I’ve been wanting to write about my recent trip to Iran, but it was such a wonderful, mind-blowing experience, with so many facets, that it has been challenging to know where to start. Unfortunately last week I got the kick in the pants that I needed to start writing: my good friend Jason Rezaian, an American citizen and the Tehran correspondent for the Washington Post, was taken into custody in Iran on charges of spying.
I really got to know Jason during my trip to Iran. We first started talking in June of last year, after he read my essay in the Wall Street Journal about wanting to reclaim my Iranian heritage. After reaching out to me on twitter, he sent me this email from Tehran, where he has been living and writing for the past five years:
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I was really happy to read your piece in the Journal and also learn about your cookbook. I remembered I had seen something about it, on Facebook I think, a couple months back.
My dad came to the US around the same time as yours, and I grew up just outside of San Francisco. I’ve been living in Tehran for the past four years, and had been coming on and off before that since 2001.
One of the reasons I wanted to reach out was it sounded like you haven’t been here before. Without prying into why, I just wanted to offer any help in that that I can, because I’m a strong proponent of first generation or hyphenated Iranians living in the US coming back to experience this place for themselves. I got from that short piece that you really want to do that, but there are things holding you back or making it impossible.
So basically I want to encourage you to try and come if you can…
It was the voice of a kindred spirit. At that time, I was still in the middle of my struggle to get my Iranian passport. We met up that fall in New York, when he was back in the States for a visit. We talked about how fun it would be if I finally got to go to the Motherland, and the lovably strange things I would encounter there. I had already been waiting so long, it was hard to believe it would ever happen. Jason had been through the same process, and had words of encouragement:
“Don’t worry. Your passport will come through when you least expect it, and it will be at the perfect time. Trust me.”
When I did receive my passport that November, I immediately emailed Jason, and we started making plans for my trip. With his help and the assistance of his friend’s tour agency, we booked local guides, airplane tickets, drivers, and hotel rooms, so I could taste food and cook with people in different regions of Iran, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.
On my second day in Iran, I met up with Jason at Tajrish Bazaar in the North of Tehran, a beautiful covered market with bright displays of young, crisp, green almonds in the shell, dried borage flowers and rose buds, and buckets of sour torshi pickle. I spent the morning wandering around in awe with my sweet cousins, then Jason came to meet me for lunch. My cousin Parvaneh, a friend and soulmate whom I often referred to as my “guardian angel” in Iran, immediately pulled him aside and started scolding him in Farsi, insisting that he change my travel plans because there was no way I would be able to complete such an ambitious agenda. Jason smiled and took it in stride, he understood after all these years living there that Iranians don’t have the same kinds of boundaries that we do, and that they are fiercely protective when it comes to family.
With apologies and smiles, we managed to escape, and Jason led me through the twists and turns of the bazaar to a humble restaurant where we ordered lamb kebab, chicken stew, and rice cooked with dill and the fava beans that were in high season just then. He said it was the kind of place that tourists love to come to, because it’s so authentic, but that your own family would never take you to because it’s not fancy enough. Over the fresh, simple food, we talked about the particulars of my upcoming tour around Iran. When a line started to form at the door, it was time to give up our seats, and pay the few dollars we owed for the food. Then he walked me all the way back to my aunt’s house where I was staying because there was no way in hell that I was going to find it myself among the massive and ever-growing sprawl of Tehran’s streets.
My agenda over the coming weeks was seat-of-the-pants, and sometimes I would arrive ina new town and know that I only wanted to stay for 24 hours, or decide I wanted an extra day, like in Esfahan. I would call or text Jason from my crappy temporary cellphone, and as soon as he met whatever story deadline he was on, he would make the necessary arrangements. What resulted was a trip where I had lots of unexpected adventures, from cooking with my guide’s mom in Gilan Province, to shopping at an herbal pharmacy with my driver’s mom in Shiraz, to smoking a water pipe and eating spicy samosas on the beach with my hosts at the Persian Gulf.
One night when I was back in Tehran, I came to Jason’s apartment to meet his Iranian wife Yeganeh, also a journalist, and some of their friends. Their home had large, generous dimensions, but with a cozy feeling evoked by the crafts and warmly colored Persian rugs everywhere. When some of the party wanted a smoke, we all stepped out onto the wide balcony to enjoy the breeze. Yeganeh spoke disarmingly perfect English, and over dinner we joked and told stories about the cultural differences between Iranian and American men. Our meal that night, lamb and split pea stew topped with crunchy potato sticks, and a northern Iranian style white bean and herb casserole, had been prepared by Yeganeh’s mom, a proud and accomplished cook who purportedly wanted to have a Top Chef-style showdown with me. Around midnight, the party wrapped up because Yeganeh had a story to finish, and I headed home with the hopes of seeing she and Jason again soon, but that was the last time.
Jason and I were due to have a Skype session rehash of the trip after I got home, but he got really busy with the Iran nuclear talks that were taking place in Vienna. He assured me that if we didn’t get a chance to talk, he and Yeganeh would be back in the States for a visit starting today. Unfortunately they were arrested along with two freelance photographers, also US citizens, before they could make the trip.
I have no idea why Jason was arrested. He has encouraged everyone from me to Anthony Bourdain to Andrew Zimmern to come visit, and to share the real story about Iran’s rich culture and food traditions, and kind and curious people, with the world. Iran’s Chief Justice said that the journalists were being questioned, but did not give a reason for the arrest. The judiciary is now in the midst of “technical investigations”, and said Iranian security is “vigilant towards all kinds of enemies’ activities.” If you met Jason and Yeganeh, you would be gagging at this doublespeak as much as I am.
I was sad to read today that Jason and Yeganeh’s home “looked like a scene from hell” after it was raided and the arrests were made on the night of July 22. The agents who invaded their home confiscated personal belongings like laptops, books, and notes, says the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Apparently the accused were most likely taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where accused political dissidents are held, questioned, and tortured. For a good idea of what it’s like in Evin, here’s an Op-Ed published today in the Washington Post by Maziar Bahiar, who was famously imprisoned there after taking part in a Daily Show skit. Children of the Jacaranda Tree, a fictionalized account of Evin by author Sahar Delijani, who was actually born inside Evin, will also give you a good idea of what it’s like.
Jason is a well respected and well known journalist, so I’m sure there are a number of people working behind the scenes to secure his release and that of the others arrested. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too much longer.
I’ve read several opinions that say the arrest of Jason and other journalists in the last few months is an attempt by Iran’s hardliners to disrupt the nuclear negotiations, and the diplomatic progress that newly elected president Rouhani has been making. There is a battle in Iran between those who want to open the country up to the outside world, and those who want to keep it locked down. I hope that progress and freedom will win out. To quote Jasmin Ramsey, editor of the US Mideast Policy site Lobelog, Jason’s arrest is a “Terrible reminder that the Iran we want is not the Iran we have.” Yet.