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The Hard Cell

Marin County native Jason Rezaian's long road from an Iranian prison

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The brutal murder of Rezaian's colleague, Jamal Khashoggi, hangs over our conversation, as does the gourmet ghost of the late Anthony Bourdain, who filmed Rezaian for his Parts Unknown show in a segment about Persian cuisine, before the hostage-taking, and urged him to write Prisoner after his release.

First, Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was murdered by Saudi Arabian officials last year: "The one thing in which the murder of Jamal and what happened to me are connected, or have in common: both are two instances of authoritarian regimes using extraordinary means to silence journalists who were writing about them. Full stop. Not even writing about them in ways that they didn't like—in my case it was taking the pen out of my hand, and getting leverage with America. In Jamal's case, it was simply, we are going to silence this person in an audacious and horrifying way so that other people are silenced too.

"I don't want to compare and contrast the Iranian and the Saudi regime, they are both terrible, but I will say that this act by the Saudi regime, along with the war with Yemen, the crackdown on dissent within their own borders—I don't think this is something that most Americans can wrap their minds around. They routinely behead people."

He says that the disconnect between the American posture toward Iran and Saudi Arabia is an "incredibly disheartening" thing to behold in Washington, D.C. Trump has reportedly been trying to figure out a way to go to war with Iran for the past two years, instilling fear and propping up the "Death to America" rhetoric that Rezaian says woefully misreads the Iranian mindset toward America. "Juxtapose that with the way that this administration has responded to the death of my colleague, someone I was getting to know."

"The most noteworthy thing about Iran is its people," Rezaian adds and highlights an ancient culture with rich musical, literature, poetry, film and food traditions. "My money is always on the Iranian people," he says. "They are resilient, they are smart, and over time they've made it clear that they are dissatisfied, the majority of them, with the rulers of this country."

He suggests that the United States, as it promotes policies advertised as good for fomenting democracy and good for Iran, should take a look at whether travel bans and crippling sanctions are accomplishing the mission. "How can we say we support your quest for freedom when we're not going to let you come here?"

Rezaian recalls a time in the 1960s and '70s, before the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iranian students comprised the highest percent of foreign-born university students in America—many of them receiving their education in the Bay Area, long a destination for Iranian immigrants. "I don't think there is hatred of America," he says.

Rezaian's time spent reporting on the streets of Iran left him with a clear impression that, instead, "Iranians are probably one of the most pro-America populaces" in the Middle East. "People are tired of the 'Great Satan' state media stuff." Despite the longstanding Friday ritual of burning American flags in Tehran, he insists, "there is not rabid anti-Americanism in Iran."

And then there's Bourdain. Rezaian says the author and TV host's 2018 suicide "remains, continues to be, the hardest thing that my wife and I have to grapple with." He'll get stopped on the street, he says, by Bourdain fans who saw Rezaian and his wife on his show during an episode filmed in Tehran six weeks before he was arrested. Rezaian says of himself that he's not a gourmand but is a big lover of food (he lost lots of weight in prison, he recollects in the book), and in an interview, recalls a Marin youth filled with visits to the bustling multi-ethnic food scene on Fourth Street in San Rafael. "It was one of the great culinary destinations that nobody knew about where you could find food from all over the world," he recalls.

During his ordeal in Iran, Bourdain's celebrity status, he says, "gave a spotlight to our imprisonment that nothing else could." The episode aired numerous times during his imprisonment and Rezaian says with obvious emotion that he "had no idea the lengths to which [Bourdain] was advocating for me publicly and privately while we were there."

A few weeks after their release, Rezaian and his wife met with Bourdain for a meal in New York City. "This is a guy we are meeting for the second time, 20 months after the first time. It was an incredible roller coaster ride for us in the meantime—and it turned out he had been an incredible friend to us while we were in trouble."

Bourdain encouraged Rezaian to write his story, and he did the "traditional thing," he says—wrote a proposal, shopped it around to 14 publishers, six of whom made offers, including Bourdain's Ecco imprint at HarperCollins. Rezaian then got an email from Laos, from Bourdain. "It was more like, whatever you decide, I'm going to be there for you," Rezaian recalls. Bourdain added, "'I'll be a vocal and spirited advocate no matter what. Give my offer some consideration.' When you get something like that, how can you say no?"

Rezaian sighs and reflects on his interactions with the late Bourdain. "We're doing this for Tony."

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