Then They Came for Me, A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival

  • Maziar Bahari
  • Random House / Colophon
  • 389 pp.

A true story of captivity, torture and survival in Iran.

Reviewed by Andrew Imbrie Dayton

Bad government, oppression and Orwellian doublespeak prosper in Iran as it stays the course of pariah state and religious thugocracy. This is the clear and compelling message delivered by journalist Maziar Bahari, who endured 118 days of torture and imprisonment in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. His crime: reporting results of the 2009 election that Ahmadinejad, incumbent protégé of the supreme leader, Khamanei, stole from Moussavi, leader of the opposition Green Movement. Needless to say, Bahari was never allowed to see a lawyer, faced a slew of nebulous charges, some of which even his torturers admitted lacked a definition (e.g., “media espionage”), and gained freedom only after intense international pressure.

By Western standards, Bahari’s reporting was fairly innocent. By the standards of the supreme leader, Khamanei, however, even photographing demonstrations was unacceptable. And for good reason: a secret pre-election poll had predicted a clear landslide in favor of the reformist Moussavi — 16-18 million vs. 6-8 million for Ahmadinejad. This enormous split could not go unnoticed by the general populace or be explained away by polling errors, particularly given that the poll was administered by the government’s own Ministry of Intelligence. If anything, the respondents would have been expected to fear the government and favor Ahmadinejad. Khamanei feared the transparent government promised by Moussavi because it would undoubtedly bring to light the corrupt practices of his main pillar of support, the Revolutionary Guards.

Herein lies some of the most interesting reading in the book: the political backdrop. In the eyes of the West, it’s all too easy to confuse Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic) with Khamanei (his successor); the Revolutionary Guards with their volunteer arm, the Basij. After a prologue describing his arrest and setting up the main drama of the book, his Kafkaesque incarceration, Bahari deftly backtracks to describe the political scene: Khamanei and Ahmadinejad have cemented their power by backing the Revolutionary Guards, which historically had been a paramilitary force established by Khomeini shortly after the revolution. Ahmadinejad had allowed the power and reach of the Guards to expand without check, to the point that through intimidation and corruption they now owned major business monopolies and controlled large segments of the economy. Despite this power, their legitimacy still depended on Khamanei, who in turn needed them to stifle political opposition. It was the Guards who rigged the 2009 election for him. In 2005, Ahmadinejad had won reelection by false promises of support to the expanding population of the poor. His failure to deliver had led to widespread dissatisfaction amongst the populace, setting the stage for him to be voted out of office in 2009 — which undoubtedly would have happened, absent election fraud.

Well after his release, Bahari was able to piece together how he fit into this scenario: The Guards had been planning for a year to crack down on the reformists by associating them with Western powers after the election, during the chaos they knew would ensue. They chose three prominent targets to smear with a fabricated plot, with Bahari being the one to be labeled as the connection between the evil Western media and the reformists. No one in Iran believed this scenario and it fell apart on its own, leaving the Guards and Khamanei with no credible plot, for which they suffered a lot of external pressure — begging the inevitable question of whether these shepherds of the Islamic revolution are more dumb than they are corrupt or more corrupt than they are dumb. It would seem to be a toss-up.

Bahari is to be given considerable credit for enduring his ordeal. His four months of torture involved repeated beatings, isolation and forced confessions — all at the hand of a primary interrogator whose only pleasures seemed to be complaining about his wife’s nagging, listening to Bahari invent stories about massages from a naked Thai masseuse and occasionally interrupting beatings to provide tea and fruit breaks for his charge. Bahari survived by thinking of his pregnant wife and the unbreakable courage of his father and older sister (with considerable ambivalence for living up to their standards) both of whom had been similarly incarcerated and tortured, his father under the Shah, his sister under Khomeini.

Ultimately Bahari gained freedom because he was famous. One can only ponder the fate of the political prisoners without fame, left forgotten in Iranian prisons.

Though occasionally flawed with gratuitous editorializing and lackluster raptures, Then They Came for Me is engaging and informative — a gripping tribute to human dedication and a cogent indictment of a corrupt regime.

Andrew Imbrie Dayton is a contributing editor of this journal and co-author of a forthcoming novel about Iran, The House That War Minister Built.

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