Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian
The United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history. The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations. And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind. But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails. Among those prisoners, was American born journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post. You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations. The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture. At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence. The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City. On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.
The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one. I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration. The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors. The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history. He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth. At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home. He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.
Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”. At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases. Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were. They assure him that they are there to “help”. Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious. More than once he is threatened with execution. The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically. Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind. How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know. Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect. Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.
As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release. As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years. Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners. But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others. The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction. It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.
Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail. For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong. He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society operates in the manner that it does. But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Any former First Lady of the United States will tell you that there is nothing “easy” about that lifestyle. As the wife of the most powerful man on the planet, there is a high demand on appearance, initiatives and unwavering support for the policies that originate from the White House. Michelle Obama is an alumnus of this world, serving as the nation’s First Lady from January, 2009 to January, 2017. Her style, look and presence is unmistakable and she will be remembered in time as one of the most dynamic to have lived in the White House. Almost two years have passed since Donald J. Trump took office and the where the United States is headed seems at times uncertain. There exist a political climate built on division and hate, which will require many years ahead for healing and understanding. As the first Black-American woman to be a First Lady, she has unique perspective on Washington, D.C., and the country she calls home. Her views and life story are presented here in this phenomenal autobiography of the life of Michelle Robinson who went on to become Mrs. Barack Obama.
As I purchased this book, I satisfied a growing curiosity about the story the former First Lady. As an American citizen at times dismayed, but I believed that the book could take me back to time in which a sense of normalcy was found at the highest levels of government. Not only was I completely engulfed in the book, having read it in three days, but it reminded me that it was less than two years ago that the Obamas were in the White House and America seemed to be moving forward in the right direction. Today it seems like an eternity has passed and only time will tell who will occupy the oval office next. But this is Michelle’s story and to understand the former First Lady, it is necessary to hear her story as a young girl from the South Side of Chicago who commits to hard work, dedication and supporting the presidential campaign of one of America’s most popular political figures. In many ways, her story is the epitome of the American Dream supplemented by the added variable of her being a Black-American.
On January 17, 1964, Fraser and Marian Robinson welcomed Michelle LaVaughn Robinson into the world, but I do not believe anyone could have imagined then, the heights she would reach in less than fifty years on earth. As the product of a hard-working blue-collar home, her story reminded me of my own upbringing. My father worked for General Electric and my mother for what is now J.P. Morgan Chase. Both are retired now and I am fortunate to have both of them present each day. In my neighborhood of East New York, diversity was lacking after New York City endured its own “white flight” to the suburbs. Over time East New York became one of the worst ghettos in the country with a murder rate that was astronomical. But our parents and extended family members refused to let my brother and I slack on anything. And just like Michelle’s grandfather, affectionately called “Southside”, we had my grandparents and great-parents there to remind us the importance of an education in life.
From the start, the story is seductive as the reader becomes eager to learn about the life of the former First Lady. Her teen and college years are pretty typical for most young ladies and after graduation from Princeton, she earns a position at the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP, where fate intervened and she met the man who would change her life forever. It is at this part of the book that the story kicks into high gear and the ride never lets up. To say that her story is incredible is an understatement. But what makes it even more special is her humbleness and firm grip on reality. While I read the book, I never detected any sense of arrogance or entitlement nor was it her chance to brag about herself. She never loses touch with the fact that at the core, she is still the same Michelle Robinson from the South Side of Chicago., only now older and wiser. Her time as the First Lady has left her with a veteran’s seasoned view of Washington, politics and life.
Some readers might be wondering where Barack Obama fits in to the story. After their initial courtship, he is as integral to the story as one could imagine. In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to separate their stories for obvious reasons. His decision to enter politics was the point at which their lives forever changed in ways they could have never imagined. And as he ascends to higher office before winning the 2008 Presidential Election, we are given a rare inside view of what was transpiring behind the scenes in his campaign and the changes that took place in the lives of the Obamas. Following his inauguration in January, 2009, the young couple were placed into an entirely new world in which learning is always constant and surprise around the corner. And although the focus is always on “Mr. President’ , her story is equally interesting even as she settles in to the role of the First Lady while trying to be a good mother, friend, daughter and sister.
There are many highs in the book and also some lows, but throughout, her story remains inspiring and I recommend that every woman and young woman read this book. Her story is yet another example that women that achieve great things in this world regardless of what any misogynist may think. This is a former First Lady of the United States, who personifies class, intelligence and many other things that young women all over the world can aspire to achieve.