Opinion: Shame on Iran
by RASHA ELASS in Damascus
14 Sep 2010 03:17
I never met Sarah, but I did work briefly with her fiancé, Shane Bauer. Both of them, along with their friend Josh Fattal, were detained last summer while trekking near the border in Iraq's Kurdish region. The circumstances under which Shane and I worked sheds some light on the person he is.
Shane was the photographer for a story I was writing about a famous Damascene grandfather who rolls ground lamb into balls for a living. It is called kibbeh, a favorite regional dish. Usually in the shape of an egg, a kibbeh ball shell is typically made of lamb and bulgur, then stuffed with ground lamb and pine nuts. It comes in many variations, but almost always requires hours of tedious, exacting finger work that for centuries was the exclusive preserve of refined homemakers.
Anyway, that day I brought Shane to my home, introduced him to my mother, then released him in the kitchen to shoot photos of the Syrian kibbeh man and his little creations. Later he joined my family for the feast, and I remember he particularly loved the kibbeh in yogurt dish. We chatted about other favorite dishes, his slowly improving Arabic, and his fiancée, who was soon to join him in Syria as an English teacher. He was very excited about it all.
His photos were a hit, and I was looking forward to working with him again on another story. This one involved the building of a new Islamic library in Aleppo. Unfortunately, he was detained by the Iranian authorities shortly after he shot the photos for that report, before he even had a chance to file them with the magazine.
I have never been to Iran, but I have had a run in with the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, where I live and work as a journalist. It was a few years ago when I was reporting a story for the New York Times on the opening of an Iranian car manufacturer in Syria. Prior to this incident I was impartial toward the Iranian authorities. But when I placed a press call to the Iranian Embassy to inquire about car sales figures, I got a glimpse of how brutal the Islamic Republic's authorities can be.
"What is your name and who are you?" the Iranian official curtly asked me on the phone. "And how do you spell your name in English? And in Arabic?" Alright, I was used to dealing with a little disrespect here and there, working as journalist. Even in the United States, where I have had hostile run-ins with big corporations.
But this official then proceeded to ask me what "citizenship" I held, and how come I spoke such "American English," and what visa status I held in Syria.
I politely explained that I was Syrian American. "What is your address? Where is your office? What is your phone number?" he continued.
He wrote down all my information and hung up, without answering my query. I have no doubt he forwarded his newly acquired intel to the powers that be here in Syria, perhaps thinking he had caught a spy. Luckily, this official had no authority over me. But the interaction made me shudder at the thought of what would have happened to me if he had.
Which is why my heart goes out to Shane, Sarah, and Josh. If common sense is a good compass for arriving at conclusions, then I am pretty sure the Iranian authorities know that Shane and his friends are not spies at all.
Otherwise, why would Iran cruelly promise Sarah's release one day only to cancel it the next, before changing stance again and demanding bail? At $500,000, the bail figure is much too high for any private citizen, yet certainly not high enough if the authorities really believe Sarah to be a spy.
Rasha Elass is Chief Editor of Damascus Diaries.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau