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The Iranian Women in American Journalism Project (IWAJ): Scheherezade Faramarzi

The Iranian Women in American Journalism Project (IWAJ): Scheherezade Faramarzi

Shaz Faramarzi

Introduction by Azadeh Moaveni:

Scheherezade Faramarzi is a celebrated veteran correspondent whose over three decades of reporting for the Associated Press (AP) has spanned from North Africa to Pakistan. Long respected in the field for her profound understanding of the Middle East and keen reportorial eye, she remains one of the most authoritative journalistic observers of the region. Faramarzi, known as Shaz to her friends, descends from a prominent line of Iranian journalists; her great-uncle founded the most distinguished Iranian newspaper of the past century, Kayhan, in the 1940s, and her father was a career journalist and diplomat. Shaz entered the field as the Iranian revolution kicked off in 1979, and her first stories covered the rise of Khomeini’s regime and the Iran-Iraq War that broke out shortly after.

From a tiny AP office in Beirut, her reporting single-handedly conveyed Iran’s side of the carnage to the world, and her fluency in Arabic and contacts inside Iran helped her produce the most important stories on the hostage crises in both Tehran and Lebanon. Shaz covered the Lebanese civil war, the rise of the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and countless other major conflicts all the way up to the recent Iraq War and the uprising in Bahrain.

Throughout her career, Shaz has looked beyond the standard narrative of conflict, exploring through her stories how war disfigures daily life, and how ordinary people caught up in larger battles – over sect, tribe, honor – struggle in extraordinary ways. Modest to fault, never eager to burnish her reputation on someone else’s war, Shaz never presented herself as the enormously influential journalist she was. I met her in Cairo in 1998, and only gradually discovered the impressive scope of her career. She never whispered a word of it, but Robert Fisk learned his way around Lebanon by following her around on interviews; the late Anthony Shadid often said she was one of the journalists he most admired  in the Middle East. As a young reporter, I had the immense luck to learn the trade at Shaz’s side; from Beirut to Basra, she seemed to know the history, languages, and geography of wherever we were better than most experts, and had an uncanny knack for finding the individuals to make the stories come alive.

One day in Najaf Iraq, she led us through the rainy streets to the Ayatollah Khomeni’s former house, needling the seminarian who lived there about the future of Iraq, its relations with Iran, and the prospects for women (the seminarian’s wife was stuck up on the second floor, but Shaz called out to her from the courtyard, interviewing her from across the house). In all the years before and since, I’ve never met another reporter as accomplished and fiercely devoted to telling the truth.

Where were you born?   

I was born in Tehran, Iran in 1954.

How did you end up in the journalism profession? Tell us about your journey to your long career at AP.

Journalism has deep roots in my family. My late father, Hassan Faramarzi – though a diplomat – had been a career journalist and did not stop writing until his passing in 2005. His uncle, Abdulrahman Faramarzi, founded Iran’s largest independent and liberal newspaper, Kayhan, in 1943 and became one of the most respected – and controversial – journalists in the country. (After the revolution, the regime seized Kayhan, which has become the mouthpiece of the clerical rulers and the most influential publication in the country.)  He also founded a few other liberal newspapers before Kayhan but those publications were short-lived and were shut down by the government.

During his journalistic career, my father was reporter and editor at a few major newspapers and magazines. As a young journalist, he covered the parliament, which was lively and vibrant in those days, mainly because of Mohammad Mossadegh, an enormously popular and democratically elected prime minister, whose theatrics was not only fun to watch and report but also grabbed headlines. One of his famous stints was pretending to faint when a bill he introduced failed to receive support in the House.

Even before I knew I had it in me to be a journalist, my father in so many ways steered me toward the profession. When I was in my late teens he set up an interview for me with the late Queen Alia of Jordan and later with Miss Lebanon. He wrote an in-depth analysis in Kayhan under my byline and next to a mug shot of me – without my knowledge – on Egypt after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Despite his efforts, I chose to study sociology with the goal of eventually working for the Unicef. But throughout my studies in England, the most frequent feedback from my professors were that my style was very journalistic. At the same time, living in England introduced me to a free and critical press and television documentaries. Over the years, through the media, I came to learn how oppressive my country was and to appreciate the intellectual freedom I enjoyed in England.

When I graduated in Sociology in 1977, news was ripe about turmoil in Iran. I spent the summer with my parents in Lebanon, where my father was a diplomat, waiting for my papers to go to the United States to do postgraduate studies in Mass Media and Documentaries. But the news from Iran was getting more exciting by the day and I decided to go to Iran and witness history unfold. What was more important than real-life experience of one of the most important event of the latter part of that century?

I got a job with the English-language Tehran Journal as a reporter and soon my journalistic career took off with the most dramatic story in the world. Shortly afterward, however, my paper joined the rest of the country in a nationwide strike that crippled the country.

Extremely disappointed with the turn of events  – the installment of a clerical regime and the subsequent restriction on freedoms – I decided to leave for Beirut, Lebanon on Sept. 7, 1980, a year and seven months after the triumph of the revolution. I landed a weekend job as a radio monitor of Arabic broadcasts with The Associated Press news agency. That only lasted one weekend.

