Anthony Bourdain: Why are these good Iranian people in jail?

08/06/2014 7:00 AM

08/06/2014 6:16 PM

I desperately wanted to film in Iran. My show, “Parts Unknown,” examines cuisines and cultures around the world, and I’ve found that if I merely show up and ask simple questions — “What’s for dinner? What do you like to eat? Do you like to cook?” — people always surprise me. I try to suspend judgment, to put aside what I know or think I know and travel without fear or prejudice. I try, first and foremost, to be a good guest. People everywhere are proud of their food and their culture, and even where they have little reason to be kind to an American (Vietnam, Cuba, Gaza, the West Bank), I’ve been welcomed with enormous generosity again and again. I’d heard that the Islamic Republic would be, once I got inside, particularly hospitable and rewarding.

It took many years of trying, but we finally received approval from the government and I flew to Tehran with my crew of four in June. While there are certainly restrictions to shooting a TV show in Iran, the country was exactly as we’d heard from the few who’d been there: ridiculously friendly. The officials I met while filming there were welcoming, even enthusiastic, that a Western television crew wanted to look at their country from a more culinary and cultural point of view. The sinister-sounding ministry in charge of our approvals was congenial and actually helpful. If there was surveillance, it was unobtrusive. There were none of the clumsy attempts to shape our experience that we’ve endured in, for instance, Romania and Egypt.

Our crew explored Tehran and Isfahan, eating some delicious and sophisticated food. We were welcomed with open arms at every restaurant we visited. It was at one of these long lunches where I met The Washington Post’s correspondent, Jason Rezaian, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi. They were well-known and liked in Tehran and were referred by mutual friends who knew they would be helpful.

A few weeks later, they were mysteriously arrested and detained. Based on what they told me, I cannot possibly understand why. Here’s what happened.

One afternoon, our crew piled into a production van and drove to a restaurant in the mountains on the outskirts of Tehran. Thousands of locals go there each weekend to stroll, to eat, to relax. The view of Tehran from the terrace was spectacular. We lingered there eating the famously delicious chelo-kebabs, saffron rice and flat bread. Our hosts delighted in pointing out for our cameras all the names of dishes which had originated in Persia (kebab, biryani, etc.). There was a family mood to the afternoon; parents with children, older couples, and teenagers — all happy to be at leisure on a beautiful day.

Jason and Yeganeh looked happy, too — and deeply proud of their heritage and the country they were helping to show me. They wanted the best for it and they were great emissaries on its behalf. They calmly discussed the context for the animus between the Islamic Republic and the United States in recent decades. They stressed how deeply the country still felt the reverberations from its war with Iraq. And they came back, again and again, to the importance of Iran’s connection to the past, to the Persian Empire and to an ancient language that is still spoken today.

They acknowledged the difficulties of living in a nation very different from the United States, where they had last lived. But they were clearly in love with Tehran. At one point, I asked if they planned to move back to the States any time soon. No, they told me, because it was so easy to love the city and the country. They were content. They were not agent provocateurs.

In short, two more kind, positive and open-minded ambassadors of understanding could hardly be imagined. They enriched my understanding of a very old, extraordinary and deeply complicated nation.

I am deeply worried for both of them. They seem to have dropped off the face of the Earth. No communication. No reasons given. Just gone. These are good people. This wonderful couple are a danger to no one. They are nobody’s enemy. Why are they in jail?

Anthony Bourdain is host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” and author of “Kitchen Confidential.”

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