If NEWSWEEK correspondent Maziar Bahari were not being held in a Tehran prison without formal charges, without access to a lawyer, without being allowed to see even his mother, there would be no one better to tell the story of an Iranian like him and the tragedies that his family has suffered in the last few years.
"I don't know when these terrible things are going to stop happening," 83-year-old Molouk Bahari said, amazed, angry, and agonizing after Maziar was arrested at the family home in Tehran early on the morning of June 21. He is the last real emotional support left in her life. "He was doing nothing wrong. He was doing his job," she said. "There is no reason for him to be held like this."
Those who imprisoned Bahari, to the extent that they have identified themselves at all, have tried to paint him with the same brush as the reformist candidates they accuse of plotting what they call a "color revolution," like, say, the Orange one in Ukraine. Since the stunning public rejection of the June 12 election results, which claimed that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won reelection with an implausible 63 percent majority, the regime has been using any means at its disposal to pound the idea into the minds of Iranians that the uprising was all a nefarious plot cooked up by Britain and by conspirators in the media. Last week, a transcript of a supposed "press conference" with Bahari was released in which he suggested he might have been led astray by his need for money and might have given a biased view of the situation on the ground. He also speculated about the possibility that foreign powers might use journalists as spies.
Anyone familiar with the current Iranian regime's attitudes and practices can see this labored statement was forced. "Maziar is a veteran journalist who has always strived to meet the highest standards of accuracy in his reporting," said NEWSWEEK Editor Jon Meacham. "His fairness has been evident throughout his decade-long career, and has never been in question."
The Iranian government announced on Sunday that another journalist, Greek-British citizen Iason Athanasiadis, has been released after being held for more than two weeks. According to the state-funded PressTV Web site, Athanasiadis, who reported for The Washington Times, was arrested for "unethical and unprofessional behavior and his role fueling the recent unrest." But the actual formal charges against him were reduced to nothing more than technicalities concerning his visa. The final decision to let Athanasiadis go was based on "humanitarian" considerations, according to the report. (Canadian citizen Maziar Bahari is now the only foreign national working for major foreign media who is still being held.)
It is hard for Molouk to take much consolation from such news. Too many times in recent years, hope has turned to tragedy. In 2006, Molouk's husband, Ali Akbar, the retired managing director of a large construction company, died of a stroke. In 2007, Molouk got word that her eldest son, Babak, who had moved to Philadelphia decades ago and seemed to have turned his back on his home and homeland, had passed away. Maziar, on one of his trips to the United States, went to Babak's grave and took a picture for the family to see.
In 2008 Molouk's only daughter, Maryam, came down with leukemia. After a valiant battle against the disease, she seemed to be recovering earlier this year. But in February she, too, died. Maziar, 42, is Molouk's only child left alive. And he is in prison, his condition unknown, his crime a political fiction.
Only twice in two weeks has Maziar Bahari been able to make a phone call. Both times, he dialed his mother. Both times, he told her not to worry, that he was doing all right. But, Molouk, who was one of the few women of her generation to attend university in Iran, and who has a degree in chemistry, is not one to be fooled by her son's efforts to make her feel better. "I just want Maziar to come home," she said the night he was arrested. "I just want my son back." A proud woman, she did not want to talk more about the case, and one is left with the impression that even after all the devastating tragedy in her life, she is unwilling to bend before injustice.
It is by focusing in on just such stories about other people that Maziar Bahari has become one of the most widely known and respected Iranian documentary film makers of his generation. He's produced imaginative and award-winning work in Africa, in Iraq, and, indeed, all over the world. But his special talent, as the Harvard Film Archives put it, is to "provide a glimpse inside contemporary Iranian culture," to reveal "the human element behind the headlines and capture cultural truths through the lens of individual experience."
In a Bahari film, the mother's mournful, dignified anger would have spoken for itself. But then the camera might have moved to Khaled, 27, the son of Molouk's late daughter, who now lives and works in Australia. He is part of that vast Iranian diaspora that has spread around the world these last 30 years.
"The first news I always got when I called Molouk was news about Maziar—or as my grandmother calls him, 'Mazi.'" says Khaled. "I always knew if Maziar was in Iran or not just by hearing my grandmother's tone on the other end of the line: happy meant Maziar was there, and so-so meant that Maziar was not in Iran."
After Maziar's father died, Khaled tells us, Maziar spent more time in Tehran and moved into the same building where his mother lived. Eventually, Maryam and her husband and her teenage daughter, went to join them there. "Everyone was happy to have Maziar next to Molouk helping her in her decisions about everything and being a person on whom my grandmother could lean," says Khaled.
"Maryam, my mother, was the closest member of the family to Maziar. I remember her saying many times that something was justified 'because Maziar says so.' Even though she was 10 years older than Maziar, she was always looking at Mazi as the source of solutions to problems. She worked closely with him on some of his films.
"The last time I saw my mother was in August 2008," says Khaled. "I don't clearly remember what exactly we discussed because there were a lot of things: politics (of course), cinema, art, Iran, Australia, the outside world. I had no idea that my mom was diagnosed with leukemia and she was receiving chemotherapy. When she died, Maziar was the person who gave me the news. I did not go to Iran, I did not speak with many people about my mom. I refused to see the video of her funeral.
"Except for my grandmother, no one cried when speaking with me on the phone, and I can imagine why not," says Khaled. The family's suffering was beyond tears. "Maziar had lost a colleague, a sister and a good friend. My dad had lost everything, my grandmother had faced yet another disaster in a very short time."
"When they arrested Maziar, I called my grandmother," says Khaled. That is when she asked him when the ordeals would end. "She does not expect anything good to happen," says Khaled. But she would like to see her son again, and soon.