Journalist-filmmaker Maziar Bahari

Iran-born journalist-filmmaker, who was captured and imprisoned in his native country while covering the ’09 elections, describes the horror of solitary confinement and discusses his memoir, which details his harrowing tale.

In June '09, journalist Maziar Bahari left his London home for his native Iran, on assignment for Newsweek. He spent the next three months in the country's most notorious prison. It wasn't the first time the Iranian government would persecute his family—his father was imprisoned in the '50s and his sister in the '80s. In his new memoir, Then They Came for Me, he offers insight into the past 50 years of regime change in Iran. Bahari holds Iranian and Canadian citizenship, having moved to Canada in '88 to study filmmaking, and has produced documentaries and news reports on a variety of subjects.


Tavis Smiley: Maziar Bahari is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who was captured in Iran while covering the 2009 presidential election there for Newsweek Magazine. The story of his 118 days in captivity is the basis for the acclaimed new text, “Then They Came for Me: A Family Story of Love, Captivity and Survival.” He joins us tonight from Washington. Maziar, good to have you on this program, sir.

Maziar Bahari: Nice to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Every one of us knows what it’s like to have your mother come into your room and to wake you up on any given day, but how do you process your mother coming to wake you up to tell you that there are five men at the door who have come to take you away?

Bahari: Well, in the first instance, I felt guilt because it was the third time that my mother had to go through that. They first came for my father in the 1950s, then they came for my sister in the 1980s, and I really tried to avoid being arrested. I tried to be a fair and balanced journalist, but then they came for me in 2009.

So in the first instance, I felt guilt, but then, of course, my mother’s strength also gave me strength and I was very proud of her.

Tavis: How does one family go through this three times?

Bahari: It’s very difficult, of course, but my family’s story is the story of many families in Iran. Thousands of families, maybe even millions of families in Iran, have gone through what my family has gone through.

You know, my father and my sister both fought for an ideal. They wanted to build a better Iran, a better future, for themselves and for the country and then they had to pay for it because they were living in a dictatorship.

Then I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to inform people about what’s going on in Iran and inform Iranians about what’s going on in the outside world. The regime didn’t like it and I had to be punished for it.

Tavis: Why specifically did they tell you that they had come for you?

Bahari: First they went through a series of really ridiculous charges. They charged me with espionage. They told me that I was the mastermind of the Western media in Iran and then they went through my Facebook contacts and my email contacts, my cell phone contacts, and they accused me of having illicit sexual affairs with every woman on those lists.

Then I realized later on that they wanted to incriminate me with espionage and they wanted me to connect certain people who are reformists who want to reform the system in Iran through me, and that’s why they kept on asking about those people. They were telling me that, if you just tell us that these people are foreign spies, we will let you go tomorrow.

Of course, I didn’t do it and, as a result, I had to spend 118 days in prison, 107 of those days in solitary confinement.

Tavis: When you have captors who keep asking you questions that you don’t know the answers to or keep trying to get you to admit to something that you have no knowledge of, how do you process your answers? How do you intellectually navigate an inquiry where you don’t have the answers they’re looking for and you can’t even make it up, I guess? How do you handle that?

Bahari: Well, that’s a good question. I was somehow prepared for it because I grew up listening to stories about prison and interrogations from my father, my father’s friends and my sister and my sister’s friends.

One thing, they always reminded me of one thing when I was in prison. I never paid attention to it that much before getting arrested, and that was never name names. Because if you name one name and then they incriminate that person and then you have to name other names, it goes on and on. So I always stuck to generalities. Whenever they wanted me to make confessions, I just talked about evil Western media or whatever, but I never named names.

But at the same time, I always tapped into my inner resources, the things that I shielded from my interrogator, the thing that he didn’t know about, my family and, you know, the love that I have for my parents, the love that they had for me, more memories, and also the more general things, culture.

For example, I hummed the songs of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter, to myself and my captor didn’t know anything about Leonard Cohen. So that was my inner universe that I could preserve and he couldn’t touch, so that really kept me strong and that allowed me to survive the ordeal for 118 days.

Tavis: And how violently were you treated physically now, I’m asking, in those 118 days?

Bahari: You see, I was in solitary confinement for 107 days and during those 118 days that I was in prison, 107 out of 118 in solitary confinement, I was almost beaten on a daily basis, slapped, kicked, punched and I was also psychologically mistreated.

But the worst part of torture was the solitary confinement itself because human beings are social animals. Human beings need to communicate. Human beings need to express their feelings, need to be loved, need to touch people, need to speak to people, and depriving people of that was the worst torture.

So when people ask me, okay, you spent 107 days in solitary confinement, but did they torture you? It’s like if you ask someone who has cancer, so do you feel sick, do you have any illnesses, that solitary confinement is so horrible, it’s so horrifying.

I think people just have to put themselves in a locked room and you have to ask for people to go to the bathroom, you can’t have food, you cannot drink anything, and your life is basically controlled by others. You start to hallucinate. You see the walls are coming closer to each other. I cannot really describe it. That was the worst form of torture.

Tavis: How dido you keep track of the days?

