Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival (2011)
By: Maziar Bahari
I’m not sure why I have a fascination with survival stories… Aron Ralston, the story of the Essex, Life of Pi… Hell, Survivor got me into reality television.
So, naturally, where should I find myself next, but Maziar Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival.
I saw Bahari on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – after the novel had been released. Jon Stewart, as always, was a gentleman. As they talked about Bahari’s imprisonment and his powerful, albeit comedic, novel, I got the feeling that Stewart felt genuine remorse for having played a part in Bahari’s capture and interrogation. Of course, Polly Shore has just as much to do with it as Stewart does, but it’s a testament of Stewart’s character that he apologized.
The book stayed on my mind, but I didn’t pursue it further.
As the years continued, Stewart interviewed someone in Hollywood – I forget the actor or director – and they mentioned his movie… Come to think of it, it might be Ron Howard’s quote, “I read it, and it did not feel like it had first draft-itis at all… It felt fluid and tight and beautifully realized.”
Then Jon Stewart talked more, about how he didn’t even want to write the screenplay, but getting someone else required too many Hollywood hoops. He did it; he invested in it. And when John Oliver took over so that Stewart could film Rose Water, I finally said, OK, I’ll read it.
I had no idea Rose Water was the antagonist, I thought it sounded sweet, idyllic, refreshing. No doubt, the educated Maziar Bahari redacts the beauty of rose water as a metaphor for his country.
This is one of the saddest formal apologies I’ve ever read and while the epilogue is meant to leave us with hope, it feels forced, a necessary compromise to say “they haven’t won,” but after sitting through Maziar’s survival, it just comes across as empty words. Perhaps it would have made a deeper impact had I read the epilogue years after the book, but I had no optimism in me when Maziar left Evin (prison).
Part 1 is undoubtedly the most promising. Maziar’s life is appealing: he has a lovely fiancé, a great job at Newsweek, a daughter on the way, and a love of his country (both of them).
Despite his brother, father, and sister being tortured by the Iranian government, Bahari loves Iran. He considers himself a beacon of knowledge, dismissing popular opinion (in America) and reveling in the culture and community (in Iran). He travels to the front-line of the revolution during the 2009 election. An election that is guaranteed to alter the tide of the government.
He boasts optimism despite mentioning how the media attention is the only thing that’s preventing kids/teens from being executed or arrested on-site.
But it was all a sham.
After relishing in his country, Bahari is crestfallen; he was wrong. And when his interrogator, Rose Water, comes for him, he loses all faith in Iran.
I’m not sure why Stewart said the book was funny. For me, this is the perfect example of, “It would be funny… were it not true.” But I couldn’t laugh. Even when Bahari is being interrogated about a Polly Shore fan club on Facebook. It’s absurd! Who would think that? — a sentiment Bahari states again and again. But the fact is, they did; it happened; it’s true.
And the most shocking part of all this is it happened in 2009. Knowing that this was so recent made me squirm. This is a ridiculous — ludicrous — scenario. This is Kafka meets Idiocracy! A legal system so dysfunctional that not even a super-genius has the wherewithal to figure out.
The second part is Bahari’s time spent in captivity and I’m not sure what was worse, hearing the physical trauma of his father and sister, or the mental wear of Rose Water.
When Bahari realizes Rose Water is not a low-level grunt, but someone highly trusted within the political circle, my skin crawled. Again, it’s what makes the epilogue so disconcerting. Apparently, Rose Water has a Master’s degree even. This man underwent more education than an American police officer, yet still acted like the stereotypical, brutish enforcer. Rose Water’s father was even tortured by the Iranian government, leaving you and Bahari to think, “What is wrong with this man? Does he not see the hypocrisy?”
I have no doubt that Bahari purposely juxtaposed Part 1 and 2 to make me (readers) better understand the psychological torment. Part 1 is the perfect representation of Bahari; he is a journalist and so he states the facts with first-hand interviews and a thorough history. He is concise and thoughtful…
Part 2 has no rhyme, reason, or incriminating evidence. It’s baffling! There is no logic. There’s no direction to Rose Water’s accusations; he literally pulls at straws to see if anything comes out. Whether it’s Bahari’s comedy routine on The Daily Show or his publications with “terrorist” media outlet, Newsweek.
You know when characters (in fiction) will say something vague like “So when were you planning on telling me?” And another responds with “How did you know I was hiding something?” And the character retorts, “Because you just told me.” That’s Rose Water’s idea of getting information and he goes about it with all the coyness of a 12-year-old.
By Part 3, I was burned out. I could not wait for the story to be done. No ifs, ands, or buts; just done. I too feared that Bahari would not get aboard his flight home; I too feared that even after takeoff, the flight would turn around.
But, Derek, this is non-fiction (a memoir), you’ve seen him on The Daily Show since this ordeal, how could you have any doubt that he would make it home safely?
Because, I’m telling you, my brain read it as fiction. I could not believe that the events described could happen to a real human being living in 2009. The fact that an ignorant, violent man is in a position of power terrifies me.
It was not easy to get through and it requires incomparable strength for Maziar to live through. For that, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the survivor… And that’s why it’s so unfortunate that I gained nothing from the epilogue. I cannot believe it will get better when the system is so broken.
But I will pray that I am wrong and view Maziar as a modern Tirisias; blind, but clairvoyant.
That’s the best I can do; I owe it to him to believe his suffering was not in vain.
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