Escape From Tempe

Longtime Tempe resident Babak Dehghanpisheh knew long before he graduated from college in 1993 that he needed to see the world before he sorted out his career path.

So he went to work on a boat in Alaska, "slinging the crab," for months. The experience only aroused Dehghanpisheh's wanderlust. Eight years and five continents later, the tragedies of last September 11 led to an extraordinary turn of events.

Newsweek hired him as a contract reporter, assigning him to Afghanistan to cover America's new war against terrorism. The 29-year-old Dehghanpisheh spent about six months in that country before taking a short break last week to visit his parents in Tempe.

Erudite, soft-spoken and gracious, Dehghanpisheh sipped a rum and Coke at a Phoenix sports bar and chatted about the twists and turns that led him to write the following in a piece published on March 18:

"The Chinook helicopter was shaking and screaming, a cartoonish monstrosity bulldozing through the air. Mud-brick houses, flocks of sheep and rusted Soviet tanks swept beneath. The snowy peaks of the Shahikot mountains loomed on the horizon.

"Inside, Canadian soldiers in green camouflage, orange face paint and ragneted helmets hunkered down with their packs, ready for battle. I was sitting in the front strapped into a flak jacket and helmet, flanked by a Reuters photographer on one side and a machine gunner, decked out in a white crash helmet and black visor, on the other."

Dehghanpisheh was born in Iran, the youngest of Elaine and Hassan Dehghanpisheh's two children. Hassan, a native of Iran, had met his future wife while attending the University of Arizona. The young family emigrated from Iran to Arizona when Babak was 10.

"I learned both English and Farsi," Babak says, "which came in handy later on. But when I came to the States, I just wanted to be a regular American kid."

Hassan is an electrical engineer for the Salt River Project; his wife teaches English at Arizona State University. Babak says he became interested in writing and journalism at Tempe's McClintock High, but he meandered into a business major at ASU.

But a career in the business world wasn't to be. Instead, Dehghanpisheh saved the money he earned in Alaska and, after graduation, traveled through Europe and Asia. It was on a trek in faraway Nepal that he applied for admission to graduate school.

"I was living on 'Freak Street' in Kathmandu, where everybody was getting stoned, but I knew I wanted to get a graduate degree," he says.

Dehghanpisheh returned to Tempe and ASU, this time for a degree in mass communications. He worked at Tony Roma's restaurant in Scottsdale, completed his master's program in December 1996 and plotted his next move.

That would be what Dehghanpisheh calls his "heart of darkness" trip, a months-long journey that began in Paris and evolved into a canoe trip, with a Belgian buddy, down a river in the Central African Republic during the 1997 civil war. He says he sold the canoe for 50 doughnuts -- as in Dunkin' -- and wound up on a steamer to South Africa.

In Johannesburg, Dehghanpisheh contacted Newsweek and Time correspondents, hoping to sell a tale of his wild experiences. Though neither magazine published Dehghanpisheh's piece, the Newsweek representative seemed receptive to allowing the travel-tested young man do research for him -- for no pay.

Dehghanpisheh soon sold freelance stories to South African papers, paying the rent with published pieces about drug smugglers, dirty politics and the like. But he wound up back in Tempe in May 1999, sending out résumés to local publications, including New Times. Frustrated by the lack of journalistic bites, he found work with Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency medical care in Third World countries.

Dehghanpisheh says that the experience was wonderful, but he wanted more. To that end, he applied for a paid internship with Newsweek and for graduate studies in international relations at Columbia University.

Both accepted him and he moved to New York City, expecting, he says, to start at Columbia last fall and to work at the magazine until then. "I was making enough to live in New York City and was feeling pretty good about things," he says. "Then came 9-11."

Dehghanpisheh's bosses sent him to the World Trade Center immediately after the terrorists struck. "I took the subway down there, and I stepped out into a nightmare, a Holocaust environment. All you could hear was sirens. There were bloody cops, firemen stripping off their gear, complete chaos."

Dehghanpisheh says he was a block away from the North Tower when it collapsed, after the South Tower already had fallen. "We were all mesmerized. A mushroom cloud of dust came at us, and I just ducked. Day became night. I really thought I was gonna die. A fireman gave me some gauze. I washed off my face and started interviewing people."

The intern's Iranian heritage quickly paid dividends for him journalistically. Newsweek assigned him to report on the terrorists' connections in nearby New Jersey.

"A couple of weeks into it, I knew this thing was gonna shift to another front, and I wanted to be there," Dehghanpisheh says.

He soon e-mailed a Newsweek editor, pitching his abilities to speak Farsi, to travel easily and to report well. Late last year, Newsweek shipped Dehghanpisheh to the front in Afghanistan.

Since then, the publication and its companion Web page have published several of his pieces, including stories about feuding warlords in the opium capital of Lashkar Gah, life in the refugee camps, and the end of Operation Anaconda in the al-Qaeda caves of northern Afghanistan's Shahikot mountains.

"It's a new world there for the people, after 20 years of medieval [Taliban] hell," Dehghanpisheh says. "The people in Afghanistan are really warm, strong and good, and they continue to go through a lot. I've learned a lot in the last six months, and I'm ready to learn more."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin