Sue Arnold: My life as an Iranian gossip columnist

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The Independent Online

There I was, quietly reading about the Iranian elections yesterday when suddenly - whoosh, this tidal wave of nostalgia sweeps over me. To paraphrase Noël Coward: "Strange how potent cheap slogans can be."

It's 1970-something, I'm in Iran along with the Shah and a brand new American pipeline that's being built from Abadan to the Caspian Sea, and I've just landed myself a job on an English-language newspaper called the Tehran Journal. I'd rather have worked for its rival, the Kayhan International, which is American owned and has a bigger circulation, but beggars can't be choosers and right now I'm completely skint. The reason I'm in Tehran is too complicated and, frankly, too messy to go into right now - but then again, what the hell. It was a long time ago and everyone who might sue me is dead.

My life is currently on hold in that suddenly I have no flat, no job and my multimillionaire American impresario 35-years-older-than-me boyfriend has just dumped me. I used to live pleasantly enough in Upper Berkeley Street but my flatmate Mirabelle, whose daddy owns the lease, has asked me to move out because she would prefer to share with Lady Selina Hastings. The Sunday Express has just sacked me for wrongly identifying one of the 12 bridesmaids at the wedding in St Margaret's Westminster I was sent to cover on Saturday. It wouldn't have been a sacking offence, said the news editor, if I hadn't also spelt the bride's name wrong.

The American impresario was called Norman Grantz, who started something called Jazz at the Philharmonic with people such as Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald - if you know anything about jazz you'll have heard of it. I knew nothing about jazz until I met Norman. Who introduced me to a world that I, newly arrived in London from the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, had never heard of, let alone moved in. I only saw Norman on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the week, he spent either in California promoting his concerts or in Switzerland divorcing his wife.

In London, we'd go to the theatre to see one of his shows or have dinner with his friend Sammy Davis Jr. It was never what you'd call a deep relationship, so when one night he turned up in Upper Berkeley Street on Tuesday and I was out, and he left me a furious note saying that it was all over, I wasn't really surprised. Next morning, I got a call from his travel agent to say that she had been instructed by Mr Grantz to give me a first-class one-way ticket to Timbuktu or nearest airport. He had a sense of humour, I'll say that for him.

So anyway, the upshot was I converted the ticket to an open return to Tehran where I had an uncle in the oil business who said I needed a break and Tehran was a fun city. And so it was, pre-Ayatollah, provided you were wealthy or an expat. I was the only person on the Tehran Journal who had actually worked, albeit briefly, for a national newspaper. Within a month, I had been promoted to chief gossip columnist on the Iranian equivalent of Jennifer's Diary and had no problems filling my column with diplomatic parties, first nights at the Rudaki Opera House, and visits to nightclubs like the Shook-a-Faylooh which had extravagant floor shows featuring touring dance companies from Europe.

The Tehran Journal was not exactly a campaigning paper, though it did occasionally run pieces about appalling housing conditions in parts of the city, the illiteracy rate among adults and student demonstrations against the Shah's Western-style capitalist regime. On these occasions the newspaper would be visited by sinister-looking men from the Ministry of Information who would draw red lines through words like slums, poverty and student, and threaten the editor with expulsion. In the year I was there, we had four editors.

With hindsight, I might have used my time in Tehran to better effect, learning Farsi, going on archaeological digs to Persepolis or, better still, becoming an expert on fundamentalist Ayatollahs. Alas, I didn't, though I did see a lot of the country and was very nearly signed up as a spy by the British embassy.

By the time I left Iran, the Ministry of Information was insisting that everyone on the newspaper had Iranian by-lines. Westerners were becoming unpopular. I was to be Soraya Masoudian. Time to get out, I thought. You know the rest.

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