Maziar Bahari says one thing can always be relied upon as a constant in the Middle East: Nothing is constant.
“Things change so quickly,” the Iranian-born Canadian says. “Two months ago, no one would have imagined that a dialogue would open between the U.S. and Iran. But now that seems to be happening.”
Bahari safely could be described as an expert on the region and its complex struggles, having worked as a journalist for Newsweek for more than a decade, mainly reporting from his native country. In 2009, things would go terribly wrong, when massive protests in Iran looked too close to becoming an all-out revolution for the government’s comfort. The authorities clamped down, arresting thousands, including Bahari, who they deemed a spy working for foreign interests.
After three months in an Iranian prison, where he was subjected to torture, Bahari was let go after widespread international pressure. He wrote a book about his ordeal, Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival (with Aimee Molloy), which became a bestseller. One of the strangest twists in his story is that an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in which correspondent Jason Jones pretended to interrogate Bahari about being a spy, was later used as evidence against him by Bahari’s prison interrogator.
That connection – along with Bahari’s bizarre and unsettling journey – led Stewart to take two months’ leave from The Daily Show last summer in order to adapt the book into a feature-length film, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari. It is slated for release next year.
Bahari says he was on the film’s set about 75 per cent of the time. Shot in Jordan, it’s titled Rosewater, which is the name he gave his interrogator – a man he identified only by the scent he was wearing. “It wasn’t strange when I was on the set, because there were so many things happening and I was just there to make sure things were authentic, that things were correct historically. But when I went back to my room and watched the dailies, sometimes it was really, really weird and emotional. It was a surreal experience. I think for anyone whose life has been depicted by someone else, it’s surreal.”
The questions that came up during Bahari’s interrogation were so ludicrous, he often found himself laughing when he returned to his cell, even after a thorough beating. He was told he must be a Zionist because of a 1995 documentary he had made about the Holocaust. He was queried about his connection to Anton Chekhov, and about Pauly Shore (he was asked about the movie actor because the name was mentioned on Bahari’s Facebook page). “The whole thing was like Kafka’s The Trial,” he says. “When I look back at my experience in prison, it looks like a really bad joke. Unfortunately, it was not a joke. It was very serious, and resulted in many, many tragedies.”
It was this strange collision of politics, tragedy, comedy, absurdity and farce that inspired Stewart to direct his first feature film. “I think Jon did a very good job with the film,” Bahari says. “I’m excited to see what the final result will look like.”
About the broader Middle East situation, Bahari says the term “Arab Spring” was always a misnomer, and that it’s difficult to consider it all a failure, given that each country in the region has its own unique history. “I’ve been to Egypt about 10 times in the last few years, and I didn’t see any substantive change. That’s why they were able to get rid of [ex-president Mohamed] Morsi so quickly. Tunisia is quite different: I was in Tunisia last year and you see a lot of changes there. I have quite a bit of hope for Iran, because the people are well-educated there and want change. In Egypt, 40 per cent of the people are still illiterate.”
Bahari has heard of the situation facing Torontonians John Greyson and Tarek Loubani. The filmmaker and physician, respectively, remain held in a Cairo prison, but, according to sources, have ended their hunger strikes. “My advice to the families of prisoners is to publicize their plight as much as possible,” Bahari says. “If I did not have the support of my colleagues at Newsweek and the BBC and my family, I wouldn’t be here. The families have to publicize the case as much as possible.”
Bahari adds that “the Canadian government has to be more vocal. I have to thank the Canadian government for what they did for me behind the scenes, but when the Americans talked about my case – in particular Hillary Clinton – the world listened. I’m sure the Canadians are doing their best diplomatically, but I think the government has to be more vocal about this.”
While Bahari says Greyson and Loubani’s case is “very sad,” he says the fact that they have each other in prison is an important thing for their survival. “The harshest moment for me was when I was left alone for about three weeks,” he says. “Those were the darkest moments because the prisoner’s worst nightmare is when you think no one cares about you. In solitary confinement, you have nothing to do. The [only other person in your] world is your interrogator. And when even he doesn’t come to see you, it’s really, really terrible.”
Maziar Bahari, a Concordia University graduate, will speak at the school’s D.B. Clarke Theatre in Montreal on Friday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. www.concordia.ca/alumni/resolute