July 29, 2014

Meet My Friend Imprisoned in Iran

My friend, Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, was recently arrested in Iran. When his home was raided, Jason’s Iranian wife and two other dual nationals were also taken into custody. Fast forward one week, and four unknowns increasingly frighten Jason’s friends and family: his whereabouts; the charges against him; who exactly is behind the decision to target Jason; and not knowing how long this entire ordeal will last. Suffering from high blood pressure, he is in dire need of his medication. Without it, his health is in danger.

To some, Jason is simply the latest in a long line of journalists who have been treated terribly by the Iranian government. To others, he’s recognizable from sporadic in-person encounters or his Washington Post byline. But to me, he’s J — my good friend that also happens to be a stellar journalist in Iran.

J isn’t political in his reporting, nor does he chose sides in the factional infighting that is a hallmark of Iranian politics. Instead, I’ve watched him grow into one of the best Tehran-based correspondents in recent memory. When he interviewed for theWashington Post job, I was one of his references. “Why should I hire Jason?,” the editor asked. My response? “Because not everybody can navigate the political, economic and social labyrinth that is Iran. And J does it better than most.” A quick glance at his reporting over the past two years speaks for itself.

Jason Rezaian
Arrested Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian (left) with Anthony Bourdain in northern Tehran, Iran

While it’s clear to everyone that J excels as a journalist, friends and family will tell you that his true gift is his kind heart. Despite always having a deadline looming, he takes the time to listen, share his trademark glass-half-full outlook, and charm you with his wit, manner and hearty laughter. From helping people settle into their lives in Tehran, to connecting foreigners with the myriad tourism and sightseeing opportunities across Iran — J is the person that so many people go to when they need help, advice or comfort.

When his father tragically passed away in 2011, J briefly returned to his native Bay Area to help close his family’s Persian rug business. I’d call him to help give his mind a brief respite. A week later, a pristine Persian rug arrived at my doorstep. Others also received the surprise gift. J insisted it was the least he could do for good friends, and the proper way to honor his father’s memory: After the Iran hostage crisis, he gave rugs to over 40 hostages as gifts upon their return to the U.S. As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Three days before J’s house in Tehran was raided, we were both in Vienna to cover the Iran nuclear negotiations. I hadn’t seen him for over six months, so it was a pleasant surprise that our schedules overlapped. When the negotiations ended a day early, we met up the next morning, chose a restaurant for brunch, and proceeded to chat for the next four hours — not about politics, but about life. J told me about how much he’s enjoying married life, and the hopes and dreams he and his wife hope to pursue.

As we parted ways, we agreed to try and meet up in San Francisco. “I’ll call you when I get to SF in a week or so,” he wrote to me later that evening, as he got ready to board his plane back to Tehran. “Try to come out there for a few days. We’d have fun.” I said I’d keep him posted, but I never got the chance. 24 hours after I returned to Washington, unidentified men took him away to an undisclosed location in Iran.

J is a peaceful soul who could have easily chosen a comfortable life in the United States. He moved to Iran out of love for his roots. “Never forget where you’re from,” he’d tell me. In the years I’ve known him, he has tirelessly sought to build bridges between Iran and the outside world — even while others tried to blow up the bridges he was standing on.

However, his positive mental attitude shouldn’t be mistaken for naïveté. J has always been clear-eyed about the very real challenges facing Iran and his life there. But even throughout our last conversation in Vienna one week ago, his outlook on Iran’s future remained hopeful. Maybe that’s why I’ve woken up every day for the past week feeling sick to my stomach — “You’ve got the wrong guy” doesn’t even begin to explain this tragic situation.

When your friend is arrested and you’re half way around the world, you feel powerless. My heart tells me that I’m letting J down because I’m not doing more — even though my mind knows that it’s impossible to do more. The longer his detention continues, the more responsibility I feel to make sure his story isn’t forgotten. News dies when there are no developments — and it’s likely that J’s captors know this. So, this is my first attempt at keeping his story alive. Hopefully it will also be my last — but that’s up to the Iranian government, not me.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.


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