View from a prison

Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, by Maziar Bahari, Oneworld, £12.99, 356 pages

In the summer of 2009 Maziar Bahari spent 118 days inside Iran’s feared Evin prison trying to convince the authorities he was not a spy. Bahari was a correspondent for Newsweek based in London, a citizen of both Canada and Iran. During beatings and late-night interrogations, he explained to his captors that his work involved reporting to an editor in New York rather than a spy-master at MI6.

But “Rosewater”, the high-ranking Revolutionary Guard whom Bahari nicknamed after his cologne, was undeterred. Iran was in turmoil following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and Rosewater blamed journalists such as Bahari for hyping popular Iranian discontent in the western media. In the interrogator’s view, Iran was already at war with the US and Israel, and people such as Bahari were the west’s conscripts, a “cultural Nato” bent on destroying Iran from within.

Bahari soon realised he was at the centre of the Revolutionary Guards’ plan for cementing control of Iran. The Guards had used Ahmadi-Nejad’s tenure to expand their clout over government and the economy. Their final task, carried out at the behest of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was to crush definitively the country’s reformists, concocting a plot that would reveal them as lackeys of the west. Rosewater himself had selected Bahari to star in the script.

In his memoir, Then They Came For Me, Bahari offers an alarming window into the minds of those who rule Iran today. Rosewater is portrayed as a paranoid, Jew-hating zealot who views the world through the lens of sexual repression: he believes Bahari has slept with every woman on his mobile phone contact list and attends sex parties where men and women eat chocolate off one another in swimming pools.

With a reporter’s sharp eye for detail, Bahari records the moments in which tolerance of the regime suddenly snapped. In one powerful scene, he describes a guardsman beating a woman trapped in a car, shouting at her not to touch him as she struggles to ward off the blows; the guardsman is keen to stay a good Muslim throughout the vicious assault. In another, Bahari describes how officers threaten to sodomise him if he doesn’t get off the street, a reminder that the regime institutionalised rape and sodomy as a punishment for protesters. A great many Iranians witnessed or suffered such abuses; this was the first time since 1979 that opposition was becoming a mainstream sentiment.

In the midst of the country’s demonstrations, Bahari notes “a certain patience and a desire for peace”. The so-called Green movement that emerged from the unrest, he explains, “is a collective cry among Iranians for a normal life”. This young generation of Iranians “do not believe any idea or cause is worth dying for”.

This reality underscores why Iran is perhaps the most difficult country in the region to change. Most Iranian families are still living out the legacy of modern Iran’s wars and revolutions. Bahari’s father, a Communist dissident, was imprisoned and tortured under the Shah, his sister by the mullahs. He weaves memories of their experiences into his account of solitary confinement, tracing Iran’s circular political violence through his family’s painful story.

A campaign eventually spurred the Iranian regime to release Bahari. But even once he had returned to his home in London the Guards threatened that they could “bring him back in a bag”. They neglected to realise that by arresting Bahari and driving out scores of other Iranian journalists working for the western media they only amplified the message they wished to suppress: that “the gap between the people and [Khamenei’s] government is widening”.

Readers will come away from this intimate, authoritative book with a fuller understanding of Iran, why its green uprising petered out, and why no one should be surprised if it kicks off again.

Azadeh Moaveni is a former Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and author of ‘Lipstick Jihad’ (Public Affairs) and ‘Honeymoon in Tehran’ (Random House)

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