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Questions Surround Death Of Environmentalist In Iran; "The Band's Visit": Egyptians Stranded In Israeli Backwater. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, a suspicious death of a Canadian national in an Iranian prison. Authorities call it suicide, but the family

of a prominent environmentalist demand an investigation.


MEHRAN SEYED-EMAMI, SON OF KAVOUS SEYED-EMAMI: I want people at home to just close their eyes and realize what it's like to lose their father, for

someone to lose their husband and to grow through this real, chaotic experience. They're not even able to grieve in peace.


AMANPOUR: Why we should care.

Plus, can Israelis and Egyptians make beautiful music together? A smash new musical brings harmony to the Middle East and I talk to the rising

Broadway star composer David Yazbek.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in New York.

Amid upheaval in the White House, the Iran Nuclear Deal faces a perilous future. President Trump could pull the United States out mid-May when

another deadline looms.

Inside Iran, this uncertainty is playing into a bitter struggle between the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani against the hardline Revolutionary


Caught in the middle are the Emami family. Iranian authorities claim that Kavous Seyed-Emami, a 63-year-old Iranian Canadian professor, who cofounded

the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, committed suicide after confessing to spying.

But Emami's family disputes this and is calling for a transparent investigation. After his death, his widow was barred at the very last

moment from leaving with her sons Ramin and Mehran.

This week, the two brothers did come here and join me in the studio to talk about fighting to bring their mother home, struggling to cope with the

death of their father and struggling to get the truth about what really happened to him.

Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Mehran and Ramin, firstly, our condolences for the death of your father. It is really so sad. How are

you coping several weeks on?

RAMIN SEYED-EMAMI, SON OF KAVOUS SEYED-EMAMI: Right now, we're trying to just get our mother back. After everything we've been through, these

nightmarish several weeks, the fact that they barred our mother from leaving the country to come with us to Vancouver, Canada was just the final

nail in the coffin for us after going through this ordeal.

AMANPOUR: Well, can I just then start with your mother, the immediate case at hand right now? And then we'll go into what happened to your father.

Mehran, what happened? You were trying to leave Iran after the death of your father and they, at the last minute, wouldn't allow your mother

onboard the flight.

M. SEYED-EMAMI: We decided that we have the opportunity to be able to grieve in peace and we wanted to leave the country to feel - just feel more

relaxed and leave all the tension that was surrounding us.

The last seconds, right before we were about to board the plane, all of a sudden, someone came up and called my mother's name. And we immediately

knew that something was wrong.

We were surprised. We were shocked. And they told us you have one minute to decide whether to leave the country without your mom or for all of you

to stay.

And my mother told us that, please, please just leave; I'll be OK and I just don't want you guys to come back; I just want you guys to go and be

safe. And it was a heartbreaking decision. I mean, it was such a difficult decision to make, but we thought that it's the right one.

R. SEYED-EMAMI: Well, we were actually just joking around about this. It seems like the ending to "Argo" as if we were trying to get on the plane

(INAUDIBLE) of the country. And we didn't think that we'd end up that way at all. We weren't expecting this to happen.

AMANPOUR: Why do you think your mother was so insistent that she stay and you leave?

R. SEYED-EMAMI: She wanted us to be safe because we were being constantly threatened, harassed and bothered the past several weeks. Since our father

was arrested, our home was raided twice. The house was probably bugged and we were getting threats and messages from a lot of dangerous people. They

would bump into me in the streets and tell me we're watching you.

So, we don't feel comfortable in that environment. My brother and I are not afraid of anything. We were willing to speak up because that's what we

felt kept us safe and secure during these past several weeks.

And, more importantly, because we know of our father's innocence and that he was taken away for no reason and we were left in the dark the whole

complete time. We weren't told what he was accused of until his unfortunate and suspicious death in Evin prison.

[15:05:12] AMANPOUR: And it is just awful, the story of how your mother found out that actually what had happened to your father. Describe that to


R. SEYED-EMAMI: You know, the -

AMANPOUR: It's awful. I know. Do you want to take it, Mehran?

R. SEYED-EMAMI: No, I can do it. It's just that - they give her a phone call on Friday, February 9th, and told her that we have some good news for

you. And she is kind of hoping that she is going to see her husband and they take her and interrogate her and grill her for hours with ludicrous

questions and accusations and just threatening her and telling her that we'll put you in the same place that your husband is.

And finally, they tell her, after they can't get anything out of her because she doesn't know anything, she's just a housewife who was happily

married and had a wonderful family, like now you can go see your husband, you can see his body.

And what kind of cruel, inhumane person would do such a thing to a mother, to a wife - couldn't you put yourself in the position of that woman? Why

would you instill such horrible, horrible feelings upon someone?

AMANPOUR: So, here comes the really hard bit, even harder than what you're describing now that they immediately said that your father, after all an

environmentalist, and we'll get into that in a second, committed suicide in prison. You don't believe that?


AMANPOUR: Why not?

M. SEYED-EMAMI: For someone who loved life, who loved his family, who just a few weeks prior to that was hiking in the mountains with his dogs

and had such a hopeful and optimistic view of life, for someone to, all of a sudden, decide to take his own life is completely absurd and non-

believable to us.

We don't know under what conditions he was held or what ultimately led to his death or who committed this act. These are questions that are very

difficult to answer.

AMANPOUR: He was the leader of the most important, the best known, the most transparent Iranian wildlife and nature NGO. So, there was no reason

for you to think that anything that he did was at all suspicious.

We're going to get some of what the prosecutors have said. But, first, I want to ask you, they showed you know some surveillance video, right, to

try to convince you, in fact, that he had committed suicide. What was on the surveillance video?

R. SEYED-EMAMI: I was the one - I was the only one member of the family, along with our two lawyers, who saw the video. I didn't want anybody else

to watch it.

God knows what kind of psychological torture he had underwent to be in that sort of state of mind from being this completely kind, compassionate loving

person, to all of a sudden this with very last person in this cell.

It shows the room and there is - what they say is a toilet beside the room cell - and the most suspicious thing about this whole situation is that my

dad is pacing around the room. He takes off his shirt and he's thinking and he just doesn't feel good.

And then, once he goes into the room, eight hours later, they call him. They want to give breakfast. And they see he is not there and then they go

and they bring his body out of the room - out of the bathroom.

And that's like the first like suspicious part of this whole event, in this case, is because if he was such a high-profile prisoner, why wasn't he

being monitored because I know, like, firsthand from my friends - one of their fathers that are imprisoned who had tried to commit suicide twice.

In a matter of seconds, they stopped him.

Other people's also stories - if you talk to other people who have been prisoners in Evin, they will say the exact same thing. It's impossible to

do something suspicious in your room and without them torpedoing into the room and stopping it.

AMANPOUR: I think the video shows that, as you said, he took his shirt off and put it around his neck and then walked into this partitioned area,

which apparently was the toilet area?


AMANPOUR: Do you have any fears that that shirt was - I mean, that he was thinking of doing that. Can you rule out suicide?

M. SEYED-EMAMI: It's impossible to know for sure. But based on what we knew, it's easy to speculate, it's easy to come up with different theories.

But based on the man we knew, the father we knew, the person he was and the impact he had left on so many several generations of students, of people

who loved nature, who loved the wildlife, environmentalists, this is not the impression he gave to a single person in his lifetime.

[15:10:12] AMANPOUR: They have got some line that environmentalists and scientists are somehow wrapped up in spying. And your father had set up a

series of trap cameras that one sees on wildlife videos to explore and investigate a rare species, right? The Asiatic cheetah.

M. SEYED-EMAMI: They say that you are normally afraid of what you don't understand. And these camera traps are one of those cases. I mean, these

are cameras with only up to 50 meters' worth of range. And very cheap. Discardable in case someone steals them. They're not that valuable. Not

very high in technology. And they said that they'd used these to record military activity.

AMANPOUR: Were they anyway close to military activity?

M. SEYED-EMAMI: Not at all. I mean, it's impossible to fathom in this day and age with Google satellite or with any kind of technology, you can

monitor or see such activities.

So, the fact that they make such absurd and ridiculous claims means that they don't have anything.

R. SEYED-EMAMI: It's so absurd, the claims. And they even told - they say our dad was responsible for the drought. I mean, these accusations,

every day, they become bigger and bigger and more ridiculous.

AMANPOUR: I wonder what you make of this. This is in the very conservative, hardline Kayhan newspaper. Why is the cheetah becoming such

an important issue? Why are too many foreigners entering Iran for this? What are the real identities of US, European experts coming to Iran? And

why are they so keen to search the deserts all day and night?

I mean, there's a level of paranoia. When you read this, what did you think?

M. SEYED-EMAMI: Well, we chose not to reply to every single accusation because we'd be losing the point or drawing further away from why my father

was arrested in the first place.

But, people - their intelligence is being insulted when they hear such claims. And from everyone we spoke to, absolutely no one believes the

things that they're being told.

AMANPOUR: You are Canadian-Iranians - Iranian-Canadians. And the Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has basically said that she was outraged that

your mother had not been allowed to leave Iran and she's called her in a show of support.

And we know Amnesty International has called for an independent panel - an independent commission. But Canada has no direct diplomatic representation

in Iran. Turkey represents Canada's interests.

What do you expect and who do you think can help you right now?

M. SEYED-EMAMI: Well, our expectation is for the Canadian government, and specifically the prime minister, Mr. Trudeau, to speak up, acknowledge

this issue and to open a serious investigation as to what happened, to make this request formally and officially.

And not only from Canada, but to have international pressure on Iran to raise transparency towards this case and to ensure that my mom will be home

safely and for this case to open up.

AMANPOUR: What do you hope that coming here and telling your story will achieve?

M. SEYED-EMAMI: Our goal is to seek the truth, to raise awareness towards this issue. Unfortunately, we've never heard good stories come out of

staying silent. And, therefore, we are not afraid. We chose to speak up. And we just want the truth about this man to be revealed.

I want people at home to just close their eyes and realize what it's like to lose their father, for someone to lose their husband and to go through

this surreal, chaotic experience. They are not even able to grieve in peace, where their family is separated from each other.

I just want people to realize what it's like to go through this. We've tried really hard not to be angry, not to get emotional, not to make rash

decisions. We only seek transparency, truth and to share our father's legacy with the world.

AMANPOUR: Mehran and Ramin Seyed-Emami, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

R. SEYED-EMAMI: Thank you for having us.

M. SEYED-EMAMI: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And while instability and conflict continue to plague the Middle East, we turn to a different story of harmony that's playing out on

Broadway in a new smash hit musical that shows what that region could be. It is called "The Band's Visit" and here is how one character tells the


Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn't hear about it. it wasn't very important.

Now, it's a small story that actually is important because it offers great hope. It shows us that there was a time in the bygone days of peace,

treaties and political connections when Israelis and Arabs could actually come together and make beautiful music.

[15:15:08] (VIDEO PLAYS)

Now, David Yazbek is the composer and lyricist, the man behind that song. And I sat down with him here earlier this week. David Yazbek, welcome to

the program.


AMANPOUR: So, this is an amazing musical, packed houses every night. And awards season is coming up. Fingers crossed. Yes.

YAZBEK: No, that's bad luck.

AMANPOUR: But what happens when a producer calls you up and says, you know what, David, shall we do a Broadway musical about a flyblown, nowhere town

in Israel, based on an art house (ph) Israeli movie?

YAZBEK: The truth is when any producer calls me up and asks me to do anything, my first answer is no.

AMANPOUR: Oh, really. I thought you would say yes.

YAZBEK: No, I go charging away. And then, I will call back and I'll say, could you just give me a few weeks, let me think about it, let me see it.

And with this one, seeing the movie was enough to make me turnaround and say yes.

AMANPOUR: Well, before we get to the actual nitty-gritty of the story and all that inspired you, I just want to play for you the legendary Andrew

Lloyd Webber, who has got four Broadway musicals on, for the first time since Rodgers and Hammerstein, and this is what he said about storytelling

making good musicals.


ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER, COMPOSER: I mean, we not only have "Hamilton", which sounds like an unlikely idea, I mean the idea of an American founder father

and hip hop doesn't sound immediately like the greatest idea for a musical, which is why it's a good one.

Then you've got "Dear Evan Hansen", which, of course, sounds like it's not a good idea because it's about social media and rejection. Therefore, it's

a good idea.

Then, you've got "Come From Away" about planes coming in to Gander, not necessarily a good idea, therefore, a good idea.

Even worse idea, the idea of an Egyptian band, military band turning up in Tel Aviv.

AMANPOUR: "The Band's Visit".

WEBBER: "The Band's Visit". Great idea. Yes, fantastic music. I mean, the moment where the band plays is one of those moments you get up in your

seat and you say, yes, this is what musicals are all about.


AMANPOUR: That really is great endorsement, isn't it? And you do feel that way when you go to watch it. That lost moment when the band plays for

the first time, you keep it to the very end. Why?

YAZBEK: Well, I mean, these are - these people you've seen on stage acting and moving around, they are world-class musicians.

So, when they play, it's the deepest expression of connectivity, which is what the show is about, and joy and it's very cathartic.

And when Andrew Lloyd Webber raises both hands like that, you know you've -

AMANPOUR: You're in the sweet pot.

YAZBEK: Yeah, this is the sweet spot.

AMANPOUR: So, look, it is about the Alexandria Orchestra - the Police Orchestra, right? The band. Coming to this nowhere town in Israel, Beit

Hatikva instead of Petah Tikva and it's a mistake that leads to this extraordinary encounter.

And I think we have a little bit of - yes, the characters describe the town of Beit Hatikva in this song, "Welcome to Nowhere". Let's play it.


YAZBEK: It's a town called Yeruham in the Negev where the film was shot and it really is a nowhere town, but even people in a nowhere town are

people and they are endlessly fascinating.

AMANPOUR: And was studiously avoiding the politics of an Egyptian band in 1996 taking the wrong turning basically, to getting the wrong bus ticket

and ending up in the wrong town in Israel.

It is this sort of quiet political story. You're not facing politics head on here by any stretch of the imagination, but nobody in the audience can

avoid the fact that this is about the most contested part of the world today.

YAZBEK: If we had included a scene talking about someone's traumatic experience during a war or something, that would have lessened the impact

of not speaking about the politics.

There's a scene in the movie where one of the Egyptians, they're dressed in these kind of powder-blue uniforms, he is sitting in a little restaurant

and there is a picture of a tank. This is Israeli tank.

He just takes his hat off and hangs it over the picture and that's him saying, we're people and there's a very elemental thing about - they're

lost, they need food, they need a place to sleep and other people give them that.

[15:20:11] AMANPOUR: And, again, you hang this whole notion and this whole play on the idea of boredom. There is no effort to sort of sex up the

city, so to speak.

YAZBEK: No. There is always that first impulse to sex it up for Broadway. And almost immediately, all of us, David Cromer, the director, and Itamar

Moses and I looked at each other, and Orin Wolf, who is an amazing producer, and just said we're not going to do that because if we do that it

won't be - it won't have the emotional impact. And we made the right move.

AMANPOUR: And you started your career after college. You went to be a comedy writer - I remember this; we've known each other a long time - for

David Letterman. And then, your own music career and lots of Broadway and now these amazing successes. How much of you is it this play, this musical

compared to the other works you've done?

YAZBEK: I'm glad you asked that. This is really me. I've made albums. I've made five albums. And when I make them, I feel like that's a personal

expression. I do what I want to say. I say what I want to say.

When this came along, I wasn't exactly sure if this would happen, but it did. I was able to really say what I wanted to say in every song. This

almost feels like one of my albums to me, an album that I made with the best musicians I could find and the best singers I could find.

AMANPOUR: And let's not forget that you yourself, your mother is Jewish, your father is Lebanese Christian.

YAZBEK: Yes, Catholic. Yes, Catholic. This was my first trip to Lebanon with my father. We were visiting his father. We were in a cab on the way

from the airport to the mountain where my grandfather was.

And there was this very exotic - I don't like using that word. There is this pungent new flavor of music coming from the radio in the cab. And I

asked my father to ask the cab driver what it was. The scales and the rhythms and the orchestra sound, but mostly this voice, this female voice.

And he asked. And it was Umm Kulthum. I didn't know who that was, but it really stuck. Like, that song stuck, her voice stuck. She was bigger than

Sinatra, if you looked at the whole world. And really, that was the first trip for me that inserted that kind of music.

AMANPOUR: And let's not forget, you were seven at the time.

YAZBEK: Well, yes, and I was listening to everything.

AMANPOUR: I want to just play the song that Dina is singing about Umm Kulthum.


AMANPOUR: Well, for people of a certain generation, we will remember Omar Sharif, the great Egyptian actor, "Doctor Zhivago" and everything and Umm


YAZBEK: "Lawrence of Arabia".

AMANPOUR: "Lawrence of Arabia", not to mention, and Umm Kulthum, the great singer. And it's interesting that you show the story of the other that

each side is able somehow to connect with the other side.

YAZBEK: The pull is always there. It's the stuff that gets in the way of it. That stuff usually has to do with money and power.

I was just in Tel Aviv. When you go to Egypt or to Israel, the food in Israel has become great and mostly because they love the food from all

around them. The music, the art, the food, that's a connecting point. That's possibly the most important connecting point.

And that's why when we or any administration cuts funding for the arts, they're really cutting just yet another one of those connections.

AMANPOUR: We'll talk about that just a little before we go on regarding your play. The arts are being given a short shrift. No matter where you

look around the world, whether it's in the United States, in schools in Europe or whatever.

In fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber has his own foundation, his arts foundation, where he tries to enable people at state schools, kids should have some art

and music in their life. From your perspective, what is an education, an adolescence without the arts?

YAZBEK: It's a one-way ticket to Trumpsville. That's how it feels to me. And when I say that, I mean, there is this move towards authoritarianism

everywhere that you're talking about. And if you really are invested in the arts, you almost can't really go there.

[15:25:09] When we play music, and I say we, because I get to play with them sometimes, not on stage, but it's this very deep connection.

I have a band that I've been playing with some of them for 20, 25 years. We love each other the way a family does, especially while we're connecting

through music. And I think "The Band's Visit" is really about that and I think it comes pouring off the stage.

AMANPOUR: I was going to say, I mean, do you feel every night, every matinee that the audience really gets that thing that you're saying. What

do you think resonates most with the audience? Because they do leap up at the very end.

YAZBEK: I was going to make a joke and say every night. Yes, every matinee.

AMANPOUR: No, they did. I was in a matinee.

YAZBEK: Yes, I know. You were in a matinee.

AMANPOUR: I think the audience - when you're doing a show, if everyone in the show is on a more superficial level, just having a great time, making

each other laugh backstage and on stage, that floods out.

The show doesn't even have to be that great, but the audience, just like when someone laughs, it's infectious. They feel it.

When you're making music together, a lot of it is being improvised. You are connecting very deeply, and I'm sure, if you did some kind of a test of

brain waves or something, you would see the entire audience get on the same track.

AMANPOUR: David Yazbek, thank you so much.

YAZBEK: thank you.

AMANPOUR: And that's it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at and, of course, you

can follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from New York.