I desperately wanted to film in Iran. My show, Parts Unknown, examines cuisines and cultures around the world, and I’ve found that if I merely show up and ask simple questions — “What’s for dinner? What do you like to eat? do you like to cook? Where did his dish originate and why?” — people always surprise me. I try to suspend judgment, to put aside what I know or think I know and travel without fear or prejudice. I try, first and foremost, to be a good guest. People everywhere are proud of their food and their culture, and even where they have little reason to be kind to an American (Vietnam, Cuba, Gaza, the West Bank), I’ve been welcomed with enormous generosity again and again: the kindnesses of strangers. I’d heard that the Islamic Republic would be, once I got inside, particularly hospitable and rewarding.
It took many years of trying, but we finally received approval from the government, and I flew to Tehran with my crew of four in June. While there are certainly restrictions to shooting a TV show in Iran, the country was exactly as we’d heard from the few who’d actually been there: ridiculously, outgoingly friendly. The officials I met while filming there were welcoming, even enthusiastic, that a Western television crew wanted to look at their country from a more culinary and cultural point of view. The sinister-sounding ministry in charge of our approvals was congenial and actually helpful. If there was surveillance, it was unobtrusive. There were none of the clumsy attempts to shape our experience that we’ve endured in, for instance, Romania and Egypt.
Our crew explored Tehran and Isfahan, eating some spectacularly delicious and sophisticated food. We were welcomed with open arms at every restaurant we visited. (The proprietors of our hotel in downtown Tehran must have found out from our visas that it was my producer’s birthday, because they invited us all down to the office, where they surprised us with a cake.) It was at one of these long lunches where I met The Washington Post’s correspondent, Jason Rezaian, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi. They were well-known and liked in Tehran and were referred by mutual friends who knew that experienced English-speakers — with a unique perspective from straddling both worlds — would be helpful to our production.
A few weeks later, they were mysteriously arrested and detained. Based on what they told me, I cannot possibly understand why. Here’s what happened:
One afternoon, our crew piled into a production van and drove from the hotel to a restaurant in the mountains on the outskirts of Tehran. It’s an area where thousands of locals go each weekend to stroll, to eat, to relax. The view of Tehran from the terrace was spectacular, so it was a lovely place to film. We lingered there eating the famously delicious chelo-kebabs, saffron rice and flat bread. They delighted in pointing out all the names of dishes that had originated in Persia (kebab, biryani, etc.). A family mood prevailed; parents with children, older couples and teen-agers — all happy to be at leisure on a beautiful day.
Jason and Yeganeh looked happy, too, and deeply proud of their heritage and the country they were showing me. They wanted the best for it. They were great emissaries on its behalf. They calmly discussed the context for the animus between the Islamic Republic and the United States in recent decades: the British/American coup that toppled the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh; the installation of the Shah; the creation of the dreaded Savak, the secret police; what that had meant to so many thousands of families. They stressed how deeply the country felt the reverberations from its war with Iraq. And they came back, again and again, to the importance of Iran’s connection to the past, to the Persian Empire and to an ancient language that is still spoken today.
They acknowledged the difficulties of living in a nation very different from the United States, where they had last lived. But they were clearly in love with Tehran. They spoke respectfully and affectionately of Iran. They had not let the difficulties of reporting for an American newspaper get them down. They did their best to explain what, for outsiders, would appear inexplicable. I asked if they planned to move back to the States any time soon. No, they said, because it was so easy to love the city and the country. This feeling, they added, was widely shared. They were content. They were not agents provocateurs.
In short, two more kind, positive and open-minded ambassadors of understanding could hardly be imagined. They enriched my understanding of a very old, extraordinary and deeply complicated nation. I think this fall, when people watch the episode I filmed there, they will be surprised, whatever their feelings on the politics. It will challenge their assumptions, just as my trip challenged mine. Jason and Yeganeh helped me to look at their country more deeply and with an open heart.
I am, of course, deeply worried for the both of them. They seem to have dropped off the face of the Earth. No communication. No reasons given. Just gone. These are good people, much loved and admired all over the world. I am, unfortunately, growing used to seeing bad things happening to good people. But this I can’t get used to, or ever understand. This wonderful couple is a danger to no one. They are nobody’s enemy. They are without blame or malice. Why are they in jail?