PEN WORLD VOICES FESTIVAL:
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
Jason Jones and Maziar Bahari
Times Square is Evacuated in Bomb Scare.
There it was, a headline on my computer screen and on the front page of the newspaper that sat on a table in the PEN World Voices hospitality suite at the Roger Smith Hotel at 49th and Lexington, a few blocks east of Times Square.
A sultry Spring into Summer weekend. Crowds of people wandering the streets of mid and uptown Manhattan. On Union Square at 14th Street, protesters hold signs that read, "Boycott Arizona." Near the Hudson River, another group, "Stop Offshore Drilling."
Later, after the Taliban claimed responsibility for the car bomb in Times Square, Executive Editor, Kim Nagy and I found ourselves in the dimly lit Florence Gould Auditorium on East 59th Street where Canadian-Iranian documentary filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari reunited with The Daily Show's Jason Jones.
In June of 2009, Jones and the Daily Show crew traveled to Iran to conduct a series of satirical interviews, one of which was with Bahari. After Iran's Presidential election sparked protest and violence followed, Jones's interview landed Bahari in Tehran's Evin Prison. There, Bahari was interrogated, tortured and held captive for 118 days.
PEN World Voices Festival Freedom to Write Program and the Committee to Protect Journalists had reunited Bahari and Jones to discuss Bahari's arrest. Jones began in the manner Daily Show fans expect: deadpan, ironic, there's a joke in this somewhere and we're going to find it.
There were plenty of jokes in what followed. But the deeper message couldn't have been more serious. According to Larry Seems, Director of PEN's Freedom to Write Program, Iran remains the world's leading jailer of journalists. There are currently 60 writers, journalists and artists behind bars, and hundreds more who have been arrested and interrogated.
"It's great to continue a conversation that began in coffee shop in Iran," began Jones, as if that coffee shop might be across the street from the New York theater. "Maziar is an Iranian born Canadian documentary filmmaker who works for Newsweek. Tell the audience about yourself."
Bahari fell easily into the banter. In fact, he told his story as he if was a reporter reporting about the ordeal of a man named Maziar Bahari. "I was arrested after the disputed elections in June, imprisoned for 118 days and released because of an international campaign. And so I am now an international celebrity."
In what would become a balancing act between serious history and theater of the absurd, Jones urged Bahari to give some context to the violence that erupted after the elections last June.
"Basically in Iran since 1905 (Persian Constitutional Revolution), a gap appeared between educated pro-Western Democracy elite and the general population who followed a more traditional way of life. But this gap was narrow and it eventually resulted in the 1979 revolution against the Shah. That was when Iranian people started to demand more rights, such as freedom of expression, of the press...But the government that came out of the revolution regarded people as part of a United Muslim Nation - not a Democracy - meaning the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah, had power over the people in the way the Pope has power over the Catholic church.
But education and exposure to outside information via the Internet began a new movement where there was no place in the culture for a dictatorship. Before last June's election, the Ayatollah and his revolutionary guards were planning how to counter what they saw as a potential uprising. At the same time many people, in urban areas and even in smaller towns were demanding their rights. They were ashamed after four years of President Ahmadinejad - They didn't want him denying such things as the Holocaust."
According to Bahari, many people in Iran chose the more moderate Moussavi as their candidate. But," he continued. "Ahmadinejad has 'street smarts.' Much of Iran is rural and even in a big city like Tehran, people come from the countryside and live on the outskirts of the city. They need basic services. Ahmadinejad promised and delivered water, food, electricity. The fear of losing these services influenced the vote."
Jones brought up the point that his original interview with Bahari was intended as comedy, and that the Revolutionary Guard who arrested Bahari should have known that. "They aren’t stupid people," he said. "We have a laugh track on our show."
"Whenever you are isolated and you don't know about other people and what’s going on outside of your country that makes you stupid even though you have a high IQ," said Bahari. "Those were my interrogators. They don't know The Daily Show, and they didn't know who you were."
"But they have Google," said Jones.
"I don’t know what happened exactly," said Bahari. "But more than my appearance on your show, they were angry about the fact that I talked about values that Iran and America had in common. My interrogator was fascinated with New Jersey."
"The ultimate American destination," added Jones.
"According to them, you want to create a New Jersey kind of Islam with naked women and Michael Jackson music. It was so bizarre to have this mixture of Jon Bon Jovi and Atlantic City and the CIA. I think my interrogator had a fascination with the name, New Jersey. He didn’t know a lot about the West. Worse, he had these misleading views. He was also fascinated with sex and went through all my Facebook emails. He asked me if I had sex with all of the women. Some of whom were Nobel laureates.
He was beating me and saying why don’t you just write your confession – it’s just you who are suffering – write something and confess and you will be out of here. Lot of things they tired to charge me with ignorance and malice.
I am a member of two Facebook fan pages – Pauly Shore and Anton Chekhov He asked me about Pauly Shore. Who is Pauly Shore? He is a comedian, I say, and he says, everyone you know seems to be comedian, I will investigate. And then he asked me about Anton Chekhov.
"Who’s Anton Chekhov?"
I say, a Russian playwright.
"What did he write about?"
"Existential stories taking place on dachas outside of Russia."
"Was he a Jew?"
"I don’t know. But I don’t think so, although I may be wrong."
"He sounds like a Zionist to me. I’m going to investigate."
After that, they didn’t ask me about any of my friends who had the surname ov. I have a friend Shempov and they didn’t ask me about him. Checkov, Shempov, whatever."
In answer to a question from the audience, Bahari gave a hint into how, after so much press, a regime might endure.
"I don’t think that all the Iranian people hate the regime," he said. "This form of government still has the biggest support among the biggest groups in Iran. You have to see that it doesn’t matter if people like the regime or not. The silent majority does not want change. Usually people who have been through so much turbulence want to have peace and security. But, I think this process will come to fruition. Imagine this: In Russia Nikita Krushchev came to power in 1954 and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. I don’t know when change will happen and the silent majority will speak, but I am hopeful that they will."
Maziar Bahari is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is a reporter for Newsweek. Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government in June 2009 and released on bail October 20, 2009. Bahari has written for The New York Times, New Statesman and the Guardian. His films have been shown on HBO, BBC, and Channel 4, among others.
Jason Jones, a correspondent for The Daily Show, is an actor and comedian.
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