I missed the Iranian revolution when it happened, 21 years ago this week, because I was at school in the U.K. I was 16 then and, like most Iranians, extremely excited about an event that would prove to be momentous not just in the life of this nation but also in all our personal lives. It took 16 years for me to be able to return to my country. I have been back now for seven. I am now witnessing the maturing process of that revolution firsthand through my work with foreign journalists. So I kind of console myself for having missed the main gig by listening to the stories and hopes of those who were here and on the front line. But more of this later; right now you will want to know what exactly you will be reading in the next few days.
I work with foreign journalists; they call us fixers. An odd name, I always thought: at best reminiscent of glue; at worst implying some kind of wheeling and dealing. In fact, the job is to provide guidance to journalists, who are often unfamiliar with the terrain and the culture, managing their time, arranging their interviews, and generally getting them over the hurdles of a massive bureaucracy that they must navigate if they are to use their limited time in this country in an efficient way. I get to meet the personalities that count here and translate their stories and commentary. It gives me a privileged insider look at the politics of the place and a chance to understand an ancient country’s remarkable transition from a politically undeveloped system to one that is finding its feet on its quest for real democracy. I like to see my job as a bridge, between two cultures, two peoples–in the context of Iran, a bridge between two worlds so set apart in the Western media, and the attitudes that have prevailed in my country since the revolution. I am not just a translator of words; I’m an interpreter of mannerisms and a reader of fine lines in the seemingly obvious.
The countdown to the parliamentary elections has begun, and we are receiving a rush of reporters from all over the world. My first team arrived this morning from Oslo. Our first stop, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for our permits and press cards. To see anyone in a position of power will require a letter from the intimidating-sounding but actually rather friendly ministry. So I sat down with a huge piece of paper and a new pen, expecting to write an impossibly long list of ayatollahs and ministers. But joy, my Norwegian reporter has worked in the Middle East for many years and doesn’t waste his time with requests for interviews he knows he is unlikely to get. We spend half a day hanging around the ministry’s emergency offices arranged on the top floor of one of the main hotels in Tehran, previously owned by the Inter-Continental chain. It’s now part of one of the financial foundations that took over foreign hotels, the Foundation for the Oppressed, I think. There are 500 reporters in town: Fixers are like gold dust and about as expensive! The reporters will probably be eligible as oppressed themselves by the end of the week.
With appropriate permits in our hands, we decided to hit the town for interviews that I had arranged a couple of weeks ago. The other two reporters I am supposed to be working with have yet to arrive. I’ve never worked with more than one journalist at a time, and the whole of my time last week was spent arranging for backup fixers and logistics. Accommodation, cars and drivers, flights out of town. I am exhausted and we haven’t even started.
We go to the offices of Medicin Sans Frontiere, which has a mission in Iran looking after what, in numbers at least, is the biggest refugee caseload in the world. There are 2 million refugees living here, mainly Afghans. Then on to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees for more background information. We wander around the streets of North Tehran for the Norwegian photographer to get some street shots. They need to show the election atmosphere, which is strangely conspicuous in its absence. There are some election banners up in Vanak Square, but between the billboards for the latest Kenzo perfume and another for feta cheese (the cheese of preference for Iranians), it’s hard to get going on this election-drama thing. But the camera sees reality in a different way. With the right framing, that lone election banner will look like the business. Posters by candidates have been banned from this election, which means we are missing a lot of the colorfulness of previous elections. People will be relying on the huge number of new newspapers that have sprung up in the last year to choose their candidates, but somehow that doesn’t suit our purposes visually.
We decide we need to find other banners elsewhere. Tomorrow the Norwegians will go to Mashhad, a holy city in the northwest of Iran, to visit an Afghan enclave. I will have my reporters from Toronto and New York to get registered, photographed, and organized, if they ever arrive. I’d better keep my eyes peeled for another, more suitable location for photos. More to the point, I’d better get some shut-eye; it’s 1:30 Monday morning.