Thursday at Toopkhaneh
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
25 Dec 2009 21:57
[ dispatch ] I was early for the appointed time of 3 p.m. but already police stood in fours and fives, elsewhere in groups of a dozen or more. They looked about themselves furtively, turning on their heels, eyes darting, chattering into their walkie-talkies.
Looking once, she seemed familiar. Alone and utterly alien in the grimy tail-end of Tehran's bazaar district. A student of mine? A friend of a friend perhaps? Or was it the uncertain, searching look in her eyes. Her look matched my own deflated spirits, arriving at Imam Khomeini Square to find that business appeared to be as usual.
A mother and daughter out on the town? But a third-world equivalent of London's Leicester Square or Tokyo's Akihabara is no place for Thursday afternoon window-shopping. On a whim, I entered a narrow alley lined with stores selling electrical supplies. Stand-up vendors cut cable by the meter to my right, tiny shops -- each one a miniature warehouse -- sold screwdrivers, soldering irons and adapters to my left. Hardly the place to start the weekend.
The passage opened onto a tiny courtyard, a mid-20th century caravanserai. Towering PA speaker systems clogged the walkways. Speakers like these would soon be stacked on pickup trucks and carried at the head of parades of self-flagellating Hossein worshippers for the great Shiite cry-in of Ashura. As a prelude to the spectacle, the air hummed with the rhythmic echoes of Noheh, an ultra-bleak lament to murdered heroes, sung to the pulsing rhythm of beating chests. Outside, a street merchant was selling shirts and sweatshirts from a cardboard box -- every one of them black.
Still early, still circling.
When Iranians talk about the flora and fauna of an area they refer to the "baaft" which means the particular "weave" of the locality. The "weave" of today's pedestrian traffic around Imam Khomeini Square was distinctly foreign.
Hipsters a long way from their natural habitat of downtown cafes and art galleries. Iranian intellectuals are still yet to fall out of love with the beret. Alongside the beret walked a valiant effort at a Caucasian afro with his flamboyantly dressed girlfriend. They arose from the Metro station wondering where the party was meant to be.
There was now a small but noticeable throng around the central monument of the square. A six-meter plinth which bears a cast iron representation of the symbol at the center of the Iranian flag -- the word "Allah" stylized around a sword. The insignia looked small and incongruent on its massive foundation. Before the Islamic revolution, the first Pahlavi Shah was memorialized here, a battle-weathered soldier of Iran's Cossack brigade mounted on his horse.
Riot guards appeared from nowhere. Two seasons had passed since I first saw them hurtling into crowds in June, riding two-by-two on high-chassis motocross bikes, perfect for climbing curbs. Now they were wearing their winter gear, six months on.
The small crowd of protesters did not so much disperse as simply fade away. A plump middle-aged woman covered her mouth with the corner of her headscarf and shouted "Allah-o Akbar," much to the dismay of her companions. They hissed at her to be quiet as the group once again assumed the attitude of regular pedestrians.
But the police action only sparked more chanting elsewhere. A cluster of a few hundred. Chants of "Death to the Dictator" and "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein" brought a renewed police response. Mounted police this time, chasing down the front of the bazaar. Shopkeepers drew down their steel shutters as they buzzed past.
I saw two waif-thin teenage boys dart past, "let's get out of here!" they shouted as they weaved through bewildered spectators. Police bikers, headlights glaring, engines seething, swarmed in to apprehend them but the boys, whatever their crime, were long gone.
By now their engines were warm but where were the police to lash out at? They had taken the monument but were empty-handed. Once again protesters were no more than pedestrians, looking around innocently as if they had not just seconds ago been revolutionaries.
An officer beat the palm of his left hand too quickly with a short, flexible cosh. Skitting to the left and the right, his indecision indicative of a security presence unsure of what they were there to secure.
An army of a hundred police conscripts advanced in a wall of perspex-riot shields, but there was no crowd to push back. "Allah-o Akbar" rang out from somewhere down the street, or was it a rooftop? The police wall pushed up one hundred metres and simply turned back the way it had come.
Turning down a parallel street there was no similar police presence. Back in Imam Khomeini Square, shutters were being raised, and the "weave" of the area was once again wholly native except for 150 or so tired security forces catching their breath on the southern side.
Today's demonstration was not significant for the numbers of protesters, nor for the brutality of the police. None were arrested, none were hurt. None of the major opposition leaders endorsed it and very likely, the pro-government press will ignore it or spin it as a further sign of the Greens' demise.
But today may yet be seen as a milestone. Rather than subverting a government-sponsored rally, the opposition organized their own. The question is, can they do it bigger and better on Sunday for Ashura.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau