Book Review: Jason Rezaian’s Prison Memoir

Jason was born and raised in Marin County, California; for him, home is the city of San Rafael. Ambitious, he was determined to make something out of his life. Drawing on his Iranian heritage he became involved in the Persian carpet business but only to find out that he wasn’t cut out to be a carpet dealer like his father. Although he left the carpet world behind his love of fine Persian rugs always remained with him.

As if the vast world of English speaking countries had suddenly closed all their doors to him he fell back on his ethnic Iranian side again and decided to try his luck by going to Iran hoping to achieve success by allowing his entrepreneurial spirit to create opportunities in his father’s ancient land. For the rest of the world, the land of opportunity was America but for Jason it was Iran;  America’s nemesis where millions of people have fled from and continue to do so.  The year was 2009 and he was thirty-three, his ‘Jesus Year’ he calls it.

Jason in his memoirs explains that working as a freelancer reporting from Iran was something on his mind, a niche market that he could easily provide a service for, especially from a country that is often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons but sometimes gets a bad rap undeservedly. He earned a living writing articles for various press outlets. When his articles caught the attention of Washington Post he was offered a job. He writes about his lucky break, “there was no one else available in Iran at that moment who could write for a major English language publication and no one working outside that would have been granted a working visa for the Washington Post.”

Jason and his wife Yegi who became known in Tehran’s government offices as Ms. Bloomberg for being the Bloomberg’s correspondent in Tehran were realistic enough to consider leaving Iran if working as a journalist became dangerous or they found themselves out of work. This possible scenario was not far fetched if the conservative came to power and not Hassan Rouhani who won the election with clear majority marketing himself as a reformist.

Just as everything seemed in place in their lives they were suddenly arrested. Their arrest came on the same day as Jason’s press credentials were renewed for another year. They thought of it as some kind of misunderstanding for if they had done something wrong the work permit would have been revoked. But Jason and Yegi were arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps who are a separated entity all together running parallel to the Ministry of Information and Security.

Jason’s interrogation reminds one about the early days of the revolution when innocent people were arrested, harassed, assaulted by the newly formed revolutionary guards whose level of intelligence was questioned by their victims. Decades later not much has changed as Jason writes, “The guys who had me were counterintelligence in the most literal sense: they were completely lacking in intellect.”

Jason was accused of spying but there was no evidence to prove that he was guilty of any espionage activity. Only hacked emails showing correspondence with people that they deemed ( with no evidence) as a threat to Iran’s security.

Having separated Yegi and Jason they began playing psychological mind games on them. They told Yegi her husband was a spy only using her to get access to information. They told Jason that nobody really cared about his arrest and he was already a forgotten story. Then in his face, they tarnished their marriage as a plot devised by CIA for spying on Iran. These people had seen too many Hollywood spy thrillers, Jason thought. As days and weeks past by he realised that his release was not forthcoming any time soon. The passing of time also changed the dynamics of his relationship with his captors. He also found out that a massive campaign was underway for his release, contrary to what he was told.

In solitary confinement, Jason was only given the English translation of the Koran to read which to his captors was the greatest gift to mankind.

After seven weeks in solitary confinement, Jason realises he is not the same person anymore. He had developed headaches, eye infections and pains in his groin. More serious was the psychological effects of being completely cut off from the world for the first time.

Jason’s clear thinking and sharp wit even in his traumatic situation used every opportunity to his advantage whenever possible. One day when they pressured him to sing for them to further humiliate him,  he asked them to stand up as a prerequisite and they did. After finishing the song which he sang wistfully they wondered what was the name of it for they had never heard that beautiful song before. It was a nostalgic rendering of the American national anthem he told them.

Jason after 3 months plucked up the courage to tell his captors that he was a hostage and the spying accusation was just a false cover which they were using to buy time and seek international attention and sympathy for some other ends. After all hostage-taking has become a tradition in the Islamic Republic of Iran and it has produced results in the past and they have fine-tuned and perfected the art of it over the years. At least ISIS had the courage or the honesty to call their hostages hostage but Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps didn’t. The truth infuriated them.

Considering what little Rouhani and Zarif did (if anything at all) to secure his release it cast serious doubt on their integrity as reformers. Either they were (and still are) working with the hardliners behind the scene or are in fact their subservient agents.

In solitary confinement, Jason was only given the English translation of the Koran to read which to his captors was the greatest gift to mankind.

