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Haleh Anvari is a translator and "fixer" for foreign journalists in Tehran, Iran.
POSTED Monday, Feb. 14, 2000, at 10:30 A.M. PT
I missed the Iranian revolution when it happened, 21 years ago this week, because I was at school in the U.K. I was 16 then and, like most Iranians, extremely excited about an event that would prove to be momentous not just in the life of this nation but also in all our personal lives. It took 16 years for me to be able to return to my country. I have been back now for seven. I am now witnessing the maturing process of that revolution firsthand through my work with foreign journalists. So I kind of console myself for having missed the main gig by listening to the stories and hopes of those who were here and on the front line. But more of this later; right now you will want to know what exactly you will be reading in the next few days.
I work with foreign journalists; they call us fixers. An odd name, I always thought: at best reminiscent of glue; at worst implying some kind of wheeling and dealing. In fact, the job is to provide guidance to journalists, who are often unfamiliar with the terrain and the culture, managing their time, arranging their interviews, and generally getting them over the hurdles of a massive bureaucracy that they must navigate if they are to use their limited time in this country in an efficient way. I get to meet the personalities who count here and translate their stories and commentary. It gives me a privileged, inside look at the politics of the place and a chance tounderstand an ancient country's remarkable transition from a politically undeveloped system to one that is finding its feet on its quest for real democracy. I like to see my job as a bridge between two cultures, two peoplesin the context of Iran, a bridge between two worlds so set apart in the Western media and the attitudes that have prevailed in my country since the revolution. I am not just a translator of words; I'm an interpreter of mannerisms and a reader of fine lines in the seemingly obvious.
The countdown to the parliamentary elections has begun, and we are receiving a rush of reporters from all over the world. My first team arrived this morning from Oslo. Our first stop, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for our permits and press cards. To see anyone in a position of power will require a letter from the intimidating-sounding but actually rather friendly ministry. So I sat down with a huge piece of paper and a new pen, expecting to write an impossibly long list of ayatollahs and ministers. But Joy, my Norwegian reporter has worked in the Middle East for many years and doesn't waste his time with requests for interviews he knows he is unlikely to get. We spend half a day hanging around the ministry's emergency offices arranged on the top floor of one of the main hotels in Tehran, previously owned by the Inter-Continental chain. It's now part of one of the financial foundations that took over foreign hotels, the Foundation for the Oppressed, I think. There are 500 reporters in town: Fixers are like gold dust and about as expensive! The reporters will probably be eligible as oppressed themselves by the end of the week.
POSTED Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000, at 10:00 A.M. PT
The Toronto Star correspondent arrived late last night; the Newsday correspondent followed late this morning. I'll spare you another account of a day spent getting papers. Now that we have them, I need a mobile filing cabinet for all the permits we have to carry around with us.
These two are an interesting duo to work with. The Canadian is a soft-spoken Montrealer, the kind of guy you would like to have as your child's pediatrician after a household accident. He never raises his voice above a soothing pitch, even when you know he is despairing of getting that one vital interview with some conservative cleric that he needs to make his report work. The Newsday correspondent is a young Scotsman, now an honorary New Yorker, who is more likely to pine for a bagel than a plate of haggis. We don't get bagels in downtown Tehran; they probably wouldn't get a visa! But I further digress amid my main digression. His quintessentially British sense of humor makes me homesick for the rainy island. The last time he was here I spent more time catching up on jokes than on fixing.
Our first appointment was with the publisher of a reformist newspaper that has been shut down four times by the authorities for stepping over the so-called red line in journalism. The press court shuts them down, then they publish again with a new name and a new license. I changed their particulars in my phone book so many times I couldn't keep up. So now I just call their paper the "Phoenix"rising from the ashes. It saves my new book from turning into a mess.
Jalaii-pour, the publisher, epitomizes the changes in Iran. He has an impeccable revolutionary background. Born into an Islamic family opposed to the deposed Shah, he lost three brothers in the war with Iraq. At the beginning of the revolution, he was the governor of Kurdistan when there was an uprising by the Iranian Kurds who wanted autonomy from the central government. About a year and a half ago, he and three of his journalists were arrested and imprisoned for a month. They were released only because Jalaii-pour's mother wrote an open letter to the supreme leader of the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, asking for the release of her only remaining son. I can't remember the exact words, but they went something like, I have given the nation three martyred sons, and I would like this one safely home. It was weird that at that time we were reading about a new film with Tom Hanks called Saving Private Ryan. Here was our very own Ryan, but in a different situation.
