Hard to Keep a Good Thing Down
by Correspondent in Tehran
26 Sep 2009 03:20
Iran's Supreme Leader, in his Friday Prayer sermon two weeks ago, declared that the annual Quds Day demonstrations would take place as usual, but that those who try to 'divert the event' would be treated harshly.
For many in Iran who anticipated that the rallies would be called off - so as not to give dissidents an excuse for congregating outside in large numbers - Ayatollah Khamenei's words were a chilling omen.
From then on, every conversation ended with the same question: "Are you going on Friday?"
The responses were mixed. The majority of people I spoke to planned on attending the rallies dressed in the green of the opposition movement, seeing it as the perfect opportunity to continue protesting after over a month of quiet on the streets. Others were still undecided, wondering if public protests had any real effect; and a few said they would not join in, convinced it would be a bloodbath or scared of arrest. All warned me of what I might see but none tried to dissuade me from going.
Thursday seemed peculiarly quiet, and a dark, churning sky added to the mood. Would tomorrow bring the much-predicted bloodshed? Or had everyone really left town for the long weekend? Would our numbers be slim?
I had left Iran in late May, just as the election campaign was getting into full swing. I had spent the summer glued to the internet and television, trying my best to follow events in Tehran and take up the mantle 'every Iranian is a medium' - the rallying cry of the Green Movement spearheaded by opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi.
So, it was with fear and apprehension that I dressed that morning. I chose my simplest, darkest mantaeu and scarf so as to not stick out in the crowd, paired with my most comfortable shoes - the easiest to run in. I stuffed my ID card and a face mask into my back pocket, and decided to leave behind the vial of vinegar - used to soak clothes when facing tear gas. It really did feel as though I was going into battle. The day's events seemed so unpredictable. Should I expect a violent confrontation, as many predicted - not only because Khamenei had essentially ordered one, but because there would also be so many Ahmadinejad supporters out in the streets? I prepared myself for the worst and kept reminding myself that what I would witness would be worse still.
As I made my way to a friend's house, cars full of green-clad protestors speeding by immediately calmed my nerves and made me feel more hopeful for the turnout of the opposition. We gorged ourselves on bread, cheese and tea. It was still Ramadan; we weren't sure when we would next be able to eat and knew we needed fuel for the day ahead.
We met with friends at Fatemi Square in downtown Tehran, all having agreed on safety in numbers. After quick introductions we made our way on foot, slowly but surely our number growing as others came out of their houses and pursued the same route.
When we turned into the street leading to Karim Khan Zand and saw the massive crowds of green-clad demonstrators walking past, it was all I could do to keep my heart from jumping out of my chest. Excitedly we joined them, two fingers raised in a 'V' sign in the air, steadily marching forward as different slogans erupted spontaneously around us:
Bombs, tanks, rape are no longer effective!
Khamenei, murderer, your rule is annulled!
Liar, liar--where's your 63 percent?
Interspersed with cries of 'Ya hossein, Mir Hossein' and 'Allah-o Akbar.'
Soon after we arrived, people suddenly surged forward and between shoulders and backs I saw the white ammameh of Mehdi Karroubi, another well-loved opposition leader. The crowd roared, and the chant turned to "If Karroubi is arrested, Iran will see Armageddon." The white-turbaned cleric was pushed forward by his minders and disappeared amongst the crowd ahead. I was repeatedly separated from my friends, but I never worried. I trusted that if anything were to happen to me, the people around me would be there to protect me. And, with great relief, I noted that the demonstrations were much calmer and more civil than I had been anticipating.
The crowd was literally made up of all walks of life: ladies in chadors who often shouted the loudest, whole families with young children becoming politicized at an early age, proudly holding up placards and green balloons. Surging forward in this sea of green, I was filled with emotion and pride. Inspired that the fight was not over, and proud about the way in which people demonstrated - when a gap would grow between demonstrators further forward, the message would be sent to them to wait for the rest of us to catch up. When tear gas was launched into the crowd, all would immediately roar, 'Don't be scared, don't be scared, we are all together,' while hundreds of cigarettes would be lit and the smoke blown into everyone's faces to counteract the stinging effects of the gas.
