Tehran dispatch: A different kind of Friday Prayers

The opposition searches for a leader, and the "Death to America" chants don't work anymore. Also: Steve Buscemi

Published July 21, 2009 3:18PM (EDT)

This photo, taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, shows an opposition demonstrator kicking a tear gas cansiter during a protest in front of the Tehran University, the place of Tehran Friday prayers, Iran, Friday, July 17, 2009.
This photo, taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, shows an opposition demonstrator kicking a tear gas cansiter during a protest in front of the Tehran University, the place of Tehran Friday prayers, Iran, Friday, July 17, 2009.

After an unseasonably cool start, summer finally comes to Tehran, but it comes on too hard. Throughout the city leaves are falling to the ground, withered and defeated by the heat. The trees of Tehran are going bare in patches, like a dog losing its fur.

At Friday Prayers, in this surging heat, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani will deliver the sermon. Rafsanjani is the chief rival of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the most prominent ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi. I put on black and head to Tehran University to worship in the crowd. The plan is to go inside the old soccer stadium at noon, to "sit on the grass" as they used to say back when there was still a field there.

But by 11:30 a.m., on Enqelab (Revolution) Street near the university's main gate, it's clear that something out of the ordinary is going on. There are too many people. The wrong crowd is here. I've walked by enough Friday Prayers to know that Enqelab Street is not a place for these folks to be on a Friday morning.

Thirty years after the Revolution it's usually the old and uninspired who come to Friday Prayers to worship.

Today is different. New people are here. Families and friends of all ages sit shoulder to shoulder on the stoops of the stores that run along Enqelab in front of the university. The line stretches at least four blocks in either direction. The new people lean into the shrinking shade of the store awnings trying to stay cool. Some hold onto ice-filled water bottles brought from home and prepared in freezers the night before.

These people are not here to clash with the police and basijis. They have not come for the entertainment or to pray. This crowd of Mousavi supporters has come to Friday Prayers because they are hoping Rafsanjani will deliver a rebuke to those in the regime who hijacked the election, and encouragement to the protesters. These people are here as moral witnesses to see if there will be righteousness. The talk nowadays is of leadership, that the people are waiting for someone to carry this thing forward to its end. But they are not going to wait and patience is running thin. In many ways society is racing ahead of Iran's elites. Later, I will hear them chanting, "Hashemi age sookoot bashi, shoma am khaen i!" Rafsanjani, if you remain quiet, then you are a traitor also!

We've been told repeatedly not to come, by the authorities who deny us permission to protest peacefully, by our own families who say that there will be trouble. We are for the most part afraid but we still head out. I don't think that many of us yet know exactly why. These protests are not fully calculated acts. Sociologist Charles Kurzman argues in his book "The Unthinkable Revolution" that ordinary people frequently defy what is known as the "free-rider problem," the notion that social actors engaged in contentious politics will rationally seek someone other than themselves to put their lives and well-being at risk. You throw the first rock, I'll just stand back and reap the benefits of revolution when it's all over, thank you very much. Drawing from the 1979 Revolution, Kurzman shows that over and over again ordinary citizens with no previous history of heroism or political behavior actively seek out protest rather than waiting for the bandwagon to arrive. People, perhaps irrationally, despite the uncertainty, want to be in the first row of the movement.

The Iranian regime will keep providing the opportunities. This has become the central dilemma of the Islamic Republic. The calendar sags with opportunities for opposition -- Revolutionary, Islamic and national holidays. Each one is a potential for protest, even as every holiday is part and parcel of the regime's identity. The regime can't rewrite the calendar. Neither side, regime or opposition, would dare to step outside of the framework of Islam and Revolution and nationalism. So for now the pattern will continue, as it has this Friday on Enqelab Street.

I decide not to go into the mosque. I am a Muslim more by default than by choice and my praying skills are decidedly not up to the task of a Friday Prayers. The day is hot and I need to get water. I make my way north up Vesal e Shirazi Street then walk along Taleqani Street, against the crowd heading toward the university. Business is brisk at the corner store in Palestine Square. Mineral water runs 300 tomans (about 30 cents) and the clerks can hardly keep up with the orders. I step back outside. In front of me a stray kitten has crawled up out of the joob, or gutter. His fur is spiky and sooty and he is in bad shape. The hapless cat meows. Unoccupied basijis gather around to offer him food and comfort.

Before I can make it back to Revolution Street, it begins. At the end of Taleqani, where it intersects with Qods Street at the east perimeter of the university, the gathering turns into a protest. It begins just like it did a week earlier for the 18th of Tir march, with the hands. Above the chanting thousands there are endless rows of green garlanded fists and fingers jabbing into the sky. The official prayer service crackles over the P.A. system hidden in the trees and telephone poles that run around the university. No one can hear the message. The shouts of the crowd are too great.

At least a dozen women have climbed to the top of one of the many public fountains set aside for wudthu, or ritual ablutions required before prayer. There they bravely clap and lead us in chants, a row of revolutionary cheerleaders. Not by accident, they have chosen the section of the street cordoned off for female worshipers, and they stand well above the sagging black cloth partition that would normally hide them from view. It is an extraordinary image. This sight of women, young and old, chadoris and hejabis standing side-by-side, even praying next to men, speaks to the possibilities of where this movement may head and the important role that both tradition and progress will play as it unfolds.

The crowd swells. We are running out of room. A tall white wall runs perpendicular to where the women are standing. It is the outside edge of a church and it closes off this section of Taleqani as the street merges into the campus grounds. Into the wall and corner we press into each other. Into this corner the chants of the crowd eddy and swirl. Half-organized and self-led, voices collide and overlap, a new slogan starts before another ends,. We are protesting in the round.

"Hashemi! Hemayat! Hemayat!" Hashemi! Help us! Help us!

"Estefa! Begoo! Estefa! Begoo! Es-te-fa! Begoo!" Resign! Say it! Resign! Say it! Re-e-sign! Say it!

"Khomeini, koojai? Mousavi tanhai!" Khomeini, where are you? Mousavi is alone!

In an ever escalating competition of appropriation, Iranians are finding new and clever ways to turn the Revolution inside out. Most compelling of all is the exquisitely subversive "Death to Russia!" and its companion "Death to China!" "Marq bar Russi-e! Marq bar Chin!" For 30 years, ever since the Revolution, Iranians have been chanting "Death to America!" with the regime's encouragement. It has long been a convenient outlet for any domestic discontent. Somehow the protesters have collectively decided that from now on, the U.S. will be left alone, all chants against that nation must cease. "Death to Russia" has become the new "Death to America."

The day splits into two. There is the formal ceremony inside the university and this much larger and raucous impromptu show outside. Rafsanjani has not taken the podium at Friday Prayers. The crowd outside the university gives his warmup act a brutal reception as they listen to his sermon on the speakers. Like old-school Baptist preachers, prayer leaders typically shift back and forth between an admonishing sermon and call and response expressions of faith. But this audience is not going to respond to a speaker they consider a shill for the regime. When the warmup mullah recited the regime's talking points about the need to accept the rule of law now that the election is over, the whistling and jeering starts. But when the cleric speaks of his wish to some day sing "Allah Akbar!" with fellow Muslims at the Ka'ba in Mecca, the crowd goes wild. They respond with chants of "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" -- but only because they're mimicking the nightly protests from the rooftops of Tehran.

The crowd is mocking the cleric. It's a bad sign for the regime. The shit talking that previously took place behind closed doors, the hurled curses that once carried no further than the living room TV set, have come out in the open. The people are losing their fear.

The sun is high in the sky. The police move into action. A single row of green-clad cops with helmets and shields and batons pushes into the pack, snaking their way to the front of the crowd. The assembly parts, gives them space. The crowd starts to chant, beseeching the police to stand with the people. Unlike the basij, there is hope that these ordinary cops can be swayed. Many of the officers avoid eye contact. They seem embarrassed by all of the attention.

I am standing on the narrow green-and-white cement median that cuts Taleqani Street in two. Next to me are two young conscript cops in green khakis and baseball-style caps with their brims bent down. They are Little Leaguers, teens who barely come to my shoulder. It is as if they needed to be standing on this median to muster any authority. I lean into the one next to me and ask, gesturing toward the other police, "Will you join your friends? Are you going to have to go?" He looks away and shakes his head.

The crowd is thick now. It's about 1 p.m., close to the official time for Muslims to pray. The observant gather in the middle of the road. Newspapers and prayer mats are laid out on Taleqani in diagonal rows positioned to face toward the ghebleh. Many of those who have come to protest have also come to pray. Prayer in a crowd this size is a blessing. It is a widely held belief that prayers delivered in a group receive a greater blessing from God than prayers made alone, no matter the speaker or the circumstance.

Still, it is clear that a lot of this crowd is secular. I can overhear people asking each other how the praying works. One of the great ironies of this past month has been that only now, with the Revolution perhaps mortally wounded, large portions of the population are for the first time formally engaging with a religion they had assiduously avoided.

While people are still kneeling and praying, tear gas floats across the scene. We cough and press our palms to our eyes. We later find out that the gas has drifted over from a clash on 16th of Azar Street, at least half a kilometer away on the other side of the Tehran University campus. After a month of practice, we know what to do. An improbable scene ensues. We light cigarettes and start puffing away, blowing the smoke into each other's eyes. Men and women stand over prayer mats with cigarettes dangling from their finger and lips. Smoke is a crude antidote to the sting of the gas. Newspapers are set on fire and for a time much of Taleqani disappears under smoke and haze.

The incident is taken in stride. We know that it is unlikely that we will be attacked, not during prayers anyways. Our moral examples in Iran invariably run back to the Prophet and his disciples, above all the Prophet's son-in-law and Shiite Islam's namesake, Imam Ali. One story about Ali that every Iranian learns at an early age is that of his martyrdom during prayers. Our mothers tell us that Ali knew that his assassin stood above him, waiting to strike, but he continued to say his namaz rather than save himself. We learn from this that prayer time is sacred, not to be interrupted or broken under any circumstances. Islam gives both sides safe ground here and so we are left alone for the duration of our worship.

