January 17, 2010

IF ONLY THE CIA COULD READ A NEWSPAPER:

The Iranian Exile’s Eye (NAZILA FATHI, 1/17/10, NY Times)


Only after the surveillance team arrived, about 10 days later, did I and my family decide to leave.

And yet, when we boarded the plane, two emotions were pulling me apart. I was relieved at my narrow escape. But a large piece of me longed to stay. Tehran’s familiar maple-shaded streets were now convulsed in some of the largest and bloodiest protests since the 1979 revolution; I wanted to tell the story, to continue being part of Iran’s fate. I was desolate at the thought of being cast out, with my friends dispersed, my contacts unreachable.

More than anything, I feared falling into what Iranian journalists call “the exile syndrome” — my understanding of Iran would be frozen in the moment of leaving, and I’d be unable to keep up with events on the ground. No doubt the government expected the same for me and others.

As things worked out, we could not have been more wrong. Protest was not about to die in Iran. Neither was news about it, nor our part in telling the story. Three things have made all the difference: the global reach of the Internet; the networking skills of exiled journalists and our sources; and the resourcefulness of Iran’s dissidents in sending information and images out.

When I reached Toronto (I had acquired dual citizenship there while a student), I did feel alone and overwhelmed at first. I realized, for the first time, the toll that the stresses of working in Tehran had been taking on me. I felt a bit like an abused child who had not dared speak about the abuse while it was occurring.

In my mind, I went over the times when sources who had been released from prison told me that interrogators had shown them pictures of people outside my home — a signal of how closely my life was being monitored. It had made me fear anything odd happening in public, like the time a sloppily dressed man on a scooter cut me off, flashing a pistol and handcuffs under the back of his shirt as I drove near my home. He dismounted to yell at me. I locked myself in the car. Then he disappeared. After that, I never again took my two toddlers to a public park in Tehran, fearing they would learn too much about the dangers their mother faced.

Soon after reaching Toronto, I went to New York to cover a hunger strike in support of the Iranian opposition. I was stunned to see more than a dozen former sources of mine — onetime members of Parliament, activists and bloggers — who had gone into exile a few years before. Some were so well informed that they seemed to have just come from a meeting in Tehran.

For me, that was like a new dawn: rather than being cut off, I had made contact with another Iran — a virtual one on the Internet, linking reformers abroad to bloggers and demonstrators still inside the country, and to reporters and sources outside. In fact, by following blogs and the cellphone videos seeping out of Iran, in some ways I could report more productively than when I had to fear and outwit the government.

For example, my contacts helped me find and interview a young man who had left Iran after being in prison, where he said a guard had raped him. That interview could not have happened in Iran. Last month, I could freely translate the harsh slogans that protestors hurled about the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There were palpably genuine videos on YouTube from places I recognized, with crowds chanting slogans I knew — or new ones. The slogans were now in fact fiercer, the leaders of the movement less timid, and at least some of the demonstrators clearly angrier.

So I could report, free of government edicts, that the protests were entering a new phase, even as I remembered a cardinal self-imposed rule for any reporting from Iran: There is no way to predict where any movement might be heading, or when it might be stopped.

There is an irony in all this; the years of authoritarian control had educated much of Iran in the need for circumventing restrictions on the Internet, and now I was seeing and hearing the results on my computer and television.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2010 4:07 PM
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