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A Year Later, Journalist Reflects On Iranian Unrest
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today marks the first anniversary of the peaceful protests in Iran
challenging the results of the disputed presidential election, which
kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. But my guest's grim anniversary is
six days away.
On June 21st last year, Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari was
arrested in Tehran while covering the demonstrations. He was sent to
Evin Prison, which is notorious for torturing political prisoners. His
interrogator, a member of the Revolutionary Guard, accused him of many
things, some of them pretty ludicrous. For instance, the interrogator
used an interview Bahari did with one of the correspondents for "The
Daily Show," Jason Jones, as an example of Bahari's association with a
Bahari was repeatedly beaten. He was released after 118 days because of
international pressure. Nine days later, his wife gave birth to their
only child. Bahari grew up in Tehran and moved to Canada in 1988 to
study film. A decade later he returned to Iran, where he made
documentaries and covered Iran for Newsweek. He now lives in London,
where he continues to write about Iran. He spoke to me from the BBC in
Maziar Bahari, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm so glad that you are free. It
was so upsetting when you were imprisoned.
Mr. MAZIAR BAHARI (Journalist): It's nice to be here.
GROSS: This is the anniversary of the start of the protests in Iran
after the election. Do you feel viscerally the approach of the
anniversary of your imprisonment in Iran?
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah. I mean, I inevitably have to think about the
anniversary of my arrest in Iran as well, because as much as I was proud
to be Iranian on the 15th of June, 2009, I got worried about the future
of the country on the 19th of June, 2009, when the supreme leader of
Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who people thought he was a pragmatic
leader who was thinking about his own survival, would accept the voice
of the people who came to the streets and wanted a recount of the votes.
But Khamenei did not do that. Khamenei told the people to go back home,
or they have to pay the price of the violence and the consequences of
And on the 19th of June, when Khamenei delivered that sermon in the
Friday prayers, Iran entered a new phase, and Iran became a quasi-
military dictatorship, like many other military dictatorships in the
Middle East, from a theocracy. And one year later, we cannot talk about
Islamic Republic of Iran as an Islamic government, as a theocracy. We
have to talk about it as a quasi-military dictatorship.
GROSS: While you were in prison, your interrogator told you that they
could find you anywhere. He said we can put people in a bag no matter
where in the world they are. No one can escape from us. And his last
words to you, just before you were released, were: Remember the bag.
Mr. BAHARI: Yes, yeah.
GROSS: So does that haunt you at moments like this, when you're speaking
about the Iranian government and the opposition movement and speaking
about your imprisonment?
Mr. BAHARI: Well, only in the moments like this when the interviewer
reminds me of that, it haunts me, but I try not to think about it on a
day-to-day basis, and I try not to let them win and take over my life,
even though I am living thousands of miles away from Iran.
That is the strategy of the Iranian government. The Iranian government
wants to tell its citizens that we are in control of every aspect of
your life, no matter where you are. And also, it's part of the bullying
characteristic of the Islamic government, and it's not only the Iranian
people that the Islamic government bullies. It bullies the international
community as well, through programs such as the nuclear program.
But to me personally, not talking about my experience, allowing them to
haunt me on a day-to-day basis, it would mean a defeat for me, a
personal defeat, and I cannot allow them to defeat me.
GROSS: In March of 2010, which was months after you were released, you
were released October 2009, so in March you were sentenced to 13 years
and six months in prison, plus 74 lashes.
Mr. BAHARI: Yes.
GROSS: What was the point of sentencing you after you were already
Mr. BAHARI: Well, they released me on bail. Before I was released, they
asked me to sign a paper saying that when I leave Iran, I am going to
cooperate with the government and I am going to spy for the government,
and the first thing I did when I arrived in London was to send them an
email, to the email address they provided for me, that I have never
spied for anyone and I'm not going to start spying for you.
And that really bothered them. And then not immediately but within a
month after my release, I started talking about my experience and the
torture, psychological and physical torture I had been through, and also
I started a campaign with the help of Committee to Protect Journalists
and many other international organizations in support of other
journalists who are imprisoned in Iran because, as you know, more than
100 journalists have been detained since the election, re-election of
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, 2009, and many hundreds are in exile.
