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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 July 2007, 11:06 GMT 12:06 UK
Farewell to a changed, subtle Iran

Frances Harrison is moving on after three years as the BBC correspondent in Tehran. It has been a period of change, she writes, but generally not for the better, particularly for women.

Arguing during the election
Iranian women arguing with a man during the 2005 election
When I first came to Iran the reformists were still in power, not the ultra-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But to me as a newcomer, the government then did not seem particularly liberal.

The reformists were not quite what they had been cracked up to be in the West.

Reform, I soon found out, was not a euphemism for regime change - it just meant more respect for the rule of law and human rights, in order to preserve the Islamic system of government, not overthrow it.

With the benefit of hindsight, many look back on the reformist period as a sort of golden age, where a smiling well-dressed President Mohammad Khatami spoke honeyed words about democracy, even if he did not deliver on many of his promises.

The contrast between then and now is huge.

Media crackdown

When my predecessor left, he threw a lunch party for officials. They were friendly and urbane and unfazed by the fact that I was a woman bureau chief which is still a novelty in Iran.

Now things are so bad that officials from the ministry of Islamic guidance who are helpful on a personal level did not come to my farewell lunch hosted by the BBC.

I did not take it personally. The atmosphere is now one where Iranians are afraid to mix with foreigners for fear of being accused of spying.

If they do talk to foreigners they certainly do not want to do it in front of each other.

One Iranian journalist working for a foreign news agency even asked if we had foreign diplomats coming to a farewell party in our house because, she said, if there were it would not be safe for her to attend.

President Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been Iran's president since 2005
During the two years of President Ahmadinejad's government, I have watched friends have their press cards taken away by the government.

It is not that this did not happen before but now there is a sense of a widespread crackdown on the media.

I have struggled with my conscience interviewing people lest I put them at risk.

At one house, the mother-in-law of a student activist accosted me in a most un-Iranian way, saying: "Why are you here? He has children and he's just been released from jail." It is un-Iranian because of the innate sense of hospitality here.

People have come to my office with information and I have found myself warning them to be careful about coming again.

It gets to a point where you find yourself questioning the motives of anyone brave enough to speak out.

Either it is a trap or perhaps they are really naive - in which case why are we interviewing them?

Subtle opposition

But let me tell you about the subtle ways in which Iranians articulate their opposition.

This is not a culture where anyone says anything directly - and it can sometimes be infuriating for a foreigner.

But it has nuance, subtlety and a playfulness that is lost in the one-dimensional views you see in news reports.

The other night I was at a private party and two young Iranian women performed a song about a bird. It was indescribably sad and beautiful and had many of the women in the audience in tears.

Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran - it is considered un-Islamic for men to hear them.

These women - who in today's Iran can only perform in houses of friends - sang about a bird, a crane, whose wings had been clipped and whose mouth had been covered.

It was a poetic symbol of censorship and the restrictions imposed on women. It moved the audience far more than any feminist speech or political agitation because it drew on their tradition and the Iranian love of poetry.

Persian culture survives

On the surface, Tehran is a place where you see women swathed in black and there are ugly grimy modern buildings housing rude officials.

The Islamic system of government has deliberately erased much of what was Persian culture and it is only by looking hard that you can catch glimpses of the past.

Some officials may be staggeringly rude but at home Iranians are so courteous that it overwhelms foreigners

Yes, some of the women may be covered from top-to-toe in black, but do not think that every woman who is covered up like that is submissive and docile - they wield huge power behind the scenes, often controlling the family finances.

Some officials may be staggeringly rude but at home Iranians are so courteous that it overwhelms foreigners until they get used to the ritual exchange of politesse that is rather beautiful to observe in action when done by a true professional.

The younger generation may eat pizzas and burgers and listen to rap music, but they still have a deep respect for Persian food, music, poetry and the language itself.

Of course, three years in Iran has brainwashed me.

I do believe that Iranians cook rice better than anyone else in the world, that Iranian women are the most beautiful in the world, and that the roses smell sweeter.

For all the ugliness of much of the politics here, there are still vestiges of a past beauty.

And as I leave, that is the Iran I want to treasure even though it is slowly fading.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 7 July, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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