My Own Private Jerusalem
by SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
10 Feb 2010 16:09
This occasion is recognized by the government as a national holiday. Qods Day, an expression of solidarity with Palestinians scheduled for the last Friday of Ramadan, is a similar occasion -- a national holiday with officially sanctioned demonstrations as the centerpiece. I attended the most recent Qods Day demonstrations, held this past year on September 18, yet this opportunity provided by the state to vent against the West didn't quite go as planned. As an increasing number of Iranians grow both disenchanted and afraid to voice their grievances, the only means to vent frustration with the domestic situation is to subvert the official occasions.
The 22nd of Bahman will provide the next such opportunity for all forms of venting. Like the Qods Day before it, I suspect it is unlikely to produce any semblance of solidarity. Here is what I witnessed on Qods Day, 2009:
"Down with Israel... down with America... down with England," came the chants via a public address system strapped to the back of a pickup truck. Aboard this vehicle stood a handful of nervous looking men sporting tinted glasses, two-weeks growth and Palestinian paraphernalia. Should they have looked on the horizon they would have seen the bemused and possibly neutral presence of security. Scattered among the green waves floated the occasional ideologue, drowned out by the chants of response, "Down with Russia."
We were warned by the Supreme Leader, without irony, that slogans beyond the theme of this national day of protest would be met with force. Later the grandson of the Leader of the Revolution boldly suggested that the day need not necessarily be concerned with oppression in Palestine alone but could address oppression the world over. The very moment I arrived at one of the protest start points it became obvious that it was the oppression within our very own borders that would be the primary theme.
The day was to be the first opportunity in a long time for the so-called opposition to mobilize after the rapid post-election political purge. Much was said about an apparent drop in activity within the so-called Green Movement; a loose association of those referring to the election as a coup, those battling for civil rights and those working for a more progressive path for Iran.
Chants relating to contemporary themes of oppression roared out from the accumulating masses, mixed with selected slogans dating from the Revolution, cleverly subverting the day's official message. I seemed to have situated myself up front; I looked back to assess the crowd and saw that the Green Movement rather resembled a tsunami. We crashed into a prominent square of the city. A stage had been erected there, whose occupants waited to share the official wisdom with those that weren't riding the wave. "Death to the dictator", screamed the crowd, which prompted the organizers to increase the volume of the Mullah-on-the-mic. The crowd raised its volume and in turn, MC Mullah pumped it up further. My head vibrated with the noise and my eyes were unable to focus.
We moved on, and were eventually joined by a former presidential candidate, Mehdi Karoubi. The crowd chanted in his support, stating that his arrest--something repeatedly toyed with by the state -- would not be permitted. In the ensuing mosh pit, I was able to see only his white turban, and was once again reminded that people are so much smaller off-screen. Although he arrived with surprising speed for a 72-year-old, he later seemed to be dragged off to a side street where close to a hundred security personnel awaited. The current pulled me along, leaving me uncertain of his fate.
As we were channeled down a long corridor of tightly parked buses, our wave crashed into those who had arrived on them. The road was blocked by families spread out like a grid of picnickers, perplexed by our presence. We continued to flood in, only to spill out into the neighboring park or to trickle into side streets in search of ways around. We were face to face with many whom I imagine were completely unaware that anything like our collective existed or could exist. Just that week, the national media had been asked to drop all stories related to the "opposition." Their second surprise came when this new presence summarily smashed taboos by vocally challenging the system and its rulers. A human chain, apparently inspired out of fear, was promptly constructed by the male picnickers, behind which we were taunted.
Again, the loudspeaker volume increased as Ahmadinejad's voice was broadcast amid loud, incessant booing. As the crowd moved on, our numbers decreased. Having been at the front, I was now worryingly at the rear. We seemed to be heading back in the direction from which we had came, but to my concern, we seemed to be funneled down a peculiar route. Throughout the return journey I and those around me were continually confronted and insulted by those who had been bussed in. As our numbers thinned, I was gradually able to see that the buses had been written on with green spray paint, reading "Mousavi," "Green" or "Karoubi". A group, probably Basij members, chanted, "Don't forget Kahrizak, don't forget Kahrizak," seemingly referring to Iran's Abu Ghraib-like prison where many protesters were taken and some died from maltreatment and possibly torture.
As our group reduced to a harassed ripple of hundreds, my fears materialized. The chant abruptly changed: "Don't be scared, we are all together!" For possibly two seconds, this was the case. The sight of hundreds of people in flight prompts an instinctive reaction. Across open gutters, over road barriers, along hand rails, between trees to any available doorway. Between two cars, shielded by men on either side who absorbed the batons raining down. The hunt moved on. Mindful of how a dog is more likely to chase you if you run, I casually moved on, looking only down, ignored by riot police careening across my path.
In a communal hallway, I and others watched and waited. Both men and women, not so fast or fortunate, were unexpectedly slapped by large men in civilian dress. Various security forces gathered together, and tear gas was fired. It was difficult to see where the canisters were aimed and I didn't particularly care to hang around and find out. Expressing deep gratitude, I left, again looking only down. As I walked, possibly twenty motorbikes, in twin columns and impressively decked out, drove by. Again I was ignored. The last of them passed and with my head still tilted down I saw a rock land just in front of me. I was reminded of the chants I heard earlier that day, "We've become like Palestine."
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau