Thursday, June 02, 2005

Where is the American?

Today we headed to Qom for a quick day trip. I had asked Mohammad, a fellow photographer to set up the trip with Hussein a friend of his.

Qom is the center of Islamic theological movement in Iran. It’s the hub of all Islamic activities and where the revolution sets its roots.

I had coordinated my trip with Ershad, Iran’s Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance. The ministry controls all foreign and domestic media and where we could go.

We got on our way around 7 am after settling on a fare of 6,000 Tommans (about $7) per person. We headed to south of Tehran passing Imam Khomeini’s golden dome with its four minarets.

The guys played Persian music and I put on my iPod. Driving like a mad man on a 3 lane highway in a KIA made Pride, we made it to Qom under 1 ½ hours.

Once inside the city, we headed right to the Huzie-e-Elmeh, the theological school. After checking with the young soldier at the gate I went looking to find a man who was in charge of media relations.

Thirty minutes later the man drives in through the front gate. I approached him and introducing myself saying salam and shaking his hand. I showed him my credentials from Ershad and asked him to let us photograph the place.

He read the letter and swiftly refused us. His reason was that I was representing an American firm.

I tried reasoning with him and the fact that the letter came from highest authorities in Ershad. The man just smiled and said it’s not in my hand.

I pressed on looking right at him and asked him who else I can talk to; after all I had coordinated everything from Tehran. With the same smog, he mumbled “there is no name we just don’t let Americans here....” or something to that fact.

He held on to the original letter and would not give it back to me. I had a feeling that he was nobody and perhaps was of afraid of Ershad. I insisted on getting a copy of the letter before returning to Tehran.

Disappointed and ticked off, we walked out and joked with the guard at the gate. I told him they don’t let us in because I am an American. His eyes opened wide and said, “say hello to all Americans.” I smiled and looked at his sincere response while shaking his hand. He continued “we…” perhaps referring to his friends or family “…are in favor of America.”

Three of us, Mohammed, Hussein and I made our way through a vast yard towards the center of the town looking for something to photograph.

Don’t let these authentic Muslim names fool you, Mohammad and Hussein were a riot making fun of the mullah’s as they walk passed us.

Mohammad kept saying, please agah (mister in Farsi), I beseech you to keep us in your prayers! And Hussein who looked very much like the locals with his thick black beard would say "hi" in English.

We spent a few hours walking up and down the streets taking pictures and having fun. The sun was brutal and we were thirsty so we were slowly retreating back to the car.

Mohammad found a bank and wanted to get some money. We followed him as Hussein took pictures of me avoiding the sun and Mohammad counting his cash.

We called our driver, Hussein’s brother in-law, and asked him to meet us near the bank. Mohammad noticed a campaign center across the street for Hashimi, the leading presidential candidate, and dashed into the building for a few last photos.

We crossed the street too to see what else was there. Hussein started taking pictures of some signs outside and I went in looking for Mohammad.

As I walked up the stairs, I noticed he was arguing with a guy to get his press ID back. The same man then shook my hand and asked me to follow him.

Thinking he was a campaign worker, I had no intention of following him for a lecture. However, I noticed that he has actually grabbing Mohammad’s hand. Then I become aware of what we were dealing with.

There were two bearded men in typical Basiji outfits, long sleeve shirts and trousers. They detained us and insisted on following them.

This was not good, I thought to myself, but we followed them. So far they had left me alone as they tussled with Mohammad. We followed them to the corner turning into an alleyway.

This was serious, thoughts rushing through my head. My papers were all legit and Mohammad and Hussein were locals, so let’s stay cool and see what happens.

With polite yet unpleasant faces they insisted that they were doing their job and needed to “talk” to us as we kept asking what’s going on. Mohammad kept demanding to know exactly what he had done wrong.

One of them men asked us why we were taking pictures. I told him, we are journalists and had a permit to take pictures of campaign posters. I told him we have a letter from Ershad and reached into my backpack to fish it out for him. I made sure to bring out a copy and not the original.

He read it and looked at me and looked and Hussein who was not saying anything. Perhaps Hussein was thinking, shit, Ramin’s American ID will get us in trouble.

The other guy asked if we had taken pictures of the bank. We knew then, that they had been tailing us. We all said yes…we took pictures of ourselves, not the bank. Asking what is wrong with that?

The head guy called for authorities to arrive on his cell phone. I heard him saying “…one of them is an American” to make the matter more urgent, but he has a letter. He was making calls on his phone and providing our locations on his walkie-talkie.

His phone ringer, Hussein Hussein, a chant that is done by beating one’s chest during Ashura confirmed to us his fanaticism. I was getting real nervous, but kept calm.

His partner went to get the street name for direction; taking advantage of his absence I switched my memory cards in my camera. Something I have done on instinct in the past to protect or hide my work. I also felt a little relief for not taking my iPod with me and hiding it in the trunk of the car. After all this was Qom.

I had just finished reading the book, “Blinded by the Sunlight”, the story of Newsday’s reporter and photographer who were captured by Saddam’s Mokhaberat and kept in Abu Gharib prison for 8 days during the American onslaught on Baghdad.

Some of McAllester’s thoughts, the reporter who wrote the book, and experiences became real in my mind as I stood there in the mid-day sun, taking inventory of my belongings in my backpack and assessing the situation.

I made a jester to move to the shady side of the alley as I checked for guns under their shirts. I thought may be we could make a run for it.

Another call comes in to his walkie-talkie and I ask…can we go now? He had our cards and my paper. Mohammad continued with his inquiry about our detention.

I thought to myself, I am too tired to go to jail. Thinking may be a car is on its way to take us to Etelaat (Iran’s version of Mokhaberat) or a committee where Basiji’s gather.

I was about to have a major dehydration if I didn’t get some liquid in me soon. I probably would sleep on the floor of the jail and write a book about it like McAllester. All I wanted to was to walk away with our cards in our hands.

I noticed a solider searching for the alley…then another one. They didn’t say anything as the approached and stayed behind us.

Finally a man in a lime green police uniform followed them. He had a walkie-talkie too.

He walked up to us and said, where is the American? That got our attention and set a slight tension among us. Mohammad was suddenly silenced as I said that’s my card. Trying not to say that I am “the” American!

I told him, I work for a foreign press agency avoiding saying the word “America.” He then asked, but you are from there? I replied… I am an Iranian. He asked again, but you reside in America? Finally cornered and not wanting to lie, I said yes and said nothing else.

The Basiji men looking at the officer appeared to have a pleased frown on their faces. I had admitted to my guilt of living in America. They had their spy talking picture and were perhaps receiving a reward if not more virgins in the next world.

The officer inspected my letter and asked if I have the original? I said yes as I pointed out to him that it was signed and stamped at Ershad.

Quickly he called into his walkie-talkie informing his base that the “American” was in fact legit and there was no laws being broken. The three of us took a deep breath. He motioned to Basiji men and shook our hands walking away with the soldiers.

The Basijis wanted a copy of the letter. I told them to go make a copy not wanting to give them any satisfaction.

30 minutes later we walked out of the alley looking for our driver who was wondering about us. We were pissed off but joked about the incident and drove away wildly passing the mullahs on motorcycles.

Perhaps in a show of defiance, the guys blasted the stereo playing Sting’s “Desert Rose.” Passing Qom’s dried up salt lake I was very happy to walk away and thinking to myself, I will never come back to this city again.

Ramin Talaie – Qom, Tehran – June 1, 2005

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