Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

Notes on Journalism

February 3, 2009

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tehran Bureau | notebook

My father introduced his seven-year-old son to international politics in the cosy environs of a provincial Greek pizza joint. It was the mid-1980’s, and the Iran-Iraq War was in full swing. The mud-drenched battlefields of western Iran appeared impossibly faraway to my childish mind. They were Hobbesian landscapes, on which tens of thousands of people sacrificed themselves in epic offensives that seesawed a few meters back and forth over slowly decomposing bodies across a disputed border.

While the steaming slice of pizza on my plate appeared decidedly more captivating than relentless slaughter in the name of Islam or Arab nationalism, one of the things my father told me that day stuck. An evening news report about the war flickering in the background must have prompted him to introduce me to the concept of hypocrisy. The example he used was the just-erupted Iran-contra affair, in which Washington and Tel Aviv had armed both sides with low-tech weaponry designed to maximize the slaughter and prolong the stalemate. I remember that not even the taste of the delicious pizza could obscure the shock I felt at this revelation.

More than 20 years have passed since then. I grew up, studied Arabic, and began covering the Middle East. The immediate consequence of this career choice was the loss of any vestigial traces of innocence. Now, every time I return to Greece, I feel more disconnected to an ever wealthier, ever more carefree society that looks only Westwards as it drifts apart from the realities of its neighborhood.

“Don’t become a journalist,” one unmarried, 50-something British correspondent advised me on a Greek summer afternoon as I was just starting out on my career. “You’ll make no money, have no stability, and a terrible personal life.”

He was right on all counts. But there are few more challenging or rewarding occupations than covering the Middle East as a freelance journalist. That the world’s premier news-producing region is also among the most misunderstood and misrepresented is not so much a Western conspiracy, as public opinion would have it in the Arab or Persian street, but rather reflects its seemingly infinite layers of complexity. In an area whose cultural norms often appear diametrically opposed to the West and where the barriers of language and culture are almost insurmountable, I often found that simple images told the story more effectively than sentences encumbered by qualifications, complicated by parentheses, and clogged by background. My outsider’s eye saw distinguishing details that local familiarity overlooked, while living in the region enabled me to recognize the images that count and capture them.

In the Middle East, the work of Western journalists is further complicated by across-the-board official and popular suspicion. Much of the blame must be shouldered by Middle Eastern governments. An official in the press ministry of one of the region’s most difficult-to-access countries minced no words in telling me that visiting Western journalists without fluency in Persian or a deep understanding of the culture are preferable to foreigners who have attained insider knowledge. The revelation was offered after that country’s intelligence ministry vetoed my sixth application for a press residency, and the official took pity at my despair. At a dinner party, a local analyst for a Western embassy explained that the government feared the “cultural intelligence” that journalists provide on the societies they write for—exactly the charge on which Canadian-Iranian intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo was jailed for after it was discovered that an American NGO commissioned him to create a map of his country’s civil society.


Ever since studying Arabic and making the region my beat, my focus has been to live within the societies I report on and express their peoples’ realities, rather than cover the choreographed, sometimes delusional public relations ploys of some of the planet’s more autocratic politicians. Being Greek makes me a quasi-insider: We have been present as a regional power from antiquity through to the Byzantine Empire. Later, as Christian subjects of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were its bankers, merchants and diplomats to the European West.

The switch of allegiances to the West only came in the 19th century, after the Great Powers helped Greece win its War of Independence. There is still residual mistrust over the Crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople on their way to Jerusalem and the lack of help sent by Genoa as the Turks scaled the capital of Byzantium. After World War II, Greece remained firmly within the Western orbit and became the first line of defense against the Soviet Union. In the post-9/11 world, Greek politicians have continued the tradition of the intermediary, most notably when former Greek foreign minister and Colin Powell confidante George Papandreou passed messages from the Bush administration to the Taliban prior to their overthrow. Greek construction companies were trusted by Arab leaders to construct much of the Gulf’s infrastructure, build clandestine military bases in Libya, and erect palaces in Saudi Arabia complete with secret escape routes in case of an antimonarchical revolution.

A fine example of the “intermediary Greek” is that country’s current ambassador to Baghdad. Panayiotis Makris was educated in Alexandria’s Victoria College, speaks fluent Egyptian Arabic, packs a pistol in his leather briefcase, and lives resolutely outside the Green Zone. A 17th century tapestry depicting Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon dominates his living room in the kidnapping-scarred diplomatic district of Mansour. His professional performance is likewise infused with an historical perspective. As he points out to visitors, Alexander died just 10 kilometers from Baghdad; “We’re the only country that has the right to offer lessons in democracy around here,” he quips in a barely concealed barb at the American mismanagement of their Iraq occupation.

Greece’s man in Tehran similarly draws heavily upon history in his dealings with Iranian officials. His enthusiastic and repeated claims that Greece and Iran share 5,000 years of shared civilization may owe more to Athens’ dependence on Iranian oil imports and an innate proclivity to exaggerate than to historical fact. But the excellent ties between Greece and Iran reveal how important a shared cultural background is to a bilateral relationship.

When I was a child in Athens, my mother would lull me to sleep with stories from the “1001 Nights.” Today I live in the territories that inspired these myths, and their politics are no less complicated or treacherous. Though the stories I contribute from the Middle East are decidedly less fairytale-like than the adventures of Sabah the Sailor, my work is well done if they go at least some way towards furthering mutual understanding.

This article first appeared on Nieman Reports.


SUFISM: Mystical Ecumenism Photography from the heartlands of Muslim mysticism

Travel through the heartlands of Sufism with the hypnotic images of Iason Athanasiadis.

SUFISM: Mystical Ecumenism is a visual journey through Bilad ash-Sham, Khorassan and the Punjab chronicling the movement and rhythm of zikr, the ecstatic ceremony practiced by Sufi orders around the Muslim World. Shot by photojournalist and 2008 Harvard Nieman fellow Iason Athanasiadis in present-day Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey, it documents the extraordinary diversity of a mystical Islam gaining in popularity in the West but worryingly absent from media coverage of the world’s most controversial religion.

Opening: 5 February 2008, 17:00-19:00 Center for Government and International Studies (South Building), Harvard University, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 02138

The Dunya Ensemble will perform music from Islam’s mystical traditions at 18.30 in the Tsai Auditorium | Opening reception sponsored by the ILEX Foundation

The exhibition runs 5 February through 31 March at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies

Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran

January 24, 2009

Photo by Iason Athanasiadis

Los Angeles

Tehran Bureau | spotlight

It is the most hypothetical news story topping the international news agenda: Is the Islamic Republic pursuing a nuclear bomb? Does it lurk behind the Iraq insurgency? Is it out to dominate the Persian Gulf? Where is the fire amid the smoke?

Speculation and demonization consistently drown out WHAT IS arguably the Middle East’s most diverse ethnic and religious culture. They obscure landscapes of rare variety and geological beauty pulsating with colour and a rare light. Iran’s mystical topography is the setting for the struggle between tradition and modernity. It has been a constant in the modern era, first during the Qajar and Pahlavi empires, then throughout the three-decade lifespan of the Islamic Republic.

I come from Greece, a country as rich in heritage and as culturally fractious as Iran. Moving to Tehran in 2004, I was struck by our shared culture wars. Old civilizations find it particularly awkward to adapt to a rational modernity where culture and tradition stand for little; countries where indigenous religions, Greek polytheism, and Iranian Zoroastrianism, are subsumed by Christian and Muslim monotheism.

Greece and Iran have both been crossroads and laboratories for experiments in social conditioning. The most radical consequence of these culture wars was the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Whether in the form of churches planted on top of marble temples or Zoroastrian shrines transformed into imamzadehs (burial shrines for Shiite saints), the imposition of monotheism signified the loss of indigenous traditions.

I photographed Iran from the perspective of charting shared narratives and divergent fates. I leave you to make up your mind about this secular theocracy manifesting paradox in its every fissure.


“Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran: Through the lens of Iason Athanasiadis” opens tomorrow at CAFAM in Los Angeles. The exhibit offers an alternative narrative of the country famously included in the “Axis of Evil” by President George W. Bush. Through the vivid photography of international photojournalist Iason Athanasiadis, visitors will experience an Iran rarely seen in Western media. Vignettes of daily life not unlike our own are revealed in stunning color and black and white photography: Friends on a weekend ski-trip; a Tehran designer’s first fashion show; Soccer fans rooting for the home team; backstage at a rock concert. With the youth demographic rapidly growing—today, nearly 70% of Iran’s population is under 30—Iran’s traditional culture is adapting and being reinterpreted by a youth subculture that is both Western and critical of the West.

Persepolis, à la Grecque

January 23, 2009

Photo/Effie-Michelle Metallidis

Shiraz, Iran
Tehran Bureau | passport

My hand scrapes along a wall of fallen Persepolis as the sun wanes. We’ve reached the site just as the centuries-old ritual between sun and stone begins, the play of light evoking how far the remains have endured, surviving not merely ancient grudges, but modern arrogance. A pass under the Gate of Nations reveals as much: the American journalists Henry M Stanley of The New York Herald has already been here in 1870 as per a carefully chiseled inscription; so has a DSP E Andre, who also carved his name into the base of the entry gates in 1899, while J Granytam, JB Marrige and Wm Lundt all took their time to etch their names in cursive in 1810.

I can only imagine witnessing the grandeur of Persia’s glory a few hundred years ago, when the absence of digital cameras and websites made viewership an exclusive affair. The heightened adrenalin that, much like mine, coursed through veins of travelers passing through the remains of what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, torched to the ground. Or, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, what Alexander the Great had, in his immensely delirious state, had torched to the ground at the command of Thais, an Athenian woman whose vitriol caused the historian to enthuse that “the sacrilege committed by Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the Acropolis of Athens was avenged by a single woman, a fellow-citizen of the victims, who many years later, and in sport, inflicted the same treatment on the Persians.”

But the journey I made to Iran during late November of 2008 wasn’t on the premise of rehashing bygone enmity. Nor was it to examine Persian relics as a DSP E Andre or Wm Lundt; nor was it to ride the coattails of a new-found Orientalism. I came as a Mediterranean whose roots were mottled by centuries of conquest and empire, whose ethnic identity seemed as malleable as the red clay of sequestered Abyaneh. I did not come as subject nor conqueror, but as Alice, peering through the looking glass, and watched as a remote language re-aligned itself in a familiar pattern that told of the same humor, hospitality, culture and traffic violations.

It is the folly of nationalism that has disrupted the complexity of geography, thrusting Iran and Greece into their present states without paying much heed to the intertwined history both cultures continue to share. From the carved Greek and Persian inscriptions on a horse at Shaipur’s Parade in Naqsh-e-Rajeb, to the controversy kicked up over Hollywood’s interpretation of Thermopylae in 2006’s 300, to the fact that history still calls Persia’s crown jewel a name given to it by the Greeks, the ghosts of past alliances linger, and they walk among the living.

It is partly through a raging 19th century Hellenophilism, trumpeted by the likes of Byron and other romantics, that has kept Greece in the popular imagination of the West, while Iran, its shah, its revolution and its past, have slowly drained from the annals of collective memory. In imagining Iran, my generation has had little to draw on other than the sound bites of antagonism: the Iranian hostage crisis, Iran Air flight 655, sanctions, isolation, distortions further parlayed into the imagination through portrayals like Frank Miller’s comic book yarn of the freedom-loving Spartans facing Xerxes’s barbarous empire.

Staring at the remains of Persepolis now with Greece in mind, the relics of these two ancient civilizations seem to collude together as only former centers of the world can. There is something of the retired cabaret dancer in both of them; a sad beauty that only hints at past performances of a stunning nature. In Iran, the relics of the fallen empire aspirate an empty grandeur. In Pasargade, only columns and a mute tomb remain. The hollowness consumes the space between the monuments, the vapid breath of the valley. Naqsh-e-Rostam and Naqsh-e-Rajab are quiet, made all the more remarkable by the fact that they exist off of the E-7 highway, the path of modernity at pains to make concessions for no one. There, in an area marked off by a fence and some gravel, the remains of Sassanid bas-reliefs. Further down the road, tufts of withered grass on the dirt path leads to the tombs of Achaemenid kings. The casual nature of their existence, 4000 years of history chiseled into rock that follows along an asphalt road, reminds me of a mother with too many children to look after. There are simply too many layers to count, too many historical moments to cordon off and venerate.

The sites are at once glorious, tragic, forgotten and persistent, and nowhere more so than at Persepolis. I shuffle through the gravel, following the stele of a regal procession showcasing delegates of the 23 nations under the empire. How to parse and separate them? How to delineate between East and West, Greek and Persian, here or there, when no such partition exists in the mind, when then, as now, labels fray like threads when put under intense pressure?

It is maddening. And all the time, ever-present, ever-watchful, the eyes of Persepolis. The soldiers, the demi-gods, the lions, the lamassus, the Gopat-Shah, even defaced, even the replicas. Large, round, rubbed with a dark tint that lends dimension to their muteness. Ever-watchful of their environs and their visitors, the round surface of each orb, all-encompassing, as was the empire from which they emerged.

And yet among the difference, I find myself experiencing a strange sense of deja vu. The empire – the Hellenic, the Persian – worn down by time, pollution, visitors and memory, their ruins still speaking of a shared legacy, as when one Iranian friend journeyed to the Acropolis and, upon hearing his background, have a Greek remark, “You didn’t come to finish the job, did you?”