Dispatch from Tehran: Blood and defiance in Azadi Square

On Monday, huge crowds braved violence to protest the Iranian election results.

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Dispatch from Tehran: Blood and defiance in Azadi SquareA supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi flashes victory signs as he shouts slogans during a rally in Tehran June 15, 2009.

Monday afternoon in Tehran. Under slate skies and despite official warnings that the permit to march had been denied, against rumors that orders had been given to shoot to kill, they come. They come by the tens if not hundreds of thousands, marching east to west along the many kilometers of Enqelab Street to Azadi, or Freedom, Square. “It would be dishonorable, na mardi, to not go,” a young couple explains. “We have to go.” Another man asks, “Who is going? What is going on?” He is told that the “Mousavi-chiha” are marching starting at 4 p.m.. He laughs, “Mousavi-chiha nadarim, hame ye Iran hastand!” We don’t have Mousavi supporters, he’s saying, “it’s now all of Iran…

That they are coming to Azadi, a place where 30 years ago the Revolution pivoted towards victory, was fitting, for as much as the election campaign had been about who best represented the revolutionary values of Iran, Islam, and the late Imam, the push and pull of the past few days between opposition and Ahmadinejad forces has been a struggle to lay claim to authenticity. Authenticity that lies in the imagined and lived past, places and practices of the Islamic Republic. It is as if whomever can get to the important places and rituals first and stay there, hang onto them, will win. So at night, beginning at 9 p.m., we hear shouts of “Allah Akbar!” from the rooftops, just like in the fall and winter of 1978-1979. We have marches to sacred spots like Azadi and appeals by all sides to the memory of Khomeini.

In the crowd there are families, young and old. One cannot help but notice the large presence of women of all ages. The typical daily life of the capital is out here together, the homes, sidewalks and boulevards abandoned for this shared space. There is word that the crowd is millions strong; we know that it stretches eastward to Imam Hussein Square. It is an incredible occasion — by comparison, the state-organized 200,000 strong anniversary march that takes place every February starts from around Ferdowsi Square, several kilometers closer in to Azadi.

The mood in the crowd is positive, reminiscent of the joyous celebrations of the final week of the campaign. The chants are up-to-date, changed to reflect the new circumstances in Iran, the things that we did not know before Friday’s vote. “Hale ye noor e ro dide, rai e mano nadide?” A reference to the light of the hidden Imam that Ahmadinejad claimed to have seen, roughly translated to rhyme, “If he saw that light, why didn’t he see the vote we cast with all our might?!” And, “Ta in Ahmadi nejad hast, in ghaziye ijad hast!” Until this Ahmadi is here, this commotion will not disappear!



There are new signs as well. Written in English, “Where is My Vote?” (I can’t help myself: the idea for an Al Gore-Mir Hossein Mousavi buddy film pops into my mind, “Dude, Where is My Vote?”). Another: 2 x 2 = 24 million, a play on the bogus economic measures touted by Ahmadinejad during the debates, now updated to reflect the equally dubious election results.

The procession passes through an underpass and just as there is great pleasure in honking car horns in tunnels these many people send up an enormous cheer, echoing off the walls. From dark to light the crowd emerges from the underpass and looks back to see what they have done. There is above them stretching across the tunnel a dissonant sight, a sign with the visage and message of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei.

The crowd knots and comes to an absolute standstill. They are pressed against each other, an assembly the size of Coachella and Woodstock combined. Slowly, slowly the people move forward and see that the cause for the standstill is Mehdi Karrobi. Karrobi, the presidential candidate whose supposed 400,000-vote tally was the most telling sign that something was seriously amiss with the counting. He counted more registered activists and supporters than that in his campaign organization. Karrobi, a former member of Imam Khomeini’s inner circle, who during the presidential race four years ago famously protested that “I was in first place during the vote count, took an afternoon nap, and when I woke up I was suddenly two places behind Ahmadinejad.” The 72-year-old cleric stands atop a car surrounded by bodyguards, blessing the crowds with blown kisses.

What is remarkable about the Mousavi and opposition marches is the orderly disorder. These are not rallies or events in the manner familiar to Americans. There are no official Mousavi volunteers guiding the crowd to the designated rallying points, no college interns filled with coffee and day-old pizza. The movement is self-directed. Mousavi had asked his supporters to march but to march respectfully, to give no excuse for violence. The crowd is abiding. As we pass along the nearly kilometer length of a basiji [paramilitary] base, the cry goes up: Shoar nagoo! Don’t shout slogans! Hands are up held up instead. It is quiet. Here and there a voice, unable to restrain itself, begins to scream “Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!” It is met instantly with hisses and whistles — saket! saket! quiet! quiet! — and the voice falls silent again.

How do we know where to go? When to go? Texting, any kind of messaging, is down, the internet is spotty and cell phones have become unreliable. Still, Tehran has always been a city where information gets passed around easily. For all of the complaints and anxiety that life has become too modern, that people are living alone in great apartment towers instead of with their families in homes, the citizens of this city find ways to know, to be in each other’s business. Conversations come easily even amongst strangers, more so now than ever. Men weave through the crowd, telling us what’s next. “Come tomorrow to Vali Asr at 5! Tomorrow! Spread the word!”

Compare this to the Ahmadinejad rallies. On Sunday, Mother’s Day in Iran (an appropriate day given Ahmadinejad’s persistent claim to be the “defender” of the vatan, or motherland) the Ahmadinejad groups held their own rally and show of force in Vali Asr Square in central Tehran. Their numbers are not few — the crowd filled the square and stretched south for at least a kilometer. But their actions are more organized, mobilization by memo, as one observer put it. Word goes out in the mosques, bonyads, and ministries that there is to be a gathering and they come, organized by section and arriving in chartered buses and vans. Unlike the Mousavi rallies, their Great Leader is present both in person and in stereo. Audio equipment is set up to so that listeners might hear his message and the speakers tell the crowd where to go afterwards. The atmosphere is no less festive, no less family-oriented than the opposition rallies. But the numbers are less and the movement less sustained. There is, perhaps, less to lose for this group, less sense of outrage and danger.

 

Back on Enqelab, the sun slips under the clouds and light begins to fall sideways across the crowds, hands turn golden in the last part of the day. Dasta bala! Dasta bala! Hands in the air! Hands in the air! All arms are up, spread into the familiar sign of victory. The crowd reaches the square but cannot enter, does not need to enter, this spot will do. On either side of a nearby underpass a call and response begins, arms and legs hang over the guardrail, bodies lean over the road that runs several meters below. From one side of the underpass: “Mir Hossein!” From the other: “Ya Hossein!” From one side: “Mir Hossein!” Now from the other: “Ya Hossein!” Cars and motorcycles raise the alarm, young men with green scarves over their faces ninja-style run and hop between the traffic. They urge the crowd and cars on. Two large passenger buses emerge from under the tunnel and the drivers lay on their horns, making the crowd go wild, they love it. It is all noise. The cheer goes up, “Gofte boodim age taqalob bishe, Iran ghiamat mishe!” We told you that if they cheat, Iran will explode!

We leave the square and head north along Jenah Expressway towards Ariashahr or Sadiqia Square. In the diminishing light, stretching towards the rising foothills that mark the upper reaches of Tehran, one can only see person after another. Cars and buses that have made the mistake of turning into this crowd have been engulfed.

Then the story takes a bad turn. All does not end well. Seeing the camera around my neck, several people rush up to me, frantically urging me to go take pictures, shouting, “They are killing us all!” Behind a wall, in an alleyway set off from the road, a confrontation is taking place between one spike of the crowd and basiji forces, holed up in a base. There is the unsettling pop-pop-pop of gunfire, and a plume of black smoke rises into the sky. A crowd is gathering in the alley and men rush forward to throw rocks while others tell them, “Stop, stop, that’s what they want!”

A police officer, alone, rushes in to help, brought in by part of the crowd. Suddenly he is surrounded, confronted violently by angry protestors. A great confusion ensues as water bottles and rocks are hurled at the cop. Ten to 15 men form a perimeter around the officer to shield him their hands up begging the crowd to control themselves to let this man pass, he has come to help. During the worst moment, we see the terrified policeman pressed against a courtyard wall. His hat has been knocked off, he shouts that he is here to help. Finally, thankfully, the situation is controlled, the police officer joins in the chanting, and he is allowed to go into the alley to help.

The chant goes up, the same as was used during the 1979 Revolution: “He who kills my brother, will be killed by me!” We hear the wail of an ambulance. A boy, no older than 14, is rushed through the crowd, carried sideways at the head and the legs by three men. Foam is coming out of his mouth and eyes. There is no way of knowing for sure, but there are reports that five to seven people have been shot, have been killed right here in this spot. I see a young man hold up his right hand, it is covered in blood.

At this point, the crowd remains uncertain. They act like a school of fish. Everyone moves in one direction, then suddenly shoulders drop and they run for their lives the opposite way. “Riqdan! Riqdan! They’re attacking!!!” The mass looks back and sees that there are already hands held up beckoning the crowd to stop, to come back, to be brave and not run.

We have found a way to make it last. To stop this now would take a tremendous display of violence and thus far, blessedly, that has not happened. And every day everyone says that in a few days the protests will be stopped, and what’s the point of going out, but when the moment comes everyone is here.

It would be a mismatch, in fact, if the uncertainty and the fear were to disappear. Do not believe the lie that this is a story of middle-class, urbane Iran set against the great multitude of obdurate peasants, the supposedly authentic Iran. That is a myth, no different than the bogus notion that Middle America is the True America. Iran’s heart and voting population lies in its cities as much as in the countryside. It was in the cities that the 1979 Revolution took place, and the 6 million to 8 million new voters who showed up at the booth to vote on Friday, many for the first and only time in their lives, did not emerge from Iran’s diminishing villages.

Tehran is fast becoming two. In the late afternoon and lasting until around dinner time it is a place of peaceful civic celebration, a Disneyland of political action for the whole family to participate. At night, the mood shifts abruptly, and the capital becomes a battleground, a city in which fear stalks on motorbikes mounted in helmeted pairs.

It is like a dream. We wake up in the morning, our legs and voices sore, wondering if this is really happening, anxious for what will come next.

 

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