Ironically, Jalaii-pour was rejected as a candidate for the parliamentary elections last month; once an insider, he is now deemed too radical as a reformist. And he is not alone: There seem to be legions of revolutionaries turned reformists who have found a voice and a new sense of purpose since President Khatami's election. They are, like Jalaii-pour, still supporters of the Islamic revolution; they simply maintain that the time for revolutionary behavior is over. It is now time to try and reach the ideals for which the revolution happened in the first place, namely a populist democracy with Islamic values. This naturally rubs some people the wrong way. So, he and his colleagues find themselves moving toward the edge of what has always been the ruling circle. Some would say the cutting edge. His paper has one of the largest circulations among the new papers, and the party he is associated with seems to be the one most popular with the younger generation of Iranians, who form 60 percent of the population here.
While waiting in the foyer of the "Phoenix" newspaper, a friendly and pretty young woman was asking one of the female reporters whether she'd got any Valentine's Day presents. My ears perked up. I had not heard the occasion mentioned in the seven years I had been back. To be honest, I was quite happy to be away from the paranoia that goes with the day. The dreadful start to the day, when you get to pretend not to be expecting any mail. The pathetic attempt at playing it cool just like an Oscar nominee when the bunch of flowers delivered to the office finds its way to the desk next to yours. Who needs the emotional trauma? I couldn't help asking the girl what she knew about Valentine's Day and where she had heard about it. It's the second year, she told me, that this new consumer craze has become all the rage among young Iranians. They flood to card shops and gift shops and flower shops and send each other presents. It has to be secret, she said. It came from the Internet. Aaah, the wonders of technology!
You could see the sparkles in her beautiful Persian eyes; it was early afternoon, and she was still hoping and waiting.
I gave her a tip from my previous life: Save yourself the suspense and the loss of facesend yourself a valentine. I think I may have started something here.
POSTED Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2000, at 10:30 A.M. PT
Three days to the elections.
The North American team is on the trail of Ayatollah Khomeini's family for interviews. The Norwegians want to talk to people in the arts. We go to the house of a famous theater director who has recently staged The Blood Wedding by the Spanish writer Lorca. It's a tale of love, hope, and betrayal with a lot of old resentments and revenge. It received a great deal of attention from the audiences here. It must have touched a nerve with them. There are many women in the play who perform in Spanish-style clothes cleverly manipulated to observe the Islamic cover. After a few minutes you are no longer aware of the lack of visible manes on the actresses. There were also many scenes that required men and women to dance together or embrace one another. In Iran, unrelated men and women may not touch. If you want to stage a play, you have to get around these problems somehow. The director explained to the reporters how he managed to do this by the use of the Spanish shawls the women wore, which would be used as a connecting device for the actors. The Indian filmmakers for years got around the same cultural restrictions by inventing the indirect kiss: Boy kisses apple, throws it at girl, both dancing very improbably around a tree. The girl catches it and plants her kiss on the apple. The connection is made and the sensibilities of the more conservative viewer remain intact. Nowadays, the Indian TV shows we receive from satellite dishes illegally perched on top of our roofs indicate that indirect is out. Most of the girls are in wet saris, and they receive their kisses full on the lips.
When Iran became an Islamic state, the most visually obvious thing was the change in the code of dress for women. Whenever the reporters want to show they are in Iran they use the covered women, usually the ones in the black chadors; that image shows the chasm between our two cultures with greater force. Unfortunately it also reinforces the clichés.
I give you an example: We went to an art gallery to interview the owner because he was the first to exhibit a foreign artist's work in Iran. The photographer decided that just taking a picture of him next to the paintings would be boringhe needed to show more obviously he had taken this picture in Iran. What will immediately tell the reader where he was? Women in their hejab. Unfortunately, by the time he decided to take his pictures it was lunch time and there were no visitors left in the gallery. So we had to "fix" it. I had to go into the street and ask some women to come and help us out. No shy wallflowers, the women I talked to came into the gallery, took a painting each, and posed for him outside, with a view of the Alborz mountains in the background. I guess the mountains could have been anywhere in the world, too, but with our scarves and long coats, we made the image complete: We are the trademark of revolutionary Iran.
Later we went to a newsstand to do some vox pops on the press and its role in the elections. The reporter wanted to interview a man who was buying a paper. I explained who we were and what we wanted. Would he answer some questions? "No," came the reply. Why not? "I don't want any trouble," he said. Before I could fully translate his sentence, a woman at the other end of the stand put up her hand and said in Farsi, "I will. You can interview me." And so we did. We actually got a lot more than we'd bargained for.
She gave us a full frontal assault on the political system in the past 20 years. Would she vote? Of course. A few other people were gathering round. Foreigners are always of interest here. A man said what's the point of voting, it won't change anything. The woman laid into him. That's exactly what the conservatives want. To discourage you from exercising your right for change. We left the circle of debate as it was really heating up. We had to run to another interview on the other side of town. The men were still being lectured by the woman on the power of the plebiscite as we drove away. She didn't seem too oppressed to me even in her hejab. She knew exactly what forces were trying to keep her down. Don't they say recognizing the problem is halfway to solving it?
POSTED Thursday, Feb. 17, 2000, at 10:00 A.M. PT
I was brought up in a staunchly nationalist home. My father had spent time in the Shah's prison as a young journalist supporting Mossadeq. The Shah was, as soon as I could understand what I heard around me as a child, not the father of the nation, as my school textbooks told me, but a dictator. When the revolution began, my father and his friends were taken by surprise by the path it actually took. It didn't take him long before he fell afoul of the new system and left the country to live in the U.K. as a political refugee. His property was confiscated. His name went on the list of antirevolutionaries. It probably didn't help that he spent his time in London publishing a newspaper critical of the Islamic Republic. He came back to Iran soon after my return, spent two years to-ing and fro-ing from one revolutionary court to another until he got his home back, only to fulfill a wish to die in it on Iranian soil. He didn't see the election of President Khatami. He would have got a kick out of it. He believed that the Iranian revolution would come to fruition, but with time and from within the system. He would have voted.
It's a strange sensation, the death of a parent; next to the grief sits a sense of growing up. The parent gone, you are your own person to please. When I refrained from voting in the presidential elections three years ago, I was still carrying my childish interpretation of my father's politics from 30 years back. The justification of my position was ostensibly shaped by my claim to a mediocre degree in politics and philosophy. How could anyone with a modicum of intelligence take part in an election that would allow only a handful of pre-selected candidates? Why would anyone want to give legitimacy to a system that-by nature shunned the power of the populace? I obstinately refused to vote, but 20 million people went out that day and voted for Khatami. They returned a candidate of choice, albeit a limited choice.
The 15-year-olds who got Khatami elected against all odds are now 18. Their initial euphoria of empowerment may have paled in the face of political realities. Some will be disillusioned, no doubt; others are more pragmatic. Either way they are better-educated than we were at their age, both academically and politically. When I was 15, voting was what people in faraway lands did. These youngsters have lived within a system that has shown them the framework of democracy. They read papers that provide them with a critique of what has happened during the past 20 years. They are practicing the art of participation, however limited it may appear to the Western eye. And they are from all walks of life.
My mistake in abstaining in the presidential elections was exactly that I was looking at that event as a person brought up in the West. I wanted the whole thing. The whole thing was not handed to any country on a plate; they had to work for it and learn its process. People of my generation are taking their cue from these "kids" running between cars in the cold winter night. I asked the next boy with pamphlets if he had a list of recommended candidates. He gave me three and told me how to use the codes next to the names.
Now I've got my election list. I've told my reporters I need time off on Friday to go and vote. I'm voting this time. So what if it'll take a while for things to change. The point is that the process has begun. In the words of one political analyst to an American journalist who saw the pace of change as way too slow, "This is the land of Persian carpets, it takes years for the pattern to be woven, you may have sore fingers weaving it, but when it's done it'll be a work of art and it will last a hell of a long time."
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Disclaimer: I've been a huge fan and reader of Slate magazine since '97 or so, though I was never an addict of their Diary column. When I read that they were publishing a book of Diary entries, I was thrilled for an easy way to catch up on years of missed columns. The diary entries in the book are fascinating, particularly when they are from non-famous and semi-famous contributors. The best entries include those from an elementary school nurse, a detective, a chef-in-training, a writer for the Simpsons and a political correspondent in Moscow. The book does have some less-then-stellar entries including some by seemingly self-impressed academics and business leaders. Those aside, it's a very enjoyable read that you can tackle in a weekend (as I did) or over the course of many months. One curious observation - the most interesting diaries seem to be from people doing relatively boring activities. I sense that it's an empathy thing...I enjoy their passages because I can relate to them. But, I'm not sure...it's fun to explore what you like and don't like about yourself by watching the daily activities of a stranger through their own words.
As the color of the sky around me turned that late-afternoon, rainy-day gray, I clicked into a review of some-magazine-or-others diary presentations. They all sound like a good read for nosey people or those with shorter shadows than the writers or stalkarazzi or those who wish to sell fireplace wood to the rich and famous. Could be as instructive as Mein Kamph or Mein Kat if you could read where their at. Still, since - or if you don't mind - they're blowing their own smoke, (all ghosts are supposedly asside) why not take a peek? After all, 'There, but for me, go I.'