Monday, September 10, 2012

Ahmadinejad and I

Ahmadinejad and I

In December 2010, I visited Istanbul to write an article for Israel Hayom after the worsening relations between Israel and Turkey. I never imagined that I would return to Israel with an amazing scoop: I had no clue that on that same trip to Turkey I would have a date with none other than the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

Boaz Bismuth

Boaz Bismuth meets Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Turkey in 2010. | Photo credit: Courtesy

After a few days of meetings in Istanbul, I was scheduled to fly out on a Thursday to Antalya, to write up a story on whether the resort and restaurant owners were hoping for a return of Israeli tourists who were staying away following the diplomatic row between Ankara and Jerusalem. At the time, Turkish citizens were taking to the streets and demonstrating, setting fire to Israeli flags in protest as the authorities looked on from the sidelines.

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily walked off the stage he shared with President Shimon Peres during an event staged by the World Economic Forum in Davos, it was clear that Turkey was quickly becoming off limits for the Israeli traveler.

Whenever I visit Arab or Muslim countries, I always travel on my French passport. This time, though, I elected to enter Turkey with my Israeli passport in order to gauge the reaction an Israeli citizen can expect from the locals. I must admit that my passport generated barely a reaction, whether it was at the airport visa counter or at the reception desk of the hotel at which I was staying (the aptly named “Marmara” hotel, as this was just six months after the Gaza flotilla incident).

After I concluded all of the tasks I had set out to do in Istanbul, which included meetings with representatives of the Jewish community, I went to dine at a restaurant in the city. I didn’t want to get to sleep late, since I had to catch an 8 a.m. flight to Antalya in the morning. I knew that this was going to be a short night out, especially when one considers the distance and the traffic leading to the airport. Still, I allowed myself to patronize a local bar, sip a beer, and watch part of the soccer game that had many eyes glued to the screen.

I returned to the hotel at around 9 p.m. to pack, when the telephone rang. It was Eli Leon, my assistant at the foreign desk of Israel Hayom. Eli was of great assistance, particularly because he had a Turkish background. I even visited his relatives in Istanbul. He wanted to inform me that a high-level visitor was expected in the country tomorrow, and there was a chance that he was already in the country.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he replied.

A minute later, he rang me again. “He’s not just in Turkey, but he’s very close to you, in Istanbul.”

How many opportunities have I had in my lifetime to sleep under the same moonlit sky as the president of Iran? Not just the president of Iran, but one of the most detestable presidents of Iran? How many times have I had the opportunity to stand face-to-face with the most hated man in Israel? Who knows – I may even get the chance to participate in one of his press conferences. I may even get a chance to ask him a question, or take a picture with him.

I spoke to the editor in chief of Israel Hayom, Amos Regev, who gave me the green light to change my original plans. Honestly, Regev was not overly enamored as it was unclear what chance I had of actually being allowed to take part in a news conference. We also had already booked the plane tickets and hotel accommodation in Antalya. Ultimately, however, Amos knew me, and he, like me, was a “news junkie.” He gave me the choice, and I chose Tehran (meaning I chose to stay in Istanbul). I notified the hotel that I was staying and I canceled the taxi that was due to take me to the airport the next morning.

That evening, I quickly put together a schedule for the next day. At 7 a.m., I was in the hotel cafeteria, enjoying breakfast while admiring the magnificent view of the Bosphorus River. I took a taxi to the Conrad Hotel, which offered a splendid view of the city. I quickly spotted the Iranian delegation. It wasn’t difficult at all: under their dark blazers they wore shirts with a Mao collar, considered appropriate for Iranians who eschew ties, a garment that they view as a symbol of Westernism. I was very adept at spotting Iranians by their appearance, a skill I had mastered on my visits to Iran as well as through my contacts with Iranian journalists whom I had met in Paris.

Some members of the Iranian delegation had already sat down to eat breakfast. I approached them, introduced myself as a French journalist, and asked what time the news conference with President Ahmadinejad was and where it would be. I was told that it would take place in one of the hotel’s conference rooms at 6 p.m.

I walked toward one of the conference rooms nearby. Upon entering, a young Turkish woman asked if I needed assistance.

“I've come to pick up my press pass for the ECO Conference,” I said.

“Where are you from, sir?” she asked in English. “May I see some identification?”

I immediately whipped out my French passport. I thought to myself that even though I may have been received quite nicely thus far in Istanbul by people who knew I’m Israeli, I would have a much greater chance of being permitted to walk amongst a group of Iranians if I were to use my French passport.

“I don’t see your press pass,” said the woman with the pleasant disposition. A young man with a fine, tailored suit approached us and offered to help. They never found my press pass, since there was never any official request for one under my name.

“So what should we do? I have to work,” I told them.

“We will arrange authorization for you so that you can cover the conference,” I was told.

