Thursday, one day to the elections.
The Norwegian team is on the ski slopes north of Tehran today. Yes, we have mountains, and yes, we get snow, and yes, women can ski, too … and no they don’t do it in the long black chador; that would be bloody stupid as they would fall over and break a limb.
Matthew McAllester of Newsday is taking his own photos. He’s had problems sending the pictures from his computer and mine. The story’s going to print and we’re running out of time. We decide to go to an Internet cafe before our first interview of the day. This is a man who dodged Serbian fire in Kosovo, crossed the formidable sounding mountain of the damned three times, and now a little computer is giving him hell on earth.
Internet cafes are very new in Iran but they are springing up everywhere. The government at first made some attempts at trying to control the Internet. Words were said about its evil influences in Friday prayers by threatened clerics, just as they were about satellite dishes. The dishes we have to use to catch the transmissions meant for neighboring countries are huge, some of them 1.5 meters in diameter. So you have to be pretty careful to hide them. All that trouble and you get the worst rubbish television has to offer. Why do we bother? We need a link to the outside world, and anyway, anything that’s forbidden is that much more fun. We tune into CNN, BBC, and, of course, MTV. We are, however, a long way off from hosting The Grind from the grand mosque in the Tehran Bazaar.
There is an awkward-looking young boy called Ali at the cafe. He starts talking to the reporters in very good English. It turns out he’s half-American. He’s been here for the past three months, and you can see he doesn’t like it. He’s 18 and from California. He’s biding his time to arrange for the paperwork on his national service, and he will be returning to the United States. He hasn’t made many friends and doesn’t speak Farsi. I recognize that look on his face, tentative, scared, pretty unsure how to behave. I looked like that when I first came back, even though I was twice his age. He’ll get the hang of it. The trick is not to be duped by the outer layer. This place looks so different from the West, sometimes you feel you’re on another planet. Then you go to people’s houses, and hey, suddenly you’re in yet another world. One BBC reporter called it the dual life of Iranians, public versus private.
I offer to get him together with some of my younger friends. The teens would love to show him around and find out about life in the states. Iranians love Americans, somewhat indiscriminately … it’s a little like the satellite dish. You’re told they’re bad, so you’re gonna like them more. “Why are the journalists in Iran?” he asks. We tell him about the elections. Is it for the president? he inquires. “No, actually, more like the House of Representatives.” I ask him what he does during the day. “Oh, I hang out here mostly. This is Ali’s sanctuary.” The Internet makes him feel closer to home, I bet. I must remember to get him connected to some people his own age. It will have to wait though, until after the elections.
Friday. Election Day. My last entry.
The obvious destination today for all the reporters: various polling stations around town. I take my team to a shrine in North Tehran next to a busy market so that we can get a cross section of different types of people.
My reporter from the Oftenposten wants to talk to someone who will be voting for the conservatives. So far, everyone we speak to is voting for the radical reformists; the name given to the group that advocates the greatest change. We pick a man with an Islamic-looking beard who is voting with his wife covered in the traditional black chador next to him. We start the interview only to find he is also voting for the reformers. Sometimes you just can’t judge a book by its cover! Life would be so much easier if these people just had their politics tattooed on their foreheads.
Next, he decides to interview a young person who is voting for the first time. The polling station is in the shade and right by the mountains. It’s cold. But people are turning up with their kids, sometimes babes in arms, to do their voting. They have to choose 30 candidates and write their full names by hand. It takes at least 10 minutes to fill the form, and that’s not counting the time it takes to get your ballot paper.
My cell phone keeps ringing with personal calls. Friends want to know how the voting is doing. They also keep telling me whom to vote for and whom to omit. The main news of the day seems to be that Mr. Rafsanjani, who was president for eight years before Khatami, is getting a cold shoulder from the electorate. Could he be the first victim of the sell-by-date theory?
There are lots of young people, but none of them are first-time voters. I’m beginning to wish I had brought a coat. I get a tap on my shoulder. I jump out of my skin. It’s a girl I had approached thinking she was 16 earlier. She tells me there are some youngsters on the other side. Great! We dash to the ballot box on the other side of the mosque. Yes, I see them: A young brother and sister are voting, their mother standing a little way off. I ask a question that basically tells them I’m looking for a “virgin” voter. The son, the mother tells me. It’s his first time. He is a gift from heaven. He’s even wearing a coat with the word Norway emblazoned on the front. The photographer snaps him putting his ballot paper into the box with a huge grin on his face. He turned 16 only two weeks ago. We find out that his father was killed 11 years ago in a mass execution in Evin prison. He had been a member of a revolutionary communist group. And he’s voting for candidates in a system that killed his father? As the fixer, I am not allowed to ask the questions. But the goose bumps on my arms are not just from the cold anymore. I missed the excitement of the revolution, but I also missed the tragedies.
I check on the other team on my cell phone. They are watching the Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University. The speaker is a right-wing ayatollah. He tells them how Mr. Clinton has made a statement about the reformists in Iran getting a raw deal in the pre-election vettings. The crowd delivers the obligatory “Death to America” chant. I don’t know how many people attended the Friday prayer today. But the sense I get watching the long queues all around Tehran today is that the Iranian nation is once again on the march. This time, however, they are doing it with pen and paper.