Isfahan and the Vote
11 Jun 2009 15:54
Throughout Isfahan's long and rich history, its residents have largely remained entrenched in its core values, making the city's residents traditional, conservative and resistant to change--sometimes even in the face of great danger. Located in central Iran, Isfahan is one of the largest and most important cities in the country with a history that stretches for millennia as a commercial capital on the Silk Road until advances in maritime trade rendered land caravans obsolete.
Once the capital of the Saljuk and Safavid dynasties, Isfahan remains a cultural hub in Iran and the greater Middle East. Because of its importance, it had been besieged and sacked many times - by Teymour Lang's central Asian army in 1388 and by the Afghans under Mahmoud in 1722, just to name two. During the Safavid era, Isfahan became the capital of Shia Islam, and Shiism became the official religion of the country, beginning a golden era of Islamic philosophy and Islamic architecture.
Today the city is a world heritage site, filled with aesthetic and majestic monuments. During the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988, Isfahan sent more soldiers to the war than any other city outside the war zone, where more than 22,000 young Isfahanis gave their lives.
In the past two decades, a new generation of Isfahanis have started to distance themselves from the conservative past their parents' generation. This hunger for change and progress had not taken hold of the entire city. Tension between elements of progress and tradition has divided the city in two. This division between the progressives and conservatives follows the socioeconomic gaps and geographic divisions of the city. The Zayande-Rud river, which splits the city into a northern and southern part, is more than just a simple physical barrier; it has become a social demarcation as well.
Unlike most cities in Iran, the south part of Isfahan is newer and richer -- neighborhoods and streets are only a few decades old. This is where the residents are more progressive. By contrast, the neighborhoods of north Isfahan are centuries old. The conservative core here is one of the most important strongholds in all of the country. The division is palpable. The authorities, who hail almost exclusively from these more conservative and religious quarters, have tried actively to suppress those who express a desire for change.
Recently however, a gradual paradigm shift has started to occur: young progressives are rising from within the ranks of traditionalists and conservatives. This movement, which appears to have slowly infiltrated the traditional sphere, has not yet crossed over into the neighborhoods that suffer most from poverty. This block also inhabits an information dead zone. Their only source of political information is state media and propaganda.
While access to foreign media and the internet has deeply influenced other parts of the city, some parts like Zeinabieh, a poor neighborhood in the northeastern part of the city, have been left out. This political, ideological and socioeconomic division has much deeper implications. The poor here feel they are the victims of change and progress, and they may express that sentiment with their vote.
In the southern parts of the city, most people support the reformist candidates. North Isfahan remains an Ahmadinejad stronghold. Even the candidates' campaigns and offices seem to have followed these divisions. It appears the reformists have been campaigning mostly in the south, while the conservatives have focused most of their energies in the north. In the south, the dominant color is green, while the Iranian flag and Mr. Ahmadinejad's photos dominate in the north.
As the election draws near, the city has never felt so electric. Everywhere, people are talking about the election, everyone is passionately campaigning on behalf of his or her candidate, and at nightfall the city turns into a massive political arena with supporters marching, chanting, singing, dancing and occasionally fighting.
Despite the frequent verbal clashes between the supporters of different candidates, physical clashes have been rare. After 8 p.m., in certain parts of the city, traffic comes to a hear halt as supporters of the candidates fill the streets on foot and in their cars. The elders say that they have never seen such enthusiasm, not even during the revolution.
On Wednesday, Mohammad Khatami was in Isfahan to give a speech in the monumental Naghsh-e-Jahan Square. Not even when he was president did so many flock to see and hear him. The streets around the square were filled, and when he was gone the people remained to campaign and party into the wee hours of the morning. This mood of tolerance has also extended to the authorities: despite a heavy police presence, there was no active intervention to disperse the crowds.
Iran's presidential election has exposed the social divisions within the country. In Isfahan, this is more strongly felt. The election isn't simply about choosing a candidate; it is another important battle, in a long line of them, between forces of tradition and modernity, and this is how it has come to manifest itself.
Young Basiji men out for a stroll in Isfahan, March 2009. Photo/Fabio Bucciarelli
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