Samer Srouji, a former journalist with Agence France Presse, was a good friend of Roxana’s in Iran. He contributed this insightful piece to www.freeroxana.net Wednesday detailing Roxana’s reporting and life across the Middle East, from taking classes in Tehran to covering the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli offensive in Lebanon.
Roxana and the early days in Tehran
By Samer Srouji
It was a beautiful autumn afternoon in October of 2003, soft rays of sunlight were descending on Vali-Asr avenue in Tehran and the ever-present cool breeze was blowing down from the Alborz mountains. It was the first time I spoke with Roxana; we had just emerged from Persian class at the Dehkhoda Institute and were walking up the road to Tajrish Square, a crowded and bustling market in the north of the city. I had noticed her in the past couple of weeks, there were around 18 people in our class, but most days she would be running to a news conference, or to meet a deadline for filing a report.
But today was different. She had walked next to me on the way out of class, making casual conversation and telling me about her work and her family in the United States. Her eyes lit up when I told her that I was also a journalist, before coming to Tehran I had worked for Agence France Presse, living in Cyprus and covering the Middle East. I believe my friendship with Roxana came naturally; we both had origins in the Middle East (I was born in Lebanon), but we had grown up abroad, Roxana in the United States and I in Cyprus and France. More importantly, our lives and experiences straddled both worlds, as did our fluid sense of belonging.
The last email I received from Roxana was on January 18, 2009, just a few days before her arrest. In this email, she told me her book was coming along well and that she was working hard to complete it within a few weeks. She had started the book in late 2006 – we had spoken about it when I last saw her briefly in Beirut that year in December. She once told me on the phone jokingly but sincerely, that she was not sure what her book was about anymore. Mainly, she wanted to put into words all that was in her heart (delam takhliye konam) about Iran and her experiences there. It was only on March 1 that I heard from a Japanese friend that Roxana had been detained.
Our institute – part of Tehran University’s faculty of literature and language – was a refuge of the eclectic characters that only a place like Tehran (or perhaps Cairo or Beirut) can draw. My own class had German, English, Polish and Japanese exchange students, a Japanese calligraphy student, a Turkish poet, a Turkish backpacker who had decided to settle in Tehran, a Danish cyclist, a couple of grumpy Iraqi businessmen, a travel-writer — Daniel Metcalfe, my flat mate — and of course Roxana. She usually ran into class late, carrying a tripod, and shouting final notes down the phone to her cameraman or assistant. Our teacher, a boisterous but amiable history professor, would always turn and greet her with a loud but well-meaning ‘salam … salam’ (hello). She never managed a discreet entry.
We often held informal gatherings at our flat, dinners and movies. At the time, I was volunteering at an NGO, and Daniel spent the days playing mandolin and researching for his book about obscure tribes in Central Asia. Roxana used to come over as well, surprising us, as she was never sure she could make it. I remember her sitting quietly next to us in the kitchen, drinking tea, while the rest of us would play cards, smoke ghelioun (waterpipe), speak loudly and tell an infinite amount of jokes. She often asked me about Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, as she wanted to know these other parts of the Middle East.
Early in July 2004, I had to leave Tehran at short notice as my parents were going through a separation. However, later that month Roxana joined me in Amman, Jordan, where I had gone to visit my grandmother. She was motivated to make a first visit to an Arab country. We spent six days in Jordan, visiting the Dead Sea and historical places. We also went shopping, as Roxana needed something elegant for a wedding she was going to attend soon in the United States. She enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in Jordan, the warmth of the people, and not having to wear a headscarf like in Tehran. As a parting gift, I gave her the autobiography of Jordan’s former Queen Noor, Leap of Faith.
For Roxana, the visit to Jordan was a discovery. In the following months, she returned to Jordan. She also went to Syria, Lebanon and Kurdistan and produced several features. I helped her with contacts and background information about Lebanon. Crucially, she went back to Lebanon in the summer of 2006, just after the Israeli offensive in south Lebanon and Beirut. She reported from the poor Shiite suburbs, where many buildings and homes had been decimated by Israeli bombing.
All the time I have known Roxana, I have seen her present the stories of Iranians, Lebanese, Afghans and Kurds – people living in challenging post-conflict situations, or in societies experiencing significant political and social change. She worked tirelessly, and often in difficult conditions, particularly for a young unmarried woman. If there is one thing that characterizes her reporting, it is her humanity, solidarity and feeling for the people and situations she has reported about.
I am upset that it seems as if she is being made a scapegoat in Iran’s obscure political bargaining game with the United States. Instead of imprisoning her, Iran’s authorities should realize the great service she has rendered the country, reporting about a society and a culture that for so long has been misunderstood, misrepresented and badly reported in the West. Imprisoning, persecuting and silencing journalists is not a solution, it only creates more resentment, anger and incomprehension concerning the Middle East, as if there weren’t excessive amounts of these emotions already.