When Iranian-born Canadian journalist, playwright, and filmmaker Maziar Bahari spent 118 days in solitary confinement in Iran, his interrogator focused on three subjects — sex, Jews, and New Jersey.
While the first two were perhaps understandable, Bahari said, he never understood the man’s obsession with the state.
“Why do people talk about New Jersey so much?” his interrogator would ask. “Why is it so famous? Why do so many people live there? Is it nicer than the rest of the states? Why do they call it the Garden State? What is the health care system like in New Jersey?”
If Bahari had no connections to New Jersey before his capture while covering Iran’s tumultuous presidential election in 2009, he does now: His story is told in the new film Rosewater, the film writing and directorial debut of Daily Show host Jon Stewart, born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz and raised in Lawrenceville.
That’s where a crowd gathered Nov. 11 at Adath Israel Congregation to hear Bahari speak about the film and Iranian politics at a program sponsored by the NJ chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
Based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, the film recounts his ordeal after being arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and accused of spying for the Mossad and the CIA.
Bahari had left behind in London his pregnant fiancée — now his wife — to work as a correspondent for Newsweek and the BBC when he was arrested
“I was surprised to be the mastermind of the Western media in Iran,” he said.
During the program, Bahari said he believed Iran’s threats over its nuclear program were a result of the country’s inferiority complex, history, and power structure.
For the Iranians, having a nuclear bomb would bring them prestige and usher them onto the world stage as a super power, giving the country the recognition and respect it feels it deserves and erase decades of denomination by foreign countries.
Using a sports analogy, Bahari compared Iran to the New York Mets who “never win a World Series, but yet they are not a small team.”
Bahari grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Teheran, where his first realization there were others different from himself was seeing Jews going to synagogue and “watching Jewish kids going to school wearing yarmulkes.”
“I think anti-Semitism is a Western notion,” he said. “I’ve heard more anti-Semitism in Canada, the UK, and U.S. than in Iran.” In fact, he said, “Iran, Turkey, and Israel are the most natural allies in the Middle East because they are the only non-Arab countries in the Middle East.”
Iran has been curtailing the aid it provides its proxy, Hizbullah, in order to avoid repercussions, said Bahari, who believes encouraging democracy would help end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “I think we need to do everything we can to curb its nuclear program, but it will not be the end of the world if it happens,” he said.
He warned that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would be far more dangerous than a negotiated settlement, because of the resentment it would generate in the radical Muslim world.
“If you’re afraid of ISIS, attacking Iran will create many more ISISes,” said Bahari. “They will be much more dangerous than Iran. It will be very, very bad for Israel and the United States.”
The 2009 demonstrations centering on Iran’s elections that he witnessed before his confinement impressed Bahari as he watched millions of people who “just wanted to have their votes counted.”
Their reliance on social media frustrated Iranian authorities, “who could shut down journalists, radio, and TV, but didn’t know what to do about Twitter and Facebook.”
Bahari watched in horror as the Revolutionary Guards beat up young girls and threw a woman through a car’s windshield.
He never knew the real name of his interrogator in prison, whom he nicknamed “Mr. Rosewater” after the scent that used to infuse the Shi’ite mosques he attended as a child along with his more religious aunt.
Bahari was blindfolded and tortured during his imprisonment by Rosewater, whose obsession with New Jersey kept coming up.
“I told him there are many Jews living not only in New York and New Jersey, but across the United States, and they were American citizens,” said Bahari, adding that such information seemed to agitate Rosewater, who would get up and pace around the room.
Bahari noted, “He sounded almost embarrassed by his lack of knowledge about New Jersey.”