Tehran dispatch: The crackdown

Gridlock, fire and lead pipes. Young men face off against the basijis and the battle moves into the back alleys

Topics: Iran, Middle East,

Tehran dispatch: The crackdownSupporters of opposition leader Mir Hossien Mousavi set fire to a barricade as they protest in Tehran on Saturday June 20, 2009.

Saturday afternoon in Tehran. I come out of the Internet cafe and the first thing I see is the row of green and white police trucks lined up perpendicular to the square. In the square itself is an impressive sight: row after row of cops in riot gear. The four roads that lead in and out are marked at their corners by uniformed police wearing dark green. In the stone and grass plaza at the center of the square, a place where just a week ago Mousavi supporters had nightly gathered to chant and cheer, there are police in Robocop riot gear standing, waiting, looking, watching the perimeter of the traffic circle.

“Az enqelab mirisim be azadi!” “From Revolution we’ll get to Freedom!” A kid in the Internet cafe had, minutes earlier, made a clever pun, referring to today’s march from Revolution Square to Freedom Square. Saturday afternoon was to be a repeat of last Monday’s massed millions but after the most recent Friday Prayers and the supreme leader’s injunctions, the march had been called into doubt. Around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, there came word that another warning not to come had just been issued, that the regime’s “patience” had run out. The kid was putting on a strong, defiant face.

Standing outside, looking at this show of force, the kid’s bravura seems silly. So does mine. Power is about force and place. In Tehran it is quickly becoming about who can stand where and when.

Spooked, I walk away from the square and make my way home using an alternate route.

Back at my apartment, I realize that, like an idiot, I have left an opposition newspaper with notes scribbled all over it — in English, source material for these dispatches — in the Internet cafe. I return to retrieve it, taking back alleys.

I call a few folks along the way. Cellphones for some reason are working, perhaps so that people can tell each other not to go to the march. That is more or less the message I received from my friends. It’s becoming less and less worth it, they’re saying, only the fully committed to seeing this thing through will show and their numbers will no doubt be dwindling.

I reach the cafe. The paper is still there. I grab it and set out for home. I stiffen my spine, walk right into the circle, the newspaper curled up into my hand. I make a point of walking past a row of the officers waiting at one corner of the plaza. I need to do this. Some are bored, others are keeping themselves busy with stupid things. They help each other strap and tighten their helmets, one taps his fingers against the top of his plastic shield. I see that one or two of the guys have on fashionable glasses, vestiges of their other life.



As I pass, I look them in the eye. Iranians in general stare. This habit isn’t antagonistic. Fixed eye contact is a normal thing, part curiosity and partly a way to size up the person walking toward them. A friend observes that Iranians have been lied to so much the only device left to them for ascertaining truth is the zaher, or appearance. As with the ancient Greeks, the assumption is that the external reveals true character.

The cops look back at me with little interest.

I receive a very different response from the young basijis coming up the road. They show up after the police, in beige camo trucks traveling in convoy. Today, under daylight, they emerge from whatever hole it is they hide in, wearing uniforms to go with their oversize helmets. Think “Spaceballs.” In the back of each transport truck a large red flag is flapping.

When I fix my eyes on them, the look is deadly, menacing.

Basijis. The lesser cousin of the police, they are the more serious of the two. For the cops it’s a job, and so far at least their hearts don’t seem to be in it. For these basijis, it’s their reason to be. They bring an enthusiasm to their “work” that only an ardent hobbyist can. As a member of my family notes, this is their good time. They don’t screw, they don’t drink or smoke pot (bet you didn’t know that went on in Iran). What else are they going to do with all of that energy? For 360 days of the year basijis don’t do shit, but for the past week …

Ke chi bishe? What’s the point? It feels so unnecessary. Every rally has been peaceful, folks have really done their best, truly taken great care not to antagonize. They deserved better than this. Delam vaghan misooze. My heart aches …

And I am feeling isolated, and losing my nerve. I figure it’s all over, I give up.

The shit hits the fan

Saturday evening, not yet sunset. The little guy is cracking himself up silly. “Moo … ! Moo … ! Akharesh shod … Mousavi!” I sit in the front of the shared taxi ride. The small boy wraps his hands around my headrest and repeats the chant. “Moo … ! Moo … ! Akharesh shod … Mousavi!” Moo …! Moo …!” He’s saying, “At the end it became Mousavi!” His mom sitting in the back, her voice barely above a whisper, tells him, “Na azizam, aqasare agha ye Mousavi na shod.” No dear, at the end it did not.

The three of us, the adults in the car, grouse about everything that was happening. Ba zoor hamichi ra mikhand. Yemosh havoon. They want everything by force. Animals.

We are on Sattar Khan Street, heading south toward Tohid Square, or Unity Square. Tohid, formerly known as Kennedy, was once an up-and-coming neighborhood, a fashionable enclave for young and newly married couples to make their first move outside of their parents’ home. Duplex-style housing from the mid- and late 1970s still lines the street, the bottom floors of many now converted into offices and small shops. The area around Tohid is where the first fast-food joints opened up, some of the original pahtoghs, or hangouts. Though no longer unique in Tehran, on Thursday nights certain stretches and bends of Satter Khan above Tohid are full of cars filled with families. Tehran has elements of the American small town. For want of better options, diversions consist of cruising and hanging out at burger and ice cream joints late into the night. 

The traffic is horrific. No one is moving. Cars stop, engines turn off, people get out to see what is happening. There is dark smoke ahead. We can see at least two helicopters circling above. I see families gathered on the rooftops. Everyone is looking south toward the square. What has happened?

On the other side of the street comes a pack of protesters chanting. I didn’t expect this. I was wrong. It is not over: “Marq bar diktator! Marq bar diktator!” Unable to move, the vehicles have effectively become the fixed seats of a street theater. With nowhere to go, drivers and their passengers get out. They stand up on the edge of their doors to take pictures with their mobile phones.

One of the marchers points across at us, her face screwed up in anger and frustration: “Hemayat, hemayat, Iraniane BIGHEIRAT!” Help, help, Iranians WITHOUT honor!

What’s going on ahead? Why aren’t we moving? Motorists coming back the other way tell us that Tohid is on fire, they’ve burned Cinema Bahman. They tell us to turn back, turn back. Our taxi driver, a young man sporting a beard (“I just grew it out so that they won’t mess with me!”), pulls a classic Tehran move and wheels the old Iranian-made Paykon 180 degrees. He cuts into an alley. Maybe we can get to Tohid this way. He’s not the only one with this idea and as he pulls the car down toward the square we get stuck again. This time it’s worse.

It’s not looking good. Cars are backing up and we’re off the main road. Our driver gives up. “Sharmandam, I am deeply sorry, but I’ve got to go back home. Please, forget the fare, I’m so sorry.” The mom and her son get out, she tries to take his hand but he rushes forward between the cars, then stops. Karate stance.

Shit. I get out. Ahead I see a group of basijis. They are lined up against a wall, awaiting their orders. I notice that one holds a lead pipe at his side. The pipe is the length of his leg.

I decide to try to walk to Tohid. Can anyone help me? I ask the crowd for directions. I want to go to Vali Asr. “Go that way, but I don’t think that you’ll make it. Tohid is a mess, they say that they burned a 13-year-old girl.” I keep cutting south. Cars that have come off of the main road and into the warren of this neighborhood remain stuck, not moving. I weave my way through the grid, leaning into windows, asking here and there how things are from where they’ve come. Agha, in var shoolooq e? Sir, is it safe? The answer is always, “Yes.” I begin to worry. I don’t know this neighborhood, I don’t have anyone to take me in just in case, and it’s getting close to sunset. I have to laugh. It’s like a disaster and zombie movie all rolled up in one.

I continue to cut south toward Tohid. The black smoke coming from Satter Khan and the square grows thicker, continues to climb into the pale evening light. The neighborhood that I am in is faring no better. At a corner I see an incredible sight, two street battles raging perpendicular to each other. I stand at their juncture. In one direction, at least three fiery heaps stretch out straight down the middle of the street, there is smoke everywhere, and beyond the haze a crowd of men marches toward a line of armed and waiting basijis. At the top of the street is the burned and tinny carcass of a motorcycle, a basiji mount, its rider nowhere to be found.

To my left, at the end of the street, another group of young men face off against the paramilitaries. They show no fear, the chants come faster and faster.

I turn back. This is not going to work. I need to get back home.

Back on Satter Khan, now heading north, it only gets worse. It’s really an unbelievable scene. Every 50 to 100 meters there is a confrontation or a fire, people are chanting, they are defiant. And in between there are the cars, in both directions just sitting there, not moving, engines off. Everyone is out and watching. This has become an accidental march. Everyone, without planning to, has taken the side of protest.

What are they going to do with all of these people? What’s going to happen when the cops pour in? I wonder. These people can’t move. At bus stops I see citizens sitting on the benches and railings, either waiting for the bus or hanging around until the commotion passes. One old lady is peeling oranges and sharing with her husband and the others seeking refuge inside of the shelter. Car horns up and down the road are honking, nearly in unison, “doot-doot-de-doot-doot, doot-doot-de-doot-doot.” There is no letup.

Near Patrice Lumumba Street I stop to get something to drink. I’ve got several kilometers to go yet. Bottled water is out at all of the stores and kiosks. All that is left is Rani, a juice drink (with real but unnervingly way-too-big fruit chunks inside), and Delster, Iranian non-alcoholic beer. It’s quite a sight, people kicking back a few brews, watchin’ a riot, no worries at all …

A pedestrian asks me what is happening further down the road, using the alliterative phrasing that Iranians are so fond of: “Bezan bezan hast?” “Na, bekosh bekosh.” Is it hitting hitting going on? No, comes the answer from a man standing next to me, it’s killing killing. 

Across from a police substation, officers stand poised with their plastic shields in front of them, facing north. Rocks are being thrown at them, one by one, then two by two. The officers stand their ground. I am on the other side of the street, watching. Two young men turn the corner and walk toward me. They are both eating chocolate-glazed donuts. I tell them, “Bi khial, Wow, you two are really taking it easy!” One of them answers, “Come on man, gotta take care of the stomach first.”

The rocks now start to rain in by the dozen and the police run. They rush to their motorcycles and hop on, flying south. Protesters pour down the street, a full assault. One of the officers awkwardly throws rocks back at his tormentors. Unable to get off a good shot he wheels toward us and throws in our direction and I, the Donut Brothers, and about 20 other people run away, around the corner.

This is a glimpse of what is to come. The decision to prevent people from marching calmly and peacefully through the squares and main boulevards has thrown the action into the kuches and mahals of Tehran. It’s gone into the neighborhoods, the alleys and corners of where people permanently live, not the public squares and intersections that they occasionally pass through.

You have to understand the importance of the “kuche” or alley if you want to understand Tehran, especially now. Sar e kuche, too ye kuche, boro kuche — the beginning and end of everyday life happens in a kuche, the alley.

“Alley” as it is used here isn’t the same as what we might imagine in the U.S., the dark and dangerous spaces of a big city where bad things might happen. Back in the day, Tehran neighborhoods consisted primarily of single-family homes, many with a hayat, or yard, with a central hoz, or fountain (the film “Children of Heaven” is a good depiction of what I’m talking about). The buildings were close to each other and the kuche served as the shared ground between entrances. You had to walk down an alley to get home and the odds were that you would run into your neighbor along the way. Likewise, the alley provided a crude form of security. If someone had no business being there or was up to no good it would be immediately known.

Neighbors knew who belonged there. Neighborhoods were populated by men with colorful names: Behrooz Sibili (Moustache Behrooz), Ali Hezar Dawshi (Ali 10 Cents), Mahmad Damagh (Mahmad Nose), Jangir Khiki (Fat Jangir). Neighbors simultaneously spied on and looked after each other. A patriarchal code of honor, with all of its blessings and vices, held sway, and woe onto the young man who wandered into the neighborhood. Hava ye ham digar ra dashtand. While this code has dimmed considerably because of shifts in demographic and housing patterns — more and more people live away from their families in apartment towers –  the familiarity remains. Tehran, despite its size, remains an intimate big city, the reason being that the base of social life outside of the family remains the kuche. Even if they don’t personally know their neighbor nor care to, residents of a block will come to each other’s aid when threatened from without (read Asef Bayat’s important book “Street Politics” to see what I’m talking about).

The geography of Tehran’s urban life is going to play a big role in the coming days and months. Every time the police manage to squeeze down on protesters on the main road, the kids run sideways and backward into the crisscrossing alleys. It will be different now …

The walk home is many kilometers. Under a bridge a crowd is chanting. Half of a car is on fire and a host of people have gathered to watch. A fire truck shows up, the crowd hoots and whistles. They rush over and surround the truck. Do they want it to leave? Before I can figure it out the truck abandons the street.

It takes me two hours to get home. Along the way there is wonderment. Life goes on. I smell freshly sliced cucumber. A young boy sits on a storefront stoop and sees about the business of eating folded flatbread with feta and cucumber. Kids on bikes race each other. Three boys walk past me on the sidewalk with ping-pong paddles; they are coming back from the park (Tehran’s parks, like those of Paris, come equipped with ping pong tables). Satter Khan Park is filled with families and couples on blankets eating seeds and sharing tea. Many are enjoying traditional ice cream, Akbar Mashti made with pistachio and cardamom. There is a guy selling fish, a guy selling meat. Old men stand outside their fruit stand. The car wash under Satter Khan Bridge continues its business. A father and his daughter come plodding down the sidewalk, three grocery sacks hangs between them, cucumber, tomatoes, watermelons.

I finally make it to where I need to be. I spot a man selling DVDs. Iranians are notorious film buffs and before this ruckus began if you were to see a crowd gathered on the street in Tehran odds were they were buying up the latest Hollywood film, frequently while the picture was still in the theaters. I flip through the pile of plastic sleeves and choose “Night at the Museum, Part Two” and “Frost/Nixon.” How’s business in all of this haye hoo, I ask the man? Eh, it’s not bad, what can I say? Don’t you want to buy more, he asks me. No, this’ll do.

That night, with reports coming in of the newly dead and wounded, they sang “Allah Akbar” with renewed verve. “ALLAH u AKBAR!!!! ALLAH u AKBAR!!!!” The calls had never been louder. We sit in the kitchen and listen. A girl’s voice leads. Tonight she is without restraint. She doesn’t wait for the response. Voices heave, swinging back and forth, call and response.

Natarsin! Natarsin! Ma hame ba ham hastim! Don’t be scared! Don’t be scared! We are all in this together. 

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