15 Questions with Nazila Fathi

Nazila Fathi
Delphine Rodrik

Born and raised in Tehran, Nazila Fathi is a Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Before comingto Harvard, she worked in Iran as a journalist for The New York Times and other publications, until she wasforced to flee during the 2009 protests after threats from the Iranian government.

1. Fifteen Minutes: Did you always know you would become a journalist?

Nazila Fathi: The first time I fell in love with journalism was when I saw that press conference [in Iran during which Geraldine Brooks was chided by government officials for dressing extremely conservatively]. I realized the power that journalists can indirectly have—the authority, and how politicians could worry about their image in their encounters with reporters.

2. FM: How did you get involved with reporting on Iran for The New York Times?

NF: I started as a translator.... [News publications] had a huge appetite for stories from Iran. [As a stringer] basically I was on call all the time. They used me whenever they needed me. I didn’t get any credit, partially because I didn’t have credentials, and The New York Times had this policy until early 2000 that they wouldn’t give credit to stringers.

3. FM: What were some of the challenges that you faced as a reporter? How did you work around them?

NF: Part of [my work] was very secretive for one or two years at the beginning, but then things started to change because the government started valuing us because they knew who we were. I was summoned to the Intelligence Ministry and questioned, grilled.... We were showing a more human image of Iran to people. Until then, reporters were coming to Iran, and they were taking pictures of murals of martyrs on the walls, anti-American and anti-Western slogans on the walls, but then through us they started talking to people who expressed very pro-American feelings, and so the stories became much more different.

4. FM: At your talk you spoke mostly about your experience during the 2009 elections. What was one of the more memorable stories you covered before that?

NF: The first massive celebration demonstration was over the victory of Iran’s football team [which qualified them] for the 1998 World Cup. That was the first time that people saw that, “Oh my God, we can come out in huge numbers,” and the government was terrified. I mean, even traffic police, they were dancing on the roofs of their cars, throwing their hats in the air. It was just a spontaneous, massive celebration. It was then that people realized that they could appear in public in massive numbers, and the first political demonstrations started in 1999.

5. FM: What was it like for you to cover the 2009 election as an Iranian?

NF: I still believe it was the most important event in our recent history, other than the 1979 Revolution. I don’t think anything has shaken the foundation of the Islamic regime as much as those protests. I grew up in Iran, and for 30 years I wanted to see real change in my country. We’re not talking only about political freedom; we’re talking about very basic rights being taken away from people, especially women...as a woman, as someone who has lived in a repressive society, I was dying to see real change. And I was absolutely excited and happy to see those uprisings; I couldn’t believe the government wouldn’t back down. And deep in my heart, I was waiting. I was waiting for the government to back down, even just to hold new elections. That’s all people wanted. But they didn’t, and the violent crackdown started a week after, so it was a combination of joy and excitement first, then a sense of disappointment and betrayal.

6. FM: What was it like to leave Iran?

NF: I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to go back when I was leaving.... I felt like I was betraying my people, that I shouldn’t be leaving. Towards the last three days when my house came under surveillance, I realized that I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have internet; my phone was tapped; I couldn’t leave my house.... I thought I would leave and things would be completely normal again after a few weeks’ time, and I would come back. I thought the hundreds of people who were arrested would be released after a couple of weeks.... I was writing stories, and we still thought we would go back. It honestly took me about six months to realize we wouldn’t be able to go back.

7. FM: What were you doing during those six months?

NF: I went to Canada. We had lived in Canada previously, and it was like a second home for us. I wasn’t thinking of putting my kids in school until a week before September, then I suddenly realized that they had to go to school. People were being gradually released—friends, people I knew—and they kept contacting me and warning me not to go back, [telling me about] the fabricated stories that the government had made up, that I was part of the ring that wanted to overthrow the regime, that I was behind the protests. I realized it didn’t make sense to go back.

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