Tehran dispatch: Basijis hang around, do nothing

As the capital returns to a normal routine, I see people in green and wonder, what were you doing three weeks ago?

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Tehran dispatch: Basijis hang around, do nothingIn this citizen photograph taken Sunday, June 28, 2009, a supporter of pro-reform leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, flashes a victory sign during a gathering at the Ghoba Mosque in Tehran, Iran. Several thousand protesters who had gathered near north Tehran's Ghoba Mosque clashed with riot police in Tehran on Sunday in the country's first major post-election unrest in four days.

And on the 13th day Michael Jackson died. Voice of America and BBC Persian are back up, if intermittently, and we crowd around like the rest of the world for the latest news. It is almost a relief. Being a full-time revolutionary is hard work, difficult to sustain. Seeing the non-stop coverage, the obvious distraction of his passing, we grimly joke that Michael was a martyr for the cause. At least he had the decency to delay his death until the worst violence had already passed.

Things are going back to their regular marks. In the afternoons the parks fill up again with old ladies and young couples. There’s badminton and soccer for kids to play at night. Well-dressed men in jackets and dress pants exercise on the cardio equipment provided by the city. The scenes around the squares, lately the places of so much celebration and trouble, are almost back to normal. Traffic is back. A car flies towards Ariashahr Square, a young man with slicked back hair and aviator glasses leans out of the passenger window chest first. He removes his shades and turns his palms upwards, beseeching the ladies in the car next to him to pull over. Unimpressed, or maybe they’re being coy, the girls pull away and race ahead of their pursuers. The two boys give chase. Cops and basijis hang around the circle but do nothing, what do they care…?

Every young person I see I wonder, What were you doing three weeks ago? Who were you then? I look for signs of subversion. A girl wears a green headscarf. A kid shifts gears in his Kia Pride with an arm encased in a green cast. What does it mean? Together, in a crowd, the color green added up to something. Alone, spread apart and without context, they are just moments of coincidence.

Television has become almost unbearable. Stories alternate between the mundane and the absurd. The evening news shows parents waiting outside of testing halls where their kids are taking the Konkur, the once-a-year, high-stakes university entrance exam. This year, more than ever, the Konkur is an act of faith. For the less than half who get accepted and manage to finish their studies, one wonders what kind of job market will await them. A friend remarks, “We’ve got to be the most educated unemployed in the world.” Sometimes it seems that all we do is attend class, schooling has become the ultimate distraction.



The report on the Konkur ends and the next item is the case of Neda Khanom. Like Jim Garrison with JFK, the reporter shows us step-by-step how her death could NOT have been the result of a single gunman. The caliber doesn’t match, it occurred on side streets, why is there footage of her before the incident, etc. The reporter hints ominously at darker forces active inside of the country, that her death was no doubt a setup by a foreign power. Even by IRI standards, the report is breathtaking. Rather than hide the incident or pretend like it never happened, they try to play it to their advantage. There seems to be nothing beyond the pale, no outrage too great. We reminisce about better days, when the lying had enough truth in it that you could at least fool yourself into believing.

Khoobe, khoobe, bezar begand. Harchi bishtar, baytar. Good, good, let them say it. The more the better. Hamintor khatra siatar mikonand. They’ll only darken the line separating the people from the government. We sit and plot, kitchen revolutionaries at work. It is late and the drink is loosening our tongues. What we need is leadership. What about Moussavi? Poor Moussavi, all alone… If only Khomeini were still around, he would have put all of these guys in their places!. This last bit said by someone who has never accepted the Revolution. At 10 the neighbors start up, Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar! We keep drinking, pressing our hands flat against the table and wondering if maybe they’re letting us thrash around for a few weeks even as the screws tighten…

Still, I’ve written elsewhere that none of this was supposed to happen. It remains true. It is the people, the mellat, that have taken on the most creative and unexpected role in this drama. Their scenario remains the least predictable, and therefore most hopeful, of all of the actors, foreign or Iranian. Iran’s conspirators clearly did not expect the population to show up in such defiant numbers after June 12 and the truth be told, neither did many of us…

We are told, Mellat e Iran ra nashenakhtim. The state says that the turnout and election results shows that the world and by implication the opposition didn’t understand the Iranian people. Mellat e Iran ra nashenakhtim. We didn’t understand the Iranian people, say certain analysts in Europe and the U.S. The vote proves that Ahmadinejad is loved and the West once again didn’t get the “true Iran.”

Still, as the unrest continues, daily taking new forms — Iran’s innumerable revolutionary, religious, and national holidays promise to be new sites of protest — it would appear that it is the state, and its band of fellow travelers in the West, that has failed to understand what has happened…

Cats are on the prowl in the kuchehs and side streets of Tehran. They’ve never had it better. A two-year effort by the city to outfit the capital with trash bins has gone to waste. In a few nights of protest practically every bin in the city has been kicked over, stomped on, melted into its primal elements. Neighbors have gone back to placing trash-filled yellow and black grocery bags at the end of the alley (sar e kuche) at night. The cats wait until no one is around and then show up sniffing, padding about, looking for their night’s food.

Throughout the capital there are deep marks etched onto the asphalt, mottled grooves in the shape of a blocky “u” from where the bin fires burned hot against the pavement. The scars run at regular intervals across Tehran’s many neighborhoods, sometimes in overlapping pairs or threes. It will be some time before these blemishes are repaired. Entirely new roads will have to be built…

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