Last Sunday, Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari came to Georgetown with Jon Stewart to screen the latter’s directorial debut “Rosewater,” a drama based on Bahari’s experiences of interrogation and incarceration in Iran. His father and sister were both arrested for their political views, and at first Bahari distanced his work from these controversial issues. But while covering the 2009 Iranian elections, Bahari filmed Iranian citizens protesting the allegedly corrupt vote-counting. On the morning of June 21, 2009, Bahari was arrested at his family home in Tehran and taken to Evin Prison, where he was interrogated and threatened into confessing that all Western journalists were actually spies in a televised interview in July. Bahari was held for 118 days, during which he was in solitary confinement and subject to daily interrogation, emotional torment and mock execution.
At the screening in Gaston Hall, Stewart said the film is meant to expand beyond Bahari’s individual experience in order to draw attention to journalists held in captivity by regimes worldwide.
“For the purposes of this and to give it a universal aspect so that you can’t just dismiss it as the singular atrocities of one regime, these are the types of things that are being committed to journalists and against citizens all around the world,” Stewart said.
The Hoya spoke in a round-table interview with Bahari prior to his appearance at Georgetown. An edited transcript of that interview appears below, interspersed with stories of interred journalists.
Bahari Discusses Time in Iranian Prison
Do you see yourself [in the film], or are you somewhat removed from it?
The thing is that the film is based on my story — it’s inspired by my story — but it’s really a universal story of so many different journalists, thousands of journalists and activists who are going through the same thing every day. And it’s also the story of their families and their loved ones. So I see, of course, parts of myself in the film, but it is really more than my story, it is the story of many of my colleagues and friends.
What was it like adjusting to normal life afterward?
It is difficult and easier at the same time, funny to say. In prison, you are on your own. Especially in solitary confinement, you are deprived of all your senses. You cannot see anything except the walls around you. You cannot smell anything because it’s very clean and institutionalized, the interrogation and torture. You cannot hear anything because the walls are thick. The first thing that you notice in prison is not all these ideological or emotional aspects of imprisonment, it’s the pragmatic thing of saying, “Where am I going to pee?” When you’re in a cell and there’s no toilet, it is that practical side of it. So when you come out of prison, you can go whenever you want; you can drink water as much as you want without worrying about that.
This is all overwhelming in the beginning. But at the same time, I think that it makes life easier because you put life in perspective. So when you are on the metro or subway here, boarding the tube in London when it’s hot and it’s crowded, you’re not going to say “Ah, it’s torture!” No, it’s not torture. You have experienced the real torture; you know what real torture means. So, you just put life in perspective. It’s much easier to live after that.
How did you keep your sense of humor during your incarceration, and after that, what has changed you the most?
Sense of humor comes from cultural background and observation. Also, it comes when you can compare one situation to another. As an Iranian, you grow up with humor because Iranians are very funny; they are very humorous. It’s not, unfortunately, that translatable like most humor is. But Iranians have endured a very tragic history through humor. Iran is a country that has been at the cross section of different civilizations. It’s been invaded by Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Arabs, the British, the Russians, the Americans and, most recently, Iraq. Because of that, people have endured this hardship and tragedy through a sense of humor. Humor is an inherent part of any Iranian.
When you are in prison and in solitary confinement, as I’ve said, you are deprived of all your senses, so you really don’t have any kind of support outside of yourself. You have to tap into yourself and find things that are embedded in you. Parts of that are the humorous experiences you’ve had, humorous films that you’ve seen, humorous books that you’ve read. So when you’re in a situation in the interrogation room when you are charged with these really absurd and ridiculous charges, then you can put that culture within yourself within that bigger cultural context. I have become much more hopeful because of that experience because I put everything in context.
With your family’s political background, was there ever any trepidation about covering the protests?
Since the beginning of the Iranian revolution, I’ve had maybe a little bit of sympathy toward the movement. After the suppression in the early ’80s and my sister’s arrest, seeing my dad and how dogmatic he was about politics, I just didn’t like to be involved in politics directly. But at the same time, I was interested in social issues and helping people.
When the government intrudes into every aspect of your life in Iran — or in many other countries — whatever you do is political; it is politicized. I was a journalist — I was just doing my job. I was observing the truth, recording the truth, documenting the truth — that was all I was doing. I had worked in Iran for 12 years, and I always respected the law; I always tried to work within the framework of the law. I never thought I was doing anything that could put me in trouble. I knew that I was pushing the envelope here and there, and I was doing things that the government didn’t like, and I thought that I could be imprisoned for maybe a day or a week. I remember when I was put in prison I thought “OK, I’m going to come out and write about one week in Iranian prison.” I never thought I would go through such an ordeal because of what I did, but something changed in 2009.
Is there anything on screen that was hard for you to watch personally?
Still, there are a lot of things on the screen that are difficult for me to watch. It’s different every time I watch it because sometimes I wake up and unfortunately get the news that someone was arrested in Iran, a newspaper’s been shut down, a journalist was beheaded by this crazy ISIS. And when I watch the film, I think about that journalist, I think about their loved ones, I think about their families, and that really affects me. Of course, it’s always difficult to watch the movie.
In the film, the character Rosewater [Bahari’s interrogator] has some distinctive habits, like the perfume spraying and his comical obsession with pornography. What do you think those minute details add to the overall story you’re trying to get across?
I think it just humanizes him because what we were really trying to avoid was having another Hollywood rendition of Iran on the screen — that it is black and white, that these people are evil and we are good and let’s kill them. It wasn’t like that.
Everything is humanized, and that again came from my experience in the book. I tried to do that in order to be able to have the upper hand on my interrogator. When you regard someone or an institution as evil or monstrous, then you are defeated to start with because you cannot really defeat evil, you cannot really defeat monsters. But when you regard a human being as a human being, then you can find vulnerabilities, you can find the complexities of them. Then you can exploit it. You can exploit it to your advantage, not because of altruistic or idealistic reasons. No. Sometimes for very selfish reasons — that I wanted my interrogator to stop beating me, for example.
That’s why I came up with those massage stories. In the beginning, they wanted to charge me with espionage. They kept on saying “Name names, name names,” and I didn’t want to name names, and I didn’t want to confess that I was a spy because I knew it would be very dangerous. But then they changed their strategy and wanted to charge me with being morally corrupt, which is easier to handle than espionage. If you’re a spy, you get killed. But then I said, “Morally corrupt, OK.” But then again, morally corrupt, you have different degrees. These are all laws, that if you have had any kind of penetration, then again you can be sentenced to death. So, I had to find a way that I could do a sexual story — that I could satisfy him — but without involving any kind of penetration. So that was the massage story. I think I somehow mischievously was torturing my torturer.
Case Studies: Targeted Journalists
Austin Tice (SFS ’02, LAW ’13)
After becoming increasingly frustrated with news outlets that were providing only limited coverage of events in Syria as a result of the lack of journalists in the field, Austin Tice (SFS ’02, LAW ’13) decided to put his Georgetown law degree on hold and travel there himself in May 2012. From some of the most dangerous areas in Syria, Tice delivered in-depth, award-winning journalism, which he did freelance for outlets such as The Washington Post and CBS News. On Aug. 13, 2012, Tice’s editors, family and friends lost contact with him as he was preparing to leave Daraya, near Damascus, to travel to Lebanon. The site set up by his family reports that it has now been 831 days since anyone has heard from Tice.
According to the Rory Peck Trust, an organization that works with freelance journalists and supports those who are working in serious conflict zones, the last two years have been the most dangerous for journalists on record. Over the past two years, 70 journalists have been killed while covering the conflict in Syria (out of the 174 deaths of journalists working in the field worldwide), and an additional 20 journalists — including Tice — are currently missing.
Most recently, the Western world was shocked by the brutal murder of freelance journalist James Foley, who was killed by Islamic militants in Syria after being held for 21 months. His death has escalated fears about Tice’s safety as well as growing concerns about protecting journalists in conflict zones; this holds especially true in light of the U.S. government’s policy of not paying ransom to terrorist groups. Although Tice is believed to be held by the Bashar al-Assad regime, his exact whereabouts are still unknown. His parents, Marc and Debra Tice, are still hoping for his safe return.
“I do not accept that he is missing. I live in a place where he is coming home,” Debra Tice said in an interview with CBS News last September.
Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post correspondent in Tehran, and his wife Yeganeh Salehi have been held in custody by Iranian authorities since July 22, 2014. The couple was arrested in their home in the middle of the night without being charged with any crime. Their whereabouts are unknown, and those who have tried to investigate their case have been warned off by Iranian authorities. News sources close to security authorities in Iran claim that the couple, who have dual American and Iranian citizenship, are American spies. They are allegedly responsible for distributing a video of Iranians dancing to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” The charges are remarkably similar to those pitted against Bahari, as is the response of the American public. Friends and family have led a similar media campaign to demand the couple’s release.
While travelling to the Turkish border on Nov. 22, 2012 freelance journalist James Foley, his translator and fellow British journalist John Cantlie were kidnapped by a group that was thought to be part of the Shabiha militia, which was associated with the Assad regime. His captors were later identified to be part of the terrorist Islamic State group. On Aug. 12, 2014, Foley’s parents received an email from their son’s captors that condemned the U.S. government’s refusal to pay the ransom of approximately $132 million and threatened to respond by bombing the United States.
It has been reported that during his time as a hostage, Foley was subjected to numerous mock executions and methods of torture like Bahari. On Aug. 19, the Islamic State group uploaded a video to YouTube entitled “A Message to America,” which depicted Foley’s execution. Fellow captive and American journalist Steven Joel Sotloff was shown next to him, threatening the U.S. government to act. The Islamic State group later released a video of Sotloff’s execution on Sept. 2.
All letters written by James Foley during his captivity were confiscated. He asked his fellow hostage, Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen, to memorize the letter he wanted his family and friends to receive. Soon after Ottosen’s release, he called Foley’s mother and dictated the letter, an excerpt of which is below.
“I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.
Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me. We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell … we have found ways to play checkers, chess, and Risk … and have had tournaments of competition, spending some days preparing strategies for the next day’s game or lecture. The games and teaching each other have helped the time pass. They have been a huge help. We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension.
I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasional coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year.
I think a lot about my brothers and sister. I remember playing Werewolf in the dark with Michael and so many other adventures. I think of chasing Mattie and T around the kitchen counter. It makes me happy to think of them … I am so proud of you, Michael, and thankful to you for happy childhood memories, and to you and Kristie for happy adult ones …”
Peter Theo Curtis
On Aug. 26, 2014, American writer and freelance journalist Peter Theo Curtis arrived home in Boston after being held captive by al Qaida’s official branch in Syria for nearly two years.
No one had heard any word from Curtis until the previous summer, when American photojournalist Matthew Schrier, who shared a cell with Curtis, managed to escape through a hole in the wall of the prison in Aleppo, Syria. After Schrier was able to confirm to American authorities that Curtis was alive, Curtis’ family began receiving ransom demands ranging from $3 million to $25 million. The American government continued to stick to its strict no-ransom policy, ensuring that the Qatari officials who secured Curtis’ release did not trade money for him. Schrier confirmed that both he and Curtis were tortured. The group that kept Curtis hostage is still holding at least two other Americans.