Tales from a Torture Chamber

Random House Group

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


In 2009, Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari spent more than three months in Iran’s most notorious prison, Evin. His harrowing experience is the subject of his new memoir, Then They Came for Me (Random House).

Before being arrested, Bahari worked as a Newsweek reporter in the Islamic Republic. Mindful of the dangers of being a journalist in Iran, Bahari, who’s Iranian-Canadian, produced documentaries and articles with sensitivity to the government’s strict press laws. But when Iran’s 2009 presidential election approached, pitting the unpopular incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the more progressive Mir Hossein Mousavi, Bahari had a difficult decision to make. Ahmadinejad’s previous term had not been a good one for the country; the economy performed poorly, unemployment was high, and frustration among the country’s populous youth was growing. A progressive who promised to open Iran up to the world, Mousavi’s chances looked good. But Bahari hesitated to cover the story. His wife, Paola, was pregnant with the couple’s first child at their home in London. He ultimately decided to go to Tehran, promising his wife that he’d come back to spend three uninterrupted months with her afterward.

Ahmadinejad of course won the election, and demonstrations erupted across the country, with an especially strong representation among the youth, who felt that the election had been stolen. Bahari paints a vivid picture of protesters waving banners reading “Where Is My Vote?” His connections and in-depth understanding of the people, culture, and politics in Iran allow him to make acute observations, such as when he marches with the protesters: “There was no chanting, no angry words—just a peaceful ribbon of green flags, bandanas, wristbands, and scarves moving from Revolution Square toward Freedom Square with an air of quiet and calm.” Soon after the protest, Bahari was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard at his mother’s house in Tehran and taken to Evin prison, where he would spend the next three months of his life.

Bahari is tormented in prison by a man he can identify only by scent: Rosewater. For months, Rosewater berates and beats Bahari for being a “spy.” Then They Came for Me takes us through the sense of abandonment, anger, and paranoia one feels in Evin, Iran’s decades-old, secretive torture chamber used by multiple Iranian regimes. In fact, Bahari’s father was tortured by the Shah of Iran in Evin. His sister spent years in the prison under the Khomeini regime as well. In 2003, Zahra Kazemi, another Iranian-Canadian journalist, was killed in Evin after she took a picture of the prison. After three months of his own personal hell, Bahari was lucky to be released on October 20, 2009.

His account is filled with intriguing and at times absurd anecdotes, like the time authorities accused Bahari of helping a spy navigate the country—the “spy” was actually Jason Jones from The Daily Show who had interviewed Bahari in Tehran for a skit about the elections. Or the time Bahari heard the voices of Americans in the prison, who turned out to be the three hikers who have been in Evin for nearly two years (one of the hikers, Sarah Shourd, was released last year).

While Bahari’s vivid descriptions make for a good read, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Then They Came for Me is Bahari’s ability to capture the frustration that many Iranians, at home and abroad, feel toward Iran’s current government. Bahari describes a nation run by “thugs” much more concerned with the implementation of religious and political tyranny over pluralism, freedom, and a stable economy. Then They Came for Me is not only a fascinating, human exploration into Bahari’s personal experience but it also provides insight into the shared experience of those affected by repressive governments everywhere.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate