At first, it was hard to convince me to visit Iran. While that may not sound so unusual coming from an American, I don’t consider myself to have particularly “American” taste when it comes to travel. When I was younger and my friends were jetting off to Europe in the summer, I’d be water skiing on a volcanic lake in Guatemala or getting shaken down by police in Red Square. My adventures weren’t typically of the apple pie variety.
But I was newlywed and anxious to see the world. It was early 2009 and my husband was just finishing grad school. As a graduation trip he suggested we take a tour of the Middle East, with Iran as the capstone of our trip. Back then Iran had a somewhat softer reputation. The Arab Spring hadn’t erupted yet and the country had largely recovered from the war with its neighbor Iraq. It was one of the few countries in the region to hold regular elections and it possessed one of most educated populations in the world, with nearly half of all Iranians holding university degrees. Plus, unlike many of its neighbors, Iran wasn’t plagued by violent extremists—at least not the suicide bombing, terror attacking kind. On the surface, it seemed like a relatively safe place to visit.
So we set out that summer to see the region, making stops in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria before finally landing in Iran. I’ll never forget our last night in Lebanon and how “relieved” I felt to be leaving for Iran. We had spent the better part of a week observing the elections in Beirut and while the process unfolded peacefully—surprising many people, including myself– I still spent much of the week paranoid and on edge. I couldn’t wait to reach Iran so I could experience a ‘normal’ election cycle in that part of the world.
Well, suffice it to say we got the shock of our lives: the elections of 2009 were anything but normal. Night after night brutal and bloody clashes between protestors and military broke out on the streets of Tehran. And while we managed to stay on the sidelines and keep ourselves out of danger, we witnessed one of the most horrifying displays of politics that we had ever seen.
Yet despite the mayhem, what made our trip extraordinary was meeting Jason Rezaian. At the time Jason was a budding journalist and had moved to Tehran to cover the elections. While born and raised in the States, he held dual citizenship and considered himself as much of an Iranian as an American. We had been introduced through a mutual friend (we all grew up in the Bay Area) and had heard that Jason had helped others make the trek to Iran, including celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and the late writer Christopher Hitchens. So we were thrilled when Jason agreed to help us– a couple of ordinary tourists without a clue.
From the early planning stages, months before we even landed in Iran, Jason guided us through the highly complicated (and often maddening) process of securing a visa. He leaned on friends at the Foreign Ministry to get things done, and he helped us secure a state appointed Minder to accompany us throughout our travels—a “perk” reserved only for Americans. Each step of the way Jason assured us that our trip would be a success. Once we arrived in Tehran, he took great care in showing us the best local culinary fare as well as Tehran’s many historical and cultural landmarks. He introduced us to his Iranian friends who invited us into their homes. He even arranged a dinner with his fellow journalists, including an unforgettable evening with the late Marie Colvin that left us gobsmacked and in awe of those brave enough to report from the Middle East.
But what Jason did that was so remarkable was make sure we experienced a side of Iran that few other Americans could ever experience. He felt it was important that we saw a side of Iran that existed outside of mainstream media, a side where people smile and hug you and are unafraid that you are American or that your government doesn’t agree with theirs. The side where you can taste centuries of history and struggle in the food, and where young people will readily share both their love for and their frustration with the Iran of today. All this so that we’d gain a deeper and more informed understanding of the country he called home.
One of the most haunting memories I have from that trip is of the three of us—my husband, Jason and myself—driving around Tehran and stumbling upon Evin prison, a massive concrete fortress on the northern perimeter of the city. I remember looking up at the stark, intimidating façade and asking if we could take pictures. Jason shook his head and explained that Evin Prison was about as maximum security as you could get in Iran, a no-nonsense penitentiary for intellectual and political dissidents and anyone else they deemed a national threat—Iran’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. Even a photo was too risky.
It saddens me to know that Jason has now spent more than a year at that very prison, held on trumped up charges of espionage and other absurdities. He has been subject to confinement and abuse and all around horrible conditions that have injured his health. I pray he gets released any day.
But perhaps what’s most infuriating—or most ironic—is that Iran is holding the wrong man. This man Jason Rezaian, with his wide and easy smile and gentle demeanor, is the most informed, passionate and caring Iranian guide anyone could ask for. He is a sterling ambassador for a country that is often faceless and whose sole images abroad tend to be of hardened leaders rather than the actual people living there. He is a national treasure and why the government has chosen to imprison him rather than honor him simply confounds me.
I realize now that if it weren’t for Jason, I probably would have continued to live in fear and ignorance of Iran. I would have missed seeing one of the greatest wonders on earth (the remarkable beauty of Esfahan!) and quite possibly never moved to Dubai. Instead, I might be living trapped by fear of what might happen abroad rather than choosing to experience it firsthand. And so for that—for changing my perceptions and opening my eyes to a new part of the world—I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jason. I hope you come home and return to the job that you do so well: getting us to care.