Mahmoud and Me

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, the day of his now-famous speech, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the General Assembly at the

On Tuesday, Sept. 19, the day of his now-famous speech, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the General Assembly at the United Nations and sat down with his foreign minister and the Iranian U.N. ambassador. He waved in my direction, and I waved back. Me and Mahmoud, I thought to myself.

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I had seen the text of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech before he’d even arrived in Manhattan on Monday, Sept. 18: I was his interpreter, or at least his English voice, at the U.N.

My father was an ambassador under the Shah, and I’ve spent most of my life in the U.S. After a career in the entertainment industry, I had written about President Khatami for U.S. publications and made contacts within his government. That experience, along with my credentials as an apparently trustworthy Iranian, led to my invitation to be Mr. Ahmadinejad’s translator, and to attend some of his public pit stops, as well as an Iranian-only (and me­dia-free) celebration at the Hilton. There, I thought, I’d glimpse the real Ahmadinejad.

His speech used the simple “man of the people,” anti-intellectual language that Mr. Ahmadinejad is known for, and was translated expertly. Any nuance would be in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tone or body language, neither of which I would be able to reproduce from my booth overlooking the General Assembly.

Nuance in Persian is difficult to translate, but it can be most ­misleading—sometimes comically so—during interviews with the American press. When Brian Williams of NBC asked about Mr. Ahmadinejad’s attire—a suit rather than his trademark windbreaker—the Iranian president replied, “Sheneedem shoma kot-shalvaree hasteen, manam kot-shalvar poosheedam”—which was translated as “ … you wear a suit, so I wore a suit.” The phrase is actually much closer to “ … you are a suit, so I wore a suit.”

And when Mr. Williams asked if he wanted to see anything else in America other than Manhattan, the president’s response was yes. Pressed for details, Mr. Ahmadinejad stuck firmly to generalities, but also said, “Albateh, esrary nadareem,” which was correctly translated as “Of course, we’re not insistent.” But the meaning was closer to “Of course, we don’t really care.” While Mr. Ahmadinejad thought America might be interesting, it’s apparently not that interesting, at least to him.

Perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad just didn’t want to tarnish his revolutionary credentials by showing overt eagerness, but the president neither ventured to any Manhattan landmarks nor expressed a desire to do so. Instead, limited by his special visa to a 25- mile radius from U.N. headquarters, Mr. Ahmadinejad spent most of his first day less than a mile away, ensconced in his suite or in meeting rooms at the Intercontinental Hotel on Lexington and 48th, which had been turned into a fortress. Midtown Manhattan through the tinted, bullet-proof windows of a government-supplied limousine is just about all that Mr. Ahmadinejad has ever seen of America—other than his rides to and from J.F.K., which have been under cover of darkness.

Coca Leaves and Chadors

The Tuesday afternoon before his speech, President Ahmadinejad didn’t seem particularly concerned that he was missing both a luncheon given by Kofi Annan (the fact that wine was being served may have had something to do with his absence) or President Bush’s own highly anticipated speech at the U.N. Mr. Ahmadinejad and I spoke briefly about his own speech, before he was whisked away by his minders.

An hour later, I made my way to the floor of the General Assembly and sat on one side, flanked by two Iranian diplomats and facing Evo Morales of Bolivia. I was more than a little nervous. I fought the temptation to ask if I could have my picture taken with the Bolivian head of state (which would have been a certain hit with some friends) and, since I was in the midst of a nicotine fit, to also ask him if I could bum a coca leaf or two. (He later brandished a leaf during his speech.)

Anxious, I decided to take a walk around the hall and came across Mr. Ahmadinejad’s wife, milling about in full black chador, protected by a lone female Secret Service agent. I knew that she, unlike the wives of previous Iranian dignitaries, had accompanied him on his trip. It would have been both un-Islamic and rude of me to approach her, so I watched as Mrs. Ahmadinejad made her way to a row of seats off in one corner behind the podium to wait for her husband’s speech.

Attendance was curiously sparse, perhaps because of the evening hour and the fact that the speech was being carried live on CNN. The Iraqi delegation, however, was in full attendance. Presumably they were not willing to offend their true patrons.

I began to sweat. The realization hit me that whatever I said would be heard the world over, and all I could think of was Ronald Reagan’s infamous “We begin bombing in five minutes” quip into what he thought were unplugged microphones. I had no intention of veering from the text, but it was both tantalizing and terrifying to know that a few extra words here and there would create headlines and headaches across the globe, if not land me either in Gitmo or Evin prison in Tehran.

In fact, I remember little of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech or my reading of it; I was far too busy concentrating on listening to him in one ear, checking where we were in the text, and watching him out of the corner of one eye. After the address was over, I was stopped by an African U.N. security guard; he begged me for a copy of the speech, saying it was the best thing he’d ever heard. I had left my copy behind in the booth. The Iranian diplomat with me promised him a personal copy on Islamic Republic of Iran letterhead.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, although mobbed by a throng of well-wishers, thanked me rather graciously. “I heard from everyone you sounded great,” he said. “Thank you so much.” When he speaks to you (and maybe this is more relevant if you’re a fellow Iranian), Mr. Ahmadinejad is not only charming, but his tone is one of genuine friendliness— a remarkable ability to make you think he relates to you. Even his dress—the simply cut pale gray suit, one of three that he apparently owns, as well as the windbreaker and the inexpensive loafers (the better for slipping on and off for prayers)—seem less like political affectations and more a reflection of who he really is: a regular Muslim guy who happens to be the president of a now-powerful nation.

The following morning, Mr. Ahmadinejad held a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting, again at his hotel, with American academics and journalists. Earlier, he had expressed some interest in having Michael Moore attend, and although attempts were made to reach him (even by myself, since I was asked), they were unsuccessful. I was seated between Gary Sick (of Columbia University) and Jon Lee Anderson (of The New Yorker), and three hot issues were covered: nuclear power, Israel and the Holocaust.

Mr. Ahmadinejad didn’t seem to tire of repeating the responses he had given over and over. The participants were polite and respectful, and if they held any misgivings about breaking bread with someone seemingly reviled by a large number of their fellow New Yorkers as not only perfidious but extremely dangerous, they didn’t show it. Anderson Cooper of CNN posed the softest if not most pro-Iran question of the morning when he asked about the country’s rather under-publicized but valiant efforts at fighting the Afghan opium trade. I realized later that the question must have been intended to help land the unscheduled short interview that Mr. Cooper conducted for CNN that night.

As he left the breakfast, Mr. Ahmadinejad once again thanked me for my U.N. performance and said that he had heard from all over the world—specifying Senegal, which he had visited on his way to New York—that the speech was really beautiful.

‘It’s Gotten Much Better’

What were not covered by the media were Mr. Ahmadinejad’s last two appearances on the Thursday afternoon before he left the city. The previous week, the Iranian Mission to the U.N. had sent out invitations to two select groups of Iranians: first, a group of some 50 or so to attend a private meeting with the president, and second, another group of 500 to attend a dinner where he would give a short speech.

The location was kept secret until the last day. Guests had to e-mail their RSVP’s and receive an e-mail back with the details. I received an e-mail with just an address: the Hilton on Sixth Avenue.

There, in a large conference room, a group consisting mostly of men gathered at tables. They were academics, physicians and businessmen—all successful Iranians (mostly from New York and New Jersey) who were largely observant Muslims as well as supporters of the Islamic Republic. They gave the president a standing ovation. Flanked by U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif, and with his closest advisor and political mentor, Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, not far behind (a mysterious, almost Karl Rovean figure, Mr. Hashemi-Samareh always seems to be at his side), the Iranian president said nothing while another deputy, who sat immediately to his left, launched into a chillingly beautiful recital from the Koran.

The president made notes as people spoke into a microphone. One woman asked the president to relax the rules on hijab for women in Iran. Although wearing a scarf herself, living in the U.S. for many years has seemed to have divorced her from the reality of velayat-e-faqi, or “rule of the jurisprudent,” which means that at least in terms of social issues, it’s the Supreme Leader who decides what society will look like, not the president. The president continued writing, however, pausing briefly and looking up when his chador-clad wife quietly entered the room with two other women and took her seat at the end of his table. (Later, he would ignore the hijab issue entirely.)

Another questioner self-importantly pontificated for a while and then expressed his dismay that in the year since the president’s last visit to New York, relations between the U.S. and Iran had taken a turn for the worse. The man said he remembered last year’s event very well; he was seated in exactly the same place as this year.

Suddenly, the president interrupted him to say that he was, in fact, seated one chair over.

“Indeed,” replied the surprised and disarmed Iranian, “and mash’allah [praise Allah] for your intelligence and memory!” The president’s showing-off seemed calculated to impress that, contrary to some claims—particularly among expatriate Iranians—he was no dummy.

Mr. Ahmadinejad extolled the greatness of Iran, Iranians and Iranian society. “Americans are good people too,” he said, “but there’s a distance between our cultures.

“Let me explain a few points,” Mr. Ahmadinejad continued. “One gentleman said the situation between America and Iran has gotten worse. No. It’s not worse than last year; it’s better. Better.

“Last year,” he said, “we were under serious threats—military threats. Today, at the very worst, it’s economic threats, and even that—well, I don’t really want to say, but for those who would like to pursue them, the situation is not conducive …. Even though there are those in America who would like to put pressure on Iran, they won’t be able to. We’ve really progressed. You see, 118 countries [of the Non-Aligned Movement] have specifically supported Iran’s nuclear program. That’s eliminated the excuse that four or five countries speak for the ‘international community.’

“In Indonesia, when I went there, there were great demonstrations in our favor,” he said. “And wherever we went in Asia, we heard shouts of ‘Ahmadinejad, we support you against America!’” He repeated the slogan in English—a language that, judging by his pronunciation, he obviously speaks well enough, but rarely uses.

“Our political situation, by God’s grace, is great,” he went on. “For those who don’t want our people to progress, the situation is not good. In the Middle East, the situation for America has become very bad. Very. They thought if they attack Lebanon, their situation would get better,” he said, allowing no difference between Israel and the United States. “They gave 33 days to the Zionists to do something in Lebanon, and it didn’t happen. Same thing in Iraq; same thing in Afghanistan. It’s not that our situation has gotten worse in the last year; it’s that it’s gotten much better.

“As for America,” he said, “we will not be dictated to. Don’t forget that it was America that unilaterally broke off relations with Iran …. I remember Mr. Carter saying that to punish Iran, we will break diplomatic relations.” (Mr. Ahmadinejad neglected to point out that the “punishment” was in retaliation for Iran seizing all American diplomats in Iran, holding them hostage and occupying the U.S. diplomatic premises.)

“And now,” he added, “some of them expect us to go and beg for the resumption of relations. We’ll never do that. There’s not one Iranian in the world who would ask us do that,” he said, as if challenging any Iranians in this part of the world to do so.

“Never,” he emphasized. “For what?”

President Ahmadinejad, apparently satisfied that he had convinced everyone that Iran was strong, moved on to the question of Iran’s nuclear program. “If, God forbid—God forbid—we budge on this issue, they’ll next say, ‘You have to give up your chemistry departments in your universities, and your physics departments too.’ Then even the medical schools.” The president’s tone wasn’t bombastic; if anything, it was very matter-of-fact. “It’s clear that they don’t want us to progress,” he said. “Of course, not all Americans—Americans are good people.

“Two thousand Zionists want to rule the world. You can do it elsewhere,” he said, as if speaking directly to the mysterious 2,000, “but not in Iran. It’s impossible—it’s not doable.”


That evening’s dinner, for 500 loyal Iranians, was held in a grand ballroom of the Hilton. The crowd, consisting of Iranians who are fiercely nationalistic and more positively inclined to the Islamic Republic, greeted their president with prolonged applause. The national anthem played loudly over the speaker system, and to anyone who harbors suspicions that 2006 Iran is reminiscent of 1936 Germany, this event would have appeared to have some of the trappings of a Bund rally in 1930’s New York.

But the similarities to a Bund rally were in the expression of Persian pride and nationalistic and Islamic sentiments—the president’s speech wasn’t a call to arms, nor even particularly inflammatory. A table behind mine was filled with men wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh. They were the most vocal in the room, with shouts of “Allah-u-akbar!” every now and then. A lady sitting next to me wondered out loud if they were even Iranian, or whether they might in fact be—and she said this with not a little disgust—Palestinians.

In his speech—and no doubt the room had been bugged—the president vehemently denied that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. “The time for bombs is over,” he said. “If an atomic bomb could protect a country, then it would have protected the Soviet Union; it wouldn’t have disappeared. If atomic weapons could protect,” and he paused here for a moment, “then those gentlemen who attacked Lebanon would have taken it.”

When he finished speaking, the cheers were punctuated by repeated shouts from the men in keffiyehs jumping up and down right behind me, as they chanted over and over, “Praise [or salaam] to the Prophet Mohammad … boo-yeh Rajai aamad [we can smell a Rajai]!” (Mohammad Ali Rajai was the only other Iranian from humble origins who became president during the Islamic Republic’s 27-year history; he was assassinated by terrorists.)

Dinner was then served by the harried staff of the Hilton: large platters of steaming Persian saffron rice; equally large platters of kebabs; silver pots of a pomegranate-walnut stew ($70-a-barrel oil guarantees a good meal). After his prayers, Mr. Ahmadinejad stood at the head of a receiving line and, for two hours, said hello and shook hands with every single person in the long line—except the women, of course, who were content with an Islamic-appropriate hello and nod of the head.

His man-of-the-people reputation intact, he left the Hilton. The Iranians streamed out onto Sixth Avenue after an evening of celebrating Iran, its president and their own Iranian-ness, New Yorkers once again. Until another visit from Mr. Ahmadinejad, that is.

Mahmoud and Me