In his memoir Jason also talks about his family, a child of an Iranian father and an American mother. About his maternal and paternal grandparents and how their parents met and what a happy and close-knit family they were. He also tells us how everything changed after the hostage crisis of 1979 when  Iranians were no longer perceived as friend or ally but foes and fanatics in the eyes of many American. Taghi, Jason’s generous and kindhearted father offered a $1000 gift voucher to each of the released hostages to be used in his carpet shop and about 40 of them accepted it. This goodwill gesture went a long way to heal the wounds that the nascent Islamic government of Iran had inflicted on the U.S. embassy staff; a cowardly act that forever defines the Islamic Republic of Iran and what it stands for.

Out of solitary, Yegi brought Jason books to read, among them some Orwellian literature. He was also given the freedom to exercise and make more contacts with his wife. They wanted him to acknowledge that they are treating him well but they never acknowledge that why he was their prisoner in the first place.  Jason shares his cell with Yadoallah and then with Mirsani a few Iranian inmates with whom he develops a very deep friendship.

When Jason moved to Iran for the first time it was a few months after Obama’s presidency. The year was 2009 and Iranians were also preparing to vote Ahmadinejad out of office, a campaign which came to be known as the Green Movement when Ahmadinejad was back in office in a sham presidential election. Jason was covering the events and was also informed that some journalists like Maziar Bahari and Roxana Saberi were arrested for their reporting. Jason was lucky for not being arrested along with them and was told by Islamic secret agents that he needed to leave Iran for his biased coverage of the election. He left for Dubai fearing he may end up like others in jail for simply reporting what was happening on the streets and why Iranians did not accept the election result as genuine.

It was in Dubai that he met Yegi. It was love at first sight and they both knew it. Their meeting shifted Jason’s gaze toward Iran again for Yegi lived there and like Jason she had many aspirations for her life. After contacting a few governmental bodies he was told he could come back but cannot work as a journalist. After four months in Dubai he returns to see more of Yegi and try his luck again as a freelancer.

When Jason and Yegi found themselves in prison it was also the time they felt most grounded and secure in Iran and in life in general. They had learned to work around the government’s red tapes of which they were plenty and overall neither of them had crossed any redline.

After a year Jason’s trial finally was underway presided by a notorious judge Mr Salavati, also known as the “hanging judge”.  Mr Salavati is another person with a low IQ but plenty of deadly venom to make up for it. When Jason pleads not guilty to all the four charges brought against him he finds himself back in prison berated by his interrogators for not having confessed to his crimes which could have set him free. But for Jason there was nothing to confess.

Post owner Jeff Bezos flies reporter Jason Rezaian to U.S. after Iran release

In the meantime, the campaign to free him was gathering momentum. But also three other matters of high importance was taking place behind closed doors. Zarif and Obama’s administration were negotiating for a new nuclear deal to end the economic sanction on Iran and Obama wanted to open a peaceful chapter with Iran, ending decades of hostility.   Iran was also demanding 400 million dollars in frozen assets from the time of Pahlavi regime which America was happy to keep. The money with the accumulated interests amounted to $1.7 billion, a little boost to the economy until the lifting of sanctions cleared the economic blockade. The third plan was to do a prisoner swap with some Iranian duel nationals held in American prison accused of breaking the law in bypassing the imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Along with 3 other American prisoners Jason was finally free to go. A new nuclear deal was signed and 1.7 billion dollars was paid in cash to Iran. However, to the Iranian embarrassment, neither of the prisoners in U.S. wanted to return to Iran.

I found Rezaian’s book a very interesting read. It gives great insight to what goes on in the Iranian prison and judicial system in a country where there is no transparency or accountability and the truth shifts according to what the regime needs to do in order to perpetuate its own ominous myth and stay in power.

Jason and Yegi should have been the last people to end up in the Iranian prison. Jason throughout his reporting maintained a professional and neutral tone on Iran. As a half Iranian married to a Persian woman he only saw the potential of Iran and what it could offer the world. He was trying to put the country on the world’s map for all the good reasons. His high opinion on Iranian culture, history, arts and cuisine brought to Iran Anthony Bourdain who later published his memoir.


Note: In my previous article on Jason Rezaian, After 40 Years No One Is Safe In Iran: Reflecting on Jason Rezaian’s Imprisonment in Iran, I did not have access to his memoir and based it on what I could find online and his interviews.

Cover photo: Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian (left), freed after 18 months of incarceration in an Iranian prison, reunites with his wife Yeganeh Salehi, mother Mary Rezaian and brother Ali Rezaian, on Jan. 18, 2016.

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