Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
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The Blog

Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.


Tuesday, 23 October 2007
I wrote this piece for 'The Floor' a few months ago, but it seems an almost appropriate place to start things here.

Earlier this year I wound up in Iran. It’s quite a task to wind up in a country it takes months to get a visa for. A friend was living in Tehran doing a language course, and we decided to backpack around the country for the Persian New Year in March. I didn’t really know very much about Iran before I went, but it seemed a pressing opportunity. It’s nice, Iran. Kinda rocky. Good people.

On my first day there we went to visit the war graves. The Iran-Iraq war was the third largest of the twentieth century, but gets widely forgotten outside the Middle East. The graveyards are huge, each grave marked with a glass box containing photos of the deceased. They still only represent a minority of the slain. Hanging around the graveyard are veterans. A group of them led us away from the state shrine of a suicide bomber to show us real images of the war. The military sent camera crews into battle, but few ever get to see the footage; it’s too miserable for propaganda, and embarrassing as a memory. The photo stories are bleak; ill equipped men being driven back by a superior enemy. But there’s pride when they show me a picture of a rope bridge they held. I never determined why it needed holding. One veteran sits with us for a while watching some battle footage. It takes me a while to realise that this is all he ever does, not the same since a bullet to the head, but still cared for by his old unit.

The militants, the Basij, also prowl the graveyards. Coach parties of angry young men whose matching scarves make them look like sinister boy scouts. They mostly avoid the veterans and thus left us alone, apart from ugly looks. Eating lunch with some junior Basij members was the first and only time that Iranian hospitality came loaded with the sensation of a test. I smiled a lot, professed devout monotheistic belief, and hid behind the language barrier. After ten minutes grinning in front of camera phones we broke away to feign interest in a concrete block of a Mosque.

The role of the Basij in Iranian government and society is vague. It has certainly included earthquake relief and aid work, but more often extends to roadblocks and beatings for those disobeying Islamic law. While participation keeps young kids off the streets, it also throws older kids back on the streets in self-righteous gangs. In the war they were used in wave attacks, pouring forward as cannon fodder to clear mine fields while the army waited. It was a desperate measure, but the revolution had purged the army of any effective command structure, and the West was selling Iraq better guns.

We got a lift back into the city from a typically generous stranger. As well as the ubiquitous Toyota pick-ups and swarms of underpowered motorbikes, the whole nation drives Paykans, the clunky national car that dates back to 1967. They work to keep a nation moving, but even the Iranians are aware of their massive impact on global warming from the smogs they produce.

The car of choice for the rich kids of north Tehran is the Peugeot 206, usually modified to luxury levels through the lack of any better cars to spend the money on. We took a fast ride in one out to
the ski villages above Tehran at night. They drive hard, with little regard for road rules, resulting in one of the highest accident rates in the world. There was Led Zep on the stereo, and moonshine under the passenger seat. It's 80 lashes on the roadside if you're stopped with alcohol in your car, which leads to a lot of low grade car chases where tuned Peugeots dodge Basij moped packs whilst desperately quaffing the evidence. I'm told about one friend who was caught but lightly lashed with his leather jacket still on, for fear his mates would retaliate. We roll up at a cafe in the snow, high above the city. The young come out here to socialise out of sight of the prudes in the city. Here genders can mix freely, with wilder hairstyles and a notable absence of head scarves. It felt like a little patch of Europe, confirmed when our tea arrived in ironic Starbucks mugs. Rumours of wild, drug fuelled orgies in the mountains seemed unsubstantiated.

Another night, at a bigger café in the city, we noticed the arena-like set-up of the seating. Groups of guys shifted their tables and seats to face towards a centre where similar groups of young girls clustered. The girls favourite pastime seemed to involve flicking their heads so their hair spilled from token headscarves, then coquettishly readjusting it. I was told later that beneath this lies a whole system of slipping each other written notes, either dropped in the street or passed between moving cars. These billet-doux are doing more damage to the Revolution than any secret nuclear spying.
This is an elite subculture, th
e rich youth of north Tehran, but nonetheless an influential one. In a nation where 70% of the population is under 30 and the preceding generation was decimated by war, the young control the future. The battle for hearts is being fought between the Quran and MTV; music videos are wired down illegal satellite dishes so common that they gave up policing them. It seems like it might be 50 Cent, not Bush who will change Iran.

Another day and one failed ski trip later, I found myself prone in the dirt, dressed in full camo and being hunted by a pair of masked Persian fighters. Fortunately I was sheltered behind a giant yellow inflatable, and I splattered them both pink with my plan of attack. Paintballing in Iran was clearly a brilliant idea, even if it meant the odd round against their natio
nal squad. The Iranians play Speedball; spectator friendly paintball shorn of any military pretensions and played on pitches dotted with inflatable cover. Kitted up, only a few stray flicks of blonde hair marked me out from my Iranian team mates. In a break, one of them asked me about myself. ‘I’m a tourist’ I replied, in my best projected English. (I should admit here that my general travel policy is to learn how to greet, thank, excuse, count money & order orange juice. This is the limit of my language skills, having never previously been repeatedly asked to justify my presence) ‘Tor-wrist’ he repeated back. Then he grinned at me through the Perspex. ‘Terrorist, yeah! Terrorist! Us too, man’ he said, waving his gun at the others. ‘We are all here to train!’ he yelled. He proceeded to hop from foot to foot, waving his head, firing paintballs into the air while his friends laughed. ‘Pow! Pow! Pow! Death to America!’. More laughs. It was later suggested to me that, in the absence of nightclubs, anti-Americanism was at least just something to do.
These guys had a strong sense of irony about how the world sees Iran. It seemed that very few people in Iran trusted their media, or any media for that matter, and they were always keen to ask why we were there as tourists and what people really thought of Iran in England. I didn’t quite know what to say, except point out the rash of ‘Inside Iran’ articles breaking out across the broadsheets. The Iraq war has caused a crisis in confidence in what we think we know about the Middle East. The best I could say is that we’re trying to find out.

A week later my friend and I set out to climb the mountain that looms over the southern city of Esfahan. Basically a walk-up rocky hill, we struck out wonderfully under prepared on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong. If we just showed the mountain that memo from the Queen in the front of our passports, it’d probably be fine. Come dusk on the way down we met a group of six Afgan cousins we’d waved to earlier. I’d come to be deeply suspicious of cousins in Iran, a disguise adopted by courting couples to avoid chance beatings. There was certainly more of it about than I could otherwise ascribe to the ‘strong family unit’. They too were trying to make it down the mountain, and we were reassured that if three girls in wedge heels could make it, so could we. My friend asked if they were also tourists in Iran. They replied in their musical accent that they’d been living in Iran for the last six years. Mental pause, some basic arithmetic, a nagging sensation of guilt, and we moved swiftly on. The way down was hellish, lit in parts only by mobile phones and practically carried by rock skipping Afgan teenagers.

The next day when I looked through my panoramic photos from the top I realised where the real danger had been that night. I’d been photographing a huge military base, row upon row of tanks and artillery spread out on the plain beneath us. A sense of danger amplified by the knowledge that somewhere nearby, fifteen British sailors were locked up, and for all I knew being given the full Guantanamo treatment. That evening we took a holiday inside the walls of the British consulate compound. We did, of course, loosely concoct a plan to go bust our sailors out one night, speculating and plotting wildly, high on a heady nights mix of News 24 and the film 300. We didn’t. Instead I browsed the consulate bookshelves and found that someone there reads a lot of Andy McNab novels. Thinking it’d be better to leave any rescue attempt to them, we left and headed back to the shitty part of town where nobody would ever go hunting for tourists.

Several nights after I left Iran, I watched the anti-British protests around the same consulate gates I’d slipped out of. A few hundred Basij in a city of twelve million didn’t make a very convincing spectacle of a nation in uproar. I also remember a popular rumour that the constant protests were just an effort to force the British out of their well watered compound gardens and sell on the valuable real estate. I think it’s even partly true. There’s more going on in Iran than Islam and Nuclear physics.


Tom said...

Your trip sounds absolutely fascinating. It is so great to get a perspective of events from inside the country, especially during a time of such political tension.

Anonymous said...

This was an impressive account. Although from the netherlands we get already quite a good perspective, this added sure some more to that

Anonymous said...

What a great article on a country about which so little is generally known and very well written!

Alan Bainbridge said...

Really refreshing to read something authentic about Iran: informative and helful. I like the idea that MTV will have more effect on the hearts and minds of Iranians than George Bush: it appleals on so many levels.

Fraser said...


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