Can I brag? On blue ribbons and One World Media awards

OWM+logo+-+strap+rightThe only time I got awarded for something, it was back in elementary school for ‘Best drawing of your desk mate’. But I do think everybody got a prize for that because, hey, it’s elementary school and, since you don’t know how to read or write yet and your drawings just suck, everybody gets a blue ribbon somehow.

This time, I got shortlisted for the One World Media award for my radio documentary ‘Generation Iran’ (you can listen to it on their website – 27 minutes of pure gold).

By the end of April we’ll see if I have to prepare a moving speech where I thank my mother, my friends and all the people that contributed in a way or the other to the realization of this documentary or if I still have to stick with my blue ribbon.

Fingers crossed.

If you can’t read this, it means you’re possibly in Syria, China or Iran

Internet doesn’t work well everywhere.

When I shout at my computer because the latest episode of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart is not uploading properly, I always remember how I had to cope with a slow connection in Iran.

And it’s like jumping back in the mid-nineties: it takes a while to fully upload a single picture, a little more for sending an email and, if you experience a really bad day, it means not even Google’s working.


Here’s how the BBC News website looks like when you’re trying to connect from Tehran without a VPN

The Freedom of the Net 2014 report released by Freedom House last week highlights how bad the situation is (internet-wise) in 65 countries.

36 of the countries surveyed performed pretty bad in online freedom between May 2013 and May 2014 for a variety of reasons that span from blocked social networks, aggressive online surveillance and intimidation and arrest of journalists and activists.


As you can see, Iran remains a country with the lowest degree of freedom access and the initial hope for reform by President Hassan Rouhani remains, for now, unattended.

It is odd to see that Iranians risk jail time if they dare to access social networks when politicians, clerics and even Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, have their certified Twitter handles and official Facebook pages.

When school kills – an original investigation for Contributoria

reza talebzadeh IIEarlier in July, I met a good friend of mine and a well-known Iranian artist and photographer – Reza Talebzadeh.

Among other things and his ongoing projects, we discussed a rather tragic issue that involves school children dying in rural Iran. What happens is that many schools across the country are heated by oil stoves and it’s not unusual that these old heating systems cause sudden explosions.

Schools become time bombs and the number of casualties among children and staff increases every year due to poor emergency training and Fire Brigades located too far away to promptly intervene in case of fire.

Reza realized an exhibition with fellow artists to raise awareness on this massacre of the innocents but there’s still a lot to do to prevent these deaths.

I’m currently working with Alireza on this story for Contributoria and if you’re interested and you too would like the world to know about this ongoing tragedy, please support – it’s free and by February you’ll be able to read what we have found out.


The big mistake of travelling with a microphone


Revolutionary Guard – photo courtes of the WSJ

It’s almost three o’clock in the morning. After an evening of celebrations and goodbyes, I get on a car with an old friend of mine to reach the Imam Khomeini international airport. But, after a month of work, sleepless nights and exhaustion, I decide to interview him as well. I want to hear him talking about his new life as a married man, what’s it like to passionately love the woman of your dreams and how marriage changes your life.

I unpack my bag, get my mic out and I start asking questions. He comes out with the sweetest things and the hour-long trip to the airport flies by.

We say goodbye with the promise of seeing each other soon, I drop my bag at the gate and I go through custom. But only moments before passing through airport security I realize the gigantic mistake I just made: the microphone is in my bag-pack.

The first check-point seems to ignore me. Good.

The second check-point, while the x-ray machine is scanning my bag, seems not to care about me that much.

I think I’m safe but I always forget about the third check-point: the Revolutionary Guard at the International departures gate. I tread carefully but I act with nonchalance. A couple of enormous-looking guards look at me. “Agha” they shout at me. I pretend not to understand. “I’m sorry, I do not speak Farsi”. They look at each other and then stare back at me. “Please give me your bag”. As I hand them my handbag, I try to think of a plausible excuse.

They open it and freeze. They look back at each other and the tallest of the two give the other one the sign to call a back-up.

In a minute, I’m surrounded by five or six Revolutionary guards. Big, muscular, a little angry-looking. Mainly because it’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m a small Italian pretending not to speak any Persian. They inspect my bag, take the mic out and they put it on a table in front of me.

“What is this?” one of the guards asks me. I take a second.

“It’s a microphone” I reply.

“And what are you doing with a microphone in our bag” the same guard enquires.

I try to remain calm but pressure is high and I know people, colleagues and friends who got thrown in jail for less than that.

“I’m a sound engineer, I like to record sounds, voices, noise from everywhere I go”.

They look at each other and one of the guards, the one that stopped me, is translating for the others. They whisper something I cannot catch and then they’re back to me.

“So, let us hear what you’ve been recording”.

At this stage, my brain is completely gone. They seem to be impatient and I’m petrified. I know there are five tracks on the recording kit, the ones that I was so lazy to download and store on my hard drive. That’s how procrastination comes right back at you.

I start from the oldest track and with my sweaty finger I press play.

Traditional Iranian music played with a setar. I briefly close my eyes and thank all the Gods in the universe. When I reopen them, the guards seem content and they nod at each other.

Then, the guy holding the recording kit looks at me once again with a big grin. “Another one” he says.

I try to play it as cool as I can but I’m pretty sure that’s evident that I’m on the verge of a meltdown. With the same sweaty finger I skip to the second track.

Voices from afar. Then another Persian tune played with the setar.

I crack a timid smile. The guards satisfactorily nod for the music selection. One of them hand me my bag pack back and I try to stash everything back in and get out of there as soon as I can.

But when I reach out for the recording kit, the guard holds on to it. “I like the music – he utters – do you want to play another one?”

At this stage, my thought goes to a couple of young women that I met years ago in Iran and their vivid description of how they’d been tortured in prison, the endless interrogations, the sleep deprivation. Because that’s where I’m headed if I click on ‘Play’.

Another guard puts a hand on his shoulders and shows him my ticket. “He doesn’t have time, the plane started boarding already”.

Then he turns to me. “Well, next time” he says while keep on looking directly in my eyes.

Yes, next time. I grab the kit and put it in my bag.

I pass security and turn around the corner – then I miserably faint at the gate. A couple of gentle passengers help me to get back on my feet and I explain them that it’s alright, “just dehydration, I’m not used to this hot weather”.

If you’re still asking what the third track was, well, you can find it here – an interview with a gay Iranian teacher that would have been hard to explain to the Revolutionary guard.

The dilemma of an Iranian Baha’i

Today was a beautiful summer day in Tehran. I was on a terrace on the upper side of the city with a majestic view on the capital. Even the congested traffic of Vali Asr street seemed distant and afar.

The sky was clear and a little breeze chilled the air. Next to me there was Anyan, who kept on smoking cigarettes one after the other in long, nervous puffs.

He postponed our meeting multiple times but he finally decided to meet me last minute in what it seems to be a building under construction with no one else but us on the property. We gather a couple of rusty chairs and a dusty table and we sit down. My initial thought is “Why didn’t you want to meet me?”. I spell it out while he keeps on smoking frenetically. He clears his voice and for the first time he looks at me in the eyes: “I can die for what I’m going to tell you. And you can die as well so be prepared”.

I found out that you’re never really prepared for something like this.

Anyan is a Baha’i, a religious minority in Iran that has been heavily prosecuted, torn apart and massacred. Although their belief involves (I’m simplifying, of course) a happy array of Gods – from Jesus to Moses, from Mohammad to Buddha – that teach happiness, peace and prosperity, Iranian clergy seem to be disgusted by this religion and rejects every principle of it.

“I had to lie all of my life – Anyan says – from elementary school, where I had to play the part of the devout Muslim, up until I got married to my wife”. In order not to get killed, or to put his family on the spot, Anyan lived a double life for more than thirty years: his friends thought he was a Muslim, his wife thought so too. But one day he took the courage and confessed everything to his spouse. “She was a little shocked, that’s for sure, but she understood my reasons and our true love for each other saved us”.

What I kept asking, to him and to myself was one simple question: isn’t he tired of fighting, of hiding? Isn’t time to join his family in Canada, where they moved ten years ago?

His answer was unexpected and showed to me his high moral stature: “This country, despite what it does to my people, needs me. And I need it. We have to stay to make it better, not for me, not for you or our friends, but for our children who will inherit this great nation one day”.

To be gay in Iran – a personal journey

Iran.StopKillingGays.WDC.19jul06Ali carefully opens the door and takes a peek beyond my shoulder. Then he smiles, holds me tight in his warm hug and invites me in.

He lives in Tehran, not far from the bustling central bazaar and a couple of years ago gave up a profitable job at one of the few multinationals operating in Iran to focus on his passion: teaching English. He devours anything that comes from the US, books, movies, TV series – he practices his accent, masters his grammar skills. And, by far, he sounds more American than many Americans that I know.

Before I sit down and open my mic to start the interview, he makes things very clear. “I’m gay and I want the world to know. Because I’m sick and tired of hiding what I feel inside”.

Being homosexual in Iran is punishable by death. More precisely, they hang you in a public square until you die. I personally witnessed a couple of public hangings back in 2012 and it is not something easy to watch, especially for a westerner who’s not accustomed to see people slowly dying in terrible pain in the midst of a crowd.

Ali knows what’s at stake, but he takes the chance anyway.

He tells me there was once a mature student, a married woman, who fell for him and wanted to have a relationship with him. He’s a good looking chap and I don’t blame her. However, he tried to explain that this wasn’t the case, that it wasn’t appropriate to breach a student-teacher relationship but she insisted so much he had to tell her he was gay.

“She started blackmailing me and I panicked. She used to call at night saying that she would tell everybody that I wasn’t ‘normal’ that I was ‘the son of the devil’ because that’s how it goes in this country if you’re gay: you are a pervert, a paedophile, you’re insane”.

But Ali is far from being insane. Even when he tells me the struggle he had to go through while accepting his sexuality, the horrible punishments the Government reserves to homosexuals and how he gradually found a balance in his life with his partner, he remains calm, his hands on his lap and a smile on his face.

As for me, half way through the interview I started sobbing and cried like a baby because it is unconceivable that good people like Ali have to be persecuted, molested and, in some cases, murdered, only because of their sexual orientation. So he reached out and consoled me, which is rather bizarre – he risks his life on a daily basis and the worst thing that could happen to me is that I burn my coffee on the stove. Yet again, this was one of the hardest interviews I have ever done in my life for the energy and the inspiration Ali gave me and for the deep humanity of his words and confessions.

For the record, Ali still lives in Tehran but he’s trying to move out of the country with his partner “to live an honest, decent, proper life”.

From high heels to burkas

Tehran_IKIA_at_NightMy plane to Tehran is set to depart from Vienna in the early evening. The gate is already packed and I’m talkative by nature so I start random conversations with my fellow travellers while waiting to depart. Families with an enormous amount of children, plus five heavy hand-bags, plus grandma on the wheelchair; stressed-out middle-aged woman who wants to get on the plane first because she’s afraid of not getting in; newly-wed couple on their first trip abroad; loud Iranian-American teenagers who are planning their parties in Karaj for the weekend and their endless tales of recent party hangovers; old, deaf man dragged to Austria by his family and hated the trip to guts.

We exchange chocolate, recipes, impressions about Vienna and tips on where to get the best ghormeh sabzi in Tehran. The Iranian-Americans are constantly shouting on the phone with their West coast accent and kids are running around jumping on every suitcase they can find.

I’m sure I’m the only Westerner at the gate but I don’t mind. “You look Iranian though” the woman applying nail polisher says to me “and you do sound like one”.

No, I’m just Italian, but Iranians and Italians look a lot alike. I exchange my views on the next Italian football season with a dozen men with shorts and sandals and I help a young, prosperous girl to zip her orange dress. Long story short, in half an hour the gate has turned into a huge family picnic and everybody is sharing something – food, drinks and complaints about the airline.

When the aircraft is ready, we get on board Iranian-style: lots of Berfarmaeed (please, after you) but everybody is just jumping on your head.

On my row there are five young girls, probably related, with high heels, skirts, tank tops and not a word of English. We start several small-talks in Farsi till I fall asleep. As excited as I can be to go back to Iran, the airplane has the same old narcoleptic effect on me.

I wake up in the middle of the night while everybody is getting off. The girls next to me are gone and the only people left on the aircraft are the pilots, the stewardesses, a couple of kids throwing newspapers at each other, and me.

By the time I arrive at the baggage claim, I’m not able to recognize anyone. Shorts are replaced by long trousers, high heels with sneakers. I identify the voluptuous girl in the orange dress just because she’s still taller that everyone and wears a shimmering veil that stands out from Imam Khomeini airport’s brownish decor. I spot the grandma on the wheelchair and I go there to pay my respects but I’m suddenly stopped by a bunch of young women in black chadors. “Goodbye” they say while giggling and bowing in front of me. I focused on them for a few seconds – “Do I know them?” I asked myself.

They were the girls seated next to me. No loud chats, no tank tops, no songs of Katie Perry anymore. Just chadors and study books.

And it always amazes me how Iranians can easily transition from Western culture to Persian customs in a blink of an eye.