Blind Luck

‘Most journalists have topics about which they are particularly passionate,’ says Mani. ‘One of mine is sport, and another is Iran.’ Pictured: Iranian football star Ali Daei.

From Tehran to the BBC: How I became a sports journalist.


Tehran Bureau | notebook

“The first male journalist to be allowed into any kind of women’s football in Iran.”

That’s the first line of my CV, coming just after my name. It happened in November 2004, and it happened entirely thanks to my blindness.

I was born in Tehran in 1980, just before the start of the brutal eight-year war with Iraq. I lived there until I was four, when I came to England with my family for what was only supposed to be a fortnight to have a sight-saving operation. The operation failed. I became totally blind and I did not return to Iran for another ten years.

Before I left though, I was famous in the family for two things: having a big mouth and watching extraordinary amounts of television. Not just kids’ television, all television: the news, speeches in parliament, coverage of Friday prayers. I was fascinated by the ability to find things out and then tell people about it. Over breakfast, I would tell my parents what the Ayatollahs had said the previous evening. Later, I might tell a visiting uncle or older cousin, there to babysit me, what the generals were saying at the battle front.

It was the seed which usually flourishes into a life of long hours, unreasonable deadlines and having to curb your dislike for someone because you have to interview him or because he is the only link between you and a crucial interview. It’s a life of going where others cannot and asking what they dare not. In short, my curiosity, and desire to tell everyone what it uncovered, led me to journalism.

Not that journalism is the ideal profession for the son of Iranian parents. Luckily, being blind meant that not even the pushiest parents, which in fairness mine are not, could expect a medical career. However, this did not stop my mum and dad suggesting several times how nice it would be for me to be a member of parliament or an international concert pianist, or if all else fails, a teacher. But not a journo…

However, it was the only thing I wanted to do. There was no Plan B. I got my first taste of a newsroom when I was 14. I went for a couple of weeks to my local evening newspaper for a work experience placement. I fully expected to take a day or two to settle in, before becoming an integral part of the team, getting my name in the paper, and within a week or so, being promoted, as I saw it, to the sports desk to write about my true passion.

Things did not quite turn out that way. For one thing, I could not use the computers properly. In those days, text-to-speech software, which makes computers accessible to blind people, was thin on the ground. So I had to memorize keystrokes to save articles and to place them in the required parts of the system. I also needed someone to proofread what I had written, as I could not. This was supposed to be done by one of my teachers who came for a few hours everyday to help me. However, when she was not there, I was effectively hamstrung. Too shy to ask the staff for help, I just sat at my desk and absorbed the buzz around me. I loved every minute of it.

So it was due to that, seven years later, that I did a masters in broadcast journalism. I would have done a journalism degree had my less-than-detailed research into universities revealed that the program I had chosen was taught in the northern industrial city of Sheffield. After a few nights of deep consternation, I decided to leave things as they were. Sheffield, England it was.

No two people get into broadcasting the same way. My way in came through a chance meeting with a friend of a friend in a restaurant one typically drizzly Sheffield evening. This friend of a friend told me that one of his other friends, Cathy, was working as a researcher on a national radio programme called In Touch, which focused on issues relating to blind and partially-sighted people. He asked me if I would mind if she called me up for my views on the “special versus mainstream education” debate, on which they were putting together a feature. I said that would be fine, and a few days later, we spoke. At the end of our conversation, Cathy said that she had heard that I wanted to become a broadcast journalist and offered to mention me to the programme’s producer.

In Touch had always been the suggested first port of call whenever my prospective career came up for discussion with anyone. I was adamant that it would not be any sort of port at all, as I was determined not to be pigeonholed. But when Cathy proposed a meeting between me and the producer, I said yes. A chance to work for network radio while I was still at university? How could I turn it down? This was a case of speculation meeting reality — and not even I was too proud to spot the potential opportunities.

My first report for In Touch was on the lack of commentary at football stadiums. It was rubbish. How it was allowed to air, I will never know. But it was, and they even asked me back. My career in fact had just started.

Most journalists have topics about which they are particularly passionate. One of mine is sport, and another is Iran. The ideal scenario was therefore to combine these loves in a report. The chance came in the autumn of 2004. Ali Daei, Iranian football’s irrepressible goalscorer, was about to become the first man in international football’s 132-year history to score 100 international goals. He was on 98 going into a World Cup qualifier against hapless Laos. There was no doubt that he would break the century barrier.

This was my chance, not only to report on Iran, but to interview my hero. I went to Iran, fully expecting him to fall at my feet. After all, I was from the BBC in London, and not merely the Persian Service either! He ignored all of my calls for ten days. As my frustrations with Daei and my panic at not having a story grew, I decided to try and cover other issues.

I discovered a women’s team in Tehran called Peikan and thought I might go along to interview them for a follow-up piece. I called up the team’s female coach and spoke to her of the difficulties of maintaining women’s football in the Islamic Republic. I ended by asking her if I could go along to one of Peikan’s training sessions to record some atmos and interview her.

“How are you going to do that?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re a man. You can’t come and watch us play.”

I was ready for this. “There are two reasons why I think you should let me come,” I said. “Firstly, I have come all the way from London to do this report. And secondly, I’m totally blind so I won’t be able to see any of the girls.”

She paused and then, to her eternal credit, said I could go. I was naturally the envy of all my hormone-driven teenage cousins. I turned up at an indoor gymnasium where Peikan trained, with my mum who could not resist the chance to see what it was like. The girls, who were between 15 and 18 years old, came out completely covered up rather than wearing t-shirts and shorts, as normal.

I recorded them practicing for a few minutes before I asked the coach for an interview somewhere quiet. She suggested her office and made for the door. Presumably there had been some doubts about the veracity of my claims to being totally blind. “Would you mind if I hold your arm?” I asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t like being touched by gentlemen,” she said, her reply curt and unequivocal. In a country where disabled people are generally seen as second-class citizens and patronized, a bit of good old-fashioned honesty was, to say the least, refreshing and I respected her enormously for it.

In the end, I had to doorstep Ali Daei after a training session, and he agreed to meet me. I am convinced that it was my white stick that sealed the deal and got me a 30-minute sit-down interview with Daei in the lobby of the hotel at which the players were staying. At that time, I was unaware that one of my cousins was still trying to get a hold of him via mutual contacts. So I was surprised when, three days later and a day before the Laos match, she called me to say that Daei had said I could go to his house after the game and interview him there. “But I’ve already interviewed him, Vida,” I said. Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I went anyway.

Daei scored his 100th goal. In fact he scored the first four goals of a 7-0 rout. It happened on a soaking wet night in November 2004, at the national Azadi stadium, which was only a third full. It was history in the making and put Iran on the footballing map. However, people’s irrational dislike of Daei shamefully kept them from witnessing it first hand.

I arrived at his home at midnight. He left the rest of his family to eat their evening meal and took me through to his living room where we did a short interview about his 100th goal. We then chatted of this and that over tea before he suddenly left the room. I took this as a sign that I was outstaying my welcome.

“I’m sorry, Mani jan, this is a bit dirty,” he said upon his return. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he handed me a sodden football shirt. I hardly dared believe it. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s my shirt,” was his laconic reply. And it was too. It was the shirt he was wearing when he scored that 100th goal. “You can’t give me this,” I protested. “You’ve got hundreds of other shirts. Give me one of those!” “No, it’s ok. Have it,” he said. So I did, after he had signed and dated it. Even so, I have always regarded it as being on loan to me. Sometimes those long hours and unreasonable deadlines lead to extraordinary spoils.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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