Friday, November 09, 2007
Covering Iran from Khatami to Ahmadinejad
This interview is with the journalist Angus McDowall, who Kamran and I met while we were in Iran. We always enjoyed his articles and his stories about reporting in Iran.
1. Why did you decide to report from Iran in the first place?
I decided on Iran for several reasons. When I first went there, I was very inexperienced having only worked as a staff writer on an economic magazine writing about Saudi Arabia. But I really wanted to be living in an exciting country with lots of culture and history and reporting for big newspapers on interesting stories. I sat down with a friend who has won several big reporting awards and she told me I should go to Iran, Iraq (this was just before the war) or Algeria. She said Iraq would be the biggest story and anyone who had been there since before the war could really make a name for themselves, but that it would be very hard to report while Saddam stayed in power. She said in Algeria I would meet people who made me feel proud to be alive and that there was a delicious edge of raw danger (she's a little nutty that way), but I'd need very good French. In Iran she said I'd find a country that was mesmerising in its own right, but also a really big and underreported story. How right she was!
2. Did you ever feel any anti-British hostility? If yes, can you describe it to us?
I certainly did feel anti-British hostility. But because Iranians are so polite - and often very willing to separate British people from their government - I was rarely made to feel unwelcome. Only a couple of times did I meet people who turned their anger directly on me. One was a taxi driver who wanted to charge an outrageous sum - some three or four times the normal rate for a city journey - and told me he was trying to take back all the money my people had stolen from him over hundreds of years. He started shouting and it was very embarrassing. He was a little out of control. Another time I was interviewing people down near the court off 15 Khordad street and someone started shouting at me because of the British government.
When I first arrived in Iran I used to argue with people who said Britain was behind everything. I thought it was a ridiculous idea (I still cannot see that the UK has had any say in Iranian domestic politics since before the revolution, or that it has had any chance to steal Iranian oil) and imagined I could talk people out of it. That was a mistake and occasionally people became quite upset with my insistence that although Britain had a shameful colonial past, and although its present foreign policy has a terribly imperialist slant, it has no control over Iran at all. After a year or two, I stopped arguing and started just to enjoy the notoriety. I'd always laugh knowingly when someone hinted at British plots and slip the old line about it all being the work of the English.
3. Were you ever scared while you were there?
3) I was never scared during protests and things like that because my adrenaline was up and I was pretty sure that the worst that could happen to me was that an untrained policeman would give me a few knocks before carting me off to prison for a couple of hours. I did get quite frightened during my arrest with Gareth [Angus and a friend were arrested for inadvertantly wandering into an unmarked military area] because it seemed qutie plausible for about 48 hours that we would be charged with spying or something and imprisoned for a couple of years. When I was in Garmsar I dreamt incessantly about life in prison. It was really no joke.
But the most regular frights I had in Iran - like everyone else, I expect - happened on the roads. I have really never seen driving like it in any of the dozen Arab and African countries I have spent time in. Simply terrifying.
4. What was your biggest tarof blunder?
When I had recently arrived in the country I was with a couple of people reporting an oil conference. They were all new to me but we were getting on well. One said she was going to see a concert that night and asked if anyone wanted to come. Everyone else politely said they were busy but I immediately said I'd love to (in mitigation, I had only been in Iran about six weeks and was going insane with boredom because I hadn't yet made a single friend and the prospect of another night wandering around the market by myself drove me nuts). But how embarrassing - it was her uncle giving the concert and the whole family was there with me sitting at the front next to them as the only interloper.
5. Can you tell us a bit about the most unusual story that you covered while you were in Iran? (even if it was not published)
The most unusual story was the one I never did cover but always wanted to: the Japanese Yakuza. I kept hearing hints about these guys who were part of the big work migration to Japan in the early 90s. Because so many of them were big, tough kids from south Tehran, they slid seamlessly into the Japanese underworld, pushing drugs, pimping girls and generally acting as the muscle for Japanese gangsters. Many of them - I'm told - have those fantastic tattoos you associate with Yakuza, as well as other picturesque (!) motifs such as missing finger parts to do with honour rituals or something. They were all kicked out along with the other Iranians in the late 90s and came back to Tehran where they doubtless continued their eccentric but highly criminal careers with less flamboyance.
6. Most interesting person you met?
It's really hard to isolate just one interesting person. My friend Dr Khateri is a very interesting man. He joined up to fight as a child from Kermanshah and endured several years of the war. A true idealist, he joined a seminary and flirted with extremist Hezbollah-style groups in the early 1990s, getting to know people like Massoud Dehnamaki the filmmaker. But when he quit the seminary to become a medical doctor, specialising in chemical weapons treatment, his world view started to change. And when he travelled to foreign countries he positively mellowed and now has a pretty liberal world view. He took me to Kurdistan several times to travel, to report and to share a fascination with phenomena like dervishes. I really miss him come to think of it.
7. Most memorable interview?
Most memorable interview is also a hard one. It's probably one of the interviews I did after the earthquake at Bam. It wasn't memorable because anything particularly fascinating or unusual was being said: it was simply the intensity of the pain, shock and anguish that stayed indelibly with me. I still shudder to recall it.
8. What do you miss most about Iran?
Friends most of all, of course. But more generally I miss the bread, I miss the sound of Persian and the pleasure of trying (ineptly) to speak it. I miss little excursions out of Tehran. Most of all I miss the body language and facial expressions such as the disdainful flick of the head to mean 'no'.