had been through — and also, I started a campaign with the Committee to Protect Journalists and many other organizations in support of other journalists who are imprisoned in Iran. As you know, more than 100 journalists have been detained since the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, and many hundreds are in exile. ... So they kept on threatening me through my family members and sometimes they even called me in London, and I just had it. In March, I just made those threats public, and I told all the different networks that the Iranian government is threatening me. And there was an international condemnation of those threats, and within a few days, they passed this sentence. The sentence was supposed to scare me because the Iranian government was planning to start this international court for Iranians in the diaspora. And also, the sentence was supposed to scare many other journalists and filmmakers who were working in Iran — that if you do something on the anniversary of the election, that this kind of sentence can happen to you."

On anti-Semitism in the Iranian government:

"I'm a member of two fan pages on Facebook, and one of the pages is Anton Chekhov. And one of the pages is Pauly Shore, but let's not talk about that one. So I'm a fan of Anton Chekhov, and one day my interrogator asked me, 'Who is Anton Chekhov?' I said, 'Well, he is a Russian playwright from the late 19th century, early 20th century.' [He asked] 'What does he write about?' [I said] 'About existential subjects, about people's day-to-day problems. He's a very good writer.' And he said, 'Was he a Jew?' I said 'Well, I'm not sure whether Chekhov was a Jew or not, but there were many Jewish intellectuals at that time. Maybe he was. Maybe he was not. I'm not really sure whether Chekhov was.' And he said, 'No, no, I'm sure that Chekhov was a Zionist. We have to investigate.' And so they went and investigated Anton Chekhov during my interrogation, and they were accusing me of supporting the Zionists because I was a member of an Anton Chekhov fan club on Facebook."

On how a video from The Daily Show was used during his interrogation:

"On the first day when they arrested me, they told me that they knew I was working for four different intelligence agencies: the CIA, Mossad, MI6 and Newsweek. When I asked them what was their evidence, they said, 'We don't have to give you any evidence. We're going to give it to the courts.' So my guess ... is that, in the absence of any evidence to prove that I was a spy, they were just desperate to find any evidence to prove I was a spy. And I'm sure that someone in the U.S. who filmed The Daily Show — that sketch with Jason Jones and me — and sent it to them and said that this is this guy, who said that Iran and America, they have a lot in common. And he's talking to a spy. And I have to also mention that also a couple of days before that, I met with Jason Jones and his producer in a hotel where I was editing a documentary, and I gave them a list of people they could talk with — and I was being followed by the Revolutionary Guards at that time. So I think they put all of this different, circumstantial evidence together, and they said, 'Well, if Jason Jones looks like a spy, if this guy gives different names to people, then he must be a spy.' It was so emblematic of this paranoid thinking that they had that it didn't even allow them to listen to the laugh track on The Daily Show. So they said, 'Well, why did you talk to this spy? If he says that he's a spy, if he looks like a spy, then he must be a spy.' And they were really upset that I said, 'Iran and the United States had a lot in common.' "

On not being able to return to Iran:

"It makes me really sad, and it makes me really sad for my daughter. [My wife] Paola and I were planning to go to Iran next year and so Paola could see it. Paola's never been to Iran, either. And I really wanted my daughter to be able to go to Iran to visit her family in Iran, but it's not possible. But it's something that I have to deal with. I always tell people it's like being in an accident and some drunk driver has made me handicapped. And I have to live with my handicap. So not being able to go back to Iran is like that for me."

Excerpt: 'Then They Came For Me'

Then They Came For Me
Then They Came For Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival
By Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy
Hardcover, 384 pages
Random House
List Price: $27

Prologue

I could smell him before I saw him. His scent was a mixture of sweat and rosewater, and it reminded me of my youth.

When I was six years old, I would often accompany my aunts to a shrine in the holy city of Qom. It was customary to remove your shoes before entering the shrine, and the servants of the shrine would sprinkle rosewater everywhere, to mask the odor of perspiration and leather.

The morning in June 2009, when they came for me, I was in the delicate space between sleep and wakefulness, taking in his scent. I didn't realize that I was a man of 42 in my bedroom in Tehran; I thought, instead, that I was six years old again, and back in that shrine with my aunts.

"Mazi jaan, wake up," my mother said. "There are four gentlemen here. They say they are from the prosecutors' office. They want to take you away." I opened my eyes. It was a few minutes before 8 a.m., and my mother was standing beside my bed—her small 83-year-old frame protecting me from the four men behind her. I sleep without clothes, and in my half-awake state, my first thought wasn't that I was in danger, but that I was naked in a shrine. I felt ashamed and reached down to make sure the sheets were covering my body.

Mr. Rosewater was standing directly behind my mother. I would later come to learn a lot about him.

