“Rosewater”—and Personal Anecdotes of Iran

December 8, 2014

Based on the true story of an Iranian-born journalist named Bahari, Rosewater marks Jon Stewart’s directorial debut. It is the comedian’s stark drama of Bahari’s arrest for his courageous broadcast journalism. In 2009, Iranian president Ahmadinejad declared victory in his election hours before the polls had closed. In response Bahari bravely submitted camera footage to the BBC showing the unfolding street riots. After his arrest by Revolutionary Guard police, an interrogator identified as “Rosewater” tortured and interrogated him for 118 days. Rather than my adding to the many critiques of this film (I do give it a 3 on a 4-point scale), I thought I would instead share impressions of my own experiences in Iran in a contrastingly different time—some incidents showing the more favorable behaviors of many ordinary Iranians.

From late-1970 into April 1971, a girlfriend and I traveled in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. By January 30, we had left Istanbul, Turkey, for Iran, paying to ride with some Swiss-Germans who, as we would soon learn, were blackmarketeers. They planned to sell the Jaguar, Mercedes, and Opal they were ferrying to Afghanistan, without paying duty on them, then fly back to Switzerland. We traveled on through Tehran to Mashhad where we were finally dropped off. We visited with my childhood friend Darryl Spencer, who was then teaching at the University of Mashhad after serving (as part of his Peace Corps work) in the village of Bidokht for nine months. From there we had other travels and adventures in Iran.

Having entered Iran on February 1, we had stopped after dark at a restaurant. Our car was separated from the other two, whose drivers we were to meet at a hotel further on in Tehran. Since we were short of local currency, our driver Karl ordered two meals to be shared by the four of us (including his girlfriend). We were repeatedly brought extra flat bread and onions, then served tea—all of which we were accustomed to paying extra for in Turkey. To our surprise, however, when Karl offered his only 100-rial note, the owner very graciously but firmly refused to accept any payment. Was our sharing meals mistaken as evidence that we were poor, or was he simply being kind to some westerners? Or was it some of both? Whatever the answer, it was a model of good treatment in Iran. Although we could not speak a word of Farsi we gestured our profound thanks for his generosity.

We were in Mashhad a dozen days before leaving on a side trip to Afghanistan. One day we were walking with Darryl down a neighborhood street when an approaching elderly man stopped, smiled, and, putting his hand over his heart, bowed deeply. I made a similar friendly gesture and the man passed on. Darryl was nonplussed, explaining that the man’s gesture was one of deepest respect and not bestowed lightly—certainly not to a stranger. He was quite bewildered. “Oh,” I said casually, “I know him.” Now Darryl was really incredulous: How could I know someone in Mashhad, when I was a first-time visitor? I explained that one night recently at the nearby hamam, or public bath, I had performed magic tricks for some locals, including children, among them a little boy who appeared to be the man’s grandson. Afterward the man had disappeared from sight briefly and returned with a bottle of Coca-Cola as a gift. Obviously he still remembered me fondly a day or two later!

There were other friendly exchanges throughout our stay—for example at the shrine of Omar Khayyam. At Darryl’s suggestion, I did some magic for the guards—including the classic cut-and-restored rope, substituting a piece of purple yarn a guard happened to have in his pocket. Darryl translated my patter. I’m not sure how he rendered “magic dust,” which I sprinkled over the tied pieces to make the knot disappear. But when I pretended to brush some of the imaginary substance off the sleeve of the guard who was holding the other end of the cord, that got a big laugh all around. Afterward (as I noted in my journal), one said in Farsi, which Darryl translated, “Many people come here, but few give us such pleasure.” And again, we were wonderfully treated in Bidokht. We arrived in the village in a rented jeep with driver, and, as word spread, a flock of Darryl’s former students arrived, shaking hands and even kissing his hand. He was able to borrow a head-covering for my girlfriend and obtain for us a rare tour of a Dervish shrine. From its roof we had a view for miles, including an area of ruin from an earthquake of two years past.

However, not everything was always pleasant in Iran. My girlfriend’s lack of head-covering caused some disrespect here and there, and once, on our returning to Mashhad from a sightseeing trip, our bus was stopped by rifle-toting authorities checking for smallpox vaccinations. They knew we were protected and did not even look at our offered international health certificates. Locals, however, who could not show a vaccination scar or offer some other proof, were vaccinated on the spot—including one protesting man along with his sons. The man’s face showed his anger at what had just happened—being forced to undergo inoculations when he perhaps did not really understand them—and such attitudes did not seem to bode well for the future.

The two of us even got a small taste of how westerners could themselves be treated by authorities when we were coming back from our visit to Afghanistan. We had simply not given a thought to the need for return visas, and we suddenly found ourselves under detention at a remote border outpost. Our luggage atop our bus was thrown down, and our passports were locked in a desk drawer as the bus was sent on without us. We were eventually returned to Afghanistan by the expedient of officials forcing a Jordanian immigrant family heading that way to crowd us in as passengers—as a condition for their own passage.

In 1979—after years of protests from fundamentalists and sometimes violent suppression in return—Iran’s U.S.-backed Shah was forced to flee the country. Revolutionaries took sixty-six hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, who were not released until 1981. Relations between Iran and the U.S. and its allies continue to be strained—over its apparent quest for nuclear-weapon capabilities and its human-rights abuses.

Today, Iran’s many fanatical excesses include suppression of the Baha’i World Faith, a religion founded in Iran (then Persia) in the nineteenth century. (Baha’is have no priesthood; believe not only in evolution but in the evolution of all things, including religion; promote the oneness of all great faiths; and work toward world unification.) My wife, Diana, is a Baha’i (although her relatives were converts), and through her I am, no doubt, more aware than most, of the violent suppression and imprisonment of peace-loving Baha’is. Some are held in the very prison where the journalist Bahari suffered detention. Diana and I look to a future where religion is nowhere used as a weapon, but where all people of faith—and of no faith—can live together in peace.