JoAnn Gometz

Writing | Editing | Content Strategy

Apples and Attorneys

I was reminded again this week of the benefits we have as Americans. That's because Monday, the New York Times reported that journalist Jason Rezaian is suing the Iranian government for "hostage-taking, torture and terrorism." If you recall, he is the former Washington Post Tehran bureau chief who was imprisoned in Iran for about 18 months and released around the time of the nuclear treaty talks between Iran and the international community, including the U.S.

I am very interested in the details laid out in the 68-page filing. Not because I enjoy reading about torture. I don't. In fact, it tends to leave me nauseated or sleeping with the lights on. However, I've found it hard to find detailed, English descriptions of the insides of Iran's prisons and the actions that take place there. That's particularly true of the sections reserved for individuals most often brought up on "security charges," like journalists and Bahá’ís. So reading Mr. Rezaian's case documents may allow me to write more effectively about the conditions facing other prisoners, including Mr. Khánjání.

It's also fascinating to me that the act of filing a lawsuit (against a nation with a history of disregarding similar suits) is reported pretty prominently here in my homeland. What gets reported and what doesn't?

Nearly every other day, I learn about Iranian Bahá’ís being arrested, expelled from university, or closed out of their shops. But those stories do not make the news here or nearly anywhere. Is Iran's lack of free press to blame? In part. But the government's ability to intimidate is more so. Because it's not just domestic press that is quashed. It's foreign press, too. No journalist wants to endure what Mr. Rezaian did. No media outlet wants to be banned from covering stories in Iran.  

So the human right stories, particularly about Bahá’ís, seem to make it out of Iran in a convoluted game of telephone. All that's missing is a couple of tin cans and a really long string. Someone's family member or a human rights activist passes the news along in Farsi via social media, website, phone, or smoke signals, another person or group picks it up, does a rough translation into English, posts it on another human rights or special-interest site, and there it sits. No formal reporting. No identified sources, lest they become the next chapter in the story. No details about anything at all.

Just in the last few days, a minor amount of digging showed that 14 Bahá’ís were arrested in Shiraz last week, four more Bahá’í-owned shops have been closed in Karaj, and in Semnan over the last month or so, 80 families have been evicted and the province's largest apple orchard destroyed. That last bit? It was a cooperative venture among both Bahá’ís and their neighbors in which Mr. Khánjání is a stakeholder. I have a feeling that he may be sitting in his prison cell, more concerned about the well-being of his evicted neighbors than about his own likely losses.

The whole means of gathering information makes for a nonfiction author's nightmare. I'm finding it nearly impossible to gather any details or to verify anything according to journalistic standards. Even though the U.N.Secretary-General just this week said he was "deeply troubled" by the state of human rights in Iran and pointed to the Bahá’ís as the country's "most severely persecuted religious minority." Even though it's all clearly true, in other words.

So think for a minute about wasted apples in a broken orchard halfway around the world. Let yourself feel the warm sun pouring down on your back. The same back that ached every day when you planted those trees. Look across the crushed trunks and limbs. Remember how you walked the rows during last year's harvest, pulling down the fruit one by one. Feel the ultra-sweet stench of acres of rotting fruit saturate the air you take in your next breath.

In the U.S., someone would be filing a lawsuit.