Iran, Hostages & You Didn’t Read This in the New York Times

Monday, 16 September 2019

Those bloody Iranians. They’ve currently got three Australians imprisoned – two of them (like me) British-Australian dual nationals. Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert – a Middle East politics specialist at Melbourne University – was arrested in 2018 and has been held in Tehran’s ‘notorious’ Evin prison for almost a year. She may have been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment although in typical Iran fashion, who knows. And who knows what for either. Perhaps for planning to overthrow the Iranian government, that’s a handy catch-all phrase.

◄ Does this look like someone you’d suspect of overthrowing a government?

▲ More recently, Jolie King (Australian-British) and Mark Firkin (Australian) were hauled in, some time after 30 June. Their crime was – it appears – not attempting to overthrow the Iranian government, but flying a drone. They’d used the drone in documenting their overland journey – check The Way Overland, you’ll find plenty of material – but seriously, in countries like Iran pack your drone away, it’s not worth the trouble.

Sadly this is all part of ‘standard Iranian hostage taking,’ that was a line I noted down from a talk on ‘Iran, Islam & Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change’ by Ali Ansari at the terribly English Chalke Valley History Festival recently. In fact he was referring to the unhappy Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case. She’s now been imprisoned in Iran since April 2016 because she had been ‘…plotting to topple the Iranian government.’ Amazingly she had been plotting while on a visit to Iran and at the same time looking after her one-year old daughter. Ms Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe holds dual Iranian-British citizenship and her case has been complicated by Boris Johnson – not the prime minister at the time – opening his mouth and saying something totally stupid. Although Mr Johnson is well known for opening his mouth and seeing how far he can insert his foot, this was not taken into account by the Iranian government.

▲ On 1 July 2019 I pedalled by the Iranian Embassy in London, Richard Ratcliffe had just terminated his hunger strike there, in support of his wife Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was also hunger-striking in Tehran. There were two well-armed British police officers – male and female – guarding the embassy and although they were not willing to be included in the photo I wanted to take, they did politely offer to move out of shot while I took this photograph.

These four people are far from the only people to end up imprisoned in Iran. My friend Don George has just interviewed Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian about their spells in prison in Iran – 72 days and 544 days respectively – and Jason’s subsequent book Prisoner. Click here for the one hour 20 minute interview, part of the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference at Corte Madera, just outside San Francisco.

I’ve been to Iran a number of times – first of all in 1972 when Maureen and I drove through Iran in the Hippie Trail era, when the Shah was in power. Then again in 1977 when the Shah was about to depart and the Ayatollah to take over, that was not a good time to be in Tehran. I was there in 2004 when I travelled around Iran researching my book Bad Lands. Most recently I drove through Iran – entering from Turkmenistan and exiting to Turkey on my old-MGB Silk Road odyssey in 2017. I wrote about that in assorted postings including one on ‘Friendly Iran.’

▲ My daughter Tashi was my co-driver across Iran, here she is at the wheel of my old MGB.

And that’s the sad story, most people do find Iran overwhelmingly friendly, and yet periodically the Iranian government does these totally stupid things. When they could be underlining that in all sorts of ways they are the most educated, most outgoing nation in the region, they turn around and take hostages. Stupid.

I’ve had another collision with Iranian hostage taking – and the New York Times. In July 2009 three young Americans – Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd – strayed across the border from Kurdistan (Iraq) into Iran and ended up imprisoned as spies, plotters, all the usual. In September 2010 Sarah was released when US$500,000 bail (you can read that as a hostage ransom) was paid by the government of Oman. A year later in September 2011 the Oman government paid another US$500,000 times two and Shane and Josh were also released. It’s said that this was a key element in putting the USA and Iran nuclear freeze together, which Donald Trump subsequently upended.

In 2006 I’d been in much the same region of Kurdistan, except I didn’t stray across the border although I did approach the border, hoping (unsuccessfully) to get into Iran. I wrote about that in my book Bad Lands. So the New York Times asked me to write an op-ed piece about this border misadventure. Well we all want to write New York Times op-eds, but then, after the usual editing, it was shelved while the trial went on. Then resurrected when Sarah was released, then shelved again. Then when Shane and Josh were about to be released it was resurrected again – and I updated it again – and on 14 September 2011 (this had been going on for two years now) I got a message: ‘we might want to do this on tomorrow’s page, so I’m hoping you’ll get this when you wake up in a few hours. Let me know as soon as you do, and sorry for making you wait forever and now rushing you!’

And soon after ‘I’m afraid I have bad news. I realize this makes me/the times sound completely insane and also really inconsiderate, but basically: your writing is so engaging and fun that some higher ups here are worried that, even after the hikers are free and released, it seems too lighthearted for such a serious story. I can’t tell you how much I disagree with that, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do, and we won’t be able to run the piece.’

I never even got a kill fee! Never mind here’s the story, combining assorted versions I submitted, updated, edited, changed, revised and so on. Remember that this was originally written nine years ago, my daughter Tashi has been to Somaliland since then, checking out a Planet Wheeler education project there. And I’ve been to Sudan.

  • ‘They rolled me up in a carpet, shoved me in the trunk of the car and drove across the border into Lebanon,’ he said. ‘I had a really interesting time, but I couldn’t travel around much and I’d wanted to come back to Lebanon ever since. ‘
  • It was June 1999, the 15 year long civil war had ground to a halt nearly nine years earlier, but the Green Line through Beirut was easy to trace and the Israeli forces were still in the process of withdrawing from southern Lebanon. So it was an interesting country to visit. The young English journalist I’d met in Beirut worked for an English language paper and had made his rolled-up-in-a-carpet trip to Lebanon 10 years earlier, when visiting Lebanon was not at all safe. Back then an assortment of western kidnap victims were locked away in an assortment of locations, Hezbollah did not release their last hostage until 1992.
  • At the time of his first visit to Lebanon my contact was a student at a British university and had spent his summer vacation travelling around Syria. He’d been befriended by some Syrian students, had a thoroughly enjoyable time and towards the end of his visit they’d suggested he should extend his travels to include Lebanon.
  • ‘We’ll sneak you in and out rolled up in a carpet,’ they’d suggested.
  • ‘You must have been crazy,’ was my obvious response to this lunatic idea.
  • ‘Yes, but I got away with it,’ he responded.
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has announced that two American backpackers, who were arrested in July 2009 and then convicted of espionage after (apparently inadvertently) crossing over the border from the Kurdish region of Iraq, are to be released. Throughout the unfortunate episode, people have wondered how one could possibly wander into such hostile territory.
  • In fact, it’s quite easy to do. The tensest borders are also often the most poorly marked. In 1998, for example, a British traveller in China went for a walk around the nine-mile circumference of Lake Chon, not realizing that his stroll would take him into North Korea and big trouble.
    But most places in the world are far safer than they’re made out to be.
  • In April 2006, I made nearly the same trip as the backpackers. During a spare week between conferences in Singapore and Washington, I decided to visit the Kurdish-Iranian border. I flew to Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey and walked out of the terminal to a line of taxis whose drivers chanted, “Iraq, Iraq, you want to go to Iraq?” I’d been warned not to say “take me to Kurdistan,” because it would upset the Turks, who don’t want to mull over the idea of an independent Kurdish nation.
  • I’d also been advised that I needn’t bother with an Iraqi visa. The Kurds apparently made their own rules about who could come into their region; as long as I was not an Arab, I should have no trouble getting in.

  • ▲ It was true. The guards at the border near the town of Zakho, where I paused to admire the Pira Delal, a beautiful stone bridge that could well be thousands of years old, only glanced at my passport. From there I continued into Dohuk, dropped my bag at a hotel and went out to find an Internet cafe to tell my wife where I was.
  • Over the next few days, I stopped in Sulaimaniya, whence the unfortunate backpackers continued to Ahmed Awa and then made their unplanned excursion into Iran. The car and driver I’d organised then took me up the Hamilton Road from Erbil to the Iranian border point of Haji Omran. A fine piece of British colonial construction that takes its name from the New Zealand engineer who supervised its construction from 1928 to 1932, the road threads its way up the spectacular Rowanduz Gorge and past the Gali Ali Bag waterfall, where I saw a group of young people – local tourists – crowding together to be photographed.
  • I was hardly the only tourist in Iraq, particularly in relatively safe Kurdistan. As early as 2003, after the invasion, discussions were taking place in the chat areas of travel Web sites about how much a seat in a car should cost from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad and the relative safety of Kirkuk versus Mosul. Later, as violence worsened, the ‘how to do Iraq’ debate tapered off, though tourism is now ticking up again, particularly in the south.
  • I didn’t end up crossing the border to Iran. The road climbed up and up, the traffic got lighter and the snow-covered peaks crowded closer. When I finally arrived at the Kurdistan border control, it was closed. I could see the abandoned Iran post further up the road. It would have been easy to walk across; if I had approached the line on foot from the mountains on either side, as the hikers did, I might never even have seen the mundane little buildings on either side of the border. I had to turn round and backtrack to Erbil for the long trip back to Turkey.
  • Iraqi Kurdistan is far from an anomaly — there are plenty of ‘safe’ parts of generally unsafe countries. Several intrepid friends have made the excursion from Djibouti into Somaliland, and reported no problems at all. In 2009, I joined up for a couple of weeks with a band of cyclists who annually pedal their way from Cairo to Cape Town on a four-month-long excursion known as the Tour d’Afrique. They pass through Sudan and universally report that it’s one of the friendliest and most interesting nations on the 10-country trip. Only two months after that visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, I spent three interesting, violence-free weeks as a tourist in Afghanistan.
  • The benefit to crossing these borders is not only the chance to see things with your own eyes, but also to carry the message that it’s not just the military and intelligence agencies that have an interest in such places. I’ve always found that the residents are delighted to welcome somebody who has turned up purely out of curiosity. We’re like the first swallows of spring: when tourists start to arrive, things must be getting back to normal.
  • A month ago I finally had my first look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast country endowed with enormously valuable natural resources that has somehow managed to be a disaster from the colonial rule of King Leopold II of Belgium to the civil wars of recent decades. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow had to man his broken river steamer with cannibals. My travels were far less fraught; they included gorilla encounters, a wonderful volcano ascent and a good look at the mighty Congo River.

  • ▲ It was worth it — despite the terrible reminder I got a week after I left the country of how easily, and tragically, things can go wrong. I’d flown from Kinshasa to Kisangani on an aging (but, I thought, well maintained) Hewa Bora Airlines 727. It didn’t make many more flights before it ploughed, a few days later, into the jungle short of that same Kisangani runway, killing at least 74 of the 118 people on board.

Still it could be worse for hostages, at least the Iranians don’t chop their captives up and ship them out in suitcases.