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The Rezaians were wrongfully imprisoned 9 years ago. For Yeganeh, the pain is fresh

Yeganeh and Jason Rezaian in 2016.
Mandel Ngan
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AFP via Getty Images
Yeganeh and Jason Rezaian in 2016.

When I use the word "spiritual" I don't mean it in an exclusively religious way. I use it to describe the deepest parts of who we are. The parts we don't have language to name so we use words like soul, consciousness, inner light. The metaphysical essence that makes up the parts of us that don't fit into scientific categories.

I also think of spiritual people as those who have been in the darkest of places and have somehow come through to the other side carrying this light inside of them. And it radiates. And it finds other people and holds them in a better place.

That's what it's like to be around Yeganeh Rezaian. Yegi, as everyone calls her, isn't religious at all. She grew up in the Islamic Republic of Iran where there was only one way to be religious, and for women, it meant surrendering your autonomy. So when she and her husband, journalist Jason Rezaian, were imprisoned in Iran on false espionage charges in 2014, she did not lean on any religious faith. She did not pray her way to solace or comfort. She made her way through because she made up her mind to survive.

She and Jason have been living in the U.S. since his release in 2016. I interviewed Jason about surviving captivity and have gotten to know them both over the years. But I had never talked to Yegi about her own story. I thought about her a lot last week when Iran released five American hostages as part of a deal with the U.S.

Freed U.S. national Emad Shargi greets a family member after he and four others, who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S. and Iran, disembark from an airplane at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on September 19.
Jonathan Ernst / POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Freed U.S. national Emad Shargi greets a family member after he and four others, who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S. and Iran, disembark from an airplane at Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on September 19.

The freed Americans flew from Tehran to Qatar and then back home to the U.S. where they were finally reunited with their families. Photos showed long embraces and tears of relief and joy. I called Yegi up to see how she was internalizing the news and she told me didn't focus on the hostages.

"I looked at the faces of their wives and their children," she told me. "And how, despite the fact that their husbands were now sitting next to them in that picture, how these women particularly aged and you still see the pain and the fear."

After all these years, she still feels that pain and fear — even though that's not the version of herself she puts out into the world. She keeps it at bay. She focuses on what she has to be grateful for, including the day she met a certain American journalist in Tehran.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: 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?

Yeganeh 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. Life is good.

Rezaian: Yeah, we got married. I got a very good job. We had a rental apartment, 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 encapsulate it in a few words or a few sentences because there was 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, calling you a spy, saying that you are hiding.

Dark. Dark hours, dark days, dark moments is the simplest way to describe. You're lost. Jason was taken away from me. 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 with guards watching you?

Rezaian: Yes. For a few minutes. 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. The situation is so bad and terrifying that actually after a couple of nights, you feel safe in that cell. So every time they come and get you, you are worried. Are they taking me for mock executions? Are they taking me for violent interrogations? Are they taking me to torture me? 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.

I didn't say any words until the moment I saw Jason. It had been 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. It was obvious that he was deprived of food and water. And I could see in his eyes that 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...

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.

I remember after a few months when I was released, the situation was so tough that I was telling my mom and 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 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.

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, many years later, I'm still exhausted from those days. It was a very uncertain, scary situation, and 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 because 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 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, but I needed to keep going and thinking.

Martin: There's like a forward motion. You just keep taking one step.

Rezaian: Yes. And I knew that I was being chased at many different occasions. 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 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.

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.

Yeganeh leaves the Revolutionary Court after a hearing on August 10, 2015 for her husband in the capital Tehran.
Behrouz Mehri / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Yeganeh leaves the Revolutionary Court after a hearing on August 10, 2015 for her husband in the capital Tehran.

Martin: Eventually, after 544 days, Jason was released as part of a prisoner exchange with Iran. You and Jason flew to the U.S. to start over.

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? Did you go 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, I turn the TV off. I turn all my notifications off on my cell phone. 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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