Marie's place is empty

Remembering Marie Colvin, 1956-2012.

I walk along Fatemi Avenue in Tehran amid the swirling dust of a gathering electrical storm, the tulip-shaped towers of the Hotel Laleh swimming in a heat haze over honking afternoon traffic. I muster a smile for the doormen in peaked caps and gold lanyard and stroll purposefully into the foyer, freezing after a few steps and looking around me. For ten days this visit has loomed over my annual trip to the Iranian capital like the black flower of the hotel itself; now that I’m here, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.

The glamorous trappings of the lobby haven’t changed in seven years: an enormous art deco chandelier still forms an inverted pyramid of light over tables and chairs, the former dressed with red and white flowers, the latter upholstered with mock Gucci embroidery and occupied by a mix of bemused tourists and bored looking businessmen. There’s an unmanned grand piano, a bronze statue of Hafez’s tomb, a marble reception hung with mandatory portraits of the ayatollahs, eyes narrowed as though scanning the lobby for licentious behaviour.

I spot a receptionist studying me with interest, and in a split second convince myself that this is the same man who checked Marie in the night she arrived in 2005; who cracked a joke about Rupert Murdoch when she mentioned the Sunday Times, and who managed not to stare at her eye patch the way I had when I’d met her at the taxi rank ten minutes earlier. Suddenly self conscious, I turn and walk into the lobby, sit and order a pot of tea, aware only after the waiter has departed that I’m seated at our old table; that opposite me – to paraphrase a popular Iranian saying – Marie’s place is empty.

I’d been in Tehran for three months when Marie Colvin arrived to cover the presidential elections for the Sunday Times. I’d somehow wrangled work as home news editor of a national English-language newspaper despite my abysmal Farsi, a job that entailed rewriting largely unintelligible newswires on earthquakes and plane crashes (so many earthquakes and plane crashes), and righteous affirmations of Iran’s nuclear program. They were exciting and unsettling days: exciting because I was finally doing what everyone back home would see as "real journalism" after years of travel writing and reviewing; unsettling because I felt like a fraud, and not just because of my second-rate Farsi.

I’d realised on arrival that I didn’t have the character of a news journalist; that I lacked the cynical swagger and the deadline in the blood. I wrote the occasional whimsical piece for publications back home – a story on underground poetry clubs for the New Statesman, another on coffee shop youth culture for the BBC – but when I pitched similar human interest efforts to the Sunday Times (a paper whose foreign editor had called me at Heathrow to express his happiness at having someone "on the ground"), they were turned down, and I was encouraged instead to put together something on the forthcoming elections. I didn’t have a mobile, so the foreign desk kept calling my grandmother’s house, where I was staying, only to have her bark insensibly down the phone until either party hung up or I realised what was happening and jumped on the line.

Still, as the first round approached I managed to write something on the elections – a few hundred words towing the widely accepted wisdom that former president and remade liberal Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would sweep to victory (he had recently appeared on a Time magazine cover with the headline "Iran’s Next President"). I wrote it under the pseudonym Ali Bandari, something I told the Sunday Times would ensure against a conflict of interests with my own paper, though it was actually because I’d been refused a journalist’s visa, and would be arrested if my name was discovered in foreign publications.

Rafsanjani found himself vying for the second round against Tehran’s mayor, a hardliner called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose rare appearances in the international press had been as a caricature spouting semi-comical quotes about cutting off hands and strangling democracy. The story acquired an extra page and the Sunday Times sent in the cavalry – hence my meeting Marie Colvin at the Hotel Laleh that June evening, attempting to sound fluent as I bantered with her taxi driver and ordered a pot of tea at what would become our regular table.

She asked my opinion on what might happen at the ballots; I swallowed my pride over the first story ("Rafsanjani’s seemingly full-blooded independence looks set to propel him to victory," says Ali Bandari), and told her what people were now saying in the office: that Ahmadinejad had a real chance of winning. That while Rafsanjani had been measuring his head for the crown and receiving the international media at his palatial Tehran offices, Ahmadinejad had been touring the provinces in a beat up orange bus, speaking in mosques and emphasising to the common people that it wasn’t just their right to vote, it was their Islamic duty. It had also become clear that he was Ayatollah Khamenei’s choice for president; beyond that, little else seemed to matter.

We had three days before Marie needed to file the story, days I spent almost entirely in the office, sometimes empty save for the caretaker’s son who careered around the floor in a plastic pedal car, crashing into desks and upturning chairs. I blackened my fingers flipping through back issues of the paper in enormous bound folders, filled notebooks with background on the candidates – details of Rafsanjani’s two terms as president between 1989 and 1997, of Ahmadinejad’s possible role in the American hostage crisis of 1979. When I did leave the office, it was to visit disparate parts of the capital and conduct interviews with potential voters – from wizened merchants hunched over sacks of dates and dried limes in the downtown bazaar, to Gucci-draped Persian princesses drifting around uptown shopping malls, headscarves serving as little more than hammocks for their dyed and dreadlocked hair.

At the end of each day I’d hop in a battered cab to the Hotel Laleh, euphoric and exhausted, arms laden with bundles of printed and photocopied paper, feet wincing with blisters. Marie and I would face each other over our usual table, a pot of tea between us, and I’d fill the gaps in her story, providing political context and local colour that her schedule of rigorously enforced press conferences left her unable to pursue. Once done with business we’d settle into our chairs and exchange war stories – hers filled with snipers and hostages, mine with ski resorts and secluded city bars. If she found my situation comical then she didn’t let on; she seemed impressed by my diligence, and implied that I might have a promising career at the Sunday Times, news she dropped into the conversation without realising that it caused the entire lobby to begin tilting beneath my feet.

That Friday morning I took my Iranian passport to the Tajrish mosque and purpled my finger with a vote for Rafsanjani. The results began filtering in the following afternoon, a day I spent glued to my computer, newswires piling up beside me as I refreshed the online vote count and watched Ahmadinejad snake closer to victory. Every hour I called the Laleh to update Marie, her smoke-stained phone voice instilling in my mind a timeless picture of the journalist’s hotel room: curtains closed, ashtrays overflowing, papers strewn over an unmade bed.

By the time I arrived at the hotel that evening Ahmadinejad’s victory had been announced, Marie’s story filed and her taxi to the airport booked. We drank a celebratory pot of tea, the piano occupied for the first and only time by a young man fiddling Persian flourishes into schmaltzy 1980s ballads. Afterwards she walked me to reception, shook my hand and gave me her card, scribbling her personal email on the back and encouraging me to drop her a line when I got back to London. “If you get back to London,” she said, winking to imply that she knew only too well how hard it would be to tear myself away.

I decided to walk back to my grandmother’s house that night. The streets were quiet after days ringing with protests and street parties and the names of candidates screamed from passing cars. The city seemed to have admitted defeat, to have folded in on itself to regard this latest development from a fearful distance. Yet I found myself smiling as I walked, swinging my steps in time to a piano ballad and greedily dismantling a bar of chocolate given to me in parting by Marie – a woman who had helped me find in three days what had previously eluded me for three months. Who had stopped me from feeling like a fraud.

Behind me, the dusk sky was scattered with bats, and the funereal towers of the Hotel Laleh receded for the last time, or so I thought.

Marie Colvin (right) with the Duchess of Cornwall in November 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)
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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist