People driving movement, not politicians
20 Jul 2009 18:24
By JASON REZAIAN in Dubai | 20 July 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] Op-Ed On May 21, I headed to Tehran to cover a president election that no one can claim to have believed would be as eventful or contentious as this one has turned out to be. The election, while understandably important to the rest of the world that viewed it as a referendum on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemed quite unimportant to a politically apathetic Iranian population, many of whom, only weeks before the election, intended on not voting.
Exactly one month later, I left Iran in the midst of the post election chaos. Like so many other journalists working for the foreign media, I felt a pressure to stop reporting, one that I chose to submit to, knowing that I wanted to continue my work in Iran at a later time. The situation was becoming more and more difficult to bear, and ultimately I just didn't feel safe. Whether those threats were real or perceived didn't matter. I knew it was best to leave the country for a time. I didn't know how long I'd be gone, but I left my apartment intact and decided not to take my most important possessions, providing some sort of anchor to return to when the time feels right.
Now it's two months to the day after my arrival in Iran and I find myself in Dubai, a short flight from Tehran, but light years away from what's happening there. Everyday I marvel at the reporters who have the gall -- or is it resourcefulness -- to report on a situation in a land many of them have never visited or know little about. It's hard enough to crack Iran's surface while one is in the country, but attempt to make sense of the realities on the ground from afar is not a game I feel comfortable playing.
Although the media blackout remains in effect, news still filters out. I get eyewitness reports here and there and have tried to keep myself as informed as possible, knowing I'm living in an information vacuum. From what I gather, the struggle goes in waves, but shows no sign of ending. As many of us have predicted, protests have become subtler, becoming volatile at potential flashpoint moments -- a natural occurrence in a country whose calendar is marked by so many official anniversaries.
The thing that fascinates me most about these past few weeks is the hold this story has taken on people and segments of the population who would generally remain disinterested. It's amazing to me, for example, that celebrities have become so involved. Alyssa Milano, for example has tweeted extensively on the subject, and just today, Robert Redford publicly announced his solidarity with Iranians and their quest for human rights and free expression. I applaud them both, and others, but wonder, why now? Why Iran?
Much of it has to do with our longstanding misinterpretations of popular Iranian sentiment. For years news coverage simply considered Iranian government rhetoric as synonymous with the will of the people. That was shattered this summer.
Until now our most in depth read of Iran had been concerning a perceived battle between hardliners and reformers in the mullahs' power structure. With little more to go on than what's made public by the state broadcasting company, international news coverage of Iran in recent days has again reverted to that, looking at Ayatollah Rafsanjani's Friday Prayer speech in particular as a sign that the divides among clerics may be even wider than presumed.
This is almost certainly true, but it misses the larger point, and the one that was so evident in the news coverage of the post election protests, demonstrations and riots. In my last days in Tehran, beginning with the nightly rooftop "Allah o Akbar" chants, which quickly escalated to chats of "Death to the Dictator," then "Death to the Supreme Leader," and finally "Death to the Islamic Republic," it became pretty clear to me that this was a battle between a society and the state that governs it.
It's from within that struggle, furthermore, that the desired change will either emerge or fizzle en route. My bet is with the former, as I witnessed something different within people those weeks that I was there that I have never seen anywhere, specifically in Iran.
To me it was a birth of sorts. A decision made by vast numbers of people that they were ready to take responsibility for their own destiny, both personally and politically. I continue to feel very proud of those people and want to support them in their quest for self-determination. It's a right that belongs to everyone, but unfortunately it has to be forcibly claimed sometimes.
For that reason, I suppose, I'm tired of Iranians abroad expressing their fears about continued bloodshed (there hasn't been that much to begin with) and their hope that everything just "calms down." I, for one, have enough respect for the right of people in Iran -- young and old -- to decide for themselves how they intend to express their frustrations with their current leadership, and if that means risking their lives on the streets, so be it.
The schism between the clerics is very old news. The more relevant divide is the one of understanding between the residents of Iran and the rest of the world, including Iranians living abroad. It's become difficult under the current restrictions on media to shine a light on those concerns, but I hope in the days to come we can focus our attention back on the Iranian people and their desires for the future and away from the same ancient characters who have been at the center of this story for the past thirty years.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau