Journalist On Surviving In Iran: Don't Name Names

Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentarian. i i

Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentarian. Rory Peck Trust hide caption

itoggle caption Rory Peck Trust
Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentarian.

Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentarian.

Rory Peck Trust

Before the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa, there was the Green Movement in Iran.

In June 2009, hundreds of thousands of Iranians protested against what they considered a rigged election that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. Shortly afterward, the Iranian government carried out a violent crackdown against opposition leaders, protesters and journalists.

Maziar Bahari, who was covering the elections for Newsweek magazine, was among the journalists there.

"I had worked in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Congo, and I had seen so many horrible scenes before," Bahari said in an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "But I had never seen such brutality in my life."

Bahari was arrested on June 21, 2009 and spent 118 days in Evin, the notorious prison where the Iranian government holds political prisoners. He chronicles the election and his nearly four-month imprisonment in a new memoir "Then They Came For Me: A Family Story of Love Captivity and Survival."

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

Read An Excerpt

My Interrogator

From the beginning of Bahari's time in prison, he was assigned to one interrogator. Bahari rarely saw the interrogator's face or knew his real name. Bahari called this man Rosewater because he didn't shower often and he covered himself in rosewater to mask the stench of sweat.

Rosewater accused Bahari of being the mastermind behind Western media in Iran.

"From day one, they asked me really ridiculous questions about my spy network," he says, "in order to just break me, in order for me to admit that I was a spy."

Throughout their interrogations, Rosewater consistently accused Bahari of espionage. The interrogator presented a video of the late-night satirical TV program "The Daily Show" as proof of the charges against him. Rosewater questioned Bahari on his Facebook affiliations, and accused him of attending "sex parties" and having an affair with Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi.

"My interrogations, as a result, became really Kafka-esque," Bahari says, "It went from absurd to ridiculous to nonsensical."

At one point, Rosewater confides that his father was brutally tortured during the Shah's regime. In his memoir, Bahari describes his reaction: "How could a man whose father had endured such torture, now administer torture himself? What a senseless absurd cycle of violence this was.

A Family Story

Bahari was beaten almost every day. He says the 107 days of solitary confinement was the worst kind of torture, and as a result, he became delusional. He hallucinated and had imaginary conversations with his father and his sister, who were also imprisoned. Bahari even considered killing himself by breaking his glasses and using the lens to slit his wrists. His father's voice stopped him.

"He told me, 'don't do their job for them, if they want to kill you they can do it themselves,'" Bahari says. "That really was a wake up call to me."

Bahari says his memories of sitting around the dinner table and hearing prison stories from his father and his sister helped him garner the strength he needed to survive.

Choosing Not To Stay Silent

Bahari was eventually forced to give a false confession and to promise to spy on others on behalf of the Iranian government. He says his forced confession was a compromise he was willing to make because he never "named names."

"I never incriminated any individual, and as a result, no one else incriminated me either," says Bahari. "It was because of selfish reasons. It was because I knew that I would be in more trouble if I named names."

Bahari was eventually released, mainly due to an intense international campaign to pressure the Iranian government. Before Bahari left Evin prison Rosewater warned him not to speak about what happened, threatening that they can always find him and bring him back to Iran in a bag.

But Bahari says he felt obligated to write and speak about his experience. Since the 2009 elections, Bahari is one of the only high-profile prisoners to be released.

"Thousands are still languishing in Iranian prisons," he says. "They don't have a voice; I have to be their voice. I couldn't live with myself if I remained silent."

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
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 fiancee, 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.

Excerpted from Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari with Aimee Molloy Copyright 2011 by Maziar Bahari. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.

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

by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy

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