Bahari: Sometimes they transferred me from one cell to another and sometimes my cells had windows and I could see and I always marked it on the walls. But also they played the call to prayers three times a day.

For Shia Muslims, it’s three times a day, so that was how I tracked the time of the day. That was the morning call to prayer, noon call to prayer and evening call to prayer. Otherwise, I didn’t know what time of day it was, how it was or nothing.

Tavis: Tell me about the relationship – and I use that word advisedly – about the relationship that you end up establishing that one establishes with one’s captor where you are in this person’s face or they’re in your face even though you’re blindfolded, about the relationship you develop with your captor, specifically Mr. Rosewater.

Bahari: I called him Mr. Rosewater because I didn’t know his name. I saw him only once when he came to arrest me. Otherwise, for the rest of the time during my interrogations, I was blindfolded or I was facing the wall, so I couldn’t see his face. But I could smell him and that smell somehow humanized me.

You know, I’m often asked whether I think that my interrogator was a monster, was an animal, and I always say no. He was not an animal and he was not a monster because, first of all, if you call a torturer an animal, it’s an insult to animals because animals don’t torture each other.

No animal in the nature interrogate another animals. No animal in the nature enjoys someone else suffering. So that’s an insult. But also, I don’t call my torturer a monster because, if he’s a monster and not a human being, then he can overpower me. I would be defeated. I would accept my defeat.

I tried to regard him as a human being, as a flawed human being that I could have communication with and, as a result, I could see flaws in him. I could see his weaknesses and I could manipulate those weaknesses in order to survive, not because of altruistic reasons or anything like that. For very selfish reasons, just to survive.

I think you can expand that and talk about the nations as well. When you call nations satanic or demonic or monstrous, then you cannot communicate with those nations. You have to regard nations as a collection of different people and even a bad system as a collection of flawed people, people that you can communicate with nonetheless.

Tavis: Is what you’ve just offered not advice on how we ought to check our language with regard to Iran?

Bahari: That is true, yes. In regards to Iran or any other nation or any other group, I mean, when you are demonizing a nation, when you are demonizing a group the same way that the Iranian government is demonizing the United States, then you are telling your people that you cannot have a conversation with them.

When the Ayatollah Khomeini called the United States a Great Satan, to him that was the end of the conversation because you cannot have a conversation with the Great Satan.

I think that, you know, he was indoctrinating his followers into hating Americans. For my torturer, when he called me an American – even though I’m not an American, I’m a Canadian citizen – he called me an American.

That was the worst insult to him. He did not regard America as a country like others. He regarded America as Great Satan, but Americans are better than that. The United States is hopefully better than the Ayatollah Khomeini. The leaders of the United States are better than Ayatollah Khomeini and I don’t think that they should demonize a country, they shouldn’t demonize a government.

I see that President Obama cleverly is not doing that and he always emphasizes on having a dialog with the Iranian people, even dialog with the Iranian government, because you have to have dialog even with the most flawed people. There are no evils. There are only flawed people who you should have conversations with.

Tavis: Obviously, and thankfully, you did make it out after 118 days. You were freed. One of the things that occurred that gave you reason to believe that that day would come was the day your captor referred to you as Mr. Hillary Clinton, Mr. Hillary Clinton. So I ask you now, Mr. Hillary Clinton, what did being called that do for you? What kind of insights did that give you?

Bahari: You know, I remember exactly the day they called me Mr. Hillary Clinton. I had nothing to do in my solitary confinement, so I was doing a lot of exercises. I was doing pushups, I was doing sit-ups, and at that point, I was doing pushups.

When they called me Hillary Clinton, I used to do about 30 to 35 pushups and then I don’t where I got the energy. I did about maybe 50 or 60 pushups and then I started doing sit-ups and I was doing about maybe 300 sit-ups. Then I was doing so many sit-ups that my stomach started to hurt.

I was so overjoyed. I was so empowered by saying that. Because calling someone Mr. Hillary Clinton, meaning that there is a campaign for you, people outside of the walls of the jail were supporting you.

So it was really, really empowering. That’s why I’m doing these interviews and that’s why I wrote the book. Because not all journalists in Iran, not all prisoners in Iran, have the international profile that I luckily had.

Not all journalists were lucky enough to be working for “Newsweek” and “Washington Post” company, so I have to be the voice of the people who are still languishing in Iranian jails and people don’t know their names and they don’t have an international profile. Unfortunately, because of that, the Iranian government is putting more pressure on them.

I mean, what I went through may be nothing compared to what some Iranians – I mean, yesterday a friend of mine died in prison as a result of a hunger strike. They didn’t care about his hunger strike and they took him to hospital a few hours late and he perished in prison.

Tavis: It’s a powerful text, not a story just about his own capture, but indeed that of his family, his sister, his father before him. The book is called “Then They Came for Me: A Family Story of Love, Captivity and Survival.” Maziar Bahari is the author.

Maziar, I’m delighted that you are out. I’m thankful that you had the opportunity to survive this ordeal, you and your family, and honored for you to spend some time talking to us about your ordeal on this program tonight. Thank you, sir, very much.

Bahari: Thanks very much. It was an honor to be here. Thank you.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 24, 2011 at 5:15 pm