Reporting from Dubai
05 Aug 2009 22:58
Close enough to feel the heat.
By JASON REZAIAN in Dubai | 5 August 2009
Notebook In recent weeks, Dubai has become perhaps the best place where one can currently report on Iran in any meaningful way.
In the absence of the normal electronic flow of information coming out of Iran -- both due to increased pressure inside the country and decreased bandwidth -- the back and forth of people coming to and from Dubai has created a unique channel for relaying news, and in many ways this has been what the global media has unknowingly been relying on for fresh insight out of Iran.
We should, however, be paying more attention to the impact Dubai is having on creating this story, and consider tempering our acceptance of what's being peddled by American and European "experts" on the subject of Iran, whose information is often frankly quite stale or skewed.
First, Dubai has a large community of Iranians living and working here. Unlike many of their fellow Iranian expats in Europe or North America, the vast majority of Iranians living in Dubai don't consider themselves exiles. Furthermore, they come from all walks of Iranian life, bound together mostly by a desire to enhance their quality of life. This is important in terms of spreading news, as they have a more pragmatic approach as opposed to some of the more radical -- and less plausible -- ones coming from the West.
Most of them return to Iran often, and even more regularly play host to their countrymen who feel like letting loose in a way that in the Middle East only Dubai affords.
For this reason, it's easy to pick up a broad range of opinions and insights about what's happening inside Iran.
Lara Setrakian of ABC News, has been one of the reporters at the forefront of the Iran election saga and she hasn't set foot in the country for over a year. But she's using a large network of Iranians, many of them based in Dubai, to help round out her reports on Iran.
"There is a cultural authenticity to being so close to Iran -- the community is a degree removed, but still in touch with what's going on and how people feel about it," says Setrakian. "Plus, we find people more free to speak with us here than they would be there, where it's practically become criminal to speak with Western press."
There is also an objectivity that Dubai provides, which can't be found in Western capitals. It's important to note that there is no real sense of an organized opposition among the Iranian community here. In a country where displays of public dissent are arguably less acceptable than they are in Iran, the number of people in Dubai, for example, who attended the July 25th global rally for Iran, numbered less than 300, according to one attendee. That's a fraction of the many thousands who attended similar rallies the same day in Europe and the United States.
Still, those who did attend were there for the singular purpose of a more free Iran; the event wasn't hijacked by exiled opposition groups like the MEK, because such parties aren't allowed to exist in the Emirates.
Ask Iranians in the streets of Tehran, though, and they will tell you that they feel a much closer kinship to the protesters in Dubai, many of whom have been traveling back to Iran weekly to take part in the demonstrations back home.
"It's my country," said Hassan, a 26 year Iranian who works in the hospitality industry in Dubai. "I go home for a couple of days, and join my friends in the street. It's the least I can do."
Even more important in telling the story of Iran, however, are the people leaving there coming to Dubai for a few days of perceived freedom. I had the opportunity to host one of my closest friends for three days last week, and the insights he shared with me could be found nowhere in the Western media.
When I picked him up at the airport, the first thing he said to me was, "I wanted to tell you so many things, but you know they were listening to our calls. I can't tell you how strange these past few weeks have been."
He proceeded to tell me about the ways in which the regime has lost its grasp on authority and reality. Examples included the state-run television, and the bizarre way in which it had been reporting the exact opposite of what was actually happening or airing quizzes that required answers to be sent via text message, this at a time when text messaging services were completely disabled. Each time miraculously an answer with a name and neighborhood attached to it would arrive, people were left wondering, "How stupid do they think we are?"
He also talked about the regime's general silence. In a land ruled by an ideology that requires constant reinforcement, hardly anyone in power was saying anything. The Basij militiamen, so long an accepted arm of the law, were now being looked at as little more than hired bullies, to be feared only for ability to commit force. In beating women, some of them elderly, they had lost what little respect they once had.
These sorts of conversations are now taking place in Dubai constantly, and will likely only increase in frequency as the situation becomes ever less tolerable for many inside Iran.
I've been out of Tehran for over a month now, and after being in the thick of things, I too, have felt shut out from the story. Being in Dubai, though, has made me feel close enough to be able to still feel it.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau