And all of a sudden this universe was created,
this universe that was guarded by Mr. Leonard Cohen,
and it was just ridiculous to me that this old Jewish [man],
and one of the most cynical poet songwriters in the world,
managed to save me in the heart of the Islamic Republic.1
The Imprisonment And Torture Of Maziar Bahari
Maziar Bahari, reporting on the presidential election in Iran for Newsweek, was arrested in June 2009, accused of being “an agent of foreign intelligence organizations,” including, according to his interrogator, “CIA, MI6, Mossad, and Newsweek.” He was kept in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he was repeatedly tortured and threatened with death until, perhaps as a result of a campaign by the world press as well as diplomatic efforts, he was released on bail October 17, 2009, a few days before his daughter was born in London.
He credits his psychological survival, in large part, to being able to create a “parallel universe” in which he could reside apart from his physical surroundings and dire circumstances.
His story, “118 Days, 12 Hours, 54 Minutes,” published November 21, 2009 in Newsweek (issue dated November 30, 2009) is compelling reading. While this post focuses on one area of special interest, Maziar Bahari’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music to survive his ordeal,2 I urge viewers to read the original article for the perspective it offers on a political environment as bizarre and surreal as anything Kafka could envision.
NPR’s Fresh Air interview, ‘Then They Came For’ Journalist Maziar Bahari, was originally broadcast on June 15, 2010.3
A thorough, 40 minute interview with Maziar Bahari is available on CBC at Maziar Bahari Interview. The portion dealing with Leonard Cohen’s music begins just after the 18 minute mark. A shorter video encapsulation of the events covered in the report and support for my comment about “a political environment as bizarre and surreal as anything Kafka could envision” can be found in the final sections of this post.
Maziar Bahari Thanks Leonard Cohen For “A Whole Musical Refuge Of Lyrics And Melodies”
I’ve appended videos of Leonard Cohen performances to the following excerpts taken directly from “118 Days, 12 Hours, 54 Minutes.” Adding any other annotation would only diminish the eloquence and intensity evident in these passages:
My wife, Paola, is breast-feeding our 2-week-old daughter, Marianna, on the couch. The little girl is enjoying every drop of milk. No Madonna and child were ever more beautiful. We are listening to one of the songs that kept playing in my head in Evin, that helped me tune out what was happening and find some peace inside myself—”Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” by Leonard Cohen:
I loved you in the morning,
Our kisses deep and warm,
Your hair upon the pillow
Like a sleepy golden storm.
Those lines became Paola for me, part of a whole musical refuge of lyrics and melodies. Of such stuff is survival made. Thank you, Mr. Cohen.
Leonard Cohen – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
NYC: Feb 19, 2009
Video from albertnoonan
The morning of my “confession,” I woke up humming “The Partisan,” a Leonard Cohen tune about World War II resistance fighters:
When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender,
This I could not do;
I took my gun and vanished.
The thought of resisting had crossed my mind, too. But why? I was a journalist, not a freedom fighter. Political prisoners in Iran were forced to make false confessions all the time. I’d always known they had been coerced, and had sympathized with the victims. Surely others would feel similarly about me. But even now, months later, the experience gnaws at me. My father spent four years in prison under the shah without asking for mercy. What would he think of his son apologizing to the Supreme Leader after eight days?
Leonard Cohen – The Partisan
Dublin O2: 7/20/2009
Video from albertnoonan
My true refuge, though, was music. Once, after a particularly brutal beating, I swallowed three migraine pills and passed out. Two women came to me in a dream. They had kind faces; in fact, they reminded me of my sister Maryam, who had died of leukemia in February.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Sisters of mercy,” they answered.
They touched my forehead gently to soothe the pain. In the dream I smiled and heard Leonard Cohen singing his song of the same name:
Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
I woke humming those words, free of pain. From that moment Leonard Cohen became the guardian of my universe. He was the secret that Mr. Rosewater [the interrogator] could never discover.
Leonard Cohen – The Sisters Of Mercy
From the 1972 Bird On A Wire documentary
Maziar Bahari’s Arrest, Imprisonment, Torture, & Release
As one might expect, there is extensive coverage of Maziar Bahari’s ordeal in the world press and broadcast media. Of the available sources I reviewed, I found this video most helpful.
Update: Viewing video now requires 60 Minutes All Access subscription
Maziar Bahari: Witness – CBS News
The Damning Evidence: Maziar Bahari’s Appearance On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
In my introduction, I contended that Maziar Bahari’s experience revealed Tehran’s “political environment [to be] as bizarre and surreal as anything Kafka could envision.” I can back up that notion.
In the video below, Maziar Bahari briefly appears in a segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which Jason Jones farcically parodies the sort of factfinding report from Tehran typically seen on network TV. Directly following the video is the pertinent portion from the article, “118 Days, 12 Hours, 54 Minutes,” in which this clip is used as evidence of Mr Bahari’s malicious intent toward the country of Iran. No further explanation is necessary – or possible.
Jason Jones: Behind the Veil – Minarets of Menace
Daily Show Excerpt From “118 Days, 12 Hours, 54 Minutes”
Evin Prison, June 26, 2009 (after evening prayers)
Mr. Rosewater was not alone. I could hear someone else in the room, another interrogator. He was complaining about my written answers to questions about different individuals. When he came closer I saw he had shiny, polished black shoes on. His trousers were neatly ironed and creased. “Mr. Bahari, your answers are very general. We hope that you can give us more detailed answers,” he said. He sounded more mild-mannered than my normal tormentor. He was the good cop today, the voice of reason.
“I just write what I know, sir. And if I give you more details, that means I’m lying.”
“Well,” said Mr. Rosewater, who had been fairly quiet up to this point, “we have interesting video footage of you. That may persuade you to be more cooperative.” I could not imagine what that might be. Something personal? Something that might compromise my friends? But…I reminded myself I had done nothing wrong.
I saw the flicker of a laptop monitor under my blindfold. Then I heard someone speaking. It was a recording of another prisoner’s confession. “It’s not that one,” said the second interrogator. “It’s the one marked ‘Spy in coffee shop.’ ” Mr. Rosewater fumbled with the computer. The other man stepped in to change the DVD. And then I heard the voice of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
Only a few weeks earlier, hundreds of foreign reporters had been allowed into the country in the run-up to the election. Among them was Jason Jones, a “correspondent” for Stewart’s satirical news program. Jason interviewed me in a Tehran coffee shop, pretending to be a thick-skulled American. He dressed like some character out of a B movie about mercenaries in the Middle East—with a checkered Palestinian kaffiyeh around his neck and dark sunglasses. The “interview” was very short. Jason asked me why Iran was evil. I answered that Iran was not evil. I added that, as a matter of fact, Iran and America shared many enemies and interests in common. But the interrogators weren’t interested in what I was saying. They were fixated on Jason.
“Why is this American dressed like a spy, Mr. Bahari?” asked the new man.
“He is pretending to be a spy. It’s part of a comedy show,” I answered.
“Tell the truth!” Mr. Rosewater shouted. “What is so funny about sitting in a coffee shop with a kaffiyeh and sunglasses?”
“It’s just a joke. Nothing serious. It’s stupid.” I was getting worried. “I hope you are not suggesting that he is a real spy.”
“Can you tell us why an American journalist pretending to be a spy has chosen you to interview?” asked the man with the creases. “We know from your contacts and background that you told them who to interview for their program.” The other Iranians interviewed in Jason’s report—a former vice president and a former foreign minister—had been arrested a week before me as part of the IRGC’s sweeping crackdown. “It’s just comedy,” I said, feeling weak.
“Do you think it’s also funny that you say Iran and America have a lot in common?” Mr. Rosewater asked, declaring that he was losing patience with me. He took my left ear in his hand and started to squeeze it as if he were wringing out a lemon. Then he whispered into it. “This kind of behavior will not help you. Many people have rotted in this prison. You can be one of them.”
Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post from Foreign and Commonwealth Office; used under Creative Commons license.
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Nov 23, 2009 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric.
- Iranian-Canadian journalist talks of prison ordeal. CBC: Nov 22, 2009
- In addition to his affection for Cohen’s music, Maziar Bahari also attributes part of his connection with the singer-songwriter to having lived in within a few blocks of Cohen’s home in Montreal for several years.
- For a hard copy of this interview, click on Transcript.