Archive for the ‘Notebook’ Category

Blind Luck

March 14, 2009

‘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

Covering Iran: Irish journo recounts a few battles

March 5, 2009

Gareth Smyth was based in Tehran for the Financial Times for four years. He filed this story for the British Journalism Review in 2007.

Tehran Bureau | notebook

Shortly before I left Tehran, an Iranian official asked me if I had faced any difficulties under the relatively new Government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not really, I replied. Given we were about to eat lunch, it didn’t seem appropriate to mention my detention earlier in the year for four days by the intelligence section of the Revolutionary Guards after I had entered a national park without permission. The British Embassy had used their negotiations during my detention – along with that of freelance Angus McDowall – as a dry run for their handling, a month afterwards, of the arrest of 15 British sailors and marines in the sea border of Iraq and Iran. In different circumstances, I might have been the story myself, a hapless victim of the brutal Iranian authorities. Reporting from Iran can be compared to walking on eggs while being jostled by burly people. Sooner or later you are going to fall over and you have to hope you don’t end up in an omelette.

One of the problems with the trip to the national park to the south east of Namak Lake in central Iran was that the relevant authority – the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, aka Ershad – had apparently not received my email saying I was going. This was a new rule introduced earlier this year: Ershad had to be informed about any leisure trip, in addition to the longstanding requirement that the ministry give permission for any work trip outside Tehran and for any interview with an Iranian official. So, back in the vicinity of Namak Lake, a vast salt flat, I didn’t suspect that asking directions from an “environmental station” in the midst of the rocks and sand dunes would lead to four days’ questioning by Revolutionary Guard intelligence in Garmsar, a small town just north of the vast desert and the nearest place of any size to the home village of President Ahmadinejad.

But with security on higher alert because of the U.S. arms build-up in the Persian Gulf, even an expanse of desert without missile silos or manoeuvres can be considered of military value. Hence our detention in a sports complex that was hardly the Ritz, although Angus and I found a good place in Garmsar to eat grilled liver for breakfast, and did watch the Arsenal v Chelsea league cup final from our bunks. Western readers and listeners are unaware of the constraints under which their information on Iran has been produced. While the number of resident reporters in the country is low and falling, many outlets retain the dateline by sending visiting hacks who hire quasi-official minders through Ershad. Even the resident reporter finds it hard to gain access to anyone, or any place, remotely near a real story, although to admit this to editors is dangerous when they are desperate to know what is going on in the “axis of evil”.

The yellow badges myth

The Iran reporter also faces the vocal power of the huge number of “Iran experts” that inhabit think-tanks, campaign groups and even newspapers in the West. One group, the Mujahidin-e Khalq, a cult previously allied to Saddam Hussein, is resented by every other Iranian I have met. Others are former supporters of the Shah, overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. There are “experts” who have never been to Iran. But they can all be skillful in meeting the agendas of Western politicians and news organisations. Back in May 2006, Amir Taheri – a contributor to the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab paper published in London – wrote in the Canadian National Post that Iran had passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow badges on their clothes. This was quickly picked up by UPI and widely posted on websites. Chuck Schumer, a U.S. senator, called the Iranian regime “lunatic” and “pernicious” and White House spokesman Sean McCormack spoke of “clear echoes of Germany under Hitler”. The story was untrue and could easily have been checked in Tehran, where Maurice Motammed, the Jews’ deputy in Parliament, called the report “a mischievous act, a fresh means of pressure against the Iranian Government.”

Jews wearing badges is not an isolated example of misinformation. Early this year a long-time American opponent of the Islamic Republic persuaded some media outlets that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was dead or dying. And graphic reports about the British sailors – one described them as incarcerated in dank cells near my favourite park in north Tehran, with mobs outside shouting: “Death to Britain” – were filed from Israel and supposedly based on telephone calls to “sources” among the Revolutionary Guards. Although absurd, such fictions fed appetites in London to know “what’s really going on?” and “what’s going to happen next?” in Tehran. “Make a few calls and find out if Osama bin Laden’s son is in town. Find out when the sailors are going to be released. Surely the regime is in panic because of banking sanctions?” All this makes your minor scoops and understandings – like knowing the British Embassy was using your own case as a model to get their sailors back – look very minor indeed.

