When it finally became clear that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was going to be allowed home after almost six years detained in Iran, she phoned her husband at their flat in northwest London and asked him a hard – but important – question. “Are the bathrooms cleaned to a male standard, or a female standard?” she only half-jokingly wanted to know, and Richard, who had coped with his wife’s imprisonment by campaigning, not cleaning, could not give her the answer she perhaps wanted to hear.
Today, almost a year on from that call, Richard Ratcliffe tells me that he did try to do a bit of tidying at the very beginning of Nazanin’s confinement in 2016. “I did a whole spring clean so the house would be ready for when she came back. And then she went to court [where she was sentenced to five years in prison, falsely accused of trying to overthrow the Iranian government] and it all felt more complicated,” he says, deadpan.
When Nazanin took their then 22-month-old daughter, Gabriella, to visit her parents in Iran, she left her husband of almost 10 years with a comprehensive list of things to do around the flat before they returned. To be fair to him, he got through the list, “but it’s true that six years later the flat beared little resemblance to what Nazanin remembered.” The 47-year old looks troubled by this, guilty perhaps that he couldn’t maintain her standards while she was gone.
“When she was in solitary, she would have spent hours trying to remember what was in the kitchen cupboards, as a way of holding onto sanity. ‘What’s on the spice rack, can I remember?’ Almost trying to hold the outside reality, something outside the walls of prison.”
When Nazanin finally arrived back at her home after a few days with her family in a safe house, Richard realised that he was going to have to do a proper clear out. The spare room had become a depository for campaigning material; every surface of the kitchen and the living room was taken over by the clutter of life that had accumulated as he juggled the twin demands of fighting for his wife’s release while bringing up their young daughter. Lol Dolls fought for space with official letters from lawyers and government ministers. Sylvanian Families jostled with banners that had been marched down Whitehall. And into all of this returned 44-year old Nazanin, her life transformed in a way that most of us would struggle to comprehend.
“Cleanliness has an association with safety for Nazanin,” explains Ratcliffe now. “All the sort of mess and clutter was partly a reminder of campaigning, so it was just ‘I want it out’. She wanted it to be clean and ordered and to be able to reclaim it as her space. There was an interesting dynamic. I coped through the years by saying ‘these are things I have to worry about, and here are things I don’t. So what’s at the back of the cupboard, it’s going to stay there’. My coping strategies were ‘this is the bit of the jungle I need to worry about, the rest of it can stay unchartered’. Whereas Nazanin needed to feel safe and decontaminated. So we had two coping strategies sort of banging into each other for a bit, but now it is closer to what she would have wanted, which is a de-blokified flat.”
He laughs, and tears into a cheese twist with all the gusto of a man who knows what it is like to go on hunger strike. I meet Richard Ratcliffe in a café just around the corner from their flat in West Hampstead. He is ruddy-cheeked, wrapped up from the cold in a scarf. He became something of a local celebrity during his campaigning, but today he melts into the surroundings, ordering a flat white and joking about his slight stomach, completely normal but so unfamiliar to Gabriella, who had grown so used to her father’s hunger-strike form that she has stuck a sign to the fridge reading: “No dinner for Daddy!”.
We are here to talk about the film that will be aired on Channel 4 next week to mark a year since his wife returned home. Nazanin is an extraordinary piece of documentary making that shows the very human experiences that were often hidden behind the huge geo-political story that dominated the headlines for far longer than the Zaghari-Ratcliffes had hoped.
The film, by the journalist Darius Bazargan, was initially agreed to because Ratcliffe wanted to make as much noise as possible to show the Government that he wasn’t going anywhere. It was supposed to be about Britain’s unsettled debt with Iran, which came about after a cancelled arms deal in the 1970s, and which is widely assumed to have been the reason for Nazanin being held hostage. But as time went on, and Ratcliffe grew to trust Bagazan, it became more of a diary of the endless ups and downs of getting Nazanin home.
The documentary, which Bargazan began filming in 2017, captures many of the conversations that Nazanin had with her husband. At first they were through the Iranian prison telephone system and later, when she was released under house arrest during the pandemic, over FaceTime. There are moments of despair – “you’ve been telling me it’s going to be OK for five years now, Richard, and I don’t buy it” Nazanin understandably snaps at one point – but more often than not we see the heartbreaking attempts that both parents make to deliver something close to a normal childhood to their bereft daughter.
We witness Gabriella’s eventual return to London, with her uncle, Nazanin’s brother, who came because Gabriella had lost all her English and could only speak Farsi. We see how desperately she missed her grandparents and mother, whom she had been visiting in prison once a week. As she gets older, we see her frustration and boredom with the endless campaigning. There are times when, like many other seven-year-olds, she would rather play Minecraft than speak to her mum. Her matter-of-factness is a testament to the incredible resilience of children who face almost unbelievable trauma.
There was never a conscious decision to include Gabriella in the film. “When she first came back, she was very suspicious of the cameras,” explains Ratcliffe. “She would notice the camera on the bus and she would say ‘what are we not allowed to do? What are the rules that we have to obey?’ Which is the legacy of her prison visits.” She also disliked going out and campaigning. “It was like suggesting doing a maths test, or extra homework.”
But over time, she began to “cope in compartments”. Calls from Nazanin were just as likely to be interrupted by Gabriella’s need to return to her iPad as they were the infuriating Iranian prison message that rang out every few minutes of a conversation. She would be “cold and distant” with her mother as a way of trying to control the uncontrollable.
“And she would control things through eating or sleeping. Not co-operating. And now that’s all calmed down a lot.”
There is a moment in the film where Ratcliffe tells his daughter that mummy is finally coming home. Her heartbreaking response is: “But what if they are playing a trick?” She asked, Ratcliffe says now, “because there had been so many before”.
A failed attempt to bring Nazanin home coincided with the end of the third lockdown, and Gabriella returning to school. “There were a couple of weeks where she was wandering around the playground a little bit lost. Her mum hadn’t come back, her friends were all different, and I think that was when I remember thinking ‘there’s no easy way round this. You can’t protect her from the fundamentals’,” he adds.
At one point, the father and daughter go to Downing Street to meet the prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson. They return home with a stuffed toy version of Larry the Cat, and you can see in Gabriella’s unimpressed face that it makes a lousy replacement for her mother. (Although he has been vocal about Johnson’s mistakes as foreign secretary, Ratcliffe is not keen to talk too much about Johnson now, explaining that he doesn’t want to be an “extra” in the former PM’s story).
The film culminates with the huge emotion of the three finally being reunited at RAF Brize Norton. Nazanin weeps and viewers will weep with her. Gabriella gathers herself in her mother’s arms, stunned that she is actually there. “There was probably a bit of disbelief for her [Gabriella] for the first few days,” says Ratcliffe. “It took time to trust that it was real and then there was that thing of taking two parents and working out how to make two servants and manoeuvre them. What are the boundaries here? Because obviously the rules with daddy were different to the rules with mummy. Mummy and daddy hadn’t quite aligned. So there was all that kind of stuff that was healthy and normal. And then she probably just relaxed quite a lot. I would not have said that she was angry before, but she was definitely less angry.”
She was thrilled to suddenly be a “normal kid”. Ratcliffe says: “Mum picks her up from school. She would be showing off. ‘This is my mum! This is real! It’s not just on telly!’”
In the movie of Nazanin’s story, this is obviously the happy ending. But in real life, the family always knew it wasn’t going to be that straightforward. “It’s not simple,” says Ratcliffe, who is promoting the film alone – while he got used to the press over years of campaigning, his wife still understandably finds it overwhelming.
“Six years is a long time. There’s an adjustment to each other, it’s noticing the way each other has changed.”
He tells me that when Gabriella returned from Iran, though he knew she was by then five and a half, he was somehow expecting a two-year-old to return. “When Nazanin came back, although she knew Gabriella was now seven and three quarters, she was still sort of expecting the five-year-old she had last seen,” he says.
“You box away the time that has passed, and want to come back to the person that you left. And of course the river has moved and the stick is further down. So there’s that, and then there is the way in which life goes on. The hole where you were closes up in different ways. So there was that disorientation about the passage of time and coming back feeling dislocated, and trying to find your space again.”
He says there are “good weeks, bad weeks”, and describes it as “noticing the leaky taps of life”. For six years, only one thing mattered: getting Nazanin home. “We were firefighting, in retrospect. It’s nice that now Gabriella knows she’s the centre of the world. I think as a child, you need to feel safe and know that your mum and dad have got your back first and last. I don’t think that was true when we were doing the campaigning. So there’s a noticing of all the things that have been neglected. And there’s probably also the flip side, which is learning to have fun again. Learning to lay down arms and relax a bit. Learning to get more balanced.”
How do you go about moving on from something like this? “Gradually and suddenly I think is the answer,” he smiles. “I think Nazanin wants a clean break. She doesn’t want to be a symbol. She wants to be an ordinary person.” They are writing a book about their experiences, which for Nazanin has been “cathartic”.
“Nazanin never got a chance to tell her story, lots of people told her story for her. Enough mansplaining,” he laughs. The book will come out when she is ready. “When she came out, she was a lot more guarded with the media,” Ratcliffe explains. “She was much more sensitive to being packaged in certain ways. Stories get put into terms that work in different ways for different TV stations. I probably hadn’t noticed that in the beginning.”
Ratcliffe has returned to work as an accountant. For him, the film is the end of his campaigning. But for Nazanin, things are more complicated. He tells me: “You don’t come out cheerful. You don’t come out feeling like everyone understands, because frankly, everyone doesn’t, and nor could we. So that sense of dislocation, and then a sense of self-blame is lingering. She’s feeling her way back into the world and being tough on herself that it’s taken this time.”
News about the situation in Iran can be triggering, and not surprisingly, Nazanin hasn’t gone back to work as a project manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There is a processing aspect. It takes away your ability to plan,” says Ratcliffe. “You have to be in the moment and react to what happens. Normal planning, you can’t do it. And of course for Nazanin, she was completely powerless. Recovering agency and choice is what comes first.”
I ask him about their first Christmas back together. “It was a proper big one,” he says. “I think Nazanin probably found it quite overwhelming because it was quite full on and the relatives came and so on. She was still at the dipping-her-toe-in stage of social engagements. So it was lovely to all be together, and nice for everyone to celebrate. But for her,” he trails off for a bit.
“When she was in prison, there was almost a kind of environmental puritanism. It’s really hard to get stuff into prison, so when you’ve got it, you hoard it. You bequeath it to cell mates when you leave, or you rework some other part of it for some other purpose. So Christmas, it feels quite decadent.”
He worries how Nazinin will feel at Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which takes place in a week. He says: “That was their big thing inside prison. It’s definitely praying on her mind now, those that were left behind. And there may be an element of: can I have fun when there are people in prison still?” Survivors’ guilt, I ask? “She wouldn’t use those words. It’s more like, ‘my goodness, a year has almost passed, they’re still there. My goodness, what a waste of life.”
They spend a lot of time “pottering around the neighbourhood, going to coffee shops and the supermarket”, says Ratcliffe. “Going around and seeing old friends was one of the first things, just to reconnect to life before.” There is beauty in the mundane.
“Just going on the school run, playdates. Checking homework, parents evening. Making it more normal for Gabriella, doing Brownies, swimming lessons, that kind of thing. We catch ourselves complaining and think ‘well actually, a year ago, the thought of sitting in a traffic jam trying to rush to a swimming lesson…’ It’s almost like a dream.”
How have they reconnected as a couple? “There’s a long catch-up process,” he says. “Just catching up with all the years. Which sometimes is enjoying each other’s company, and sometimes is ‘oh, you think like that now do you.”
He chuckles. “We’ve obviously gone down different paths. Or the same path, but with very different experiences of it. And so coming back together, there’s a process of learning to share, if that makes sense. And kind of realising sometimes that you don’t quite get it when you assumed you did.”
He describes them as both needing the time “to wind our way back to the same river”. The average weekend? “We try and go and see granny or visit a friend. Do the washing, tidy up bedrooms. That kind of ‘being a household’, if that makes sense. All the ordinary bits. It’s now much more how it was seven years ago. We’re not quite there. But there are regular routines. It’s nice in its regularity. It’s quite humdrum.”
He smiles as he speaks, has a bit more of his cheese straw. It is a smile that says: long may the humdrum continue.
‘Nazanin’ is on Channel 4 at 9pm on March 16