18 Tir: The Past and Pending
09 Jul 2009 15:24
Sign reads: "Evin Prison Accepting Students"
I remember very vividly the eeriness of the streets; the quiet whispers of the wind. Had ghosts trodden there? Perhaps, as there was no sign of humanity. This was the campus of the University of Tehran after the events of 18th of Tir, or 9 July 1999. As a graduate of that university, I often think back to those days and of all that came to be.
For decades, university exams were held during the end of the month of Tir. But after 1999, the exams were moved up one month so that by early July, the exams had ended, the dorm rooms had been emptied, and the students were on their way back home.
I was there for subsequent commemoration ceremonies for 18 Tir. They were meager efforts, put on without any great deal of enthusiasm, and with few participants -- but the students were never forgotten.
One never forgets.
Exactly a decade later, the new exam season opened with more bloodshed -- all in the very same dormitories, in fact. I wonder when they're going to schedule exams now? How far forward, or how far back?
I was there for Mohammad Khatami's victorious speeches every 2nd of Khordad (May 23rd), the day marking his historic landslide victory in the 1997 presidential election. He would always stride into these events confidently, forever smiling, and he would meet with unparalleled enthusiasm. This was after July 9th, 1999. Despite all that had happened, and despite the fact that many students believed he could have been more supportive of them during the events of that notorious July, they cheered him on.
I also vividly recall his goodbye speech. It was a cold, windy day. A gray fog seemed to eclipse everything.
It was the 16th of Azar (6th of December), Student Day, as it is faithfully called in the Islamic Republic of Iran. A day meant to commemorate student protests against a visit from Richard Nixon on 6 December 1953 (16 Azar 1332). Nixon, then US vice president, was visiting Tehran less than four months after his government engineered the coup that overthrew prime minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and brought the Shah back to power. Not only did the Shah's regime confront the students, but three were brutally murdered.
It was ironic that on that very Student Day, decades later, the gates of the university were closed and hundreds of students were made to stand outside in the freezing cold. The professors were held back, too. When I finally did make my way inside, shattered glass lay everywhere in the engineering building. All the routes to the auditorium were closed and once I did manage to find my way there, huge iron bars were used to keep students from getting inside.
Khatami now calls this the proudest day of his administration because for once angry students were allowed to show their anger. But listening to that frail voice of his that day, proud is the last thing he appeared to be as the students chanted Daaneshjoo bidaar ast, az Khatami bizaar ast ("The students are alert and loathing Khatami"), or as he wrongly assumed, called him an enemy of the country. (In fact, they were chanting another name, but he mistook it for his own.) He seemed shaken, battered and ready for a long holiday.
He was there for a final farewell: A thank you perhaps. This was the last talk he gave to the very students who helped him rise to power eight years earlier. That was the last time he stood in their presences during his tumultuous political career as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I was also there when during the first month of Ahmaidnejad's presidency, the new school dean, a cleric with no administrative experience, was brought out for his inauguration speech. A mob of students threw him around and played catch with his turban. The students were angry that day; as they had been many times before. They pulled down banners welcoming the president, chanted his name in ridicule and kept him from going inside the main library where he was to give his speech.
It was not a proud sight to behold: an old man being blasted and mocked for fury and anger the students had towards something bigger and beyond him.
But I have wondered many times ever since: What became of these students? What is to become of us?
Iran has experienced two revolutions in the course of less than a century. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was preceded by the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which led to the establishment of a parliament. Will the events of recent days lead yet to another?
I certainly do not think so. I think -- and hope -- that we have learned our lesson. Nowhere else in our recent history have we had so many questions, such a non-violent thirst for figuring things out. Today there is the chance, no matter how confined or restricted, to look back at a century of struggle for independence and freedom. To decipher the weaknesses, the strengths and explore the demons that led us to our present state of being.
The period of relative silence leading up to 18 Tir is perhaps proof that we live in a world where we all crave stability more than chaos, calm more than resistance or revenge. But more than that, I think this also goes to show what we have learned the hard way: A loud voice cannot compete with a clear one, even if it's just a whisper.
This -- this bouncing of thoughts and ideas, this constant production of words and stories and our constant struggle -- may perhaps have taught us that power lies not only in the images of burnt flags and broken windows. It will be our words, thoughts and ideas that will prove, in the long run, the most powerful.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau