Valentine's Day, four days to go to Election Day.
I was all revved up to rant on and on about the absence of Valentine's Day in the land of the rose and the nightingale; how we perennially amorous Iranians don't need a custom manufactured by greeting-card sellers and chocolate makers to remind us when we're sweet on someone. But my planned stratagem for Day 2 was blown to smithereens this afternoon.
The Toronto Star correspondent arrived late last night; the Newsday correspondent followed late this morning. I'll spare you another account of a day spent getting papers. Now that we have them, I need a mobile filing cabinet for all the permits we have to carry around with us.
These two are an interesting duo to work with. The Canadian is a soft-spoken Montrealer, the kind of guy you would like to have as your child's pediatrician after a household accident. He never raises his voice above a soothing pitch, even when you know he is despairing of getting that one vital interview with some conservative cleric that he needs to make his report work. The Newsday correspondent is a young Scotsman, now an honorary New Yorker, who is more likely to pine for a bagel than a plate of haggis. We don't get bagels in downtown Tehran; they probably wouldn't get a visa! But I further digress amid my main digression. His quintessentially British sense of humor makes me homesick for the rainy island. The last time he was here I spent more time catching up on jokes than on fixing.
Our first appointment was with the publisher of a reformist newspaper that has been shut down four times by the authorities for stepping over the so-called red line in journalism. The press court shuts them down, then they publish again with a new name and a new license. I changed their particulars in my phone book so many times I couldn't keep up. So now I just call their paper the "Phoenix" … rising from the ashes. It saves my new book from turning into a mess.
Jalaii-pour, the publisher, epitomizes the changes in Iran. He has an impeccable revolutionary background. Born into an Islamic family opposed to the deposed Shah, he lost three brothers in the war with Iraq. At the beginning of the revolution, he was the governor of Kurdistan when there was an uprising by the Iranian Kurds who wanted autonomy from the central government. About a year and half ago, he and three of his journalists were arrested and imprisoned for a month. They were released only because Jalaii-pour's mother wrote an open letter to the supreme leader of the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, asking for the release of her only remaining son. I can't remember the exact words, but they went something like, I have given the nation three martyred sons, and I would like this one safely home. It was weird that at that time we were reading about a new film with Tom Hanks called Saving Private Ryan. Here was our very own Ryan, but in a different situation.
Ironically, Jalaii-pour was rejected as a candidate for the parliamentary elections last month; once an insider, he is now deemed too radical as a reformist. And he is not alone: There seem to be legions of revolutionaries turned reformists who have found a voice and a new sense of purpose since President Khatami's election. They are, like Jalaii-pour, still supporters of the Islamic revolution; they simply maintain that the time for revolutionary behavior is over. It is now time to try and reach the ideals for which the revolution happened in the first place, namely a populist democracy with Islamic values. This naturally rubs some people the wrong way. So, he and his colleagues find themselves moving toward the edge of what has always been the ruling circle. Some would say the cutting edge. His paper has one of the largest circulations among the new papers, and the party he is associated with seems to be the one most popular with the younger generation of Iranians who form 60 percent of the population here.
You're wondering what happened to the Valentine's story. It's a peculiarity of the Eastern style of writing to tell a story within a story. Remember Scheherazade and her 1001 nights? I guess I don't have this space for as long as she did, so I'd better get a move on. Yes, Valentine's Day, which I was convinced was a non-event in Iran, being an Islamic country and all, appears to have arrived in our sunny climes.
While waiting in the foyer of the "Phoenix" newspaper, a friendly and pretty young woman was asking one of the female reporters whether she'd got any Valentine's presents. My ears perked up. I had not heard the occasion mentioned in the seven years I had been back. To be honest, I was quite happy to be away from the paranoia that goes with the day. The dreadful start to the day, when you get to pretend not to be expecting any mail. The pathetic attempt at playing it cool just like an Oscar nominee when the bunch of flowers delivered to the office finds its way to the desk next to yours. Who needs the emotional trauma? I couldn't help asking the girl what she knew about Valentine's Day and where she had heard about it. It's the second year, she told me, that this new consumer craze has become all the rage among young Iranians. They flood to card shops and gift shops and flower shops and send each other presents. It has to be secret, she said. It came from the Internet. Aaah, the wonders of technology!
You could see the sparkles in her beautiful Persian eyes; it was early afternoon, and she was still hoping and waiting.
I gave her a tip from my previous life: Save yourself the suspense and the loss of face … send yourself a Valentine. I think I may have started something here.