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Maziar Bahari never forgets what drove his interrogators crazy.

His polite manner. His reporter’s instinct to explain why the street protests that followed the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad interested his editors at Newsweek. His taste for Leonard Cohen and Anton Chekhov. His bafflement when asked what he knew of sexual delights in New Jersey, or why he, a Muslim, would have a woman’s phone number — in this case Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s — on his mobile. All that, plus a few jokes that he put together with a reporter for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, spurred his “specialists” to beat Bahari bloody-blue in the darkness of Tehran’s Evin prison.

Now, six years after Bahari was jailed for 118 days and paraded on Iran TV as a spy for the CIA, MI6, Mossad, and, yes, even Newsweek, the Iranian-Canadian journalist is living in ways that would torment his torturers.

Bahari in Primrose Hill, London, today

Today, the soft-spoken émigré is a Londoner and arguably the most trenchant ex-prisoner ever to rattle Iran’s chains. He chats weekly to friends in the Islamic Republic via Skype and blogs on the country’s latest intrigues. He runs IranWire, a news site in Farsi and English that links citizen and professional journalists in Iran and offers dispatches on the evolving nuclear deal with the west. He continues to make documentaries, most notably a searing portrayal of forced confessions in Iran — a humiliation he himself endured and which compelled even Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, to champion his release.

This month, Bahari is capitalising (in print, online, wherever an audience can be mustered) on the latest splash of publicity about his life — the release of the movie Rosewater, based on his memoir and directed by Jon Stewart — to promote the debates in Iran on women’s rights, freedom of speech and the persecution of the country’s minorities.

“Before I went into prison, I was a very private person,” Bahari says with a smile. “When I got out, I realised I was not a private person any more. And it was important that I, not the Iranian government, controlled the narrative.”

Bahari does not fit the image of a flame-throwing dissident. He is witty and understated in interviews and, at age 47, his thoughts are leavened by a native understanding of Iran’s politics and its capacity for reform. “I personally am not really for regime change. I am for a change of the mentality within the system. A way people can have space to talk about their rights,” he says during a relaxed conversation in a Primrose Hill café near his home in northwest London.

“What happened then and now — it’s a civil rights movement. And I think in many ways it is a civil rights movement led by women. When people were calling the demonstrations in 2009 the Green Revolution, I was always cringing. Because it was not a revolution. People in Iran — the last thing they want is a revolution. The last thing they wanted in 2009 was a revolution. These are people who simply want to have their rights as citizens and as equals.

“Whatever the government of Iran is, it’s not an Islamic Republic. It’s not a theocracy. It’s not an Islamic dictatorship. Because it’s all of them and none of them. What it really is — it’s a patriarchal system. And many in Iran, men and women, realise that to have any fundamental change, they have to change this patriarchal system.”

Protests in Tehran against the 2009 election results

American funnyman Jon Stewart has been a serious collaborator in Bahari’s effort to portray a more nuanced Iran — in part because Stewart’s satirical news show in the US played a role in Bahari’s prison drama.

The Daily Show went to Tehran in May 2009 and asked Bahari, who was reporting the run-up to the presidential election, to be a straight man in a sketch about spies. Weeks later, as Bahari was held in isolation, his keepers discovered the comedic riff on video. The intelligence agents were big on neither laughs nor logic. They dutifully labelled the offending clip, “spy in coffee shop”, and ranted over this supposed deceit.

After Bahari’s release in October 2009, he and Stewart met, and began talking about how best to explore this tale of the absurd. Bahari was already writing Then They Came for Me, a best-selling account of his travails — from the revolution of 1979 to his move to Canada in his early twenties and then his return to Iran in 1997. Rosewater is adapted from the book, with some Hollywood embellishments.

While under arrest, Bahari did confess to nonsense — that he was an agent of the western media and that the western media were trying to overthrow the Islamic government — as shown in the film. His wife Paola Gourley, then pregnant, was pivotal in commandeering a global media campaign for his release. But Bahari’s arrest did not, as the film might have you think, spring from a Daily Show skit or a single brave news dispatch. The Bahari of the movie, as portrayed by Gael García Bernal, is far more wide-eyed than the real reporter. When the handsome actor glides and spins in his cell to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, it is a paean to hope and family. Bahari never danced in Evin, even on his best day.

Bahari, who was at nearly every day of filming, shrugs off these bits of directorial licence. “Jon is an American television personality and he has that popular sensibility. At the same time, I think it is a very good film. You see his passion for the subject and the subject matter. The amount of time and the emotion, in terms of dramatic structure and character development and attention to detail. I think it is the most authentic non-Iranian film about Iran that there is.”

A touch of Hollywood: Gael García Bernal, Jon Stewart and Bahari after the release of ‘Rosewater’

But Rosewater, named after the cloying perfume worn by Bahari’s most vicious interrogator in Evin, is meant to be more than a story of a single journalist and much more than a takedown of the mullahs. The well-received film reaches across generations to tell a modern history of Iran as well as some of the sins by the US and Britain. (Stewart shot the movie in Jordan. Bahari had five friends in Tehran who filmed street scenes there which were added in the edit.)

At its best, Rosewater is a reverie on the power of repression and the cerebral acrobatics demanded from anyone in its thrall. Bahari still loathes Rosewater the goon but he recognises the man was just doing his job. (The inquisitor clocked overtime pay for the hours he spent pummelling Bahari.) “When you see the interrogator in my prison, he is very much a part of that system. He’s an extreme example of it [but] his stupidity, his ignorance, it’s not something he was doing intentionally. Any kind of system that thinks it can create an ideal world with all these imperfect human beings, that’s crazy. When you try, as he did, to make theories fit a paradigm of life in Iran — or in the west for that matter — you sound like a crazy person.

“When my interrogator said, ‘You’re a spy’, he really believed it. He wasn’t making fun. And this is how he put the pieces together: he saw I had a phone number on my mobile for Nick Burns at Harvard. Now, Nick Burns also used to work for the US government. [Burns was a high-profile diplomat]. So to them, that is the CIA. And then he writes for Newsweek — an op-ed article. And that’s it. To them, here is two and here is two — and it is never four. Two plus two is five or seven or 10.”

Bahari chuckles. It is real laughter. That is how Iranians — or Egyptians or Russians or Iraqis or any people caught in mind-bending times — survive year after year. Generations of Bahari’s family have suffered. His father was jailed for two years in the 1950s, under Shah Reza Pahlavi, for belonging to the Communist party. Bahari’s only sister Maryam later welcomed the Islamic uprising but she too was undone when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned on dissidents. Maryam, a schoolteacher, spent six years in prison as a member of the Communist party. She died from leukaemia in early 2009.

Bahari began his life’s work by escaping. At 19, with little English, he crossed into Pakistan. By chance, he met an American evangelist. Bahari wasn’t much for godly chatter but “it was good to learn English from a religious person,” he insists. “I learnt very interesting words.” He moved on to Canada with $500 in his pocket. He made his way — working in a popcorn factory, tending bar, selling carpets, waiting tables, and training on B-movies — while studying film in Montreal. At one point, he covered his rent by sharing a flat with a Canadian poet, a Hungarian lift engineer, a Brazilian drag queen and a stripper who was enrolled in law school.

Evin prison

He wrote his first documentary in Canada, about Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. By 1997, Bahari saw signs of reform in Iran. He wanted to go home. Once there, he freelanced for the BBC and Channel 4, and then was accredited as a journalist for Newsweek. Before Evin, Bahari considered himself a reporter who knew how far to go to avoid the regime’s “red lines”.

Until he didn’t. The 2009 election upheaval surprised most observers — including Bahari — and clearly frightened the regime. When thousands of Iranians, and notably women, marched in the streets to call the presidential results a fraud, the clerics were caught off-guard. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei barred independent reporters from all protests. Bloggers, freelancers and citizen journalists put themselves on the line to tape and tweet the spiralling violence. One woman — Neda Agha-Soltan — was shot and killed on June 20. Google her today and amateur videos, on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, keep the conversation going. Bahari and others were arrested within hours, and for days after, that story went viral. The regime rushed to protect itself.

Bahari knows from his interrogations that his arrest was very likely just a useful tool for Iran’s hardliners. He was packaged across state-run media as a journalist working for the west who had tried to conspire with the political opposition. He was allowed to leave Iran after paying a hefty $300,000 bail but was convicted in absentia on national security charges. Bahari is not entirely sure why he was released. His wife’s pregnancy — she was days away from labour — was thought to be an important factor. “They arrested me because they wanted to incriminate the reformers in the government. They wanted to say the reformers are in touch with foreign embassies and they wanted me to confess to having put them in touch with other governments. At least I think that was their plan.

“At the end of the day, what the government of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard, the people like Rosewater wanted to do was instil fear in me. That’s what all authoritarian governments try to do. I knew that to fear them once I was free — to still fear them four or five thousand miles from the Iranian border — would mean they had won.

The dissident: Maziar Bahari at a press conference after his trial in Tehran, 2009

“From [my experiences in] prison, I really understood I have limited time and limited energy. So my idea was: how do I use them best? I wanted to be a better father to my daughter, a better husband to my wife, a better friend to the people who supported me. And also I asked myself: how can I help Iranians? I am more focused. And I target the most sensitive subjects in Iran — [the ones that are] the least tolerated.”

In recent Skype chats, Bahari senses the fresh nuclear talks — with a fledging agreement in place that would require Iran to drastically reduce uranium enrichment in exchange for the unravelling of economic sanctions — are seen as real progress by both the political class led by President Rouhani and the younger generation. There is genuine excitement about the prospects. Still, no one should mistake the negotiations for anything but pragmatism. A nuclear pact is a chance for détente as well as a move to secure domestic stability and open up the economy. In a country of nearly 80 million where the median age is under 30 — and the youth jobless rate around 30 per cent — there is hunger for change.

“The government sees the deal as a way to survive. It knows now, after all these years of conflict in the Middle East, that it does not need nuclear weapons to have power in the region. It has allies, it has Shias where it needs. The nuclear deal is helping this government survive.

“And the people? They know it won’t bring democracy tomorrow. But it is a positive step towards a more liberal country. People are quite mature in their outlook. They are happy. They want Iran to be among the nations of the world. And they are just tired of being a pariah state.”

Progress? Iranian officials at the nuclear talks with six major powers in Vienna last month

Online, Bahari is exploring minority rights via such campaigns as educationisnotacrime.me, which details the persecution of Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority. He is also tracking journalists still held in Iran’s jails. His next film will be a collaboration with another online movement, My Stealthy Freedom: a Facebook page where women post photos of themselves without headscarves. He knows from Forced Confessions, his hour-long retort to his own experiences which opened at the 2012 Amsterdam international documentary film festival, that documentaries allow him “to push the envelope. I don’t have to pull punches.” It was cathartic for him; it also curbed Iran’s ability to use and to show forced confessions.

“What I did was — for the first time — let people talk honestly about forced confessions. Because so many people for so long had been so ashamed of making them. As I say in the film, I feel guilty for making the confession, when at the same time I know I’ve done nothing wrong. This film was a way for me to overcome that sense of guilt.”

When Forced Confessions was shown on BBC Persian TV, the internet outrage worried the regime. BBC staff and their families were questioned; one news presenter found interrogators at his father’s bedside in a cancer ward. But Bahari also heard of an unexpected, unpublicised response among the authorities. An official who knows Bahari says his reporting, even from afar, “has somehow been very effective”.

“This Iranian, who has to meet regularly with an interrogator, told me that after it was shown in Iran, the guy was really upset. His interrogator said: ‘This Bahari. He really f***ed us up. This film has made our job much more difficult.’”

Christine Spolar is the FT’s investigations editor. She reported from Iran in 2006 and 2007.

Photographs: Jasper Fry; Reuters; Getty; AP

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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