“What about the press conference with the Iranians?” I asked.

“That’s up to them,” the woman told me. “The news conference is being organized by the Iranian delegation. May I see a journalist ID, please?”

Now I was in somewhat of a bind, since my ID was issued by the Israeli Government Press Office. It’s difficult for me to keep telling people that I’m French when my journalist accreditation is written in Hebrew. Then I suddenly remembered that the Tel Aviv Journalist Association granted me an ID in English, although it was still issued in Israel.

I began to pretend as if I had trouble finding my ID, only to be surprised that it was on me all along. “How lucky that I brought with me the journalist ID that I use in order to cover the suffering of the Palestinians,” I said.

The young man took the passport and the ID and began issuing a press pass.

“What is the name of the media outlet for which you work?” he asked.

In truth, this “negligible” detail had escaped my memory. When I worked for Maariv, I could get away with quietly muttering “M’riv” with a certain accent so that nobody would notice. If I was working for Yedioth Ahronoth, I could make do with “Y’diot.” But Israel Hayom? Could there be a more Israeli name for a newspaper?

“Shaman Mura,” I blurted out.

Just so we’re clear, Shaman Mura is the name of the street on which my French mother-in-law lives, located in the southern coastal town of Aix-en-Provence. It was as if I had said that the media entity I work for was “Basel Street.”

A snap decision

The Ciran Sarayi is not just any old palace. There is a great deal of symbolism in the site chosen by Erdogan to host the ECO conference. It is an old, Ottoman-era palace which has been converted into a luxury hotel. The hotel is located in the European section of Istanbul, saddled between the city’s Basiktas and Ortakoy.

I wandered into the press conference room and searched out Iranians. I then took my place alongside a number of reporters who were seated around a table, all of them staring into their laptops. The journalists were served a cup of hot chocolate and a sandwich filled with a type of sausage popular in Turkey. A pleasant-looking journalist seated in front of me was dressed like an Iranian. He was the correspondent for the Press TV network. We began chatting about the visit. His English was quite good.

Then came the fateful moment. A hotel attendant distributed a news release. “At 2 p.m., the leaders will hold a joint photo-op at the hotel.” This is it, I thought to myself, the moment I could catch a glimpse of Ahmadinejad.

Ami Shuman, Israel Hayom’s deputy head of the photography desk, made sure to equip me with a high-quality, professional camera before I left for my trip. It is a known fact that writers and photographers do not dress alike; yet here I was, a “photographer” from that unknown, weekly newspaper “Shaman Mura,” wearing a black, Hugo Boss suit, standing among photographers from Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, all clad in blue jeans.

All of the leaders began to arrive. The first to enter was Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul. Then came the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. All of the photographers eagerly awaited the arrival of the event’s star attraction. Meanwhile, the other leaders streamed into the room. There was one notable absence.

Then, all of a sudden, in came this diminutive man, the Iranian president. All of the cameras clicked away without stopping. As did mine. The Iranian president flashed his customary “V” for victory sign. He had a huge grin on his face, and he even stopped to greet people for a minute or two. You could immediately tell how much this man loved attention from the media.

Following the photo op, I naturally rejoined my new friends, the members of the Iranian delegation. They had already got to know me after I spent a few hours with them, making pleasant small talk before the main event. They knew I was a journalist from France who had visited their country in the past and was well-versed in classical Persian poetry. The delegates nearly adopted me as one of their own.

We went up the staircase. I was trailing behind, rushing with my camera. Suddenly I see the delegation members huddle into a small room. Then, something remarkable happened. I came into the room, and nobody prevented me from coming in. There were two Turkish security guards posted at the entrance to the room, but they did not stand in my way. Neither did the Iranian security guard, for that matter.

I noticed an empty chair in the VIP section. I proceeded to sit in it, and, once again, nobody stopped me. The door closed. All of a sudden, I found myself in a high-level, bilateral meeting with the president of Iran. The former Israeli ambassador to Mauritania is sitting in the same room as the president of Iran. One needed to see it to believe it.

At the end of the brief meeting, I took pictures of the president from up close. Eye contact was established. He smiled at me. Then, he left the room. I knew the press conference was due to take place in just a few hours. Obviously, this is where I wanted to be, so it would be pointless to reveal to the president my country of origin at this juncture.

From the president’s standpoint, I am from France. As he leaves the room, I ask the Iranian photographers to snap a picture of me with the president. They politely decline, saying that they’re busy and need to urgently send their photos back to their newsrooms at home.

I then turn directly to Ahmadinejad. “Can I take a picture with you?” I ask him in English.

“Of course,” he replies graciously.

I hand my camera to one of the Iranian journalists there. Ahmadinejad shakes my hand, but the photographer only captures our heads.

“Tell me, what is going on between you and [then-French President Nicolas] Sarkozy?” I ask him. The former president was one of the most vocal opponents of Iran’s nuclear program.

“I have no problem with him,” Ahmadinejad said. “I don’t have a problem with anybody.” Then, he adds, “Definitely not on a day like this.”

I am stunned by the ease with which this encounter takes place. I even find time to talk with him about Iran, telling him that I visited the country. When I tell him about my experiences drinking “Farsi Cola,” he laughs. Then I ask about the press conference.

The president’s spokesman was right beside me. He informs me that the news conference will take place at 6 p.m. and that he would be pleased to see me there.

I left the conference room and rushed over to the nearest camera shop. I was never an expert at scanning pictures and sending them via computer, but I managed to send Amos Regev, my editor in chief, the pictures I had taken. I told him that although it was only 3.30 p.m., I had already managed to converse with the president and get a photo with him. Pages 2 and 3 could be held for my material.

The stage used in the news conference was adorned with two giant portraits – one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the man who led the Islamic Revolution, and the other of the current strongman in Iran and Ahmadinejad’s bitter rival, Ali Khamenei. It was hard to avoid the highly symbolic effect that was created when Khamenei’s portrait fell from its place, its glass shattered, just as the president entered the room. The embarrassment felt in the room was palpable.

I introduce myself as a French journalist. Ahmadinejad recognized me from our meeting this afternoon – like we're old acquaintances. After a number of questions, I hear my name called, “Mr. Bismuth, Shaman Mura.” I stand up.

“Mr. President, will we see peace in the Middle East that will have the Arab states, the Palestinians, Iran, and Israel living in good, neighborly relations?” I asked.

“For 60 years they have failed to come to a solution in the Middle East, and they won’t succeed,” said Ahmadinejad. “The Zionists are the root of the problem. From the very beginning, the Palestinians’ legitimate rights, which are equal to the rights of any other nation, were denied. Instead, they looked for ways to satisfy the Zionists. All of the peace plans failed, and they will fail in the future.” The president replied in his usual, confident manner.

Ahmadinejad began the press conference by talking at length about the nuclear issue. “The nuclear issue is a very clear one,” he said. “Many nations of the world want to prevent the Iranian people from exercising the right to develop nuclear capability, but they have failed. Those nations tried everything: psychological warfare; sanctions; pressure. But they failed. Iran has become a nuclear state, and those other nations were defeated.”

“There are two options,” he continued. “Either we head toward conflict, which will lead to a collapse of the talks, something which will not prevent us from attaining nuclear capability; or we head toward a path of cooperation, which will serve the interests of both sides.”

Ahmadinejad took the liberty to mock the sanctions that the West had imposed on his country. “If you come to Tehran, you will see people in the streets laughing about the sanctions,” he said. “These sanctions have no significance in Iran. Our economy is only getting stronger. We have friends all over the world. Iran asks for nothing beyond justice in the world.”

Only once during the press conference that I attended did the president bother to express the words “United States” rather than the usual “Great Satan” or simply "they," which he often employs to refer to the world’s superpower. It happened when he was asked about the conflict between North Korea and South Korea.

“We have good relations with both North Korea and South Korea,” he said. “Can somebody tell me what the U.S. Army and the American fleet are doing there? Are they trying to achieve peace or war?”

The news conference drew to a close. I had already taken a picture, and exchanged a few words with the president. I also asked a question during the news conference. Still, the mission was not complete. He needed to know that I am from Israel. I knew how this was going to play out, so I decided to wait to the end.

I asked a Turkish photographer to take our picture.

“I can’t, I’m busy,” he said.

I produced a roll of hundred-dollar bills. “From now on, you work with me,” I told him. He smiled, and agreed.

At the end of the news conference, I join the Iranians. Somebody brought along a little boy so that he could also have his picture taken with the president.

Ahmadinejad was surrounded by a large entourage. The delegation seemed to be readying to wrap things up. This was as good a time as any to reveal who I was. I then ask Ahmadinejad if he was traveling on to Tehran.

“Yes,” he said. The entire conversation was in English.

“I am continuing on to Tel Aviv,” I said before revealing my real identity. “You know, it is possible to be French and to be Israeli, and to work for an Israeli media outlet, Israel Hayom,” I say to him.

He looks at me in surprise.

“Do you have another message for my readers?” I ask.

He offers no answer.

“You spoke about peace,” I said. “Do you want to repeat what you said?”

“Iran is a proponent of peace and justice,” he said.

Mission accomplished. I had a meeting with him, a picture with him, and I told him where I came from. I even took the opportunity to pat him on the shoulder – this man who is my country's most bitter enemy, thanking him for the wonderful day we had spent together.

The above is an excerpt from Boaz Bismuth’s new book, Over kol g’vul (“Crossing every line”) which is published in Hebrew.