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Enlighten Me: Yeganeh Rezaian

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This past week, five American hostages being held in Iran got their lives back. They were released as part of a deal between the U.S. and Iran, in which President Biden agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian assets. The freed Americans flew from Tehran to Qatar and then back home to the U.S., where they were finally reunited with their families. There were long embraces and tears of relief and joy. But Yeganeh Rezaian saw something else.

YEGANEH REZAIAN: I looked at the faces of their wives and their children and how, despite the fact that their husbands were now sitting next to them in that picture, you still see the pain and the fear.

DETROW: Yeganeh, or Yegi (ph), as she's called, has lived this experience. Her husband, Jason Rezaian, is the Washington Post reporter who was held in Iran's Evin Prison for 544 days on false charges of espionage. He was released in January of 2016. NPR's Rachel Martin got to know Jason and Yegi when they both moved to Washington, D.C. She's interviewed Jason before about his experience in captivity. But for this week's Enlighten Me, Rachel talked to Yegi about what it's like to be the one waiting on the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Yegi actually knows what it's like to be wrongfully detained from the inside out.

REZAIAN: I was detained for 72 days. A word - let's say 2 1/2 months. And Jason was detained for 18 months.

MARTIN: I wanted to understand what had kept Yegi sane during that time, how she kept the despair at bay, how she learned to live for that year and a half, not knowing when or if her husband would be released, if they would ever have the life they dreamed of having.

The man who would become your husband, Jason Rezaian, was working as a reporter in Tehran for The Washington Post and other outlets. What was your first impression of him?

REZAIAN: Well-read, well-traveled, very open-minded, very sweet, a little bit disheveled. I had to fix his style (laughter).

MARTIN: You had to fix a style after you got together (laughter).

REZAIAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So you have this good life for a while, right? You get married.

REZAIAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Life is good.

REZAIAN: Yeah, we got married. I got a very good job. We had a rental apartment, but it was really cute. Everything seemed good.

MARTIN: So then this awful day happens. In July 2014, you and Jason were arrested for espionage. You were both kept in Evin Prison in Tehran, which is where political prisoners are held and people who dare to speak out against the regime. Can you walk me through, Yegi, the anxiety that was coursing through you in those early days?

REZAIAN: It's impossible to capsule it in a few words or a few sentences because there's a lot happening in those moments, especially in those early hours. You don't know why they raided your house. They are throwing, like, legal words at you that you have never heard before. They are talking about things that sound foolish to you, but then that's what they are calling you - those things like spy or that you are hiding. Dark is - like, dark hours, dark days, dark moments is the simplest way to describe. You're lost. Jason was taken away from me. I haven't seen him - I didn't see him for 37 days.

MARTIN: Jason wrote in his memoir that after that, you were allowed to see each other - right? - in this very controlled environment. Guards are watching you.

REZAIAN: Yes. For a few minutes.

MARTIN: For a few minutes.

REZAIAN: Yes. First of all, I was not told that I'm going to see him. They just very quickly and abruptly take me out of my cell. And I was quite worried because every time they come and get you in that - the situation is so bad and terrifying that actually after a couple of nights, you feel safe in that cell. But every time they come and get you, you are worried about, are they taking me for mock executions? Are they taking me for violent interrogations? Are they taking me to torture me? Are they taking me - like, so many different unknown, uncertain, unexpected situations. So we were told for that first meeting that I was not allowed to say any words and I had to follow the room.

And I didn't say any words until I - the moment I saw Jason - and, imagine, that was, like, 40 days almost. And he had lost 40 pounds, and he did not look like himself. His face was so pale and his beard grew so long, and I could see his eyes were, like, obvious that he was deprived from food and water. And he must have cried a lot. And then I started screaming. And then I remember the prison guard was like, we said you cannot talk. I said, I'm not talking. I'm screaming (laughter). I'm laughing now. But anyway...

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MARTIN: You were eventually released, and Jason was not. For more than a year, you lived in this purgatory, waiting to understand what was going to happen to your husband.

REZAIAN: The situation gets so complicated that it's so easy to forget about the family members who are going through the same ordeal but with different circumstances.

MARTIN: Yeah.

REZAIAN: I remember after a few months when I was released, the situation was so tough that I was telling my mom or my sister that I feel like it was easier when I was in prison because I was a little bit more aware, or every now and then I would get to see one of these interrogators. But now I am out, and I don't know where he is, I don't know how he does. I don't know what's going on. I don't know who was deciding and what they are deciding. And I feel very helpless. There's nothing I can do that would make his situation slightly better.

MARTIN: And you didn't know when it was going to end or if it was going to end. So how...

REZAIAN: That's right.

MARTIN: ...This is the big question, but what did you lean on in that time? I mean, where did you go for solace? Where did you find it? Where did you find some kind of respite?

REZAIAN: Rachel, you won't believe if I tell you that many years later, I'm still exhausted from those days. It was a very uncertain, scary situation, but I remember it as a very lonely situation. I didn't have anyone to talk to because I didn't have Jason - who was not just my husband, was my best friend, was my whole world - to talk to. And then I didn't want to talk about so many things with my parents because I didn't want to pressure them. Like, there was no point in sharing more uncertainties or sad feelings or my pain 'cause they were already there. They were witnessing it. They were going through it with me, every step of the way.

So for the first two months when I got out, I didn't do anything. I just sat on a couch in my parents' house. I didn't do anything. I didn't go out. I didn't even go back to our apartment. Like, I was paralyzed, physically and mentally. And I remember one day my sister - she and I are only 13 months apart, so we are, like, really, really close, like almost like twins. She came home from work at around 6 p.m. There's this saying in Farsi, in our language, that says, like, you have lost your everything. Like, there is no color beyond darkness or blackness. You are already in that black hole, so what else do you have to lose, right? And then she said, you have lost everything. Your world is black black. Why are you sitting here for the past two months and doing nothing? I owe this to my sister for pushing me.

So the next morning, I woke up at 5 a.m., and I was standing in front of the Foreign Ministry at 7 a.m. And I hand-delivered a letter for the former foreign minister, and that was the beginning of all the moves. And I remember walking a lot. I would walk everywhere, to these offices all around Tehran, by foot, not just because I couldn't afford to get a taxi or a bus or da, da, da (ph), but I needed to feel in my time and just keep going and thinking and...

MARTIN: Plus, there's like a forward motion. I mean, it is lightly squishy (ph), but one step.

REZAIAN: Yes, and...

MARTIN: You just keep taking one step.

REZAIAN: And that was not my thought at the moment, and I knew that I was being chased at many different occasion. And I thought to myself, OK, these people are playing with my life. I'm going to play with them. So from that day, I just left the house every morning, honestly, at 7 a.m. - winter, snow, rain - and I walked around the city. And every day, I found the purpose to do something, like write this letter and deliver it to this office and that office. So I would spend my afternoons drafting these letters in Farsi and English, walking, exercising. And...

MARTIN: You were living, Yegi. You were living, which was an act of defiance.

REZAIAN: Yeah. I decided that they have taken everything away from me, but I have to move forward.

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MARTIN: Eventually, after 544 days, Jason was released as part of a prisoner exchange with Iran. And he and Yegi flew to the U.S. to start over. It's been seven years, and they have built a beautiful life here. But for Yegi, the grief of all that time lost still lingers just beneath the surface.

REZAIAN: You know, every time there's one of these stories of a hostage being released, whether it's Iran like this past week, or Brittney Griner or the Venezuelans or the two Reuters journalists who were imprisoned in Myanmar a few years ago, I relive the whole thing. That day, I can't cook. I'm barely able to work. It's just - I'm paralyzed.

MARTIN: What was it like this past week when these hostages came home for you? You went through that same emotional paralysis?

REZAIAN: Pretty much, but I think - there has been a change in recent situations, and that's that now that I am a mom - believe it or not, Rachel, I try to - I turn the TV off. I turn all my notifications off on my cellphone. I don't check any Twitter or Instagram or news. And if Jason has to do interviews, I honestly kick him out of the house and go to my son's bedroom, and I just play with him because I do not want to remember or I do not want to relive that pain.

MARTIN: Did it change you on a spiritual level? And when I say that, Yegi, I mean not in any kind of religious way. Did it change what you believe about human nature? Did it change your view on the permanence or impermanence of things?

REZAIAN: Yes. First of all, it taught me patience. I was not a very patient person at all. If you ask Jason, he says I'm still not. But I learned that the whole world can stop so you spend a little bit longer time with your loved ones. It's OK if you don't take a train today and instead go tomorrow. Yes, it's the job, it's important, money is involved. But what I have learned is that everything we have in this world and in this life that we live, supposedly only one time, is your people - your husband, your child, your mother, your brother, your sister. And the whole world can wait for me to love my people a little bit longer.

MARTIN: Yegi, thank you so much for doing this. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.

REZAIAN: Thank you so much. I think it's helpful.

MARTIN: Yeganeh Rezaian, senior research director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.