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Journalist offers inside look at modern life in Iran

March 24, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, offers a rarely seen personal look at daily life in Iran, the first report in a series called Dispatch: Iran.
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GWEN IFILL: Tonight: the first in a series of short films we will bring you by Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran bureau chief of The New York Times. The Dutch-born journalist has lived in Iran since 2002.

Personal rather than political, his portraits show a side of life in the country few get to see.

Tonight, an introduction to our series, Dispatch: Iran.

THOMAS ERDBRINK, The New York Times: This is where it all started, here in the desert in the middle of Iran.

I was a young journalist and came here the write about a student uprising. I fell in love with Newsha, an Iranian photographer, and decided to move to Tehran.

It was so different for me to be here, and I think Newsha in many ways symbolized that. Of course, yes, I could have married a girl from the Dutch countryside and it maybe would have been different and maybe in many ways would have been easier, but I’m happy I choose you.

NEWSHA TAVAKOLIAN: Of course you should be.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS ERDBRINK: This is the mysterious and isolated country where I arrived as a young man and where I have been working as a correspondent for the past 12 years, first for some Dutch newspapers and television channels, and since a couple years for The New York Times.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN: Thomas Erdbrink, welcome to the program and thank you for joining me.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: You mustn’t forget, these people have been living under incredible pressure over the last year.

QUESTION: Tell us about how Iranians are viewing the Islamic State as a deliberate creation of America.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, people approach you and say, look, you should write that ISIS is actually an American invention.

It has taken me four years to finally get permission to produce this series. We are given permits to film on the streets. Of course, there are some suspicious officials who refuse to believe us and tell us we’re not allowed to film. But, usually, after a bit of waiting, some discussions and many phone calls, we part the best of friends and are free to carry on.

Still, in this country, working as a Western reporter is complicated. Sometimes, I’m unpleasantly reminded of this fact, like that morning in July when my friend and colleague Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post was arrested. Nobody knows why he’s being held.

No, I will be able to file, of course. What else can we do?

Working here is like walking a tightrope, but a reporter can do much more than one might expect. There is no problem for me and a colleague to visit the Friday prayer session. If you want to know what’s going on in the minds of the religious leaders, you should come here and listen carefully.

MAN (through interpreter): First of all, Imam Khamenei has said that as long as the American hostilities continue and the U.S. government and Congress keep using hostile language, any interaction with America is completely pointless.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Simultaneously, the Iranian president is favoring negotiations. He is convinced such talks will end the sanctions against Iran.

Reporting here means covering all sides of a story and finding out the impact of, for instance, those sanctions.

We cannot locate the bank that your card belongs to. Press to get your card.

Of course, you can’t use ATMs, because our banks are not allowed to do business with Iran.

Ta-da.

You end up with stacks of cash. Try stuffing this in your wallet or pocket. As the politicians are talking for months to end the sanctions, my shopkeeper tells me he has more foreign products for sale than ever.

MAN (through interpreter): The sanctions mean nothing. The borders are not closed. Products still make their way into the country. It doesn’t affect us.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: In Iran, nothing is what it seems. That is one of the reasons why being a journalist here is not always easy. But don’t feel sorry for me. I like being amongst Iranians. Every now and then, I buy a card from the man with the little bird. It will give you a poem that will predict your future and has an answer to all your questions, even the political ones.

MAN (through interpreter): What’s the biggest question for you as far as the future is concerned?

WOMAN (through interpreter): What will be the outcome of the nuclear negotiations?

MAN (through interpreter): OK. Let’s draw a prediction. What will be the outcome of the nuclear negotiations?

(LAUGHTER)

MAN (through interpreter): It’s fine. Don’t worry. Read it. I can’t read Farsi.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I see support. What happened to my friend? When did our friendship end? Where are those who support you now? Everything will be fine.

(LAUGHTER)

WOMAN (through interpreter): Really? Why all those conflicts? We used to be friends. Why are we enemies now?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: After 12 years of reporting here and slowly starting to understand this place, join me in the coming weeks for some random stories from a country that is both confusing and surprising at the same time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A different view, Dispatch: Iran.

Thomas Erdbrink’s reporting and more of his films can be found at nytimes.com/video. We hope to have the next installment and a conversation with Thomas very soon.

 

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