SEAN PENN IN IRAN
San Francisco Chronicle
- Sean Penn, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
After a series of mysterious phone calls, arrangements are made to transport Sean Penn to a compound in the foothills of Tehran to meet with Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini. Penn visited Iran in June, in the days before the national elections.
We rendezvoused with the Siths at 2:45 p.m. in the hills over Tehran. We were waiting for another car full of them to join us. A police station to our left, the armed sentry paced, nervous about our growing convoy across the street. The third car joined us, and we snaked up the road, like a cruise into the Oakland hills. We came to a guard station, our arrival was announced, the traffic bar raised and we were allowed on to the estate.
It wasn't clear to me at the time, but this was a private road under military guard, on the grounds of which lies not only the Khomeini compound but the private home of Rafsanjani as well. As we arrived at the entrance to the Khomeini home, all the Siths exited their vehicles in front of us and behind us. There was a lot of Armani going on. Nice-looking suits. We still didn't know who they were or what they had to do with Hassan Khomeini or Rafsanjani. But now one emerged as the spokesman. He was bearded. Spoke strongly. And had a familiarity with the terrain. But unlike him, the other Siths seemed as intimidated by their surroundings as we were. Yes, they had the connections to make these interviews happen, it seemed, but just barely. And there was a lot of nervousness about protocol as we emerged as a large group: three Americans and nine Iranians, including our interpreter, Maryam.
Now it was time to cross the compound to meet with Hassan Khomeini. When we got to the door, we were asked to take our shoes off. We complied and were led into a sitting room. A couple of couches and a few chairs. When Hassan Khomeini entered the room, he was accompanied by another cleric and three or four others. With not enough room for all to sit, the Siths had taken up fidgety positions against the wall. I had already been guided to the chair that would be closest to Hassan. The meeting had clearly been sold on my presence.
As he approached, I was immediately taken with him. There was a striking twinkle in this man's eyes. He was younger than me by perhaps a decade. But looking in his smiling face, I wouldn't have put it past him that he might read my mind. He had a nearly ginger-colored beard, light skin and eyes, and the black turban of a Seyed. He greeted me first, then my companions, and asked us to sit. We were told that while he understands some English, he would prefer to speak in Farsi and be translated.
He had been told that I had gone to the Friday prayers, so he began the interview by asking my feelings about that. I told him that while the sea of belief in Islam had been impressive, that the use of seductive rage in the chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" are taken quite literally by mothers and fathers in the United States. I said that it seemed to me a highly destructive and inaccurate representation of the country I had come to learn about. Hassan listened with kind interest. His eyes didn't leave me as the translator made clear my statement. He uttered a very brief sentence in Farsi. He said, "Then we should change it." I found myself very moved when he spoke about tolerance for other religions. He said, "The purpose of multiple religions is for each to complete the other," and that "therefore, they are not only to be tolerated, but embraced." This, from the closest living male descendant of the Ayatollah, who had declared a death fatwa upon writer Salman Rushdie. And I believed him. Yet he cautioned me upon further questioning about the definition of terrorism. "What is the yardstick" he asked, "that defines Iran as a terrorist-supporting nation, yet dismisses such a claim against Israel?" And I supposed that his question could be asked about the United States as well.
As we parted, we were escorted back to our car by the Siths. We still had no idea who these men in their black suits were, who had facilitated this meeting. And they were promising candidate Rafsanjani for the following day. It didn't occur to me to ask them who they were. I wouldn't have trusted the answer. But we agreed to speak later and hit the road.
Jeanette Scherpenzeel-Pourkamal is the cultural attache for the Dutch embassy in Tehran. As arranged by Maryam, our appointed translator, and Babak, a friend of my companion Reese Erlich's from his first trip to Iran in 2000, we would meet at the Scherpenzeel-Pourkamal house for a dinner party. Invited, at my request, were the pre-eminent filmmakers and actors of Iranian cinema, notably directors Abbas Kiarostami and Dariush Mehrjui. Though Kiarostami is widely acclaimed in international cinema, I was shamefully unfamiliar with his films and those of the other guests. (It should be said that I'm unfamiliar with the films of John Ford as well, not much of a cinephile.) We chatted a bit about censorship issues affecting Iranian filmmakers. It was explained to me that as the government finances the films, many of those filmmakers' works are simply banned within Iran. The lucky ones find distribution at international film festivals. It is mandatory to submit proposed screenplays to government censors prior to production. One young director was in the process of shooting a film in Tehran when we spoke, despite being pre-banned. He had found independent financing and went his own way. I asked if he had government interference on set. "Not really," he said, laughing. "Only the Baseej beat up my leading actress, and they shoot tear gas into my car window when I drive home each day." He grinned. This was considered mild interference.
I am a reasonably social person, but that isn't to say that I have been in a group or a party of more than four or five people without the support of alcohol in as long as I can remember. So, though we shared an industry, I found myself dry and shy.
Toward the end of the night, one of the guests suggested that I might venture, the following day at 5 p.m., to the boulevard entrance of Tehran University. A women's rights group would be mounting an illegal demonstration. I was told that violence was likely. Sunday morning, I got up early again and I took a walk around the back side of the hotel. It was going to be a hot day, in more ways than one.
The Siths came to escort our car to the Kakhe Marmar (Marble Palace), where we would have our audience with Hashemi Rafsanjani. As present leader of the Expediency Council, the body that resolves legislative issues on which the Majlis and the Council of Guardians fail to reach agreement, this was Rafsanjani's place of business. Today, he would be speaking before a group of business leaders assembled from throughout the country.
We went through fairly heavy scrutiny at the security check, but we did make it in time for his entrance into the hall. I was permitted inside to videotape from about 6 yards from where Rafsanjani sat in a front row among the 200 or so in the audience. Prior to his introduction and speech, a senior business leader who had previously opposed him spoke and officially threw Rafsanjani his support. I was tapped on the shoulder and told that the moment Rafsanjani finished his speech, which would be short, my companion Norman Solomon, Reese and I would have our private interview in an adjacent room, and it might be prudent to move in that direction presently. As Rafsanjani was introduced and began to speak, we backed off and were guided into the waiting area.
The Siths milled about nervously and then, "He's coming. He's coming!" barked the bearded Sith. I placed my video camera on a nearby stairwell to record the event of our interview. One of the Siths came to me and positioned me at the shoulders as though I were a mannequin in a window display. I laughed. But standing square-shouldered would not be the greatest compromise that I had ever suffered. And then he came. White turban, white robe and his famously thin beard. He was guided to me. We shook hands. And then we were repositioned for what seemed more a photo op than an interview. I began by asking a simple question related to a New York Times article where he was quoted comparing our two democracies but favoring his own. He basically repeated what I had read in the New York Times -- that they had eight candidates for president where we only had two legitimate ones. Simple as his answer was, he eluded the heart of my question. So I repeated it in different words. "What is it that you consider to be the core of democracy?" His answer: that they had more candidates than we do. That was pretty much it.
It became clear we would not have more than two or three minutes between the three of us to ask questions, so I passed the torch to Norman and Reese. And as I stood by with my recorder to tape their short questions and his even shorter answers, it was then that my video camera recorded my friend, the bearded Sith, literally pushing me into the photo op that somebody thought would excite the kids in Rafsanjani's campaign. It was dumb show of proximity without substance, and my video camera dutifully recorded the shove. I left Kakhe Marmar with less than what I entered with.
-- Tomorrow: Women speak out for rights.
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