I joined the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) in March 1981 (back then it was still called by its original pre-revolution name, Pars). My aunt, Laleh Bakhtiar, knew the head of the English section and was determined to get me a job. She had become my de facto parent since I arrived unannounced at her Tehran home a few months prior.
I was barely 19 and living with relatives who wondered when I was going to get a life. All I did was buy every newspaper and magazine I could get my hands on and take pictures of the revolution parading in front of my eyes.
I had left home to join the revolution in early summer 1980, after graduating from Wurtzburg American High School for dependents of American military staff in Kitzingen, Germany (my step-father was an Indian who joined the military to get his U.S. citizenship faster).
My only source of income, other than selling Auntie Laleh's English translations of Ali Shariati's books on the sidewalk in front of Terhan university wearing my wool Samad-Behrangi hat and olive u.s.-military jacket (the popular "over-kot"), was a hundred dollars or two my mother wired every not so often.
Auntie Laleh and I arrived at the news agency. It was on the fourth floor of the main office opposite Dorahi Yousefabad on Vali Asr Ave, upper-mid-town Tehran. Mr Arbabi, the jolly head of the English section, welcomed us. He was a leftover from the old regime, with no deep sympathies for the theocratic victors, but trying to earn a living.
"This is my nephew Mohammad," Auntie Laleh said, referring to me by my new name (JahanSHAH did not sound so appropriate at the time). "His English is very good," she added.
My English was not very good. Never has been. But the news agency needed translators. Some of the veteran staff had fled and some had been fired because they were deemed too pro-Shah or not too pro-Khomeini. The remainder had little enthusiasm for the new regime but kept a professional appearance. It wasn't easy praising a bunch of mullahs overnight, after years of praising a bunch of royals.
State news agencies want people who can serve the state. And the best servants are believers who work not for material or professional gain, but out of loyalty and passion for the revolution. I got the job.
News was transmitted from the Persian news room to the English section by telex. We would pick the most important news and translate it on an IBM ping-pong-ball typewriter. The copy editor (almost always an American) would go over it and hand over the final draft to the telex operator who would use a big Siemens telex machine to record the text on paper ticker tape. After a final spell check, the tape would be sent to the telex room where rows of machines transmitted the news to major international media organizations.
Foreign wire services did not have the staff or freedom of movement to cover Iranian events independently. They all relied on IRNA as their primary source. When we transmitted an "urgent" news item, we would rush to the telex machines to see which news agency -- Reuters, Associated Press, or Agence France Press -- would pick it up first. It gave a sense of importance that the world relied on us for news out of Iran.
One night my colleague Khosro Soltani and I were at the end of our shift and getting ready to go home. It was around 10 pm when the phone rang. Someone at the Persian news room told us to check the fax machine. "It's a statement from Jamaran," he said. "Send it immediately to (foreign) news agencies." We watched the fax paper slowly sliding out. It was a few lines in Khomeini's handwriting; the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
I translated, Khosro edited, and the news was off in a few minutes:
U R G E N T
Imam Khomeini: Salman Rushdie must die
Tehran, Feb 14, 1989 (IRNA) -- ...
And I ran to see which news agency picked it up first.
I was not just a bearer of bad news.
I was at the IRNA office in London just a few months before the fatwa, around September 1988. I noticed that all the Sunday newspaper magazines carried features on Rushdie and his new novel, The Satanic Verses. Reviews focused on literary merits, but there was also mention of the famous dream sequence about Mohammad and the whores. At the same time there were small protests in Britain's Muslim communities against the book.
At this point no one in Iran had heard of the book. No one cared. Being a top-notch journalist (!) I thought, hey, this is a REALLY controversial book. Iranians should know about it. Let's have a little debate going... blah blah blah. So I bought it and took it to Iran.
How the heck did I know what's going to happen?>>> Part 3
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