Journalist Jason Rezaian, born in California to Iranian immigrant parents, was arrested with his wife in Tehran midsummer 2014 on suspicion of espionage. He had a government-issued license to gather and report news for the Washington Post.
He was held 544 days before his release in a prisoner exchange negotiated with the accord that scaled back Iran’s nuclear program.
Back in Washington, Rezaian writes an opinion column focused on Iran for the Post. He is suing the Islamic Republic for one billion dollars. The following review of Rezaian’s prison memoirs addresses the book only and not his interviews or articles.
Before discussing Prisoner on merit, I should make clear that I believe the man is innocent. The Washington Post has a long documented history of collaborating with US spy agencies, as revealed famously by former Post reporter Carl Bernstein, among others.
Furthermore, the paper’s sole owner since 2013, Jeff Bezos, is also the CEO and majority stakeholder of Amazon, a company with an acknowledged $600 million data contract with the CIA. None of this remotely shows that the newspaper hired Rezaian to spy on Iran.
Rezaian’s chatty and angry prison memoir is a good read for its intended audience: Americans looking for confirmation of what they already “know”, the public that finds comfort in facile condemnation of designated US adversaries.
As such it joins a parade of published memoirs of Iranian exiles and aggrieved second-generation Iranian-Americans that, with narrow personal focus, have produced more heat than light. Prisoner lacks the depth to justify its sweeping judgement of a government that has been a central preoccupation for top strategists for four tumultuous decades.
The reason is oddly simple: in his zeal to discredit the ideological prism of a system that puzzles him, Rezaian is himself possessed by a comparable ideological obsession of his own.
Iran’s shocking revolution, including the seizure of the US embassy – coming a short few years after the humiliating US defeat in Vietnam – initially generated what could be a healthy curiosity in the early 1980s.
How could the self-assured monarchy, with its US-sponsored military and secret police ranking among the world’s most feared, unravel quickly before protesters with bare hands? Why could Washington not save the indispensable Cold War ally?
These questions, and Westerners’ hunger to know why their intelligence and media elites were caught off guard in 1979, initially inspired a few expert histories of 20th century Iran. With realism and maturity, these rare works explained the revolution’s profound popular roots without repeating condescending forecasts of the newly installed Islamic Republic’s imminent downfall.
But predictably the frenzied search for answers also encouraged a bumper crop of less informative books, including personal memoirs, bemoaning Iran’s domestic and foreign policy surprises without explanatory context.
A common feature of the genre is the authors’ silence about the historic and ongoing crimes of imperialist powers in Iran and its region.
For this and related reasons, readers whose sole reference is narratives like Rezaian’s are as ill-equipped to decipher Iran’s contradictions today as the US public has largely been since the 1979 revolution. But if one’s purpose is to simply read about a wrongly imprisoned reporter’s anguish, the author does not disappoint.
The main reason that Prisoner fails to enlighten is that it dismisses Iran’s popular classes as intentionally as Western reporters did before its grassroots revolution erupted. (Rezaian was three years old at the time.)
With their epic sacrifices and against great odds, millions of traditional families of modest means freed the nation from a century of foreign clientelism and rolled back Iraq’s military aggression. It is impossible to understand Iran’s politics, or its imperfect judiciary, without beginning to know this majority. Yet in Prisoner they alternate between being invisible and being stigmatized as dumb, smelly, and worse. (For balance and nuance in coverage of a similar Islamist movement’s moment in history, I recommend Into the Hands of the Soldiers by David D. Kirkpatrick.)
Rezaian appropriately expounds the jubilation felt in May and June, 2009 by professional-class residents of Tehran packing nightly the northern stretch of Vali Asr Avenue to rally for the reformist opposition’s presidential candidates and argue with its few detractors in attendance. (I, too, was there in person and witnessed the gridlock and euphoria that televised candidate debates prompted.)
But he fails to inform the reader that the less affluent majority a few miles south cared less for social liberalization and largely stayed home until it was time to vote overwhelmingly to re-elect President Ahmadinejad.
Not coincidentally, this is the demographic that fills the ranks of the Islamic Republic’s national security establishment (the author’s malodorous tormentors) and whose hopes and worries finds public expression in the “farcical institutions” making up the government.
Rezaian recounts growing up in wealthy Marin County, California in a two-acre family compound with horses and “the biggest home pool I have ever seen.” He and his brother “fit in just fine” at their private school, proof to him that “[w]e were typical Americans”!!
Later in life, reporting for the Washington Post from Tehran, the newlywed lived similarly far away from ordinary Iranians (other than his cook and cleaning lady) in affluent Shahrak-e Gharb section of Tehran in a “luxury high-rise… a sought-after address for people in the know… with twenty-four hour security at the gate and the front desk”.
The home was the reporter’s “sanctuary…. I ventured into the city less and less…. preferring to watch government press conferences on television”. Other than that, he “never watched Iran’s local TV”. But he and his wife racked up frequent flyer miles shopping in international destinations near and far. “[W]e were living a life that others envied.”
Oddly, active avoidance of less fortunate Americans and Iranians never shook Rezaian’s conviction that he stands for pluralism. “You are completely unable to put yourself in anyone else’s shoes. That’s why you fail”, he angrily told a “very working class” interrogator in prison, whose cohort he later characteristically denounced in the book as “no-dimensional” second graders.
The invisibility of commoners — most especially prayerful nobodies — to Rezaian reaches still sadder peaks in his discussion of in-bound international tourism, a topic of great interest to him (and, coincidentally, to me).
In the holy city of Mashhad, his father’s lineage had for generations “held a key role overseeing the Imam Reza shrine”, from which the name Rezaian is presumably derived. His grandfather left Iran for Marin County, and moved in with the family, where the golden ager presumably had plenty of stories to share with the future Washington Post reporter.
With this background, one could reasonably expect the author of Prisoner to include in the pages he devoted to tourism the millions of not-so-glamorous Shi’i pilgrims who annually flock to Mashhad from neighboring countries and far-flung corners of Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Tourists who largely have not seen and will not predictably see Paris, London or Amsterdam except perhaps to look for work. There is no mention of them, not a word, in Rezaian’s pages on tourism, save for a vague passing reference to Mashhad as “a crossroads of people and cultures”.
Only European and North American travelers seem to matter, presumably because they smell better.
“Normal people” representing “the seductive power of the American idea”, as the author exalts them. The author’s aversion to loser pilgrims may explain his long-held choice of guru, the notorious Islamophobe Christopher Hitchens.
I hear echoes of Hitchens where Rezaian rejects the “Islamic lunar calendar” as outrageous evidence that Muslims are categorically unaware “that the Earth revolves around the sun”!
That statement is clearly false. Irrefutable is Rezaian’s own intentional ignorance in excluding international pilgrims in page after page discussing tourism to Iran. An ignorance that should embarrass the Washington Post.
The newspaper is nothing if not all about up-to-the-minute political and geo-strategic reporting; and in the Middle East, cross-border coalescing of people of faith is newsworthy for obvious reasons. (Even in a far less contested context like Spain, no serious writer would talk up tourism without a mention of the Camino de Santiago.) As Rezaian whiled away his days in Tehran (by his own admission) dreaming of future foodie tourism what-ifs, the unemployed foreign fighters that Iran trained by the thousands and deployed to Syria came from the same modest communities whose religious tourists don’t count for him.
More to the point, if the “unbathed” in-country workforce relied on by the ayatollahs is made up of clownish morons, how does Rezaian explain the Islamic Republic’s quick rise from the ashes of a devastating war to regional-power status despite decades of intensifying Western sanctions?
How does he explain that mighty Israel was militarily forced off Arab lands (a feat that even combined Arab armies never accomplished) by Hezbollah, a militia that inept “very working class” Iranians like his interrogators trained in south Lebanon?
If the American system that Rezaian passionately advocates as the antidote to Iran’s ills is smart, why has it sunk over a trillion dollars in a futile 18-year war in Afghanistan? A war that Washington is now struggling to extricate itself from by leaving in charge the Taliban, the very fanatics that the US ostensibly went in to eradicate.
If Iran’s government ranks are populated with dimwits, why, with hundreds of thousands of US and UK troops and mercenaries in Iraq, US leaders’ visits to Baghdad had to be furtive but the Iranian president received full state visit honors? As reported March 3, 2008 by the Chicago Tribune,
Unlike [President George] Bush’s trips, which were disclosed only after he had arrived and lasted just a few hours, Ahmadinejad announced his visit well in advance and planned to spend two days in Baghdad. At night he is sleeping outside the relative safety of the Green Zone in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces along the Tigris River, guarded by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga militia.
Bush and other U.S. dignitaries had been ferried from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone by helicopter, but Ahmadinejad drove into town along the often-dangerous airport road in a black BMW escorted by a phalanx of white Mercedes SUVs.
This striking contrast would not have existed had Rezaian’s unwashed bumbling government fools in Tehran not for decades cultivated the most capable minds among waves of Iraqi pilgrims.
Rezaian’s disdain reminds me of a life lesson I learned at the awkward age of 17 in Tehran. In a sponsored group of visiting American teenagers that I made friends with that summer, a Midwesterner named Paul had had enough of fancy swimming pool fun with catered meals.
Paul asked me to show him around the city and I obliged. I knew his Westernized upper middle-class host family were cocooned in the far north of Tehran. So I naively decided that with his curious mind he ought to see someplace more authentic. He thoroughly enjoyed our ride on a crowded un-air-conditioned bus and a leisurely walk in Abbasi, a tidy old-fashioned district in south Tehran with no private schools or mentions in traveler guidebooks.
That night, Paul called tearfully to say that his host family were extremely angry that he had seen (and, gasp, photographed) “an embarrassing neighborhood… dangerous…backward people”.
That was a wake-up call helping me realize that such condescension had few exceptions among the leading Westernized technocrats who ruled the country then.
Only two years earlier the most prominent among them, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur, had been assassinated by an Islamist unknown. The politician had recently granted full immunity from possible prosecution to all US government personnel and their families stationed in Iran, who were on track to number in the thousands.
The year was 1967 and Paul’s humiliation, together with hushed conversations overheard at my high school, left me with a nagging feeling that the country was approaching tipping point for an upheaval of major proportions.
Rezaian would have enjoyed full freedom in pre-revolutionary Iran of those days without interference from its “unbathed” class. But because reporting from Tehran was more lucrative then, I suspect he would have lost out to more qualified correspondents in the race for silk rugs, caviar and more, courtesy of the PR-savvy royal court. I met a few of them at the world-renowned and avant-guarde Shiraz Arts Festival sponsored by Empress Farah.
But that era is gone. And given that a Euro-centric and class-infused blind spot pervades Rezaian’s memoir, one inescapable conclusion is that he hated imprisonment for more reasons than captivity.
Throughout Prisoner, his reasonable rejection of espionage charges is interlaced at every turn with utter contempt for officials whose humble backgrounds should have condemned them to invisible lives but somehow cheated fate and ended up in charge.
Not surprisingly, he was agitated by their regular reminders that he was being treated more humanely than were people of color in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons or the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
I, too, would have been beside myself if I were convinced – like Rezaian – that America is “born from freedom”.