02 Jul 2009 21:26
Dispatch from Tehran | originally sent 14 June, two days after the election, published 2 July
"Just keep walking and don't run," came a voice to my left. I was already in a state of shock but hearing somebody address me in English added to the confusion of the moment. "Well that was pretty close," came a voice to my right -- also in English -- but this helped settle me slightly during my first physical run-in with the riot squad.
I should have seen it coming, but there were too many directions to be looking as we wandered around a section of Tehran, which only the night before was being pulled apart and set alight. On this day however, the riot squad was back and had doubled in number.
Just a littler earlier, we were chatting with a conscripted military man, bending the truth and warming him for some information. He was jolly for a while, like so many from the night before, but he suddenly remembered his role when a senior officer pulled rank and asked him exactly what he was doing.
Our next encounter with the police came as a crowd nearby drew attention to itself. As trigger-happy as the riot squad was, any little provocation could set them into action. Some people rushed passed us, which prompted me to look over my shoulder; behind me I saw ten swinging batons with shrieking men attached. Assuming that the police were chasing those that had run ahead, I stood still, but the officers were only looking for targets.
A policeman pushed me, with quite some force, up against a wall using his baton.
"Move," a voice behind me said. "Get out of here!" I looked to find my friend, who was also crushed beside me, but with his hands up. I gathered that this would be a sensible thing to do and did the same. We walked with our hands up for a few meters; when the police left us, we tried to blend in again. But a little farther down the road, when my friend started to walk ahead of me, I realized he was covered in tear powder and concluded that the whole blending-in strategy wasn't really going to work.
Facebook was alive with status updates from the many Iranian friends on my list. Many happily reported of having gone out and exercised their right to vote; people provided feedback from polling booths; people shared jokes and optimism about the future.
Earlier in the campaign, many believed a runoff between the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his reformist challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was the most likely scenario. But as election got nearer, the Mousavi campaign began to pick up steam. Mousavi was attracting voters in densely populated cities around the country -- the majority of Iranians live in urban areas; his message also began to resonate with disgruntled voters and even the apathetic. The polls, as much as can be trusted, were showing the other two candidates amassing 10-15% of the combined vote.
At 11 p.m. a Facebook status message announced: "Mousavi declared winner with over 60%." This was slightly shocking, not because Mousavi was ahead, but because we had been told that the results wouldn't be in until 9 the next morning. Other snippets of news like this began to follow, including one from a national news source.
Facebook users began to report, "Ahmadinejad so far claims 68% with one-third of the counted votes." The status messages rolled out like a fruit-machine wheel; then this: "BBC: both candidates claim victory." Then there was news that Mousavi's campaign offices were raided and that they had moved to another location to issue a press release. Fragments of information flashed up before me quoting Mousavi saying that there are "voting irregularities" and that he will look to resolve the situation to protect the people's vote. Then nothing; he disappears.
Speculation then mounted and the status spammers on Facebook tried to find comfort by imagining that only votes from rural areas had accounted for the numbers being announced. "Two-thirds of the ballots counted," flashed up on the screen, still giving Ahmadinejad more than 60% of the vote. A second round looked very slim by this point and the comfort was all but gone for those green-shaded icons sitting beside each message. Among all this confusion, rumors began to stream in. And it has been this way ever since.
I went to sleep for a few hours, hoping that by the time I woke up the figures would be less suspicious. But no.
"Ahmadinejad wins a landslide victory with 64% of the vote and a record turnout of 85%," several status updates reported, and it wasn't even 9 a.m., the official announcement time. "Mousavi arrested," read another; "Who stole my vote?" asked one; "Can you believe it? I don't," read the rest. The most prominent status spammer kept jumping in,"Everybody stay calm. This is going to get sorted out."
The Day After
Nobody was able to get any work done that day, and nobody was able to send text messages, or SMS, as it is known among Iranians. Text messaging wasn't the only curious technological difficulty; both the English BBC and CNN Web sites had been blocked. The mood in the office was one of mourning. The figures read like fiction, not least of all for the two outsider candidates, one of which received less votes than the void ballot count: He came in fifth and there were only four candidates! The incumbent had received twice as many votes as Mousavi and thus exceeded the 50%-plus, giving him an outright win.
Although at the time the result had not been officially announced, nobody I saw was buying it. I found myself asking, repeatedly, "Where is Mousavi?"
Nobody was able to sit still and take it; so we took to the streets and there to greet us was the riot squad, the conscripted military and the police. Apparently they knew an "Ahmadinejad win" wasn't going to fool anybody -- it would be a hard sell, at the very least. The sound of car horns screamed out, and a crowd gathered and sat down near Vanak Square. Farther down, the square itself was swarming with security. One group of police sat two-deep on motorbikes with batons at the ready. They charged up toward the group I had just seen and swung indiscriminately at anyone who didn't run away fast enough.
Guns sounded from the bikes but no guns were seen. As they dispersed to chase down those throwing stones across the street, I saw an unconscious woman on the road with people screaming for an ambulance. Then, coincidentally, I bumped into a friend who had been working for the Mousavi campaign.
"What the fuck is going on?" I asked. "Where's Mousavi?"
With his usual calmness he simply pointed to the police. "Mousavi is in talks, he's given statements," he said.
"Not since last night. Has he been arrested?" I asked.
"No, no," he responded in a confident tone, almost upset that I had suggested it. "I need to go. I gotta sort this out," he said, before disappearing into the crowd.
I walked farther up the road to find that the trash bins had been over-turned and set on fire. Nearby, a group of young men pulled up the curb railings, the street signs and anything else that could be ripped out and tossed into the road. They threw stones at bus shelters and bridges, to the cheers of the public, looking on. I didn't have time to get pissed off as the motorbikes could be heard closing in. We darted in all directions seeking shelter in apartment parking lots and in front of houses sheltered with tall iron fences. The residents of each of the places we went welcomed us, shielded us, and shared stories of the revolution, remarking on the many similarities."You know what this is about," one of them said to me, they want to show you that you shouldn't have hope," referring to those who sit above the president.
What a funny way to celebrate the 3oth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution than with a little reminder of how it once was, I thought.
As the day progressed, all of Tehran seemed to boil over. Crowds gathered and swelled up from Vanak to the Parkway crossroads, only occasionally dispersed by the riot squad who would intermittently take to the paths and beat anyone who still walked on them. From the Parkway to Tajrish sat two lines of cars, all sounding their horns with the drivers and passengers holding up peace signs, as the traffic police stood by, almost oblivious to the street destruction as they continued to dutifully direct traffic.
I reached Tajrish, which was void of riot police but filled with people protesting and holding pictures of Mousavi and/or his friend/colleague, the former president, Mohammad Khatami. It was here that I managed to get a taxi out to a neighboring city where I live. I shared it with a Mousavi supporter; the two of us shared more rumors and speculation.
As I approached my neighborhood, my mobile gained reception again, in contrast to Tehran, where most of the network had been shut down. As I looked out of the taxi window, I got the sense that I had traveled to another country. The streets were filled with jubilant Ahmadinejad supporters, waving the national flag before any car that passed. As I arrived home I noted that there were no further status messages to be read as Facebook had joined the list of other sites that had been blocked.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau