In This Episode
- In July of 2014, Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife were accused of being spies by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and were arrested. Jason was held captive for 544 days, and he’s the host of Crooked Media’s podcast, “544 Days.” He joins us to discuss his experience in captivity.
- And in headlines: Merck asked the FDA for emergency use authorization of its experimental COVID-19 pill, Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights since last weekend, and DC Comics announced that the new Superman is bisexual.
Priyanka Aribindi: It is Tuesday, October 12th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast that turns you into a blueberry if you listen to it at Timothy Chalamet’s Chocolate Factory.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, OK, so in other chocolate factories, it is the chewing gum that does that, but Chalamet had a different take on that part of the story.
Josie Duffy Rice: It’s a new generation baby. On today’s show, Southwest canceled thousands of flights since last weekend. Plus, he’s not a bird and he’s not a plane, but the man of Steel is bi and he’ll come out in an upcoming issue of the comic.
Priyanka Aribindi: But first, we are going to highlight one of Crooked’s newest pods and honestly one of my favorites. It touches on freedom of the press, a married couple used as bargaining chips in an international dispute, and avocados, of all things.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, I know that sounds like a Mad Lib, but it it’s not. This story starts in 2012, when Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian landed a dream job. The Washington Post hired him as its bureau chief in Tehran, the capital of Iran. And for a couple of years, he made his mark by covering stories in ways that highlighted the regular people of the country. But then, in July of 2014, he and his wife were accused of being spies and arrested by the Revolutionary Guard.
Priyanka Aribindi: He was held captive for 544 days. 544 Days is also the name of the Crooked podcasts he now hosts, all about the experience of himself and his wife, Yegi. Today he’s here with me now. Jason Rezaian, welcome to What A Day.
Jason Rezaian: Thanks so much for having me, Priyanka. I really, really appreciate it.
Priyanka Aribindi: I appreciate you being here. So I don’t want to spoil too much about the show because I really want people to listen. It is captivating. But the first episode touches on some of the reasons that the Revolutionary Guard thought you were a spy. One of which included avocados, which I was not expecting. I don’t think anyone listening to the show would expect. Can you walk us through some of the reasoning that they thought you were a spy, and then, you know your experience processing that, like how you tried to make sense of it?
Jason Rezaian: So when we were first arrested, I thought that this is just a horrible mistake. I was blindfolded, handcuffed, put in a room, sat down, and had all of these questions thrown at me. And one of them was about avocados and a failed Kickstarter project that I had posted four years earlier. And then I realized in the weeks ahead that, no, they had hacked into my emails and looked for anything that seemed confusing or strange or out of the ordinary, and tried to concoct those into charges against me. The Avocado Project was the first one of many, but you know, these were some of the things that were used against me to justify my arrest and my detention for a year and a half.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, and I really wasn’t expecting your captors to be the way that you and your wife, Yegi were describing them. We have some audio of her from the show so our listeners can hear her say for herself:
[clip of Yegi Rezaian] Dumb, but also shameless motherfuckers. Like they are willing to play with people’s life for what they want.
Priyanka Aribindi: Can you tell us a little bit more about the guards and interrogators, the people you were dealing with throughout this process, and then, you know, your interactions or relationships with them?
Jason Rezaian: Well, first of all, I should apologize. There’s a lot of F-bombs in this show, but my captors were, were as Yegi said, pretty dumb. You know, not the most sophisticated people. And that’s a, a scary thought. I mean, they are supposedly the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. I call them the counterintelligence wing because everything about them was the direct opposite of intelligent. You know, these are guys that have no understanding of how the rest of the world works. They haven’t traveled anywhere. They’re very indoctrinated in the revolutionary dogma of the Islamic Republic. And anything that is deemed to be opposed to the Islamic Republic, potentially dangerous to the Islamic Republic, or things that they just can’t understand—because things that they can’t understand could potentially be dangerous—they are seen as threats. You know, they continue their propaganda campaign against me. It’s almost six years since I’ve been released. They made a 30-episode series, supposedly about me.
Priyanka Aribindi: Wow!
Jason Rezaian: I think four to six episodes would be plenty. 30 episodes, I’m not really sure what they thought that they were doing there, but—
Priyanka Aribindi: That was wild.
Jason Rezaian: It is wild, but it’s also quite dangerous. I mean, my wife and I still get threats on social media, death threats, because of it.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. So what strikes me, you know, even now, having this conversation and listening to your show is how normal you and your wife sound. So during the time that you were held captive, you know, you weren’t tortured in the physical way that people might think of when they think of that, but you kind of realized you were being tortured in other ways. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience and how your life has changed as a result?
Jason Rezaian: Yeah. You know, solitary confinement is the epitome of torture. In some ways, it’s more effective than physical brutality, because your mind is such a powerful tool, but it also can be turned into a weapon used against yourself. I was kept in solitary confinement for seven weeks in a cell that was four feet by eight feet. Lights were turned on all the time. You know, the idea is to break you, to disconnect you from reality, to make you malleable, to turn you into a caged animal. And it works. Along with that, I was deprived of sustenance, living on a diet of a few hundred calories every day. I lost a tremendous amount of weight. And so when I came out of that and when I was released after a year and a half, there is a lot of psychological scars. But there were certain things that I did during my imprisonment that I think buffered me against some of that. One was I found things to try and laugh about it. I also found ways to walk in my confinement. And just being able to keep your body in motion kind of tricks your mind into thinking that you’re not confined. So those were a couple of things that I did that helped me out. But as time went on after my release, I realized that there were going to be things that that stuck with me, things that may never go away. So, you know, while I am able to laugh at the experience, it’s not a joke.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, completely. It really was a testament to you and where you are now, and also just who you are that you can listen to your show and feel like engaged and it’s not as like dark. There are funny moments in it. I was just really impressed by that.
Jason Rezaian: Thank you.
Priyanka Aribindi: I’m wondering how you felt, you know, while you were in prison about, you know, the likelihood of ever leaving, because you know, you are confined, and in some cases in solitary confinement. Like, did you realize that people still knew you were alive and were trying to get you out of there? Did you think that, you know, like, I’m not actually sure if anybody knows?
Jason Rezaian: It went in waves. You know, pretty quickly, within a few days, my captors were telling me, Well, you know, our domestic media has reported that you and your wife died in a car accident, nobody’s coming to get you. As time went on and I started to cultivate relationships with the prison guards, I started to hear bits and pieces of things that were being said about me publicly. I started to get more and more of an understanding that there were efforts to get me out. My concern then became, am I going to spend many years here. It was less, am I going to die in here? And more, am I going to get old in here? And I tell people that I feel like I spent the perfect amount of time in prison. You know, long enough that, you know, it left an imprint that’s never going to go away. Short enough, that the anger and resentment that was developing, I’ve been able to confront that and move forward.
Priyanka Aribindi: Well, that’s, that’s good to hear. I’m wondering how it’s been for you and your wife now, kind of through this experience of doing your show and writing your book. I don’t know if you’re reliving the experience per se, but just recounting it so often—how has that been for you?
Jason Rezaian: In the beginning, it was really hard because I didn’t have the narrative in my mind the way that I wanted to tell it. And now, it might sound crazy to say, but it feels more like a story that I have to tell than an open wound that needs to heal. I hope that in telling this story, especially in this format, we have the opportunity to affect the ways that people think about hostages, about Iran, about press freedom, about love, about family, about, you know, the American citizens’ relationship with their government—so many different things that I think we can learn from the story that we have to tell here.
Priyanka Aribindi: You know, now I want to ask you about all of those things that you talked about and how, you know, your opinion has changed or solidified or whatnot. But I am going to leave something for the listeners of your show.
Jason Rezaian: For the show, OK, good.
Josie Duffy Rice: Jason Rezaian, thank you so much for being here today and for sharing your story.
Jason Rezaian: It was a real pleasure, Priyanka. Thank you so much.
Josie Duffy Rice: While there’s much more to this story, you can hear all the rest by listening to 544 Days hosted by Jason Rezaian. The entire series is out now for free, and it’s exclusively on Spotify. That’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads.
Josie Duffy Rice: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Josie Duffy Rice: Some promising news in the global fight against COVID-19. Pharmaceutical giant Merck asked the FDA yesterday to grant emergency use authorization of its experimental COVID-19 antiviral treatment. Early trials of the drug molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by about half among at-risk patients with mild to moderate COVID cases. The FDA has already authorized three other antibody drugs that proved highly effective at reducing COVID-19 deaths. However, they are expensive, hard to produce, and require specialty equipment and health professionals to administer them. Merck’s groundbreaking pill could help curb outbreaks in poorer countries with weak health care systems. It could also be an alternative for the 60 million eligible Americans still unwilling to get vaccinated that isn’t a horse de-wormer, bleach injections, or making your muscles really big so COVID is afraid of you—although I can confirm that that does work. Health experts have compared this pill to Tamiflu, the 20-year old flu drug that shortens bouts of influenza and blunts the severity of its symptoms. And the company has yet to publicly disclose the side effects, but promising data suggests that the pill is equally effective against coronavirus variants.
Priyanka Aribindi: This is really exciting news, and Josie you and I were talking. You were talking about how yesterday we canceled Moderna, and today, you know, we have a new people’s pill.
Josie Duffy Rice: Totally. We have moved on. We’re just team whatever company is doing, like, decently that day. So . . .
Priyanka Aribindi: [laughs] Our allegiances change day by day.
Josie Duffy Rice: Exactly. We’re not loyal to the soil when it comes to our drug companies, which I think is exactly how we’re supposed to be.
Priyanka Aribindi: Precisely. We hope you had a better start to your week than passengers on Southwest Airlines. The Dallas-based airline canceled more than 1,800 flights over the weekend and suspended hundreds more yesterday. As of Monday afternoon, 10% of the carrier’s ‘day of’ scheduled flights had been scrapped, according to the online tracker FlightAware. There is a bit of a blame game going on in trying to figure out the root cause of these disruptions. On Sunday, Southwest released a statement blaming traffic control issues and disruptive weather. However, the Federal Aviation Administration attributed the delays to quote “aircraft and crews being out of place.” As for that theory, some have speculated that the cancelations are due to pilots calling in sick in defiance of the company’s COVID vaccine mandate. But the pilots union denied organizing any action and instead blamed Southwest’s poor planning. Yikes! What a nightmare. Our hearts go out to the thousands of passengers who are stranded across the country, quickly becoming Halloween skeletons as they wait on Southwest’s customer support line.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, that sounds—
Priyanka Aribindi: Unpleasant.
Josie Duffy Rice: It’s very unpleasant, and it feels like everybody’s fault. I’m blaming everybody.
Priyanka Aribindi: Everybody.
Josie Duffy Rice: That’s my specialty. That’s my 2021 motto: it’s everybody’s fault. Netflix’s commitment to free expression doesn’t extend to three of its employees who were suspended after crashing a virtual meeting of executives to air their concerns about Dave Chappelle’s new standup special, “The Closer.” In the special, Chappelle returns to an idea he’s been workshopping for years now, namely transphobia. At one point, he voices his support for the trans-exclusionary radical feminist ideology, saying quote, “I’m team TERF. I agree. I agree, man. Gender is a fact.” It’s just such an unnecessary hill to die on.
Priyanka Aribindi: Why? Why are you saying this?
Josie Duffy Rice: The special especially has been condemned by advocates from the LGBTQ community, including Tara Field, a trans engineer at Netflix who posted a long Twitter thread about the special this weekend. She connected the ideas promoted in the special to violence against the trans community. Field was one of the people who joined the high-level Netflix meeting, so she’s currently suspended. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos has stood by the company’s decision to finance and release the special saying he doesn’t think it crosses the line by intentionally inciting hate or violence—which is below the bare minimum of what anyone’s looking for when they watch a quote “comedy special.”
Priyanka Aribindi: Certainly. And I mean, in addition to, you know, this being bad, not particularly interested in watching this, the point that this is a virtual meeting that these people were able to crash means that someone who was invited to the meeting wanted, like Slacked them the link and was like, show up.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right. Nobody just like randomly stumbled upon the executives meeting.
Priyanka Aribindi: The meeting and like, walked into the room? No, like—
Josie Duffy Rice: Totally.
Priyanka Aribindi: Multiple people.
Josie Duffy Rice: We need more answers. Just so you guys know, Priyanka and I are on it. We will let you know what has happened with the Netflix brouhaha.
Priyanka Aribindi: WAD pod investigates.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, yeah.
Priyanka Aribindi: But it’s not all bad in the world of queer news. Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, and DC Comics marked it by announcing that the new Superman is bisexual and will fall for a male reporter in an upcoming issue of the “Superman: Son of Kal-El” comic series. This Superman is John Kent, the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. As a bi superhero, his powers are flying, heat vision, and having way more potential matches on Hinge. The Superman: Son of Kal-El writer said that the idea of replacing the original Superman with another quote “straight white savior” felt like a missed opportunity. This new Superman is far from the first queer superhero, and comics haven’t shied away from commentary on major social issues in recent years. But experts say that the visibility and archetypal American nature of Superman does make this coming out a big deal. For all the Superman stans, new and old, the newest issue of the series will be released on November 9th. A happy National Coming Out Day to all.
Josie Duffy Rice: I feel like this is so exciting. I mean, I don’t know anything about comics.
Priyanka Aribindi: Me either.
Josie Duffy Rice: OK, so we’re in good company, but I have, I do know who Superman is. I mean, generally.
Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, that is definitely one of the biggest, I mean, if you and I know who we’re talking about, definitely a big deal.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right huge.
Priyanka Aribindi: Also like cool detail that he’s falling for a journalist.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes!
Priyanka Aribindi: Dreamy, dreamy folks.
Josie Duffy Rice: I love it. I love it.
Priyanka Aribindi: And those are the headlines.
Josie Duffy Rice: One more thing before we go, Lovett Or Leave It is back with weekly live shows at Cinelounge Outdoors in Hollywood through November 4th. In this week’s live show, Lovett is joined on stage by our beloved Akilah Hughes—who we love so much— plus Solomon Georgio, Brandon Wardell, and Larry Wilmore. Listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts.
Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, match with Superman on Hinge, and tell your friends to listen.
Josie Duffy Rice: Seriously, why am I married? I should be matching with Superman on Hinge right now. And if you’re into reading, and not just blinking red departure times at airports like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi.
[together] And make COVID afraid of you with vaccination!
Priyanka Aribindi: Or your pill, if it gets approved. Otherwise don’t, don’t be taking random pills.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, don’t take a pill that anybody tells you is the Merck pill because it’s not out yet. They’re lying to you.
Priyanka Aribindi: At least not like on our advice. We, we’ve covered our bases here.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, we’re not doctors.
Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lance. Jazzi Marine is our associate producer. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and myself. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.
- Listen to “544 Days,” only on Spotify – https://spoti.fi/3v2QX5r