Me and My Basij Friend
by Special Correspondent in Tehran
29 Sep 2009 04:08
More surreal than a movie.
[ essay ] It was July 4, 2009. The protests had almost died out, but we were determined to make a last stand before the anniversary of 18th of Tir, the day marking the Iranian student protests ten years ago.
Salman, my old childhood friend, and I were standing only 20 meters apart. His face was full of rage and animosity - like a monster waiting to be set free. It had been six years since the last time I had seen him. He seemed to have grown up beyond his age; maybe it was the commando fatigue that he was wearing, or his bushy beard, or perhaps the baton that he was clenching in his fist.
I looked him in the eyes. I had immediately recognized him, and from his expression I was sure that he had recognized me as well. This recognition did not affect my determination, and he did not show any signs of backing off either. It wasn't up to either one of us anymore: we were parts of two opposing waves that faced each other. A confrontation was inevitable.
Earlier, I was in the protests further south in the Seventh of Tir Square, but the riot police had charged us. We stayed put for a while, but after a few minutes the tear gas became intolerable, so we broke up into small groups and ran into alleys and side streets. Here, a few blocks further north, we had regrouped, about 200 of us.
We started marching south, chanting Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein (Oh Hossein [Shiite Imam], Mir Hossein), Raye mano pas bedid (Give back my vote), Doroughgoo, Doroughgoo, Rosva bayad gardad (The Liar must be exposed).
By the time we passed the first junction we saw them - about 300 Basij militiamen with a few police officers among them.
An officer spoke to us through a loud speaker: "Disperse: this is your last warning."
The sight of them made my knees tremble, but the wave pushed on and so I went along. We weren't chanting anymore; we didn't want to give them any excuses. We marched forward until we were only a few meters from them. We were standing silently, flashing V signs. There was a pregnant silence. They were getting uneasy, as were we.
Just as this scene felt ripped from a powerful movie, so did the flashbacks of the memories conjured up by seeing Salman's familiar face in the ranks of Basiji. Salman and I had attended Mofid High School, one of the most religious schools in Tehran. Salman and I shared a bench in the second year of school. Both trouble-makers, we immediately clicked, and within an hour of sharing the bench we found ourselves in trouble. Thus, an hour into our friendship, we were expelled from class and sitting in the principal's office being lectured by our ultra-hardliner dean. He never failed to mention a few Qoranic verses or revolutionary slogans when he reprimanded someone. Our friendship lasted for the remainder of our high school years.
At Mofid High School, we were under a constant barrage of the state propaganda machine. Like many religious schools in Iran, it serves as a recruiting ground for the hard-line camp. They need clever young men to fill their ranks and they know that the sooner they prepare the human resources for their future tasks the better, so high schools like Mofid are used as brain-washing camps whose graduates would go to university and from there to high-ranking managerial posts within the government.
But the actual result is mixed. Such high schools give rise to two kinds of graduates. On one hand, there are the ones who take the message to heart and become members of the student Basij. Then there are those like me, who rebel against this constant pressure of religion and state. So my high school friends became either ultra-hard-line Islamists, or they became leftists, anarchists and liberals.
Salman became one of the hard-liners. He was accepted at Amir Kabir University, and I went to Tehran University Art School. Except for a few phone calls in the first year after graduation, we did not hear from each other again.
That is until six years later, facing each other in the street, one of us among the ranks of the Basij and the other protesting against the election. I actually felt relieved. I knew Salman must have become a big shot within the University Basij, and so I thought that he could pull some strings within the ranks of the Basij who were now facing us. I thought perhaps I could get out of this with just a great story to tell. Well, I got my story, all right.
That heavy silence suddenly broke, giving birth to yells of Basijis running towards us wielding their batons. In the ensuing panic, I got pushed to the ground and within seconds a few Basijis were over me, looking down on me, like a wolf pack looking at its prey. They were grinning, as if they were enjoying my fear. One among them, Salman, was not grinning though. But his face was emotionless and sinister. Still, I felt saved. We used to be best friends, after all.
At that moment, I felt like an actor in a film, expecting to hear someone yell "Cut! Great job guys."
Instead, the Basijis, Salman included, began bashing me with their batons. I blacked out. When I came to, I was in a cramped, hot van with blood running down my face. In my state of shock, I didn't feel any pain, even though my skull had been cracked in four places.
The van took me and the other captive protestors to one of the most dreaded destinations in all of Iran - Evin Prison.
It took me a week to inform my wife and parents where I was. And it took them 20 days of wrangling and pleading with judges and authorities to finally bail me out. Now, they hold the deed to my parents' house prisoner, and I am out here, a prisoner of the harsh realities of my land, trapped in a film co-written by myself and my old friend, Salman.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau