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The Iranian Women in American Journalism Project (IWAJ): Davar Ardalan

Davar Ardalan, Senior Producer NPR News

Davar is responsible for producing the live daily news broadcast for NPR’s Tell Me More (TMM) with Michel Martin. From the opinions of global newsmakers to listeners, to the wisdom of renowned thinkers, activists and spiritual leaders, NPR’s TMM brings fresh voices and perspectives to public radio. Prior to TMM at NPR, Davar was in charge of Weekend Edition Saturday and Sunday where she helped integrate social media tools and expanded audience interactivity. In 2009, Davar collaborated with AIR, the Association for Independents in Radio, on cutting edge interactive media projects that captured stories and images from around the country and encouraged audience participation across platforms on Davar has also worked as a Supervising Producer for Morning Edition where she helped shape the daily newsmagazine, and was responsible for decisions that required elaborate coordination such as broadcasts from Baghdad, Kabul and New Orleans. Davar began her radio career as a reporter in 1991 at NPR member station KUNM in Albuquerque, NM. She is the mother of four and the author of the book My Name is Iran.

You have a unique family background. Your grandmother is American and your grandfather was involved in putting together Iran’s legal code in the 1920s. Can you tell us about your family background and the extent of influence they have had on you?

I was born in San Francisco, California but received my primary education in Tehran, Iran in the 1970’s.  Drawing on a heritage that sweeps back and forth between East and West, tradition and modernity, I continue to strive to find harmony and balance as I weave my American and Iranian heritage together.

The Iranian Women in American Journalism Project (IWAJ): Davar Ardalan

Davar Ardalan

My maternal grandmother, Helen Jeffreys was an American nurse who married my Iranian grandfather in New York City in 1931. Despite her conservative Protestant upbringing in Idaho, 22-year-old Helen defied all by marrying 55-year-old Abol-Ghassem Bakhtiar, an Iranian doctor she met at Harlem Hospital. My grandfather Abol-Ghassem, mesmerized Helen with his romantic recitations of Persian poetry on their dates to Manhattan and Coney Island. The two moved to Iran in 1931, opened one of the first private hospitals and had seven children. In the 1950’s Helen became a public health nurse as part of President Truman’s Point 4 program, traveling by jeep to remote villages of Iran, convincing the local clerics of the importance of educating women about healthcare. She also journeyed with the legendary Bakhtiari tribe on their annual migration through 12,000 feet snow-capped mountains.

My grandmother Helen applied her American values in the ancient culture of Iran. Values of hard work, sacrifice, understanding, and identifying with other peoples sufferings. Helen died in 1973 and is buried in Tus, Iran, next to my grandfather and near the tomb of the legendary Persian poet Ferdowsi. For me, Helen’s story illustrates how one woman, through her selfless acts of kindness and genuine respect for cultural differences, was able to break down barriers and encourage positive change for the common good. A few years ago we found out that the Bakhtiari tribe named a mountain after Helen in honor of the work she did for Iran. I was fortunate to be able to write an essay about this for NPR News: A Monument to an American’s Selflessness in Iran .

My paternal great grandfather was Ali Akbar Davar. Davar helped create Iran’s legal code in the late 1920’s and was a pragmatic force in Iranian politics. I was named Davar in his memory. In 2003, when human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi became the first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, I covered the event for NPR. Inspired by a remark from an Iranian professor of political science posted on Gary Sick’s Gulf 2000 list serve, I decided to research the connection between my family and Iran’s long struggle to reconcile modernity and traditional Islam.   I traced the evolution between my great-grandfather, Ali Akbar Davar and modern legal reformers like Shirin Ebadi.   In the late 1920’s, as Iran’s Minister of Justice, Ali Akbar drew up a progressive legal code for the country that combined Western legal precepts and Shariah, the legal code based on the Koran.    The same tensions between modernity and tradition are alive today in Iran. I produced a three-part story for NPR’s Morning Edition in 2004 and in 2007 published a memoir called, My Name Is Iran.

Both my American and Iranian ancestors have taught me to think outside the box. From them, I have learned about perseverance, integrity and most importantly to be open-minded. From them I have learned that happiness and sacrifice come in equal measures but only when you have given it your all.

Currently, you are a senior producer at NPR’s ‘Tell Me More’ with Michel Martin. What defines the type of stories you do?

I have been in public broadcasting for the past 19 years and over the years, I have helped define new ways of thinking about news and how we deliver it whether in a single segment or across platforms. A good news segment is like a good novel or film, it needs tension and must reflect reality in its pulse and beat. As such, I have helped produce enterprise stories on cyber security, voting rights, immigration reform and HIV-AIDS as well as an array of interactive stories on everything from race and politics to the impact of the recession on NPR listeners. I have also produced hundreds of cultural stories from profiles of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to actor and philanthropist Paul Newman to music features on Herbie Hancock and cooking segments with culinary wizard Alton Brown

I am currently the Senior Producer of NPR’s Tell Me More, where I oversee the production of the daily talk program and make sure that it is timely and topical and reflects the interests of a diverse audience.  We take great pride in providing news and content that reflects the views of America’s multicultural communities.

Over the years, you have produced many stories on Iran. You were part of the team that interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What are some of the stories you have worked on?

Since 1995, I have helped chronicle many cultural and political stories on Iran including the story of Iranian women and youth.

One of the most extraordinary stories in the three decades of the Islamic Republic has been the strength and character of its women’s movement whether in politics, film, literature, religion, poetry or sports.  My colleague Jacki Lyden and I have reported a great deal on Iranian women such as poet Simin Behbahani, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Human Rights Lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, Novelist Azar Nafisi, and women’s activist Mahnaz Afkhami, Sussan Tahmasebi, Fariba Mohajer, and many others. Through them, NPR listeners have heard about the invincible strength of Iranian women.
In the course of covering women’s issues we have interviewed young and old, secular intellectuals as well as conservative Muslim women such as Azam Taleghani whose father was a contemporary of Khomeini and helped bring about the Islamic Revolution.  In this way, I believe our stories have reflected the glory and anguish of a range of Iranian women.

In June 2009, as a Senior Producer at NPR and through my ancestry and connections in Iran, I followed hundreds of texts, tweets, emails and status updates from the front lines of the disputed Iranian elections. Iranians embraced social media like never before, becoming the sole outlet for news escaping from a closed government. I found a media sea-change taking place: unprecedented, direct communication and information that flowed over and around any effort to suppress it. One particularly prescient email from Iran read: “Forward this to your friends. You are the media.”  Later, I collected and shaped the messages that poured out of Iran and structured them with interviews, reportage and photographs into a series of presentations around the country called – YOU ARE THE MEDIA – documenting yet another milestone in Iran’s political history and a major turning point in the swiftly-changing nature of news and media around the world.

What do you see as the future of American journalism?

In January 2012, I was on the Selection Committee for Localore , a new nationwide public media initiative that aims to discover fresh storytelling models blending old and new media and to forge new pathways between public radio stations and their local communities. Innovation in digital news is happening at a rapid pace. We continue to look for ways to produce and deliver compelling news and cultural information relevant to multicultural communities both on the radio and online. In the future, I hope to be producing quality multicultural content for millions who are searching for quality content on their portable devices. I have also been studying the mobile platform and ways in which we can significantly impact this critical emerging public media space.