And then it is time for Hashemi Rafsanjani to speak. 

Rafsanjani tends to speak elliptically, allusively. It is a clerical art in Iran but few practitioners rival the former president.

There are typically three sermons, or "khotbes" in Friday Prayers. The first and second are traditionally about historical or mundane matters, how to be a good parent, the need for hygiene, so forth. Politics is normally reserved for the third khotbe. Rafsanjani today finds a way to make all three of his khotbes about the politics of the day. He gives a history lesson in three parts about the present. Every example goes forward and backwards at the same time, tying today with yesterday.

Packed together under the shade of a shuttered kiosk, we are in an inauspicious spot to listen to Rafsanjani's speech when it finally begins at 2. The speaker system does not carry his voice well and it comes out distorted. Two teams of paired men, led by a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi, circa "The Big Lebowski," volunteer to relay the radio feed to us. They take an earbud each and we lean in closer to Donny and the rest of his crew to hear their reports. It's a game of telephone, in which they listen for a few seconds and blurt out a few lines and then listen again.

As performed by Donny, Rafsanjani begins with the early years of Islam, and the story of Imam Ali, the founder of the branch of Islam dominant in Iran, Shia.

Imam Ali, Rafsanjani reminds us, waited over two decades to assume leadership over the community of believers. Though the Prophet designated his son-in-law to rule the Caliphate, Ali did not wish to use force if the will of the people was that someone else should rule. Was this Rafsanjani damning Ahmadinejad with faint praise? Were we to take this as a warning to Ahmadinejad that he was playing the role of Abu Bakr, considered by Shiites to be Imam Ali's usurper, in this scenario? Or was Rafsanjani trying out a more conciliatory gesture by making reference to Mir Hossein Mousavi's 20-year withdrawal from politics? In other words, was he saying that like Ali, the righteous will in the end win and that his friend Mousavi and his supporters should wait?

Rafsanjani moves on to his second topic, the 1979 Revolution.

Never forget that Mehdi Bazargan (Iran's first prime minister after the Revolution) set up his government-in-exile while Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah-appointed prime minister, was officially still in charge. Only the support of the people made it possible for Bazargan to succeed, sealing Bakhtiar's fate of exile and eventual assassination. Here, Rafsanjani's reference to the current situation is unmistakable. We understood who would play the role of Bakhtiar if this stand-off continues.

Rafsanjani builds to the climax. Donny, excited by what he is hearing -- Rafsanjani did not let us down! -- can barely keep up.

Rafsanjani relates the story of how in the years after the Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini would repeatedly stress in public and private conversations the Prophet's admonition that without the people, there is nothing. Rulers must always seek the approval of the public. Rafsanjani has managed to get both the Prophet and the Imam, Mohammad and Khomeini, to speak for Mousavi. The meaning is clear: if the vote is stolen, then this government has nothing. In the same way, if the people believe that the voting was corrupt, the consequence is the same. By now, the allusiveness has evaporated. Rafsanjani is speaking directly. A resolution must be found. The Islamic Republic, he says, must be both "Islamic" and "Republic": If only Islam, then we will head into a desert and ruin ("biaboon"). If only a Republic, then corruption will seep into the body politic. Religious Values and democracy must go hand in hand.

"What now?" I ask the old men sitting with us under the kiosk. "What now?"

They do not understand my question. Weren't you listening? Didn't you hear what Hashemi said?

I tell them that I was listening to Rafsanjani, I had heard, and of course I am very happy, but -- what now? What comes next? Where do we go, how do we get there? What is the institution that will meet Rafsanjani's call?

The men listening to me cannot believe what I am asking. What is next? We are! We are the institution! "Aziz e man, noon e gol in ghazie ra hal nemikon e. Hazine dare." My dear, bread and flowers won't solve the problem. There is going to be a cost.

We part. The rally is over. Out of respect I shake hands with the old men, but I leave uncertain and unsatisfied by their answers.

On their own, the crowd pours into Taleqani Street and wheels north towards Vali Asr Square. The public address system makes a final effort. They try to take us out with style. Big Brother comes over the speakers with the old formula: "Marq bar Amrika! Marq bar Amrika!" Death to America! Death to America! Folks aren't having it. Marching away in the opposite direction the people shout back "Marq bar Russi-e! Marq bar Russi-e!" Another try is made: "Marq bar Israel! Marq bar Israel!" Death to Israel! Death to Israel! Again, "Marq bar Russi-e!" comes the response.

Along the way, brigades of basiji stand guard. They've brought their toughest-looking crew out today, tall men with pointed beards and camouflage hunting vests. The basijis stare impassively back at us. Here and there they grin, disgusted by the scene.

We do not care. Straight into their faces we shout "Basiji e vaqei! Hemmat va Baqeri! Basiji e vaqei! Hemmat va Baqeri!" Hemmat and Baqeri are the real basijis! Hemmat and Baqeri are the real basijis! I don't know who came up with this creative chant, but we all know we're referring to two famous basiji commanders who died defending Iran from Iraq in the 1980s.

If only we had a captain, someone to lead us forward like Khomeini did, this would be over in a month. Maybe.


By Shane M.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iran Middle East