Sunday, September 26, 2010
The ‘Zionist regime’ enters the UN’ Iranian underworld
Reporter's notebook: ‘The Jerusalem Post?’ Ahmadinejad’s security man says incredulously. ‘You have to leave. And you know why!’
NEW YORK – “Is the Ahmadinejad press conference really canceled?” I asked the woman behind the Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit desk at the United Nations.
It was Thursday afternoon, and Ahmadinejad had just spoken to the General Assembly. A magazine journalist, Dave, and I had heard a rumor that the press conference was canceled, but wanted to make sure. “Yes, but it may just be postponed...we don’t know,” the MALU woman said. “But we can escort you to the press conference area downstairs.”
During the week of the UN’s General Assembly, reporters have to follow a complicated kabuki of repeated security screenings and accreditations. Getting from point A to point B in the building, due to security blockades and delegateonly areas, generally requires a half-hour-long tour through the rest of the alphabet.
And, unless you are in a pressapproved area, most reporter movement around the UN needs to take place with a MALU escort – a sort of information chaperone, if you will, who is there to make sure no one gets cheeky. I mean, lost.
The escort showed us into an elevator, which quickly filled up with approximately 20 members of the Iranian press. Members of the Iranian press are generally conspicuous due to their near-uniform (pun intended) adaptation of the “Ahmadinejad Dress Code”: gray suit, white shirt, no tie.
“So do you think Ahmadinejad will give a statement?” Dave asked the crowd in the elevator.
A tall, smiling man with a camera laughed. “Weren’t you in the General Assembly? Do you think he needs to give more of a statement than that?” We arrived at our destination and the group piled out of the elevator.
Assuming we were all going to the same place, we followed the Iranians.
Suddenly, our media escort was nowhere to be found, and we were being led through a labyrinth of a windowless, dimly lit, very off-thebeaten- track hallway. This was the land of the broom closets and the fuse boxes. Right, left, left, maybe another right.
We came into a room with a small television studio for UN TV. A quick survey of the room revealed that, at least on first glance, we were the only Western journalists present.
“He’s not with us,” one of the photographers said to the MALU handler, jerking his thumb at Dave.
“Sir, you will have to leave,” the MALU handler said to Dave. She looked me up and down. “You too.”
“Why? What’s going on?” “This is a press conference only for members of the Iranian media, and it’s time for you to go,” she said firmly.
“We’re not going,” Dave said. (Dave admits that he has a problem with authority.) “I’m sorry,” I said, leaping in to play good cop to Dave’s bad cop. “We were led here. We’re accredited members of the media.”
Now, I realized, would probably not be the best time to divulge my employer. Making like I was gesturing toward my badge, I turned it around to face me. Subtle.
“You’re not in the Iranian media, and you have to leave.”
“But this is the United Nations!” Dave said. “I thought every nation was equal?” “Sir, do I have to get security to throw you two out? Because that’s what I’m going to do.” She took us each by our forearms. We shook her off.
“Okay, go ahead. Call security,” Dave said. He leaned closer to me.
“She’s not going to call security.”
“Is there someone else we can talk to?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s in charge,” the woman said, pointing to another woman.
I called her over and explained our situation.
“Just stand over here and don’t draw attention to yourselves,” the second woman said firmly.
Fine by us. Problem solved.
In came UN security, two beefy guys with handcuffs.
“There they are, officer,” the first media escort said triumphantly, pointing to us with the relish of a witchhunter in Salem, Massachusetts.
The guy looked at me. From the look in his eyes, he may have been thinking something along the lines of, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Before you take us, that woman over there said we’re fine to stay here,” I said. “Ask her.”
They did. She vouched for us. Security left.
Now, at last, we were free to take in the “color” elements of the exclusive story we were about to get from our imminent proximity to the Iranian leader. We could note the wires hanging – ominously? – from the ceiling, or look at the two Iranian women with covered heads, busily texting on their cellphones in Farsi. There was a strange, unfamiliar sense of tension in the air among the Iranian journalists – a far cry from the laid-back pre-press conference mode more common in the UN. Then again, most of those don’t take place in darkened rooms.
In the meantime, our clearly un- Iranian appearance was garnering attention, with or without us attempting to draw it to ourselves. We were on the receiving end of ample stares and glares from our non-colleagues.
The camera-toting journalist from the elevator came over to us. It was clear from his demeanor that he wasn’t going to bring up becoming Facebook friends.
“Where are you from?” he asked, eyebrows furrowed.
“I’m from The Atlantic,” Dave responded. “It’s a magazine.”
“And you?” he said to me.
“I’m from New Jersey,” I responded.
Which, technically, is true.
“You know that that’s not what I mean,” he said, starting to reach for my press pass around my neck.
How to respond? I wondered. “The Zionist Entity”? Or perhaps “The Zionist Regime”? I stepped away from his hand. “The Jerusalem Post.”
“The JERUSALEM POST?” he responded, incredulously. “Well, YOU have to leave.”
He leaned forward, somewhat menacingly.
“And you KNOW why.”
“Do I?” I asked.
He walked away and started whispering to another reporter. The second reporter then walked over to another man in the requisite gray suit jacket and no tie, who looked over.
Sometimes, people don’t have to wear a nametag or badge for you to know who they are. And there was no ambiguity whatsoever, without introduction, that the guy approaching us now was part of the Ahmadinejad security detail. And clearly, I – a 5’2” Jewish woman from New Jersey – was a security risk.
“You have to go,” he said, wearing what Dave would later call a “thug face.” “You have to go right now.”
“She said we could stay,” I said, pointing at the woman across the room who clearly no longer wanted anything to do with us.
“We have every right to stay,” Dave said. “This is the United Nations. This is America.”
But this isn’t really America, I thought, as the thuggy guy, hands on his hips, breathed heavily in my face.
This is not America. This is the basement of a multinational complex, where a staggeringly high level of deference is being paid to the whims and fancies of a man being protested against by hundreds outside. This is a place where the regular rules don’t matter, and where regulations and standards are easily trumped by fear and cowardice. This is an underworld.
The woman came over. “I’m sorry,” she said to me. “They know who you are, and you have to leave.”
That’s the problem, I thought as I was escorted out. We all know who we are. We just don’t agree on who has to leave.