Is The Door To Iran Closed Forever? : Code Switch In light of all the news coming out of Iran, we're talking with Jason Rezaian — an Iranian-American author and journalist who has experienced Iran's contradictions up close.
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Is The Door To Iran Closed Forever?

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Is The Door To Iran Closed Forever?

Is The Door To Iran Closed Forever?

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JASON REZAIAN: It's been widely and erroneously reported that I moved to Iran in 2008 because of a love affair with my ancestral homeland. It's the sort of detail that seeps into an ongoing news story often enough that it becomes fact. In this case, though, I have the opportunity and responsibility to set the record straight.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Jason Rezaian did some traveling to and from Iran in his mid-20s and early 30s. He was born and raised in California's Bay Area, where his Iranian dad sold Persian rugs.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

In 2008, he took up the family business and opened his own rug shop in San Francisco. That venture crashed, because it was 2008, along with the rest of the U.S. economy. Jason was 32. He was single. And he didn't have a job.

MERAJI: But on these various trips he'd take to Iran, he'd write stories here and there about Iranian culture and society. So after he lost his business, he decided that's what he was going to do full time. In 2009, on what he calls his Jesus year, Jason packed up his things.

REZAIAN: Yes, it was out of attraction that I finally, after years of brushing up against it and later, longer, drawn-out encounters, moved in with Iran. But this wasn't an unconditional thing. It was definitely not meant to be. I had to put in a lot of effort to make it work. Iran was the slightly less polished, funnier sister with real depth who never dated much in school. Iran wasn't flashy and sexy on the surface. Iran's not France or Japan, but it's not like it's hard to love, either. It's just Iran.

MERAJI: And for a time, Jason was thriving there. He landed a gig as The Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief. He married a successful Iranian journalist named Yeganeh - he calls her Yegi. And Yegi and Jason had a beautiful apartment in a cool part of Tehran, lots of friends. He even played tour guide for Anthony Bourdain.

REZAIAN: The spell it cast on me was slow to come on, but ultimately very powerful. It can be a hard place - look at the dry and rocky landscape or Tehran's pollution - that's capable of incredible tenderness, some of the softest people you'd ever want to meet. Don't be confused by reports from visitors who have nothing but love and admiration for Iran, though. They only went for a visit and never tried to accomplish anything there.

You don't get to know it all at once. It reveals itself in pieces. And that, too, can be part of a elaborate scheme to win you over. Don't buy it. In the end, Iran will disappoint you if you let it. At least, that's what I would tell friends and visitors who seemed to be falling too hard. And sometimes, I had to tell myself, too. It's fair to say that my relationship with Iran is complicated.

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And in light of all this news coming out of Iran, we're talking with Jason Rezaian, who is a writer for The Washington Post and the author of a memoir about his 544 days in Iranian detention. That memoir is called "Prisoner." Let's get to it, y'all.

MERAJI: Jason, Iran is all over the news right now. It's everywhere, and there are two big storylines. What do you think people need to know about Iran in order to better understand what they're hearing and what they're reading?

REZAIAN: Oh, gosh, that's a great place to start. And I think we might be here all month. You know, I think the most important thing that people need to remember - that Iran just isn't one thing. And I think, so often, when we talk about countries, specifically that we have adversarial relationships with or ones that are ruled over by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships, we kind of consider them monolithically. We don't think about the nuance and the differences within the society. So I think it's really important to remember that there's a lot of different points of view. You know, Iranians could, rightfully, be very, very angry about the cover-up, for example, of their government's shooting down of the Ukrainian air flight - at the same time, be angered by the fact that the U.S. took out the country's top general, and, all at the same time, not necessarily be in favor of their regime or in favor of the U.S. coming in and trying to topple it.

As somebody with a great care and love for that place and knowing a lot of people who are there right now, it's sort of a treacherous time to be Iranian, especially in Iran. I mean, you're under attack from the biggest power in the world. At the same time, in some ways, you're under siege by the government that's been tasked to run your country. And, you know, your voices are being suppressed because you want accountability for what appears to be a horrific accident, but one that the state lied about for the first several days.

So, you know, I think Iranians look around and say, why can't anybody just be honest with us? When the U.S. administration, the U.S. president says that they're doing all these things for us, at the same time, they, you know, have a travel ban that blocks us from going to that country and sanctions that make it impossible for us to import lifesaving medicine. Is anybody on our side? And I think that the answer is, sadly, no.

DEMBY: I mean, you just mentioned the government taking responsibility for shooting down that Ukrainian jetliner last week. After that, many Iranians took to the streets to protest the government. So what, if anything, does that protest tell us about the regime's standing right now, and the space there is for criticism of the regime?

REZAIAN: They're dealing with a massive credibility problem. And I think that, in previous eras, the U.S. might have been able to exacerbate some of those fissures within the regime and really, you know, be a force to help bring about some change the way, you know, we did during the end of the Cold War. But I don't think that the administration here in Washington right now has that credibility either.

So, you know, Iranians find themselves, again, between a rock and a hard place. And, you know, the regime in Tehran is under extreme pressure, and when that happens, it metes out force against its own people. I had a column about this just over the past couple of days, that, you know, the Iranian regime has taken American hostages, and in these moments where their back is up against the wall, they're very careful not to kill Americans - right? - as we saw with their response to the killing of Soleimani. At the same time, they're incredibly careless with the lives of their own people. And I think that history will not treat them kindly.

MERAJI: You basically made the argument that history would not treat the Trump administration kindly in one of your opinion pieces after President Trump tweeted that he was going to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites if Iran did anything to retaliate for the killing of General Soleimani. And you basically said, you don't understand how important these cultural sites are to Iranian identity, to who we are as Iranians, and you can't be making those kinds of statements.

REZAIAN: Completely. I mean, it's a wound on top of generations of previous wounds. And so, you know, when he comes out and says we stand with the Iranian people and we're going to do whatever we can to support you, and at the same time, takes aim at Iranian identity in the form of threatening pieces of human history - you know, those sites, they're UNESCO World Heritage sites not because they're important to Iranians, but they're important to our sense of civilization as human beings.

And I think it's that lack of humanity and understanding of humanity and history that is one of these things that we don't necessarily talk about every day when it comes to Trump, but when we look back, we will, I think, understand, hopefully, what an aberration he was in terms of leadership of our country. And I think, you know, it's also an indictment of the political atmosphere of the moment. I mean, none of us were around in the 1950s, but I'm sure that there were plenty of people who thought McCarthyism was cool, right? And I think we're going to look back at this time and say, holy smokes, what the hell were we thinking?

MERAJI: Just for people who don't have any sense of these cultural sites and how - and their significance to world history, can you just give an example of something...

REZAIAN: Sure.

MERAJI: ...That is really important to who we are as human beings?

REZAIAN: So, you know, I think the best example is the architectural lushness of the city of Isfahan, which is an ancient Iranian city in the middle of the country that, at one time, was an essential stop on the Silk Road, one of the biggest cities in the world, one of the most diverse cities in the world and home to really spectacular Islamic architecture from the 14-1700s. And it's still largely intact, but that's been the foundation for so much of architecture moving forward.

People have gone there for the last 300 years extolling the virtues of what they saw there and trying to mimic it, sometimes with some success but not always. And there are other sites as well that remind us - I mean, Persepolis is one that people think about often; the ruins of a palace of Cyrus the Great dating back 2,500 years. That just goes to show you that this was a civilization that not only existed but was capable of incredible grandeur and artistic representations of itself. You know, the reliefs and the columns that are still intact tell stories - tell stories of different countries and the relationships between the king and those countries. These are essential to our notion of who we are as a civilization. And that's why there are people and organizations dedicated to protecting these things. And that's why the destruction of those things is a war crime.

MERAJI: You mentioned Isfahan, and my dad very rarely talks about Iran for a lot of reasons - it's really painful for him. But one thing, if he's in a mood where he wants to talk about Iran and growing up in Iran, he always talks about how he regrets not being able to go to Isfahan. And I've always had this dream that one day my dad and I would go to Iran, and we'd visit Isfahan, so he wouldn't have this regret anymore.

And this is something that I'd been talking about with my dad on and off since, you know, 2008, actually, because we had this - like, there was this thought that Obama would make things better. And then in 2009, right after the inauguration, an Iranian American journalist named Roxana Saberi was thrown into Evin. And then a few years later, it was you.

REZAIAN: Yeah.

MERAJI: And my dad always brings you two up whenever I bring up him and I visiting Iran. And I don't know. It just feels like now, more than ever, it just feels like the door is shutting. And it may not open back up in my dad's lifetime, at least. And we may not be able to ever visit Iran.

REZAIAN: Well, I'll tell you, I'm an optimistic person. And, you know, I've seen a lot of weird things and seen things change for the better and the worse really quickly. So I hope that it works out for you because, you know, I'll tell you, one of the greatest memories of my own life is walking in the square of Isfahan. They call it the reflection of the world square. It was for a long time the largest public square in the world.

And I remember visiting there - I guess it would have been 2002 - with my dad. And it was late spring, probably 1:00 a.m. The entire square was empty except for a couple of kids - high school kids in the grass studying for their final exams. You know, they got little low-level lamps on the ground. And I just remember the full moon over that square lighting the whole place up. And my dad's been dead for nine years now. And when I think about him, I mean, that's one of the memories that just pops into my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: In his memoir, "Prisoner," Jason talks a lot about his dad selling rugs. And he writes that when his dad started that rug-selling business in the 1960s, it took off because, well, I mean, hippies loved rugs. And nobody really disliked Iranians or Muslims yet.

MERAJI: But in 1979, that changed. Iran was in the midst of a revolution, and 52 U.S. citizens were held hostage at the American embassy in Tehran. They were released in January of 1981.

REZAIAN: It had been 444 days. As all Americans did, my dad felt genuine relief, but his was different. Hundreds of American business owners offered gifts to the returning hostages. There were free steaks for a year from Nebraska, trips to Hawaii from the Aloha state's tourism board. Major League Baseball presented each returnee with a golden ticket that provided entrance for the hostages and a guest to every regular season baseball game for the rest of their lives. And my dad offered each one of them a rug - in fact, a $1,000 gift certificate for rugs.

More than 40 of them took him up on his offer. Some of them came in person, others sent local friends. And some just phoned in orders, and my dad mailed them a rug based on their desired parameters. Along with each one of these rugs, he put a certificate in the package that said, as an Iranian, I apologize for what you've endured. And as an American, I welcome you home.

DEMBY: Speaking of your dad, you know, you write that your father lived through a few different waves of American sentiment towards Iranians. At one point, you write in the book, that Iranians comprised, like, the largest number of foreign students in the U.S. And they had this reputation for being extremely generous and extremely friendly. And then, obviously, that shifted to this idea that Iranians were bellicose. How did your father feel about those shifting tides of American attitudes towards Iranians like himself?

REZAIAN: I think initially he was surprised and hurt, as many other Iranians living in America at the time felt. He'd been living in the U.S. for 20 years when the hostage crisis happened. He was an established businessman. He was a U.S. citizen. He was a, you know, pillar of the community. And a lot of people stopped communicating with him. You know, people sort of cut ties. And I think, for him, it was sort of a wakeup call that - I hate to say this out loud, but, you know, there are different levels of Americans, right?

And I think a lot of us who have roots in other cultures, who've experienced moments when our own, you know, our own roots or the countries of our roots have been at odds with the U.S., that sort of ugly fact comes forward that, you know, everybody is created equal, but some are created more equal than others. And it's just - it's heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking for him. It's heartbreaking for me. But it's also an inspiration to do better.

DEMBY: What do you mean?

REZAIAN: Well, look. I mean, we have a Constitution and Declaration of Independence and a path forward that's pretty clear-cut - right? - and that, you know, has evolved over time. But the basic tenets of the rights that we should have available to us haven't really changed, even though there's always somebody that's going to try and infringe on those rights. And the sorts of pressure that was put on Iranians in 1979 to 1981 was pretty terrible, I mean, you know, forced a lot of people underground. A lot of people didn't call themselves Iranians anymore, you know. They called themselves Italians or Spanish or Mexican or whatever - right? - anything but Iranian - Persian, right?

MERAJI: Mediterranean (laughter).

REZAIAN: Mediterranean. Yeah, definitely not Middle Eastern, you know. So, you know, that's a part of our legacy in this country. That's why, when the travel ban first started being talked about, you know, I was very nervous and concerned. And, you know, I've written about that at length. I continue to report on it as much as I can.

You know, people have repeatedly asked me, you know, do you think that this is going to turn into a situation where Iranian Americans are interned the way, you know, Japanese Americans were in the 1940s during World War II? No. I don't think it's going to get there. But we shouldn't even have to be thinking about that, right? It's just a reminder that, you know, we are a group of people, whether we're here in the United States or in Iran, that is under attack one way or another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: More from our conversation with Jason Rezaian after the break.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN")

REZAIAN: As print journalists, our job's difficult. But it's also kind of easy because there's so much to write about. You know, it's - the difficult part is convincing people on the other side of the world that what we're telling you, we're seeing in front of our eyes, is actually there. When you walk down the street, you see a different side of things. People are proud. The culture is vibrant. People have a lot to say.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Jason Rezaian is The Washington Post correspondent for Iran. Yeganeh, his wife, and a fellow journalist works for the UAE-based newspaper The National. Jason is Iranian American. Yeganeh is a full Iranian citizen. This is their city, Tehran.

MERAJI: The first time I saw you - really saw you - was in the "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" Iran episode. And you talked about how you both loved and hated Iran in that episode. I remember you saying that, you know, you miss burritos and you miss drinking, although you didn't say drinking. You were just, like, saying drinking certain things in certain establishments, which I assumed was like beer and alcohol. You were just so charming. And your relationship with Yegi seemed so wonderful and strong. And you seemed so happy in Iran. Have you watched that since you've been back?