He was thirty-two years old and had gained a master's degree in political science from Tehran University. While at university, he had joined the Revolutionary Guards— a vast and increasingly powerful fundamentalist military conglomerate formed in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979. I would come to know that his punches were the hardest when he felt stupid. But when he barged into my bedroom early that first morning, the only thing I understood about him was that he was in charge, and that he had a very large head. It was alarmingly big, like the rest of his body. He was at least 6"2', and fat, with thick glasses. Later, his glasses would confuse me. I had associated glasses with professors, intellectuals. Not torturers.

I wrapped the sheet tightly around my body and sat up. "Put some clothes on," Rosewater said, motioning to the three men behind him to leave the room so that I could get dressed. I found comfort in this: by the fact that whatever their reason was for barging into my house, he was still respectful, still behaving with a modicum of curtsey.

They kept the door slightly ajar, and I walked to my closet. Things were beginning to come into clearer focus, but his rosewater scent lingered and my thoughts, still confused, remained back in the past, at the shrine. What does one wear in a shrine? What's the best way to present oneself? I had just finished putting on a blue collared shirt and a pair of jeans when the men barged back into my room: Rosewater and another man, who wore a shiny silver sports jacket and a cap.

They circled the room, surveying everything. I had been spending most of my time over the last two years with my fiancée, Paola, in London. We had got engaged six months earlier, and been preparing for our wedding and the birth of our child in four months time, and I had never really settled in at my mother's house. I could sense their frustration as they took stock of the mess in my small room. Heaps of books sat on the floor beside stacks of videos and DVDs and an untidy pile of laundry. I had not organized my desk for months, and it was covered with old newspapers, notebooks and videotapes. All journalists working in Iran have to be accredited by Ershad, shorthand for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and I had given my mother's address as my place of work. They thought they were going to find an office at my mother's house. Instead, they were picking through piles of underwear.

"If you want, I can organize things and you can come back tomorrow," I said with a sorry smile.

"Zerto pert nakon, stop talking shit," Rosewater said sharply. "Sit down and shut up. One more word, and I'll beat you so badly, I'll make your mother mourn for you." He scratched his side under his jacket, revealing the gun strapped to his body. I sat down, feeling my body grow heavy with fear. I, like most Iranians, knew of far too many people—writers, reformists, activists—who had been woken up like this, and then taken somewhere and murdered. I thought of my father, my sister, each arrested and imprisoned by previous regimes, I thought of my mother, who had been forced to live through all this twice before. I could hear my mother's voice in the kitchen, and my fear was joined by an overwhelming sense of guilt. How could my mother go through this again? Why hadn't I been more careful? Why hadn't I left Iran sooner.

"Would you like some tea?" I heard her ask one of the men in the kitchen.

"No, thank you."

"Why not? It seems that you are going to be here for a while. You should have some tea," she said.

"No, really. I don't want to impose."

I heard my mother laugh. "You arrived at my house at 8 a.m. You are going through my son's personal belongings. I am going to have to put everything back in order after you leave. What do you mean you do not want to impose?"

The man ignored the question. "Madam, please put on your scarf," he said.

Though I could not see my mother's face, I could imagine the condescending look she was giving him at that moment.

My mother's unveiled hair was illegal under Islamic law. I knew her obeying of the Revolutionary Guards' order half-heartedly, was her attempt at defiance. She was telling them that while they may be able to control her body, they could never control her mind. The Guards rightly thought of my mother and me as parts of "the other Iran," a nation who did not want to be the subjects of an Islamic ruler, and wanted to live in a democracy.

"I am 83 years old. Why should I put on my scarf?"

My mother's name is Molook. Growing up, we called her Molook joon, which in Persian, means dear Molook. Because my older brother, Babak, couldn't pronounce the K, he called her Moloojoon. The name stuck, and it is this name I used as I called out to her, doing my best to keep my voice from trembling. "Please. Don't argue with them."

I heard her quick steps, and a few moments later, she walked by my room, a blue floral scarf covering just half of her hair.

"Fine," I heard her say with polite disdain.

My room had a large book shelf full of western novels and music, with books signed by prominent Iranian reformists on one side and HBO DVD box sets and copies of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Newsweek stacked sloppily on the other. It was surely foreign territory to Rosewater. He continued to thumb through my papers and books, despite the look of obvious bewilderment on his face.

I sat on the bed watching him until, a while later, Rosewater told me I could go to the kitchen and eat breakfast while they continued to search my room. In the kitchen, my mother poured me a cup of tea and placed a few dates on a small china saucer. She then took a seat across from me at the breakfast table, and silently pushed the dates towards me. "Bokhor, have some," she said, smiling and hoping, I knew, to assure me that I would find the strength to survive this ordeal, whatever was to come.

I was humbled by her courage but it didn't surprise me. My mother's strength has been a source of inspiration throughout my life. But I felt guilty as I thought about how painful it would be for her to watch yet another member of her family being carted away to prison for defying an Iranian regime.

Excerpted from Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari with Aimee Molloy Copyright 2011 by Maziar Bahari. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Books Featured In This Story

Then They Came for Me

A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival

by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy

Hardcover, 356 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Then They Came for Me
Subtitle
A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival
Author
Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.