On Monday Sept. 20, Iraq attacked Tehran. AP, as all the other American news organizations, had been expelled from Iran in the wake of the seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages.  With no access to first-hand reporting from Iran, the AP relied on reports by the official Pars news agency (later renamed the Islamic Republic News Agency or IRNA) and the BBC monitor of state-run Tehran radio. The reports, which only reflected government line, were handled by AP’s London bureau. Any independent news out of Tehran would have been valuable for the AP whose main competitors, Reuters and AFP, had offices in Tehran.

I carried a tiny blue journal of Iranian calendar in my purse. In it, there was a list of emergency numbers. An official at the Revolutionary Guards Corps gave me some quotes about the attack. I also called several hospitals to get an estimate of the casualties. I translated every word from the radio.

And so the Beirut office, headquarters of AP’s Middle East operation, took over the coverage of Iran from London and I became the sole source of independent news of the most important story of the time. As the only Persian speaker outside Iran – and throughout the world – who worked for an international media at the time, my job was very demanding.

Throughout the weeks that followed, I developed a remarkable network of telephone contacts in Iran – including senior officials at major government and military institutions, the Parliament, Khomeini’s office, the presidency, the prime ministry and the chief of staff command headquarters who gave me valuable information on the progress on the war. Three weeks after I started with the AP, I conducted my first interview with President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. I interviewed Bani-Sadr twice more before he was impeached and fled the country in the summer of 1981.

Among other senior officials I interviewed was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader who succeeded Khomeini after his death in 1989, Rafsanjani, Bazargan, Qotbzadeh, Khalkhali, PM Rajai and almost every leader.

My coverage of Iran was by no means limited to the war. I quickly turned to pressing stories such as the continued holding of 52 U.S. hostages and the complex negotiations for their release, including interviewing the hostage takers and negotiators.

The hostages’ release was not the end of the hectic coverage of Iran. The war with Iraq raged on; internal politics deepened and violence and mayhem engulfed the country.

Despite the stories I produced for the AP – including numerous scoops – I had refrained from using my byline for fear of repercussions against my family, who still lived in Iran.  For almost a year, I was an anonymous reporter covering Iran from Lebanon. I was not at all concerned about fame and becoming a star, but was content with getting the stories out – without so much as recognition even from my own colleagues in Lebanon.

That’s why I was disturbed when journalists were thrilled to use the tragedies of Lebanon, for example, to make a name for themselves. The stories we were getting were all unhappy – of war, blood and death – so there was no glory in becoming famous at the expense of other peoples’ miseries. I was not yet familiar with the culture of glorifying war correspondents that was prevalent in America or has become dominant today. I was at times ridiculed for being too sensitive toward the suffering of people and for crying for them. My boss had advice for me early on: if you want to stay a journalist you have to get used to the cruelties of life. I told him the day I stopped crying or caring I would give up journalism. I have kept that vow.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, I stopped covering Iran and switched to daily war reporting. No sooner had the PLO left Lebanon that more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians were massacred by Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.

In the fall of 1985, I moved to Cyprus to where the AP Mideast headquarters later transferred and resumed covering Iran from thousands of miles away.

With the kidnapping of AP’s bureau chief Terry Anderson in March 1985, I took a personal interest in trying to find any possible way to help his release – which meant establishing valuable contacts with Iranians who had close ties to the regime. Through those contacts I was able to learn a great deal about behind-the-scenes negotiations through third-parties, including the talks that led to the Iran-Contra scandal.

But I would not publish them because we did not want to jeopardize any chance of Anderson’s release. Even when I did learn from my contacts that Robert McFarlane and Oliver North were on a secret trip to Iran in May 1986 to negotiate with senior Iranian officials, I kept quiet until a Lebanese magazine published it on Nov. 4 that year.

When it became public, I wrote some of the yet unreported details of America’s arms sales to Iran. The money from the arms sales was later channelled to Contra rebels in Nicaragua and almost toppled Reagan’s Administration.

Cyprus, however, did not provide me with the stories I enjoyed doing. I was at my best as a field reporter. Because of my Iranian passport, there were very few countries that would give me work visa. Pakistan was one of them.

I moved to Islamabad in October 1987. Because I spoke Persian, my main task was to cover the U.S.-backed Afghan Mujahedeen exiles in Pakistan who were fighting the Soviet occupation of their country.

However, my first story from Pakistan was about a Pakistani woman who was sentenced to be stoned for adultery. Press clippings of the AP story attached to protest letters poured into Pakistani embassies around the world prompting the re-examination of Shahida’s case. The sentence was swiftly commuted and Shahida was released from jail.

From Pakistan, I emigrated to Canada. Shortly afterward, I began work at the Globe & Mail newspaper as a copy editor on its foreign desk. I retuned to the Middle East five years later and lived in several places, including Jerusalem, Cairo, Iran, London, Iraq, Morocco, and Lebanon. In the course of my career, stories on human rights abuses, including the torture and execution of children by the Iranian government, drew the ire of Iranian authorities, keeping me away from the country for long years.

Where did you attend school? 

I went to schools in Iran, Baghdad, Lebanon, Kuwait, and England, where I received what were then called GCEs. I graduated in Sociology from England in 1977

Who were among your sources of inspiration in your journalistic achievements?

My father as I outlined above. His influence on my work continued after I became a professional journalist. I used him as a sounding board when making difficult decisions at work and more than anyone, he was a valuable source of information, putting current affairs into historical context throughout my career as an international reporter covering every major conflict in the Middle East and beyond.

In the course of your career as a woman working in a major international news organization, what have been some of the key challenges that you have encountered?

The disadvantages became more pronounced as I grew into a middle-aged reporter of Middle Eastern background, especially in the Middle East.  Unfortunately, unlike middle-aged male reporters (or sometime Western female reporters) Middle Eastern women are more likely to become invisible, overlooked and less likely to be given their deserved respect and attention. However, one major advantage of being a middle-aged Middle Eastern female reporter in male-dominated conflict areas is that you are seen as genderless. This works to your advantage.  Still, in my view, being a woman reporter – no matter the age – is easier than being a male reporter. Female reporters can go and cover male-occupied spaces, while male reporters cannot. Also, in the Middle East and in Muslim countries, if there’s not the kind of respect women would like to have from men, at least they are treated ‘honorably’ and are frequently ‘protected’ against hostile forces.

How do you think being an Iranian woman or a woman of Iranian descent has played itself out in your career?

I don’t think being Iranian woman per se has made any difference. But being a woman or being an Iranian have helped in many areas and have threatened me in others. In Lebanon in the 1980s, the fact that I was Iranian meant that I was kidnapped twice and I had to hide my identity to a large degree from various militias or even populations. I speak fluent Arabic with a Lebanese accent (and dialect), and it’s hard for the Lebanese to think I am not Lebanese.

Being Iranian was very handy among Shiites in Lebanon and I had exclusive access to the Lebanese Shiite hijackers of a Libyan airliner when I told them I was Iranian. They even escorted me to the hijacked plane on the tarmac.

In Iraq, the various ethnic groups immediately assumed I was Lebanese because of my Arabic and were too eager to consider me of their religious background – Sunnis, Christians and Shiites.  I never lied to them about my identity but didn’t volunteer information either, especially when among Sunnis hostile to Iranians.

My Persian has been useful in the oddest places, as in remote villages of China near the Pakistan border.

There were personal costs of being an Iranian reporter in the Arab world in the early 1980s: homelessness, not being accepted/or being suspected by all side, alienation and discrimination. The discrimination was from employers of American news organizations with the way they treated local journalists and trying to keep them local, underpaid and not allow them to grow or promote them even though they were/are the backbone of their operations and without them none of the Americans and Westerners can do their job there.

What was it like to report from Iran?

Iranians are very easy to report on. Average people are always willing to talk – and even be identified. Even officials are not so hard to speak to. Of course, they’re not as easy as they were in the early years of the revolution when most of them were quite forthcoming in their telephone interviews and some were willing to reveal, for instance, some technical details of the Iran hostage negotiations, to the extent that our Washington bureau, which was handling the American side of the talks, often asked me what U.S. officials were telling the Iranians through third parties.

How do you think the Arab Spring will impact women’s social status in the Arab/Islamic world?

I don’t think the Arab uprisings will necessarily benefit women per se. women, especially in Egypt and Bahrain were a great part of the movement, but their role in society will remain for the time the same.

Do you consider yourself an optimist?

I have considered myself an optimist, but as a journalist I have grown more and more sceptical, which I think is necessary if you are reporting and writing on events and putting them into historical context especially following the 9/11. Some of the classical journalistic rules of independence and objectivity have since been compromised in mainstream North American media for fear of appearing insensitive or unpatriotic to the American audience. Skepticism is rarely exercised. The media lost much of its critical approach to authority and became too close to the centers of power. Reporters rarely ask tough questions, they don’t grill officials who have lied in the past. Context and historical background or explanation as to why major events take place are largely absent.

Nowhere has this transformation become as pronounced and un-apologetic as in the demonization and dehumanization of Middle Eastern and Muslim people. In order to be able to cover the Arab uprisings, journalists must have good knowledge of these countries’ modern history (all former colonies of Western powers), culture and language. The Arabic language is spoken in 23 countries, many of which are routinely front-page news. It’s a good investment to learn the language and the history thoroughly. Journalists should be scholars in their fields.

Ten years from now, what kind of an Iran do you envision?

Despite the continuous bad news from Iran, including the 2009 election, I am very optimistic about Iran – as long as foreign powers do not interfere in any way, especially militarily to change the regime.

I think the Iranian people are capable of making changes on their own, however slow it may be. What is happening in Iran today is something that has to happen for the process to continue and lead to a desired outcome.