Former New York Times Iranian Correspondent Details 'The Struggle For Modern Iran'

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Journalist Nazila Fathi grew up in Iran — and her childhood was shaped by the country's dramatic transformation. She was just 9 years old when the 1979 Islamic Revolution began. That's when the Shah of Iran, who was supported by the U.S., was overthrown and the Islamic Republic, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, took charge.

Nazila writes in her new book that the revolution "changed every aspect" of her life. She could no longer choose what clothes to wear, what sentiments she could utter in public and what actions could wind up getting her family tossed into prison. After all, her friend's father was executed for speaking out against the new regime.

"The revolution took away Iranians' personal liberties," writes Fathi. "But it also gave many people a taste of power and opportunity that had long been denied to them."

Against that chaotic backdrop, Fathi became The New York Times' sole Iranian correspondent. But nearly six years ago, threats from the Iranian government forced her to flee Iran.

Nazila will be speaking about "The Lonely War" Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store.


Nazila Fathi, longtime Iranian correspondent for The New York Times. Her new book is, "The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran." She's been an associate at Harvard's Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Government and has held fellowships at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Nieman Foundation. She tweets @nazilafathi.


On how things changed for her after the revolution:
Nazila Fathi:
"I was just 9 years old, and there were certain things that had a certain meaning for me. And one of those things was the swimming pool that we had in the housing complex where I was growing up. It was a place where we swam in the summers. In the wintertime, when it snowed, we went into the pool and sort of rode our slides there. Our life was centered around that pool. And when I was 9 years old, after the revolution, the revolutionaries banned girls from swimming in the pool. And, instead, we had to sit there and watch the boys swim...We couldn't even go close to the pool. We had to sit outside the pool. The pool was surrounded by a...metal fence, so we could see the boys but we couldn't go through the gates and be closer to the pool. And instead we had to sit behind the fence in a thick coat and headscarf and watch the boys dive into the pool and enjoy the water. I mean, they could also swim only until the age of 15 or 16, until they reached puberty...And then they were banned from swimming, too."

On learning to lie after the revolution:
"There was no other way. After [Ayatollah] Khomeini returned...February 1979, within a few days after his return he started rounding up anyone who was opposed to his regime and executed them. And this was a very serious thing. We learned very quickly that we had to lie to protect ourselves and our families. I had a friend whose family was Baha'i and the revolutionaries denounced the religion, they started arresting people and my father's friend was executed within months after the revolution. So, very quickly I learned that if I wanted to stay safe, I wanted my parents to be safe — and my parents had never supported the revolution or Khomeini — I couldn't talk about those things."

On the goal of the revolution and what it resulted in:
"There was a huge population before the revolution — among the middle class and upper-middle class — who were opposed to the Shah. They wanted to see the Shah leave...There was no political freedom. The country had a huge population that had become educated, a lot of people had become interested in leftist ideas, they'd become communists. And there was a huge population that thought, if the Shah left, they could have political freedom. And so, before the revolution there were a lot of my parents' friends who were leftists or were simply opposed to the Shah and they wanted him to...leave power. But I think the biggest mistake that they made was that all they knew was that they wanted the Shah to go. They didn't know what they wanted after the revolution, and what happened after the Shah left, when there was institutional breakdown, when there was chaos, Khomeini easily hijacked the revolution. And none of these people were religious, none of them supported Khomeini's kind of regime. So, very soon, they were all disillusioned in the revolution, in the aftermath of what happened. And they lost their faith."

On how she became a journalist:
"There's a very fine line in Iran, and as long as you know how to maneuver around that fine line, you can do almost anything...That's one thing that I learned after the revolution. I mean, even as I was growing up I learned how I could violate all the restrictions at school, in society, and try to be who I was. It became a game, and people of my generation all are like that. It was a constant struggle to be, sort of, in control of our minds and our bodies. So, when, by the time the war had ended in the early 1990s and I became interested in journalism, I had become quite an expert at maneuvering around this fine line. So, I learned very quickly that if I wanted to be a journalist I could be one. But, I had to respect some of the red lines, or if I was going to touch those red lines I had to rely on government sources, news sources that [were] released by the government, so it's a constant game in Iran. It's not a place where you can't do anything, or you would be fearful to do certain work."

On why she left Iran:
"It was in 2009 after the uprisings. Some of the largest ever in the country since the revolution. Reporters inside the country were ordered not to cover the protests, but I mean, they were the biggest stories I had covered. I had waited for many years to cover a story like that, so I kept going out, I received calls, warnings, to stop going out. I ignored them. Then, about two and a half weeks after the uprisings, one day I left my home and I noticed a team of people were following me. And it was then that I decided it was time to leave the country. Fortunately I had tickets I had bought many months earlier, and we used those tickets to leave the country. But, I never thought that, 'This is it.' That I would leave the country and I wouldn't be able to return. Somehow, I thought that this would end as well and I would return and do what I was doing, but it turned out it was a totally different juncture in the history of Iran...I haven't gone back and a lot of things have changed in Iran since then."


The New York Times: Portrait Of Iran, Where Revolution Is Ideological And The Costs Are Human

  • "Nazila Fathi’s account of the turbulent years she spent in Iran as a child, a woman and a professional journalist is a personal story. But like most memoirs written by Iranian women in the last few decades, this personal story is intertwined with traumatic events — revolution and war, loss and betrayal."

The New York Times: The Iranian Exile’s Eye

  • "I am an Iranian, a journalist now living in exile like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others. We were driven out after the June elections that were widely considered fraudulent, and the protests and repression that followed. Our offense was that we covered them too thoroughly."

This article was originally published on January 13, 2015.

This segment aired on January 13, 2015.


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