Letter from Denmark, 8 August 2009

Dear all,

Five weeks in after our exit from Iran, and two weeks into our stay in Denmark, I feel I owe several of you an update on our adventures. I also use the opportunity to apologise for not having answered many individual messages and responses, but we’re still a bit in holiday mood and I can’t push myself too much to write lengthy messages. I’ll try to remedy this over the next weeks, promise. Or will call.

In the past month or so, we have spent two weeks in Israel, several days in Austria, a few days in Munich and Wittenberg (a small town in Eastern Germany, famed notably for Mr Luther having pinned his world-changing theses to the local church there some 500 years ago), and two weeks in Denmark, just two dozen miles north of Copenhagen.

From all of these places, there are individual stories to tell, and I want to do so over the next couple of weeks in a few separate Letters. However, let’s roll up these last days backwards.

We are currently living in a tent on a camp site not far from the Øresund (Ø pronounced like the German or Turkish Õ, if that is of any help for native English speakers), the part of the Baltic sea that abuts the Seeland part of Denmark in the East. The place is called Nivå (Å being pronounced like some sort of hollow A, a mix between O and A, I understand).

We have everything we need – a family-sized tent, electricity, Internet, go-carts, a rented car, and an overpriced shop nearby, not to mention loads of bugs and ever-changing company from the classic nations of camping: the Netherlands, Germany, occasionally France, Sweden and Norway. Spotted some Brits, a Spaniard and an Italian family today as well – but they are traditionally transitory, going further East the next day. And, obviously, it’s full with Danish campers. In fact, they are the majority – it seems, many Danes spend their summers driving from camp site to camp site in their own country, which is a heart-warming thing to witness, because truly: Denmark is beautiful.

If ever we doubted why we came here – and we did, every time we made a purchase and realised that buying a standard Austrian wine costs 4 times as much as “at home”, or when filling up the car could nearly run up to as much as the price of a used car in other countries – we were vindicated by the great Danish country-side. Copenhagen is a relaxed capital city, and it seems that one can have a great time there – but honestly, so far we haven’t really bothered. Rather, we walked the sandy Baltic beaches, jumped into icy-cold lakes, hiked on dark forest paths, and paddled canoes along Mangrove-style water channels that lie so still and quiet that it comes as a beautiful shock when large herons rise from the trees to disappear into the sky, majestically pushing out their wings.

So far to the romantic. All in all, we really like it here, and we are working on mastering the Four Main Perceived Disadvantages as we go along: majestic prices, great taxes, a very special language and a bit of unusual weather. As for the latter, we so far had only one really rainy day, with the remainder warm and sunny, sometimes even hot. We marveled at the fact that it was possible to feel as hot in Denmark at 27C as it was in Israel or Iran at 42C. Must be something about the humidity. We were worried that summer is over here end of July, but so far we have been proven wrong. Remark, one of the main dailies, “Berlingske Tidenden,” ran a headline the other day that climate change was actually benefiting Denmark, what with all the tourism income it could expect. Runs somewhat counter to our declared interest in the country as a forerunner in the fight against climate change and CO2 emissions. Brilliant.

As for other news, we have spent the first two weeks intermittently with the search for accommodation. From Tehran, the options seemed to be endless, and terribly enticing – the pictures shown on the websites offered brick structures with clear and clean Scandinavian design inside, white floor-boarding, large gardens, terraces with fruit trees in abundance – Karen Blixen heaven. However, once we mastered the art of dividing the prices by 7 to get to the “real” Euros – times tables coming in handy here – we were in for a shock.

Having adjusted our expectations somewhat – after all, we’re here to set up a business – we managed to find a house that could be described as Scandinavian Modern, with a lovely large garden, in an area that is in walking distance to a large park, 3 km away from the sea, and in cycling distance to the next larger town to cater for our Vienna-educated caffeine addiction in the form of a local “Kaffeehaus.” The school run is a bit of a challenge – either 7 km by bike through the woods, or changing the bus twice, or going by bike 3 km to the next train station and then straight to the school – but we’ll manage. Copenhagen is a mere 15 minutes away, by a car that we have chosen not to buy for the first year or so. There is even an inexpensive hotel nearby, in case you want to visit – although we will have a guest room, too. The place is called Kongens Lyngby.

