Fight or flight? Many Head Out
25 Jul 2009 19:06
Since the beginning of the uprising in Iran and the media blackout that followed, I have been trying to get fresh, firsthand information from Iran. Thanks to the internet, social media networks and the technology that allows anyone with a cell phone to record history, we have been bombarded with material coming out of the country even during this brutal clampdown.
Articles, blogs and videos flooding the internet are great. But those of us with many friends and family in Iran really cherish that phone call or private email or IM (Instant Message) from someone we know and trust back home. It's quite a feat to decipher the material that gets churned out, to tell what is true and what is not. I have come across at least two or three accounts of beatings, rapes and murders that are completely unverifiable, if not outright lies.
Many videos showing mass graves or people being thrown blindfolded from rooftops turned out to be from Saddam's Iraq or some other sordid hot spot in the world. So in this quagmire of amateur journalism and YouTube television, the best accounts come from those who have just flown out of Iran and are able to relay events of the past few weeks free of fear of government reprisal, and stripped of leftist and rightist agendas.
Many Iranians have come to Nice, France these past few weeks. But they are usually older Iranians with enough Euro wealth to have second homes in this beautiful and expensive part of the world. Older Iranians, who grew up under the notorious Savak and for whom silence in matters of politics is second nature, usually give information that they get on satellite TV channels like VOA or BBC Persian because none of them have ventured out on the streets to demonstrate. Occasionally one is lucky to run into a young person coming here from Iran to visit a relative or grandparent.
G is one such young woman. She is 27 and works for an insurance company in Iran. She welcomed my questions and request for an interview with a broad smile that lit up her entire face. What she told me is not sensational nor surprising, but I think that precisely because of its lack of exaggeration it is important and perhaps more representative of what ordinary Iranians feel about all that has happened. It conveys the feelings of one young Iranian voter, at the very least.
G has always lived in Iran. She studied business in Tehran and worked for many years with the same company. She has acquired enough expertise in her field of work that she oozes with confidence and professional pride when she speaks of her career. She starts work everyday at 7 a.m. and does not get back to her home in northwest Tehran, where she lives with her 25-year-old brother and parents, before 6 p.m.
She has voted in every election since reaching the legal voting age. She tells me that the first time she went to the polls it was in 1997 to cast a vote for Mohammad Khatami, who became president that year. Like many young people at the time, G was very inspired by Khatami's promise of broad and substantial reform. Though she voted for him a second time as well, she quickly became disappointed with his ineffectiveness. This time around, until one month before the June election, she did not feel inspired to vote.
Her friend at work was an active supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi and kept lobbying her and others at work to vote. G started noticing the TV ads and brochures that Mousavi's campaign was putting out. She was impressed when she read about Mousavi's platform for change, economic growth and accountability in a brochure. Mousavi's handling of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's accusations against him impressed her even more. Although a notoriously bad orator, Mousavi impressed this young woman with his grace and calm in the face of adversity. He was also endearing because he could not be accused of fiscal corruption or opportunism during his years of service as prime minister.
The most significant characteristic of Mousavi, which made my young friend change her mind and vote for him, was the vital, vocal and inspirational role that his wife Zahra Rahnavard played in his campaign. "For me," G says, "Rahnavard's role showed Mousavi's sincerity to improve the situation of women."
Those were heady days -- or rather nights -- before Election Day. Young people from all camps took to the streets making them their own, shouting slogans and creating a festive atmosphere usually reserved for post football match celebrations. Presidential debates being aired for the first time on television and colorful posters decorating the streets gave rise to an unprecedented political openness that was euphoric. People started believing that they were part of some big shift towards democracy in Iran. They felt their historic importance and that gave them courage.
G became more and more enthusiastic and excited about the election. "I talked at least seven people, who didn't want to vote at all, into voting for Mousavi. Most of them, like my parents, voted for Mousavi as a vote against Ahmadinejad," she said.
On Election Day, she voted with her brother at a neighborhood school; her parents voted in a local mosque. The rumors of possible fraud had been rampant and they were told by her activist friend to spread out and vote in different venues in Tehran so as to make cheating more difficult. She remembers the day and time she voted like people remember where they were when John Lennon died. She went to the local school at 8:00 a.m. Friday, June 12, waited in line with other Mousavi supporters and cast her vote at exactly 9:45 a.m.
On her way home, she felt elated. She tells me that even though older people were more skeptical and worried about how the election would play out, she remained jubilant and sure Mousavi would triumph. Even the skeptics did not think that the election would yield a result just after the first round of voting -- let alone Ahmadinejad being declared the victor by a large margin. (Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the election goes to a second round.)
The next day at the office everyone was in a state of shock, especially the Mousavi activist who had worked so hard for his campaign. Of the 25 people who worked at her office, 20 had voted for Mousavi and one person had voted for Ahmadinejad. Four had not bothered to vote. Among those who hadn't voted were older skeptics who claimed they had never voted in the Islamic Republic because they did not believe in the system at all. The one person who voted for Ahmadinejad was the letter courier; incidentally, he changed his motorcycle for a fancy 'Persia', an Iran Khodro car, a week or so after the election!
He is a man of modest means, in his 50s, with the signature three-day stubble of hardliners and Hezbollahis. He too had been moved to vote for Mousavi, but claimed that he was turned off from doing so when he saw the licentious way in which the youth dressed and acted at the Mousavi pre-election rallies.
G, like many others who voted that day, was insulted by the blatant way in which the election was rigged. She told me that she felt "stupid and naive for having believed in the elections," "angry at the Ahmadinejad government's audacious vote rigging," and "hatred for the backward-thinking hardliners."
The first huge rally and march from Enghelab to Azadi Square the Saturday following the election gave her hope. Millions poured out into the streets to protest the election results. "That was an incredible day, seeing so many like-minded people out on the streets of Tehran," says G.
She talked to some of the protesters. One was a wealthy woman who described herself as a feminist. Another was a single mother who was upset at her inability to pay for her child's education. Two young men were unemployed and unable to marry and settle independently. One man complained of his inability to pay his rent while another believed that Ahmadinejad's uncompromising and bellicose attitude was responsible for the meteoric rise in inflation. The mass protest was like a huge therapy session. People of many stripes poured out into the street, sharing openly their discontent and anger toward the government.
She heard about the shootings that day, but was not a witness to them. She attended two more demonstrations, one in 7th Tir Square and another at Toopkhoneh, were she heard Mousavi speak. Her brother went to the movies on the day of the Azadi Square demonstrations and refused to participate further. "You should write," G tells me, "that some people are like my brother: they do not care."
She was never an eyewitness to any killings or beatings herself. But her activist friend got beat up with a baton while helping an elderly lady during the Qoba mosque demonstrations. One of her colleagues, a monarchist in his 60s, disappeared without a trace for three weeks. When he was released from prison he had lost 15 kilos and sat at his desk in a catatonic state. Her friend's 23-year-old brother was beat up so badly with a baton at Azadi Square that he lost an eye.
Another friend who went to the 18th Tir demonstrations -- according to G, only the very brave attended at this stage -- was dragged out of his car and beaten until he lost consciousness and left for dead. No one came to his aid. After his basij assailants were gone, one brave woman took him to his home. His parents did not take him to the hospital for fear of getting arrested. They waited three days, then took him in, claiming he had had an accident.
G stopped going to demonstrations. Like many, she chanted Allah o Akbar from the rooftop of her home, but she was afraid to go out on the streets. Some of her friends continued, but most stayed home. She left the country for a trip to Europe that her company had scheduled months in advance.
When I ask her what she plans to do when she returns to Iran in a few days, she tells me a refrain I have heard often these past thirty years, "I will do my best to leave Iran and get a job in Europe or Canada." When I ask her why she wants to leave, G responds: "Ahmadinejad will be declared president in August and things will get much worse. It will be unbearable living in Iran. I have professional expertise. I can get better pay abroad. I want to live and work somewhere where my work is appreciated. Once I settle down, I will then bring my parents and my brother."
This young, hardworking woman's incredibly beautiful eyes, radiant smile, and pragmatism brings tears to my eyes. My unprofessional welling-up shocks her.
"What's the matter?" she asks, "Did I say something to upset you?"
"My dear girl," I answer, "everything you have said makes me upset. The thought of increasing the number of people in the Diaspora makes me want to cry. I want to go back as much as you want to get out! "
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau