LETTER FROM TEHRAN
WITH THE MARCHERS
A resident reports from the streets and the rooftops.
JUNE 29, 2009
n the afternoon of June 15th, I bumped into my old friend Reza at the huge demonstration on Azadi Street—the march that nobody will ever forget. He was with his wife, Hengameh, his arm raised, giving the “V” sign for victory and shouting, “Death to the dictator!” Then he saw me. His eyes widened and we kissed on both cheeks. “How many?” he asked breathlessly, before answering himself. “A million, I’d say.” I had last seen Reza a few months before, in the small office where he runs a modest trading business. He had looked pale and tired, and was complaining about money problems. But now was different. He shone. “Come to dinner tomorrow night,” he called, and then we were separated.
According to a police official who was quoted in the Western press, a million or more people took part in the Azadi Street march. Later, I asked a person close to the rally organizers how many people there were, and he told me that he thought the figure was closer to two million. It was, he said, the biggest protest Iran had seen since the 1979 revolution, which overthrew the Shah. From where Reza and I stood, half a mile from the western end of Azadi Street, where it enters Azadi Square, a thick belt of humanity stretched eastward seemingly without end. Although the rally was illegal, there was no sign of riot police or Basij militiamen. In an Islamic republic that regards large, unsanctioned gatherings as a threat, the marchers were smiling with the joy of being in one happy, unhindered mass—a pleasurable feeling, utterly unfamiliar.
On June 14th, two days after the election that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is alleged to have stolen from his main challenger, the reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi, I hurried back to Iran from a trip abroad. The next day, the day of the Azadi Street march, I had lunch with a journalist friend. In view of the election fiasco and the coverage that it had received abroad, my friend told me, the authorities were now trying to curtail the activities of the Western media. “If you want to write for a foreign magazine,” he said, “do it without a byline.” The authorities were refusing to extend the visas of most visiting foreign journalists; several Iranian journalists had been thrown in jail.
I had come to Azadi Street to lose myself in a crowd bedecked in green—Moussavi’s color and, not coincidentally, Islam’s. I had also come to try to work out what sort of Iranian had voted for Moussavi. According to the caricature sketched by his opponents during the campaign, Moussavi was backed by a coalition of radical counter-revolutionaries and their minions, who include some misguided students and pampered, Westernized hedonists from the well-heeled neighborhoods of north Tehran. The supporters of Ahmadinejad, by contrast, were said to be poor and virtuous, and to hold a monopoly on patriotism. The President has referred to Moussavi supporters as “chaff.”
And yet, contrary to the caricature, the demonstrators around me represented an impressive cross-section of Iranian society. The crowd in Azadi Street was dominated by young people, and many of the girls wore the regulation blackmaghna’eh, or hooded cloak, that they wear in class. There were also elderly men and women, and families whose dress and appearance suggested that they had come from modest precincts of Tehran or the provinces. I saw a friend who has a government job. She had left work early, along with ten of her colleagues, and with the permission of her supervisor. We passed a government office building where employees were leaning out the windows, waving. I don’t think much work got done in Tehran on June 15th.
A little farther on, I found myself once again near Reza and Hengameh. (I’ve changed their names.) Reza, who has a thick beard, and Hengameh, in a chador, have an old-fashioned “revolutionary” appearance. They do not look like the sort of people who would attend an unsanctioned rally against the regime. But there were plenty of marchers who looked like them—pious, middle-aged Iranians. This is the generation that took part in the 1979 revolution, and then, as in the case of Reza, fought in the long war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and, finally, grew tired of all the lies.
I have known Reza and Hengameh for a decade. I know that they are unfailingly loyal to the memory of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, but not to the current generation of leaders, who, with their love of power and their financial corruption, have, they believe, spoiled Iran. In addition, everything I have seen of Reza and Hengameh tells me that they are true democrats—for example, the relaxed way they have brought up their teen-age son, Mohsen. “We never obliged him to say his prayers or observe the Ramadan fast,” Reza told me once, “and now he does both, of his own accord.”
Iranians can draw on a rich culture of resistance to authority, going back to the country’s first experiments with constitutional rule, a hundred years ago, and this, combined with their celebrated verbal dexterity, makes them naturals in the art of political verse. As we passed the Employment Ministry, the marchers improvised a chant: “Ministry of Employment, why so much unemployment?” We passed under a pedestrian bridge, from which dozens of people were watching the marchers. Then came another chant: “You won’t win freedom of thought by standing on a bridge!” My favorite slogan was one that referred to Ahmadinejad’s notorious claim, caught on film and subsequently made public, that he had been crowned by a “celestial halo” while addressing the United Nations General Assembly, in 2005: “He saw the celestial halo, but he didn’t see our votes.” Standing on a balcony overlooking Azadi Street, a man held a copy of the Koran above the heads of the marchers.
The march broke up peacefully, at around seven. Reza was surprised; he had expected the street to be full of police. He wondered why the Basijis hadn’t attacked the protesters. “Maybe they’re laying the groundwork for a concession,” Hengameh said hopefully, alluding to Moussavi’s demand that the election results be annulled and a new vote held.
f the afternoon of June 15th was hope, the evening was despair. Seven protesters were killed during a clash with Basijis who fired on them from their barracks north of Azadi Street. Around the city, there was fighting between Basijis and pro-Moussavi demonstrators who had set fire to trash carts and buses. Drivers sounding their horns in support of Moussavi were dragged out of their cars and beaten, and the Basijis damaged and looted houses where they suspected Moussavi supporters had taken sanctuary. My wife’s parents’ cook, I found out the following day, spent half the night searching the streets for her son; he had gone out to defy the Basijis and got home at five in the morning, having spent the previous three hours hiding in the house of a stranger. From my apartment window, in north Tehran, I watched two Basijis, unable to catch a group of fleeing Moussavi supporters, use their truncheons to smash the windshields of every car parked on our street.
We had been wrong to be optimistic. Did the authorities mean to keep the peace at the rallies that Moussavi’s supporters had vowed to hold, every day, until the election results were annulled, and to attack people at night, after they had dispersed? In extraordinary times, one rapidly gets used to new arrangements. Since June 14th, the people of Tehran have grown accustomed to attending to their daily business in the mornings, when the traffic circulates normally and the Basijis are asleep or at prayer, and planning their afternoons around either joining or avoiding the scheduled protest. At lunchtime, worried parents begin calling their children, entreating them to come home or go to a friend’s house before things get “busy.” The children assure their mothers that this is exactly what they plan to do, and then they go and join the march.
In the course of the afternoon, contact gets harder. The cell-phone networks seize up and the Internet performs even more sluggishly than usual, while the government tries to jam all foreign TV stations—in particular, the BBC’s Persian-language channel. This channel, beaming images and reports sent by normal Iranian citizens back into the country, has been hugely influential in spreading news of the protests to Iranians who would otherwise have relied on state television or the inferior American-based Persian-language channels.
On the afternoon of June 16th, I rented a motorbike with a driver and went to the second pro-Moussavi march, on Tehran’s main north-south artery. Again, the crowd was huge, if less easily quantifiable than it had been the previous day. Many people wore black, and the march was conducted largely in silence, out of respect for the people who had been killed the night before. I saw a marcher holding up a large photograph of one of the dead men. The dead man had a bloodied chest and lay cradled in another man’s arms. Many of the marchers had gathered around and were taking snapshots of the photograph with their cell phones; those cell-phone images soon circulated around the world.
At seven, the streets were still calm. I left to go to Reza and Hengameh’s house, in Yussefabad.
Yussefabad is a traditional middle-class neighborhood in the center of Tehran. Reza’s apartment block, he told me as we went up in the elevator, is occupied mostly by native Tehranis, not migrants from the provinces. Reza used to live in eastern Tehran, but he likes Yussefabad better. “It’s a proper neighborhood,” he said. By that, he meant that it is clean and friendly, with all the shops you need, and a strong family ethos.
We sat on the small balcony of Reza and Hengameh’s flat, and ate peaches and plums. Our friendship began when Reza and I met and discovered that we shared an interest in Persian literature; the relationship soon came to include our families. Hengameh is a superb cook and tolerant of her husband’s indifferent entrepreneurial record. I had always found her a reserved person, but tonight she seemed markedly less demure. The unrest was agitating people, causing them to lower their guard. She called Ahmadinejad “Ahmadi geda,” which means “beggar Ahmadi,” and laughed wickedly.
A change had also come over Mohsen, their son. The last time we met, he had been a typical teen-ager, sulky and monosyllabic. Now Mohsen seemed fully grown, an adult, and he participated enthusiastically in our conversation, which inevitably revolved around politics and the marches. Mohsen had been active in Yussefabad on behalf of the local Moussavi campaign, standing on street corners and handing out leaflets. He had also run the Basiji gantlet, and had the bruises on his knees to prove it.
“Are you sure the election was a fraud?” I asked him.
Mohsen smiled ruefully. “Some of the boys from the campaign headquarters were at the local count, and when they came back that evening they were laughing and saying it was all over—Ahmadinejad had no chance. Then . . .” Mohsen shrugged, and his father said, “You should have seen this neighborhood. There was hardly a single Ahmadinejad poster. Only green. Only green! Of course it was a fraud. They stole the vote.”
Mohsen brought out glasses of tea on a tray. As we drank the tea, we discussed the deaths of the previous night, and Reza shook his head sadly. “The idea of a Basiji shooting a fellow Iranian!” he said. “When I was a Basiji, all we wanted to do was kill Iraqis. The idea of killing an Iranian wouldn’t have entered my head!”
Ever since I’d known Reza, he’d made a point of not having a satellite dish on his roof. He distrusted the foreign television channels, and was content to watch Iranian state TV. During the recent election campaign, however, as state television praised Ahmadinejad endlessly, he had found it difficult to watch; it made him feel physically sick. He bought a satellite dish, so that the family can now watch the BBC’s Persian channel—or, at least, when it isn’t jammed. “It has shown us that everything we have been watching here, most of our lives, is full of lies,” he said.
“Give me an example,” I said, and he replied, “You know what they said on TV about yesterday’s march? They could hardly pretend it never happened, because it was all over the foreign channels and the Internet. So they announced that the rally had been organized by all four Presidential candidates, including Ahmadinejad, in the name of national unity!”
He said, “You can imagine what all this is doing to my father.” Reza’s father was a mid-level bureaucrat before his retirement, a few years ago. He adored Khomeini. He would have given his life for the Iranian Revolution. “You know what he said to me after he heard about the seven people who were shot last night? He said, ‘I regret everything I’ve done in my life.’ ”
There was a sombre pause, and we listened to the sound of a car driving along the street below. We told some Ahmadinejad jokes to cheer ourselves up. Hengameh summoned us from the balcony to eat dinner, a stew of lamb and chickpeas in a brown sauce made tart by lemon juice, and the conversation turned to more pleasant subjects. Then it was almost nine-thirty: time to go up to the roof.
For any Iranian who remembers 1979, today’s unrest is full of echoes. The slogans we were hearing, such as “Death to the dictator!” and “Freedom or death!,” evoke the revolution, as does the victory sign. And now, joining other people from the building on the roof—and the inhabitants of thousands of other apartment blocks—we sensed something else: that, after thirty years, the revolution seemed to be destroying itself.
On the roof, Reza introduced me to a man who said that he had been at university with Ahmadinejad. “He used to kiss us on the cheeks when he saw us, and we would go and wash our faces,” Reza’s neighbor said. Everyone laughed. Reza went to the edge of the roof, cupped his hands around his mouth, and bellowed, “Allahu Akbar!” God is great!
From the apartment block across the street came the response: “Allahu Akbar!”
Suddenly, the night sky was filled with this powerful affirmation. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I saw that on all the roofs around us were men, women, and children. The chanting lasted for half an hour, with pauses to chat and joke. During one such pause, Reza murmured to me, “These may be only words, but I can assure you it was ‘Allahu Akbar’ as much as the strikes and the demonstrations that did in the Shah in ’79.”
A few minutes later, I told Reza that I’d better go and asked if he would call me a cab. He went downstairs, but returned shaking his head. “The drivers refuse to go north,” he said. “The Basijis are smashing cars around Parkway and Vali Asr Street. You’ll have to stay the night here.”
On June 19th, after a week of steady—and peaceful—protests, and clashes after nightfall, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader—the man who has the last word on all matters of state, and who is an unabashed supporter of Ahmadinejad—made it clear while addressing a large congregation at Friday prayers that the demands of Moussavi and his supporters would not be met. “The Islamic Republic state would not cheat and would not betray the vote of the people,” he said, effectively ruling out annulment of the vote. If the street protests, which he described as “not acceptable,” did not end, there was the possibility of “bloodshed and chaos.” ♦