The main drawback so far is that we have a) no contract yet – it is being drawn up according to Danish law as we speak (or so they say), and b) we can only move in on 1 September. That leaves us with several options as to where we will be staying in the meantime. Obviously, it is already a very mad idea to move to a different country without any ties to it and live in a tent until finding a house. Add to this the fact that we will need to get registered with the Danish authorities asap, so as to qualify for health insurance and non-international rates at the school the children are to attend as of next Wednesday (a considerable difference in DKK, let it be said). Hence, we are somewhat under pressure to get going. The question is currently unresolved. However, we wanted an adventure, and there you go.

Tristan and Madelene are adapting very well to the new situation. As expected, they love to be by the sea, to paddle a canoe across the lakes, and to move into a house with a garden where they can pull the pears off before they are ripe and bounce on the giant trampoline until they feel sick or bump violently into each other. They are even looking forward to their new school, somewhat. Quotes:

Tristan: “When is school starting again?”
Alex: “Next Wednesday!”
Tristan: “Oh no…. but Madelene, do you know that in year six, you will have swimming classes!?”
Madelene: “Oh no….”

Georgina and myself are trying to relax – not from Iran anymore, but rather from having to parent these two lil’ ones 24/7 for the last 490 hours, night times not included. Relaxing is not exactly our strength, as some of you might know. Quote:

Georgina: “You know, we’ve had a lot to do these last weeks to learn again to just do nothing: look at the sea, marvel at the landscape, enjoy the holidays… not really sure if we are good at it!”
Alex: No Comment.

So far, little thought has gone into what we are going to do next, with reference to our self-employment and the business we are intending to start. Georgina is also under pressure to get going with her distance degree, which has been a bit dormant over the last two months, owing to the big changes. Since we left Israel, I am only sporadically following the news from Iran, which is practically always depressing, as we expected it to be. Occasionally, Iranian colleagues send over messages reflecting the latest events, but all in all I cannot see the larger picture anymore. In Israel, however, I made some interesting observations with regard to Iran and the link – if one can call it a link – between these two countries. These, I will share in a next epistle.

Up to then – farvel!

The Nitzsche Creatures

Letter from Tehran/Vienna – Epilogue, 4 July 2009

Dear all,

We’re out. On 3 July, at 4.05 in the morning, we caught the plane to Vienna and landed shattered at 6.00 am. Shattered, because we had to get up at 1.00 am to catch the plane three hours later, as is the usual practice in Tehran – nearly all flights start at night, and you have to be there 2 hours in advance, plus one hour to get through the city to the airport. The drive to Imam Khomeini Airport leads you past the overwhelming Imam Khomeini memorial, which sports four oversized Islamic towers at all corners and an enormous building in the middle that houses practically nothing else but his shrine. It is space enough to host millions, and that usually happens once a year, on the day of Khomeini’s death, or demise as it is being referred to regularly in Iran.

Our exit was surprisingly swift and pain-free, unlike at other times. We had no overweight, there was no problem with our passports or visas, and we even didn’t have to wait much at either of the two security check-ups. Shoes stayed on, and my full-metal old-style film camera did not raise any eye-brows. We felt as if we were supposed to leave, but this is rubbish of course. No statement whatsoever was made in reference to the United Nations during the last weeks, at least not in a critical or negative sense. Rather, the Foreign Minister, during his lecture to the international organisations and embassies some weeks ago, referred to the positive record Iran believes to have with the UN, overall. After all, there are 19 different UN agencies in Iran.

It is somewhat strange to be back in the West, after several months in a stretch in Iran. We spent two days with the packers, who put our household into exactly 176 boxes – 27 cube metres – and told us that it would arrive in 2-3 months in Copenhagen. The dispatch is done by sea, excitingly past the pirates that plague the sea between the Arabian peninsula and Africa. We have bought insurance. It felt quite a relief to have all the stuff out of the house and live like campers in our 400 square metre house – campers with style, since the pool was still full and heated. The daily routing of “Allahu Akbars” has not changed and we felt that it has even gained some intensity since it is the only thing they are allowed to do.

My staff, who was overwhelming in their hospitality and friendship over the last days, shared the last titbits of information with me, before I was to be cut off of all news from Iran, like all the rest of you. For one, the feeling of having had their votes stolen persists with all of them, and they are not satisfied with what has so far been offered to them. I am quite sure that it will not take four more years before these feelings break out into the open again. In fact, the youthful protesters among the Iranians I know told me that they now planned a low intensity campaign to not make the last weeks forgotten and lost. They want to spray paint a huge number of walls green in the city; they also sent out a request to everyone they knew to write “Where is our vote?”  on all bank notes everyone gets into their fingers. This is a huge feat because the high inflation in the country (official economic data: roundabout 25%; Ahmadinejad during a pre-electoral TV debate: 15%) everyone regularly handles dozens of notes in cash every day.

In Vienna, a protest march is planned for tomorrow. It seems a bit delayed of the real events in Iran, but clearly the Iranians abroad want to be part of the movement no matter what. I am, however, not sure if the motivation for all those marches is very savoury and in the spirit of the original groups in Iran, given that so many Iranians have been unable (or unwilling, given the political situation there) to go back to the country for many years. I gather that there is a huge disconnect between the Iranian community in Los Angeles and Iran, for instance – the former having left the country shortly after the Shah fled.

I have been walking around town while Georgina has been trying to get back on her feet after she again had a bit of a dizziness attack. It now appears – she saw an Austrian doctor yesterday – that it is much more likely a stress- and burnout syndrome than anything directly related to the balance organ or iron deficiency. Hence, she is trying to take it easy. Anyway, when I was walking around I ran into an Iran-contrast programme; several hundred demonstrators walked up the Viennese city centre, loud pop from the 80’s providing the background music. You guessed it – the Gay Pride parade. I somewhat expected something else after kids held Mousawi-green balloons in their hands, but now – the predominant colour was rainbow, meaning all colours as on the flags for the peace movement.

So, life goes on. On one day walking around the city on a hot summer’s day, you encounter more skin than in Iran in a whole year, and it feels strangely relaxing to be back in a “normal” place. Yet, I would not want to miss the experience – having been to Iran, I mean. I will try to keep contact with Iran, and if there is something interesting to share, I will send you some more news. But for now – we are preparing for two weeks of holidays; I have booked a little Middle Eastern experience for us, of the other kind. On Monday, we’re off to Israel. Shalom!

Best to you all,

The Nitzsche Creatures

Last one from Tehran, 28 June 2009

Dear all,

Time is flying and we are totally preoccupied with packing and endless farewells. Many internationals have already left town, and as one can expect, some departures have been somewhat premature. And I don’t even mean the forced departures – i.e., the British Embassy staff. The British school shut down a week earlier than foreseen, after one week of closing at 12.30 – two hours early – they probably thought it wasn’t worth it anymore. Having spoken to some teachers and other school staff, it appears that the general doom and gloom tangible everywhere else has also touched upon them; the school has traditionally been one of the first targets during past UK-Iranian diplomatic spats, and it is by far not clear whether teachers will receive visas to return after summer. Or whether the school will open at all. But no-one dares pronounce this yet so explicitly.

I have taken some time to continue my little series of letters, and it is not for lack of wanting. But we’re running a bit out of time, and there was also somewhat less to report from my immediate environment. I realise that some of you were worried if we are alright, and others might have been anxious to read the next installment (in my wildest dreams, I know). I also had crazy plans to answer in person all those of you who responded to me – an impossible feat (imagine smiley here). However, I will actually conclude my series with this letter (unless some dramatic news break), but not before I share with you some few tit-bits of information that I have come across in the last days (and without any further brackets).

As most of you will have gathered, things have started to close down in Iran. It is hard to find the correct expression for this, but fact is that Iran has been pushed aside and the headlines are now dominated by Mr Jackson and his early passing. Our Austrian friends tell us that even the weather has suddenly become more important there, but then it is pouring there, to the extent that they had to salvage pieces of art from the Albertina cellars, one of Vienna’s most prestigious galleries.

But overall, it is by far not quiet here. It is true, the demonstrations and protests have ended. The streets have been force-calmed, if you can call it this way, and only the toughest of youth have ventured out to the streets to get beaten up – only a few hundreds last week. What is left? Repression and depression. The former for those arrested, the latter for the others. Well, that is: those others that I meet on a regular basis. Everywhere I go it seems that the happiness has drained out of people, and even the most superficial of “Taroof” greetings (the usual over-friendly and not very sincere politeness/friendliness that is standard between strangers in Iran) is not convincing enough anymore to cover the deep-seated unhappiness they feel. I find it hard to keep up my spirits in the office, and have heard the same from practically all other internationals working in Iran.

All the same, the protesting spirit seems to not want to go away. The people have not much more left now than to continue the 10pm communal “Allahu Akbar” shouting, and lo and behold: it continues, unabated. And this despite stories that I hear that youth volunteers circle the city on motorbikes and spray-paint the houses where the shouts are being heard, or even shoot into the air. This is still happening, every night.

Perhaps this is a good moment to introduce how I think this fits well into the Iranian psyche. It is the flip side of the Iranian habit of mourning, in my opinion. Mourning is a standard element of many Iranians’ or Shiites’ attitude towards the world, and it permeates the day-to-day life here. Be it the dozens of mourning holidays in the year when Iranians take to the streets to flagellate themselves – although in the last years, the authorities have banned too outrageous and blood-thirsty self-beatings as “excessive” – or the very ornate memorial stands that people put up next to their house when family members have passed away, covered with tons of flowers, chains of colourful light bulbs and bands with Islamic slogans. Or be it the public crying ceremonies when Ayatollahs at Friday prayers invoke the days of Ali and Hussein, from way back when they suffered bloody defeat by the Sunnis – as recently happened during the past-election speech given by the Supreme Leader. I watched it with German friends of mine, and we were all stunned to see that at one point, grown men started to shed tears, as if a button had been pressed. All in all, the people on the rooftops do not sound anymore like protesters – they mourn the lost opportunity, the passing moment.

To speak of the former, the kind of repression we hear of is probably the same that you hear of, so I won’t go into it more. I thought it interesting, however, to flag a couple of events in the media and arts, which is traditionally the area I am covering here. For one, the reporting by the official outlets has become much more extreme than previously – reminding me of some time ago in Europe when propaganda was also suddenly a state affair.

One of the most hardline newspapers, for instance, headlined with “People asking for [main presidential opposition candidate’s] blood to compensate for suffering of their loved ones.” Another paper ran a story insinuating that the expelled BBC correspondent was personally involved in orchestrating the much publicised death of the young woman during the demonstrations that recently has become the icon of the protests. They just waited for him to leave the country. Finally, I heard today that actors are being asked one after the other to go before camera to give enthused statements of allegiance to the current government and state of affairs. I can already hear the screams and shouts from my friends at the slander and libel department at the Freedom of the Media office of my previous employer.

As I am determined to not run over two Word pages this time, I will end this letter with answering some fan post questions and latest news of the Creatures. Last things first, this time: Georgina is her normal self again, although we have no idea what threw her down the last time. Listening to all our friends, half the globe is suffering from occasional dizziness attacks, and I am glad that there is so much expertise to draw from, so we finally found the thing that got her better – thanks to you!

The children have had an extraordinarily busy day yesterday – instead of a parents’ farewell, we invited all the kids that have not left town, and they had a great time. At one point, we were 16 kids and 2 parents in the pool. The girls painted their nails and their hair, the boys worked themselves up at the Wii station and a deadly toy device called the “Swing ball”. Yesterday, we also realised that there could be worse than staying here in the summer; i.e. to go back to South Africa. I am sorry to single out a country like this, but it is true that all children from SA at the school said that they felt safe when they are – not with their parents, nor at home – no, when they are not in South Africa. For our friends from down there, the personal freedom they have been able to experience in Iran – even as women – has been a breath of fresh air. That puts a lot into perspective; repression is still different from arbitrary, random and often lethal violence.

And finally, to answer some questions from some of our more 2.0 oriented friends. Yes, we are still cut off everything: no Twitter, no Facebook, no BBC, no ARTE, no YouTube, no SMS. I know, it sounds terrible in the 21st century – it must be a bit like how one felt in the GDR in 1982. Today, I discussed buying a painting with a journalist friend; we talked for about 10 minutes without interruptions. Then we switched to the news of the 8 local British Embassy staff that were arrested today – quickly, our connection was arrested as well, i.e. literally cut off. I didn’t try again. The standing joke in Tehran is about the Finnish diplomat wife who called home from Iran and spoke to her family; after five minutes, a voice cut in and rudely shouted “Can you please speak in ENGLISH!?!”

Well, there I am, at the end of page 2. And it’s time to sort out my shirts, as tomorrow the movers move in and take it all away. Next news to come from Copenhagen, with the latest on the annual Hell’s Angels congregation. That seems to be the most exciting stuff they got. When I was a youth, I heard they attacked another rock’n’bike group with a rocket launcher – not so bad for Denmark, after all.

Al the best to you,

from the Creatures

Letter from Tehran, 21 June 2009

Dear all,

First things first: we are safe and sound. I am sorry I haven’t sent a message around for the last three days, but there was little point repeating what is being said already by BBC and CNN – the heavy-handed speech by the Supreme Leader, the suppression of the protests yesterday night. Although the twitterites have now largely pushed aside the official media reports in the country by being a) faster, b) closer to the action, and c) the direct voice of the people involved, no matter what side.

An eerie quiet has descended on Tehran this morning. It belied entirely the terrible events of last night, which are now also being reported by the State media, “to scare the people”, as one of my colleagues said today. Pictures of the (officially) ten people killed are being shown on IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcaster), captioned “terrorists”. The statements of the Iranians around me speak a different language, obviously.

Whilst we’re talking of the media: All international correspondents, as much pundits as they may be, are confined to their offices. Reuters now puts the caveat on top of its reports that correspondents were not able to leave their offices, hence could not confirm the facts they are sending out. State control tries to be all-pervasive: reports indicate that protesters holding cell phones (to video, photograph, or file to Twitter) were selectively targeted by the security forces. Only State TV cameras from rooftops are permitted. Internet access, Satellite TV – are either barred, filtered or scrambled – the latter done with vans that have had their back seats taken out and replaced with state-of-the-art interference hardware (info from an IT friend of mine, who witnessed these vehicles going from district to district in Tehran, randomly cutting out or blurring signals). Another colleague tells me that it allegedly costs the Iranian state close to US$10,000 per second to maintain this scrambling service. SMS has allegedly been put on again; but, again allegedly, only to better track the protesters via the signals their phones emit. Demonstrators have circulated calls to take out the SIM cards to avoid being tracked.

I am distracted these days, and feeling very serious, too. My wife is still not very well (her dizziness and drowsiness attacks keep on disturbing her daily routine, although she says she is starting to get better. Today was a set-back, though). Then, there is the pressure of packing; as it was considered to be unwise to leave the house yesterday, we spent the day packing up. It felt sort of good, sorting out Playmobil from Lego, but I was always uneasy, the whole day long. In the afternoon, uneasiness turned into worry, as I knew that the demonstrations had started in town and it was clear that a lot of my colleagues were out and about as well. Local staff from other UN agencies even responded to their radio check by stating: “my location is Engelab square” [one of the hot spots yesterday, Engelab meaning, ironically, ‘Revolution’]. My wife had a hard time not to get annoyed with me, checking Twitter updates by the second in-between stirring the pasta.

You will ask yourself: why am I reading this, an account from a non-Iranian who has not even been to the protests himself. I am wondering myself. Fact is, there is little information coming out of Iran at the moment that is very personalised and verifiable. At least you all know me, even if you have met me for a short moment only. Secondly, although I am not allowed to attend the protests (and not keen, and feeling that it would be foolish to do so, in terms of Iranian interests [i.e., who prevents the official side to state “German interference provokes terrorist unrest in Tehran”], I feel that my day-to-day contact with my very good Iranian colleagues and friends gives me a feeling of “I know what I am talking about” (well, sort of). One of my closest colleagues has been locked in a car close to Azadi (“Freedom” – ha!) Square yesterday evening – the place where you can assemble most of Tehran’s citizens with enough elbow space to spare room for a car to pass through, and where many – an unknown number of – protesters were beaten up last night. Another person – someone I had intended to hire sooner or later – was beaten up so seriously by the security forces last week – and he is very tall, probably a head and a half more than myself – that he is confined to bed now! Although he gave me the mildest of impressions when I interviewed him for the job – a moderate person indeed – he got tracked down by Basij and seriously hit with batons. At least, he did not have to go to hospital – from where some of the injured were apparently pulled out to vanish for an indefinite time. One friend person told me that a family she knew was still missing their son – after 72 hours. No idea where he was. No news, no letter, no phone call. That is the reality here now. Apparently, the arrested wrote little messages on minute pieces of paper and reached them outside to the police or bystanders, to at least let their families know what has happened. Last night, the news spread that the embassies had opened their doors to the injured – more secure than the hospitals. Not sure if this was indeed happening.

Since Thursday, the Tehrani weather has imitated the turmoil in the city. Very unusually for mid-June, we had electric storms every evening at around 5pm, with thunder and heavy gales pushing down the mountains and sometimes strong rain showers beating down on the roofs. The way how the skies suddenly darkened every day at practically the same hour and lightning flashed across the horizons, was a spooky companion to what was happening in the streets. One was nearly hoping that people chose to stay home in that kind of weather. Once the storms had passed, the shouts started: last night, the “Allahu Akbar’s” were louder and longer than I can recall before. At the same time, it appears that only several thousand demonstrators braved the security forces yesterday evening, and they knew why; colleagues and friends who were out there tell me that the streets were full with thousands of armed forces. It was not the regular army – they are apparently not deemed trustworthy – no, it was again the usual suspects, plus an irregular group described as an entirely new kind of people, with black hoods over their faces, in black clothes and ready for maximum suppression. A far cry from riot police and even Basij, it seems.

I think it might be time to talk about a truth that many of you outside of Iran have not much cared about until now. A Western friend of mine told me that he was surprised to realize that there was that much opposition in the country against the current regime. Truth is that everyone, EVERYONE I ever met who has come to Iran has been surprised by this country. It is not as fundamentalist, it is not as backward, it is not as married to religion as many of you might have believed. In fact, and I am repeating here a truism that everybody who has been to Iran or who has seriously researched it, is very much aware of: Iran is probably one of the most heterogeneous places in the Middle East (although I believe that Iran also belongs culturally equally to some part to Central Asia and the Caucasus). There is a serious middle class who does not want to be taken for a fool (anymore), there is a conservative, religious element that is very, VERY different to the one prevalent in the countries around, there is a modernist group that is comparable and yet different to the West, and there is an impoverished class that is very large but still not necessarily religiously conservative – in short: it is all very different from what you have believed so far.

To give you an example (and experts, please forgive me for being not extremely precise): 60 per cent or more of the population are youth, with all their radical ideas, with all their wishes for something better, with all their rejection of the old truths, with all their relationship to Tehranangeles (Los Angeles, for the rich/wealthy), with all their boredom of the establishment – poor or not, urban or not, Westernised or not, religious or not; the people are yearning, YEARNING, for a change – even if it is within the currently established system; they do NOT want to be put into the same basket as ANY of the surrounding neighbours, neither Arab nor Afghanistan. And then there is the old-established religious class in Qom – not the homogenous conservative group you might expect, no – full of very diverging ideas indeed, and not at all in all cases very happy with the current state of affairs, i.e. the clergy running the country.

OK, I will stop my political rant here. It seems today was relatively quiet, although we had yet another anti-government protest in front of the UN (to ask the UN to do what it can not – intervene on behalf of democracy) this evening. The last one was on Thursday, but attended by only 200 or so people. Colleagues told me that demonstrators had to ask where our offices actually were in the city. All the heads of international organisations were asked to a meeting with the Foreign Minister this morning, probably to get a thorough run-down of the official position. The meeting was on State TV barely two hours after it had finished.

Predictions are that the protests will go on – but that’s far from clear. Everybody is waiting to see what the opposition candidates will do next; I heard some suggestions of a nation-wide strike.

Al the best to you,

from the Creatures