Blogging the Election with Broken Farsi
by FARHOD FAMILY
25 Oct 2009 13:11
Karroubi in Arak.
[ dispatch ] Nearly a year ago, after spending three months in Iran as an NGO volunteer learning Farsi, I lucked into a job reporting and blogging the presidential election for Press TV, a young, up-and-coming international news station based in Tehran with a 24-hour English-language satellite news broadcast. Most of the employees were in their mid-twenties to late thirties. The atmosphere at the time was positive and friendly; everyone seemed happy to be part of a young international news channel set to rival the BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera.
My job was practically created out of thin air. My friend and I pitched the idea of an election blog to our superiors, and after getting the OK from all the various divisions within Press TV, I got the go-ahead. No formal training was offered, no fancy equipment, and strangely, no press card. All I had was a point-and-shoot digital camera, which at least did allow me to jump barriers and scale walls; unhindered by equipment, I did get better views.
My initial excitement to cover the campaign was doused back in March when I spoke with veteran journalists, who quickly pointed out President Ahmadinejad's enormous popularity. None thought the race was going to be close, and it wouldn't warrant a blog. The president's re-election was certain, they said, only three months from Election Day.
My job was to be social, discuss the election with anyone and everyone, and express my findings on the blog. The second day on the job, I was in a taxi heading to Press TV's offices in the northern part of Tehran called Saadat Abad, when I began talking to the taxi driver about politics and life in Iran, leading up to questions about the elections. His first comments were rather wild and emotional. He insisted that another country must invade and attack Iran in order for the people to be freed from the current situation, which he painted as very bleak. I became a little uncomfortable as he continued to tell me how rough conditions had become for his family. Trying to change topics as quickly as I could, I asked him about the election, and what his thoughts were on the race. His response was immediate and to the point.
"If the elections are clean, Moussavi will win, but I guarantee that they will cheat and rig the election. No doubts," he said. This was early March when everyone had said that the incumbent's re-election was a forgone conclusion.
Working for a government-funded news station, I knew that there was no way I could discuss that conversation, so I dismissed it and labeled the driver a conspiracy theorist, which I have learned are a dime a dozen in Iran. Add to that, his crazy ideas of invading and attacking Iran in order to free the people. I let his comments fly over my head.
Iran's election was right after India's, so naturally at work we were interested to see how Indian and international news stations were covering it. BBC India had the "election train" going across India, stopping in various cities to cover campaign rallies. My co-workers and I began to scheme our own election train, or tour bus across Iran. After days of fantasizing, we realized that getting sponsors would be an immensely arduous task. With our dreams of a high-tech equipped bus dedicated to our election team crushed, we settled for a caravan of company cars, accompanied by old, cranky drivers. I could understand why the drivers were irritable and testy from time to time; they were all in their late fifties and older, taking orders from twenty-five-year-old kids. At the same time, they drove just like their age would predict, slowly and steadily, so frustrations grew on both sides, which were only compounded by the generational divide in music selection -- Western CDs versus traditional fare like Sharjanian.Our first trip was to the industrial city of Arak, about two hundred sixty kilometers southwest of Tehran, where I received my first taste of political campaigning by following Mehdi Karroubi and his political team as they appeared at the university there and at a nearby mosque to meet eager crowds. The city was full of warehouses and factories for heavy industries -- not the most beautiful place in the world, but a practical city with a workman-like charm.
The atmosphere inside the University of Arak was tense; students packed into a small auditorium anxious to hear Karroubi speak and to ask him questions. The auditorium was dimly lit, with men and women sitting on separate sides. Students help up signs with political slogans, cheered and chanted -- expressing their frustration with roars and applause. I had never seen such intensity in any student gathering; the bottled-up disappointment, hopelessness and skepticism of the regime were being vented in the guise of questions and comments. After each student asked a question, the applause grew louder. None of us expected such a vivacious crowd. Most questions dealt with political freedom, student rights and women's rights. Karroubi's answers were never very specific, and he tried his best to please the crowd as best he could, emphasizing the importance of women's rights, political freedoms and a general openness of society for people to voice their concerns. It was quite difficult to pay full attention to him when he answered questions, as the auditorium was so rowdy and boisterous.
Outside the auditorium, our production team set up to interview students in the courtyard. I was in charge of holding the "boom," a microphone attached to the end of an adjustable pole. Students began gathering around us, mostly out of curiosity. Arak does not get too many TV crews running around the city, and even fewer at the university. At first people began to playfully heckle us. Due to my fair skin and light eyes, students immediately assumed I was a foreigner and began asking if I was with BBC Persian, or some other foreign media outlet. The more I tried to explain that I was Iranian in my heavily accented Farsi, the less they believed me.
While I was holding up the boom, a student kept asking about my background; I tried not to pay attention so I could focus on where I was pointing the microphone. Convinced that I was a foreigner, he became very hospitable, and offered me a juice box to drink. Since my hands were occupied I politely refused, but he was adamant about being a gracious host, pricked the straw into the juice box and put it by mouth. I had no choice but to drink from it. This caused quite some laughter among the students huddled around our crew. My attempts to divert the attention away from me were foiled as I had become quite the distraction.
In front of the camera, the feelings expressed by students remained the same: many courageously stepped forward to question the government. Contrary to the dismissive attitudes of many professional observers that the 2009 Iranian presidential election would be an uneventful race, I realized that I was witnessing something completely different as one student after another voiced their complaints in front of a government camera with no fear of reprisal. The passion in each voice was profound; the campaign became an excuse to let out everything that had built up over the years. This was refreshing because after the let-down of Khatami, the two term reformist president, participation had dropped in the previous election cycle, which had led to Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory.
Karroubi appeared at the mosque soon after leaving the university. In a cramped hall, he spoke amidst an edgy audience. I sat amongst the crowd on my knees, the overwhelming odor of feet permeating the room. The audience would not keep still or quiet. Karroubi sat at a table facing the crowd and had a tough time getting everything under control. People were shouting, chanting, cheering; some began to stand, and others shouted for everyone to sit.
Just as Karroubi was getting the full attention of the people, a fight broke out within the crowd, delaying, and eventually curtailing his visit. Two people in the audience got into a fistfight, which brought a chaos that could not be controlled. The lights were being flickered on and off in an attempt to restore order, but that proved to be useless. Who were those who started the fight? Why do it in a mosque? Was it a set up, an effort to demoralize the majority and its participation?
Now that Karroubi and his team realized that continuing at the mosque was not possible, they had to figure out an exit strategy. His table was set up in the middle of the room, and the stairs were completely blocked off by the audience. He had to somehow make his way through the audience and down the stairs.
With the help of a few bodyguards, Karroubi began to work through the sea of people. The crowd was not very helpful and had to be forced out of the way; I managed to make my way to the back wall, away from the commotion. As I watched, one bodyguard pulled out a stun gun. Between the shouting and yelling, I heard the stun gun make zapping sounds, and people started jumping over each other to get out of the way. In another context, the mob would have looked like people crowd surfing at a rock concert.
After getting to our hotel, we managed an appointment the next morning to interview Mr. Karroubi. It was early in the morning, around seven, when we went into his hotel room and set up the cameras. I found him disarmingly charming, yet with a daring attitude of a person half his age. His presence in the room was strongly felt; he was a big man with a deep raspy voice. After attending his rallies, and sitting in on an exclusive interview, I would have never guessed that he was in his mid seventies; he had so much energy and liveliness, with stamina that seemed endless. The interview touched upon a few different topics: the economy, civil society, student concerns, why he was running again after coming up short in the previous race in 2005, what reform means to him, and finally, how he would introduce himself to the West.
When asked about the economy, he emphasized that planning was key to economic stability, citing the current administration's economic problems, and how they kept changing policy all the time. He mentioned he would rely on a team of experts in areas that were not his strong suit, with the goal being to create a predictable and secure investment market.
Out of all the presidential candidates, Karroubi assembled one of the strongest political teams. In response to the pressure for him to withdraw from the race and support Mir Hossein Moussavi, Karroubi rebuffed this pressure, saying that he had worked too hard after the defeat in 2005 -- creating his own political party and a newspaper to serve as the party's mouthpiece -- to give up and withdraw from the race.
In regards to civil society, he pointed out the importance of following the constitution and giving everyone their constitutional rights. If people chose to voice their concerns, they should be protected and listened to. He mentioned that a lot of the student dissatisfaction stemmed not only from being unable to fully express themselves, but also from the stagnant economy and the lack of jobs for recent graduates. The ideal political change to him was closer to "correction" than "reform." He talked about correcting the current situation by returning to the strict adherence and implementation of the constitution -- from people's rights to economic responsibilities and press freedom.
As the interview was winding down, we asked how he would introduce himself to the West. He looked a little taken aback and began his response by saying that he was not an unknown figure, sounding almost insulted. He went over his past accomplishments and contributions, citing his responsibility of multiple areas during the revolutionary period, his four terms in the Majles (parliament), and being a leader in many foreign negotiations.
On the road back to Tehran, I felt completely exhausted. I had seen something completely different from what I had been told to expect. The emotions and energy of the students and this outspoken aging cleric painted the picture of a presidential race that was going to be far from mundane. People looked ready to unleash sentiments that had been contained for years.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau