Ecco/HarperCollins, 303 pages
The world of the working journalist has never been more precarious.
Whether covering distant battles, treacherous regimes, or litigious corporate oligarchs, the stakes are higher than ever for correspondents and investigative reporters who take on dangerous assignments.
That’s part of what makes American journalist Jason Rezaian’s compelling new memoir, Prisoner, so important to the cause of those who speak truth to power despite the potential costs. The mild-mannered reporter wasn’t attempting to court danger, he was simply doing his job.
Although Rezaian displayed courage and tenacity during his 544 days confined to a tiny cell in an Iranian prison, enduring isolation and the cruel psychological games played by his captors, he didn’t seem to consider himself particularly adventurous. He’d covered intrigue-filled Iranian presidential elections in his time as the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, but if given the chance, he preferred writing human interest stories that showed citizens making the most of their daily lives. On a day in July 2014, he was talking with the operator of an American-style diner in the Iranian capital about serving chili dogs and sliders during Islam’s holiest month.
“It was the kind of story I loved doing,” writes Rezaian, the son of an Iranian-American rug merchant. “Food, and eating it, have always been a passion of mine and I had recently found ways to bring gastronomy into my coverage of Iran, but it was the incongruity of the various elements that attracted me. This sort of piece was my specialty.”
But a frantic call from his wife, journalist Yeganeh Rezaian, brought the conversation to a halt. “Someone’s trying to destroy our lives,” she told him. “You need to come home now.” Not long after, Rezaian and his wife of 15 months were taken by government agents and placed in solitary confinement on trumped-up charges.
Their living conditions in prison gradually improved, but Rezaian and his wife remained separated, forbidden to speak to each other for weeks at a time, as their captors used them like pawns in a political game with the United States.
“The odds are you will spend the rest of your life as our guest,” a guard calmly informed Rezaian, who was accused of being the head of CIA operations in Tehran. “You’ll never get out of here. So tell us everything.”
The fact he had nothing to tell was beside the point. It became clear early on that Rezaian’s capture was being exploited for a greater purpose of resolving a nearly four-decade-old dispute between the nations.
He learned that not only his family and newspaper were fighting for his release, but he’d become a cause célèbre in news and political circles leading all the way to the White House and President Barack Obama. Former Secretary of State John Kerry played a role in his release.
Born in San Rafael, California, Rezaian decided to move to Iran in 2009. Although he started working as a correspondent with the Post, he also considered starting an avocado farm in Iran. He formed a Kickstarter campaign to fund it and went back to writing articles on the tumultuous world of Iranian politics (and human-interest stories, when time permitted).
At a loss for genuine justification to imprison him, interrogators attempted to turn his thwarted avocado plan into something clandestine and threatening to the Iranian state. In a sham 2015 trial, Rezaian was convicted of espionage. Of his experience before the Iranian bar of justice, he observes, “Mine was a secret trial with no secrets.”
Along the way, Rezaian introduces us to Iranian operatives Kazem and Borzou, who worked daily in an attempt to break his spirit. Kazem specialized in offering crumbs of hope, then sweeping them away. Borzou, the closer, was more calculating and intellectual — and all the more chilling. And there was Rezvan, an interrogator in a Kangol cap, sunglasses, and a surgical mask to hide his face. He, too, worked Rezaian as the weeks passed and the negotiations continued.
After 544 days in prison, Rezaian finally won his release.
In the wake of last year’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the recent shooting deaths of three Russian reporters in the Central African Republic while they investigated a military company with links to the Kremlin, Jason Rezaian must count his blessings, despite the high price he paid for practicing his craft.
In a dangerous world for journalists, we are fortunate that he lived to tell this riveting tale.