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S.A. native relishes her work in Iran

By Marina Pisano
San Antonio Express-News
November 19, 2000

Like any working journalist, when Geneive Abdo heads out to an assignment, she takes along the tools of the trade - notebook, tape recorder, research materials. But she doesn't leave the house without donning a black, head-to-toe garment that limits mobility and renders her suitably modest, shapeless and anonymous: the conservative Muslim veiling called the chador.

Perhaps surprising to American women, she wears it by choice, often throwing on a pair of sweat pants underneath. A San Antonio native and correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, Abdo says she is the only U.S. journalist working in male-dominated Iran. Because the United States doesn't have normal diplomatic relations with Iran, American journalists working for U.S. news organizations aren't allowed to be based there.

With about a dozen years of reporting experience in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, Abdo's special field of interest is Islam, and she writes mainly about religion and politics, two arenas inextricably linked in Iran. For many, her articles provide revealing glimpses into a mysterious, little-understood world.

Abdo's American husband, Jonathan Lyons, writes for the Reuters news agency, and they've lived in a beautifully furnished home in a walled compound in Tehran for 21/2 years. Over coffee in a local restaurant recently she talked about her all-consuming work and their always intriguing, sometimes challenging life there. And about her new book.

"No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam" (Oxford University Press, $25, is based on hundreds of interviews conducted during Abdo's travels through Egypt from 1993 to 1998.

The book defies the conventional American wisdom that all Islamics are extreme militants and terrorists. Instead, it traces the rise of a moderate, peaceful "quietist" Islamic movement among ordinary people that is transforming Egyptian society despite, Abdo says, the repressive efforts of President Hosni Mubarak.

Everyone asks, she says. But no, being a female reporter in Iran isn't an issue. There are Iranian women journalists there, and she is accepted as a professional.

"In fact, some of the clerics go out of their way to be more accommodating to avoid any suggestion that somehow they don't want to be interviewed by a woman. The discrimination (against women) happens in much more subtle ways and especially socially."

Women can't be president or judges or Supreme Leader, the all-powerful cleric who can veto parliamentary legislation. But women are in society, attending the universities, holding jobs and entering the professions. Still - like the female medical students stuck in gender-segregated classes with second-tier professors -they want greater equity.

A Lebanese-American and a Christian, Abdo, 40, grew up in Monte Vista and graduated from Incarnate Word High School. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin and was later a fellow at Princeton University's Program for Near Eastern Studies.

Starting out as a staff writer at Newsday and the Baltimore Evening Sun, she went on to cover the Middle East for the Dallas Morning News from 1993 to 1996. Before that, she reported the fall of the Soviet Union for Reuters.

Reporting from Iran requires support. She takes a translator on assignments - she speaks some Arabic but not Farsi, the Persian language of Iran. And she has a driver because driving in congested Tehran can be hair-raisingly dangerous and legally risky. "If you are in an accident, you can be severely punished."

Over the years, Abdo had visited Iran and worn veiling briefly. But wearing it for several years has been confining, she says.

Her chador was specially made. The inner layer of veiling covers the head and hair. A long cape - hers has sleeves - is draped over that. The face is not covered. She also wears a less conservative form of veiling, basically a head scarf and long, loose overcoat, at times. Veiling may be made of crepe or other fabric.

"As a Western woman, veiling gives you a completely different identity," she says. "It has a great psychological effect."

Veiling also smooths the interview process. "I wear the stricter form of chador when I see clerics. It's a concession they know I'm making as a Western woman. I think it just puts people at ease. My mission is to blend in."

Abdo says she blends in so well that while covering street demonstrations, Jonathan can't find her.

Wealthy women wear fashionable designer clothes and lots of gold jewelry at private dinner parties, and there's even a stab at chic in the colorful scarves increasingly seen in this landscape of black.

But contrary to what Americans might think, Iranian women want some sort of veiling in public, Abdo says. In a paternalistic society, it gives them a measure of protection in the work place, eliminating sex and femininity as issues. "The question is what does this say about men in these societies? The men are very sexist. The challenge is to change the attitudes of men."

Daily life is comfortable for this news-reporting couple, but it is comfort driven by necessity. They have a housekeeper and cook, a must in Iran, where shopping for food and preparing a meal is an all-day job.

Dinner at the home of friends usually means tasty Iranian chicken or lamb dishes. But as journalists in a highly formal society, they can't socialize with officials and people they interview. Their friends are mostly Westernized Iranians.

"It's this whole kind of subculture that exists in the rich district of North Tehran," she relates. Many are professors or professionals who left Iran during the revolution and now have returned to retire.

"These rich Iranians drink, they watch videos which they're not supposed to do, and the authorities leave them alone as long as they don't become involved in politics. Most are very fearful of the regime."

As Abdo sees the philosophical differences in Iran: "The hard-liners believe the state should decide your relationship with God. But (reformist) President (Mohammad) Khatami believes people should be allowed a lot of freedom" about how religion works in their lives.

In "No God But God," Abdo describes how Egypt is in the forefront of a wider regional movement in which moderate, reformist Islamic sheiks are gaining large numbers of followers and influence. Their power threatens the secular government backed in the West. But she argues Islam and democracy are not incompatible.

"Once Mubarak leaves power, we will have to come to terms with these (religious) leaders. If not, we'll wake up and find another Iran of 20 years ago."

Currently, she is researching a book on Iran, acknowledging the repression, but examining distortions about the country.

Working in Iran is a plum, "frontier" assignment, Abdo says. "There are very few places in the world that haven't been trampled by journalists and photographers. It is key to understanding the Muslim world."

Still the couple may move on in a few months. After so many years in Third World countries, they want to get back to a more Western life and a healthier, less polluted environment.

The intensity of working in Iran is wearing. "In Cairo you can do research in the ghetto and a mile away there is something familiar," Abdo says of that city's cinemas, restaurants, English universities and Western residents. Not so in Tehran.

For someone focused on Islam and Islamic states, it is like living in a great laboratory.

"The problem is you can't close the door to the laboratory," Abdo says. "When you go home, you're still a scientist. There's no escape in Iran."

Geneive Abdo works in Tehran for a British newspaper, the Guardian.


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