Jason Rezaian Joins Wallace House to Talk About Journalism and Justice
By: Kate Cammell
On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 12th, students and community members gathered in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre to hear Washington Post journalist, Jason Rezaian, talk about his new memoir, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison. The event was hosted by The University of Michigan’s Wallace House, a program supporting journalistic growth and excellence. Rezaian’s visit was part of Wallace House Presents, a series which “brings journalists whose work is at the forefront of national conversations to [the] University community and the broader public.”
In an era of increased threat against journalism and speech, Rezaian’s story is tragic yet familiar. Prisoner recounts his harrowing arrest by the Iranian government while working as the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief in 2014. In an introduction to the event, Lynette Clemetson, the director of Wallace House, noted that while journalism is under threat, the bravery of people like Rezaian in sharing their stories is a step in the right direction of addressing journalistic safety.
Wallace House invited William McCarron, the executive director of The National Press Club, to facilitate the event’s conversation. When the two men took the stage, Rezaian shared that it was his first visit to Ann Arbor and offered the crowd a traditional “go blue” greeting. McCarron began by asking Rezaian about his love of sports. Born and raised in the San Francisco bay area, Rezaian is a life-long Golden State Warriors fan. However, the first time his team won the NBA finals, he was unable to watch because he was eleven months into his prison sentence. He notes that this is the dissonance haunting imprisoned people. While their worlds halt, “life keeps going.”
Rezaian’s 544 days in prison began on a June 22nd, 2014. That first day started like any other. Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were preparing to go to a family birthday party. They both worked for foreign media outlets in Tehran, but were soon planning to go to the US, so the party was going to be one of their last nights with extended family. On the way out of their apartment building, Rezaian remembers seeing the elevator open to reveal a man pointing a gun at his face. After a vicious raid on the couple’s apartment, where even their tea bags were ripped apart and searched, Rezaian and Salehi were shamefully paraded out of their building and across the courtyard . In police custody, the couple was led past neighbors gathering with their families to break fast on a Ramadan evening. Charged with espionage, the pair was taken to Evin Prison and held apart in solitary confinement. Salehi was released four months later, but Rezaian remained detained.
As he recounts his arrest, Rezaian makes sustained eye-contact with the audience, exuding a confidence which belies his soft-spoken voice. The earnestness with which he talks about his experience reveals itself in his detail. He speaks about everything from living in his 4 ½ by 8 ½ foot cell, to his continued sensitivity to light after his imprisonment during which the lights were left on 24 hours-a-day. Though his captors never employed physical violence, he noted that “the scars of [psychological torture] on your psyche begin to amass almost immediately.” He remembers feeling “subhuman…like a caged animal.” Despite many brutal interrogations, Rezaian maintained his innocence. He was released in January of 2016, thanks to sustained and prolific campaigning from his family members and world media organizations.
After vulnerably baring his story to the audience, Rezaian read an excerpt from his book about his ride from the prison to trial. He was blindfolded, but could see under the edges of the cloth that someone was in the car with him. He was hopeful that the person was his wife, so he called out her name, despite being forbidden from speaking. The person responded with a muffled whimper and he knew it was in fact his wife. He said that thinking about his love for his wife is what motivated him to face the hurdles of his prison sentence. The scene he read was a tender portrait of the depths of human fear and loneliness. The writing is incisive and filled with imagery despite Rezaian’s own blindness in that moment.
After reading, McCarron asks Rezaian about the characters in his book. Rezaian describes each with a color and nuance that speaks to his supreme ability for level headed awareness despite the chaos of his surroundings. Rezaian notes that “acting out of anger doesn’t really work for me, but holding a mirror to injustice was something that was available to me, so I did it. And I’ll do it again.”
When the conversation concluded, the energy of the room was palpable. There was long applause. The shuffling of feet. The signing of books. And the sun spilling in through atrium windows. That same sun Rezaian was denied for 544 days. That same sun in which he now sat, smiling.
Prisoner is not just about Rezaian’s struggle, it’s a book about the effort of a multitude of people who fought to make sure his name was not forgotten. In writing this memoir, he carries on this same fight for justice. Rezaian is a powerful reminder, in an age of censorship, that the gift of true writers is their pursuit of truth no matter the cost.