How Reporting Almost Got Me Killed, Before It Saved My Life

Dorothy Parvaz Talks to Eli Sanders About Her 19-Day Disappearance in Syria and Iran.






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Publication: The Stranger
Author: Sanders, Eli
Date published: May 25, 2011

On April 29, Dorothy Parvaz disappeared. A former reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post- Intelligencer, Parvaz now works as a correspondent for Al Jazeera, and she'd fl own to Syria to cover the latest uprising in the Arab Spring. After Parvaz disappeared, no one knew exactly where she was, or if she was safe, until 19 days later when she was released from an Iranian detention center and sent home to Vancouver, BC.

Eli Sanders: It's April 29. You've just fl own into Damascus from Doha, Qatar, and now you're in trouble. The Syrian secret police take you into custody and put you in a car. A short while later, they pull you out of the car by your hair. You're put in a cell with pools of blood on the fl oor. You see and hear people being brutalized around you. Then you're blindfolded, taken out into a courtyard, and pushed up against a wall. How did you prepare for the possibility of being shot?

Dorothy Parvaz: There's no way to prepare for that. I'd read the accounts of the journalists being held in Libya, and the mock-execution-type things that they'd gone through. But I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn't know why I was being taken outside in this fashion. Initially I thought: Okay, standing up against a wall blindfolded and handcuffed-that's never a good thing. But I was so completely overwhelmed by the noises I was hearing, by the sounds of beatings, that I just-I didn't know what to think. My brain was in a frenzy.

Did you think you were about to die?

I had a really bad feeling, I'll put it that way. There was a distinct possibility that things might not end well for me at that point. I just didn't think that any offense I'd committed was worthy of quite that response, but when you hear people being beaten up around you like that, you realize you're in a different world. I can hear these guys screaming, crying out. And there are guards, just a few feet away from me, cracking jokes and laughing. This is normal for them. And there's nothing about it that should be normal for anybody. You feel like you're in the presence of monsters, basically. Who are these people? Depending on who was leading me from my cell or taking me to or from my interrogation, a couple of them seemed almost apologetic. You know: Sorry, sorry. They would lead me gently by my arm. And then others would poke me and not tell me when stairs were coming up, so I'd take a nice tumble. It was just odd. And they have this odd sense of chivalry: Oh, we're so sorry, this place is not suitable for women. Like it's suitable for men somehow.

What did you do when you were handcuffed and blindfolded and up against the wall? Did you pray?

No, I didn't. How should I put this? I kept apologizing to my family in my mind.

Did your reporter's brain save you from your emotions? Keep you focused on gathering information?

Defi nitely. When I was taken out of the car and I was being-I gathered after a little while-processed for some sort of arrest or detention, the vibe in that room, if I were just me, I think I would have fainted. I am not a tough person. I am not. I'm standing in someone else's blood. There are handcuffs dangling at eye level. There's a bunch of very angry men in the room. And I can't seem to get any kind of connection with any of them to fi nd out what is happening to me. So the only thing you can do is start looking at the room. Like: Okay, how big is this room? How many people are in here? Who's saying what? What's that sound I hear outside? What am I smelling? What's going on?

And maybe the act of taking mental notes presumes that you're going to be able to tell about it later.

It's an incredibly optimistic act, yeah. That's exactly it. Every bit of information you can scrape together-even when you're in an empty cell, or when you're in a cell with somebody who doesn't really want to communicate with you or can't-you just focus on that. How can I get information? How can I fi gure out what's going on? How can I describe this later? When I can describe this later. And then, after Syria, when I was in Iran-obviously, since I was being investigated for being a spy, they're not going to give me access to a laptop or a pen or anything. So for over two weeks, I just sat there, my fi ngers twitching, wishing I could write or communicate what was going on. But I couldn't.

Why is Syria so scared of Al Jazeera?

Because Al Jazeera has got a lot of infl uence. I think that Al Jazeera covers the Arab world in a way that maybe other news outlets can't, or don't.

Did the experience of Lara Logan, the CBS News correspondent who was sexually assaulted covering the protest in Egypt, enter your mind?

No. I wasn't thinking about Lara Logan at all. I was mostly thinking about what I was seeing and hearing. I was sharing a cell with a 19-year-old woman who was begging and pleading to be interrogated so she could be sent home-she'd been there by the time I left for 10 days. And the why: Why do you have these kids here? Because it seemed to me that a lot of the people I could see through my blindfolds, when I was taking a peek here and there, were teenagers or people in their early 20s. They seemed like kids to me. The interrogators took great care to tell me they have a very strict legal system and they follow code, and so on and so forth. Well, if they've committed a crime, then take them to court and charge them. Why do you have them in this trashed, disused compound, beating the living daylights out of them day and night, away from any sort of documentation?

Did those 19 days move slowly for you, or was there so much going on that it moved quickly?

In Syria, it was a pretty fast three days because there was a lot more going on around me and my senses were far more heightened. In Iran, I was kept in solitary confi nement, allowed to go outside twice a day for fresh air, and I'd also get taken out now and then when my interrogator had questions for me and so forth. But no, those were the longest days of my life.

What was the practical necessity you were most missing?

A pen.

Did you have a soundtrack in your mind that got you through?

I have a wretched singing voice. I mean, really, truly miserable. But I sang and rapped a lot in my cell, to either keep my spirits up or to pass the time or just to hear something.

What were you singing and rapping?

Oh. I'll destroy what little credibility I have if I tell you.

I think people will forgive a lot considering you were being held in these circumstances.

Well. Yeah. Let's just say there was some Guns N' Roses. There was some Cee Lo. Yeah. There was some old-school gangsta rap. Some Johnny Cash, "Folsom Prison Blues." Just trying to get through. But a lot of the time, I just sat there thinking: When I get out, and I am getting out, this is what I'm gonna write. And I thought about my family constantly, hoping that they were getting some information about the fact that I was being taken care of and that I was safe and in good health.

Read the rest of this interview-including Parvaz's thoughts on the plane ride from Syria to Iran (she considered opening the door and throwing herself out), the Iranian interrogation process, the Arab Spring revolutions, and more-at THESTRANGER.COM

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