Nazila Fathi: “There were always ways to circumvent the restrictions and write”Nazila Fathi was an Iran-based correspondent for two decades. In her portfolio—if she has such a thing—there would be 2,000 articles she wrote for the New York Times, plus all her pieces that appeared in publications like The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Nieman Reports, and Open Democracy. In 2009, when Fathi was covering what she describes as the most important story of her life—the massive protests following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial victory—she was forced to leave her country: 16 men sent by the government were following her steps. Her experience and analyses will soon be compiled in a nonfiction book (untitled as yet) that she has been writing since 2010, when she started a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.
On May 5, Fathi participated in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s Exiled Voices of Iran and sat with Sampsonia Way to talk about her experiences as a persecuted journalist, including her work inside and outside Iran. Also included, a video of a thoughtful conversation between Fathi and Steve Sokol, Executive Director of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, recorded at the COA/P event.
Can you tell us more about why and how you left Iran?
After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced as the winner of Iran’s election there were these spontaneous protests. The authorities had let in a lot of foreign reporters to cover the election, so there were all these visiting reporters. The New York Times luckily, or unluckily for the Iranian government, even had its executive editor, Bill Keller, present.
Three days after the election, the protests reached their peak. The ministry of culture, who was responsible for monitoring foreign reporters, sent out letters saying that those who were on visas had to leave. Then the government forbade resident journalists like me—who were half-Iranian or had Iranian citizenship—from leaving their offices anymore.
But most of us, the resident journalists, kept going out, except for members of big news agencies that had a bureau. Their headquarters could come under attack, and they wanted to keep them open, which is important strategically.
Then one of our colleagues was arrested and many others left the country. At one point I was the only person on the ground, and I received a call from a siege commander of the militia force who told me that snipers would shoot me if I kept going out. I didn’t take it seriously. I was mesmerized by the size of the protest. But one morning I was going out, and I noticed that I was being followed. That really scared me. I went back and looked and all these men kept coming. They just stood outside my home. They came around 8:00 in the morning and left every night at 12:00. Because they hadn’t seen me go to a travel agency to buy a ticket and my internet was disconnected, they didn’t think I had the means to leave the country. But I had bought tickets a long time ago for a long–planned vacation to Canada. On the night of July 1st, after they left, I went to the airport with my two children and my husband. We left the country.
So you thought you were leaving for a little while, yet three years have already passed…
Yes. We left thinking that we would go back. We left with a couple of t–shirts, and we just kept postponing our return by a month. After six months we realized it was impossible for us to go back without facing serious risks. I continued working for the New York Times from Toronto, until I got the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 2010. Since then we moved to Boston, and I’ve been in Cambridge. I did another fellowship at the Kennedy School at Harvard this year.
But my journey was much easier than the journey of a lot of my colleagues. They were stranded in northern Iraq or Turkey for a long time until they finally got asylum somewhere. And that’s not the end of the story. Many of them still cannot work.
Lets go back to before the 2009 elections, to those days when you were covering a less convulsed Iran for the New York Times. Which stories gave you the most trouble then?
It hasn’t always been the political stuff that has gotten me into trouble, and getting into trouble with the government hasn’t been the most annoying thing. The government was very sensitive about specific topics, and they would ask me, “Why did you write about the arrests of activists?” or “Why did you focus on human rights violations so much?” But I had more trouble with the cultural stories I wrote. I was viciously attacked by people who felt jealous about the person I was writing about.
Do you have a specific example in mind?
I wrote about [Mohsen Namjoo], an artist/musician who was extremely talented. He had this protest music that was very metaphorical, very new. He was combining blues and jazz with traditional Persian music. He was also very popular. You could hear his music in other people’s cars while you were in traffic, and this is illegal in Iran. I wrote a story about him and called him the Bob Dylan of Iran. Then I was attacked so viciously by other musicians who did not think he was even worth mentioning in the New York Times.
What about writing on women’s rights?
Women’s rights was always one of my very favorite topics, particularly because women have gone through immense changes in Iran. The government warned me not to write about women activism, so I tried to find other angles. For instance, when I wrote a story about female novelists I used parts of their books to say how far they’ve come and how Iranian society has changed. I was working on a story about female singers before I left the country, but I couldn’t finish it.
It was possible to write about women’s rights without the government thinking you were writing about political issues?
Every topic related with women’s rights is extremely politicized. Let’s not forget women are symbols of the Islamic republic. They carry its symbols: The headscarf, the coat that they wear. If they don’t wear those then who would know that this is the Islamic Republic of Iran? The issue of women, like everything, is politicized in Iran.
How did you deal with the restrictions imposed by the government, and even by society?
When I was in Iran I always found a way to report what I thought was important, except for a couple of stories that meant the end of my career. I still worked on those, but they were not published under my name. There were other colleagues in New York who wrote the stories.
I wouldn’t say that Iran was a country where you could not work. There were always ways to circumvent the restrictions and write. And I really enjoyed what I was doing. I found other creative ways. Under that kind of repression creativity flourishes and leads to powerful works. The music, literature, and art that is produced in Iran is a lot more powerful than what is produced outside the country.
Now, things have become very difficult in Iran. Pressure and repression have become a lot worse than when I was there.
But I bet that at the middle of 2009, when the protests were repressed, your sources were in fear…
Towards my last days in Iran I couldn’t work. Nobody wanted to speak to me because the minute they spoke they were picked up by authorities and put in jail. If they picked up their cell phones the government could track them. And then towards the end, I was sort of under house arrest and my internet was not safe. I was afraid to leave the house. I had no idea what those guys would do to me. That was the worst part.
What was your relationship with those sources when you left Iran?
As soon as I left the country people started reaching out to me because I was still working for the New York Times. All those people who didn’t want to speak to me when I was in Iran found a way to get on Skype, which was considered a more secure way of communication.
During the year that I covered what happened after the protests for the New York Times it was much easier to work, to have access to people, and to write about the story from outside the country.
But this is not doable all the time…
It was a very special time. People were voluntarily reaching out to give you the story and citizen journalism was very much out there. I could watch videos that people were posting from the protests on the same day that they were happening. But that is not the case anymore. The people who were posting those videos have other jobs. They’ve gone back to their normal lives. Now it’s very hard to cover Iran from outside the country. You need to be there and on the ground.
I understand you are still writing on Iran…
Harvard opened a totally different door for me. I started looking at my experience in a much deeper way. I’m writing a book now—a memoir—to tell the bigger story of Iran through my experience as a journalist.
Does the book have a title?
It has had a million different titles. I’m sure it’s going to keep changing until it comes out.
Can you tell us some highlights of the story?
I’d prefer not to talk about that because editors eventually make so many changes. But I’m writing about the events of 2009. The reason I decided to write this book was because people kept asking me, “So why did the uprising fail?” “Why didn’t the green revolution overthrow the regime?” First of all, it was not a revolution. Second, people had no intention of overthrowing the regime. Third, people are afraid of institutional breakdown. After events in Egypt, everybody raised this question again: “So Iranians failed, but did Egyptians succeed?”
They are very different countries…
They’re not even comparable. It would be very hard for Iranians to pose a serious threat to the regime, considering how well–equipped the Iranian regime is to repress any kind of dissent. Egyptians, on the other hand, managed to get workers on their side. Even workers in the Suez Canal went on strike. Iranians were never able to get any kind of union or guild on their side, partly because there are no independent guilds and unions. Without those groups, they cannot really bring the movement to a point where it can pose a threat.
The most important thing was that the Iranian uprising did not have the kind of leadership that had overthrowing the regime on its agenda. The two leaders were very loyal to the system, all they wanted, and all people wanted, were new elections. They thought Ahmadinejad had stolen the election and they wanted new ones. Iranians have gone through a bloody war, through a bloody revolution, in the past three decades. The majority of the population remembers those experiences, and they don’t want to live through it again.
What would you say to the people who think that Iranian protesters didn’t have the same courage as the people of Egypt?
During the Iranian uprising, six months from beginning to end, about 150 people died, maybe less. So far in Egypt, over 1,500 have died. We called ours a bloody uprising and they call theirs a peaceful one. They’re very different countries. They have different goals. The Egyptians haven’t had a revolution since 1960. They haven’t had it for a long time.
This idea that democracy has to be grassroots, that reform has to come from bottom–up, has become a very acceptable notion in Iran. Iranians want the regime to adapt to change, rather than Iranians changing the regime, because they wonder “What will come next?” A new group could hijack the next revolution again.
Lets talk about the alarming declarations on the Iranian Nuclear Program. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak just said that Iran is working toward a ‘threshold status’ of being able to produce a nuclear bomb with 60 days notice.
That is not true. That is highly exaggerated. It’s not a unanimous message coming out of Israel. It’s Netanyahu and Barak who have been making these exaggerated assessments of Iranian capabilities. Actually another Israeli defense minister official recently said there was no evidence that Iran had intentions to make a weapon. Its weaponization is one question, and whether Iran is going to work to have the capability is another question. No hard evidence has been found that Iran is moving towards any of those directions.
What is your opinion the Iranian Nuclear Program?
The Iranian government wants to see the sanctions lifted because without the oil revenue they would be crippled. It’s not that the revenue’s going to end, because they have found ways to sell their oil, but it’s going to decrease by about 50 percent and that will be very hard for the country. They might compromise to a point where they see the sanctions softened. But unfortunately the Iranian government has never looked at its long–term interests.
Everything for Iran, all the decisions that have been made inside the government and its foreign policy, have been based on very short–term survival. If Iran was going to make a wise decision, it would give up its nuclear enrichment program because it doesn’t make any financial sense. The reactor in Tehran that needs the enriched uranium is old. The technology is from the 1960s. It doesn’t make sense for Iran to invest so much money in a program just to produce fuel for this old reactor. They are doing things that financially and logically don’t make any sense.
There are activists in Washington that are arguing to “lift the sanctions…”
I think they’re right because the sanctions are hurting civil society more than the government. The Iranian regime has been an expert at circumventing restrictions and sanctions because they’ve been faced with some kind of sanction since the 1979 revolution.
They have been in touch with all these front companies in Europe, even in London and Rome, who have been buying things for them. They have bought banks in the Gulf countries to circumvent the restrictions that are imposed on the Iranian banking system. They were prepared for the sanctions. They have become masters at circumventing them.
But China and Russia are the countries that always came out as supporters of Iran…
China and Russia, of course, have been the worst allies. But the point is that even Germany, France, and Britain talk to Iran in different voices.
Germany kept its economic ties with Iran. France was talking in a very, tough voice with Iran politically, but all these French companies were still operating in Iran. They didn’t want to pull out. Britain was tougher on Iran. The United States kept asking for tough sanctions on Iran and on European companies. But It was not until recently that even the Dutch Shell company pulled out of Iran’s oil investment. It’s been very hard to get all these countries to act unanimously and get these other, private companies that had high stakes in Iran, to pull out.
Can the West help Iranian people on human rights issues?
We know that the Iranian government has been responsive to pressure. The reason they wanted to get rid of all journalists in 2009 was because they wanted to stop the flow of information outside the country. Journalists were causing a huge embarrassment for the regime.
They kept on claiming that they are the best model of religious democracy, that they respected human rights, but the truth was, they were using extreme violence against their own people. They picked up all sorts of people: Poets, musicians, activists, writers, economists, anyone whose work was critical of the regime in any way.
And a lot of them are still in prison. Just look around you: Novelists whose work was not even directly political have been forced to leave the country because everything in Iran has become politicized. But if the West keeps pressing Iran over its human rights violations, they will respond. There was an example in 2010: A woman was sentenced to death by stoning on charges of murdering her husband. I don’t know what happened, but she was really very close to getting executed by stoning, which is quite barbaric. Eventually the Iranians had to stop her execution. I think she’s in prison now. She survived it because of the pressure from the West.
What is your opinion of the recent parliamentary elections?
I have no expectations for this parliament. I had no expectations for the previous parliament. The previous parliament was extremely obedient to the leader. The last election in February was a big loss for Ahmadinejad and that was the only difference. The supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] who became the ultimate decision maker in the country, practically hand–picked all its members. Ahmadinejad used to have about seventy members who supported him, but now he has less than a dozen, which means he has lost all his influence in parliament. We can expect a new parliament that is very obedient to Khamenei and will approve whatever he asks for. Khamenei has suggested that maybe the position of president should be abolished. So if they take a bill on that to parliament, we might expect it to be approved easily.
Would you go back to Iran if it became possible?
Iran is my home. Nobody can keep me away.
How do you see the future of Iran?
I’m basically a very positive person. I’m very optimistic. No authoritarian regime has lasted forever. Democratic regimes last much longer. If we can call the change in the people a revolution, then a huge revolution has taken place in Iranian society. That was the greatest thing about the 2009 uprising: Massive numbers of people came out on the streets in very civilized, nonviolent ways. And they had very reasonable expectations and demands. Then they very wisely retreated from the streets. I think change has already taken place. This population, 70 percent of them under the age of 35, is ready for a much more democratic system than what they have. I’m sure what happens next is going to be much better. This system is rotten from within. It’s going to collapse one day.