Journalist Recounts The Absurdity And Torture Of 544 Days In Iran's Evin Prison After being accused of spying, Jason Rezaian was held in Iran's notorious prison for a year and a half. Throughout it all, he never considered giving up writing and reporting.
NPR logo Journalist Recounts The Absurdity And Torture Of 544 Days In Iran's Evin Prison

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief and the only American citizen reporting from Iran on a permanent basis, Jason Rezaian had great access to stories, but it also made him a big target. On a day in July 2014, Rezaian, along with his wife and their friend, left his apartment, and when they got out of the elevator, several men were waiting for them, one with a gun pointed at Rezaian. He and his wife were arrested. He was accused of being a spy for the Americans. The so-called evidence of his subterfuge was ludicrous. But that doesn't matter when you're being held in Iran's Evin Prison, which is notorious for its horrible conditions, the interrogations and the torture some prisoners are subjected to.

Rezaian's wife, Yegi, who is Iranian, was released after two months. But he was held there for 2 1/2 years, including a period in solitary. And he was interrogated over and over again. Iran tried to use him as a bargaining chip in getting concessions from the U.S. before implementing the accord limiting Iran's nuclear program. The Washington Post, the Obama administration, friends, colleagues and his family pressured Iran to release him. He's now suing the Iranian government for taking him hostage and psychologically torturing him. He's written a memoir about the ordeal called "Prisoner." He now writes for the global opinion section of The Washington Post.

Jason Rezaian, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's so great to talk with you and to know that you're well and you've been out of prison. And (laughter) you know, I followed your story, and it was just, you know, very upsetting to read about what was happening. So I want to start with asking you, do you think you were being used by Iran as a pawn in the nuclear negotiations?

JASON REZAIAN: You know, I don't like the term pawn (laughter). I don't think anybody does. I certainly think that I was being used as leverage in a very intense moment of diplomatic engagement between Iran and the U.S. that hadn't happened in almost four decades. And there were so many different variables at play and factions involved. But, yeah, I think certainly I was being held as something to use as a bargaining chip in those negotiations.

GROSS: So what did they expect to get for you?

REZAIAN: You know, I think it was pretty unclear. It may have been even unclear to them when they took me. I don't think that on July 22, 2014, when my wife and I were detained from our home and taken to prison they had a clear idea of what they wanted to do. I think that the authorities that took us were ones that were actively trying to get in the way of the nuclear negotiations and a possible deal. And our arrest was one of many things that they did to try and disrupt those negotiations. And in the process of writing this book and researching it, my conversations with people in the U.S. government, it was clear that my arrest changed the equation. It changed what they had to talk about every time that they met. It gave it one more challenge to the entire process.

GROSS: So my understanding is the Obama administration didn't want your release to be a bargaining chip on the table. They didn't want to have that enter into negotiations. Do you have an opinion on how that was handled? Because there's arguments on all sides here about what to do, how to best handle it, to save the person who's being held hostage and to not give a future incentive for countries or terrorist groups or factions to basically hold Americans hostage as a - you know, as a bargaining chip. And basically, that's what happened to you. You were being held hostage.

REZAIAN: Yeah. And I think that we need to do much more to - work to outlaw this as a practice. Obviously, it's against every international law that exists and has been for decades, but countries including Iran - and maybe Iran was the country in the last half-century that started this trend - are doing it more and more. It's happening around the world. And they continue to do it themselves. I don't think we've come up with a good deterrent for it yet. And ultimately, I think it's a hard one for me to weigh in on because, ultimately, I'm one of these people that was lucky and came home. But I don't think that there's an easy answer on how to deal with these situations at all.

GROSS: So you were finally released in a trade. Would you just explain the terms of the deal?

REZAIAN: Yeah. So as I understand it now, there were secret negotiations going on between the U.S. and Iran separate from the nuclear negotiations - different locations, different groups of people. And those were a prisoner swap, so to speak. And it was over Americans that were being held in Iran - and also about information over the fate of the FBI agent Bob Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007 - in exchange for Iranian citizens being held in American prisons. And ultimately, that was agreed upon, and the people who were involved were agreed upon. I think both sides walked some of the people back. There are still some Iranians in American prisons that were being discussed at the time. And on the day of the deal, January 16...

GROSS: Of the nuclear deal.

REZAIAN: Of the nuclear deal but also that...

GROSS: Of your deal.

REZAIAN: ...We were all going to be released....

GROSS: Yeah.

REZAIAN: ...You know, there were some complications. And you know, there were a couple of Iranians in American prisons who were close to the end of their prison terms and said, you know, I don't want to be pardoned. I didn't do anything wrong. And there were others who - you know, all of them, it turns out, were people who were either permanent residents or U.S. citizens and not a single one of them returned to Iran (laughter). So it wasn't really a prisoner swap. A bunch of dual nationals got released from prison one day is basically what happened.

GROSS: And - but there was also money in the deal, too, right?

REZAIAN: That was a separate deal. And you know, I know that it's a very contentious issue, but anybody that wants to go back and look at the history of it, you know, Iran had a case against the U.S. in international court over funds that the shah of Iran had prepaid to the United States for an arms deal was $400 million. Iran had been actively pursuing that money for years. And that court was going to be coming to a decision quite soon, and it would have cost the United States billions of dollars in fines and interest payments. And I mean, you know, I know that there are people out there that find this hard to believe, but that was what was happening.

And in my conversations with people in the Obama administration who worked on this and before this was, you know, big news about the cash payment on the day of our release, they made it clear to me that the administration saw this as an opportunity to turn a page with Iran and have a new beginning. And the president wanted a very big day on January 16. And obviously, as we know now, so much of what happened in that deal has been undone. Fortunately, my freedom and the freedom of several other Americans was not undone and we're all living our lives back here at home.

GROSS: Yeah, so you were used as - Iran attempted to use you as a bargaining chip in the nuclear negotiations. And one of the first things President Trump did was to pull out of the nuclear accord. What was your reaction to that? I mean, your ordeal was collateral damage...

REZAIAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...From that deal. The Obama administration worked so hard to get that deal signed and worked so hard to get you released.

REZAIAN: Right.

GROSS: And then President Trump immediately just, like, nixes the whole thing in terms of America's involvement. What did that feel like to you?

REZAIAN: Well, I can tell you that with, you know, one of the other prisoners I was released with, we had some text messages back and forth that day saying, you know, we're really happy that we were released during the Obama administration because we weren't going to get out otherwise. You know, the Trump administration has been able to bring some American hostages home from other countries, but, very frankly, Iran is a big dark spot on their record. And the same people who have been so passionate about pulling out of the deal were people who used my imprisonment as a reason that the Obama administration should not engage with Iran in these negotiations. They should make our release a precondition.

And you know, I had no problem with that idea, but those very same people are completely silent on the multiple Americans who are still in prison in Iran right now. And I am very worried that Americans who are detained there and suffering there will have few opportunities as long as this administration and their Iran policy remains what it is.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking to Jason Rezaian. He was The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief when he was imprisoned in Iran and basically held hostage for 544 days. He's written a new memoir called "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." We're going to talk about his imprisonment after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Rezaian. He's an opinion columnist for The Washington Post. When - in 2014, when he was The Post's Tehran bureau chief, he was taken prisoner on trumped-up charges and basically held hostage. He has a new memoir called "Prisoner: My 544 Days In An Iranian Prison - Solitary Confinement, A Sham Trial, Heist, And The Extraordinary Efforts It Took To Get Me Out" (ph).

In your memoir, you write that you moved to Iran to start a new life. Your father is an immigrant from Iran - was, I mean, he passed away. Your father was an Iranian immigrant in the U.S, and he had a Persian rug business that went bankrupt after 9/11.

You write that when you went to Iran, the world financial markets were collapsing, and sticking it out in the Persian rug business - which, apparently, you were in at the time - would lead to personal, financial and perhaps actual suicide. So just tell us a bit about what your life was like when you were in the Persian rug business, before becoming a journalist for The Washington Post.

REZAIAN: So I had been an aspiring journalist since college. And you know, I was a struggling freelancer without a lot of work under my belt. So I'd take these trips to Iran, write a couple of stories, hope that they get published, return to California and work in my dad's rug shop.

And I did that for several years, until finally, when I was 32, he said, you know, it's time to grow up and you should open your own shop - which I did, in a very high-rent district of San Francisco just off of Union Square. And I failed spectacularly. I opened, you know, several - I opened in the spring of 2008.

GROSS: Oh (laughter).

REZAIAN: Yeah, it was, you know, I think that May 1, 2008, was my opening day. And by August, you know, there were bad clouds brewing above. So it was tough. And it sort of implanted this seed in my mind that, you know, if you don't get out of this now, you're going to be stuck with it forever. And each month, I was paying thousands of dollars in rent.

So I decided to close up shop and move to Iran and just make a go at it. I didn't have any other professional prospects. I was 33 years old, and I did that. And lo and behold, it turned into a long-term career and one that was very productive.

GROSS: Did you speak Farsi?

REZAIAN: I did not grow up speaking Farsi, but in my many trips to Iran between 2001 and when I moved there in 2009, I picked up quite a bit. And I think by the middle of 2011, after having lived there for a couple of years, I was fairly fluent. And you know, I ended up marrying an Iranian woman and having Iranian in-laws, and that'll help.

GROSS: So you became The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief. Did you ever think it would be possible for you to be arrested or held hostage? Did you play that movie in your mind and see how that would feel before it actually happened?

REZAIAN: Yeah. I mean, I think everybody who goes and works in a country like Iran makes those calculations and thinks about that. I mean, you don't have to read a lot of history to know that journalists have been targeted there in the past. I knew that it was a possibility. I didn't think it would actually happen to me because I always played very closely by the rules.

And for five years, nothing happened, you know? And that's - I think, nothing happens until it does, unfortunately. And it was - it was a huge surprise because, you know, it wasn't something that I expected at that moment.

My career had really taken off. I had a lot of opportunities. I was very transparent about the work that I was doing and about the traveling I was doing and about the sorts of people that I was communicating with. I wasn't hiding anything. And you know, it seemed rather outlandish for them to target a Washington Post journalist.

GROSS: So one day, you and your wife are about to get a taxi. You're also with a friend.

REZAIAN: Yes.

GROSS: And a few guys stop you and arrest you. One of them has a gun pointed at you. Did you have any reflexes at that moment? Did you do anything extensively? Did your brain freeze? Like, what - what was happening in your head?

REZAIAN: In my head, I was confused, scared, a protective husband that wanted to, you know, make sure that my wife was OK. The friend that was with us, I spoke to him not too long ago. And he said, you know, your first reaction was to tell the - the officer who had the gun pointed at you to put the gun down, you're scaring my wife.

And I - I think it was one of these situations where we showed very quickly that we weren't going to fight them. I mean, there were multiple people, and they were armed. And you know, we were three people in an elevator who were not expecting to be ambushed in that way.

It was the biggest shock of my life. And you know, my muscles tensed up and stayed tense for a year and a half.

GROSS: So what did they tell you about why they were arresting you?

REZAIAN: They didn't tell us anything. When they were arresting us, there was no insinuation of why we were being arrested. But, later, when we were taken to prison, you know, I was told that, you know, I was being arrested because I was the CIA's Tehran station chief, which, you know, is laughable and made me laugh. But - but that didn't help me get out of the situation.

GROSS: That's a kind of standard thing that journalists face when they're arrested, right? Look, you're not a journalist; you're really a CIA operative.

REZAIAN: Right. And you know, it gets thrown around in real life and in movies all the time. But it doesn't usually turn into a year and a half in prison and a very high-stakes, high-profile case the way mine did.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what the interrogations were like 'cause you were interrogated several times a day.

REZAIAN: Yeah, in those first several weeks, I was, you know, often two or three times a day. They were maddening because they weren't really accusing me of anything actual. They were picking apart emails and lines from my emails, communications that I had with friends and relatives and ostensibly saying that, you know, by using this terminology, it's clear that you're a spy because only spies use terms like this. The one that I remember off the top of my head is apologizing to a friend for going radio silent for a few days. And my interrogator pulls out a printout of my emails that's highlighted, you know, in yellow radio silent. And you know, he's waving this around as if it's a smoking gun. And that went on for many months.

GROSS: You know, some of the interrogations would have been hilarious had they not been terrifying. I mean, your interrogators didn't know what Kickstarter was. You were trying to - you headed this campaign to, like, bring avocados to Iran so that the Iranians can know the joys of guacamole. And they thought this was, like, a secret CIA plot.

REZAIAN: All of it - everything was a secret CIA plot. I mean, that's the lens that they see the world through. And I thought to myself I just wish I had recordings of all of this because someday people would understand how ridiculous this whole thing really is. And I don't know if it's that they match a team of interrogators with you that is so...

GROSS: Clueless?

REZAIAN: ...Unsophisticated and clueless to make you go crazy or if this is the world view that they have. My guess is it's some combination of both.

GROSS: Did they want you to confess to anything? And if so, what did they want you to confess to?

REZAIAN: They wanted me to confess to being a spy for America. And you know, oftentimes an article that I'd written in The Washington Post was their proof of that. And I thought to myself - and I continue to think to myself - if this is how they conceive of espionage, well, these guys are going to have a tough thing coming to them because the world is becoming a very transparent place. It's hard to suppress information. Things that happen, things that are done to people, you know, large-scale atrocities and smaller ones, they are hard to hide at this point.

So I think that the struggle really more than anything was over the notion of should we even being allowing people to be in our country, have eyes into our country? Is it a good thing, or is it not a good thing? Well, I don't think it matters if they think it's good or not. It's the world that we live in. And you know, Iranians have access to cellphones and the Internet, social media, and the authorities there do what they can to suppress it. But people still get images and video out of things that are going on in daily life. And you know, the enemy of the Islamic Republic is not me. It's the realities of the modern world that we live in and the way that they try and suppress truth.

GROSS: My guest is Jason Rezaian. His new memoir is called "Prisoner: My 544 Days In An Iranian Prison." After a break, we'll talk about the psychological torture he experienced, as well as some of the more absurd aspects of his ordeal. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIFFORD BROWN AND MAX ROACH'S "DELILAH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jason Rezaian, author of the new memoir "Prisoner: My 544 Days In An Iranian Prison." He was The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief and was the only American citizen reporting from Iran on a permanent basis when he was arrested, along with his wife, Yegi, in July 2014. He was accused of being a spy for the Americans and held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. Rezaian's wife, who is Iranian, was released after two months, but he was held there for 2 1/2 years, including a period in solitary, and he was interrogated over and over again. He now writes for the global opinion section of The Washington Post.

Were you ever tortured?

REZAIAN: I believe I was tortured throughout the entire process in a very specific way. I mean, this is the definition of psychological torture. You know, solitary confinement is torture. Putting somebody on a sham trial, compelling them to confess to things that they didn't do, depriving them of sleep - these are all signs of torture. Was I physically attacked, violently abused in a physical way? No.

GROSS: But you had a lot of physical problems as a result of being in prison.

REZAIAN: Of course. I mean, there is a level of stress that one cannot comprehend if they haven't been put through this sort of situation. Solitary confinement in a confined space that's very small and impossible to move around in and you have no say over when the door opens - is one of the worst things that you can do to a human being. And you know, I still have a problem in those kinds of moments and situations where I'm locked in a room or locked out of a room. It's going to linger with me forever. And it was a fear that was built into me throughout that time.

Even when I came out of solitary, you're always worried about going back into it. I also had a range of infections in my body, in my eyes, you know, in more private parts of my body. And these things were not addressed for many months and then addressed in the most perfunctory ways. And I came out not - physically not the same person I walked in as. And I'm not sure I ever will be that person again.

GROSS: You also have nightmares. You write in your book that sometimes your wife wakes you saying you were screaming in your sleep.

REZAIAN: I do. And I think that in the first eight or 10 months of my release, those were several nights a week. Over time, they've diminished. They don't happen very often anymore. But when they do, they don't affect me in the same kind of way because I've become used to them - almost desensitized to them. And that's not something that you want to become. And in every case, they're the same. I'm back in prison. I was supposed to be released, and I wasn't. And I imagine that all of these people that are being held in Iran right now and in other places, who are there for many months or years at a time, when they come out, that this is a common nightmare that all of us have.

GROSS: Did you ever get in such a state of despair and depression while you were in prison that you wanted to end your life?

REZAIAN: I thought about it a lot. But Terry, I'm known as a optimistic, a hopeful person. And I always tried to maintain hope. And over time, I realized that I had to stay strong for my wife, for my big brother who'd been through a lot in his life and for my mom. You know, I needed to get out. My bigger fear and my bigger worry was that I would be in there for many years and maybe spend my whole life there. And although I thought about ending my life, I never picked up an implement to do it because - 'cause I know that life is all we got.

GROSS: Before you and your wife were imprisoned - and your wife was initially imprisoned, too. She got out before you did. So before that, you had both agreed you didn't want to have children.

REZAIAN: Yeah.

GROSS: While you were in prison, you decided you really wanted to have a child. And then independently, your wife decided the same thing. And she told you. You wanted to have a child. And you told her, yeah, me too; I want to have a child, too. So you haven't been out of prison that long. Do you still want to have a child? And...

REZAIAN: We both do. I mean, you know, we love kids. Our friends around us are having more and more kids. I catch us sometimes looking at baby pictures on Instagram (laughter). Yeah, I mean, kids are great. And I think - I hope we're lucky enough to have one or some soon.

GROSS: So what was it that changed your mind about having children?

REZAIAN: It was an instinctual thing. I mean, I think it was this sense of being as close to death as imaginable - I mean, not physically. Our bodies were working just fine. But when you're confined in a space and it's just you and your mind, your mortality becomes front and center. And over time - over periods of days and weeks all by yourself, you start to see things - some things more clearly. And family and, you know, procreation and continuing a line suddenly became very important.

GROSS: Did the calculation of career and family change while you were in prison?

REZAIAN: I was more focused on, are we going to get out of this; and if and when we do, how are we going to move on from it? You know, I oftentimes - when I paced in my cell or in a little courtyard that I was able to, you know, walk in circles in, I would take part in interviews like the one we're doing right now. I was always way more eloquent in my mind than I'm being today.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REZAIAN: But, you know, I wanted to remain sharp. And I wanted to write, and I knew that, you know, working in Iran was obviously over for me. But that - I hoped I would have other opportunities. There was never a point in my imprisonment where I thought to myself, I want to abandon the pen forever because this got me into trouble - quite the opposite. You know, I've got more to say now. My concern was, will I be able to say it, will I have the opportunity to do it and will I have the mental wherewithal to be able to put things down?

GROSS: I assume you didn't have any writing implements or paper when you were in prison. And even if you did, you couldn't write what you were really thinking 'cause...

REZAIAN: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: ...The guards would have read it.

REZAIAN: They would have read it. They would, you know - at one point, they gave me pen and paper to prepare myself a defense for my court. The judge, you know, said - on the third trial session, I complained to him. I said, you know, Your Honor, I don't have a way to write down my thoughts and defend myself; this is ridiculous; you're not even letting me have the opportunity to call witnesses or present evidence; I mean, this is not a real process.

And he conceded. And he said, OK, well, give him - you don't have paper and pen? I said, of course I don't have paper and pen; where do you think you guys are - where do you think you're keeping me (laughter); you know, I'm in your most high-security section of your most ominous prison. And he ordered that they give me pen and paper to write a defense, and I did that. And then I was told that I had to give that paper to my interrogator. And very flamboyantly, I ripped the whole thing up and handed him the shredded pieces.

GROSS: Did that get you into trouble?

REZAIAN: No. I mean, by that point, it was beyond trouble, you know? This was in the, probably, 13th or 14th month that I was being detained. And they had moved past the regular harassments of me. And at that point, I was just a piece of meat that was being aged for trade.

GROSS: So ripping up those papers, that was an act of power on your part. It was a small act but an important one. And did it feel good to assert yourself and say, uh-uh, tearing them up, here you go?

REZAIAN: It always felt good to assert myself. And you know, I think the biggest feelings of shame or remorse are that I didn't do more of that in the opening days and weeks of my imprisonment. I probably would've been...

GROSS: Well, you had to get your bearings, right?

REZAIAN: You have to get your bearings. I mean, I would've been...

GROSS: You have to get a read on who's guarding you and what the game is 'cause you don't know.

REZAIAN: Exactly. And then over time, you realize, OK, everybody's playing a part here. And you know, I think by the 15th or 16th month, you know, the idea of them putting me back in solitary confinement - you've got to remember, I didn't have a sense of how big my case had become outside in the rest of the world. They weren't going to do anything to hurt me at that point. I just didn't know that, though.

GROSS: Right. Right. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Rezaian. He was The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief when he was taken prisoner in Iran and held captive - or hostage for 544 days. That ordeal started in 2014. Now he's written a memoir called "Prisoner: My 544 Days In An Iranian Prison." We'll take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Rezaian. He was The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief when he was taken prisoner and held hostage - or captive, (laughter), for 544 days starting in 2014. His family, The Washington Post, other journalists and the Obama administration worked on behalf of his release and finally got him out. He's written a new memoir called "Prisoner." He's now an opinion columnist for The Washington Post and a contributor to CNN.

While you were in solitary, you weren't allowed any books. But, you know, they said, you should pray. So you said, well, if you want me to pray, get me a Quran. So they did. They got you a Quran. Your father was Iranian and immigrated to America. I don't know if he was Muslim or not. I don't know if you were brought up with any of the teachings of the Quran. But what was it like for you to read the Quran? 'Cause I think whether you're a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, the ancient texts are - they're fascinating texts. And they're very rich texts. And they're all full - no matter what religion you practice, you can find some wisdom in all of those texts.

So what was it like for you to read the Quran? What did you find in it that surprised you, you know, for better or worse?

REZAIAN: Well, I should say that my father was a very devout Shia Muslim growing up, and came to America, and while he didn't practice in the same ways that you're supposed to in terms of fasting during Ramadan and praying five times a day, he still was a great believer his entire life. My mom came from a Catholic background and, you know, they were both raised with religion. They decided to raise my brother and I in the San Francisco Bay Area. So take that for what it's worth. You know, we didn't spend a lot of time in places of worship, other than on Christmas.

I think reading the Quran gave me a new sense of how Iran is organized politically and legally. I mean, there's a lot about laws. It's a system of law and politics. And it's also - there's a lot of vengefulness in the Quran. I'll just say that it didn't do much for me in terms of establishing any kind of foundation of faith.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Rezaian. He was The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief when he was taken prisoner and held hostage - or captive, (laughter), for 544 days starting in 2014. His family, The Washington Post, other journalists and the Obama administration worked on behalf of his release and finally got him out. He's written a new memoir called "Prisoner." He's now an opinion columnist for The Washington Post and a contributor to CNN.

While you were in solitary, you weren't allowed any books. But, you know, they said, you should pray. So you said, well, if you want me to pray, get me a Quran. Get out.

REZAIAN: Exactly. Exactly. And you know, originally, they were denying her the right to visit me because they said, well, she's a foreign person. Well, actually, she's not a foreign person. By virtue of her marriage to an Iranian man, she's been a citizen of Iran since the early 1970s. So these were little things that we had to push on hard - and they had to handle threats and rejection - but ultimately were able to push through. And we established the ability for my mom to come and see me once a week.

And then it turned out that the Quran says that marriages are nullified if they're not re-consummated on a regular basis. I found that hard to believe that that was codified into Iranian law, but it is. And after many months, they started giving us the opportunity to spend a few hours together periodically, which boggled my mind, but it wasn't something that I was going to say no to.

GROSS: So did they give you a room for the conjugal visits?

REZAIAN: Yeah. It was so creepy.

GROSS: Oh, jeez (laughter).

REZAIAN: The whole thing was really creepy. It had a room with a mattress on the floor, a small kind of dorm refrigerator, a little shower. And you know, we had the opportunity once a week to have a family meeting, you know, with my wife and my mother - like you see in the movies, you know, behind the glass window and with a - through a phone, right? But this conjugal room was right next to that. It's like, well, why you putting me in a glass - why can't I have a meeting with my mom and my wife in a room where we're all sitting together if you're going to let me, you know, a couple of weeks down the road spend several hours with my wife in the most intimate circumstances? It's kind of weird.

And it was - there was a sign in the room that said that, you know, there's no surveillance devices in this room, you know, out of respect and courtesy and, you know, Islamic chastity or whatever it said. And that just kind of tipped us off to the fact that there was almost certainly plenty of devices in the room. But it was a small morsel of of opportunity - right? - to be close to my wife, to talk, to hold hands, to do what husbands and wives have been doing for millennia. And I think it helped in the later months from - helped me from going more insane.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Rezaian. He was held prisoner in Iran for 544 days while he was The Washington Post Iran bureau chief. He's now an opinion writer for The Washington Post, and he's the author of a new memoir called "Prisoner." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jason Rezaian. While he was The Washington Post Tehran bureau chief in 2014, he was taken prisoner and put in Iran's most notorious prison called Evin Prison. And he was held there for 544 days. He's written a new memoir about that called "Prisoner." He's now an opinion writer for The Washington Post and a contributor to CNN.

There's some very, like, surreal moments in your book that would be really funny if they weren't so - if your situation wasn't so horrible.

REZAIAN: It's okay to laugh at them, Terry.

GROSS: OK, good. One of my favorites is, like, you're talking to one of the guards. And one of you brings up "Rosewater," the movie about someone else - like, another journalist who was held prisoner in Iran. And you know, Jon Stewart directed the movie version of the memoir. And so, like, the guards - like, you and the guards start casting. Like, if there were a movie based on your experience as a prisoner, who would play the guard and who would play you? And so who did the guard cast as himself?

REZAIAN: Will Smith.

GROSS: That's really...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did that feel? Like, here's a guard, you know, in this horrible prison, and you're being interrogated all the time. And now you're, like, casting the movie version, and he wants Will Smith to play him.

REZAIAN: Well, I think what it did for me was remind me how far-reaching American culture, Hollywood and our influence reaches in the world. Even these guys who claim to be the purists and the protectors of the Islamic Republic and are opposed to American imperialism - and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - go home and watch, you know, "Independence Day" and "Batman" and everything else that we watch. I mean, you know, oftentimes they would bring up the TV show "Homeland." And I think honestly, you know, all of their training and what they do probably came from watching "Homeland."

GROSS: (Laughter) That's not good.

REZAIAN: No.

GROSS: So who would you have cast as the guard?

REZAIAN: Denzel Washington - oh, excuse me. Denzel Washington is supposed to play me. No, the guard - I mean, come on. The guard - that's a great question. You know, I don't partialize, and I let him pick himself. You know, it's our movie.

GROSS: So in writing about adjusting to life outside of prison, you write that your wife and you misplace things. You've each aged. You both don't trust anyone anymore, but you trust each other. You become confused in crowded places. You don't like talking on the phone. I want to ask you about not being able to trust anyone anymore. You were lied to constantly. Everything...

REZAIAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You were told was basically a lie while you were a prisoner. So what is it like to not - feel like you can't trust anyone anymore? And does this apply across the board? I mean, how - tell me what that's like.

REZAIAN: It's not across the board. And you know, I think now that I have some distance, you know, January 17 was three years since my release. And the way that I've structured and written this book, you know, those first few months after my release were - is where I see sort of the the ending off point. We've come a long way in the last couple of years, but it's still really hard, and I am less trusting than I was before. I'm more in need of verification. Friends who know me and have known me for a long time will probably report that if we make plans together, I double and triple check them now. And that was not anything that I ever did in the past. It's hard.

I mean, life is more complicated because there's a voice inside my head that tells me that I have to question everything. And you know, while that might be beneficial for aspects of my work, it doesn't really help me in getting through my day-to-day existence because it's not natural for me. I miss being carefree. And when I say carefree, I don't mean not caring, but I mean, you know, being confident and trusting that you can walk out your front door and go about your daily business and expect to come home at the end of the night unscathed because I have anecdotal evidence of my own life to tell you that sometimes that's not how things work.

GROSS: Are you being harassed in any way by Iranians now?

REZAIAN: Yeah, of course. I mean, I'll tell you. You know, you asked about a funny moment in the book about my interrogator's casting choice of who'd play him in the movie, and it was Will Smith. And that will become public knowledge now that the book is out and now that we've talked about it, and I'm sure I'll talk about it again at some point. But for these past three years, I've gotten intermittent messages from social media accounts, in my Washington Post email here and there with pictures of Will Smith. I mean, this is my interrogator trolling me on the Internet.

GROSS: Wow.

REZAIAN: It happened just this week. And so, you know, that's part of my reality now. And I don't know any other way than being open and transparent about it. And that's how I walk through this life.

GROSS: Jason Rezaian, it's great to talk with you. It's great to know that your life has resumed. I wish you well.

REZAIAN: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Jason Rezaian's memoir is called "Prisoner." He now writes for the global opinion section of The Washington Post. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Earlonne Woods, who was a San Quentin inmate when he told his stories and the stories of fellow inmates on the podcast "Ear Hustle." After 21 years in prison, he's now free. His sentence was commuted nearly two months ago by Governor Jerry Brown. We'll also be joined by his "Ear Hustle" co-host and co-producer Nigel Poor, who was not an inmate. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

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