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