Navigating the Islamic Republic
chapter one: Getting There, Getting In
TAXI DRIVER: I really shouldn't be driving you into Tehran without an order from the Imam. I could get my hands chopped off.
ROBERT REDFURN: Well, I appreciate your accepting a bribe. I really do.
TAXI DRIVER: It's been a while. We don't get too many Westerners in town anymore. The only Americans we've seen in months are the liars and demons of the U.S. press. You hail from the Great Satan yourself, right?
ROBERT REDFURN: Uh, right. New York, actually.
TAXI DRIVER: I can always tell. How long you been working for the C.I.A.?
-- DOONESBURY COMIC STRIP, MAY 30, 1980, IN THE MIDST OF THE HOSTAGE CRISIS
Persia is a country made for wandering onward.
-- VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, PASSENGER TO TEHERAN
I have never liked flying into Iran in the middle of the night. But after too many trips to count, I now have the drill down pat.
It isn't easy to get there from the United States. Tehran is 6,337 miles from Washington, D.C., and no American carrier flies there. American economic sanctions, the absence of diplomatic relations, and common sense in the face of official Iranian hostility toward the United States preclude that.
Lufthansa is the most efficient way in: a seven-and-a-half hour overnight flight from Dulles to Frankfurt, a six-hour stay in a day room at the airport hotel, and a five-hour overnight flight that arrives at an ungodly hour in Tehran. Some people I know do the second leg on Iran Air, which is cheaper and whose aging American Boeing 747s are surprisingly safe. But Iran Air requires women to cover their hair with head scarves and serves no alcoholic beverages. I prefer to stave off the restrictions of the Islamic Republic as long as I can.
For security reasons, Lufthansa often changes the gate for Flight 600 to Tehran without explanation. The boarding pass lists one gate; the overhead monitor doesn't list the gate at all. The actual gate is usually somewhere else, sometimes in an isolated area down an escalator that is inaccessible to the duty-free shops and the luggage carts.
After unloading its passengers in Tehran, the Lufthansa plane loads new passengers and heads straight back to Frankfurt. The airline considers it too much of a hassle, and too dangerous, to stay overnight in Iran. A German businessman, a non-Muslim, was once sent to death row after being convicted of having sex with an unmarried Iranian Muslim woman, although his sentence was later reversed and he was sent home.
Even on Lufthansa, the metamorphosis begins before the plane lands. The liquor bottles are quickly stored and the Lufthansa playing cards collected. Passengers are given a warning to leave behind the miniature bottles of Jack Daniel's and Stolichnaya. A second warning is reserved for female passengers. "By the decree of the government of Iran, all female passengers are required to have their heads covered," the steward announces. "For your own interest we ask you to put on a scarf before leaving the aircraft." The dance of the veil begins. The women cover their heads and bodies. A woman sitting across the aisle in khaki pants, a low-cut black top, heavy gold necklace, gold bangle bracelets, big hair, and blood-red lips puts on a trench coat and a good knockoff of a Hermès scarf. A woman on the other side of me wraps herself in a black chador. I reach into my carry-on for a long, solid-colored, textured cotton scarf that doesn't need to be tied under my chin.
Mehrabad International Airport was once state-of-the-art, a showpiece of the Shah's campaign to transform Iran into one of the world's most modern and prosperous countries. Even today, despite the worn runways, the airport functions fairly well. Planes arrive and leave remarkably close to their scheduled times. There are Western as well as Eastern toilets. A twenty-four-hour prayer room welcomes the pious. A twenty-four-hour restaurant serves tea and pastries. A duty-free shop sells cheap souvenirs, flowery carpets, and good but not cheap caviar. In 1998 the airport opened a huge new waiting hall with fancy tiles, a carpet shop, and a small bookstore that sells books like Facial Yoga: No More Wrinkles. The giant government-protected Foundation for the Oppressed and War Veterans has a piece of the action. It runs a shop called Shahed (Witness) that sells televisions, VCRs, telephones, even refrigerators at prices below those in the shops in Tehran.
There is nothing revolutionary about the airport lounge for Commercially Important Persons, my immediate destination upon arrival at Mehrabad. Access depends on money, not on gender, age, nationality, sacrifice in the war with Iraq, or revolutionary credentials. In fact the only way to get in is with cash -- $50 to be precise, which represents a month's salary for an average civil servant.
CIP, as the service is called, is a trip back in time. An airport official meets me on the tarmac, escorts me by car to a special area on the far side of the airport, and deposits me in a marble-floored lounge with recessed lighting and comfortable sofas. Waiters serve tea, cold drinks, and cream-filled pastries. Instrumental medleys from American musicals are interrupted by the predawn call to prayer. An English-speaking customs official takes my passport for stamping; a baggage handler fetches my luggage. The authorities justify the service on the grounds that it brings in hard currency and encourages foreign business executives to feel comfortable coming to Iran.
A photo of Ayatollah Khomeini stares down at me from the wall of the CIP lounge. He led a nation in revolution to rid Iran of places just like this. The revolution was supposed to empower and embolden the oppressed masses and make them independent of the dollar-carrying foreigner. It was supposed to disinfect the country of "Westoxication." The existence of the CIP lounge illustrates that things didn't work out as planned.
There was a time when going in and out of the country was enough to make me want to stay home. The baggage handlers and customs officials did not speak English; the passport control officers spoke barely enough to get by. It could take three hours to get through the checkpoints. I once counted three checkpoints for people entering the country -- each representing different centers of power -- and nine for people leaving. But it was the invasion of my privacy that got me most angry. Customs officers have dumped the contents of my suitcases on the floor, run their fingers through jars of face cream and leafed through books and manila folders of news clippings. Body searches -- always by female guards in black chadors -- could be rough and much too intrusive.
Iranians sometimes still suffer some of these indignities. Western magazines used to be what customs officials were after. Even a copy of Newsweek could cause problems. Then it was contraband CDs, cassettes, and videotapes. Bertrand Vannier, a French journalist for Radio France, and I once flew in on the same plane from Rome, and the customs officers confiscated his radio (which might pick up Revolutionary Guards communications) and his deck of playing cards (gambling is forbidden in Islam). Bertrand was given a receipt for both and told to retrieve them on his way out of the country. He was stunned that upon his departure, two weeks later, he was given back his goods.
Today customs checks for foreigners are rare. The last thing potential foreign investors want to deal with at 3:00 A.M. is a search of their suitcases. Even huge anti-American banners and looming portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini that once dominated the airport have been taken down, replaced by modest-sized photographs of Khomeini and his pale successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The only sign I continue to find offensive is one in yellow neon in the domestic terminal that reads, in English, "In future Islam will destroy Satanic sovereignty of the West."
Hadi Salimi, my friend and my regular driver, is always at the airport to meet me. Iranians can be rather formal, and it has never occurred to me to address him as anything other than "Mr." By day he has a full-time job maintaining a chemistry lab. After twenty years' service, his monthly salary is the equivalent of $50. But he can earn $50 a day, sometimes $75 -- in dollars -- by driving foreign visitors. It is only when I see Mr. Salimi, smiling, in his jacket and knitted cap, that I feel that I have safely arrived.
Then, as we speed down the highway toward downtown, Tehran hardly seems like a worthy destination. It is a perfectly dreadful city that grew out of a barren brown plain, without even the saving grace of a storied past. "In the Middle Ages it was a savage place where people lived in holes," wrote Roger Stevens in his classic book on Iran, The Land of the Great Sophy. Tehran, he added, was "an obscure, ill-favored provincial town." It became the capital quite by accident. As dynasties changed over the centuries, Susa, Ctesiphon, Isfahan, Hamadan, Shiraz, Qazvin, Rey, Tabriz, Persepolis, and Mashad all served as capitals. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, Agha Mohammad, a Persian king of the Qajar dynasty, moved his court to Tehran because it was close to his native province of Mazandaran on the Caspian Sea, and to his tribal allies there. Only then did Tehran flourish, and were lavish palaces built.
Unlike the great ancient capitals of Baghdad or Cairo, Tehran has no river to bathe and cool it, to bring trade and commerce. Initially, it was built around a bazaar and a main mosque. Reza Shah, an army colonel who took over the government in 1921 and was crowned king four years later, expanded it with broad thoroughfares and a railroad as part of his single-minded campaign to modernize the country. During his twenty years in power, he also razed some of the most beautiful old residences, replacing them with structures every bit as monstrous as Stalinist designs. The oil boom of the late 1960s and 1970s then triggered a more ambitious building spree under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who assumed power after his father was dethroned by the British and the Russians because he was thought to have pro-Nazi tendencies. The new Shah seemed determined to spend money as wildly and quickly as possible on high-rise buildings of no architectural importance. At the time of Iran's 1979 revolution, the population of greater Tehran was only about four million. Then came massive confiscations of property and the revolutionary dictum, "Land belongs only to God!" An order by Khomeini to bear more children, massive migration from the countryside, and disregard for building codes increased the population to nearly 12 million -- almost one fifth of the country's population -- creating a need for cheap housing and contributing to the city's dysfunction. It would be comparable to 50 million people living in New York City. A coffee table book of photographs of Tehran attests to its ugliness. The aerial shots show miles of squat, square, featureless buildings, mottled and gray with pollution.
The traffic requires a survival-of-the-boldest attitude. Nobody is timid and nobody yields the right of way and nobody stays in his own lane. Drivers routinely back down one-way ramps and drive the wrong way on one-way streets whose direction can change without notice. But everyone knows the rules, so when it seems as if an accident is all but certain, drivers move just enough to avert calamity. I often think that Tehran traffic is a useful metaphor for the country: individualistic, fluid, and yielding at the last possible moment. Even so, Tehran has one of the highest automobile fatality rates in the world.
After the revolution, the clerics renamed the streets after religious symbols, martyrs, and ayatollahs. (Ayatollah, which means "sign of God," is the title given to the most learned religious leaders in the Shiite Muslim world.) But in the minds of motorists, the names did not change. My favorite street in Tehran has always been Vali Asr Avenue, named for the revered hidden Imam (spiritual leader) of Shiite Islam, who, Shiites believe, went into hiding in the ninth century. A wide thoroughfare shaded with stately chenar trees, it cuts through the city from north to south. But for many Iranians, it will always be called Pahlavi Avenue. After all, it was Reza Shah Pahlavi who planted the trees.
I once asked Mr. Salimi what it was like to drive for a living. "The line in the middle of the road has no meaning," he said. "When you see the yellow light that tells you to slow down, people speed up. The women think the only purpose of the rearview mirror is to look at themselves. There is a written driving test, but if you say you're illiterate you only have to identify a few signs to get your license.
"Traffic," he concluded, "is worse than life."
"So you hate your job?" I asked him.
"I love my job!" he exclaimed, to my surprise. "It energizes me. On the road, I can get away with things."
The streets of Tehran are so clogged with cars -- most of which are more than fifteen years old and lack exhaust filters -- that Tehran has become one of the most polluted cities in the world, alongside Mexico City, Bangkok, and Jakarta. Tehran's location at the foot of the Alborz mountain range limits the free circulation of air. Radio and television announcements warn children and old people to stay home, schools can shut down for days, and it is not at all unusual to see people walking down the streets wearing face masks to keep out the bad air. I have often thought that one of the few benefits of the obligatory head covering is that at least it keeps women's hair cleaner.
Yet sometimes, in the early morning, after a windy night or a heavy snowfall, Tehran dazzles. The air is fresh and clean. The yellow-gray fog that has lain thick over the city lifts to reveal Damavand, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Sometimes I have come upon half-hidden treasures: an ornate nineteenth-century villa hidden behind a grimy brick wall adorned with exposed electrical wiring; or, near the bazaar, a winding street too narrow for my car; or an Art Deco house in gray stone that I longed to see painted South Miami pink; or a decades-old wishing well decorated with candles and framed portraits of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, where people leave their dreams along with their 1,000 rial bills.
When I come to Tehran, I often stay at the Laleh International Hotel. The fourteen-story, 386-room concrete structure had been the Inter-Continental in the Old Regime, one of the top-of-the-line hotels built by Americans. Those were the days when Western businessmen crowded into Tehran seeking lucrative business deals. A Sheraton, a Hilton, and a Hyatt, with American decor and hamburgers on the menu, also had been built to make them feel at home. They all were confiscated, renamed, and Islamicized by the revolutionaries. Today the Laleh (which means "tulip," the symbol of martyrdom) is owned by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, which also finds the hospitality business a good way to monitor the comings and going of Western journalists. But like the renamed streets, the big hotels are still widely known by their prerevolutionary names. I picked up my copy of the English-language Tehran Times one day to find a large front-page ad for a carpet merchant's annual sale at "Tehran's Esteqlal (ex-Hilton) Hotel."
I can plot the course of Iran's revolution by the changes I have seen at the Laleh. After the Shah left the country, his portrait and that of his wife that hung in the lobby were turned toward the wall; with the success of the revolution, they were taken down. The ayatollahs' plainclothes security guards replaced the Shah's plainclothes security guards. Milton Meyer, an American travel agent married to an Iranian, kept his business open in the shop off the lobby after the revolution and even after the American embassy was seized. Later, he moved his business across the street, and eventually he was arrested. In April 1994, he was sentenced to twenty-four months in prison and fined more than $200,000 after confessing, Iranian authorities said, to corruption and espionage charges.
The Mozaffarian brothers have kept one of their swank jewelry shops at the Laleh, a tribute to the staying power of capitalism in the Islamic Republic. Their prices are exorbitant -- much higher than the bazaar -- but that is the cost of shopping in the hotel. Whenever I enter the shop, they make me tea and sit me down and show me their museum-quality treasures. They are particularly proud of a necklace of matching diamonds and emeralds made decades before by their father. In a country where university professors earn only a few thousand dollars a year, the necklace is priced at half a million dollars.
I met many of the Laleh's receptionists and waiters during the revolution. We lived through those heady and scary days when rival factions shot up the hotel looking for would-be enemies. For the most part, the staff stayed on, thankful to have jobs in a country whose revolution did not deliver prosperity. The men behind the reception desk are no longer allowed to wear ties, which are considered a symbol of the corrupt West. Some of them wear silk ascots instead, a modest rebellion.
In the early days of the revolution, it was still possible to get a drink in the hotel and the minibars were fully stocked as the hotel management tried to keep the Islamic Republic at bay. But armed Islamic zealots finally arrived at the hotel one evening and politely demanded access to the storage area in the basement. They had orders, they said, to destroy all the liquor in the wine cellar. In a fit of Islamic frenzy, they poured bottles of wine and champagne into the outdoor swimming pool. They opened thousands of cans of imported beer and pitched them into a service driveway. The manager of the hotel estimated the value of the lost stock at $325,000. That ended the battle.
Soon afterward, the Air France stewardesses were banned from sunbathing in the chaises longues near the five-sided pool. The pool was emptied of its water and closed. Later, masons came and installed a mosaic of tiles on the lobby wall. It welcomed all visitors with the words, "Down with U.S.A." The doormat was imprinted with a large American flag that visitors stepped on going in and out of the hotel.
Over the years, the Laleh became downright seedy. The carpets wore out, the bedspreads grew faded and torn. In the rooms, the air-conditioning system made so much noise that I opted for open windows and the sound of Tehran traffic. But that invited hungry, plump mosquitoes. The cockroaches became so comfortable that they didn't bother to flee when the bathroom light was switched on.
A few years ago, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture poured enormous sums into renovations. The occasion was the 1997 summit of the fifty-five-country Organization of the Islamic Conference, which attracted Muslim heads of state from all over the world. Iran was the host and wanted to show off. So the gray facade of the Laleh was painted white. The lobby was redecorated with gray and black marble, mirror-mosaics, polished brass, and crystal chandeliers. Gulf gauche, I call it. New bedspreads, drapes, carpets, lamps, and air-conditioners were bought. The American flag doormat was replaced with ornate white stones decorated with stars. The tiles that spelled "Down with U.S.A." were removed and two red carpets were rolled out the front entrance. Framed posters were hung, not of mosques and mullahs (the generic term for members of the clergy) but of Iran's pre-Islamic sites. Pre-revolutionary Muzak tapes were taken out of storage -- even an orchestral medley that included "Strangers in the Night" and "On the Street Where You Live." Ataollah Mohajerani, the Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture, said at one point that three hotels could have been built for the cost of renovating this one.
Room service at the Laleh is a refuge from the restrictions of the Islamic Republic. I hate eating while wearing a head scarf; the ends of the scarf usually wind up in my plate. But I can eat all the caviar I want bareheaded in the privacy of my room -- even for breakfast over scrambled eggs. And in Iran it's economical. Depending on the source, it can cost as little as $10 for one hundred grams of an excellent Sevruga. I keep it in my minibar.
When I do eat out, I can always get a table at the French Rotisserie, the culinary gem of the Laleh. With its caviar and blinis, its world-class wine cellar, and its view of the city and the mountains, it was once one of Tehran's finest places to dine. It stayed open throughout the revolution (though no longer serving alcohol), even when armed leftist militias used its windows for target practice and hotel employees had to douse the leftists with fire hoses. The restaurant moved to the first floor during the long war with Iraq and then closed for renovation. The Polynesian restaurant down the hall took its customers. Maybe it was for the best. My most vivid memory of the Rotisserie was the six-foot-long tapeworm I once got from eating rare beef tenderloin there.
Eventually, the Rotisserie reopened, and on a recent trip I decided to go back. Mr. Rasouli, one of the chief waiters, met me at the door. "Miss Sciolino?" he asked in disbelief. I was half disguised in my head scarf and we were both a generation older than when we had last seen each other. But Mr. Rasouli had served me at the same table, night after night, during the first year of the revolution. If we had been in the United States or Europe, we probably would have embraced. But this was the Islamic Republic, and he did the most daring thing he could: he stuck out his right hand for a handshake. We shook and shook.
The restaurant had been redecorated, but the management tried to preserve the old flavor. The metal chargers with the Inter-Continental logo were retained, as were the ashtrays. Even the menu was the same as it had been twenty years before: onion soup, steak au poivre (minus the cognac), trout meunière, and crème caramel. I asked Mr. Rasouli for the wine list. We both laughed. I ordered a Coke, which Mr. Rasouli poured into an Inter-Continental wineglass.
Mr. Rasouli was balder and plumper. But he retained his broad smile. I asked him how life had treated him over the years. "Hard," he said, simply. I waited for him to explain. "Life was great back then. The restaurant was full every night. I loved coming to work. Now I'm just counting the days until retirement." But he didn't want to spoil the moment of rediscovery. "I've lost all my hair!" he exclaimed, in mock horror.
After dinner Mr. Rasouli showed me where the redecorators had left the bullets embedded in the wood-paneled ceiling near the kitchen. "Remember, Miss Sciolino? We were standing right here when the shooting started. And the tear gas too."
Another waiter led me to a hidden cupboard in a storage room off the dining room. It contained dusty Inter-Continental brandy snifters from the old days. "Just in case," he whispered.
Ever since the beginning of the revolution, the Islamic Republic has tried with varying degrees of success to keep a leash on foreign and local journalists. I assume that the phone at my hotel, the cell phone I borrow or rent whenever I visit, and the local correspondent's phone and e-mail are tapped. I assume that my comings and goings are watched, not all the time, but enough to build a pretty good dossier. There have been times when unmarked cars with two men in the front seat would plant themselves outside the homes of friends I was visiting. During one particularly tense period, two cars with two men each parked in front of the apartment building of a friend for a month. One night an apartment in the building was burglarized, and the local police questioned the men in the cars. They identified themselves as officials from the Intelligence Ministry and ordered the police off the scene.
Technically, visits to shrines, universities, ministries, cemeteries, museums, and all travel outside Tehran require written permission from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Sometimes visits and appointments can be arranged privately; sometimes not. That means that whenever I visit Iran I stop by the ministry soon after I arrive. The ministry has an enormous portfolio. It funds, censors, and approves books and movies. It gives and takes away newspapers' licenses. It distributes paper at subsidized prices to newspapers and journals. It runs conferences and exhibitions. It sponsors plays, concerts, and poetry readings.
I always bring chocolates for the women on the staff (lipsticks for the ones I am sure wear makeup). When he was the head of foreign press relations at the ministry, I would also bring books for Hosein Nosrat and for his deputy, Ali-Reza Shiravi. The trick with such officials is to persuade them to arrange the interviews I want. Sometimes permission to cover an event or take a trip is offered unexpectedly, and the opportunity has to be grabbed because the same one might not come around again for a long time. It is like eating New Jersey tomatoes in summer. You eat all you can because you won't see them for another year.
To understand why Iran's Islamic Republic endures, you have to meet Nosrat. This chain-smoking, fast-talking man in his forties is the best example of an Iranian bureaucrat. A former correspondent for the Islamic Republic News Agency, he had served as chief press aide at Iran's United Nations mission from 1994 to 1997 before returning to Iran to head the office in charge of foreign media at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. (He returned to the United Nations in late 1999.) I first got to know Nosrat in New York. But it was in the Ministry of Islamic Guidance back home that he forever made his mark. He rid the foreign press office of aides who demanded money from journalists in exchange for interview arrangements. Unlike his predecessor, Nosrat spoke good English, was available at all hours on a cell phone, and was on a first-name basis with the best journalists in the American press corps. He wielded considerable power over foreign journalists and could hold up their visa applications just by letting them sit in his in-box. In the summer of 1999, when the Islamic Republic suffered through the worst street violence in its twenty-year history, he waited out the troubles before he approved the dozens of pending visa requests.
Nosrat still thought of himself as a journalist, not a bureaucrat. He took pride in his work and considered himself an expert on American journalism. His spacious office featured a Sony television, a VCR, a new computer, a large conference table, and tourism posters that captured "Persia," not "Islam." A TV junkie, he didn't watch Iranian television, but kept an eye on CNN all day long. He had spent so much time in the United States that many of his reference points were American. In 1998, Iranians were fixated on the televised trial of Gholam-Hosein Karbaschi, the mayor of Tehran, and Nosrat explained that "for us, it's just like the O.J. trial was for you. You had to keep watching to see how it ended." By contrast, he said, Iranians were not at all interested in the reruns of President Clinton's impeachment hearings on local Iranian TV. "We already know the ending," he said. "The only people watching are those who want to improve their English." I wondered whether the clerical establishment would approve of the vocabulary they were learning.
Nosrat was industrious enough to secure funds to buy computers with Internet connections, and he reveled in showing me how he could call up The New York Times online. He devised a system of laminated press cards with photographs just like those of White House or Pentagon correspondents, except that for a woman to get an Iranian press card she has to pose for a photo wearing a head scarf.
Still, the ministry runs a dysfunctional system. The process of getting permission for an official interview or a trip is cumbersome. A secretary at the ministry has to type a formal request, get the requisite signatures, fax the letter to the person to be interviewed or the place to be visited, and wait for an official reply. The secretaries work only from eight-thirty in the morning until prayer time early in the afternoon.
Though some officials take my calls and make appointments without any formal authorization, others work through the ministry. Sometimes even private individuals with high profiles -- the head of Iran's Jewish community and the editor of a monthly women's magazine, for example -- required that the ministry arrange the appointments. It is a signal to the system that they are not meeting journalists secretly and have nothing to hide.
I like Nosrat because he levels with me. He doesn't believe in the Iranian system of taarof in which flattery and false modesty are used to make the other person feel good and to preserve a degree of social harmony. He has seen too much taarof in his life, and life is too short.
An interview with the family of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader? "Impossible," raged Nosrat. A visit to Evin Prison? "Don't even bother to ask." A trip to Baluchistan province? "Too sensitive."
Sometimes I had to work around Nosrat, and in this effort, my best allies have been Iranian women, who are experts in finding ways around the constraints of the male-dominated system. Nosrat laughed out loud when I told him that for a story on the power women of Iran I wanted to be invited to the homes of the wife and daughters of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who was then the President. When the women themselves invited me, he laughed even louder, as if to say, Okay, you got me.
For a while the ministry tried to assign minders to each visiting journalist, but the practice proved costly and inefficient. Eventually the ministry abandoned it -- although from time to time Nosrat would suggest that I would get better access if I took along one of his aides. There was nothing preventing me from traveling throughout Iran on my own, without an official letter of introduction signed by Nosrat and stamped in green by the ministry. But Nosrat made clear that if I was to be stopped by local authorities and I didn't have written permission, he would not lift a finger to help me -- and would probably not issue me another visa.
Nosrat's main priority was to try to keep journalists out of trouble. Once, when a strange-looking metal implement with wires that looked like a microphone was sent to my hotel room, he demanded that I deliver it to him immediately. It turned out to be a cell phone charger that could be plugged into the lighter of an automobile dashboard. (The owner of the cell phone I was renting had dropped it off without forewarning.)
Whenever I got into trouble, the first person I contacted was Nosrat. Like the time a policewoman came calling on me at my hotel in Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Kurdistan. I was summoned from my room to the lobby to find a dour middle-aged woman whose hands smelled of raw lamb. She was flipping through my passport, which I had been required to leave at the desk. She grumbled that her superiors had summoned her from her kitchen where she was making dinner. As she told me her story, she furiously recorded every page of my passport on sheets of plain white paper. Outside the hotel sat a large police van with two male policemen inside.
I produced three official letters of introduction signed by Nosrat and stamped by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance: one to his counterpart in Kurdistan, one to the governor of the province, and one to the security police. Then I called Nosrat in Tehran from my cell phone. "Hi, Hosein," I said. "I'm having a splendid time in Kurdistan. I'm sitting in the lobby with a lovely woman from the police. She has my passport and she's so interested in me."
Nosrat got it. "Oh, so it's question-and-answer time," he said. "Put her on the line."
Nosrat took over. Eventually the woman handed back the passport and left.
When I got back to Tehran, Nosrat told me how he had made a series of phone calls to figure out why I had been questioned. He told me that I had been lucky; it was not the Intelligence Ministry, just the security police. But then he told me how a conspiracy theorist might view my trip: My arrival happened to coincide with the worst unrest since the early days of the revolution, unrest that was officially blamed on the United States. I then went to Shiraz (ostensibly to have lunch with an ayatollah) at a time when a group of Jews from Shiraz had been arrested and accused of spying. I went to the Caspian Sea (ostensibly to write about oil) but then took a side trip to Behshahr (ostensibly to look for old wooden doors with colored glass), a place that in the Old Regime had been a Cold War listening post full of American spies. Then I went to Kurdistan (ostensibly to soak up local color and buy carpets) just after Turkey had conducted cross-border raids into Iranian territory.
pard"Of course you were looking for trouble!" Nosrat joked.
Nosrat prided himself on his ability to find creative solutions to problems. He told me a story about how, as a journalist in Eastern Europe in 1981, he had beaten all the odds and cornered Lech Walesa, then the head of Poland's Solidarity movement, in a hotel kitchen in Gdansk at eight in the morning. Walesa was in the middle of breakfast and had no choice but to give the Iranian wire service reporter an exclusive interview.
"I found him in a Gdansk chicken! I mean kitchen!" Nosrat told me.
Whenever I had a particularly challenging request of Nosrat after that, I referred to it as a Gdansk chicken. Not long ago I was having trouble getting a visa to enter the country and so I called Nosrat from Washington, hoping for some help with this particular Gdansk chicken.
"Allo," the voice on the other line said.
"Mr. Nosrat?" I asked.
"He's not here," he said.
"Is there a way to reach him?"
"No, he's sick," he replied.
I recognized his voice. But I felt I had to play along.
"Oh, my," I replied. "I'm calling from the United States."
"He's not going to be in the office for ten days."
"Ten days!" I exclaimed. "How serious is it?"
"I don't know."
By this time I felt I had to identify myself. The jig was up.
"Hi, Elaine," he said. "I recognize your voice."
It turned out he was not really sick, just trying to avoid another foreign journalist calling about a visa. He promised to process my visa the next day. The visa didn't come. I called again and again. Finally, I asked him how the Gdansk chicken was.
"Bad," he replied. Visa approvals were temporarily out of his hands. The Ministry of Intelligence was now vetting journalists' visa requests. My case eventually went all the way up to the President's office, and the visa didn't come through for another month. Security reasons, I was told later. In some quarters, The New York Times is still considered part of the international Zionist conspiracy.
Nosrat said he didn't believe in such things. But he also has an incredibly thick skin. One day in the summer of 1998 he and I were sitting in his office listening to the radio as the Parliament debated whether or not to remove Abdollah Nouri from his job as Minister of the Interior. Nouri was a close ally of Mohammad Khatami, whose enemies saw an opportunity to hurt the President by removing one of his key lieutenants. Nouri had been expected to prevail. Instead, by a vote of 137-117, the Parliament voted to remove him. I expected Nosrat to curse the Parliament. I expected him to start working the phones. He did not. He lit a Marlboro. He threw back his head and laughed, a hearty laugh that said, Let's move on.
"How can you be so calm about it?" I wanted to know.
"It's political life," Nosrat said. "You win. You lose. Finito."
Nosrat saw the system for what it was?deeply flawed, but full of potential. He knew that this was just one battle in a long war, and that today's losers may well be tomorrow's winners. He was determined to stick with the Islamic Republic. Deep down, he was a believer.
Copyright © 2000 by Elaine Sciolino
The Elusive Face of Iran
The Elusive Face of Iran
As a correspondent for Newsweek and The New York Times, Sciolino has had more experience covering revolutionary Iran than any other American reporter. She was aboard the airplane that took Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979 and was there for the revolution, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the rise of President Khatami, the riots of 1999, and the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. In Persian Mirrors, Sciolino takes us into the public and private spaces of Iran, uncovering an alluring and seductive nation where a great battle is raging -- not for control over territory, but for the soul of its people.