Maziar Bahari's journey from solitary confinement in Iran's most notorious prison to exile to cracking jokes with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show is an unlikely one. It becomes all the more so once you factor in the fact that America's retiring satirist-in-chief has directed a film – Rosewater – of the Canadian-Iranian journalist's story, which was released in the UK last Friday. Sipping water during my interview with him in the kind of London hotel frequented by either shipping magnates or people with a film to promote, the affable Bahari seemed fairly matter-of-fact, given the utter strangeness of his story.
In 2009, the London-based Bahari was in Teheran to cover that year's presidential elections for Newsweek and Panorama. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's unconvincingly large victory over the reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi was alleged to be based on "irregularities" (Admedinejad was accused of everything from ballot stuffing to torching his rival's campaign office), the country erupted in its largest spasm of street protest since 1979. The protests turned violent (which Bahari blames on agents provocateurs), and the Iranian regime embarked on a major clampdown, shooting dozens and arresting thousands, as well as placing major bars on both domestic and foreign media. Ten days after the election, they came for Bahari, accusing him of being a Western spy.
Weirdly, a key piece of evidence they used was Bahari's part in a Daily Show gag, where he talked to a "correspondent" decked out in spoof CIA gear pretending to be a dumb Yank asking stuff about why Iran is so "evil". The regime had taken, or was choosing to take, the satire as reality. All this gave a special piquancy to Bahari's own appearance on the showafter his release, with Jon Stewart going further and making film about his ordeal. This should, as if there was any doubt, confirm that Stewart is a good guy.
VICE: What had you been doing immediately before you were arrested?
Maziar Bahari: I had been covering a very violent day of protest on the 20th of June 2009, and I was really tired at the end of the day, so I thought I should have a few glasses of whiskey to go to sleep – I'd brought some illegal whiskey with me. I took a few glasses and I went and had a very deep sleep. I was somehow woken up by this mixture of sweat and rosewater smell, and I didn't know what was going on. I was staying my mother at the time, and she said, "You have a guest – these men are here to take you away."
Did you get the full Gestapo treatment?
They were very harsh, but relatively polite. I thought they would be more impolite. As soon as I protested even a little bit, the guy who was leading the team said, "OK, sit down and stop talking shit." It's quite mundane, it's quite institutional. People are arrested very peacefully usually, there's no kicking or beating unless you resist. I thought I was innocent and that I could prove my innocence instantly, so there was no resistance.
What was your interrogation like?
It was surreal. They have this surreal fascination with sex. The way they see western culture is mainly through pornography, and I think sometimes they confuse it with documentaries. They think in the West everyone has sex with the delivery guy or the milkman. For them, my relationship with my colleagues had to be in the context of having sex with them. They kept asking if I'd had sex with people I interviewed. It's not only my experience – everyone who comes out of Iranian prison says the same thing. I think Dr Freud would have a field day with the Iranian government.
How long did they hold you for?
I remember when I got into prison, I thought I would get out in a week and write an article about my week in an Iranian prison. Then it became two weeks, then three and then 107 days.
Like hearing about journalists getting in scrapes? Watch out video about a journalist getting kidnapped by a Columbian Guerrilla Army and check out our series, Correspondent Confidential:
Why do you think they arrested you?
They don't think that a democratic system works differently than in Iran. They control most of the media in Iran, TV and newspapers and news agencies, and don't get that western media is independent. I had an interview with somebody named Nicholas Burns who was a spokesperson for the US government during the Clinton years. Burns went to Harvard and wrote an article for Newsweek, so they made up this chain of connection between me and the US government. They add one and one and one and one and get 1,111, not four. They don't grasp the differences in the systems.
Were you tortured?
I was in solitary confinement for 107 days. It's standard operating procedure. Whenever I tell people, they ask me if I was also tortured, I find the question redundant, because that is the worst kind of torture. There were beatings, sure, but if you put physical pressure on people, it puts people into a Nirvana kind of place where they can find extra strength in themselves. But if you're in solitary, you can be manipulated and become confused and become suicidal at times. You just lose control. I had nothing to do in prison, I asked for books and they gave me the Koran and a prayer book and that was it.
That's surprising – we have this image of these prisons as like medieval dungeons.
What I realised eventually was that when they arrested me, it was the worst point for the government and they were scared and paranoid, and they got physical. They don't get physical with that many people, but I was at the wrong place in the wrong time, so they were showing their frustration by beating me. I talk to a lot of people who've been in prison, and most don't get much, but some get far worse and are tortured physically. People get bottles up their asses, raped, that kind of thing – these are anomalies, because you can't sustain it. In Iran they have psychological torture because they can sustain it. It's been sustainable for 30, 35 years now.
What kind of relationship did you have with your interrogators?
My main interrogator, I could see a sliver through the blindfold, so I could see what kind of shoes they were wearing. That said a lot. They were wearing slippers most of the time, brown slippers, sleek and brown, but other guys were wearing dirty plastic slippers. But also the kind of words they were using, the kind of language they were using, that showed me what kind of people they were – these weren't the cleverest of the bunch. They realised I wasn't going to confess and they didn't know what I was going to do, and my conversations with my interrogator just became surreal. We talked about massages and things like that. He was telling me stories about his life as well.
When you were eventually released – after an international campaign that roped in Hillary Clinton – how did it feel to go into exile?
It was difficult to leave the country, I knew it would be a long life in exile. My mother was crying, and I knew I couldn't go back for a long time. I've been sentenced to 16 and a half years and 74 lashes in absentia, but I don't take it seriously. I accept I can't go back to Iran.
With Iran moving towards greater co-operation with the West, what future do you think the regime has?
It's here to stay for a while, but there will be some sort of change. The situation isn't tenable economically or politically. I don't really think regime change is that important – it's about changes in the people – the people who support the regime and keep it in power. It works both ways, too. Many people in Iran think of western democracy as being just like porn movies, the way people in the west think Iranians ride camels. I think ignorance is universal, and I don't know how that can be helped other than promoting the free flow of information.
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