118 DAYS IN IRAN’S EVIN PRISON
Iranian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari was always fascinated by Jewish history and culture. His torturers made him pay for it.
That Maziar Bahari was the first Muslim to make a film about the Holocaust came back to haunt him while he was held in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison. The Iranian-born, London-based journalist and filmmaker was imprisoned for 118 days while on assignment for Newsweek to cover the June 2009 elections and the subsequent protests that rocked the Islamic regime. During his months in prison, Bahari was kept in solitary confinement, blindfolded and beaten, most often by one official whom he called “Rosewater.”
Bahari is one of the lucky ones. While many Iranian journalists waste away in prison, his wife, Paola Gourley—pregnant at the time with the couple’s first child—led a campaign to free him, with the support of Newsweek and other media outlets including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Before his arrest, Bahari had been interviewed by the comedy show’s Jason Jones, who Iranian officials later claimed was a spy since he was dressed like one as part of the skit.) The international pressure on the Iranian government to release Bahari ultimately gained the public support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and he was freed on October 17, 2009, days before the birth of his daughter. He was later convicted in absentia of spying for the West and plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.
Bahari’s recently published memoir, Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival, chronicles his arrest and detention, interweaving his family’s and country’s narratives with his own ordeal. Moment editor Nadine Epstein speaks with Bahari about the future of Iran’s Khamenei regime, Iranian attitudes toward Jews and Israel and his favorite musician—Leonard Cohen.
Were you concerned for your safety when you returned to Iran from London to cover the June 2009 elections for Newsweek?
I did not feel threatened when I was covering the election. I wasn’t a foreigner or a visitor to Iran. It was my country, and I never thought I would personally be in danger. Then again, anyone who works as a journalist in Iran, especially for the foreign media, is always under suspicion, always in danger. But I always thought that in the worst-case scenario they would only revoke my press card or detain me for a week, which is quite normal in Iran.
When did you first suspect you might be of interest to the Iranian government?
I traveled around by motorcycle cabbie, a popular way for people to get around, and my driver told me he saw some people watching me. But he was a young guy and was fooling around a lot, and I thought he was joking. But on June 21, nine days after the election, four men came to my mother’s house where I was staying. They came at 7:30 a.m., woke me up and took me away to prison. One of them was my interrogator whom I call Rosewater in my book, because of his smell. They ransacked the house and confiscated some of my DVDs, clothes, papers and laptop computers.
Why did Rosewater and your other interrogators think you were a spy?
They didn’t think I was a spy, but they wanted to incriminate the reformists inside the Islamic regime who want to convey a more liberal interpretation of Islam, and so they tried to do it through me. The hard-line supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, wanted to tell the people that the reformists were taking guidance from the West. Because the charges against me were fabricated, they had to fabricate evidence. But I think sometimes they really believed their own lies.
Did your interrogators know that you were the first Muslim to make a film about the Holocaust?
They did, and I suffered because of that. There was a retrospective of my work in Amsterdam in 2007 and they wanted to show different films of mine, and I insisted they include The Voyage of the St. Louis. In an interview I did at the time, I said that not all Iranians are as stupid as our president—Ahmadinejad. My words haunted me when I was in prison. Rosewater said that I was on a mission to work for the Zionists and make a Zionist film.
What were your interrogators’ attitudes toward Israel?
Many people in the Iranian regime think of Israel as this very powerful omnipresent evil empire. I realized in prison that they had a hate and envy relationship with Israel. Hatred of Israel is used as a legitimizing factor for the Iranian government. They hate Israel for ideological reasons, but at the same time they are quite envious of its military prowess. Rosewater kept saying that Israel had agents all around the world. “Don’t you think that we can do the same thing that Israelis did to that Nazi general, to our enemies around the world?” he said once, referring to Eichmann. Ideally, the Iranian government would like to carry out something similar to the Eichmann operation. They would love to have the successes that the Israeli Army and the Mossad have had over the past 60 years. They really have an exaggerated and unreal idea of Israeli power and of the Jewish people in general.
Did Rosewater ask you about your Jewish connections?
To Rosewater there were no Jewish people; he was always talking about Jewish “elements.” He wanted to know every Jewish “element” I knew. I told him that was impossible. I said that when you live in Europe or America, you don’t go around asking people what their religion is, and even if some of the people I met were Jewish, I wasn’t aware of their religious identity. But he insisted that I had to name all the Jewish “elements” I knew. I thought I had to give them something, so I gave them the names of some Jewish friends in Canada and the United Kingdom. He then said with such pride, “See, you know so many Jews!”
After your release you told Daily Show host Jon Stewart that “evil is stupid,” in reference to the kinds of questions you were asked. Could you give me an example of these questions?
We had ridiculous conversations because they wanted to fabricate evidence. They went through my Facebook friends and email list and looked for any name that sounded Jewish. I was a Facebook fan of Anton Chekhov and Rosewater thought that Chekhov was Jewish. He must have heard that names ending in “ov” were Jewish. He asked me who Chekhov was. I said he was a Russian playwright. He asked me if Chekhov was Jewish. I said, no, I didn’t think he was Jewish. I knew that many Russian intellectuals were Jewish at that time so I wasn’t sure. So he said, “We’re going to investigate this Chekhov!”
Where did Rosewater get his ideas about Israel and Jews?
His understanding of Israel and Jews is influenced by the biased information that is constantly repeated by the Iranian media. Like many in Middle Eastern dictatorships, he is susceptible to anti-Semitic ideas.
Are Iranians anti-Semitic and anti-Israel?
Iranians in general are not anti-Semitic; anti-Semitism is really a European phenomenon. To tell you the truth, Iranian people don’t have that much of an opinion about Israel because they have other things to worry about.
How are Iran’s 25,000 Jews affected by the propaganda?
I have been and continue to be in touch with many Jews in Iran, who are regarded as second-class citizens. Even though Jewish people have freedom to practice their religion, there is a limit on how much progress Jews can make in Iran. It would be unthinkable to have a Jewish government minister or president. The constitution forbids having a Jew as president. There are certain laws against them, but because the culture is not anti-Semitic, the government cannot and does not want to put a lot of pressure on the Jews.
Why didn’t you grow up to mistrust Jews?
My parents were communists, and I think communists all around the world have a fascination with Jews because of prominent Jewish communists such as Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. I grew up hearing the word “Jewish” from my parents. I didn’t know what it was or what it meant, but when I realized that some of my heroes such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks were Jewish, I questioned what it meant to be Jewish. I have always had this fascination with Jewish culture. That is why I made a film about Jews.
What made you want to make a film about the St. Louis—the ship carrying 937 Jewish refugees during World War II that was turned away from the U.S. and Cuba?
I learned about the Holocaust from The World at War, a British documentary series from the 1970s that was on Iranian television when I was young. Then when I went to Canada when I was 18, I studied the modern history of the Jews and I was fascinated by the history of Jews in North America. I took a course on Freud and religion and the professor talked a lot about early 20th century anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Canada. I had no idea that even up until the 1950s Jews were discriminated against in North America, so I wanted to explore that further. As an immigrant, I was interested in the history of Jewish immigration from Europe to America. So I looked for a story to combine all these elements and came across the story of the St. Louis.
Is the average Iranian a Holocaust-denier?
They don’t think about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not an issue. It’s the same thing if you are an Israeli: you don’t think about what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.
Is the Holocaust taught in schools in Iran?
They don’t teach the Holocaust in schools, and they don’t teach Holocaust denial. The Holocaust was not discussed in Iran until Ahmadinejad denied it in 2005. I met the guy who gave him the idea to deny the Holocaust. His name is Mohammad-Ali Ramin, the deputy minister for press in Iran until recently. He studied in Germany and he organized the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in 2006. I was in a private meeting with him when he said that Hitler made a mistake by invading Russia before killing all the Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe! I was shocked and disgusted by what I heard. I said, “Could you repeat that?” He smiled and repeated what he said, but when he realized I was working for Newsweek, he asked me to leave the room. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial even shocked many conservatives in Iran who asked him to stop talking about it and have admitted that his Holocaust denial has been costly for the country.