I was used to struggling for stories. I was one of the last reporters to do vox pops in Baghdad as the kidnappings accelerated in June 2004 and I’d done my time with Kurdish guerrillas in the mountains in the early 1990s. My car had turned over three times on the day Baghdad fell, and I still filed. Iraq was a gold mine when you could get out and about. Perhaps a certain chaos is good for journalism. But if America’s lack of any agenda for post-Saddam Iraq created a fertile field for reporting, no easy pickings have emerged from the careful security that has enabled the Islamic Republic to resist the Americans for 28 years. Getting a grip on Iran requires years of patience and false starts, lots of “softly, softly.” It requires traveling to avoid confusing the country (bigger than Iraq, Turkey, Syria combined) with the elite of northern Tehran. It means keeping an open mind and a permanent skepticism.

But Iran is at the centre of political attention. It has the world’s second-largest oil reserves and its second-highest gas reserves. It has a long border with Iraq and shares the Shia religion with the majority of the Iraqi people. And its regime arose from the overthrow of the Shah, a well-armed and pivotal U.S. ally. This is hardly a recipe for “softly, softly”. Mere reporting is too flimsy to shift the basic paradigms of the powerful in the West, in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When I arrived in Iran in December 2003, before the polarisation between Iran and the West escalated over Tehran’s nuclear programme, there was a strong western view that the reformists (popular, goodies) were confronting the conservatives (unpopular, baddies) over social freedom and women’s clothes. Everything had to fit that model. In the parliamentary elections of February 2004, a wide selection of newspapers, including The Times of London, seized on the “story” that eight people died in clashes after the results were announced. The interior ministry denied anyone had been killed and no convincing details, much less names, were ever published. The Iranian news agencies made it clear that the clashes – in Firouzabad and Izeh, in south west Iran – had been the result of local factors. By the time the story made the international press, via the wire agencies, it had been fitted into the rivalry between reformers and conservatives and the notion of Iran in crisis. When it reached George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who was due to report to the Senate in Washington that the regime in Tehran was “secure for now”, he – perhaps under pressure from mounting criticism over Iraq – indicated that the chance of internal violence remained, so keeping alive the exiles’ and U.S. neo-conservatives’ hopes of regime change. The reality on the ground was that Iranians were disenchanted with politicians of all hues and no more obsessed with politics than anyone else. Yet the view persisted in the media that, to quote one editor, voters were “naturally reformist.”

Hence the shock when Ahmadinejad won the 2005 presidential election by calling for a return to the ideals of the 1979 Revolution and to an economic egalitarianism that the Western paradigm had ignored. To recognise the importance of economic issues would have been to treat the election as a “normal” one, and to contradict the Iran “experts” and U.S. politicians who had predicted a low-turn out and now said the poll was entirely manipulated. I was the only Western reporter who had actually interviewed Ahmadinejad – albeit in a fax questionnaire sent to all the candidates – during an election in which the Western media consensus, perhaps helped by his camp offering interviews on condition that they were positive, had been that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a shoo-in. Victory, it was reported, would result from Mr Rafsanjani’s support for rapprochement with the West and for social freedoms.

No time for post mortem

Of course, once Ahmadinejad was elected, the real circus began in such haste there was no time, even had there been the inclination, for any rational media post mortem. American and Israeli officials – and some news editors – questioned the new president’s sanity and intelligence. Many “Iran experts” dismissed him as a puppet of fundamentalist clergy, who controlled a monolithic state and government. Former American hostages said Ahmadinejad had been among the organisers of their imprisonment in the Tehran Embassy during the 1979 revolution, encouraging at least one British television reporter-celebrity to pile in with a graphic first-hand account. In fact, as should have been evident from his election win, Ahmadinejad was a more adept politician than his critics hoped. He certainly understood the Iranian people better than most of them.

Right from the start of the campaign, when Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, the conservatives’ eminence grise, asked Ahmadinejad to withdraw because he was trailing other fundamentalist candidates in the polls, Ahmadinejad insisted he would increase his popularity by criticising Mr Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad never actually mentioned his rival by name in public, but based his whole campaign on attacking corruption and tapping the wide belief, justified or not, that Rafsanjani and his family were living off the fat of the land.

Iran is a land of surprises. Ahmadinejad came to power as a fundamentalist but then ordered sports authorities to lift the ban on women attending top football matches. By then Syast-e Ruz, a newspaper close to the President, had scoffed at election-time rumours that he would segregate men and women on pavements and in cemeteries. Those who knew Ahmadinejad best were least surprised. They said his religion was closer to the organic faith of the mass of Shia Iranians than to the learned ayatollahs. “People have been wrong to see him as someone who wanted strict segregation of the sexes,” said Nasser Hadian, politics professor at Tehran University and friend of Ahmadinejad since school.

Ahmadinejad has made a big imprint on the management of Iran’s nuclear programme, with commentators around the Arab and Muslim worlds noting a popular warming to his strong assertion of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium. Under previous President Mohammad Khatami, Iran treated its nuclear programme as an affair of realpolitik and diplomacy. Under Ahmadinejad, it quickly became a popular mission, part of his desire to bring “justice” to earth in the name of Shia Islam and to play a nationalist tune that resounded around a proud nation. Ahmadinejad likes popularity as much as any other politician. But this was a challenge to the Western paradigm. Rather like the January 2006 Hamas election victory in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, Ahmadinejad’s popularity belied the notion that Western policies commanded majority support in the Middle East. Ahmadinejad’s fierce condemnation of Israel early in his presidency further fueled smouldering Western disquiet.

The visit to Tehran in February 2006 of Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, highlighted how Islamists had risen to lead the Palestinian national struggle in the 27 years since Yasser Arafat was one of the first overseas leaders to arrive in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution. Unsurprisingly, Ayatollah Khamenei supported Hamas’s stand on not recognising Israel as a Jewish State in advance of negotiations to end Israeli occupation. But while many Iranians supported the Palestinians’ right to a State, with Jerusalem as its capital, reformists were wary of President Ahmadinejad capitalising on anti-American sentiments in the Arab and Muslim worlds to become a radical international figure. Dangerous times, they felt, required cool heads.

Although Ahmadinejad’s questioning of Israel’s existence as a Jewish State was universally condemned by European, U.S. and Arab leaders, the reaction in the Arab and Muslim world has been very different. Mohsen Kadivar, a leading Iranian cleric who has in the past been jailed, and whose books are generally banned, told me: “The Muslim world has been radicalised by U.S. foreign policy… and because modernity has brought dependence not independence for Muslim countries.” And Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, the former reformist vice-president, said: “Ahmadinejad is a radical, but he is clever in public relations and identifies his target supporters. Anyone who talks about Israel like this is welcomed across the Islamic world.”

President Ahmadinejad also scoffed at Israeli and U.S. military might. Many in Tehran believed he and his immediate supporters even welcomed UN sanctions and U.S.-led informal sanctions for giving them an external enemy against whom to mobilise public opinion. The more hardheaded in the regime aren’t fooled by the President’s dismissal of American military strength. “Iran’s leaders are very well aware of the hellish power of the U.S. Air Force,” one insider told me privately earlier this year. “Mr Ahmadinejad says we have nothing to fear. But even if there are ways we can hurt America, there are many other ways they can hurt us.”

However horrified are the realists in the Iranian political class – aware that Israel had at least 200 nuclear weapons and shocked by the extent of the Israeli destruction of Lebanon – they are reluctant to say so publicly. So where is it all going? Hard facts have a way, sometimes, of confounding both propaganda and inaccurate and malicious reporting. Lessons can be learned, and the truth can be recognised. But one thing is clear. If it comes to a U.S. or U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran, Western readers and listeners are likely to be even worse prepared than they were for the invasion of Iraq.

Reprinted with the permission of the British Journalism Review.