During 2009’s post-election protests in Tehran, one man is struck into a commitment to the cause.
Homepage photo via Flickr by Steve Rhodes
Frederick Douglass in a speech in Rochester, New York, 1857.
On a September day in Tehran I park my motorbike next to a sufficiently out of the way and shuttered grocery store, then walk a block before stepping into a sea of people who have come to demonstrate against what they believe is a stolen presidential election in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I am curious and wound up and probably more than a little eager for a bit of trouble.
The dense crowd, on the centrally located east-west main artery of Karim Khan Boulevard, moves with lumbering, ungainly focus; truly huge demonstrations like this are not unlike organisms, some parts of them in confusion and uproar, while other parts move with a beguiling measure of cohesion and focus.
A chant that I’ve never heard before rises on the boulevard:
Only for Iran
We are willing to sacrifice.
The wave of bodies snakes its way past Palestine Avenue and the chant is repeated. It is Quds Day, Jerusalem Day. The day that the regime busses people in to demonstrate against the “Zionist entity.” They have been doing this for many years; but this year the green banners of the opposition fly over the multitudes waving V signs. Throughout this summer of 2009 there have been other marches like today’s. But with the increasing crackdowns by the security forces and the imprisonment and disappearance of countless earlier demonstrators, no one thought the people would have the heart to come out again in mass. Yet here they are. The citizens of Tehran were told by the opposition leaders to be at the 7th of Tir Square at 10 a.m. and at exactly 10 a.m. it was as if the ground had opened up to disgorge a protesting army.
I move with the crowd and slowly pick up on the various other chants. There’s one that’s particularly catchy and it ends with an extra emphasis on the line, Death to YOU. On the sidelines the regime’s supporters watch the moving crowd with a mixture of incomprehension and disgust. This was supposed to have been their day. The head counts reported later for the march will vary substantially, but it’s obvious today that the regime’s supporters are outnumbered by at least three to one. So they can do little but watch and threaten the crowd with promises of ready coffins to come. From overhead, government controlled videos and cameras roll and snap pictures of the demonstrators. It’s a wonder that so many people march without the least bit of disguise.
The chants go up again. This time they come from the loudspeakers that the government has set up: Death to the U.S. Death to Israel. But instead of parroting the loudspeaker, the crowd cries: Death to Russia. Russia, the crowd is convinced, is the regime’s friend, supplying it with weapons and teaching it more efficient methods of torture. Death to Russia! The jig is up. Quds Day becomes Iran Day, and death is confused over its quarry.
So much in the Middle East is an opera of incongruities. A day earlier, at the house of a friend, a stone’s throw from where the march is to gather, I am listening to music he insists I hear. The group is called Amaseffer, The People of the Book. The irony is inescapable. One day before Quds Day in Iran this fellow is listening to a band from Israel called The People of the Book. And are we—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—not all The People of the Book, according to the Prophet?
I come out of his house giddy with reflection. Nothing is as it seems in this country. Across the street sits the shell of a burnt-out mosque, the result of a demonstration just after the election in June—people burning mosques in the Islamic Republic of Iran! I get on my bike and ride to meet another friend, a formidable drinker, who nevertheless is getting some halim to break his Ramadan fast. I pick him up on my motorbike and ride him to his halim spot, and while waiting I look up to see a red-shirted boy on the third floor of a building practicing his violin. A heavily veiled woman passes by and frowns at my interest in that building.
I end at another house, people drinking the requisite Arak vodka, homemade from raisins, and usually supplied to the Muslims by the Armenians. Someone mentions how such nights—those before demonstrations in which the people prepare to meet Goliath—feel like preparation for war, a one-sided war.
Outside of the circle, I look on as a toast is proposed: to tomorrow, to freedom, to coming back in one piece, to coming back.
In the thick of the demonstration, barely ten feet away from me, one of the main leaders of the opposition, a man by the name of Karroubi, protected by his own security detail, suddenly passes by. Karroubi appears tired and his bald white pate looks like a beet delicately surround-wrapped by his white clerical turban. The guards that protect him seem to float the man past the horde. I feel I can almost touch him as he goes by. And then he’s gone, as if he had been an apparition.
The woman walking beside me wears sunglasses and jeans and sticks out. She must have begun to walk as I did, and then found she was not in friendly territory anymore.
Yet if there is one opposition figure that is certainly not an apparition, it is Karroubi. Karroubi the Lur is a cleric of high standing. I never thought much of my own Lur background until lately. The Lur tribes of Iran are known to be headstrong to the point of foolhardiness. The jokes about them abound. It is said, for instance, that if a Lur does not go to the marketplace, the market will have to close down. In other words, a Lur is easy to fool—which is not really the case.
For some months now, I have found myself fascinated with Karroubi. Twice he served as the Chairman of the Parliament for a total of eight years, and he was the publisher of the progressive newspaper, E’temad Melli, before the government forced the paper to close down. He also ran for the presidency in 2005 and again in 2009. The second time around, when it became apparent that the election had been hijacked, he turned into—in typical Lur fashion—the most vociferous member of the opposition, the one who simply did not back down. During the election debates, President Ahmadinejad accused Karroubi of corruption when he had tenure as Chairman of the Parliament. The two men batted back and forth. After the debate, Ahmadinejad, who must have been wearing his oft-displayed plastered smile, said to Karroubi, “Well, you never did tell us what you did with all the money you took?” Without missing a beat, Karroubi says to Ahmadinejad, “I spent it on your mother.” The point is not whether this story is apocryphal or not, but that it is exactly the sort of thing Karroubi the Lur would say to the president of the Islamic Republic.
More significantly, during the summer demonstrations there were countless arrests, especially of young people. Some of these people were sent to the jail of Kahrizak where they were said to have been systematically raped, tortured, and killed. Events like this are not supposed to find their way into the news. But they did, and Karroubi took up the battle cry. He called for investigations into the identities of the culprits. He raised a ruckus until the government could no longer avoid the issue. Kahrizak jail was closed down and a couple of lower echelon fall guys were found to take the blame. The Lur, however, was not satisfied. He insisted that there were higher-ups involved and that he had proof of the sort of ignominies that had taken place at the jail. The judiciary, attempting to whitewash the scandal, claimed that there was no absolute proof these acts took place and that if Karroubi had any definite proof, then he should send it along to their offices. Now, how does the Lur respond? To the judiciary of the Islamic Republic, this cleric in the white turban is supposed to have said, “What am I supposed to do? Staple the rapists’ things to their criminal files so you’ll have your proof?”
But Karroubi is no saint. If he were, he would not have made it to the top of the food chain in the Islamic Republic. This white-turbaned cleric is the same man whose revolutionary foundation, Bonyad Shahid (Martyrs’ Foundation), confiscated my father’s house on the Caspian shore, the house that was sometimes used as his wife’s own private retreat during the first years of the revolution, the house in which I spent much of my childhood. This man took what was mine. Nevertheless, he is one of the few faces of the opposition that people still grab onto (maybe out of sheer desperation or maybe because the Lur has transcended himself and the Islamic Republic), while others—like me—look on, transfixed, curious, somewhat hopeful, and more than a little doubtful.
The crowd is thick; worm-like, it moves towards Revolution Square. I push my way to the head of the march to see what the demonstrators intend to do. Flanks and edges are important. They can make or break a battle formation. The same is true of revolutions.
At the first hint of the riot police cutting into the line of the demonstrators, the crowd jumps. I try to keep a modicum of courage by retreating to the sidewalk rather than running off. As I stand there, the stones begin to fly. First one way, then another. They make spectacular arcs. Soon the riot police dissolve, the crowd spills back into the main street again and marches forward. People murmur, “If we don’t manage to get to Revolution Square, we will have lost the day.” What the crowd says is not really true, but it gives them an objective that impels them forward.
These men usually spell hand-to-hand fighting and a good chance of getting thrown into the waiting police vans. I was a prying fool to come this way.
Around the corner on Revolution Square itself, a cleric’s voice preaching the Friday sermon can be heard from the giant speakers outside of the University of Tehran. Most of the supporters of the regime have gathered there. And now they send in their chomaq-be-dast (stick-wielding) toughs to bottle up the march at its head. Their numbers are a fraction of the demonstrators’, but with weapons, they slowly manage to push the crowd out of the square. The stones continue to fly and I walk right past the stick-wielders of the republic and onto Revolution Avenue. It is a different scene here. Mostly bearded, unsmiling men, and women in full cover. Their children carrying placards that say “Death to America” or “Death to Israel.”
I notice a woman walking beside me. She is not of this clan. She wears sunglasses and jeans and sticks out. She must have begun to walk as I did, and then found she was not in friendly territory anymore. Now, I’m the only friend she knows. Yet I have no idea how I would protect her if someone in this crowd decided to give her a hard time. Someone does. A little man with slightly crooked feet and an unhappy face addresses the woman as he passes by, “The women’s walkway is on the other side,” he growls. He’s right, of course, as he’s referring to the separate women’s causeway for the Friday Prayer next to the university. The woman looks up, and right away I know what she’s thinking: there are other women—and in heavy veil at that—who are walking with their families in the men’s section; she’s not the only woman here. She gives me a quick glance and then says it loud enough so those around us will hear, “How can I walk in the women’s section when I’m walking with my husband?” I, her supposed husband, say nothing to this. I don’t even smile.
But after a few more steps, I stop and turn to her, “I have a motorcycle.”
She nods. We walk for another fifteen minutes in pregnant, awkward, and inevitable silence. The bike is as I had left it. We hop on. We begin to ride.
The rest is television, news that grows old fast and probably is no longer worth telling because there are other people in other accursed parts of the world vying for attention and throwing stones and burning effigies of one American president or another. But I am still here and the demonstration is not quite yet over. I see fire and smoke and decide to ride towards it, even though I have a passenger. As I do, I find myself bottled-up all of a sudden at the east end of Karim Khan bridge. I turn my head and see some three dozen anti-riot cops on red motorcycles, two men to each bike, armed to the teeth and wearing heavy padding and riot helmets.
As I scan the landscape—broken bricks, burning garbage containers, tear gas, swarming riot-police, windows being smashed, and people bleeding—I have the feeling we might not make it out.
We’re in trouble; the appearance of these men usually spells hand-to-hand fighting and a good chance of getting thrown into the waiting police vans. I was a prying fool to come this way. The demonstration was nearly over. The only thing to do now is to hope the procession of riot-police passes without damage. But as the armed riders go by, their batons begin to casually swing this way and that to break car windows. And just as casually, one of those batons descends on the woman. She says something beside the point, like, “Why did you hit me?” She’s not hit all too hard, but even a casual swing of a baton on your back is hard enough. I feel guilty and almost wish they’d hit me instead. The bottleneck opens and I move the bike towards the sidewalk. The riot-police circle the bridgehead and begin beating people with more earnestness and smashing more cars. There’s nowhere to go.
And that’s when it happens. A hard blow of a baton right over my right shoulder. The strike is solid enough that my chest hits the gas tank of the motorcycle and I bounce back. Then another hit.
The blows, I confess, are liberating. I had not known how incomplete my day was until now. And as I scan the landscape of the square—broken bricks, burning garbage containers, tear gas, swarming riot-police, windows being smashed, and people bleeding and thrown every which way—I have the feeling we might not make it out of here. I’m out of my body and in pain and I want to laugh. I am surprised by my pain and I want to thank someone for it at the same time, because the immediacy of physical pain is like a purchase; it makes one feel irrevocably committed. Only now do I remember that when the woman got hit a minute ago, which might just as well have been eons ago (as everything is happening around me in slow-motion), someone started crying out that they are hitting women, they are hitting women. As if hitting women mattered to the men who command the baton-wielders.
After the blows, the bike stalls. I kick the handle and it restarts. In front of me is a lead riot-cop on a bike. Our eyes meet—two bike riders situated at the opposite poles of this republic. His gaze and the slight twist of the head tell me to move it. And as much as I don’t want to be here, neither does he; he’s just doing a job: Go that way. Just go, save yourself and that woman. Get out! And I do. But I haven’t gone more than twenty meters, to the edge of Kheradmand Street where years ago my father used to own a restaurant, before I run out of options again: the side-streets have been blocked off and in front of us, at the head of Karim Khan Boulevard, there is a wall of waiting riot policemen. I think maybe the woman will get off now and take her own chances. Instead, some kid—he can’t be more than twenty years old—runs up to us, “Please get me out of here,” he pleads. “I’m not from Tehran. I have no idea where to go.” A baton has left a pulp on his head, a face swimming in red.
And now there are the three of us riding my skinny 125 cc Honda clone through the pandemonium. I manage to spot a small opening in the cement traffic-breakers where we can get out of the boulevard. I hear the sound of thousands of congratulating honking horns for a demonstration well attended as cars drive up Modares Freeway. At ten p.m. that night I’ll hear the revival of the screaming protests of Allah Akbar, God is Great, from rooftops.
I leave the woman and young man a little ways off from the epicenter of the fight. The bottom of the woman’s head-cover and the top of her dress are bloodied from where the young man rested his face. He is all apologies and she’s telling him it will be all right. I wait long enough to make sure they don’t change their mind and leave the embrace of the solicitous neighborhood throng to return to me. Thankfully, they don’t. I would not know how to explain the bloodied boy if we got stopped by another set of policemen.
On Modares Freeway, I honk back at cars and bikes because it’s something to do. My bones ache. Tonight, when I hear the first sound of Allah Akbar, I go up to the rooftop. Rooftops are good places to listen to a revolution.
Salar Abdoh is the author of two novels. His essays and stories have appeared in various journals. He teaches in the English Department of the City College of New York.
A Carefully Crafted F**k You: Gender-theorist-turned-philosopher-of-nonviolence Judith Butler discusses the choices that make people expendable, the violent foundation of nonviolent activism, and the role grief can play in setting a new course.
The Kids Are Alright: A week removed from the Student Day protests, some media still claim the pace of change in Iran indicates weakness on the part of the protesters. But could it be a sign of political maturity?
To contact Guernica or Salar Abdoh, please write here.