REZAIAN: So, I mean, it aired originally while I was in prison. So the first time I watched it was a few days after my release, and I thought it was fantastic. I still do. And when Tony died, you know, they did a bunch of marathons of "Parts Unknown" on CNN, and that's an episode that they would play a lot. And, you know, we'd stumble on it from time to time.

I think - I'm so glad that I was able to take part in that production, and that there's this sort of indelible historical document that Yegi and I were part of that and part of that moment in Iran. And yeah. I mean, for me, I think of it as one of the most important things that's happened to us in our lives. I also think it's probably the best representation of modern Iran that's ever appeared on American television.

DEMBY: Wow. So, Jason, in "Prisoner," your book, you obviously write about this 544 days that you spent in this notorious prison. And I just got to say that incarceration is like my waking fear. And I was reading about you in this 8x4 cell that they kept you in, and these guards were trying to break you and play games with you. And I'm just wondering what you were doing in there every day to try to keep from cracking.

REZAIAN: It was a huge challenge. And, you know, on Day 1, you have no idea how you're going to cope. But as time goes on, you build up some mechanisms that you think work for you. So for me, staying in motion - walking - wasn't something that I thought to myself was, you know, going to be beneficial in any other way than to while away the time.

But after the fact, you know, when I spoke to therapists, they said, you know, that's really the best thing you could've done for yourself because you kind of - when you stay in motion, you're tricking your mind into thinking that you're still active and going places, right? Another thing that I did was, you know, I recounted stories from my past. I tried to remind myself of really good things that had happened to me. And also, you know, you would think that you want to magically transport yourself to other locations, but that's easier said than done.

So, you know, I really tried to take stock of the situation that I was in and remember that this was a point on the continuum of my life that, in all likelihood, was going to end, and I had no way of knowing if it would end with my death or end with my release, but as I said earlier, I'm an optimistic person, and I just had to hold on to hope that this was going to be a chapter of my life that would come to an end and that I'd have a long life in front of me. Knock on wood - that's been the case so far.

And, you know, as much as I'd love to have that 544 days back, I also think that, in some ways, I've won the lottery of life experience. And, you know, you say that for you, it's a waking fear, the idea of being incarcerated. Well, for me, it is now, too. It wasn't before all this happened. And now it's the thing that I worry about more than anything else.

MERAJI: At the end of your book, you have this anecdote where you're going to - you're running to get Five Guys for Yegi. And you're outside, and you run into an African American man who's asking for a little bit of help, and you end up striking up a conversation where you both talk about the fact that you were in prison. And I was just wondering, why did you choose to end the book with that anecdote?

REZAIAN: So I thought about it a lot. And, I mean, I think we can agree on the fact that the circumstances of my arrest and how I got out and all that happened are pretty extraordinary. But ultimately, incarceration is something that happens to millions of people in this country. And a lot of times - I mean, I, you know, I don't know that man's backstory, but we all know that a lot of times, it's a pretty arbitrary situation. And we got people in this country who've been destined to life behind bars for things that, you know, many other people, depending on the color of their skin or their income bracket or the, you know, the lawyer that they can afford, you know, never even end up in court over. And for me, it was just important to really call out the fact that, as horrible as what happened to me was, you know, I'm just one story of so many.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Jason Rezaian is the author of "Prisoner: My 544 Days In An Iranian Prison," and he writes for the Washington Post. Thank you, Jason. We appreciate you, man.

MERAJI: Thank you.

REZAIAN: Thank you, guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Jason's memoir "Prisoner" is out in paperback on January 28. And one thing that didn't come through in this interview is that it's actually really funny. He manages to make you laugh just as much as he makes you cry.

REZAIAN: My interrogator, because he had this - he had, like, this really breathy voice, you know? Jay...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

REZAIAN: Jay, you have to be honest, you know? Like, you remember Wanda? I'm going to rock your world. I mean, I can't do the voice, but, like...

MERAJI: In case you missed that, Gene and I are of the same generation as Jason, and Wanda was a character played by Jamie Foxx.

DEMBY: Jamie Foxx. Yeah.

MERAJI: Yeah, (laughter) on "In Living Color." Now he's, like, a very, very famous, like, serious actor who's in "Just Mercy." But back in our day, he was Wanda.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: And that's our show.

DEMBY: Go follow Shereen @RadioMirage. That's RadioMirage. You should know how to spell that - all one word. You can follow me @GeeDee215. That's - yeah, I just spelled it. Follow the whole CODE SWITCH team @NPRCodeSwitch. And of course, you can always email us at codeswitch@npr.org, and subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Leah Donnella. It was edited by Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH family - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Adrian Florido and LA Johnson.

MERAJI: And a big welcome to our new interns, Isabella Rosario and Dianne Lugo. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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