US journalist's powerful memoir details his 544 days as prisoner in Iran

Jason Rezaian’s new book ‘Prisoner’ exposes internal struggle in Iran and the farcical accusations behind his imprisonment

Jason Rezaian with his wife Yeganeh Salehi, mother Mary Rezaian and brother Ali Rezaian. Courtesy Martin Baron / Washington Post/The Washington Post

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For 544 days, US journalist Jason Rezaian was mostly referred to as “sixty two,” his inmate number as he was held in Iranian captivity until his release in a bargain deal on January 16, 2016.

The former Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post writes in Prisoner, a powerful memoir, detailing the life of a hostage, the sham trial ran by Iranian judiciary to prolong his imprisonment, the inner rivalries within the government's most powerful apparatus, and the outlandish accusations he was subjected to.

The dehumanisation of Mr Rezaian started from the moment he was arrested on July 22, 2014 with his wife Yeganeh, in their apartment in Tehran, three days prior to their departure to the United States.

Blindfolded, threatened, not granted a lawyer and urged to plead guilty, Mr Rezaian’s world turned upside down as his accusers labelled him a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Their damning “evidence” included a 2010 crowdfunding campaign he launched to grow avocados in Iran, a story he wrote about an Iranian video clip for Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy,” and another about baseball.

Even as he details his 50 days in solitary confinement – out of a total of 18 months in the infamous Evin prison – Mr Rezaian's sense of humour and mental stamina shines throughout the book. In a country that is known for its notorious record of taking, torturing and sometimes executing hostages, Prisoner provides an intimate firsthand account of what happens behind Iran's prison walls, and offers an extraordinary raw narrative of the relation between a prisoner and his guards.

As he recounts his moments with an interrogator we come to know as Kazem, one can’t but sense the human connection and surreal friendship that develops between the two men who were both in their 30s. Kazem had a fascination with America, with actor Will Smith,  even as he threatened Jason with execution when he does not admit to spying. Mr Rezaian had a strong connection to Iran, as an American-Iranian himself and a believer in Iranian society and its ability to make change.

With Iran marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Prisoner sheds light on the internal power struggle and divide in the country. It exposes the isolation of those in power from the rest of the world, and their attachment to myths that they created to sustain their own worldview.

“Jason you have spent lot of time in Dubai, we know that…we know about everything that happens there,” Kazem tells his prisoner in one of their meetings.

“Tell me what you think you know about Dubai and me,” Mr Rezaian, bewildered, responds.

“In Dubai there are hotels. And at those hotels there are swimming pools. We know all about it,” said Kazem, throwing another farcical accusation of leading a “dirty life” at his captive.

Mr Rezaian could have pleaded guilty and perhaps may have been released earlier, but he tells The National that he just wanted to stick with the truth, that he was a journalist doing his job and never a spy.

While he was not subjected directly to physical torture, Mr Rezaian recounts his days in solitary confinement, his illnesses that were ignored, losing more than 18 kilograms in 40 days as examples of mental torture.

Asked if he would go back to Iran, Mr Rezaian said the relation with his home country “is forever altered”.

“I can’t imagine I would be able to return, unless there were drastic changes” he said, something he suspects that those in power, his former captors, will unlikely take.

His book was released in January in the United States by Harper Collins. The journalist now lives with his wife Yegi in Washington, continues to work for The Washington Post, and is still fan of telling the truth and avocados.