So I started a campaign in support of those journalists, and they did
not like that at all. So they kept on threatening me through my family
members, and sometimes they even called me in London, and I just had it.
In think in March I just made those threats public, and I told all the
different networks that the Iranian government is threatening me, and it
was - there was an international condemnation of those threats, and
within a few days they passed this sentence.
The sentence was supposed to scare me because the Iranian government was
planning to start this international court for Iranians in the diaspora.
And also the sentence was supposed to scare many other journalists and
filmmakers who were working in Iran, that if you do something on the
anniversary of the election, this kind of sentence can happen to you.
GROSS: Is your mother still in Iran, and do you worry about her if she
Mr. BAHARI: My mother is still in Iran, and my extended family is in
Iran as well. I worry about them on a day-to-day basis, but
traditionally the Iranian government has never touched the families and
relatives of the people they regard as the opposition, with a few
exceptions, of course.
But the Iranian government is not known for its predictability. So I
wonder when and if they are going to bother my family. But again, that's
part of their control mechanism, that they want to threaten you through
threatening your family and make you feel always fearful of what they're
going to do to your family.
So again, I don't want them to control me through my family, and I don't
think that my family will be very happy with me if I stop talking about
the atrocities that the Iranian government is committing now.
GROSS: We were talking about how you were sentenced in March, even
though you were released months before that, last October - I mean in
October of 2009. And you were sentenced for some things during that
sentencing in March, it was â you were accused of other things they were
- when you were arrested.
And some of them were kind of predictable, you know, like being a spy
and, you know, inciting riots and things like that. Some of the charges
were kind of bizarre. Like one of them was for a photo that was on your
Facebook page. Would you describe that?
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah, it was not even mine. Yeah, it was not even my photo.
It was a photo that was tagged on my page. And most people who know
Facebook, they know that you have no control over what people tag on
And it was a photo of Ahmadinejad kissing a boy, and it was a photo that
I think it was taken two or three years before that. And one day my
interrogator said that - who put this photo on your Facebook? And I said
I don't know. And he said: How come you don't know? I mean, this is your
Facebook page. So you must know.
And I mean, I have to say that they were beating me while they were
asking those questions. So I was getting beaten, and I was being asked
these idiotic questions, and I said, sir, it doesn't have to do anything
with me. It's like if someone throws something into your house, are you
responsible for that? You know, it's exactly the same thing.
But the man didn't know anything about Facebook. So there was no way I
could explain to him. And then he said that through this photo you are
saying that Mr. Ahmadinejad is a homosexual, so you're insulting him.
And as a result I received a six-month sentence.
And I mean, I'm laughing now in the comfort of a London studio...
GROSS: That's because I'm not beating you. I mean, really.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: Exactly, yeah. And â but many of my colleagues are suffering
because of this stupid, idiotic thinking of the Iranian government and
their captors, and that is the tragedy of Iran, that a country with many
educated people, many intelligent people, is almost hijacked by a group
of thugs who are running the country right now.
GROSS: You were also charged with being in contact with Jews and
Israelis. Is it illegal to be in contact with Jews?
Mr. BAHARI: Well, you know that Jewish episode of my imprisonment, it
was just so bizarre. I'm a member of two fan(ph) books on Facebook, and
one of them is Anton Chekhov. The other one is Pauly Shore, but I'm not
going to talk about that one. One of them is Anton Chekov.
And one day my interrogator asked me: Who is Anton Chekhov? I said,
well, he is a Russian playwright from the late 19th century, early 20th
century. What does he write about? I said, you know, about existential
subjects, about people's day-to-day problems. It's a - he's a very good
writer. And he said: Was he a Jew?
I said: Well, I'm not sure whether Chekhov was a Jew or not, but, you
know, there were many Jewish intellectuals at that time. Maybe he was.
Maybe he was not. I'm not really sure whether Chekhov was.
And he said: No, no, no, I'm sure that Chekhov was a Zionist. We have to
investigate. So you know, they went and investigate Anton Chekhov during
my interrogation, and you know, they were accusing me of supporting the
Zionists because I was a member of an Anton Chekhov fan club on
And then when they found out that I had made a film about the Jewish
Holocaust, and I may be the only Iranian filmmaker or Muslim filmmaker
who's ever made a film about the Holocaust, they thought that, you know,
that's it, that they have found a Zionist spy, and, you know, I received
a lot of beatings and torture because of that.
