Room For Discussion

Three years ago, around summertime, the mother of my (at that time) boyfriend offered me to join them on a trip to Iran the following year. Very enthusiastically, she said: “I could teach you a couple of words in Farsi (Persian language), so you could meet the whole family!”. I was of course honoured, but above all amazed. I tried to picture myself in a hot dusty desert, wearing a headscarf and a long skirt, stared at by men with dark beards because of my blond hair, freckles, and light eyes. The thought of me going to Iran became even weirder after hearing stories of my former boyfriend who, after being on a family visit to Iran for a month, got annoyed with all the strict rules: no alcohol, no Facebook, no shorts, no smoking in public places, etc. I couldn’t even imagine being allowed to go to such a country, let alone enjoying a vacation there.

But when I saw the documentary series ‘Onze man in Teheran’ (‘Our man in Tehran’), my view about Iran changed right away — even so drastically that I immediately decided to search Skyscanner for cheap tickets to Tehran. So after reading Room for Discussion’s announcement about the visit of Thomas Erdbrink (the maker of the documentary series) on the 1st of October, I immediately clicked the ‘going’ button on Facebook.

Thomas’ astonishment about the amount of people who showed up at this RfD-session led to a spontaneous ambience

Last Thursday, that day came! After claiming a nice spot in the fourth row of chairs, I grabbed my notebook and pen, and looked around a little bit to capture the kind of audience in the crowded ground floor of the E-building. At exactly one o’clock the interview started, and from the first moment on you could feel the relaxed and informal vibe on stage. This casual feeling was strengthened further when Mr. Erdbrink told the polite interviewer Amrit, that he could just call him Thomas. But Thomas’ astonishment about the amount of people who showed up at this RfD-session led to a spontaneous ambience too. The question to the audience as to who had seen the documentary series ‘Onze man uit Teheran’ was therefore a logical one. I couldn’t even spot one person who did not raise his/her hand, which got a ‘wow’ out of Thomas. But what exactly is the reason for this great success? Why did so many people show up this day? And especially: what is the secret behind the hit of this documentary series?

Why Tehran?
The logical first question to ask Thomas was: why Tehran? Thomas went to Iran for his final thesis for the academy of journalism. He found the ambience in Tehran to be extremely dynamic (among other things) because of the significantly high rate of young people. Most students from villages in Holland — he really wanted to make clear he comes from Leiden, not from Leiderdorp — already find it adventurous to find a job in Amsterdam, but Thomas decided to go back to the energetic Tehran. As a correspondent, he has been working for NRC Handelsblad from 2002 until now, for the Washington Post from 2008 until 2012, and he currently also works as one of the few Western journalist as Tehran Bureau Chief for the New York Times. But surely, and indeed, not only work convinced him to stay in Tehran. He found love and married the obstinate and independent Iranian photojournalist Newsha Tavakolian.

An inside view of Iran

Mr Knevel asked the question if Thomas was living in a ‘real’ house in Iran

The next question from the interviewers to the audience was: “How many of you now have a different view of Iran after seeing the documentary?”. Apart from the Iranian visitors, a lot of people raised their hands again. Although Thomas wanted to make clear that it was not his main purpose to divide people in terms of how they think about his country, once in an interview with Andries Knevel (a Dutch journalist) it became quite clear that people had a redundant perspective about the country. Mr Knevel namely asked the question if Thomas was living in a ‘real’ house in Iran, which indicated that some people may think that Iranians were living in tents or maybe even in caves. In answering how it is possible to stand this close to the locals and even make jokes with them, Thomas said that living in a country in which they are not really happy about the fact that you live there, triggers you to do the best you can to adapt yourself and integrate — learn the language, follow the rules, and adapt to the openness and the jokes of the Iranians. This dispels another misconception about the Iranian population. In general, when Western people think about Iranians, they see angry men with long dark beards and crying women in black chadors, said Thomas. “But Iranians are really damn funny! They are amazingly easy in social intercourse.” 

“Iranians are really damn funny!”

After that, the well-prepared interviewers made a remark that after the Revolution in 1979 — the time Iran turned into an Islamic state — some things in Iran just modernised, like the enormous increase in the amount of women who went to universities, as you can clearly see in the documentary series: educated, independent women. Both from this interview and from the documentary, it becomes clear that Iran has modernised a lot, but the laws haven’t changed since 1979, resulting in a society that tries to avoid legislation in every possible way.

Limitations of this kind of journalism
The interviewer Dylan asked the surely relevant and appropriate question whether there were also aspects Thomas couldn’t show in this documentary series. This question was answered by an undoubted ‘yes’. One example was the partying youth in Tehran. Because of the prohibition of alcohol and the non-existence of clubs in the capital, parties of the youth take place in people’s homes. He decided to cut this social part of the youth out of the documentary because he knew people could get into trouble by showing this. Besides, Thomas is not a come-and-go-journalist in Tehran; he would like to stay there, and preferably not be hated by all kinds of people. Also, in such a short time, it is just not possible to show every aspect of any country, let alone as big and complex as Iran.

It was initiated by America as a last chance to prevent another failed state in that area

Another aspect that is not discussed in the documentary, but this time due to its actuality, is the nuclear deal between Iran, the US, and six other world powers — a subject that could surely not be covered in a RfD-session. This deal is about the redesign and reduction of Iran’s nuclear facilities, in order to lift the economic sanctions implemented in 2006. Thomas said that he was extremely surprised about this deal. In his view, it was initiated by America as a last chance to prevent another failed state in that area. Answering whether people were dancing on the street out of happiness after hearing about this deal was not conclusive. Of course people were happy, this deal could give Iran an enormous economic boost (especially because of its oil industry), but after 10 years of insecurity and self-inventing solutions because of trade barriers, it felt as if they were the toy of two big powers. Besides, they don’t fully believe the deal is happening at all, because of multiple disappointments from the United States in the past. Also, if the deal will be implemented, they are aware of the chance that the population itself won’t see the money back.

The secret behind the success
The documentary series ‘Onze man in Teheran’ was (and is) a great success; it even won the Nipkowschijf, a Dutch television price, last June. The fact that a man from our own country tries to fully integrate in a completely different culture — he is married to an Iranian woman, he is part of an Iranian family, he has Iranian friends, and he speaks Farsi — induces a special kind of sympathy and respect. With the aim of being a good journalist, Thomas tried to give a cross-section of reality in Iran that highlighted a lot of different aspects of the country, so people could make up their own minds. But we, as lazy-minded Westerners, have to be careful; this is not the whole truth about Iran. As Thomas said himself, there are also aspects he just couldn’t show about the country. As we in the West are in possession of a lot of different news sites, papers, and magazines, we could easily form a broad view about a country. Maybe it takes some more effort than reading (a Dutch news website) every day, but we can’t just blame the media for our ignorance about the wealth and development of a country like Iran.

Meanwhile, as Thomas tries to arrange another documentary series about Iran, I’m sure I’ll be busy arranging my next vacation — destination already known!

You can watch back the full interview on the Room for Discussion YouTube-channel. Please visit the Room for Discussion website for information about future sessions!