Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

They Love Iran Yet Sit in Jail Jason and Yeganeh Told Me Wonderful Stories of Their Country, and Then Disappeared, Writes TV Host Anthony Bourdain

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

They Love Iran Yet Sit in Jail Jason and Yeganeh Told Me Wonderful Stories of Their Country, and Then Disappeared, Writes TV Host Anthony Bourdain

Article excerpt

I desperately wanted to film in Iran. My TV show, "Parts Unknown," examines cuisines and cultures around the world, and I've found that if I merely show up and ask simple questions - "What's for dinner? What do you like to eat? Do you like to cook? Where did his dish originate and why?" - people always surprise me.

I try to suspend judgment, to put aside what I know or think I know and travel without fear or prejudice. I try, first and foremost, to be a good guest.

People everywhere are proud of their food and their culture, and even where they have little reason to be kind to an American (Vietnam, Cuba, Gaza, the West Bank), I've been welcomed with enormous generosity again and again: the kindnesses of strangers.

I'd heard that the Islamic Republic would be, once I got inside, particularly hospitable and rewarding.

It took many years of trying, but we finally received approval from the government, and I flew to Tehran with my crew of four in June. While there are certainly restrictions to shooting a TV show in Iran, the country was exactly as we'd heard from those Westerners who'd been there: ridiculously, outgoingly friendly.

The officials I met while filming there were welcoming, even enthusiastic, that a Western television crew wanted to look at their country from a more culinary and cultural point of view. The sinister-sounding ministry in charge of our approvals was congenial and actually helpful.

If there was surveillance, it was unobtrusive. There were none of the clumsy attempts to shape our experience that we've endured in, for instance, Romania and Egypt.

Our crew explored Tehran and Isfahan, eating some spectacularly delicious and sophisticated food. We were welcomed with open arms at every restaurant we visited. (The proprietors of our hotel in downtown Tehran must have found out from our visas that it was my producer's birthday, because they invited us all down to the office, where they surprised us with a cake.)

It was at one of these long lunches where I met Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi. They were well-known and liked in Tehran and were referred by mutual friends who knew that experienced English-speakers - with a unique perspective from straddling both worlds - would be helpful to our production.

A few weeks later, they were mysteriously arrested and detained. Based on what they told me, I cannot possibly understand why. Here's what happened.

One afternoon, our crew piled into a production van and drove from the hotel to a restaurant in the mountains on the outskirts of Tehran. It's an area where thousands of locals go each weekend to stroll, to eat, to relax. The view of Tehran from the terrace was spectacular, so it was a lovely place to film.

We lingered there eating the famously delicious chelo-kebabs, saffron rice and flat bread. …

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