But it was not part of my sentence. You know, most of the things that
they accused me of, it was not brought up in my sentence because they
were all false. There is no talk of espionage in my sentence, for
example, because they didn't have any proof, because I was not a spy.
And, you know, so they had to resort to this really idiotic evidence
that they thought they had.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maziar Bahari. He covers
Iran for Newsweek. He is Iranian-Canadian. He was imprisoned in June of
last year, after covering the protests that followed the Iranian
election. He was in Evin Prison, which is notorious for its mistreatment
of political prisoners. He spent 118 days in prison.
We'll take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Maziar Bahari, who covers Iran for Newsweek. He was
arrested in Iran while covering the demonstrations one year ago. He was
imprisoned for 118 days in the notorious Evin Prison, and nine days
after he was released his baby was born. He now lives in London.
You were also accused when you were in prison of improper sexual
conduct, and it sounds like your interrogator, after accusing you of
improper sexual conduct, enjoyed nothing better than trying to get you
to talk about sex.
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah. You know, my interrogator, you know, after a few days
I realized that, you know, my interrogator was a human being. He was not
a very good human being, he would not be a human being that I would be
friends with, but he was a human being, and that man, he spends most of
his time in a dark room, in a small room, beating people, insulting
people, and interrogating people.
And sometimes he would receive calls from his wife, and he was just
tired. He was very gentle and very nice on the phone with his wife, but
the wife was apparently, was evidently always complaining about him not
coming home, and he was always making different excuses that, okay, I
have to finish this guy, and then I promise I'll come home, and we
GROSS: That's so bizarre, and I'm trying â wait, wait, hang on. I'm
trying to think of what that's like. He's beating you. Then he's talking
to his wife and having, you know, a husband-wife kind of conversation.
He's saying I can't make it home because I have to finish beating this
guy, and this guy is you.
Mr. BAHARI: You know, he was a master of a schizophrenic personality.
You know, his body was doing something and his voice was totally doing
something else. For example, one day he was squeezing my ear in his
hand, and he was punching me in the head, and then at the same time he
had the phone in his hand, and you know, and he was talking lovingly to
his wife. He was really gentle and very nice to his wife, and you know,
while beating me.
And I think the fact that he could not be with his wife and the fact
that he was in that really claustrophobic atmosphere, that made sex into
such an important subject for him, and he was going through all my email
contacts, all my Facebook friends, all my even mobile cell phone
contacts, and he was asking about each individual, if I had sex with
them or not.
For example, he was asking me about Shirin Ebadi, you know, the Nobel
Peace laureate, the human rights lawyer, and he said: Did you have sex
with Shirin Ebadi? I said no, I did not have sex with Shirin Ebadi.
She's, like, she's 70 years old.
But he said: You have three phone numbers for her. I said yes, I have
three numbers. I have 10 numbers for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Like what does
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: And then, you know, of course he would not like me to talk
back, and the beating would continue. So, yeah, I mean, I can easily say
that I was maybe beaten up and tortured for about one month just because
of his sexual accusations.
GROSS: Do you think that that kind of sexual obsession and beating of
you is an example of what happens when a culture is so sexually
Mr. BAHARI: It is, and, you know, it is about ignorance, and it's about
suppression, and it's about being isolated from the rest of the world
and the rest of the people as well.
You know, to him I was eating the forbidden fruit on the Earth. I was
supposed to â I was - like him, I was supposed to wait until my death,
go to paradise, and then I could have sex with as many women and men as
I wanted, I could drink wine or whatever. And he thought that, you know,
people should not exercise that on the Earth. Otherwise they were
So he hated me because I, you know, I was eating the forbidden fruit on
the Earth, and he was also jealous at the same time. And, you know,
because people in Iran, they have satellite dishes, and even in the most
religious traditional families, they watch satellite television that's
beamed from the United States mainly. They have some ideas about the
And he had this fascination with the state of New Jersey. So to him, New
Jersey was that paradise. I'm not sure why he had that fascination with
New Jersey. Maybe he was a big fan of "Jersey Shore" or something. I
never found out, really.
GROSS: Well, explain how he used that in his questions to you.
Mr. BAHARI: Well, you know, in the beginning he told me that you wanted
to create a New Jersey Islam in Iran. And I was wondering: What is New
Jersey Islam? He said you wanted to create a New Jersey Islam in Iran,
an Islam with Michael Jackson music and people having sex with each
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: I was like, oh my God, that would be a really weird place to
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: But then after a while, after the beatings and after all the
torture finished, and he wanted to release me - because 20 days before
my release, he started being nice to me. And because of the
international pressure, they wanted to release me but they wanted to
have certain conditions before my release.
And during the last 20 days, we would just talk about different things,
and I could see that he had that fascination with New Jersey, and he
would ask me: So what are the main cities in New Jersey? And what about
health care in New Jersey? Are there any Jews?
GROSS: So odd. Are there any Jews in New Jersey?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah, he asked me once: Are there any Jews in New Jersey?
When I said that, yes, there are many Jews in New Jersey, he was
surprised because he thought that such a nice place, there shouldn't be
any Jews in such a nice place.
But yeah, but that was the â I mean, it was just a bizarre - it was
really a comedy of horrors, and I can laugh about it again now in
London, after - a month after my release, but during that time, in a
small dark room with a big man beating you up and kicking you and
insulting you, it was not very funny.
Mr. BAHARI: And it's not funny even now because these are the people who
are running the country. I mean, don't think that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is
much different from my interrogator. In fact, my interrogator was
sometimes very critical of Ahmadinejad and his radical policies, and he
would say: Wwhy did Ahmadinejad say this, why did Ahmadinejad â so in a
sense, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is even more ignorant than my interrogator,
and that is really scary because Iran is a very powerful country. Iran
is on the brink of, I think, a nuclear weapon, and being run by these
people, it makes it very dangerous.
GROSS: My guest, Maziar Bahari, will talk more about his 118 days in
prison in the second half of the show. He's a Newsweek correspondent who
was arrested in Tehran one year ago, while covering the protests against
the disputed results of the presidential election. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Newsweek
correspondent Maziar Bahari.
One year ago, while covering the protests in Tehran against the disputed
results of the presidential election which kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in
power, Bahari was arrested and sent to Evin Prison, which is notorious
for torturing political prisoners. Bahari was repeatedly beaten during
his 118 days in prison. After he was released, he was sentenced in
absentia to 13 years and six months in prison, plus 74 lashes. Bahari
grew up in Iran, studied filmmaking in Canada and now lives in London,
where he continues to write about Iran.
You've described your imprisonment, in a way, as a comedy of horrors
because the questions you were asked, the things you were charged with
were so absurd. But your torturer had no sense of humor at all. I mean,
not anyways applied to anything in your life in what he was accusing you
of. And his knowledge of America, his knowledge of Facebook, his
knowledge of everything he was accusing you of was so - well,
Mr. BAHARI: Limited. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So just to kind of prove that, part of the evidence that
was used against you was your interview with Jason Jones, a
correspondent for "The Daily Show," who happened to be in Iran just a
few days before the election and a few days before all of the protests.
And he was there to do these kind of funny reports about, you know, how
he's going to show what villains the Iranians are and how all Iranians
hate Americans. And, of course, every Iranian he spoke to was talking
about no, no, no. We really like America. No, no. We don't hate America.
And then he interviewed a few experts, you know, about Iranian-American
relations, and you were one of those experts. So I want to play the
interview he did with you, and then we'll talk about how your
interrogator used this interview when you were in prison.
Mr. BAHARI: Sure.
GROSS: And I should mention, Jason Jones - actually, you describe how
Jason Jones was dressed for this report.
Mr. BAHARI: Jason was dressed in a Palestinian kafia scarf and had
sunglasses. He basically looked like a bad spy in a B movie. And he
pretended to be a redneck American who didn't know anything about Iran
and anything about the Middle East or Islam, and had all these
stereotypes. And I was supposed to give him answers that, you know, that
was so different from his prejudgments.
GROSS: Okay. So here, you're both at a coffee shop. And when this
starts, Jason Jones is at a table looking for you and waiting for you.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")
Mr. JASON JONES: (Actor, comedian): We headed to a coffee shop off Azadi
Square for a clandestine meeting with Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari.
I was told he'd go by the code name Pistachio and I would recognize him
by - oh, I didn't see you there.
I asked him the question on every Westerner's mind: Why was his country
Mr. BAHARI: In one word: misunderstanding. The truths are(ph) is they
don't understand each other. They don't know the values of the other
side. They don't know how to talk to the other side. And actually, I've
written about that for Newsweek magazine several times.
Mr. JONES: I didn't understand a word of that. Mahmoud, can you
translate this for me please?
MAHMOUD (Translator): Yes. He's saying that he's written about this
problem that you have in Newsweek magazine, and you can read about it.
Mr. JONES: Okay. What did he say?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: He said that I said I've written about it for Newsweek
magazine several times.
Mr. JONES: I'm going to need someone who speaks English.
The one thing I could understand was that this entire country is evil.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAHARI: The first thing to know about Iran is that it's not evil.
Iranians and Americans, they have much more in common than they have
Mr. JONES: But what do I have in common with you?
Mr. BAHARI: Who is number enemy of the United States?
Mr. JONES: Al-Qaida.
Mr. BAHARI: Al-Qaida is also the number one enemy of Iran. According to
al-Qaida members, any Shia, any Iranian, has to be killed. And if you
kill an Iranian, you will go to heaven and you will have 72 virgins.
Mr. JONES: Enough of his Western-educated, Newsweek doublespeak.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay, that was Jason Jones from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"
one year ago interviewing my guest, Maziar Bahari. And not long after
that interview, Maziar Bahari was arrested in Iran for 118 days. He
spent 118 days in Evin Prison.
And how was this video, this "Daily Show" video used against you by your
interrogator when you were in prison?
Mr. BAHARI: On the first day when they arrested me, they told me that
they knew I was working for four different intelligence agencies: the
CIA, Israeli Mossad, MI6 and Newsweek magazine. But my guess at this
point is that, in the absence of any evidence to prove that I was a spy,
they were just desperate. They wanted to find some sort of evidence that
proved I was a spy. And I'm sure that someone in the U.S. or someone in
Iran who filmed "The Daily Show" - that sketch with Jason Jones and me -
and sent it to them and said that this is this guy who says that Iran
and America, they have a lot in common. And he's talking to a spy.
And I have to also mention that maybe a couple of days before that
interview, I met with Jason Jones and his producer in a hotel where I
was editing a documentary, and I gave them a list of people they could
talk with. And, you know, I was being followed by the Revolutionary
Guard at that time. So I think they just put all this different
circumstantial evidence together and they said, well, if Jason Jones
looks like a spy, if this guy gives different names to people, then he
must be a spy. And, you know, it just it was so emblematic of this
paranoid thinking that they had and, you know, that it didn't even allow
them to listen to the laugh track on "The Daily Show."
So they said that well, why did you talk to this spy? I mean, if he says
that he's a spy, if he looks like a spy, then he must be a spy.
GROSS: Now, your father spent four years in prison under the Shah.
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah.
GROSS: And you wrote that your father never asked for mercy. And he
wondered what he - you wondered what he'd think of you signing a
confession, as fake as that confession was, as limited as that
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you talk about that a little bit?
Mr. BAHARI: Well, my father was a member of the Communist Party of Iran,
and he was a political activist. And he had a political ideal and he was
also tortured in the 50s after the CIA-backed coup in 1953. And he -
according to him and his friends - never revealed the identity of his
comrades. And my situation was totally different because I never liked
politics. I never wanted to be part of a political group. I'm a cynic. I
don't believe in anything. And for me, it was just bizarre that even
though I had tried all my life not to be in prison, not to confront the
authorities about anything, they still could not tolerate someone who
was as mild and peaceful as I was.
And it just - it was mindboggling. And, of course, I was thinking about
my father and my father's ideals, which I did not believe in. But I -
when I confronted the - my torturer, I could not not think that my
father was tortured by the same kind of person - working for another
regime, of course, but the same kind of ignorant person.
GROSS: So when did you decide that, okay, I'm going to give a
confession, a limited confession? How long did you hold out, and when
did you decide that it would be better for you to give some kind of
Mr. BAHARI: After they accused me of espionage, they said that one night
they took me to a room and they told me that we're going to charge you
with espionage. And unlike any other judicial process, in espionage
cases, you have to prove you're innocent. Otherwise, you're guilty. And
the guy - who was different from my interrogator. He was my
interrogator's boss, I think. He said that the investigation may take
six or seven years, and at the end of six or seven years, we may find
that you are not a spy. And we'll say that we are sorry, and we'll just
let you go. Or if we find that you're a spy, we're going to execute you.
So I had a very limited choice. I had to do a confession, or I had to be
charged with espionage.
GROSS: So, at that point, you figured, do the confession.
Mr. BAHARI: Yes.
GROSS: But did the confession get you out of prison, or was it the
international pressure that got you out of prison?
Mr. BAHARI: No, no. It was the international pressure, definitely. I
think my colleagues in Newsweek, in Washington Post Company, in Channel
4 news in the UK, and especially my wife Paola, they campaigned for me
tirelessly. And it was just amazing. When I came out, I realized what an
amazing job they had done, and I never can thank them enough. But it was
the international pressure and it was the comments made by different
officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many other
officials around the world who talked about my case in private,
sometimes, to the Iranian officials.
So it was an amazing job that my friends and colleagues in Newsweek and
other places did for me, and that led to my release. And that's why I
think that I have to do the same thing for hundreds of people who do not
have the same opportunity as I had while I was in prison. I have to be
their voice, and I have to talk on their behalf.
GROSS: Your wife gave birth to, I think, your first child...
Mr. BAHARI: Yes.
GROSS: ...nine days after you got out of prison.
Mr. BAHARI: Yeah.
GROSS: That must've been just such an amazing experience for you.
Mr. BAHARI: Oh, it was. You know, I - while I was in prison, I was
always thinking that the day that my daughter was going to be born, it
could be the best day of my life or it could be the worst day of my life
if I'm not going to be with Paola in London. And fortunately, it was the
best day of my life, because I was with Paola. But it was - I mean,
Paola had to suffer through a lot because of what the Iranian government
did to me.
GROSS: It appears that as long as this regime is in power, you cannot go
back to Iran. It sounds pretty certain like you'd be arrested the moment
you set foot there. How - what does it mean to you to know that for an
indefinite amount of time - maybe never - will you be able to go back?
Mr. BAHARI: I mean, it makes me really sad. And it makes me really sad
for my daughter because I really - Paola and I, we were planning to go
to Iran next year and so Paola could see Iran. Paola's never been to
Iran, either. But - and I really wanted my daughter to be able to go to
Iran to visit her family in Iran, but it's not possible. And - but it's
something that I have to deal with.
I always tell people it's like being in an accident and some drunk
driver has made me handicapped. And I have to live with my handicap. So,
you know, not being able to go back to Iran is like that for me. It's a
big damage to my life, but I have to live with it because if I go back
to Iran, I will be imprisoned, and who knows what's going to happen to
GROSS: My guest is Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari. He was arrested
one year ago in Tehran while covering the protest against the disputed
presidential election. He spent 118 days in Evin Prison.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Maziar Bahari. He covers Iran for Newsweek. And he
was arrested in Iran a year ago while covering the protests against the
election results. He spent 118 days in prison, where he was tortured.
And he's now based in London, where he continues to cover Iran for
On the night of June 20th last year, right before you were arrested, you
wrote your editors in America at Newsweek: This is the beginning of the
end of the Islam Republic as we know it. I don't know how long it's
going to take for the Islamic regime to fall. Khamenei has learned many
lessons from the Shah's downfall, and is not making the same mistakes.
So, at that time, you were very optimistic about the opposition
movement. How do you feel now about that statement that you think it's
the end of the Islamic Republic as we know it?
Mr. BAHARI: I still feel the same. I think that the Islamic Republic
government started to dig its own grave on the 19th of June last year
when Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, put a distance between
himself and the people of Iran. But I just have to make it clear that I
do not think that people of Iran want to have a revolution. People want
to have a reform. There are two movements in Iran right now. One is for
dictatorship and one is for democracy. Many Iranians and an increasing
number of Iranians are becoming more individualistic. They are thinking
about individual freedoms. They are thinking about their rights as
citizens of Iran. They do not want to be part of this UMA(ph) which is a
Islamic state. They do not want to be subject of an Islamic ruler.
And on the other side you have people who are followers of Khamenei.
Some of them honestly follow Khamenei and they think that Khamenei is
the God's, Allah's representative on Earth and his words are Allah's
words. So there's this two main trends going on in Iran and I'm very
hopeful about the future of Iran because I see that as more and more
Iranians are becoming educated, as more and more Iranians are getting in
touch with the rest of the world, communicate with the rest of the
world, they believe in their individual freedoms and they believe in the
fact that no government can represent Allah on the Earth.
And this struggle may continue for decades. I mean, just think about the
Soviet Union. When Stalin died in 1953, it took 26 - 36 years for the
Berlin Wall to collapse. It may take longer for Iran, it may take
shorter, but this is the government that cannot be in power for the rest
of our lives.
GROSS: On the anniversary of the election in Iran this past weekend,
there were some protests but nothing resembling what happened a year
ago. And it seems like the government was very successful in scaring
people from protesting. And I think like youâre an example of what they
did to scare people, you know, imprisoning you.
Mr. BAHARI: Exactly. Yeah. Well, the government thinks that by scaring
people it can suppress people's demands. The Green Movement in Iran is a
civil rights movement. People have demands for their rights as citizens
of Iran. The government can suppress the manifestations of this Green
Movement. It can suppress the symptoms of the illness that's taking over
Iran. But it cannot get rid of the core problems through suppression and
through brute force.
Since last year, the government has learned how to prevent people from
coming to the streets and people want to live in Iran. People respect
their lives much more than ever before. People do not want to be
martyrs. People do not want to die for someone else's ideas or even for
their own ideas. So, people stay in their houses and they think that if
they can survived this regime, if they can keep their integrity in tact,
if they can keep their individuality intact, they are the victors.
The government may be in power for a few years or a few decades but a
few years or a few decades compared to 2,500 years of Iranian history
and even more is nothing.
GROSS: I'd like to end our interview with a song by Leonard Cohen,
because that seems to be a theme that ran through your imprisonment.
There were three songs that youâve mentioned that went through your mind
while you were in prison: "So Long, Marianne," "The Partisan" and
"Sisters of Mercy." And I guess I'm wondering if he knows the...
Mr. BAHARI: Power.
GROSS: ...part that his music played while you were in prison?
Mr. BAHARI: I donât know. I haven't been in touch with him.
Mr. BAHARI: But Leonard Cohen basically provided the soundtrack to my
GROSS: In your mind, right? This is just all in your mind.
Mr. BAHARI: In my mind. Of course, all in my mind. They - no, they
didnât allow me to have an iPod in prison. And it was just amazing to me
that this very cynical Jewish Canadian singer-songwriter can help me in
the naval of this dictatorship in a prison in Iran. That was really
liberating, you know, because that was a secret between me and Leonard
Cohen that my interrogator and my prison guards they did not know
anything about. So that was my little secret and that really helped me
to endure the pains in prison.
GROSS: Do you want to choose the song?
Mr. BAHARI: "Sisters of Mercy." Yeah, "Sisters of Mercy" was the main
song that reoccurred in my dreams and I hummed it all the time. Yeah,
that was the main song. And itâs such a beautiful song as well.
GROSS: Well, Maziar Bahari, I thank you very much for talking with us.
And I'm glad youâre continuing to work on behalf of journalists who are
still in prison in Iran. And I'm very glad that you are not one of those
journalists who is in prison. So...
Mr. BAHARI: Thank you. Thanks very much.
GROSS: Maziar Bahari is a correspondent for Newsweek who now lives in
London, where he continues to write about Iran. You'll find links to
several of his Newsweek articles, including his account of his 118 days
in Tehran's Evin Prison on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll
also find a link to Bahari's interview with "The Daily Show's" Jason
Here's Leonard Cohen.
(Soundbite of song, "Sisters of Mercy")
Mr. LEONARD COHEN (Musician): (Singing) Oh, the Sisters of Mercy, they
are not departed or gone. They were waiting for me when I thought that I
just can't go on. And they brought me their comfort and later they
brought me this song. Oh, I hope you run into them, you who've been
traveling so long.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Nazi Noir Ventures To Havana In 'Dead Rise Not'
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Scottish writer Philip Kerr burst on the scene with his 1989 book
"March Violets," the first in a series of novels about a private
detective in Hitler's Germany. The sixth and most recent of these books
"If The Dead Rise Not" won the 2009 Ellis Peters Award for historical
Our critic-at-large John Powers says its blend of history and
entertainment make it ideal summer reading.
JOHN POWERS: Maybe it's different with you, but when I go on vacation, I
always schlep all the high-class books I've fantasized about getting to
â you know, that award-winning doorstop about Stalinism â and then wind
up reading some thriller I grabbed at the airport. This silly method led
to a real discovery just once, back in the early '90s. On my way to the
beach, I picked up Philip Kerr's "Berlin Noir," a trilogy about a
private detective, Bernie Gunther, during the Nazi years. I spent days
glued to my deck chair.
Kerr went on to write other novels on other themes but none felt nearly
as inspired. Perhaps he thought so himself, because four years ago, he
brought back Bernie Gunther in "The One from the Other," a story set
near Dachau during the American occupation of Germany. Since then, he's
gone on to write two more thrillers that carry Bernie's saga to the New
World. The latest one, "If the Dead Rise Not," is a terrific story that
flips from 1934 Berlin to 1954 Havana.
As the story begins, Bernie is working as the house detective at the
Hotel Adlon, a real-life Berlin institution that was the Grand Hotel in
that Greta Garbo movie. It should be an easy gig, but things soon turn
tricky when Bernie's confronted with two dead bodies â one a
businessman, the other a Jewish boxer. Before he knows it, he's caught
up in a byzantine plot linking American gangsters, corrupt Nazis and
Hitler's plans for the 1936 Olympics.
Being a private eye and not, say, a critic, Bernie inevitably gets
involved with a woman too beautiful and classy for him. Here it's hard-
drinking Noreen Charalambides, whoâs clearly a riff on Nora Charles from
"The Thin Man." She's even got an alcoholic husband named Nick. Noreen's
a Jewish-American journalist whoâs come to Berlin to expose Nazi anti-
Semitism. She and Bernie quickly wind up in bed, although Noreen never
quite adjusts to the fact that like every upstanding member of the
private detectives union, Bernie makes wisecracks about everything. I'm
worried that if I don't make jokes, he tells her, then someone will
mistake me for a Nazi.
Part of the allure of these novels is that Bernie is such an interesting
creation, a Chandleresque knight errant caught in insane historical
surroundings. Bernie walks down streets so mean that nobody can stay
alive and remain truly clean. He's constantly forced to work for people
he detests, from Gestapo boss Reinhard Heydrich to CIA men busy
whitewashing the records of anti-communist war criminals. Bernie carries
the guilt of having to do terrible things.
Of course, with its trademark blend of madness and murder, the Nazi era
makes a compelling backdrop for any thriller, but Kerr doesn't belabor
the obvious. He gives you the texture of Hitler's Berlin and takes you
inside events that are often forgotten.
"If the Dead Rise Not" reminds us that the U.S. team only attended the
Berlin Olympics because U.S. O.C. Chairman Avery Brundage visited
Germany and claimed to find no discrimination against Jews. This was a
bit like going to the American South in the 1930s and finding no
discrimination against blacks.
If book buyers never seem to get tired of the Hitler era, Kerr himself
is eager to venture into new historical territory. His previous novel
found Bernie riding with Adolf Eichmann on the boat to Buenos Aires and
meeting with Juan Peron. This new one carries his Latin American
adventure even further when Bernie turns up in Batista's Cuba, which is
both a mob-run playground for pleasure-seeking Yankees and a
dictatorship that while mild next to Hitler's, is plenty bad. The
murders that took place in '34 Berlin have their ultimate payoff in
Havana 20 years later.
You see, what happened in Nazi Germany didn't end with Hitler's fall. It
sent shockwaves through the next decades, and what's great about this
series is the way that Kerr has expanded his vision beyond the
conventional crime novel. Bernie isn't one of those detectives who gets
to solve crimes and put things right. Instead, he just tries to behave
decently in a world where the serial killers run governments and history
itself may be the biggest crime of all.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed
"If The Dead Rise Not" by Philip Kerr. You can read a chapter on our
website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our
I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.