Yegi and I arrived early to Darband, a mountaintop neighborhood with dozens of outdoor restaurants overlooking Tehran. We soon realized that the restaurant chosen by the production team’s local assistants had been picked for the view, not the food, and we urged the manager to do his best, explaining that one of the most important figures in food television was about to eat there.
The manager ignored our advice, and Tony ended up having what was, I’m certain, his worst meal in Iran. But it didn’t bother him at all. As I soon realized, it wasn’t just about the food, which became apparent in our two-hour meeting.
Our conversation was sweeping. We discussed history and politics, our travels, and our perceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran. (We were among the relatively small group of Americans who had visited both countries). We talked about the future that Yegi and her fellow Iranians aspired to achieve. And then he asked us about what we ate for breakfast.
He had a unique ability to cut through ideology, long-established enmities, and political and religious differences. He and his team did what very few others could: make human connections that viewers could feel. “It was all new and fresh to me, and a huge surprise when I got there,” he told me later. He was full of praise for the friendliness and openness of Iranians.
When the episode finally aired, he managed to capture something that most media have failed at before and since. He presented a rich portrait of Iran, one that encompassed the humanity of its people, the beauty of their country, and the pride they take in it (despite their oppressive leaders). He did it in prime time, on CNN. And he made it look easy.
That resonated with audiences. To this day, the Iran episode of “Parts Unknown” is among the most frequently re-aired ones of the show.
Remarkably, Iranians themselves often share those clips among themselves. Small wonder that many of the Iranians who were aware of him considered Tony a friend to their civilization. I’m thankful for that.
I also have more personal reasons for gratitude. That same episode later became an integral part of efforts to raise awareness about our arrest and imprisonment, which took place a few weeks after we taped.
At the time, some people suggested that we were arrested because of our appearance on “Parts Unknown.” Tony often heard that in the year and a half that I spent in prison. “I got a lot of heat because people naturally assumed that because you were on the show, that’s what got you arrested,” he told me later. “And that’s something that we had to be delicate about responding to.”
Yegi and I knew what he did publicly to stand up for us when we couldn’t defend ourselves: He never ceased drawing attention to our predicament. “Our posture right away was we do not want to break any eggs here. I mean, we were proactively in touch with everybody — with your family, with The Washington Post, and somebody was talking to the State Department,” he told me later.
We knew very little, though, about what he did behind the scenes, and we’re still learning about it now, years later. Not once did he seek credit for any of it.
Over the past few days, as I’ve read the many remembrances of him from around the world, it’s clear that long after he left a place, Tony remained invested in its story and the people he met there. That includes Iran, me, and my wife.
“I will tell you it — to this day, on almost a daily basis — someone comes up to me in the street and introduces them as Iranian and tells me how grateful they were to the show,” Tony told me. “They’re the most emotional encounters I have on the street — again, and again, and again.”
From the first day of our freedom until now, almost 2½ years later, people still approach Yegi and me regularly to say that they knew of us because they saw us on his show, which we appreciate. Many of them still mistakenly blame the episode for our arrest.
In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. Tony’s steadfast support of the campaign for our freedom has stayed with people, and I’ve been hearing about it more than ever since his death Friday.
While my family and The Post were unflappable in their efforts to win my release, the clip of Yegi and me sitting down to a meal with Anthony Bourdain made us, for many people, a cause worth caring about.