Thursday, February 19, 2004

My first day in Iran certainly didn’t turn out as expected.

After a few hours’ sleep I crawled through Tehran’s traffic-choked streets to the BBC’s house-cum-bureau. As our driver, Nadar, inched along I admired the snow dusted Alborz mountains to the north of the city and reflected on the fact that the last time I’d travelled in his 4x4 it was on the way to the hospital in Kifri, my severed foot wrapped in a scarf. Kaveh lay dead on the back seat. It was the most eerie feeling and I chose to sit in the front seat, too spooked to re-enact that fateful drive too accurately.

Coincidently, Nadar is himself a right below-knee amputee. He lost his leg to a mortar round 20 years ago as a soldier fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. But unlike me, he drives a car with a manual transmission – quite a challenge for someone with no feeling and limited movement in their right foot. He’s promised to teach me how to do it.

I found the Tehran bureau a relaxed and inviting place to work, a complex of interconnecting open plan rooms cluttered with newspapers, broadcasting equipment and assorted memorabilia. Two framed photos of Kaveh hang above the fireplace, one of them edged with a black ribbon.

A communal kitchen and dining room, shared with correspondents from the Guardian and the Financial Times, gave the place the air of a bohemian alternative magazine rather than the base for some of the Middle East’s most respected journalists.

I didn’t get much of a chance to admire my new surroundings.

No sooner had I unloaded the gifts and supplies I’d brought over from London (including the sausages) than the World Duty Editor rang. A train carrying petrol and chemicals had exploded in Khorasan province, in the northeast of the country. Many were feared dead.

Normally Jim would have immediately set to work – but he was heading out the door to do some crucial filming for our election preview piece. It was left to me, with a wide knowledge of Iran garnered from less than 12 hours in the country, to hold the fort.

As the dead toll rose into the hundreds, the list of requests for live interviews – or “two-ways” as we call them in the trade – grew. World Service, News 24, World TV, Radio 4, 5 Live, even Radio Scotland – all of them wanted updates on what had happened. It continued like this for 12 straight hours, by which time the number of interviews churned out was almost as high as the death toll in Khorasan.

The most tricky was question of the day came from an interviewer who asked me to tell viewers what Iran’s rail infrastructure was like. I could have told him I didn’t have the slightest clue, and that my knowledge of Iran’s rail network was about as extensive as my knowledge of Farsi, but I opted instead for a more diplomatic and non-committal answer.

As a result, no time for photos yet…but rest assured they’ll follow soon.


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