Initially, from where I started marching, it was just thousands of 'greens' and handfuls of police lined up along our path. Occasionally, a helicopter would fly by and people would look up and taunt it with victory/peace signs. As we neared Laleh Park, the police presence swelled and people got pushed violently aside by government supporters marching for Quds Day proper. Still, no big deal - the 'greens' responded by mocking their savagery and moving aside until they had passed. I was actually astounded by how few they were - very scattered and still only taking about ten minutes to go by, whereas the protesters were densely packed and seemed to stream forth endlessly.
There were moments when the two sides clashed, fights would break out or stones would be thrown, although on the whole the police created a wall with their bodies between us. The fights only represented one end of the spectrum of exchanges between the two parties. Other reactions from the conservative side included mocking smirks and glances, one woman shouting at the protesters that they had "sold [themselves] for two dollars," a middle-aged man sticking his tongue out and making faces at us. The green-folk would respond with their own smirks or dignified peace signs or, collectively, by chanting one of many catchy and provocative slogans about the Basij militia selling out the people for oil-money or about their own refusal to be bought out.
When we reached the park it was impossible to move forward; the 'greens' moved into the park while the Quds procession continued in front. While their loud-speakers broadcast the Quds day sermons, our side chanted back 'Turn off your loudspeaker, listen to our voices.' During the Friday prayer, both sides remained quiet, many gathering to pray in the park, some conspicuously breaking the imposed public fasting by taking a much-needed sip of water from a nearby fountain. Just as all the demonstrators stopped marching to take a rest or kneel on the ground for prayer, it started to rain. Some got up to seek shelter beneath nearby trees, but one man encouraged them to remain seated - "how is a crowd that doesn't run from bullets going to run away from a few drops of rain?" Many looked up at the sky with arms out-stretched to catch the cooling drops, and whispered it was a 'rain of hope.'
After the prayer the green crowd headed back, chanting "praise be unto Mohammad, God's tears are falling!" The message was passed around that we were to march towards Valiasr Square. Spirits were high, mouths were parched, and along the route many snuck into shops and kiosks to down bottles of ice-cold water with their backs to the crowd to avoid being seen by police. As we walked up Valiasr Avenue, the crowd was thinning out, as a new message trickled down: violence ahead.
We reached the corner of Motahari and Valiasr, the start of the Yousef Abad district in central Tehran. It was here that the videos I had spent all summer watching played life-size in front of me. It was out and out brutal combat, people armed only with stones, throwing them as far as they could at the police opposite, with Tehran's omnipresent traffic getting caught in the cross-fire. We stood by parked cars watching in awe, all holding on to each other but none of us able to move just yet. It was the worst feeling in the world, to be angered so much by the scene in front of you, but feeling powerless to stop it. It was the inevitable come-down, having felt so energized from the march, to be almost literally punched in the face by the raging violence in front of us.
On Motahari Street, the police had formed a wall twenty meters away from another group of protestors. Bricks and stones were flying madly in the air. Suddenly, antiriot police riding in two-by-two formation on motorbikes, roared past us. We flung ourselves against parked cars so as not to be run over. Their plan was clear - to drive up and around onto Motahari, trapping the protesters there between themselves and the other group of police. The baton-wielding police were bashing anyone in their sight on the other side of the street, and the police on this side simply told everyone to move on or go inside.
With tear-stained faces, we headed back to our car and began a round of phone calls to check on each other's safety - now a routine post-demonstration ritual for my friends. We arrived home and gorged, yet again, on bread and cheese, making little comment on the day's events.
By the evening, after a shower and a nap, my spirits were lifted once again. Out of nowhere I could suddenly hear the calls of Allah-o Akbar, and the honking horns of passing cars. I ran to the balcony with my cousin, and at the top of our lungs we yelled Allah-o Akbar! and heard the responding shouts drift over from one distant rooftop. But then a neighbour came out, and he began to respond to us too, his voice travelling over the fence that divided us. And then another, a floor above, joined our call too. It was a wonderful feeling, to once again sense that we were all together, united in this pattern of call and response.
So alive, so powerful, and so unified by our hope and our thirst for change.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau
Photo: Defying government warnings about staging a march in commemoration of the anniversary of bloody student unrest in 1999 at Tehran University. July 9, 2009