'Prisoner' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison

By Jason Rezaian, Harper Collins, 320 pages, $20

When Jason Rezaian launched “The Iranian Avocado Quest” on Kickstarter in 2010, he was hoping to get a bit of viral interest, maybe a few freelance features, and some laughs out of it. The foodie journalist, who, while he still lived in California, competed in the Marin County Guac-off (guidelines: “The only requirement is the presence of 10 avocados — the rest is your interpretation”), was shocked to find that his father’s homeland, Iran, was an avocado-free zone. The idea was to raise enough money to start a farm in the Islamic republic, or rather to have some fun trying and failing to do so.

The fact that this was interpreted as a CIA plot by Rezaian’s interrogators during his 544-day spell as a political prisoner speaks volumes: of the cultural cluelessness of his captors, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), even as they struggle to wage a culture war against US influence (“Why would people give other people they don’t know money to try to accomplish meaningless things?” asks one officer, who refuses to believe that Kickstarter is real); of the utter baselessness of the charges against the man who had by that time become the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent; and of the tendency of all authoritarian systems to veer towards the absurd.

Absurdities come thick and fast in this powerful memoir, published three years after an intensive diplomatic and media campaign secured Rezaian’s release and escape from Iran with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi. After 47 nights in solitary confinement, he is put in a “suite” with an inmate who only speaks Azerbaijani and given access to a TV. They bond over a diet of American films, some heavily edited. The Big Lebowski is reduced to a mere 50 minutes: “No white Russians, no marijuana smoking, no urinating, no Bunny Lebowski. Just a couple of guys bowling and a Persian rug.” Later, the men who have been regularly threatening him with execution suddenly take him on a shopping trip. They pick out ties for him at a department store and make him choose sweets at a patisserie before blindfolding him and returning him to jail.

The deadpan humour Rezaian has clearly traded in his whole life survives, although it’s tested to its limit. He’s incredibly ballsy with the IRGC officers, given what’s at stake. “Which one of you geniuses came up with that?” he asks, when they suggest his marriage was orchestrated by the CIA and MI6. At one point, with his interrogators bizarrely goading him to sing, he replies: “OK, but you have to stand up.” They all rise, and he lets rip with The Star-Spangled Banner, before telling them it’s the American national anthem and as a result they have just committed treason.

Rezaian resists the temptation to confess to being a spy, which he is told is the price of his immediate release. Instead he is honest about his work. Yes, he was attempting to paint a more accurate portrait of Iran for American readers, to make it intelligible to them, to humanise it. Unable to pin anything more sinister than this on him, the IRGC decides that his crime is to have encouraged a rapprochement between the two cultures.

This might seem strange — particularly given that, at exactly the same time, Iranian and US leaders were conducting negotiations with broadly similar aims. But Iran is politically divided, with rival centres of power. The internal debate about its orientation towards the outside world is intense, and what reformists do may be contradicted by the actions of hardliners, more so at times when the former seem to be in the ascendant. That was the essence of Rezaian’s problem — the tentative opening up that followed Hassan Rouhani’s election as president was seen as a threat by the IRGC, and he suffered the consequences.

Prisoner touches on this complex politics, but it is above all a personal story, told with admirable frankness, and a humour that sometimes belies the darkness of the experience. Rezaian’s time as, effectively, a hostage clearly changed him profoundly, but he doesn’t dwell on the mental anguish that must have filled his days. The psychological repercussions are more clearly evident in the final pages of the book, as he describes life after the thriller-like climax of his release. “My mind — my memory and my focus — is still mush,” he says. He becomes confused in crowds, and doesn’t like talking on the phone. He gets strange headaches and screams in his sleep. To top it all, the IRS wouldn’t waive penalties for not filing his taxes on time while he was incarcerated. (The people who helped him sort this out are thanked in the long acknowledgements section, which is an unusually emotional read.)

The abiding sense is of an imaginative reporter, a joker, a lover of life and a devoted husband broken on the wheel of a vindictive system. The hope must be that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals still held in Iran will one day get to write their own accounts, having, like Rezaian, been reunited with their families and spirited to safety.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd