IRAN, November, 2014—Words matter. Especially in Iran, where what is permissible — to say, to do, to be seen to say or do — is an ever-changing thing.
It took us many years of trying before we were finally allowed into Iran, the country with which we probably have the most contentious relationship on Earth. At the time, we thought that perhaps our welcome was an indicator of a new attitude, an opening of a window. But as it turned out, that is probably not the case. The window appeared to slam shut in particularly ugly fashion shortly after our departure.
What we saw, what we came back with, is a deeply confusing story. Because the Iran you see from the inside, once you walk the streets of Tehran, once you meet Iranians, is a very different place than the Iran you know from the news. Nowhere else I’ve been has the disconnect been so extreme between what one sees and feels from the people and what one sees and hears from the government.
Iran’s official attitude toward America, its policies, its actions in the region, is a matter of record. How it treats its own citizens with respect to their personal behaviors is also a matter of record. You do not want to be perceived as behaving inappropriately in Iran, as we saw in the video of kids dancing along to the song “Happy.” And what is inappropriate is an ever shifting thing. What the “government” or the president says is OK one day might be deemed dangerous or unacceptable by the clergy or the Basij (the roving unofficial but official religious police) on another — as we came to find out.
I’m going to be careful about what I say here. Even here.
Like I said. Words have consequences.
Not for me. I can go to China, for instance, and come back and say whatever I want about Tibet or human rights without fear. But what about the people I leave behind? The ones who were kind to me, helped me, innocently put their trust in me and my crew to not hurt them? That is something I think very seriously about — and it’s something we are very careful not to do: put people in harm’s way for no other crime than associating with us. Sadly, in much of the world, innocence is no defense against accusations … and worse.
One of the reasons this episode is deeply confusing might be because the vibe in Iran, the general feeling of walking down the streets, through the markets, the way we were received everywhere by total strangers and passersby was overwhelmingly friendly. I have said that Iran is the most outgoingly warm, pro-American place we’ve ever shot, and that’s true: In Tehran, in spite of the fact that you are standing in front of a giant, snarling mural that reads “DEATH TO AMERICA!,” we found that you will usually be treated better by strangers — meaning smiles, offers of assistance, curious attempts to engage in limited English, greetings and expressions of general good will — than anywhere in Western Europe. It would be hard to imagine strangers in Germany or France or England, on recognizing you as American, giving you a thumbs up and a smile simply for your nationality. That was overwhelmingly the case in Iran.
We were having an off-camera gathering to celebrate our producer Tom Vitale’s birthday at a restaurant in Tehran. When the other diners heard there was a birthday at our table, the whole dining room sang us “Happy Birthday” in Farsi and English. This was not an isolated incident, only one example. Our daily experiences were filled with delightful incongruities.
At the time we were there, the mood was cautiously hopeful for a time when we, Americans and Iranians, might see more of each other in the near future. Iran, it should be pointed out, is very beautiful. The food is spectacular. Iranians are very proud of their cooking — and for good reason. They are also famously generous hosts.
During my time in Iran, I was not naive about where I was or the realities of the situation. The secret police camped out a few doors down from my room were a reminder (to be fair, they were very congenial). The fact that Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are forbidden was another. On the other hand, the sinister-sounding Ministry of Guidance, to whom we had to refer for approvals, was unfailingly congenial and helpful. No intrusive government presence or attempts to shape our story were felt as we went about our business, unlike any number of other places we’ve shot over the years.
We were not there to do an exposé of life inside Iran. Nor were we there to do a fair, balanced, comprehensive overview — or anything of the sort. My intention was simply to give a flavor of that weird intangible, what it feels like to walk the streets, sit at the table, look around. To listen. To show you what I saw.
This is not a black-and-white world — as much as people would like to portray it as such. That’s not an apology for anything. I’m just saying that the brief, narrow slice of Iran we give you in this episode of Parts Unknown is only one part of a much deeper, multihued, very old, and very complicated story. Like anything as ancient and as beautiful as the Persian Empire, it’s worth, I think, looking further. But it’s also a place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next.
At the time of this writing, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian remains imprisoned. The reasons for his arrest have never been explained. In our time with him, on camera and off, he was unfailingly affectionate and generous in his portrayal of Iran. He was, if anything, an advocate for understanding. It is a mystery and an injustice that any would find fault with him or his wife, Yeganeh, who has only recently been released.
[Update: Jason Rezaian was released from prison in Iran on January 17, 2016. He and Yeganeh now live in Washington, D.C.]