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All The President's Men

10 Jun 2009 13:24No Comments
an-rallyPhoto/Maryam Rahmanian
By JASON REZAIAN in Tehran | 9 June 2009

After our press cards were checked, we were hurried through airport-style metal detectors and into a cavernous mosque. As the Iranian election draws very near, like other members of the foreign media, I'm scrambling for any glimpse of one of the candidates. Somehow, though, while the other guys get a perch somewhere above the podiums, looking down over adoring crowds, I keep getting stuck with the masses.

This time I have allowed myself to be talked into going to one of President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad's final speeches before election day on Friday. "It will take place at the biggest mosque in Tehran," my photographer friend explained to me in the morning. She also tried to assure me that it's not the kind of place I have to take my shoes off. "No, it's not like that," she said. "They have a lot of events there, including the book festival."

Entering the carpeted mosque, it was clear to me we were to de-shoe. The box containing plastic bags was another give away to anyone who has spent any time in Iran. Apparently some of the other journalists had not. They were pushed back toward the tiled area -- initially unnerved, they then clued in that they had made a faux pas.

The mosque was only about 20 percent full, which prompted me to wonder to myself what sort of camera angles they'll need to use to make this event look important. I derive some kind of pleasure from it. This may be a sign that Ahmadinejad's popularity is on the wane. I take a deep breath and move around the mosque freely.

The few thousand supporters who have already gathered here are certainly the real thing, though. They had bought into the revolution or, perhaps more correctly, had been bought by the revolution, long ago. They included clerics, splotchy-faced teenage boys, young bearded men only in their 20s, as well as a line of men in wheelchairs with missing limbs they lost in the war with Iraq.

It was an hour and a half before the event's official start time, and these guys were already parading about with their flags and support signs. I'd never been to a major presidential rally before. Maybe they all feel fascist. I'm not sure. One I went to yesterday though, definitely had the air of a herd of sycophants awaiting a glimpse of their beloved leader.

A string of campaign heavies came to the podium to either say prayers or lead chants that included the usual "Death to Israel," "Death to America," and the brand new "Death to Hashemi," a reference to Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who Ahmadinejad has been, quite shockingly, accusing of corruption on state television. The charges aren't surprising to anyone, leveling them at someone so high ranking within the establishment is. It's a move meant to bolster Ahmadinejad's reputation as a man of the people, and judging by the chant's ferocity, it seems to be working.

"Dr. Ahmadinejad is here," one of them promises. "He's been here for 40 minutes. If you say your prayer loudly enough, he'll come right out!"

At this point, what seems like legions of professional crowd fillers, people on call who make these events seem more crowded than they naturally would be, slowly begin to file in. "Everyone, move back, and get a little closer to each other," the cheerleader commanded. "There are over a million of our brothers and sisters outside waiting to join you."

As one of the throngs in attendance, I wonder how many people died or ended up in the hospital from heat exposure. The only relief we had was from the old Islamic air freshener, which comes in the form of an ancient pesticide spray can that douses people with rosewater. The new stench created by the mix of body odor, feet, and the excretion of pressed flowers is one for the ages; unmistakably Islamic Republic. It will be the thing that I remember when this Iran becomes the "old one."

Clerics snapped pictures of the warm-up speakers with their cell phone cameras, but the arrival of each fresh cheerleader brought a new wave of applauds and chest pounding.

At one point an Ahmadinejad security person asked me to come talk to some young supporters; they wanted to practice their English. They chose a bespectacled spokesman who looked to be about 15, not yet old enough to grow a beard, let alone vote. He shouted through gritted teeth: "Iran is the symbol of peace throughout the world. Every nation believes this. The United States and Germany are the biggest murderers. Why do they say we are terrorists? We love peace and will crush all that don't! Why does BBC say different?"

In the eight years I've been coming to Iran, it was the first time I took the "Death to America" chant seriously. Surrounded by thousands of screaming and sweaty adolescent boys, with flags wrapped around themselves like capes, I was starting to feel as though I was at an American pro-wrestling event. The arrival and brief "ra-ra" speech about Ahmadinejad from Hossein Rezazadeh, the Iranian Olympic weightlifter, sealed that deal. He's well known for being a spokesman for many an Iranian product, and now apparently the President, too.

The entire affair had a definite element of a rock concert, but in this case the main act, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never showed.

When the crowd began to get too big for the mosque, we were told he would be speaking outside. I heard later that he may have done so to a small group, but I have no proof of that. As I walked through the virtual parking lot that was the streets of Tehran, with thousands of chador wearing, flier-toting Ahmadinejad supporters, I didn't hear any grumbling or disappointment about spending their afternoon waiting to see their leader. After all, these are the same people who have been waiting over 1100 years for their "Hidden Imam." The vast majority, save a few thousand impressionable young men, also got a free lunch.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau
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