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24 May 2022

The startling composure of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

In her BBC interview, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was calm, compassionate and thoughtful as she reflected on her six years of wrongful imprisonment.

By Rachel Cooke

The top line of Emma Barnett’s BBC One interview with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was the appalling revelation that just before she boarded her flight to the UK from Iran after six years of wrongful imprisonment, she was made to sign a full confession — and that, as she put her name to this worthless lie of a document, the British official who was with her made no objections. And, of course, I know why the BBC trailed it so furiously. All night, I kept thinking of this horrible diplomatic silence, and of how it must make Zaghari-Ratcliffe feel whenever she recalls it. But in truth, it had nothing to do with why I watched the programme. Like most people, I just wanted to see her and to hear her; I wanted to know, in as much as it is possible for such a question to be answered in full view of a television camera, how she is, how she is coping and what it feels like to be back with her daughter and her husband after so long apart.

Can these things be put into words? Zaghari-Ratcliffe was more articulate than many of us would be in such a situation. Even now, she admitted, she cannot look at photographs and videos taken of her daughter, Gabriella, during the years they were separated. Some things are hard: she has less energy; socialising is a struggle. Freedom is bittersweet because there are others still being held, and because she can never now return to Iran, the country where her parents live.

I was struck by her discretion as well as her eloquence. She has made decisions about what she will discuss in public; it is clear that she is neither the kind of person who is about to cry in front of a camera, nor one who is willing to invade the privacy of her family. Above all, you can sense her determination in the matter of how she wants to be. I kept thinking of something John McCarthy said after he was released as a hostage in Lebanon in 1991. He would not, he told a journalist, be bitter. For if he was, his captors would have won.

Six years. It’s hard to hold such a period of time in one’s head. Zaghari-Ratcliffe described the day of 17 March 2016, when she was stopped at Tehran airport and given some story about her passport being out of order. What was I doing on that morning, I wondered? What things changed — or not — for me on that day? Zaghari-Ratcliffe was still breast-feeding her daughter, then only 22 months old. She had so many plans, as all of us do, and in a moment they were pulled from beneath her, even if she didn’t realise this at the time (she says she’s glad of this, now, of not having known what lay ahead). The next 64 days were spent in solitary confinement (“the most hostile, quiet form of torture”) in a tiny, window-less room. What kept her going? Her daughter, of course, and her faith. She had not, until this point, been a practising Muslim, but now her religion felt strong inside her. Human beings are tough and tenacious, she said. They go on; they learn to forget; they move towards the light. 

Life has been, since that fateful day, a series of unrealities, the latest of these, I suppose, being this interview. Barnett is a good interviewer, even if I feel sometimes that she brings the combativeness with which she might talk to a politician to encounters where it is less appropriate. It was strangely cheering, too, that this conversation had been given such a good time slot by the BBC. There is — or there can be — magic in the extended head-to-head; there are still people we want to hear more from, even as we weary of the parades of question-dodgers on the morning news programmes. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s appearance, calm and measured, made for a painful contrast with some other much-hyped TV interviews of recent weeks: one thinks of Piers Morgan’s nightly show on Talk TV, where his guests have included Caitlyn Jenner, Mel B and Donald Trump. Zaghari-Ratcliffe brought wisdom and compassion to the screen, while they brought only noise. This thought may be salutary for desperate producers at Murdoch’s struggling new channel.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe still wakes up wondering if life now is real. During the day, something always contrives to “throw” her back into those lost years. This must be terrifying, but her tone was matter of fact. I had the sense that even as she was imprisoned, even as she came to believe she might never be freed, some other part of her was preparing for these days and months. “I knew my return was never going to be rosy,” she said. “I have changed, my husband has changed, my baby is eight years old.”

A little trepidatiously, Barnett finally asked — more in hope than in expectation, I think — about Richard Ratcliffe, her husband who had campaigned for so long for her freedom. Zaghari-Ratcliffe seemed to be inwardly composing herself, wanting to get this right. This is a story of love, she said, a love that has only grown deeper thanks to this horror show. But it is also, on her side, a story of respect and admiration. Such words are used so often these days they seem almost to be meaningless; “with respect”, people say, desperate to interrupt, feeling the precise opposite (Barnett is, I think, apt to this phrase herself). Zaghari-Ratcliffe seemed to give the words their full and proper weight. “Do I deserve all that?” she asked. “I hope I do.” To have suffered so much, and still to be asking such a question of oneself. I can’t think when I last listened to someone so thoughtful, so compassionate, so impressive.

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[See also: No one has any right to tell Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe how to feel]

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