March 08, 2006
Hello and welcome to this "web log," documenting some of my experiences in Iran. My name is Marcia Franklin and I am a producer with Idaho Public Television . I went to Iran in October and November 2003 to learn more about the environmental movement there, as part of a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism.
I believe that the health of a country can be judged in part by the health of its environment, but in addition, I wanted to learn more about the civil society movement in Iran, of which the environmental movement is part. This civil society movement is a relatively new aspect of life under an Islamic government.
I have always been fascinated with Iran--its people, culture and politics. It is a country with which we have had long ties. Although they were severed 25 years ago after the Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages, it is still a vital country for us, and its people have great affection for Americans. Incidentally, the landscape of Iran, with forests in the north, deserts in the south and a mountain range in the middle, is very similar to Idaho.
The results of my research are in an hour-long documentary called "From Idaho to Iran," which has been shown on Idaho Public Television and which will be able to be seen on other public television stations (check your local station to see if they have it on their schedule.)
To order a copy of the DVD, see the entry below!
The entries go from the most recent to the earliest, so if you'd like to experience my trip the way I did, you will need to start from the bottom and scroll up. Or you can click on the archives on the right hand side for the week that interests you.
One disclaimer: this is a personal site, a sort of travelogue. As such, it reflects my emotions and general perceptions as I went through my journey. I am not an expert in Iranian culture or politics.
Thanks for visiting!
February 24, 2006
DVDs for sale
My documentary, "From Idaho to Iran," is airing around the country on PBS stations, and many of you have written or called asking whether it's for sale. It is!
If you'd like to use a credit card, scroll down to the PayPal "Add to Cart" button at the bottom of this message and follow the instructions.Or you can send a check for $24.95 per DVD (includes shipping and careful handling) to:
1455 North Orchard Street
Boise, ID 83706
Make sure your shipping address is on the check or in the envelope.
Please send any comments about the program or this blog to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you/kheyli mamnoon for your interest!
February 23, 2006
Hard Work and Miracles!
I am so pleased to report that my friend Omid Memarian, who helped me meet environmentalists when I was in Iran, is in the United States for an extended stay. Omid, who worked for an organization encouraging "civil society" projects, is also a web blogger. In late 2004, some Iranian government officials arrested a group of bloggers, including Omid. They were sent to prison, isolated and tortured. Only after the intervention of Human Rights Watch, Nobel Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi, and former President Khatami himself, were the bloggers freed.
I saw Omid in Iran in 2005. At that time, he was still traumatized by what had happened, but he was upbeat and amazingly, still speaking out against those factions of the government who are trying to restrict journalists. Here is a photo from that visit:
Later that year that optimism paid off. He took a bus into Turkey and waited there for 75 days. With help from UC Berkeley, Human Rights Watch and several American congresspeople, he was taken off the "no fly list" and was able to enter the country. He went immediately to Berkeley, where he is a visiting fellow in Journalism.
In November, he received Human Rights Watch's highest award and has since been doing a lot of traveling and speaking. He has also written an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle. and another for the New York Times.
I was able to visit Omid at UC Berkeley in January, 2006 and here is a picture of him with his award and also of us together:
The Bush Administration has called for an additional $5 million to foster Iranian student exchanges. This could be a good idea. If more people like Omid had a chance to come here, not only would a more positive view of Iranians be disseminated, BUT ALSO Iranians visiting our country will be able to take back to their country a more true image of Americans and America. I know that Omid has already experienced great kindness in our country and has also seen firsthand some of the rich contradictions that exist here, as they do in his society. And I know he's also having a great time!
I wish him all the best and hope that he will travel to this part of the country to talk to folks here!
December 10, 2004
Recently I had the opportunity to see two of the Iranians who were in my documentary, "From Idaho to Iran." Dr. Hamid Taravati and Dr. Farzaneh Bahar are environmentalists from the city of Masshad, in northeastern Iran. They are experts in family planning issues, and also have a non-governmental organization which encourages people to plant trees.
Both were in Washington, DC, to attend a meeting of the Environmental Policy Institute, on whose board Hamid sits. He and his wife then went to Arcata, California to visit an old friend of theirs, Frederica Aalto, who represents Six Rivers Planned Parenthood in various international capacities. She and Farzaneh had met at the Beijing Women's conference.
Frederica organized a gathering at which Farzaneh and Hamid spoke, and a portion of my documentary was shown. It was truly moving to be able to see my friends again and hear them speak to an American audience about the problems that overpopulation has caused in Iran, and the resulting innovations in family planning that have occurred in that country. We all learned from listening to them. I also got to meet several of the members of the small Iranian community on California's north coast.
Here is an article about the event.
It never ceases to amaze me how the world has been connected through the internet. Although we continue to have political and military conflicts with other countries, with perseverance, people around the world can continue to connect
August 30, 2004
My documentary,"From Idaho to Iran," is now complete! It is an hour long. I shot it and edited it myself--quite the experience. It has aired twice on Idaho Public Television and I have been gratified by the response. The intent was to show a view of Iran that concentrated on the people trying to better their country, not terrorists. That purpose seems to have been recognized by the people who have called and written, both Iranians and non-Iranians. Thank you to everyone in Iran who helped me.
If you would like to buy a copy, please click on the entry called "DVDs for sale" for purchase information, or email me at email@example.com. The documentary has been accepted by NETA, the organization that distributes local PBS programs to other PBS stations. If you have ideas about other outlets that might be interested in the documentary, please let me know!
April 17, 2004
Air Pollution article
Here is an article about the awful air pollution in Tehran, part of what I went to learn more about.
March 30, 2004
Iran and UNEP
This is an article about a new memorandum of understanding between Iran and the United Nations Environmental Programme. Increasingly, Iran is signing international environmental conventions, and much of the work I saw being done was receiving some sort of UN funding.
February 17, 2004
Here is an article on the Non Governmental Organization (NGO) movement in Iran, including the environmental movement. This was the focus of my trip to Iran.
February 15, 2004
I think the BBC does a good job of covering Iranian news (you can see my profile of the BBC's Iran Bureau chief if you scroll down.) This is a good BBC series on the changes in Iran.
January 08, 2004
Article in "Sharg" newspaper
For those of you who can read Persian, here is the first and second of a two-part series in "Sharg" newspaper about my views on the environmental situation in Iran. ("Sharg" is a relatively apolitical, cultural newspaper that is read by a lot of people.)
January 03, 2004
An NPR Piece
On January 2, 2004, NPR's "Morning Edition" aired my piece on Connie Martin, the American teacher I mentioned in my blog entry below.
When you get to the NPR site, scroll down to the story entitled "Americans Abroad: Teaching in Tehran."
December 30, 2003
When I was in Iran, Bam was on the top of my list of places to visit. I had heard it was a city where you could really feel the intimacy and spirituality of Islam. But with the amount of work I had to do, and the length of time it would have taken me to get there, I could not get down there.
Because I hoped to go there, I didn't even look at picture books of Bam, so that I could be surprised when I eventually did see it. Then the earthquake happened. So now I will never see it the way it was before. Of course, more importantly the people living there have had an incredible loss.
Although I never made it to Bam, I felt a strong connection to the people there, because once you've been to Iran, you just feel close to Iranians. I followed all the news reports of the event. (The best site to go to, by the way, for all the reports, is www.payvand.com.)
I was devastated, as we all were, by the loss of life. I was encouraged, though, that it prompted such a quick and appropriate response from our president, and that perhaps channels for conversation have been reopened. Of course, there has always been back channel conversation, but this is out in the open. I know that the aid workers there will receive the same courtesies I did.
It also could be that once they start reconstructing the old city, they will decide to excavate some parts of it, because there is an even older settlement below. That could be interesting.
I still remain worried about the immense danger in Tehran, which has an estimated 12 million people, many living in housing that does not meet code. I was stunned to read today that the authorities there are actually thinking of moving the capital of Iran from Tehran, so that in the event of an earthquake, they could respond more effectively. This shows that perhaps they are taking this threat seriously indeed.
I do hope one day to get to Bam, and Yazd, and many other places in Iran I didn't have time for on this trip. In the meantime, I know all of our thoughts are with the survivors of the earthquake...
December 19, 2003
This is a link to a show on which I talked about my trip, along with my friend Azam, who was with me for the first week.
December 18, 2003
Idaho Statesman Piece
This is a link to an Idaho Statesman piece about my friend Azam and our trip to Iran.
December 11, 2003
"If You Want The Truth--Yes, I Am Afraid"
On the occasion of Shirin Ebadi's acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace, I thought I would share with you part of the text of the interview I conducted with her. Mrs. Ebadi, a lawyer and human rights activist, is the first Iranian and first woman from a Muslim country to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Please see links below my interview for more information on Mrs. Ebadi, as well as two other entries-- "Waiting for Shirin" and "No Longer Waiting for Shirin" for my experience meeting her and being at the airport in Tehran when thousands welcomed her home.
Interview with Shirin Ebadi, conducted on Wednesday, November 19, 2003, Tehran, Iran.
Are you able to continue with your regular work, or have things completely changed for you?
Since it was announced that I was the winner of the Nobel Prize, until today, which is over one month, most of my time has been used for interviews and discussions about events that led to this prize. Unfortunately, my life hasn?t regained its normalcy, so that I can return to my profession, which is law.
What has been the biggest surprise since you came home?
In fact, many interesting things happened for me which were surprising. Perhaps one of the things that was especially interesting for me was that my young daughter, who is a law student, turned to me and said, ?I will certainly win this prize too; you can be sure you won?t be the only one.?
Where were you when you heard about the prize and what was your reaction?
I was in Paris to participate in a conference. It was a Friday and at 2:30 in the afternoon I had a flight scheduled back to Tehran.
It was around 11 o?clock when they called me and they told me, ?You are the winner of the Nobel Prize.? I wasn?t even aware of having been nominated for the prize. For this reason, it was a real surprise for me.
I first doubted a little, but they told me to turn the radio on, that right now French radio is going to broadcast the announcement. When I heard French radio announcing it, I was very happy. The truth is that in my dreams I saw myself winning the prize someday, but I thought it would happen when I was 80, and so I was taken aback that I had won the prize 25 years early!
Are you tired of all the questions about hejab? (the head covering and coat that all Iranian women must wear)
People like to have their own questions and I have no problem with that. But as an Iranian woman, I think we have far more important issues to talk about. For instance, in Iran a man can get married to four women and he can divorce his wife without any justification. The custody of children after divorce is with the man. The compensation to a woman is one half that of a man. To discuss these matters is much more important than talking about hejab. Unfortunately we have much bigger problems.
What now will you concentrate your attention on?
The granting of this prize proved one thing, and that is the path I have been following so far was not the wrong way. And this gives my heart more strength so that I can pursue this path with greater confidence. I will continue all my past activities. I have been active in many different fields. One was the defense of political-ideological prisoners. I?ve been supporting the rights of children in Iran, defending women?s rights in Iran, defending the freedom of expression. These were the main focus of my activities in Iran.
Were you disappointed that President Khatami called the Nobel Prize just a political prize?
Mr. Khatami has expressed his opinion about the Nobel Prize and everybody can have his or her own opinion.
Do you feel a lot of pressure right now?
What happened after the granting of the prize is that I feel a greater responsibility now. At least I should prove to myself that I deserved this prize. Therefore I will definitely work harder now.
Many Iranians I?ve met say they won?t vote in the next election. What do you think about this?
There is a bill before the Parliament. If it is approved, people will have the right to vote for anyone they want. This law is very important for the people. I hope it will be approved so that Iranian people can freely vote for anyone they want.
(Note: Iranians can only vote for people that have been "vetted" by the Council of Guardians.)
The Council of Guardians is against this bill; therefore it was returned to the Parliament. This is a point of contention between the parliament and the Council of Guardians and the people of Iran want the freedom to vote for anyone they like.
But if this bill is approved, then people will go and vote. But if it is not approved and people are not able to vote for anyone they want, naturally they won?t have any interest in participating, and they will not be willing to vote for someone who has been imposed on them.
UPDATE: Ebadi has said she will not vote in the election on February 20, 2004, because of the mass disqualifications of reform candidates.
When you talk to people, what do you tell them about the best way to promote peace?
Peace and the belief in peace is not something to be created overnight. It needs a building of the culture. The most important thing is that we raise our children from an early age far from violence. We can see, even the toys for children are violent toys. Guns are considered the best gift for a boy. This is wrong.
In 5 years, or even in 10 years, what changes would you like to see in Iran?
If I?m to express my dreams, my dream is an Iran free of violence, an Iran where everyone can live as he wants, think as he wants and work as he wants. My dream is an Iran where the natural wealth is distributed equitably. My dream is an Iran run by trusted representatives of the people. My dream is a free and proud Iran.
I?ve talked to some Iranian women who would like to see change, but they say they are not as brave as you are. Some women are scared to speak up like you have.What would you say to them?
Look, freedom has a price to be paid for it. We can?t expect democracy and human rights and freedom in our country if we are afraid of risks. It?s a duty of the people to struggle for the advancement of democracy in their country.
Are you afraid?
For many years, I have been threatened. If you want the truth?yes, I?m afraid. Fear is an instinct like hunger. It comes to you whether you want it or not. You get hungry without wanting to. And you are afraid without wanting it. Therefore I am afraid, but I have learned to dominate my fear and not to permit that fear to hinder my work.
What is the greatest misimpression that people have about Iran?
I hope we can introduce the people of the world, particularly the people of the United States, to the authentic Iranian culture.
Some 2,500 years ago, Iran was one of the greatest empires of the world. Cyrus the Great was ruling Iran. In the same era, Cyrus the Great inscribed these words on a tablet:
?I pledge not to rule over people who don?t want me. I pledge not to force people to change their religious conviction. I pledge to give people freedom.?
Iran enjoys such a cultural background. Look at us and judge us with our 7,000 year-old culture, not only on the basis of a few years.
Has the Islamic Revolution been good for Iran?
When the Islamic Revolution occurred, it had certain very lofty goals. But unfortunately for reasons that are very elaborate--and this is not the place to talk about them--it failed to reach all its goals. If the revolution had attained all its goals, it would be much better for sure.
Who are the people you look up to?
One of my interests is to read about great individuals. I learn something from everybody. I don?t have a role model. I try to learn from every great person.
Do you expect to come to America?
Yes, I think I may come in May.
November 27, 2003
Faces and Places
From solemn mosques, to bustling grand bazaars, from secretive wooden doors, to open young faces-- it's easy to become visually mesmerized in Iran. Now that I'm home, I thought I'd share some photographic memories with you.
November 24, 2003
Ah, a DSL line and free flowing hair....what more could one want? Actually, just some sleep. I've just completed a 24-hour journey back to the States, which means I've been up for, well, I won't think about it. Other than a $133 charge for a teeny bag of books and papers, I'm no worse for the wear. I didn't even have time to get teary, so busy was I trying to figure out the airport departure situation in Tehran. A 3 AM flight, 7 hours in Frankfurt and another 8 hour flight will knock a lot of sentimentality out of you.
Still, as I talked with my seatmates on my two flights, I was drawn back again to the memories of my adventure. On the first leg, my companion was an Armenian-Iranian American visiting his parents in Tehran for probably the last time. We talked about the fact that his wife will no longer come with him, as she hates wearing the scarf and manteau, but how much has changed for the better since his last visit. As he is an architect, we also discussed the deplorable state of building construction in Iran, and our fears of what will happen in the inevitable earthquakes.
My second seatmate was a minister from Minneapolis returning from three months living in a Palestinian village. We shared our thoughts about being in a Muslim country, about the anti-American hatred that is growing, and the situation in Israel. But we also talked about our mutual feelings that for both of us, we had been drawn to our journeys for inexplicable reasons, and hoped that we could adequately describe them to others.
I was greeted at the airport by my parents, who have been so supportive of my fellowship and trip from the beginning. How many other American women would have parents whose first reaction upon telling them I wanted to go to Iran was "great!"?
I returned home to an email from a lovely environmentalist I met in Masshad asking me why I hadn't contacted him to visit the "jungles" of the north. Just so much left to do!
I now have to sort through all my tapes and figure out the best approach for my reporting. Some things may make better print stories, and there may been some radio stories in there, too. After Thanksgiving I will give a presentation to my fellow fellows, and then all of us will also present to anyone at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins who would like to hear from us. I hope I can either show some videotape or still photos by then.
It was a fantastic trip, a chance of a lifetime. Sure, there were times that weren't easy--suspicious pieces of glass in my shower, for instance, and a couple interchanges with police. But really, for the most part the people were exceptionally welcoming. And I tried to make the most of it, drinking in whatever I could, even if it had nothing to do with my specific reporting project. I hope that I will be back in Iran soon. For some reason, I am drawn to the country. As one of my new Iranian friends wrote me:
"Now you probably understand the meaning of "Land of 1001 nights" and have sensed a bit of the same feeling millions of others, throughout centuries, had, when put feet on this magic soil....In other words, I can congratulate you for being born in our world and Persianically baptized. You were touched by waters of the Caspian and Persian Gulf and now have us with you. Be with us."
Just a taste of Iranian hospitality and poetry.
Thanks to those of you who wrote to me on this web site or personally. It was much appreciated, as it often got lonely. I hope to see all of you soon, and also hope your autumn has been productive and healthy.
November 22, 2003
On My Way
In just a few hours, I will leave for the airport for the ungodly (and un-Allah like) 3 AM flight to Frankfurt. Then again, many Muslims get up around that hour to pray, so perhaps it makes sense. After a 5 hour flight, I have to wait another 7 hours, and then take a 9 hour flight to DC. I expect to be a rag when I arrive.
I'm ready to go. I'm tired of struggling with a camera, tripod, batteries and microphones (try filming birds off a moving boat--ugh....) I'm tired of wearing the same 4 shirts and two pants and washing them out in the sink. The detergent is gone, the shampoo is almost gone. I've downed at least 60 Advils. And needless to say, I'll be the first to strip off this silly scarf and hot coat I have to wear.
Then again, I'm not ready to go. I'm still meeting great people (including a man whose wife I met on an airplane yesterday. He's one of Iran's great mountaineers and visited me in the hotel tonight.) I could use another couple weeks to really get the story right, but I'd definitely need a videographer because I'm tired.
But I'm also not ready to go because I really love this place. It's often a drag and a half to be here, dealing with air and noise pollution, traffic, short working hours and nothing to do after hours. But that challenge also means a certain "high" when you accomplish your tasks and even surpass them.
And the people, food and culture are so rich; there's so many ironies wherever you turn. I know I will shed tears at the airport and when I get home as I miss the new friends I've made and the experiences I've had. "Inshallah" I will return to write another chapter....
The Last of the Americans, and My Last Story
"Are you the person that you want to be?"
So began a recent session of what must be one of the most unique classes in Tehran. Taught by one of the only remaining Americans in this city of 12 million, it's an English class that's more about life than linguistics, more about goals than grammar.
24 years ago, just 4 months after the Islamic Revolution, Connie moved here from Fresno, CA, with her Iranian husband. She never left. I had heard about her from two very different people--an upper middle class woman whose 19-year old son currently attends her class, and the 29-year old man from whom I rented a cell phone, who went to her class when he was in elementary school. I took this "6 degrees of separation" phenomenon as a sign that I had to meet Connie.
I first went to one of her classes without a camera and then filmed two other classes, one just hours before I left Iran. I also brought back the 29-year old man to meet her again all these years later.
For me, the story is rich in several respects. First of all, why would an American woman come to Iran just a few months after the revolution? And why would she stay for so long?
Even her students don't understand, but they are appreciative. One, who has been with Connie since she was 12 (she's now 24), burst into tears as she tried to explain what her teacher means to her. "She was more than a mother to me," she said.
"We love her," said another, at the same time calling Connie's devotion to Iran "suicide."
So why does Connie stay? By her own admission, it's for love, not just of her husband, but also her students.
"My sanity is based on my work," she told me.
"Everyday I see old people, young people, and they?re all coming to learn something and share something. And that is my high. And without it, for sure I wouldn?t be here."
She's worried, though, about the children that she's taught, the children of the revolution, many of who are now in their late 20s and unemployed.
"We have a lost generation here," she told me. "Children from 18 to 30, they don?t know where their place is in society."
Her students worry that she will leave them. "Don't worry," Connie told them. "You guys will leave before I leave. I?m the last of the Mohicans."
I would have loved to spend more time with Connie. Unfortunately I was not able to film her in her daily life, as her husband is worried about her, and even a simple interview with some other friends in the park today was halted by a policeman. Still, her class, complete with girls who weren't wearing hejab, should be interesting to folks and I hope to put together a national radio piece.
And guess what? She has relatives in Filer, just a few hours from Boise. Another one of those "meant to be" situations....
No Longer Waiting for Shirin
I guess even Nobel Prize winners have their bad days. Tired and irritated that yet another reporter was in front of her, Shirin Ebadi, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, starting talking loudly in Farsi to her assistant as soon as she saw me.
The problem? Apparently Ebadi was surprised to see me with a camera, and suspicious. I guess she has been interviewed by people who either aren't really reporters, or have sold their interview to another outlet besides their own. I showed her my business card, and wrote out a note saying that I was indeed an employee of Idaho Public Television. She then went back to being the gracious and yet determined woman she's known to be.
That I was able to interview Mrs. Ebadi at all was thanks to the assistance of Iranian-American Manijeh Badiozamani, who used to live in Boise. Her mother, who still lives in Tehran, is very good friends with Ebadi's mother. Out of the blue one day, I received an email from Manijeh asking me if I'd like to meet Ebadi. "Sure!" I wrote back. After several unsuccessful phone calls to an unhelpful assistant, I was finally assisted by Manijeh's cousin Marjan in getting through.
We left early to get to the appointment because the traffic was as hellatious as I'd seen it in Tehran. We were in a neighborhood that had only one main street, so all the traffic was just simply at a standstill.
We needn't have worried, though, because although we got there at 4:15 for a 4:30 appointment, I didn't get in to see Ebadi until 5:30. She was being interviewed by Norwegian State Television for a documentary and they went over their alloted time. In addition, there were two legal clients waiting to see her when I arrived, and yet another reporter and photographer arrived while I was still waiting. When I came out, there were two more crews waiting, as well as a translator of her work.
Ebadi's office seemed about as small as one could imagine a person of her importance, or for that matter any attorney, having. Her desk was the size of a child's desk and there was just enough room for some bookshelves and some chairs. It was dimly lit, and being in the basement didn't have much natural light either. Ebadi herself is diminutive, and the combination of natural dark circles under her eyes and a month of sleepless nights made her look very tired.
I set up the camera and the mike and then started the interview by telling her that I had been at the airport the night she came in. I asked her how she had felt that evening as she saw the thousands who had spontaneously come to greet her.
We then talked for another 20 minutes or so about her personal goals, and hopes for Iran. Ebadi understood enough English to get the gist of my questions, but she answered in Farsi. I will have to have it translated. Although I couldn't understand all of what she was saying, with my rudimentary Farsi I got some of the gist of it, and could tell she was answering passionately, so I hope I have good responses.
By the end of the interview, though, Ebadi's energy fizzled again noticeably. It was time to pack up and leave. I didn't even have any time to get b-roll of her. I took a few pictures of all the people in the waiting room and her assistants going through email, and then waited another 45 minutes for a cab.
Ebadi is so busy; I can't imagine what it will be like when she comes to America, which she says she hopes to do in May. I think she will need a manager, if she hasn't already hired one to deal with all the interviews in Norway during the Nobel Prize ceremony. I'm sure there's a book somewhere about the impact the Nobel Peace Prize has on people's lives. It has to be quite a shock to the system to deal with all the media attention, especially when it draws you away from the people that you want to serve. She will definitely have to get a bigger office.
Meeting Shirin Ebadi was totally fortuituous. I thank the people who helped make it happen, and will translate her interview soon and hopefully turn it into a piece, as she will be picking up her award in Norway, soon. Being able to see her seemed like a fitting end to my trip, as it was at the beginning of my journey that I had gone to the airport to see her arrive back in Iran.
Interestingly enough, 3 days later I saw the Norwegian TV crew again, as they were on my plane to Frankfurt. Small world indeed. They were able to spend the better part of two weeks with her, and I had a small amount of envy thinking about being able to do that kind of documentary work. But I felt fortunate that I had been able to have even a small window onto the world of someone who is making such great strides for human rights in Iran.
"If I Were a Good Iranian...."
"Have you met Bijan yet? No? Oh, you HAVE to."
This was the refrain I heard from at least five people I interviewed. So, of course I had to find this Bijan person.
Bijan Darehshori is 60, a weathered but fit member of the famous Qashqaei tribe of Iran. As I understand it, his father was the head of the Dareshori clan, famous for its horses, which the nomadic tribe moved with across south-central Iran.
Today he greets visitors to "my island"--Qeshm. It's a piece of land 9 miles wide by 35 miles long in the Persian Gulf in between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Bijan started visiting the island 32 years ago as a specialist for the Department of Environment. In those days, it had no roads, and one could only reach it by a boat rowed from the mainland. If the winds weren't right, you couldn't go.
Today the island is serviced by an airport (although with rather scary Russian-made older planes), has paved roads and is a trade-free zone. That means you don't need a visa to enter, although I had to pass a security check.
Bijan moved here permanantly with her wife and youngest child 3 years ago. 6 years ago he took his camera and walked out of the Department of Environment, so frustrated was he by the lack of management and the ongoing loss of habitat.
He has almost singlehandedly taken some of the money that the island gets from import and export taxes and used it to help the environment here, which is a diverse combination of Bryce National Park-like mountains and blue-green waters with mangrove forests.
Bijan has clocked 150,000 miles in the last two years circling the island in his Mitsubishi 4-wheeler. Among his accomplishments are protecting a 25 kilometer stretch of beach for rare turtles, starting a yearly competition for towns to be ranked as the "cleanest village," establishing a dump site for trash, planting 8 million mangrove trees and cataloging the birds and animals of the island. He also has published a beautiful book of his nature photos.
I spent the better part of two days with Bijan and his assistant, and see why he truly is a gem. I wish I had more time with him. I'd like to come back one spring when he and a dozen other volunteers help protect the eggs of rare turtles who come onto the beach to lay their eggs. Night after night for two months, the group reburies the eggs to keep them away from foxes and dogs. Bijan has also convinced the locals not to eat the eggs, which are considered to be good for a variety of ailments.
Dareshori, who speaks pretty good English, has a dry sense of humor. As we were driving up the coast, I noticed some structures at regular intervals. I thought perhaps they were for shelter from the very intense sun. I asked them about them. He wouldn't answer. "Why don't we talk about the beautiful water instead?" he said. He cupped his hands over his eyes to avoid me. Of course, I was only more interested. "What are they?" I asked. Something having to do with war?"
"Yes," he sighed. "With the money they've spent on these, I could have made the whole island green. They've ruined the road."
What they were were bunkers to shoot at Americans in case we attacked the coast. Ugly and extensive, there was also huge mounds of sand in front of them that block the view of the ocean.
"If I were a good Iranian, a serious Iranian, I'd kill you right here and now," Bijan joked about the fact that he had divulged this information and that he was supposed to be my enemy.
Instead we both shook our heads at the unfortunate situation that keeps our countries apart, and sighed in relief when after many miles we could once again see the blue-green sea and what would be a beautiful orange sunset. The stars came out over the Gulf, the same stars that in just a few hours would appear over the United States.
She speaks fluent English, learned as a child in the U.S. She is also the only female in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Massoumeh Ebtekar was known as "Mary," during the hostage crisis 25 years ago when she was the spokesperson for the student hostage-takers. Today, as the Vice President in charge of Iran's Department of Environment, she's traded in her revolutionary talk for a reformist vision. Appointed by President Khatami in 1997, she's often a guest at environmental conferences around the world.
After several weeks of phone calls and faxes, I was able to obtain permission to interview with Ms. Ebtekar. I hired a cameraperson and went to her office on Wednesday. Although the Department of Environment has some new offices way out in an "ecopark" in western Iran, Vice-President Ebtekar's office is in a modest older green office building in downtown Tehran near my hotel. The elevators don't work on every floor and the conference room in which we talked was noisy and hot.
Despite having a career as a feminist before taking over her current post, Dr. Ebtekar (she has a doctorate in immunology) wears a full chador. The tight covering, similar to a nun's habit, as well as her heavy lids, make her look older and more severe than her 44 years. Still, when she smiles she can flash a great grin.
I was stressed when I met her, not because I was nervous about the interview, but because the camera situation was going very badly. Despite having what I thought was a responsible cameraman with good gear, he showed up late in a car that almost broke down. Then after we set up the interview location, he found that he had a bad cable and so the light couldn't reach the wall. So we quickly change the location.
Dr. Ebtekar walked in and he was still fumbling with the microphone. To my absolute horror, he couldn't get it to work. I had all sorts of spare mikes in my bag at the hotel, but hadn't brought them since I was paying a professional. He put up a stand mike on the table in front of her. But between her quiet voice and the traffic noise in the room, I knew I was in trouble. Still, I had to just cross my fingers and start.
Vice President Ebtekar is candid about the problems that Iran faces in the environment, with rapid population growth forcing the need for an additional 800,000 jobs a year. The resulting industrialization, she admitted, makes it very difficult to strike a balance between the economy and the environment. Interestingly, she characterized Iran's gasoline subsidies, which encourage overuse of the fuel, as "perverse." She also says she endorses a full ban on logging near the Caspian Sea for a while. Clearcutting has been blamed for the massive recent flooding in the area.
She also said she looks to the EPA as a role model for her agency, saying that it has done a "significant job" and is an example for developing countries like Iran. At the same time, with a glint in her eye, she said that it was a shame that the current American administration was "moving backwards" on its environmental standards.
In response to criticism that her department has lax enforcement, she said that her agency is trying to take a different approach, using incentives instead of punishments--the carrot versus the stick, basically. It sounded very much like the philosophy in my home state of Idaho, or for that matter, our current federal administration.
We also talked about Iran's need for nuclear power as a cleaner source of energy, something which doesn't often get much play in the press.
"For a country that?s been actually suffering from fossil fuels from the past two or three decades, in terms of air pollution in its major cities, the nuclear hazard for nuclear waste is not such an issue," she said. She also reinforced the position of other Iranian leaders that it was the right of their country to be able to develop nuclear power.
"It?s been a policy pursued by the former regime as well," she remarked. "So it?s not necessarily a political agenda of this regime, but it?s an agenda that the country has been following for the past three decades, actually."
After talking about environmental issues, I asked her about her thoughts on the revolution 25 years later. What did she still feel was undone? Interestingly, she said that women's rights still have a ways to go. She said that Ebadi's award showed that this type of work could be done in Iran. As an aside, some people think that Ebtekar herself could make some more statements about women's rights, or make a simple statement by removing the chador she wears and wearing a scarf, as many of her staff do.
Some environmentalists are also frustrated that while Mrs. Ebtekar is very good at talking about the problems Iran's environment faces, they think she isn't doing enough to solve them. Factories continue to spew their chemical waste into the air and water, poaching is rampant, and traffic is at an absolute standstill. Her administration has let go a number of good people, some of whom I have interviewed.
Yet Ebtekar enjoys quite a good reputation internationally. While I was in Iran, her department brokered a significant environmental agreement between the countries around the Caspian Sea. Ironically, the English she learned in the US when her father was studying here probably gives her a great advantage.
It was interesting to look into the eyes of someone who took American citizens hostage. I remember those days very well, as I grew up in DC and the tension hung in the air. And yet I bear no ill will because of that situation towards her. I guess I can allow myself to believe that the difference between a 19-year old and a 44-year old can be great.
But on the issue of environmental regulation, which is immediate and modern, Ebtekar's administration seems to have a way to go. Iran has some good laws. It has good people. But it does not yet have a management system in place to comprehensively and systematically attack the problems there.
1. The first time I saw the man with the bandaged nose and black eyes I felt sympathetic. It looked like quite a fight. When just a few days later I saw another man with similar "injuries," and subsequently women, too, I realized that there had been no rash of braggadocio going around. Instead, Iranian youth are flaunting their nose jobs! I guess many feel the classic Persian nose is not aquiline enough. So, after paying more than $1,000, they take the bump out, and then show off their ability to pay for such a thing by walking around with black eyes and bandaged noses. A friend told me that a year later, though, they will deny it was done. Still, you can easily tell--those who have had nose jobs have a little shiny spot on the bridge of their nose, and it's uncomfortably Michael Jackson-like. Such a shame. I think Persian noses have character. Apparently, though, the nose jobs are so much cheaper in Iran than other places that people fly in from Europe to do them there.
2. While you can find American products here, including Starbucks and Coke, one area where the crack has not been widened is in the field of aeronautics. Iranians are flying old planes. Read: when you get on a plane in Iran, cross yourself, pray to Allah, or whatever spirit moves you. My last two flights were on old Russian Tupalov 154s, complete with overhead signs in Russian and Russian pilots. The plane shuddered for 15 minutes after takeoff and needless to say, the safety situation left a lot to be desired. The plane I took to Masshad and back looked even older-possibly a Boeing 707? There are some Airbuses, but they're old, too, because I guess an American company has bought into Airbus and so now the planes can't be sold to Iran. I have no idea how long this can continue. Plane flights are incredibly cheap, so lots of Iranians take them. A crash would not only kill a lot of people, but hurt the economy.
By the way, on any Iranian flight the attendants first thank God, the compassionate and merciful, before giving their instructions.
November 17, 2003
Latest conspiracy theories
Some of the taxi cab drivers here are from Iraq. Actually, it's probably more than some, since according to one driver I had today, there are 800,000 Iraqis living in Tehran (remember, there are at least 12 million people here, so that's probably reasonable.)
He could speak broken English, so I took the opportunity to talk with him. He liked Hussein, because he was secular and didn't allow the Arab states to have influence in Iraq. But he recognizes that he's a minority and acknowledges that it's better that Saddam is gone. Before, he said, people used to just kill each other for no reason. Now the Americans keep things more "quiet." He thinks they need to stay or things will get worse again. But he had a few "asks" for me.
For one thing, he had just come back from Iraq. Most of the people there, he said, were very confused as to why we don't have Saddam. They have decided that we actually do know where he is, but we don't want to catch him because then we'd have to leave. "Why do we want to stay?" I asked him. "For oil" Of couse, he said. You see, he said, there's a pipeline directly from Basra to Israel and the Americans are sending 3 million gallons of oil to Israel every day. "Jedi?" I said (that means "really?")
Another question he said people had was why we killed Saddam's sons. Why didn't we keep them alive and get good information from them, for instance on the location of chemical weapons and of course, their father? He said people have decided that we killed them because we already had all the information we needed, from spies like Tariq Aziz.
I'm sure the American authorities know these and many other rumors. I wonder how they address them.
Also today, in visiting with Mrs. Mallou (see other entry) and another environmentalist, I was privy to another long-standing conspiracy theory. They believe that there was some foreign policy reason why the Islamic Revolution happened, and that in fact, it may have been directed by the Americans themselves. Again, it bears repeating that many people here, whether educated or not, have a fatalistic, victimlike sense of the world, in which they have little or no control over any fate except their own personal one. It makes me wonder sometimes how they can muster the strength to work in non-governmental organizations if they feel so much is "other-directed."
Ever meet someone you wanted to hug from the get-go? If not, meet Mrs. Mallou. 86 years young, she's the pixie-sized founder of the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution. That is, she founded the group 11 years ago, at 75!
A former librarian for the University of Tehran, Dr. Mallou had ordered a book in 1972 about environmental degradation. Upon finding that there wasn't even a category under which to file the work, she decided that she needed to read it to understand where it should be filed. Upon finishing, though, she had become a convert to the environmental movement.
Mrs. Mallou believes that women should be at the center of such a movement because they are the ones producing children, they are the ones shopping for consumables, and they are ones who can educate the best. She actually puts quite a lot of pressure on women to be the lynchpins for correcting society's evils. As a child, she says she was offended by the work "weak" in association with women, and traces her fervor to her grandmother, who founded the first private girl's school in Tehran and who apparently wrote a book called 'The Problem with Men." I'll have to try and find that.
Mrs. Mallou spoke in Farsi, and so I don't yet have a full translation of what she said. But she was very much "there" and I hope what her hand gestures intimated is also reflected in her words. At one point, though, I had no problem understanding. When I asked her why there has been such a rapid population growth here (100 percent in 25 years), she started to answer in Farsi, and then looked directly at me, shook her head and said "Baw. It's politics." End of comment.
Mallou has spent her time trying to educate women about recyclables and resisting "shopping disease," as she puts it. Her contribution, one must admit, is not on working on large issues such as traffic or air pollution, but she and her group have consistently raised these subjects with parliament and with the press. Sometimes, especially in a society such as this, that's about all you can do. And my sense is she's not getting any quieter, so who knows?
November 16, 2003
Today was a holiday in Iran. So was last Friday. So is next Friday. So are many days here. "We're the land of holidays," a husband's friend told me today.
There are 26 official holidays here, on which the government is closed. But there are many more unofficial holidays, like the anniversary of the hostage taking or next Friday, which honors the Palestinian struggle. The reason? Part of it is that there are 12 holy Imams, so Iranians celebrate each of their deaths and some of their birthdays. Then there's also New Year's, which extends for many days.
Some go to the mosques to commemorate these days. But many do not, and find them frustrating, as no work gets done. "We keep adding Imams," joked one acquaintance, "Imam Khomeini, Imam Khamenei...so soon we will be working only one day a week."
Compounding the problem is that the Iranian weekend is Thursday and Friday. Since the Western world is working then, and has Saturday and Sunday off, effectively there are only three days when business can be transacted with the West. So many offices that deal with the international community stay open on Thursdays. Journalists have a raw deal--only one day off so that papers can continue to publish.
Others find the situation frustrating because they don't like the whole concept of mourning. "Why should we cry for people who died 1,400 years ago?" complained one friend. "These were holy people. They are close to God now."
As you might imagine, these holidays affect me, too. Everything is closed--all stores and office-- and since offices close early during the month of Ramadan, it means times for appointments, for eating, for shopping, are all truncated. I used today to walk into the foothills and visit some local artists and then visit a friend for a couple of hours. If you can't beat them, join them, right?
November 14, 2003
1. It's not uncommon for men to walk hand in hand on the street, and to kiss each other. Iranians are very affectionate people. And yet, as I mentioned before, couples cannot kiss in public and non-spousal couples don't identify themselves as boyfriend and girlfriend.
2. It's fun to get a copy of Newsweek, because it's often censored. The latest edition, with a woman on the cover, had her shoulders covered with tape! Inside, several pictures of woman, wherever there was bare skin showing (except ankles?) had black magic marker all over them. The amount of time it must take to do this is mind-boggling. Even the pictures in foreign newspapers are often censored.
3. Addresses here take up a whole paragraph. Similar to finding a Boise suburban address, one must tell the driver all the intersections to turn at, then the block number, the apartment number.
4. Women here are referred to as "Miss" or "Lady." The former makes me feel like a little girl, the latter almost sounds offensive--as in "hey, lady!"
Body and Mind
My body has finally given out. Whether it was the hike or my meal with friends (see previous entries), or just five weeks on the road, my stomach has been unfit for anything all day. I tried to go to the National Museum, and made it part way through but had to rush back to the hotel. The situation is uncomfortable enough I may consult a doctor.
It's difficult to travel for so long, with different foods, climates and sleeping conditions. But it's also stressful to be working most of the time. I have tried to take some down time, but always in the back of my mind is the sense that I have been given this opportunity and I should make good use of it. But carrying gear, making appointments in foreign languages, finding addresses and transportation all take their toll. In addition, many people here don't want to be recorded, creating its own kind of stress because I don't want to get anyone in trouble.
It probably bears mentioning that most of the other female videojournalists on this fellowship have taken their husbands or boyfriends with them to film. That would be great. Just to have someone else to check equipment, make phone calls and bounce ideas off of would be a welcome relief.
With just about one week to go, I feel particularly pressed. I was supposed to go on an anthropological field trip for the next two days, but the leader never called me back, and it's probably just as well since I am sick. I will try and see some more museums and firm up appointments for next week. One has to listen to one's body, after all!
I have been to the Mountaintop, part two
It took ten days, but I finally was allowed to go on an "Ecotour" of a nearby national park. The company that runs the tours is led by a former Department of Environment official who split ranks with the DOE. He now trains young people to lead tours into Iran's backcountry. It's an embryonic industry, and one in search of clients. As the director told me, of his 150 students, NONE had ever been in a national park before he started taking them there.
We went to Hoji National Park, just 45 minutes from Tehran. In the morning, one had a brilliant view of Damavand, Iran's tallest mountain. Leaves were turning and pomegranates were bursting. The landscape reminded me very much of Idaho, with gently folding dry mountains.
Our leader, despite being at least 60 years old, had incredible eyes. We quickly saw some wild sheep. There used to be 10,000 of these sheep--now because of poaching and habitat destruction, there are only 1,000.
He also showed us tracks of a wolf, leopard scat and wild almonds and pistachios. The students ate it all up, hungry as they are for nature. I was trying to film everything and struggling with the tripod. Luckily I had a young strapping man to help me!
We walked for a couple of hours--the leader showing us with some dismay a government "guest house" that was being built on a hill--and then lunched at a natural spring area. I couldn't believe they would drink out of it, though, as I was sure there had to be giardia!
I did some interviews and then we walked back. By the end of the day I was exhausted, sunburnt (although not on my arms, as women have to wear those silly long coats and scarves even when they're hiking), and I had a strange bite on my hand with a bull's pattern (eegads, hope it's not from a tick!)
Damavand, so brilliant and visible just hours before, was now clouded in smog.
But despite that, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to get out of Tehran, meet some enthusiastic young environmentalists, and see their leader in action. He is well respected as one of the former protectors of wildlife in Iran. He told me how sad he is to see the current habitat destruction. Whenever I hear this, I wish there was something I could do, but the problem is so endemic and systemic that it seems out of most everyone's hands.
I was exhausted, windburned and dehydrated after a day hiking in the mountains with my gear. I had already turned down an invitation to dinner. But I was bored! Remember, there's nothing to do in Iran at night, especially if you're a single woman in a hotel. No one is even allowed in your room.
So I went through my namelist to see who I hadn't called yet. Aha! The name of an American reporter I had heard about came to mind. I dialed Dan De Luce, a reporter for the UK Guardian.
A surprised but pleasant voice was on the other end of the line. And soon I was being invited by his wife and him to their apartment. I was blitzed, but I decided to grab the chance. With only a little over a week left, I want to make the best use of my time.
Dan and his Irish wife Katrine live in North Tehran, about 30 minutes from me. As soon as I walked into their apartment I felt at home. It's one of the nicest ones I've seen, and they say it's nothing compared to the beautiful diplomatic homes around. Most Iranian apartments and homes are just big rooms where people sit on the floor. Any furniture is often covered with plastic, sometimes with the price tag still attached. Often there's nothing on the wall and the walls themselves are kind of gray.
Their house had modern art on the wall, nice furniture (sans plastic) and a gas fireplace. They even had a regular toilet and a bathtub!
Both were warm from the get-go, and we easily fell into a banter about what it's like to be a foreigner here. They had met in Bosnia, where Dan was working as an official for a governmental entity and Katrine was in human rights. They miss the Balkans, as life here is difficult. Katrine can't find a job, has to fend for herself in the streets and shops. Dan is a freelancer and spends a lot of time waiting for permission to interview people. Nevertheless, they see this as a grand adventure.
UPDATE 5/21/04: Dan has been expelled from Tehran for allegedly doing some illegal reporting. An article about it can be found here.
I found to my delight that Katrine knows Samantha Power, the human rights activist who I have interviewed on Dialogue and who was the director of the Greg Carr Human Rights program at Harvard. So it was an obvious question as to whether she knew Greg. Sure she did--he had even visited her in Tusla!
We were joined by Miranda Eeles of the BBC and went to dinner. More conversation ensued about being a foreigner, about the conspiracy theories we have all had to fend off, and about being a woman here. Shockingly, both Miranda and Katrine have been groped and also catcalled as prostitutes. I have had nothing of the sort happen to me. In fact, people often start talking to me in Persian. I think it's because these women, with their blue eyes and lighter hair, are so obviously foreign. They're also pretty chic. I, on the other hand, am darker and have just enough lumps and bumps to be taken (until I speak) for a native. I was sorry to hear about their trials, though. They're real troopers. Dan feels bad for his wife and it sounds like they might be moving on before long.
We shared a "hubble-bubble" (Dan demonstrates above), and then it was time to go. I was so tired, but glad that I had made the effort to spend time with these folks. I have only met one other American born person here, and that was a researcher married to an Iranian-American. So sometimes it can feel isolated. It was also great to hear their observations about Iran, some of which confirmed mine. I hope to stay in touch with all of them.
November 11, 2003
He came to the top of the steps, a small man dressed nattily in a suit and tie, something rarely seen in Iran, where ties were banned by the revolutionary guards. "Salaam," I said. "Welcome," he answered.
Eskandar Firouz is the father of Iran's environmental movement, the man who started Iran's Game and Fish Department and its Department of Environment, which he ran. In his heyday, he was visited by Dillon Ripley, the head of the Smithsonian. His presence was requested by the American government at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Yellowstone. He oversaw the signing of the Ramsar wetlands convention treaty in 1971. He was in line to take over as the president of the International Conservation Union.
A member of one of Iran's 10 most important families, his connections, together with his willpower, created the first system of environmental protection for Iran. But those same connections led him by 1980 to be locked up in the notorious Evin prison for 6 years. Originally, he was to be killed.
I had heard about Mr. Firouz's books from a friend in Boise who is a hunter. He tracked down his phone number in Iran, but when I called Mr. Firouz he was very curt with me. I later learned that his phone is tapped. So when I came here, I used some intermediaries to arrange an appointment. He cancelled the first appointment, and rescheduled for a time that was not very convenient for me, as I was up north. But I wasn't going to miss the chance, so I hurried back.
As I expected, because of his past experiences, Mr. Firouz did not want me to record his interview, either on video or audio tape. this was a disappointment for me, but this is a different world, and one has to respect the wishes of someone who has been in such danger.
In his cozy apartment, surrounded by books by Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Gore Vidal, this 1948 Yale graduate talked with me for over an hour, about his accomplishments and his regrets. "Everything has been lost," he says of Iran's environmental movement. "Even though a conservation ethic had been generated, when the revolution came they thought of all of us as the work of Satan."
The current leaders, he says, "have no education. They are against talent people. Truly qualified people they think are against them."
As a result, he says, "the backbone of the best (Iranian) managerial talent is on 4 different continents," mostly North America.
Firouz, who has a home near the Caspian Sea, says he despairs when he sees the flooding there caused by rapid deforestation, and the tons of trash littering the beach. "I don't sleep at night I'm so outraged by the whole thing," he says.
After leaving prison, he sought refuge for ten years by writing the most extensive work on Iran's flora and fauna, a book that won the Iranian Publisher's Association top award. But the work, he said, was also "self defense," to help reclaim his professional stature.
His reputation, though, is hardly dead among young conservationists. Two of them, environmental reporters, came along with me to meet him. To them he is a god, someone who stood up for nature against politics. One of them was in tears as we left. In broken English she told me "I am so angry that he has to be inside while stupid people are ruining our country."
For Mr. Firouz, these young people, some of whom call him from remote areas on their cell phones to tell them about wildlife sightings, are his strength. "The solace to me really is the way young people are beginning to approach these questions," he says.
But in the end, he says, most of the environmental damage here is "irreversible," the result both of rapid population growth and a mindset that does not consider environmental protection to be good economic policy. No repairs, he says, will be possible at all until the current regime goes. "The only way is to change the administration--totally," he says.
Home Sweet Home?
I never thought I'd be happy to be back in Tehran. But driving in on the last leg of a lurching 5 hour bus ride back through the mountains from the north, I was actually glad to see the entrance to one of the gazillion freeways running through and around this city.
That's because my trip, although productive in the sense that I made some good friends, was nevertheless very frustrating. It poured rain the days I was with my first host, making it difficult to get much on tape. Then the next day and a half when I was with the woman who looks for cranes, we had no success in finding a bird and spent most of the time in taxis trying to get out to the fields.
In addition, at the first place I stayed, the host's wife never spoke to me. Whether it was because she wasn't feeling well because she was fasting (his explanation), or because she didn't like having another woman in the house (my take on it), it made for an uncomfortable visit. I heard her yelling to someone on the phone and I imagined she was talking about me, although that's probably not the case. But it was the first time I was in an Iranian home where I didn't feel welcomed.
Her husband speaks fluent English and she doesn't speak it at all, so that must be very difficult for her to be left out of conversations. Similar to the way I feel a lot here, not knowing Farsi. For instance, I sat in on a four hour meeting in Farsi with my host and was about to lose my mind! I called a few friends in the States to pass the time. Cell phones are amazing. I will finally have to capitulate and get one in the States. The reception here is actually better, though, than in Idaho.
Because the area is so much wetter, there are also bugs! Cockroaches roamed around the office I was visiting, and before I went to bed the first night, I saw a 3 inch centipede on the wall behind the bed. Although I'm here to observe nature, I must say I banged it quite thoroughly with a book. I had visions of it crawling across my face in the middle of the night.
The Caspian Sea area has been the recipient of rampant and unplanned development. Although some of the buildings are still low and you can see the Sea, many are taller and garish. In addition, the trash on the beach is just horrible. It's worse now because of flooding that has brought trash from the rivers into the Sea, but I think it's always bad. Folks, don't ever take for granted the progress the US has made in something as simple as convincing people not to litter. It makes a big difference. I encouraged my host, who is well connected in government, to try and get a PSA made similar to the one that was made with Iron Eyes Cody in the 70s, crying as he watched someone litter out of a car. The Iranians could use one of the native tribes as the actor instead. Something has to be done. Of course, there's hardly any trash receptacles here either.
The second home I stayed in, the house of the crane watcher, seen above, was an eclectic jumble of material from her life in Finland, America and Iran. She and her son, who is a graduate of Reed College, live together. He moved back to be closer to his Iranian heritage. We talked quite a bit about the political situation there. It was interesting to hear an Iranian-American's view on it. I can't imagine living as they do, mother and son, for so many years so isolated from everything. On the other hand, I admire the fact that they do.
One of the reasons they continue to live there is because of their love of Siberian cranes, who stop here on their flyway. The woman, Ellen, has been watching them for many years. At first, there were 10. But now there are only 3. No one quite knows why, but she thinks it might be because of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the loss of habitat stability there, as all the separate states have different environmental rules.
Ellen has enlisted the locals to help her watch for the cranes, in particular the duck trappers who work in these interesting set-ups called domgas. They use a series of blinds, decoy ducks and netting to trap wild ducks for sale. At the same time, they keep a lookout for cranes. Ellen is also trying to get the local women to make handicrafts with the cranes on them.
I got some interesting footage of the domgas, but no cranes. The weather was cold and sloppy and the sun set early, so we didn't have much time to film. I was frustrated that we couldn't see the cranes, although I realized it was a risk to just come for a short time. Still, normally they should have been there. But I had to get back to Tehran for an interview. We tried to call the man to change it, but we couldn't reach him. So I had to get on a bus and take a 5-hour ride back to Tehran through the treacherous mountains at night.
Of course, a few days after I would get back, Ellen would call me excitedly and say that the cranes had come and there was even a baby with them! Such is the life of a producer. The picture below is what I would have seen, courtesy of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. They're at: www.savingcranes.org.
So now I am back in Tehran, in my hotel, albeit in a smaller, less expensive room. I still have not made it to the university guest house, and I think they are probably mad at me, but this place is more centrally located and I can get meals here. It is also near this wonderful artist's cafe. I will be meeting with the father of the environmental movement in just an hour. This is an interview that has not been easy to schedule, so I am a bit nervous about it. It has been done through intermediaries, as his phone is tapped. Once he sees my camera, he may not grant the interview. The camera, indeed, is a hindrance in this country. Even with my first host, who is well connected, he requested that I not use the tripod a lot because it makes me too visible. There were other scenes that we could just not stop and take at all because they were on a main street. I am a bit discouraged about all of this, but at least I have some good interviews on tape that can be turned into a print piece if necessary.
November 07, 2003
Here are some observations that don't seem to fit into any category, but that I wanted to share anyway.
1. It is a fact of life here that people believe in conspiracy theories. No matter how educated the person, most believe, for instance, that America was behind september 11th so it could blame the muslim world. How else, they say, could a country that powerful allow someone to fly into those buildings and hit them in just a way for them to come down? Recently one man told me that the bombings in Saudi Arabia were also part of a "plan" to take over that part of the world, and indeed, I saw that expressed in the paper today by a government official from Jordan. Another man said that all the forest fires in America were obviously planned by developers who want that land. There is, I think, a general sense of victimhood here that allows people to imagine that governments, particularly ones as powerful as America's, constantly are trying to make plots against people. When you consider that our CIA did in fact overthrow Mossadeq here, it's hard to debate with people.
The irony is that the same people who say things like that about the US also love the country. They will say--we love the American people, just not your government. They seem not to understand that our government IS our people, or at least it's supposed to be.
2. Most every road sign, and many store signs, are in English. English writing is on the back of Iranian money. Billboards are almost always in English. All of this surprised me, since I thought for sure that the government here could easily get rid of English if it wanted to. But it seems to be one area in which they've capitulated. English existed here from the British empire days, and it persists. Children still learn it beginning in 7th grade (a plan to change that to eighth grade, I heard, was protested.) And there seems to be a general acceptance that to get ahead, one must learn English. Consequently, I really haven't had to hire a translator. The problem? I'm not practicing my Farsi enough!
2a. American products are available many places, despite the embargo. You can find Coca Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg's--even Starbucks. Right near here is a big sign for HP....
3. Traffic lights could work, if they wanted them to. Instead, they're always blinking. Sometimes yellow, sometimes red, sometimes green and red at the same time! There must be a metaphor in that somewhere. And yet things seem to move in some sort of controlled chaos. The two big traffic jams I've seen were actually caused by policemen manually operating the traffic lights. They would leave them on green for five, six, ten minutes at a time! Seems to work better when people just fend for themselves, using a system of increasingly urgent beeps of the horn to indicate their needs and location.
I had one funny conversation with a driver, who said he liked America because of our democracy. "Don't you have a democracy here?" I prodded. "Only driving," he responded. I laughed. That's actually true. Everyone is on the same level when driving in Tehran, duking it out no matter the type of car or driver.
4. Speaking of cars, there generally seem to be just a few types: the ubiquitous oil belching Paykan, the new "Pride"-- a KIA compact for the middle class, and Peugots and Nissan "Patrols" for the richer. Occasionally you'll see an old Chevrolet or a Volkswagen. Ten years ago, 30,000 cars were being produced here. This year it will be 750,000. And still there's only an average of one car per 4 people. You can see where this is headed...
5. If there's one thing that all Iranians I've met seem to share, it's their mutual dislike of both Afghans and Arabs. The former have been described to me even by educated people as having some sort of genetic defect that makes them live "as if 500 years ago." As for Arabs, there's an intense dislike of the overlay of Arab culture into the language, religion and politics. Everyone here, for instance, has to learn Arabic. One of my friends was living in the states and came back just as the revolution occurred. She failed her Arabic test so many times that finally she said she had to write a plaintive note to her professor saying that she was a young mother and couldn't he just give her special dispensation to pass?
It's ironic to me that there is this dislike of Arab culture, since it's absolutely part of the political and religious life that so many in the Western world associate with Iran. If there's one stereotype that I think people have of Iran, it's that it's part of the Arab world. The Iranians are very quick to dispel that and point to their Persian, Turkic and Azeri roots. Away from the mosque areas, one feels that more. But enter the religious world, and one can feel the Arab overlay.
6. The food here is great. I particularly like fesunjun khoresht, which is a sweet and sour meat dish with walnut and pomegranate flavor. It's hard to find--mostly it's made in homes. Azam's brother in law laughed any time I wanted to find it in a restaurant. "That's truck driver food," he would say, equating it to stew, which it essentially is. He preferred to find us some kabob, but this didn't have the rich flavors of the khoresht.
I also like bademjun khoresht, which is made from eggplants, as well as the excellent pastries here....I'm afraid I won't come home very thin!
People here drink tea several times a day. I'm not used to that, but have grown used to it. Now if I don't have it I feel tired...
7. Money here is worthless. In fact, it's so bad that they knock a zero off the bills. So for instance, 10,000 rials is actually 1,000 tomans. The prices are in tomans, but you're carrying rials, so you have to think fast sometimes. Here's an example of the inflation: 30 years ago 5,000 tomans was $700. Today it's $6.00. Much of the time, the smaller bills are so worn they fall apart in your hands.
8. It probably bears mentioning because we take it for granted, but folks, there are no bars here--no nightclubs. So basically, people get together at family and friends' houses, making those connections all important. It can get claustrophobic, I would think, just hanging out with the same people. In fact, many cousins get married to each other. I guess after spending so much time together, you know one another quite well.
People may date for years here, but they don't call themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. Two of my friends share that status, but I'm not supposed to say anything to anyone. No hand holding with anyone but your spouse is allowed in public, although I haven't seen anyone checking that. However, everyone, husbands and wives included, is prohibited from kissing in public. This is obeyed. It used to be that even just walking with a person from the opposite sex could get you stopped by the police so they could see your marriage license.
9. Everyone uses cell phones, much more than in the US. Reception is sometimes cut off, but the range of reception, including in the mountains, is much better than the US. People seem to talk more quietly into the phones than we do, too, or perhaps the background noise pollution is so great you can't hear them!
You've Seen the Forest Now
I am writing from a little town on the coast of the Caspian Sea. I arrived here with my host, seen above. He's the director of the South Caspian Educational Center, after an absolutely harrowing 4 hour drive through the mountains from Tehran. Words cannot describe to you how people drive here. Let's just say they pass on curves at 60 miles an hour into oncoming traffic, which they just miss by feet. This passing behavior even extends to mountain tunnels. Well, I guess at least there you can't tumble down the cliff if you don't make it.
One of the mountains we went down was called something like "The Mountain of 1,000 curves," and I believe it.
After several hours, we reached an intersection. My host wanted to take this back road so I could see something different--he wouldn't say what. Soon we we saw huge homes that had been carved out of the hills, which in recent times had been lushly forested. He stopped to take a picture of a particularly decadent one, and kept shaking his head at the rapid development that was occuring.
After 45 minutes or so, the road turned up into a forested mountain. Here we could see the remnants of the ancient "jungle," home to wild boars and the now extinct Persian tiger. The area has recently been hammered by a flood, so the road was down to one lane in places.
The air was full of mist and the trees were a welcome respite from all the development, and the previous hairpin turns of the mountain road. But all you could really see was trash. It's everywhere. "This kills me," said my host, who hopes to get the government to institute a management plan for the area that would allow people to only stop in designated areas.
We rounded a corner and saw a truck with two men. "I'll bet they're dumping trash," my host said. He jumped out of the cab to take a picture. "Right on!" I thought. I had wanted to stop and film along the way, but because we were in a cab for hire and he was paying, I didn't feel it was appropriate.
He came back with some shots of the men dumping all manner of trash right over the cliff into the river. "What did they say?" I asked. "I asked them why they do this," he said. They told me "a flood will take it away anyway; it's no problem." "I asked them where. They didn't know. I said, "it's going to my house, dammit."
I got a good look at this sorry mess when I had to stop to, er--use nature. I had to step around all sorts of animal feces spilling out of bags, paper and plastic trash.
When I came back my host greeted me with an ironic smile and said "you've seen the forest now." I laughed, but hope that isn't the truth.
November 06, 2003
"I was like a zombie"
I took the opportunity to meet the BBC reporter here today. Jim Muir set up the
office here 4 years ago. The BBC had been kicked out in 1980 and hadn't been allowed back in since then.
Mr. Muir, who was a reporter in Beirut in the 70s and who most recently was assigned to Cairo, is an unassuming man with a dry wit and workaholic tendencies. One gets that way living here because the "weekends," as they fall on Thursdays and Fridays, don't correspond with the weekends in the West, so one is always working. Besides, there's so much news here it's hard not to follow up on stories.
The BBC is housed in a non-descript building in the far northeast of the city, on a tree lined quiet street. It takes up a whole floor of what was once someone's apartment, it looks like. In the office also work Miranda Eeles, a freelance radio journalist and Dan De Luce of the Guardian newspaper, who is actually an American. Mr. Muir also has an assistant. But as he told me, he's always exhausted because he's essentially a one-man band, filing both TV, radio and web reports. And those foreign officials have a nasty habit of dropping into Tehran at 3 AM. Muir says he will probably go back to freelancing because it gets so tiring running the office by himself.
There is also a cameraman, although he's relatively new. All over the office are pictures of Mr. Muir's former cameraman, who was killed in April when he stepped on a land mine getting out of a car in Iraq. Muir was driving--he had a young guide who had said it was OK to drive off the main road to get to a nearby castle they were filming. As Muir's producer stepped out of the car, there was an explosion. Muir and his cameraman thought they were under mortar attack, so they lept out of the car. But it hadn't been mortar fire. The cameraman was instantly killed by multiple mines. The producer had already lost his foot.
I was riveted listening to Muir describe his feelings as he had to not only get his cameraman, who had all his lower extremities blown away, back into the car, and then drive backwards down the road with his producer, who would eventually have his foot amputated. The guide, meanwhile, had run away.
"It was a nightmare," said Muir. "I was like a zombie." He still hasn't gotten over losing his partner, but says he tries not to think too much about the experience, "or I would go mad." Still, when the Rory Peck award was announced recently (for best international cameraperson) and another BBC cameraman who was in Iraq won it, Muir said he thought of his friend and how he easily could have won the award as well, but he was dead. He, too, realizes it was just the luck of the draw that when he dropped to the ground he didn't fall on any mines.
He went into the mine field to retrieve his cameraman because "I didn't have any choice; I wasn't just going to leave him there." I know that Mr. Muir has two children living in Cyprus, where he moved many years ago when he was threatened in Lebanon. I couldn't help but wonder how they felt upon learning of his near miss.
We talked about my fellowship and other fellowships, and it was apparent that Muir could never do such a thing--take off time from his job. Reporting is in his blood, even it that means literally. It was a pleasure to meet him, as the fraternity/sorority of reporters here is quite small.
The Sacred and the....
On a recent flight out of Tehran, I looked out of the plane to see Mount Damavand, Iran's highest mountain, at more than 5,000 meters. I should say more accurately that I saw the top of the mountain. Most of its more than 15,000 feet was covered with thick yellow smog.
Damavand is considered a symbol of Iran, a sacred place. How can it be that Iranian's allow this jewel to be shrouded in pollution? I imagine even the snow is black.
I was flying to Masshad, a holy city dedicated to Emam Reza, the eighth Shiite Iman and a direct descendent of Mohammad. His shrine is there and is visited by pilgrims from all over the world. So naturally I wanted to see it.
Late one night at about 11 PM, with a chador that someone purchased for me, I covered up and went inside the mosque, which is massive. Similar to the Shiraz mosque, the interior of the shrine is covered in glittering mirrors. Women sit, some in a trance, some wailing, some kissing the tomb through the bars around it. The men are on the other side of a wall on the side of the casket.
As before in Shiraz, I felt the holy nature of the room and the intrigue of the various activities and discussions taking place in the anterooms around it. I struggled to keep my chador, which is a long semicircle of material, on my head. The scarf underneath fell off. and I could feel the piercing eyes of some women on me, probably more in curiousity than anything else.
Outside, though, was a different story. The group in charge of the shrine, which basically runs a lot of the city, is building a massive addition to the mosque. At least six new huge concrete prayer towers, complete with lights on top so that planes don't hit them. A courtyard the size of several football fields had also been constructed for the several million pilgrims who at times have to wait to get into the shrine.
The only word for the construction could be "horrifying." It totally dominated the old beautiful tiled mosque built in the 15th century. Again, it seemed to be just a political and commercial space, not a space for reflection and spirituality. My hosts, who hadn't been there in a while, were also disturbed. One young man who accompanied us, and who is occasionally a tour guide there, had nothing but negative comments about the place and the people who run it. He, like many others I have met, wanted me to know that not everyone in Iran supports this type of mixture of politics and religion.
I came away from my visit again struck by the contradiction between beauty and distortion in this complex country.
November 05, 2003
Lest one think I am just wandering about, gathering cultural observations and not working, I will try to set the record straight! I have been very happily and exhaustedly talking to environmentalists here. Yesterday I attended (and was able to film--see me leaning over in my head scarf?) the signing of the Caspian Sea Convention between Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbajian. After something like 8 years, and in the absence of an overarching legal agreement about who actually owns the waters, these countries have come together to sign an environmental protocol. The decline in sturgeon, not to mention the threats to other animals and humans from the dreadful water quality of the sea, prompted the countries to come together. Iran took the lead, as it's at the bottom of the sea and stands to have the most pollution hit its waters.
The signing was a grand affair, with 500 attendees, media from different countries, and traditional music. I made some good contacts.
I had already met the young woman who has behind the scenes worked so hard on the agreement (she's pictured above) and hope to include her in a piece. But I was able to meet some people from the north that I will visit in the next few days. I also met a cameraman who could help me if needed.
I also got my camera within two feet of Vice President Ebtekar (again, see picture above.) She has been rather elusive to pin down an interview with, but I'm getting closer. Her folks called today and wanted to know whether it would have any possibility of going national, and I said yes. But I still need a letter from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. I spent a good part of the day trying to track down paperwork that is still lost between that Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I sat for a few hours in the Guidance office (bad girl, bad girl) and met a nice reporter from Australia who had just left Sri Lanka, where things are exploding (I hope our Fellow there is getting great stories!) He's been to all sorts of hot spots but is trying to lead a mellower life (hence coming to Iran?!) so he can spend more time with his wife.
I have talked to many NGO members and some interesting environmental reporters. There are so few environmentalists here, though, and they are so fractured, that it's difficult to get a handle on the story. So I've decided to concentrate on finding some "heroes" of the environmental movement. One may be a woman who is actually originally from Finland, trained in the United States, who for 30 years has been watching the very few Siberian cranes left in the world. They overwinter in north Iran. There were originally 10 and now there's only 3. She suffered a lot during the revolution trying to keep her project alive but now in the Reformist government she's getting some help.
Another is Eskandar Firouz, the father of the environmental movement here. He "wrote the book" on birds and mammals here, literally, and is an inspiration to many. I talked with a young man today who said he wanted to be Mr. Firouz when he grew up and he considers himself so lucky to have just met him once.I have an appointment to talk to him next week, which was difficult since he's reclusive. He was once in line to lead the International Union of Conservationists, but then the revolution happened.
Another is a woman, about 80, who was working as a librarian when she read a book about air pollution and decided to start a group called Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution. In one group meeting I attended, I asked her about her accomplishments and she said all she can do is cry because the situation is still so bad. But I think she's still a role model.
There are some wildlife rangers who have also put their lives on the line. I hope to meet one. And there is Mr. Ziaee, a former director of wildlife, who was "asked to leave" his position and now runs the first Ecotour company here. Again, for many young people he is a role model for his commitment to the environment. It may be apocraphal, but I have been told that when the Departmet of Environment here wanted to build its huge complex, thereby destroying a park here, he came out to the site and put his body in front of the construction people to try and stop them.
I went to the holy city of Masshad and met with two physicians who have their own group to encourage tree planting. The man has also translated the books of Lester Brown of Worldwatch and just recently won the top prize from the Iranian Publisher's group for one of his translations. He and his wife are very eloquent about the loss of forests in the country.
While there I also met (and danced with!) a very interesting man who I would love to visit but may not have the time. He lives like a hermit in northern Iran in the forest, and eats only organic food that he has grown. He's in his 70s, at least, and very, very eccentric. He's rich and has devoted all of his money to the environmental movement, such as it is in Iran.
I also spent time with a woman who lived in the states for 25 years. She has a recycling program in Masshad which gives people book vouchers in exchange for their cardboard and paper.
My only limitation is time. Because I spent a week traveling, and because it is so difficult to block out appointments, I feel time being eaten up. Just as I make one appointment, another cancels and then reschedules at a time when I already have an appointment, forcing me to stay in Tehran for yet another day. The camera is often a hindrance, so I take written notes instead. There's also time just spent washing clothes, recharging phone, camera and video camera. Thank God I finally do have the cell phone, though. It's been a godsend. I definitely could use another week, though.
I continue to be inspired by the few environmentalists who are here, and depressed by the state of the environment here. Two days ago, one could breathe in Tehran, but today it was back to being a yellow sky. There are times when I just cannot believe that people would subject themselves to this situation. There are just so many people here that you can't believe that all of them wouldn't just turn on each other. Where do they all work, too? I finally got a map and am more familiar with parts of the city, but when you fly in, it's so vast it actually looks like a toy city. Your mind just cannot wrap itself around that much concrete. I fear that even with the work occuring, it's just too much to overcome. But I will try and promote the people are are at least trying.
A Silver Anniversary, a Bit Tarnished
I awoke with a start. I had slept so well I thought for sure it was late morning. But it was only 7 AM. Still, normally I am awakened at 6 or earlier by the rumble of hundreds of buses going down the street in front of my hotel. Even with ear plugs and a fan running, and even though I'm on the 7th floor, I still feel the vibrations of the long articulated buses as they accelerate down the avenue, packed with workers. Women sit in the back, by the way, so men won't be tempted by them. As if they could see anything underneath all the scarves and long coats...
But that day it was quiet, which is why I had gotten another hour of sleep. I went to the window to check my suspicion. As I had thought, the street was completely blocked off. It was the 30th of Aban, a holiday for many, as it is the anniversary of the hostage taking in 1979. In fact, this year is the 25th anniversary.
My hotel is in fact kitty corner to the old Embassy grounds, which are now occupied by a military department of some kind. Guards in turrets stand watch above the long fence in front of the building, making it difficult to take pictures of the interesting graffiti still on the walls. "The day America praises us is a day to mourn" and "We will hand America its greatest defeat" are among the words painted on the wall.
I had been so busy with my work and had always gone the other way down the avenue that it wasn't until a few days before the protest that I actually walked down to the area. All around were big banners advertising the upcoming anniversary, with "Down with the USA" in big letters. They're attractive posters, really, reminding me of the banners advertising the Atlanta Olympics, with bright colors and the fresh faces of smiling youth on them. OK, so the uniforms on them are a bit different.
I had felt little animosity reading them, or the slogans on the wall, as I knew they were just propaganda and that many Iranians have told me how much they like Americans. But when I saw a painting, undoubtedly many years old, of the Statue of Liberty as a skeletal grim reaper, I must admit to feeling sad. The pictures of drooping dying eagles also made me shake my head, at least internally, since I didn't want the guards to notice me.
So I had steeled myself to a certain extent for the inevitable annual protest. Around 9:30, as I headed down the stairs, I could hear the chanting of protestors in Farsi?Death to the USA, Death to Israel. It was loud enough to be heard through the building. I went outside to take a better look, to the amusement of the hotel staff. They wanted to make sure that I knew that they "love" Americans. Why would I want to go outside?
Actually, after snapping a few pictures, I decided to go back inside, partly because I was waiting for a friend to accompany me, since I don't have a press pass, and partly to see if I could film from my window.
When I got to the window, though, and looked out, I noticed that people in the office across the street immediately pointed at me. This was even before I raised my video camera. Down below the street was covered with police and army. I decided it would be better to just get some sound by putting the camera microphone near the window and maybe try to get a few snapshots and a little bit of video.
I watched as more buses unloaded groups of people, mostly young boys. And I noticed some other things. While there were people with megaphones trying to get people the chant Death to the USA, the replies were rather faint. Many of the young boys seemed to be taking the sticks off the placards they were carrying and using them to play fight with each other. Occasionally a somber group of military or women in full chador would pass by, but most groups seemed rather ragtag. I looked down the street to the embassy area. There were several thousand people massed. I could see someone burning something (an American flag, as it turned out, which they used to burn more of, but Iranians actually decided that was too insulting.) Still, that's what made the news, of course.
More and more people came out of the buses, but then I started noticing people walking the opposite direction! I thought of what a friend of mine here had said. When he was forced to come to the marches when he was in college, he "ran away" to his parents' house nearby, since he had studied in an international school before the revolution and had a favorite American teacher. I saw one class of boys, being followed by two good looking and rather harried teachers, laughing their way in the opposite direction. It appears that many groups just had to make an appearance and then could leave. How long can you ask pre-teen boys to watch speeches anyway?
By then it was 10:30. I received a text message from my friend, a foreign reporter. He couldn't make it because the Iranian journalists had just been released (coincidence?) and he needed to cover the story. So I was on my own.I decided to venture out. I had my recording equipment in my bag but really didn't plan to use it, as again, I don't have a press pass and the place was crawling with police.
The first thing I noticed was how entrepreneurs had set up their wares for the captive audience (no pun intended) they had before them. Men were selling tools, and a big table of books was out in front of the Martyrs Museem.
I approached the bleachers for the press with envy. All I could see were the backs of the reporters and camera people as they took notes. I crawled between some of the bars separating the crowd from the sidewalk and went into the crowd.
They were facing a podium on which a man, flanked with posters of the Supreme Leader, was exhorting them. However, people didn't seem too interested. In just an hour, the crowd had lessened to a few thousand. School girls were tittering with each other or trying to talk with the police. Some solemn looking guards stood in front of a large banner, again saying Down with the USA, that they twirled every once in a while so that the Farsi side could be read. Photographers and cameramen circulated, taking pictures of the most inflammatory posters and subjects, but generally it was calm. In fact, when the speaker asked people to repeat words after him, I noticed some people doing so in a rather mocking tone.
There were, however, some people who were definitely listening seriously. I moved closer to the platform and then realized I was the only woman in a crowd of men. I think the women had been separated. I had tried not to meet anyone's eyes, had worn a conservative scarf worn by many women here, and carried a bag with Farsi writing on it. Yet I could tell some people could see I was a foreigner, so I quickly moved away.
I walked a bit further and took some pictures of banners and a group of women in chador holding posters against the US. Then I started walking back. I picked up a few of the posters as souvenirs and then took one last picture, of a line of military men blocking the road. As I did so, I thought--perhaps this isn't too bright.
And sure enough, as soon as I entered the hotel, a man came running up behind me and questioned the manager about me. He showed him a badge of some sort. Here I was clutching these anti-American posters and the manager was telling the man I was American. His eyes widened. I could understand enough to hear him say that I had taken pictures and that that was forbidden. The manager told him I was just a tourist and had made a mistake. The man left.
I gave the manager one of my few Idaho calendars, which are precious to me as gifts. But he deserved one! I was truly acting as a tourist when taking the pictures, but still my film could have been taken.
Later my journalist friend said that his manager had questioned him about why I had stayed in that hotel. I guess perhaps there was some sort of suspicion that I might have picked it because it was across the street from the old Embassy. But actually the hotel was picked for me by one of the people who helped me get my visa, and my room was assigned to me randomly. I had been in it for two weeks. Who had contacted his manager, I wanted to know. He didn't know. So of course that made me paranoid for the rest of the day that my other friends here could be questioned. All, however, assured me that even if they were, that was alright with them. There is a general acceptance of certain invasive policies here, and no one is very scared.
The event showed me that the Anti-American interest is waning. That is good. But the government can't really cancel these types of events, and they do get good play in the papers. For instance, one of the English language papers said "hundreds of thousands" protested against America yesterday. Based on what I saw, that wasn't true. But that's what people read. So it still has some power, and enough years have gone by that some people actually think that the day is commemorating the fact that Iranian students were killed by Americans on that day!
If the hotel employees are any example, though, most Iranians think that the people marching are a fringe element. One of the clerks, for instance, is practically begging me to visit her family in the north of Iran. I have helped her with her homework and she in turn took two days off my bill when I was traveling and not in the hotel. There is a warmth from people whenever you try out your Farsi, no matter how rudimentary, a welcome change from the French.
But always, always, the comment--we love the American people; it's your government we do not like. I was in a home recently where video of Bush came on the TV and the 15 year old girl virtually spat at him. I HATE him, she said in the few English words she knows. She'd much rather watch Beyonce. Actually, she LOVES Clinton. I have heard that from others as well.
Much of the hatred comes from the Palestinian issue. You can see huge, huge murals on the sides of many buildings devoted to the Palestinian cause. Right near here there is even Palestine Square. There were probably more responses to the chant "Death to Israel" than "Death to America" at the rally. I remain quiet on the issue, usually (I'll try to write another entry about that), because I'm just interested in listening. In that respect it's clear that while the memory of the hostage crisis is fading in this young population, they see their struggle manifested in the Palestinian situation. I see more murals, more banners and more rallies in the future.
November 03, 2003
No News is not Good News
My mother wrote me about two weeks ago. "What do you think about the foreign ministers visiting Tehran?" she said. "Sounds good."
I had to admit to her that I didn't even know the ministers had been in town. You see, not only was I on the road, but the newspapers and TV are all in Farsi, and what English language newspapers there are have basically two headlines day after day: "Zionist Conspiracy Once Again Lies About Iran" and "US, In Cooperation with Illegal Zionist Conspiracy, Once Again Tries to Lie About Iran."
My hotel gets about 10 stations, 5 of which can be termed Mullah 1, Mullah 2, Mullah 3...you get the point. I can also get the French version of Euronews, which puts CNN's repetitive blather to shame. I saw a story about Princess Diana's butler's book one night over and over, and 8 days later saw the same report!
The only English language program I have found is a man teaching English to a group of men. They have to repeat phrases like "This is a beautiful ancient mosque" over and over.
I must admit, the game show with the women in chador trying to answer questions was slightly entertaining, even though I had no idea what they were saying. But it becomes tiring to not hear any news in your native tongue.
I started taking to watching the internal hotel feed that shows the reception desk. I would watch pruriently as businessmen and the occasional couple would check in. Then I started wondering if someone was also watching me!
So imagine my happiness as I lazily clicked through the channels one night, munching on some nuts in secret before Ramadan ended, only to hear English! It was the BBC World News, which for some reason was now coming through on the system.
I've been gone for a few days, but before I left I drank in about 3 days of BBC. Their programs are so interesting. With the exception of some biased anti-American documentaries (scary music and everything), the BBC is a drink in the desert, or fresh air in the smog, whatever metaphor you wish to choose. I wish we got it at home. There's even news from Tehran. I have yet to meet the BBC man here, but would like to.
I will try to write more soon. I have to grab computers wherever I can. Right now I am at Sharif University, which was once the "sister" university of MIT. Their computing department is still awesome, as they struggle to translate Linuz and Unicode into Farsi. Iranian businessmen are also funding SchoolNet here, which links 50,000 children around Iran together over the Internet to work on scientific and ecological projects.
So, until I find another computer and can write about my recent travels, be well!
October 29, 2003
We had to put chadors on in order to enter. In this case, it was basically a sheet that covered my whole body that I clutched to close around my face so just my eyes and nose were peeping out. A sign said tourists were prohibited, but we moved forward.
We were going into one of the most famous mosques in Shiraz, Shah Cheragh. Shah Cheragh was the brother of the Eighth Imam, Reza. The tomb of this ninth-century martyr draws thousands of pilgrims each year.
I had no preconceived notions, except that the outside of the building was so magnificent, with its intricate tile work lit up at night, that I wanted to know what was inside. I hadn't read much of my tour book before coming, because I wasn't sure I'd get a visa and didn't want to be disappointed.
What greeted me was a vision I will never forget. Millions of tiny mirrors placed together were all over the walls and ceiling. Lights flooded the interior, making the shattered reflections of oneself and others so dazzling I almost forgot to breathe.
But it was also the rhythm inside that sent me almost immediately into another zone. The interior of the area was a tomb with a grate around it. Pressed up against the grate were women old and young. Some just grazed, others were silently sobbing, some openly weeping and chanting and putting money through the grate. There were piles of bills littered around the casket.
Around the tomb, on the floor, some women just sat and gazed, in a meditative state. Some were praying. Some were talking with each other. One was playing with her child. A young woman who wasn't even in chador was next to the tomb and smiled at me, obviously able to tell by my wide eyes and uncomfortably clutch of the sheet that I was a foreigner.
I have been in Catholic churches and have been awed by the juxtaposition of simple prayer with the ornate surroundings of a church. But this took that experience to new heights. I tried to drink in as much as I could, since cameras are understandably not allowed. My friend and her sister went to leave, but I asked if I could walk through again, just to seal the memory. The men's side of the tomb, by the way was on the other side of a wall, in an equally mirrored room, but all we could see was the ceiling.
Outside of the tomb building there was, as with other mosques, a huge interior courtyard with buildings and balconies all around where people study. Another mirrored building was being built. My friend's brother in law said when he was in the military in Shiraz, this was an intimate place, but now he was disgruntled that it was being expanded so much. I had to agree. The big courtyard felt like a political space, where people could be drawn together in rallies. The interior space of mirrors felt like what faith should really be. Something private and yet shared with others.
I have had this feeling of "group therapy" just the week before in the oil and gas town of Ahwaz. My host family had called a woman in who is considered something of a pyschic. She would look at each member of the family and tell them something about themselves and their future. Family members would sometimes interject with their own questions about someone there, or about themselves.
I can't understand Farsi very well, and I definitely couldn't understand Desfullian, the dialect spoken there. So all I could go on were facial and body expressions. And there seemed to me something very powerful about a whole family getting together to hear each others' concerns and then hear someone essentially counsel them. The predictions mattered less to me than this ritual, something which we Americans don't have except in group therapy. Instead we pay someone a good deal of money to someone to listen to us in private and then we walk away.
Much has been written about Iranian public and private space. It goes without saying that at least for women, those spaces are very different. Sometimes they are more casual outside and find a mirrored place to become sacred. Sometimes they are covered on the outside, and willing to be much more open behind closed doors.
There was one man who joined the psychic's session, my friend Azam's brother, a lovely sensitive young man. The woman said it was the first time a man had come to a group. But when I asked the woman to tell me why I was in Iran, she paused uncomfortably, and amazingly he sensed that it was because of him. He said he would leave the room if he was causing a problem. I hadn't even noticed anything.
After he left, the woman leaned forward and told me that I was here for other reasons than I thought. I was here to help women, and that I would continue to help women after my visit. I was rather stunned, as she had pinpointed an interest that was definitely there for me, but which I had subsumed because I thought it "overcovered" by journalists.
"So you will be the one to save us," said one of the women, tongue in cheek. "Hey, I'm not here to save anyone," I said quickly.
Indeed, I am sure that my interactions with women here, and indeed the therapy I receive from those meetings, will have much more longlasting effects on me. As I travel around, I hardly notice the men. The women are so much more interesting. In their faces, some which radiate with the need for change, others who bear a huge weight of sadness and responsibility, mirror both the personal and political life of this country.
Food, Glorious Food...can't have it!
About 5 days ago I was in a car with a friend. He reminded me that Ramadan was about to start. Called Ramazan in the Middle East, it's a month of fasting from sun up to sun down. People fast to meditate and identify with the condition of people who have less means than they do, to clean their system, or to diet.
When I told my friend I was a bit worried, he said "so am I!" That's because most of the Iranians I have met do not fast. They eat behind closed doors, either going home from work early, bringing a snack, or ordering in food. I had a great lunch today, for instance, at a lawyer's office.
When I've asked, people have told me variously "I'm not religious" or "It's my choice; as long as I do it in privacy." I have been suprised by the number of people who don't fast, and also the courtesies extended to me by people who do fast, but feel bad they can't offer me the usual tea and cookies that are usually rushed to you during a meeting by a person whose job it is just to do that. One man literally sat there and forced me to drink tea and eat a pomegranate. Of course, this was after he laid down a prayer rug in front of me and prayed for 10 minutes right there (devout Muslims pray five times a day. Most people go someplace private to do it. )
Because I am a traveler, I am exempted from the prohibition, but it's still rude to eat in front of people. Or drink water, which can make it difficult.
So it is affecting my work. I missed breakfast today because of an early meeting and had to sneak into a bathroom and nibble on some cheese and nuts I had bought at an upscale market a few days ago in anticipation of this situation.
Offices also close early. And I found that when I wanted to go on a Ecotour, it is being made more difficult because a rule in Islam says that anyone going a certain distance away from home HAS to break their fast. The director of the Ecotour said that would limit our possibilities because many of their drivers don't want to break their fast.
Ramadan will not end until a few days after my trip ends, however, so it is just something I will have to live with and learn from. Maybe lose a few pounds, too!
October 25, 2003
I have been to the mountaintop....
Actually, I haven't. Just the foothills. Along with 10,000 other people.
We left at 5:30 AM to head up into the hills behind Tehran. It was a Friday, Iranian's Sunday. The cab dropped us off in the steep streets leading up into the hills. From there, you walk up a narrow street for a while, and then onto some paths.
At first it was very bucolic. Although there were others on the path, we could stop and take some pictures. There are tea houses along the way, and as you walk you can see tall mountains in front of you. The air is better than Tehran, even though you are not much higher than the city.
But by 8:30 the crowds started. Women in chadors mixed with youth with boom boxes blaring hip hop music. Girls on cell phones pushed the limits of the rules with see through scarves and tight manteaus. I even saw one girl in a hat, which is apparently going to be a fashion in the next few years, as the coumtry perhaps slowly transitions away from the required scarf or chador.
People started setting up picnic sites along the river below or on the barren hills. Trash littered the water, as refuse from these meals was tossed into it.
We stopped at a teahouse for some breakfast. It was quite charming, but behind it I saw piles of trash and I could smel the diesel of a generator. Even quite a ways into the hills, these houses existed.
After we finished, we went back down. Streaming up the hill were THOUSANDS of people. I can't even begin to describe how claustrophobic it got, as well as loud. By now most of the crowd was young, and I could see for my own eyes what writers have described about Iran--its tremendous population growth. Something like 60% of the populaton is under the age of 30. Many were as loud and rude and stylish as any American. I could hardly push my way through the crowds on the way down, and the path was often narrow, with the river below. I felt like I was in the streets of Tehran, with only the cars around people missing.
Why would so many people put themselves in such a crowd? Part of it is definitely that it is the only close way to get out of the pollution here, but a large reason is also that the youth can meet other young people here and hang out. Although there were guards walking the path, I didn't see them discipline anyone but me (more below). So the young people can associate with each other and basically have a big party. There was dancing and singing everywhere. Interestingly, with all these crowds, both in the mountains and in the streets, I haven't seen a fight or road rage yet. People accepted their crowded plight, I guess, and don't let it fray their nerves like we do.
As far as the trash, I saw a few workers at the bottom picking it up from the river, and there was one young man holding a trash bag open for people. But where it really counted, high up, there were no trash cans at all. We met a professor who was fluent in English who had come up to the hills to read and found herself collecting trash instead. She found her collection bag in the river, filled it up from other trash in the river, but then could find no place to put it.
Along the way, I did some interviews with people about why they came to the hills. I was finished and walking down, taking one last picture of the professor, whenmy colleague Omid was stopped by plainsclothes police wearing scarves around their waist and neck the same pattern as the PLO. They asked Omid why I was using a professional camera, and if I was interested in the environment, why was I pointing it at people?
I owe Omid a big dinner, because he was able to pull out his press card and tell them that I had permission from the University to be there but didn't have my paper (kind of an extension of the truth--I do have a paper, but not specifically to be there.) He told the guards that they should want to make a good impression, especially after what happened to the Canadian journalist. They let me go, even as I was trying to figure out how to get my tape out of the camera and hide it.
But in reality, nothing I had would seem to be that controversial. I was showing how many people enjoy the hills. But because so many of the youth are pushing the limits, there, it becomes controversial footage, I guess.
Makes you appreciate our foothills, as crowded as they are...
To Squat or Not to Squat, that is the question
Well, actually, you don't have much choice. Almost all the toilets here, even in professional offices,are squat toilets. My hotel bathroom shown above is a rare example of the two types next to each other.
I had experienced squat toilets in Uzbekistan, but must have lost my memory of the correct strategy for using them. Suffice it to say that it is not necessarily the body position, but the attendant details that are the most difficult. For instance, I have dropped my packet of tissues and my packet of tissues into the hole more than once as I struggled with my manteau and scarf, holding on to various items because there's no place to put them. Thank God I haven't dropped my scarf down there, but it's not for want of trying. Everytime you lean over, it nearly falls off. The required coat all women have to wear is also a drag, literally. You have to hold it up around you or it will get all dirty.
And then there's the issue of the hose. On the wall of every toilet stall is a metal hose, with cold and hot water usually. I understand that the hose is used to wash down the business, but didn't realize that it is also supposed to be used as a bidet as well. And I suppose (ahem) to wash one's hand if that is the preferred method, although there is usually soap and water in the main room.
So it's actually not a bad idea, I think, to have this thing, but I still have not figured out how to use it without spraying the whole wall behind me. And of course, unless one pulls out the packet of tissues once again, you end up walking around kind of soggy.
There is rarely any toilet paper, by the way, and if you use it, there is only sometimes a trash can to put it in. You are not supposed to put it down the toilet. So my 20 packets of CVS baby wipes are coming in very handy.
I talked to one Iranian girl, though, who told me that she would feel very strange, though, using Western toilets, since she couldn't clean herself. And I guess that makes sense. But the idea of people using their hands still gets me rather down in the dumps, ha ha....
Smoke gets In Your Eyes (and your mouth and your stomach)
Two weeks ago, it didn't take me long to pick out the correct eye drops in my local CVS store in Washington. I just went for the best ones, with super-duper antihistamine. They were a little more expensive, but I had more than a guess that they'd be needed.
That's because it doesn't take much research to learn that Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world. With an estimated 12 million residents (more, if you count all the people coming in to work during the day), and vehicles that are an average of 17 years old, and a natural weather inversion because of the mountains close by, there is often a gray cloud over the city. Since my topic is environmental issues in Iran, I knew that just by living in the city, I would experience the situation first hand. So in addition to the drops, I even bought a surgical mask, since many people here have to use them when things get too bad.
Imagine my surprise then, that I didn't have to use the eyedrops the first few days I was in Tehran, but in the mountains. Azam and I were driving from Ahwaz, a city near the Iraqi border, to Isfahan, about 12 hours away through the Zagros mountains. I was excited to go on the drive, since we had been spending a lot of time indoors. That's because Ahwaz has more of an Arabian climate and is too hot to do anything between 10 and 5.
In addition, as you land there, you are greeted by the flames of the nearby refineries, as Khouzestan province is the top oil and gas producing region here. So the air is heavy with heat and fumes. The drive to Isfahan would get me out into the clear mountain air where nomads roam with their stock animals.
Or so I thought. As we wound our way at 70 miles an hour over treacherous mountain roads, I kept my eyes on the horizon to settle my stomach. And I kept seeing a dark haze over the mountains. It got worse and worse. How could that be? I wondered. There were no big cities here.
Soon I was to discover that this area is a center for new dam construction in Iran, which prides itself on the number of large dams it is building. I saw somewhere that it has 60 large dams under construction now. All the machinery, and the attendant cities that have grown with the construction, are causing air pollution. In addition, because of drought, overgrazing and the damming of the rivers, the ground is bone dry and dusty.
My eyes got more and more irritated and I finally reached into my bag for the drops. After 8 hours of traveling through this area, watching nomads who now lead their animals up the highway instead of open ground, we were finally descending into Isfahan, know as a "jewel" of Iran.
At this point I can truly say that I experienced one of the shocks of my life. As we entered Isfahan from the south, it was about 4:30 PM. Yet it seemed like it was nightfall. We could see only about a quarter mile ahead of us. Instead of some kind of jewel, I found myself in the middle of some sort of chemical soup. All around us was a thick white fog that smelled sickly sweet and sour at the same time. My friend Azam and I gagged and held our rusaris, our scarves, to our mouths. Tears came to my eyes not only from the situation itself, but also thinking about the people who had to live in this mess.
This would go on for an hour and a half as we entered the city. By the time we got downtown, the air was a bit better, but not much. We checked in to the hotel and in my room I could smell the diesel and butane from the massive numbers of cars down below. My hosts didn't seem surprised by this at all.
I now understood why the World Bank has given money to this city to work on monitoring air pollution. But monitoring the situation won't be enough. The regulations for factories need to be drastically changed. As I roamed the bazaar of Isfahan, I couldn't help but wonder how many of the products, including those bought by tourists, are produced in these factories. I didn't buy anything, in part because of this sense. I would rather by from a craftsman or woman where I could see them producing the object.
As we would continue on to Shiraz, the former capital of Iran, we would also encounter more pollution, especially from vehicles. At times, one would just have to breathe through one's scarf. And as the plane took off from Shiraz, the reddish brown haze would last for 20 minutes, far out into the desert.
I am overwhelmed by my topic. There is just so much pollution here it is difficult to know where to start, and there don't seem to be any groups working specifically on air pollution that I've been able to find yet. I think people are just living day to day. I wonder how much of this pollution is caused by the fact that because America has an embargo on Iran, it must produce so much of its own goods itself, and therefore is over-industrialized. Of course, its population is so huge that it must produce a lot of products to satisfy that demand, too. But there have to be ways to ameliorate this problem. I will continue to look for the good souls who are trying to do that. Meanwhile, back in Tehran, the irony is that I can see the mountains today.
On this last trip, I found myself really appreciating the work of the environmentalists and the lawyers who wrote the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the US. After all, when I was growing up, my eyes also burned from diesel fumes. But in just a short 30 years, we have done so much. Even though some argue with the articulation of those laws, we should not take them or our cleaner air for granted.
October 16, 2003
"Waiting for Shirin"
The crowd was chanting louder and louder. I was lifted onto a cement wall so I could see better, and I teetered there trying to do my best filming without a tripod or a wall behind me. I kept glancing down to see where I would land if the crowd pushed me off the wall when "she" came out.
"She" was Shirin Ebadi, the first Nobel Prize winner from Iran, scheduled to arrive in just 30 minutes at Tehran's airport. It had taken more than an hour to get to the airport in suffocating traffic. We had to walk the last half mile or so since the traffic was at a dead stop and we didn't think we'd get there on time. Ironically enough, when we leaned out the window and asked a man in traffic what it was all about, he said it was all people coming to greet pilgrims coming back from "Haj" (Mecca.) He obviously was completely out of touch with the news, although one couldn't blame him since Iranian TV and newspapers had said nothing about Ebadi returning. The only way people knew was by word of mouth and the BBC. But it worked, as tens of thousands streamed into the airport.
My driver/helper, who was very worried about me, promised to keep in touch with me and my journalist acquaintance Omid by cellphone. Little did we realize that all the lines would be jammed.
As we got closer, the crowd swelled. There were people as far as the eye could see, many holding white flowers and placards welcoming Ebadi and saying in English that this was the "real Iran," the "Peace will win." Some women were overcome with tears, others emboldened to chant "True human rights would be to let the prisoners free," a reference to the political prisoners that Ebadi had helped as an attorney and the ones that are still there.
People were very interested that I was an American and not suspicious at all that I was filming. Occasionally they spontaneously translated the chants for me. I saw women both in full chador and, as I had the previous day, in very light scarfs almost falling off their heads. All women are required to wear a long coat to cover their bottoms, which are verboten to look at. But again, those "manteaus" come in various shades of sheer. Unfortunately I just have a black, rather hot one, but I was too preoccupied to notice any heat.
Men were coming up and kissing each other, people were dialing on their cell phones, and the whole experience was so heady that I realized very quickly how fortunate I was to be there. However, Shirin was nowhere to be seen. I should have realized something when I saw people leaving, and also a car being driven through the crowd. Finally Omid said that he had heard she was at Terminal 3, the terminal usually reserved for people coming back from Haj (Mecca).
We went towards there. Along the way I was introduced to a major leader of the student movement, an older woman in full chador, which was interesting ("jawlebbeh") to me, as that is traditional garb. I also met three women who have a group for wives of political prisoners. My French came in handy to interview one of them, who spoke French but not English. It was very moving to hear their stories.
We got to the road for Terminal 3, but there were a lot of police. Omid told me to put my camera away. We tried to find out if she had arrived yet. I talked with a reporter from Dubai TV who was also somewhat stranded. He had sent a photog over there an hour earlier and told him to just stay put, but couldn't reach him on the cell. By then it was 10:30, more than an hour after her scheduled arrival. We decided not to go down the road to the terminal.
Darn it if I didn't find out later that she actually was arriving just then! And my driver Marjan, who hadn't wanted to go in the first place because she had seen the student riots, actually went to Terminal 3 because she recognized the man being driven through the crowd as Shirin's husband. So Marjan actually saw Shirin, who came out briefly, crying, thanked the crowd, and left. Apparently before she arrived, there were verbal taunts between reformists and hezbollah-types.
I wish I had seen that, and I kick myself for not just walking down the road to Terminal 3. But really, I was able to feel the energy from earlier in the evening and also to film it, and that as much as anything else was what the night was about. The night before I watched Ayatollah Khamenei give a speech to tens of thousands of people about the evils of America and Israel. I had to believe that this crowd equaled that and indicated the future of Iran. Here were people so proud to have a Nobel Laureate, so hopeful that she would provide a template for a better future, that they risked being in a riot to go get a glimpse of her.
Omid and I hitchhiked a bit with two older women just to get far enough from the airport to get a cab. Then we had a harrowing cab ride back to my hotel.
The evening brought out some interesting feelings in me. I didn't come here to do a piece on women, because I thought that had been "overdone." Yet in the crowd, my eyes only lit on the women, so full of energy. They were proud, happy and angry all at the same time. Traditional and modern women, women with their girls and women with their husbands. I even saw some with boyfriends, which is supposedly illegal.
As a woman, seeing that, and also having to wear a hot scarf and coat while men can have short sleeves and no hat, one can't help but start thinking about women's issues. Everywhere I go women tell me on their own that they hate wearing the scarfs. One young lady told me that she didn't want to even get married, because the men are too "men-centered." So perhaps I will be writing about these issues.
In the meantime, I'm still waiting for Shirin, but my wait can't be anything compared to the wait that Iranians, in particular Iranian women, have for a freer life.
Please see "No Longer Waiting for Shirin" for an update....
October 09, 2003
"Miss M., Close Your Eyes"
So said my driver Marjan as she crossed three lanes of traffic flowing next to us, made a U-turn and then moved into 3 more lanes of traffic going the same rate of speed. Fortunately, I had read enough about Tehran "terror" (traffic) to be able to keep my eyes open. But I don't look next to me too much, or behind me. I don't want to see that there are really only inches between us and the other cars and motorcycles and most horrifying sometimes, people. They have to cross in between all these vehicles. I practiced a bit in DC walking out into traffic (sorry, Mom) and it's helping.
Marjan's car was also helpful in that it had seatbelts and air conditioning and it was a "Pride," a newer car. Most of the taxis don't have belts, are sweltering and are old English Paykans that spew exhaust back into the vehicle. You just have to trust that these drivers know what they're doing. One of my drivers was so bad, though, in that he couldn't even read the directions, got us totally lost, drove backwards down the street and then left me sitting in the cab in traffic while he went to have someone tell him where to go. I guess for about $2.25 that's what you get.
Traffic lights could work, if they wanted them to. Instead, they're always blinking. Sometimes yellow, sometimes red, sometimes green and red at the same time! There must be a metaphor in that somewhere. And yet things seem to move in some sort of controlled chaos. The two big traffic jams I've seen were actually caused by policemen manually operating the traffic lights. They would leave them on green for five, six, ten minutes at a time! Seems to work better when people just fend for themselves, using a system of increasingly urgent beeps of the horn to indicate their needs and location.
I had one funny conversation with a driver, who said he liked America because of our democracy. "Don't you have a democracy here?" I prodded. "Only driving," he responded. I laughed. That's actually true. Everyone is on the same level when driving in Tehran, duking it out no matter the type of car or driver.
Speaking of cars, there generally seem to be just a few types: the ubiquitous oil belching Paykan, the new "Pride"-- a KIA compact for the middle class, and Peugots and Nissan "Patrols" for the richer. Occasionally you'll see an old Chevrolet or a Volkswagen. Ten years ago, 30,000 cars were being produced here. This year it will be 750,000. And still there's only an average of one car per 4 people. You can see where this is headed...
Here is an entry from a Scandinavian tourist I found on the web:
"I often ranted about traffic in Turkey (which is where I live), but now that I have been to Iran, I have enormous respect for the "discipline" of Turkish drivers. They are choirboys compared to their Iranian brothers! I completely lack the words to describe the chaos of an Iranian city, especially Tehran, where cars shoot around in gay abandon, filling literally every millimeter of the road, disrespecting every sign and light (many traffic lights are actually switched to a permanently blinking yellow, and often lack the red and green lenses altogether), honking ferociously, and committing many other horrors. And there are bicycles and motorbikes on this battlefield, often even driving up roads on opposing lanes, or invading the sidewalks and covered bazaars, thus extending the jurisdiction of the Jungle Law. Now, do you really want to know where and how pedestrians fit into all this?"
And this, from an Iranian press report:
Iran's Minister of Road and Transportation said in Ahvaz, Khuzestan province on Sunday that the number of road accidents in Iran is 21 times the number in the developed world, IRNA reported.
This speaks of is pitiable state of the roads in the country, Ahmad Khorram said.
He told IRNA that in the developed countries for 10,000 vehicles there is 1.5 fatalities, compared to Iran where with the same number of vehicles a staggering 33 deaths are registered.
Khorram said that 5.3 million vehicles are plying the road in the country which is much less than in the developed countries and therefore the density of automobiles is not a factor in high number of accidents.
In the US there is one automobile for every 1.1 people, in Europe the figure is 1.5 automobile whereas in Iran, for every 12 people there is 1 automobile 'some which are heavy or semi-heavy'.
An official of the Road and Transportation Ministry said last month that road accidents claim 60 lives daily. Deputy Minister for road maintenance Ahmad Majidi said that 80 percent of the dead are between 20-30 years of age. He said the number of accidents is 400,000 annually, 'of which 96 percent occur on intra-city roads'.
Majidi said the average annual increase of accident-related fatalities is 15.1 percent adding over five million vehicles ply the national roads and 850,000 automobiles are added to the figure annually.
Based on official figures, Iran ranks first in auto-related fatalities in the world, said Iran's Coroners Office in a bulletin last month.
October 07, 2003
"Like a Persian, for the very first time..." (with apologies to Madonna)
Hello Friends, family and assorted voyeurs,
The above photo shows me getting ready for my trip abroad by going through training with Centurion, an agency run by British commandos in the business of protecting journalists around the world. Hopefully I won't have to put into practice the lessons learned during this fake injury exercise!
This "blog" was created for me by my office-mate, Josh the Zambia maven (and all things technical, for which I am grateful!) If I am able to access a computer in Iran, and that computer can access this site, I will try and update it with my musings about my adventure.
As many of you know, I am going to Iran as part of a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. My goal: to study the nascent environmental movement there.
For those of you who received my September 30th letter, you know that getting a visa to Iran was a bit of adventure in and of itself. It took more than three months, and my paperwork was lost along the way. Had I not kept calling, and had people not been advocating for me in Tehran, I'd be blogging you all autumn from DC, or Kazakhstan, which was my "backup" country...
I will say that all the Iranians I have worked with, both here and in the Islamic Republic, have been very gracious. However, as in any large country, there is a bureaucracy to contend with. I anticipate that I will encounter many more examples of that as I travel. I have been told that I will be stopped repeatedly by police, either for documentation (which sometimes they can't read because they're illiterate), or to tell me to fix my "hijab" (covering) correctly.
I leave on Saturday, October 11th on Lufthansa, and don't arrive till early Monday morning. For those who are curious, Iran is 10.5 hours ahead of Idaho, 8.5 hours ahead of DC.
The first few days I will stay in Tehran, probably at a small hotel downtown, although my friend Azam has a niece we may also stay with. Azam is from Boise and we are traveling together. It's great because I'll be able to be with someone as I enter this very foreign country, and will be able to immediately learn about its culture and people as we visit her family.
I will have very little time in Tehran the first week, because Azam and I are immediately going to visit her family in the south. But in that short time, I will need to go to the universityand also meet with environmental groups. Also, I need to register at the Swiss Embassy, which handles American interests in cases of emergency. Unfortunately from what I can tell on the map they are very, very far away from downtown.
I also need to go to Ershad, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, to receive my press permit, which I guess is very bureaucratic in that they could ask me to name every single place and person I want to interview and be carrying letters for each interview. Let us hope that is not the case. I am worried I won't have time to go before I leave for the south and will be stopped repeatedly down there because I don't have the proper permitting.
That's because I will only stay in Tehran until Wed. afternoon, at which time Azam and I will be headed to Ahwaz, where some of her family lives, and Desful, where she grew up. These cities are industrial and are just across the line from Iraq. They will be hot and humid (remember, I have to be covered up and generally wearing black, so read even more hot and humid). In addition, they were heavily hit during the war with Iraq. One interesting fact: the refugee camp for Iraqis for years has been outside of Desful. I would love to go there, but I don't know if I'll be able to.
Azam has not seen most of her family for nearly 30 years, as she left before the revolution, and hasn't been back. I feel lucky to be able to be part of this reunion, which will also help me understand the changes that have happened in the country. I will take some video and photos and hope to put something together upon our return to Idaho to help educate people about the Iranian culture.
After visiting Azam's family for 4 or 5 days, we will head to Shiraz and Esfahan, two of the most lovely cities in that part of the world. I hope to take some nice digital photos there of the archaeological sites and gardens.
Then I will return to Tehran and start my fellowship work. I need to give a presentation to professors at the University of Tehran about my project, and decide where in the country I want to focus my reporting. Next to this entry I have posted some links to some interesting environmental programs in Iran. I have been in contact with them and hope to view their work.
With my remaining days here, I am frantically trying to get all my equipment together and understand it (video camera (thanks Jamila and Mark for helping), microphones (thanks Jeff!), mini-disk recorder, tripod, digital still camera, PDA) and buy all the things I might need (6 bottles of the pink stuff, baby wipes galore, and heavy duty antibiotics...)
Lots of presents for people, too. I'm going to wince when I see the credit card bill.
Speaking of that, then there's the issue of money. My parents have been awesome about my desire to visit Iran, but the only thing my wonderful father has worried about is all the cash I have to take into the country. That's because there's this little thing called an embargo. What that means practically is that you can't use a credit card or traveler's checks, and ATMs don't work.
He tried to find a way to send money to a bank there, but embargoes exist for a reason, and one of them is to prevent money from coming in to a country through banks. So I will have to carry it in. Believe it or not, I've been told by reliable people that the central bank there will only take $100 bills, post-1996. For some reason, the exchange rate is better with new bills. They think the others don't spend as well? Unfortunately, carrying only 100s often means people expect to be paid in that denomination, too.
I won't bore you with all the other stuff I'm having to track down except to say that I won't be bringing a computer. It just was going to be too heavy and a risk to add another piece of expensive equipment to my haul.
So if you don't hear from me for a while, that's why. I will be borrowing computers or going to the Internet cafes. I expect to be in withdrawal!
I did get some nice light gifts to bring to Iran in the form of spud pins from Sen. Crapo's office, courtesy of the Idaho Potato people. Probably the furthest those pins have traveled! I also found some great Cheetah magnets and keyrings at National Geographic, which is cool because I'm hoping to meet with people who are working on a cheetah preservation project.
I am traveling with other, heavier gifts like Idaho calendars, but I wanted to have something personal from our great state. I have also pre-written out some thank-you cards in Farsi, since by the time I meet people it will have been weeks since I had a lesson!
What all this means is I'll probably have room for about 3 pairs of underwear when I'm done! I guess since I'm required to wear a big long coat over everything (thanks for the loan, Louise!), they won't notice, right?
Well, that's about it. I have a mixture of excitement and nervousness about what the next 6 weeks will bring. I know it will be life-changing, and I appreciate the opportunity. I hope to do well by it, as I know the other Fellows do, too.
I'll try and write more whenever I can. Cheers/khoda hafez! (that means goodbye in Farsi)...