Are Iranians afraid of an Israeli attack?
Yes. Many people are afraid of that. As many Israelis, including Meir Dagan, the former chief of Mossad, have said, the extremist rhetoric coming out of Israel only helps the extremists in Iran. I think Netanyahu’s fear-mongering is not really in the interest of the Israeli people.
What is holding Iranians back from overthrowing the Khamenei regime?
One of the main reasons is that Iranians experienced revolution three decades ago and don’t want to experience a sudden change like that again. The memory of that revolution is still fresh, and people are still suffering because of it. Another reason is that Khamenei has been very careful in cultivating his image as a clean leader in a sea of corruption. He has created a cult that is willing to die for him and kill for him. Other dictators in the region, e.g., Mubarak in Egypt and Bin Ali in Tunisia, did not have that kind of following and devotion. He has a stronger religious following than the average Middle Eastern dictator.
Should the hijacking of the 1979 Iranian Revolution by Islamic fundamentalists be a warning to Arab Spring demonstrators?
I don’t think what is happening in the Middle East today has anything to do with the Iranian Revolution. I’ve been to Tunisia and Egypt and I witnessed that the movements in those countries are secular, not religious. I don’t call what happened in Tunisia or Egypt revolutions. They were evolutions, reformist movements for a more accountable government. I don’t think religious forces can hijack the changes in Tunisia or Egypt as they did in Iran in 1979. Also, we are living in a different world, in an age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the free flow of information. In 1979, the revolution in Iran was top-down, Ayatollah Khomeini had his following and his authority could not be challenged. Right now because of the free flow of information you can no longer have this kind of top-down leadership.
What impact has the Arab Spring had on Iran?
The government feels threatened by the downfall of leaders such as Bin Ali and Mubarak. The immediate impact was a mass demonstration in Iran in February and that really scared the government. As a result, they created a claustrophobic atmosphere in the country and imprisoned many leaders. Even though the Iranian government gives lip service to Arab revolutions, I think it is a signal that they are really scared.
What makes you confident that change will come?
The situation is untenable. There is high unemployment, high inflation, very little foreign investment. People have no venue for expressing their anger. On top of it all, there is infighting between the people around Ahmadinejad and those who are dedicated to Khamenei. All the ingredients that existed in Egypt and Tunisia exist in Iran.
What should the West do to help?
The West should try to curb Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t think that Iran will bomb Israel. The government knows this would end its rule as well, and they are pragmatic; what this regime is thinking about is its own survival. Iran would use its nuclear capability to bully the international community, as well as its own people. The United States should lift bad sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians and impose tougher sanctions on human rights abusers and the nuclear program. Also, they should forget about negotiating with Ahmadinejad and address Khamenei directly. In the past the West has reached certain agreements with Ahmadinejad’s government, but Khamenei overruled all of them.
What misconceptions do we in the West hold about Iran?
The main mistake is that many Americans think that Ahmadinejad is the most powerful person in Iran, but any president in Iran is like the prime minister in absolute monarchies. He is just the executor of the monarch’s will. Of course, he seems straight out of central casting. He denies the Holocaust, wants to wipe Israel off the map, he’s ugly and he wears white socks with black shoes. He has those negative attributes, but he’s not the most powerful.
Have you sent a copy of your book to Rosewater?
No I haven’t. I didn’t think he would understand it, but I am sure they’ve translated it, because I know that they had translated many other books—for personal use, of course. Not for public consumption!
In your book, you write that you frequently thought about Leonard Cohen in prison. Why the fascination with Cohen?
I loved his music when I was growing up. The music is beautiful, but then when I learned English I started to love his poems, the romantic cynical hopefulness of his lyrics. I lived in Montreal for four or five years, just a few blocks from him. You can listen to Leonard Cohen when you feel depressed, lonely and nostalgic, but also when you’re happy or in love. The memory of Cohen’s words and music saved me in prison. It is fascinating that this older Jewish guy from Montreal saved me in the Islamic Republic.