By Niloufar Rostami
March 10, 2021
Nooshabeh Amiri, a journalist with more than four decades of reporting experience, is currently based in Paris and working on her third book, The Day I Emigrated. She began her career with Kayhan newspaper in the late 1970s, but like many of her colleagues lost her job within a year of the Islamic Revolution. She witnessed the execution of Rahman Hatefi, Kayhan’s then-chief editor, and the arrest and execution of many other friends and colleagues, as well as her husband.
Today, Nooshabeh Amiri’s journalistic portfolio stands as an important historical document, containing records of interviews with many key political figures. She is the only Iranian female journalist to have spoken directly to Ayatollah Khomeini. We interviewed this veteran journalist to mark International Women’s Day, and during the discussion, she described the atmosphere during her interview with the founder of the Islamic Republic – and the horrors and violence she herself witnessed during that time.
How did you start working with Kayhan? Were there many female journalists working at that time?
I was 19 years old and I was in my first year of study at the Faculty of Social Communication Sciences when Dr. Sadr al-Din Elahi, our journalism professor, introduced me to Kayhan along with two classmates: a boy and a girl. The founder of our college was Dr. Mostafa Mesbahzadeh, the publisher of Kayhan newspaper, who also trained up young journalists for work. At the time the Faculty of Communication Sciences had a 50:50 ratio of male to female students.
At that time, female journalists such as Mansoureh Pirnia at Zan-e Rooz weekly and Kayhan, Pari Abasalti, the editor-in-chief of Women’s Information, and Sima Dabirmanesh, the political correspondent of Etela’at newspaper, were well-known, while Suraya Sadr and Homa Sarshar were also active in the news translation field.
There were few female reporters in those years. Kayhan’s 100-strong editorial division, for instance, only included five or six female reporters, and on English Kayhan there were two or three. But although they were not numerous, their work was taken seriously. When I went to Kayhan newspaper, I started working on the political desk, which was then co-edited by Mr. Amir Taheri. I was the only female journalist on the desk.
Some of your journalist contemporaries have said that at that time, if journalists were not affiliated with leftist parties, they were not considered professionals. Did you experience this during your years at Kayhan?
This is completely incorrect. Dr. Mesbahzadeh himself was the Shah’s senator; how on earth did such an assumption come about? I myself was neither a leftist nor affiliated with any political party. Of course, my husband was a leftist, which I realized after the revolution. My other colleagues, Minoo Badiei, who was also my classmate, Parmis Deljouei, and Vida Ziaei, were also apolitical. The atmosphere was not such that you had to belong to a certain ideology. Many people, including me, had no ideology at all. I just wanted to be a journalist. I deny such a thing altogether; in those years the only thing that mattered was how your level of interest and capability.
You are the first and last woman who was able to interview Khomeini. I know you have spoken at length about this before. But what point from that interview still lingers in your mind now?
At that time, I was a correspondent for both the parliament and the government. Naturally I had interviewed the leaders of various political parties. From 1977 onward, I was in charge of the “Parties and Associations” column of Kayhan newspaper, which covered news about the various parties of the time, such as the Tudeh Party, the National Front, the National Movement, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the Fadaiyan-e Khalq, and so on. I had interviewed people like Shapour Bakhtiar, Karim Sanjabi and Dariush Forouhar, who had a large following. The day I heard that Dariush Forouhar wanted to go to Paris to see Khomein, I told Rahman Hatefi, my chief editor, that I wanted to travel to Paris with Forouhar and interview Khomeini. Hatefi welcomed the idea and a ticket was booked for me.
I have spoken many times about interviewing Khomeini, but what never leaves my mind is that in that interview, for the first time in my professional life, I was introduced to the concept of fear – and a situation whereby the interviewee tells you what to write and what not to write.
Never before had a politician instilled such fear in me. But in the Khomeini interview, I realized that when they say they can make your blood halal [can make killing you lawful]; they really can do this to you. From that day on, the feeling of fear of the group who were coming to Iran penetrated me. When I read the interview back over the phone to Rahman Hatefi, who was later tortured to death in prison, and to my husband, Houshang Asadi, who was then Kayhan’s deputy editor at the time and became a prisoner of the regime in 1981, I told them that someone full of hatred and resentment was coming to Iran. I experienced this feeling with all my senses that day and onward, until three decades after the revolution while I still lived in Iran. I had that feeling under my skin, in my flesh and bones.
How did this fear come about? Did Khomeini say anything in the interview, or did he or those around him scare you before the interview?
Firstly, the interview room was not a space in which you felt safe. Aside from Khomeini there were five or six others in the room, all sitting on the floor. During the interview, Khomeini kept his head down and gave only short answers to my questions. Now I can compare it, and say that the atmosphere was like going into a crypt and talking to Bin Laden and his acolytes.
At the beginning of the interview I had asked a question that I realized long after that was borne out of fear. He gave me a horrible answer. He said, “We did not ask you to come. You came yourself.” But then in the middle of the interview, I asked him whether we would go from under the boots of tyranny to under the na’lin [clerics’ footwear] of tyranny. For the first time, Khomeini raised his head, and he said that Islam did not allow for dictatorship, and made other statements like that.
Then he got up. Apparently, he used to get up when he didn’t like something. His companions got up with him. Then he took a step and came back, pointed his finger at me, and said in a threatening tone: “If a word from this interview is changed you will see what will be done to you.” I remember the interview was published unedited. This was Khomeini’s first and last interview with an Iranian journalist. Apart from me, the late Mansour Taraji from Etela’at newspaper was also present that day. When I returned to Iran, one of the reasons I lost my job at Kayhan was that question I had asked Khomeini.
You were fired from Kayhan?
In 1979, people lost their jobs in Kayhan in three ways. The first group was based on the list of the new Islamic Association of Kayhan, which blocked about 20 of our colleagues from entering the building. A number of colleagues reacted to this, fruitlessly, of course. Some, like me, were forcibly made redundant. By then, I had been the political secretary on the newspaper. Kayhan then changed hands several times, until Mr. Yazdi became its owner, and Shahriar Rouhani, his son-in-law, became the editor. I had written a lot about him and of course neither he nor I wanted to work together. As a result, I was forced to withdraw my pension and leave Kayhan.
Your chief editor Rahman Hatefi was among those who were executed in the early years. Tell us a little bit about him and those days. Did you believe in the TV confessions?
I and many others found out after the revolution that Rahman Hatefi had been one of the leaders of the Tudeh Party. I didn’t even know that my own husband was a political activist and a member of the Tudeh Party; I only found out after it was announced in 1979.
No, I never believed the TV confessions. The first televised confession was from an 18-year-old boy named Ahmad Janafshan Vazifeh, a member of the MKO. He was talking, and I was crying. In February 1982, the leaders of the Tudeh Party along with a number of other activists, including my husband Houshang Asadi, were arrested, and in May 1982, Rahman Hatefi was arrested along with other members of the party.
Rahman never appeared on television and never confessed. He was killed under torture. They said he had committed suicide, and some said he had chewed on his own veins and torn at his face with his hands; the pressure was too great for him to give a televised confession. No trial was ever held for any of those killed. So naturally I did not believe any of the televised confessions of those years. Another problem was that I knew a lot of those people, who had loved Iran very much. I cried for the first time when I saw the photos of the bodies of people like General Jahanbani, Nasiri and the others, lined up together; they were executed in Refah School [an elementary school in Tehran].
I don’t remember whether I was still working for Kayhan at the time, or whether those were my last days there. But I was at home that day, and I put the pillow on my head and cried. I experienced violence from Paris until it became a reality in our lives. Adults were forced, under medieval tortures such as being made to lie in graves and hang from the ceiling, to read things that the “brothers” had already written for them, and many were executed afterwards. In the years that followed, during the reformist period and the 2nd of Khordad [reformist] movement, such behavior became commonplace and the same was applied to their own people and groups.
You faced difficult days, the loss of your job at Kayhan, the execution and imprisonment of colleagues, friends and even the death of your husband. But despite all this, you stayed in Iran, and in 1990 you published The Film Report. What was your story? Did you love journalism so much?
Journalism is my love. I wanted to be a journalist since I was 16 and I did it for as long as I could. After 1979, there were no newspapers other than Kayhan and Etela’at, and we [other journalists] were not allowed to work. It was not until 1990 that the space became a little more open again and outsiders were permitted to operate.
Of course, insiders still had to obtain a magazine licence. At that time, a person named Vakhshuri, one of the general managers of the Ministry of Guidance, was the owner of The Film Report magazine. We were invited to work on this magazine and continued to work there for about 12 years under the Houshang’s editorship. After the 2nd of Khordad, when newspapers such as Jame’e, Neshat and Toos were published, I worked with them too, writing articles in a sporadic manner. Later, when The Film Report and other newspapers were banned one after another, we entered a period of several interrogations. They began with the case of Siamak Pourzand, over which many people were arrested. I myself faced about 40 hours of interrogation. Later, Iraj Jamshidi, the editor of Asia newspaper, with whom I had worked, was also arrested.
Eventually we were forced to leave Iran after security forces stormed my husband’s father’s house. After that, with the help of a number of journalists who had also had to leave Iran, we launched the Rooz Online website, which lasted until 2015. Anyway, the love of journalism has always been with me: right up until now, when I work with Iran International.
What are the difficulties and advantages of working in the media outside of Iran?
The best thing about it is having freedom. But the bad thing is having to stay away from the environment you are writing about. Of course, when we first started work on Rooz Online, it was not so easy to access cyberspace like today, when news is published instantly. We still had reporters in Iran in those years, and there were still people who were interviewed by Persian-language media outside Iran. We actually wanted to be a newspaper: as if it were being published inside Iran, but without censorship.
In 2009, 2010 and of course the years that followed, Rooz Online was a reliable source of news for people inside Iran.
Yes, at that time, Rooz Online had access to first-hand sources. Even among the principalists, there were still those who talked to us. The conversation with the families of victims started with Rooz Online, and our colleague Fereshteh Ghazi was doing this. I myself interviewed Ayatollah Montazeri from here, as well as many others such as Zahra Rahnavard, Mehdi Karroubi and Mostafa Tajzadeh. Even inside Iran, we had writers such as Isa Saharkhiz and Ahmad Zeidabadi. The space was not as closed as it is today. I think the secret to Rooz Online‘s success at the time compared to the larger media outlets, despite its small budget, was that we had defined ourselves inside Iran. We had all only just arrived from Iran and they still knew us inside the country, and many of our colleagues still lived in Iran. In this way we were close to the reality of Iranian society, which gave the audience confidence.
We had a few specialized magazines for women before the revolution, Zan-e Rooz and Women’s Information, and Zanan and Zanan-e Emrooz and a few others after the revolution. Which magazine was the most interesting to you, or worked best?
I think only Zan-e Rooz was a professional magazine. Zanan-e Emrooz and Zanan supported the government’s ideology and towed a clear political line. But Zan-e Rooz was a trendsetting publication in its time and had a large audience.
More generally, I still think that journalism after the revolution has other characteristics. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a good journalists – those we have, a great deal – but the coordinates are different. Prior to the revolution, journalism was considered a profession. But after the revolution, the owners and editors of publications were either reformists or principalists. I didn’t see any independent citizen receive a publishing license. As a result, the type of journalism also differs. Perhaps if journalism in Iran had not broken down, we would be much further ahead today. We now have a large number of well-known journalists who are not journalists at all and are mostly political activists, such as Abbas Abdi, Hamidreza Jalaeipour, Akbar Ganji and Rajabali Mazrouei. In fact, they were intellectual representatives of the ruling faction. But in any case, we had and still have many good journalists.
Do you follow a non-Iranian women’s magazine that you can recommend to readers?
No. I don’t follow women’s specialized magazines, but I do read all the news. It does not matter to me whether it is about a woman or a man.
You are one of the few female journalists who have had the chance to interview other important political figures such as [former prime minister Amir Abbas] Hoveyda, [former prime minister Shapour] Bakhtiar, Khomeini, Dariush Forouhar, Prince Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Montazeri. But which interview did you enjoy the most, or which has stayed in your mind?
They were no different to me, and I cannot say which of them was the best interview from my perspective. Each one was somewhat interesting and had his own audience: I interviewed both [Jundallah terror group member] Abdolhamid Rigi and his hostage. Rigi did not kill the hostage for my sake. Of course, he was later executed. I’m glad I prevented at least one death.
Could you have been the same Nooshabeh Amiri inside Iran? What has changed in you, if anything?
The same changes that the nation has gone through; it eventually grew, got older and learned.
What are you doing these days?
I work more. I read and write. Our socialization is virtual and limited, but I have more time to read and write now. I am currently slowly working on my book, The Day I Emigrated.