Prayers Make History
by TARA MAHTAFAR in Tehran
20 Jul 2009 20:00
The following account is narrated in Farsi and translated by Tara Mahtafar. The narrator is a male student of political philosophy and in his early 30s.
Friday Prayers, another occasion to come out into the streets
As with other such days, I felt a dual sense of fear and fervor, heightened by the uncertainty of whether people would turn out or not. I arranged to go with friends, because the past month's experiences have taught me that going alone is unsafe. I remembered to put my name and number on a piece of paper in my pocket so if anything happens to me, my family can be notified.
Two kilometers left to the venue: Tehran University, Prayer Hall
Traffic was locked in a vast river of pedestrians evidently headed toward our destination. Green smiled at us from shawls and wristbands and banners. Seeing this scene, reminiscent of June 15's massive march, my concern that people would not come evaporated.
We parked and coalesced with the procession in the baking midday heat. They came in all types: hipster with a rainbow-cannabis medallion resting on his open neck, a family with a ten-year-old child, women in that Islamic Iran archetype black chador, scruffy-looking men, laborers, girls in sunglasses, senior citizens. Despite their differences, they all shared an aura of excitement. Some were holding small radios to tune in to Hashemi Rafsanjani's sermon.
We passed policemen (the ordinary kind) along the way, and behind them, buses ready for the day's batch of prisoners. Although defiant "V" signs were in full view, the officers stayed immobile.
Strangers chatted about what Rafsanjani might say and expressed happiness at the turnout. The non-religious asked the religious about how to execute namaz (prayers). For many, it was their first time at this decades-long public ritual.
* * *
When the sermon began, my friends and I were on Keshavarz Boulevard, which borders the north side of the university campus. People had spread newspapers and prayer mats on the street and sidewalks and sat on them, listening to their radios, which were tuned in to Friday Prayers.
We threaded our way farther down to get closer to the loudspeakers. Turning onto 16 Azar Street, we found a shaded spot near the west campus gate, and spread out sheets of newspaper to sit on. A thoughtful lady was handing them out to those, like us, who had come unprepared.
Most of those seated near and around us were religious types: chador-clad women, pious-looking men, and among them even a cleric. During the first part of the sermon, Rafsanjani recounted a historic narrative where Prophet Mohammad advises Imam Ali [the first Shia leader], "If people are not satisfied with your governance, you must withdraw and let people decide their governor." At this, an approving cry of Allah-o-Akbar arose. Some in the crowd, obviously novices unfamiliar with the conventions of Friday Prayer, began applauding and whistling. Pro-Mousavi unity aside, I feared that the religious men and women sitting nearby would take offense at this inappropriate behavior. But they merely tittered -- and astonishingly, the cleric was clapping along! Once I saw this, I had no qualms about joining in the applause.
I overheard a chador-clad middle-aged woman sitting next to me tell her teenage daughter, who also wore a chador, "Imam Ali would submit to the desire of the people, but this Agha [the title for Khamenei] believes himself to be above even Imam Ali!" The daughter replied, "But I'm still not satisfied. Hashemi should speak more openly!"
When Hashemi referred to the slaughter of Muslims in China, the air rippled with "Death to China!" This was interesting because Ahmadinejad's camp and state media have defended the Chinese government over the course of that country's recent unrest; hence, "Death to China" acted as surrogate for "Death to Ahmadinejad."
When Hashemi said things people liked, they chanted "Hashemi, Hashemi, we support you!" or "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!"
An elderly lady standing some distance away shouted "Death to Opponents [of supreme leader Ali Khamenei]!" thus revealing herself to be an Ahmadinejad supporter. Several people wanted to rebuke her, but others reminded them that everyone is entitled to have a voice in this. The best censure was the fact that her slogans found no echoes.
The loudest chants broke out when Hashemi touched on the subject of post-election detainees. "POLITICAL PRISONERS MUST BE FREED!" -- the din was such that Hashemi had to cut it off with, "Well, that's what I'm saying ..." He added, with an amused air, "I'm saying it better than you."
Another phenomenal spectacle, a first in the history of Friday Prayers in Iran (and perhaps in a large part of the Muslim world), men and women were not segregated. Thy prayed side by side. This did not appear to offend the religious-minded; they seemed to accept the situation. Women and girls who by Sharia law can pray only when covered with a prayer-chador were doing so in short manteaux, and this too did not upset the religious-minded. In fact, they were probably happy to see non-religious girls and women praying at all.
Personally, as an atheist, I've always found it difficult to socialize with the religious masses. For the first time in my life, however, I really enjoyed being among my religious compatriots. I even tried to behave in such a way as to avoid causing them any discomforrt or disrespect.
When prayers began, my friends and I got up to look for a grocery store to buy water. Unseasonably, we heard Allah-o-Akbar sounding from one street over. I was dismayed that people would shout slogans amid the quiet hush of prayer. As we moved toward the sound, our eyes began to sting, and upon enquiry, the incredible met our ears: Security forces had thrown tear gas among the prayer-makers. "God is Greater!" had been the collective response, and after fumes dispelled, people had resumed their praying.
. . .
The word online was that protests would start after prayers were over. As this happened, the mass of people on 16 Azar Street began moving down toward Enqelab [Revolution] Avenue. The normally sleepy and sun-drenched Friday summer afternoon was vibrant and exuberant with chanting.
I was intoxicated by the boom of thousands of reverberating voices chanting in unison: "Down with this murderous government!" "Martyrs are alive, it's the Government that's dead!" "An Iranian will die but not bow down!"
A 1979 song from the revolutionary days was resurrected as well -- the lyrics were just as relevant to the situation in 2009. The crowd sang this 30-year old revolutionary song, substituting "Mahmoud" for the "Shah":
Traitor Mahmoud, you're down-and-out!
You've brought ruin upon the homeland
Killed the country's youth,
Put thousands into graves,
God is Greater! You will fall!
The loudspeakers began blaring anti-Western rants from inside the prayer hall, which was led by the "slogan vizier," or chant leader. But people were a step ahead. Underground news sites had long denounced the Kremlin's support of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his brethren in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If the regime wanted to play the foreign intervention card, people had their own scapegoat ready.
Every "Down with America!" and "Down with Britain!" and "Down with Israel!" from indoors was drowned out by a roar of "Down with Russia!" on the streets.
A large Russian flag -- I marveled at the foresight of whoever had brought it -- was set on fire. People were turning the regime's tactics against itself.
We pushed forward, a deluge thickened by people spilling in from alleys on either side where they'd been praying. The drone of chanting carried over from other streets and we felt empowered in the knowledge that thousands more were on the move like us.
Those joining in from cross alleys told us that in all the streets north and east of us ending in Enqelab, hundreds of thousands were marching.
It was at that moment that I realized Mousavi's call to "Friday Prayer" had probably drawn a million people and the crackdown was soon to come.
. . .
As we proceeded farther down, my forecast was realized. People had sat down on the asphalt, in defiance of the riot guards who wanted to disperse them. Suddenly, to our shock, they began firing tear gas in rapid succession -- six, seven, eight? I don't know how many hissing shots landed in quick succession in our midst.
Panic ensued, as the crowd's stampede-like retreat was constricted by the density of the crowd and the lack of space to expand into. (16 Azar Street is much narrower than broad avenues like Valiasr.)
White smoke, thick as fog, filled the air and reduced visibility so that I couldn't see more than a meter or so in front of me. I lost my friends in the confusion of running and pushing. My eyes and throat and lungs were on fire. As I inhaled more toxic fumes, breathing became laborious. The muscles in my limbs felt numb, lax -- a new sensation I hadn't experienced from my recent bouts with tear gas. Perhaps it was the large amounts of gas, it was fired all at once. But I still felt it was something more than that. Something was very wrong. All around me I heard hysterical screams of "I can't see!" and "I'm suffocating!" and moans for help.
(Friends later reported similar sensations. A chemical engineer also the target of some of Friday's tear gas, told us he was certain it contained another substance. His guess was highly-diluted mustard gas, judging by how it was affecting the nervous system.)
As the air cleared a bit, people were attempting to make fires with dry leaves and newspapers and whatever else was at hand. And there was a surreal sight, if I ever saw one: two chador-clad ladies lifted their chadors from their heads and set them aflame, to add to the bonfire. People huddled around, and I went forth too, to get black smoke and cigarette smoke in my eyes to counter the effects of the tear gas.
Apparently the forces had decided we were not sufficiently "dispersed." We heard shots again. I didn't see how many fell but I saw more smoke mushroom into the air. I hadn't fully recovered and here there was more of it already. I remember telling myself: "Don't worry, tear gas doesn't kill. Save your energy to run, because if you're arrested, you're more likely to die."
As I ran, I glanced over my shoulder to see if any guards were behind me -- they were not, but a young girl was sprawled on the ground, motionless. I turned back to help her, even though I could hardly see or breathe.
I got myself to her but because I felt weak I was unable to lift her alone. Another girl came along. She lifted the girl's feet and I grabbed her underarms. She was unconscious. The three of us had moved three or four meters forward when, to my horror, another smoking white canister landed nearby. I was just able to kick it away a little but the air filled with so much smoke that we could no longer move in any direction. All three of us collapsed on the ground.
My breathing was severely impaired. My head was spinning; I couldn't tell what was happening to the two girls. It felt like two hands were squeezing my throat, choking off the air flow. I managed to crawl to the curb and vomited twice into the joob. I tried to get up to run, but realized that I could not and fell again. The feeling of suffocation grew inside of me. A new awareness suddenly occurred as well: I may die. At that moment, I physically felt the possibility of death. Then I heard voices. I felt hands pulling me up, hands passing me along, and that's the last thing I remember.
. . .
I woke up in the yard of someone's house. Four or five people were around me. As I came to, they told me to breathe deeply. The grandfather of the family had asthma and so they had an oxygen capsule. They brought it over and put the mask on my face. As I inhaled, I slowly began to feel better.
I was told I'd been out for about twenty minutes. After half an hour passed, I wanted to return outside and get to the nearest main street to find a taxi, thinking it best to head home before dark. I was invited to stay, but after thanking the homeowners, I left.
Still weak, I went back out and saw a crowd of thousands still on the street moving north, their slogans radicalized in reaction to the unleashed violence: "Death to Khamenei!" and "I will kill he who kills my brother!" I joined them, since I was headed that way anyway.
There were no forces en route. We reached Laleh Park.
Masked Basij men on motorbikes suddenly bore down from both directions on the park, batons swinging. But because the crowd was large they could not disperse us completely; people ducked away deeper into the park and resumed chanting.
Tear gas fired -- again. Anti-tear gas fires, again.
After some time had passed, the crowd suggested that we move on so that we wouldn't be isolated. I felt dizzy, so two young men, around my age, propped my arms around their necks and we walked north together along the sidewalk on Kargar Street. Traffic was gridlocked. It would be faster to get to an intersection heavy with taxi traffic on foot.
A line of teenage-looking Basijis were standing in front of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. They were holding up placards with photos of Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Khomenei yelling pro-Leader slogans: "The blood in our veins is a gift to Khamenei!"
We had to pass by them. We averted our gazes, hoping to keep them from approaching us. Just then, a girl, green wrapped on both wrists, stepped up right in front of them and began screaming: "Two of my brothers were martyred in the war! I hope their blood brings curses on you!" Her boldness shocked them (and me); they looked dumbstruck. She pointed to the picture of Khomenei. "He's ours!" and then at the one of Khamenei. "He's yours. That's your murderer leader!"
We walked until Amir Abad Square, another protester versus basij war zone raging. "Death to the Dictator!" they shouted as they hurled stones. Basij guys were smashing rear windshields of cars that honked along in support of the protesters.
Exhausted and heat-struck, I had no energy left. Wary, I stayed back and watched from a distance. I didn't need to worry though. There appeared to be such a number of scattered protests in place that security forces had to move to the next spot quickly.
The Basij zoomed off on their motorbikes, leaving only four or five guards remaining at a distance, where a van full of detainees was parked. Seeing the opportunity, people rushed the guards with rocks, and they began to run away. The van windows were smashed, the detainees pulled out.
Traffic was flowing, albeit slowly. I raised my hand to flag a car. Suddenly I felt the odor: my fifth dose of the day. Nauseated, my legs felt limp and I couldn't go a step farther. I sat on the curb and pulled my shirt over my mouth and drew ragged breaths. I motioned frantically at passing cars to stop because I knew the guards would return. A dusty Peugeot braked near me. The driver got out and helped me get into the backseat.
The man was in his fifties or sixties, and his wife was obviously religious, telling by her Islamic covering. He asked if I'd been beaten. I said no, but that I had inhaled a great deal of tear gas. Did I have asthma or a heart condition? I said no. "You'll be fine, then; it's nothing," he said.
He also asked if I had attended the prayer and said that they had too. His wife tried to make me feel better by distracting me from my misery by making light of the situation: "You won't die yet, young man!" I tried to laugh. When I asked him to drop me off somewhere to catch a taxi northward, he said their house was near.
"We'll eat, and after you rest, I'll call you a cab to go home."
We reached their apartment five minutes later, in Amir Abad district. There was a photo of Ayatollah Khomeini on the wall in their home."We're near the fighting," he said. "You're our third injured guest this month!" He bid me to lie down on the sofa while his wife went into the kitchen to prepare tea.
The phone rang. When he came back after taking the call, he was laughing. "That was my son. He called to say he's near Jomhouri Street, where there were clashes. He's sick from tear gas and someone has taken him in to nurse him. He called to say he's safe."
I had to laugh too, at the irony of my saviors' son being in the same situation, of finding sanctuary in a stranger's home.
"Let's go into my son's bedroom," he suggested. "You can lie down and we'll check the internet to see what's going on." He went online and checked a few sites and read some of the news to me.
What did I think of Hashemi's Friday sermon?
I said it was good, considering his veiled attacks on the government.
We were called to the table, where we sat down together and ate. The khoresht -- the sauce that goes over the rice -- was tasty. I felt better afterward, a bit restored. They called me a cab. I thanked them both, hugged him, and wished their son well.
In the cab, I finally had the chance to ask the driver to take me home.
Generosity has become commonplace in Tehran these days. I have been on the receiving end of much of this kindness over the past month. Each of us helps in turn, when we can. I gave refuge to three strangers in my home the first Saturday after the vote.
What remains fascinating however is the intelligence in the methods of resistance I've seen from people during this period. Step by step, they are overpowering and repossessing the ideological symbols that the regime has always used to consolidate power. From drawing on religious and old revolutionary slogans and inventing new ones, to destroying the divide between secular and religious society, which Ahmadinejad has always tried to accentuate to justify advancing his own cause.
This latest conquest of Friday Prayers -- an institution of the Islamic Republic -- was another such victory. People are taking over the ideological symbols with which the government defines itself. Their apparatus has become a cancer that is now destroying itself. And this has stumped the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei power base. Night and day, people are thinking up new ways to fight back. Until the coup governments backs off, they will not stop.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau