Why North Tehranis Don't Revolt
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
17 Feb 2010 23:18
My situation is not too far from my friend's, and like him I am hindered by a lack of direct experience with the situation in much of the country. Unlike him, however, I live and work among Iranians daily, interacting with people from many different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds in an Iranian-based business on the larger end of the scale of small-to-medium-sized enterprises. Having no direct links to the government, this company enjoys a relatively free environment in which political matters can be discussed without fear. Thus I can ask my colleagues, as there has often been occasion to over the past eight months, "Are you going out to protest?"
Iranian SMEs are no doubt few and those with whom I work are relatively privileged or at least privy to a life vastly different from that in places beyond the capital. I remind my friend, "Those with whom I work can hardly be considered a microcosm of Iran." On the whole, my colleagues are uninvolved and for whatever reason seem distant from the woes of many of my close friends. I thus often make the opposite assumption when I put the question to them: "Why don't you go out?"
In the office I see Facebook on every screen and hear the chants from YouTube videos. Debates occasionally arise, and though my colleagues choose to not use "us" when referring to the protesters, they all certainly refer to the regime and its hardline supporters as "them." You could conclude that my colleagues are universally sympathetic, near universally disgruntled, yet mostly inactive.
So why don't they go out?
"It's Too Dangerous"
As the security crackdowns intensify, this response has become the most common. "Being killed is not the worst thing that can happen to you, or something that I'm necessarily afraid of," said a female colleague. "Spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair, having my face deformed or worse still..." She pauses. I finish her sentence, "Being raped?" "Exactly," she answers.
A friend of mine, a medical student, said almost apologetically to me, "Since they've been executing people, none of the students want to go out, they are really frightened." I explained to her that only two people have been executed for political reasons and that they were in fact arrested before the elections. The nine that were later announced as receiving death sentences have not as yet been executed.
Not surprisingly, the abominable video footage they see following protest events cements my colleagues' decision not to attend, regardless of whether what they see is representative of the overall gathering. With the steady flow of news reports of beatings, arrests and detention without charge, torture, rape, and hangings, the ruling faction hardly needs to extend itself to demoralize much of the potential base of protesters. And since no branch of the ruling group seem to care if laws are flouted in such attempts -- some in fact suggest that the response is not harsh enough -- everyone simply knows that their safety and civil rights are far from ensured.
I'm reminded daily that terror reigns and fear presides. The many that tell me, "It's too dangerous," know well that the ruling party's retribution is carried out with arbitrary cruelty. They are reminded daily from sources on all sides of the costs of opposition. When my colleagues explain why they do not join the protests, references to danger are usually joined by one of the following stock phrases.
"I Promised My Mother I Wouldn't"
It surprises me how often I hear this response. It is nearly always coupled with, "I used to go out, at the beginning...," meaning the silent street gatherings that took place during the two weeks after the June 2009 election. This was before the lethal crackdown at Azadi Square that followed the Supreme Leader's announcement that if blood was spilled, it would be on the protesters' hands. The display of force seems to have halved the subsequent gatherings, separating the disgruntled from the determined.
As a taxi driver put it to me, "They needed to put a stop to things, the gatherings were growing and although they didn't seem to be translating to direct political action, it was like water that stays still: it gathers a bad smell and should be gotten rid of."
"I promised my mother I wouldn't": I sense that this is partly an excuse, a get-out clause for the conscience that I choose not to challenge. It is a version of "It's too dangerous," but as if the words have come from another's mouth. On rare occasions, however, there have been those that promise they won't go out but do so secretly.
"It's a Western Conspiracy"
"This is the work of the English!" A classic punchline, immortalized by a famously paranoid character in the popular book My Uncle Napoleon. Unamusingly, this paranoia persists, exploited by the regime and lent credence to by many of the people, even the disgruntled.
The "West" is used as the reference point by which the hardliners continue to define themselves. So naturally, it is now the activities of the so-called Greens that must be the work of the West.
One colleague, a news junkie who spends most of the day scanning reports from sources of every persuasion, managed to shock me when he revealed his intellectual kinship to Uncle Napoleon. I had noted that the majority of his news fixes come from opposition sites that are frequently blocked. He had even altered his Facebook icon to include a green background. I asked him, "Where are you starting from on the demonstration of the anniversary of the Revolution?" I deliberately assumed he would be participating and just as deliberately left ambiguous in what way. He brought his hands to the side of his head and closed his eye to indicate that he would be sleeping in.
I pressed him to explain why he intended to avoid participating in any way. "All this Green stuff is just pressure from the West to keep their replacement of the Shah in check," he declared. He went on to say that the Revolution was largely instigated by the West due to the Shah's decision to respond more to the people's demands and to alter the oil industry agreements to benefit the nation. He stated that only 10 percent of the people were involved in the Revolution and the rest was done from "behind the curtain." I recalled that he had added a symbol to his Facebook icon indicating his own death -- perhaps he is post-Green.
"I'm Going North"
On a few occasions, the regime has announced long holiday weekends around the time of planned protest events. It is said that this is targeted at the more privileged Iranians who supposedly make up the bulk of the Green Movement. The Iranian calendar is littered with national holidays that fall close to the weekend, creating opportunities to travel out of town. In my experience, the roads are heavily congested around these occasions. Since the elections, I've noted that the roads have been considerably less congested when gatherings are planned, possibly indicating that people stuck around.
The most recent anniversary of the Revolution coincided with two national holidays, allowing people to take five consecutive days off from work while using only one day of vacation time. I know that many colleagues headed up north to the Caspian Sea on this particular holiday opportunity. I also know that the turnout for the anniversary was near nonexistent from the Greens and much lower than in years past by supporters of the ruling faction.
"I Can't Because of My Work"
Of course, there are those who simply are obliged to be at work when protest gatherings take place. But I also know of many people who are very keen to be active yet are constrained by the type of work they do -- some are government employees, while others work at organizations that must carefully avoid any evidence of political interest or activity. These people must also take extra precautions to not be associated with anything considered ideologically provocative, which often entails keeping email accounts and social network accounts clean of protest-related emails and other signifiers of Green association.
In some cases, even coincidental associations to anything that could be construed as pro-Green must be altered. This is something I'm confronted with on an almost daily basis by my firm's senior management. I know of occasions in which the color green, used as a purely decorative element, has been replaced with red. So, on top of the sensitivity that has long had to be exercised for the sake of Islam, there is further sensitivity to anything that could be interpreted as support for the opposition.
"I Can't, I Might Be Being Watched"
I know of people who have been arrested for opposition-related activities that have been pressured to implicate others, that have had their mobile phones accessed and emails read. Those who are released tend to act very cautiously afterward. Many of those close to them also grow more fearful of being active, assuming that they are more likely to be monitored.
"I'm a Mother"
Amid the post-election crackdown, some of my female colleagues would gather and gaze in dismay at the violence visible in hundreds and hundreds of Facebook posts. They would then repost the images themselves before rising from their seats in tears. One of these ladies is a mother whom I know voted for Mousavi and is far from satisfied with the ruling party's regard for civil rights. I asked her if she'd considered going to a gathering or maybe doing something else to act on her feelings. She said she would like to, "But you know, I'm a mother." I assume she meant that she could not act in a way that would risk her being harmed or worse.
From my experience of these gatherings I see that mothers do in fact attend and are in fact very much up front and involved. These women -- whom I've seen stand face-to-face with the Basij militia, defying the attempts to intimidate them, whom I've seen pepper sprayed in the face on more than one occasion -- are likely mothers of children beyond their teens.
"I Didn't Know There Was A Gathering"
One colleague of mine, unlike most of the others, is exposed only to state media. The results are illustrated by the news related to Ayatollah Montazeri's passing just before the events on the Day of Ashura. The office was alive with discussion following his death -- many were familiar with his views, which closely aligned with those considering themselves Green. He was considered their spiritual leader, and his passing resonated among them. I mentioned Montazeri's death to our blinkered colleague. He asked, "Who?" Summarizing Montazeri's credentials, I had referred to his title of Ayatollah. My colleague grabbed the newspaper beside him, turned to page 4 and located, buried among an array of brief articles, one in particular. He read Montazeri's full name out, without the religious title. "So who was he?" my colleague asked again.
Apparently, national media sources were obliged to downplay the event -- newspapers, for instance, were forbidden from covering Montazeri's death on the front page. The regime also mandated the elimination of his title from news reports.
Another of many such examples came with the surprised looks on the faces of those brought in from the provinces for Qods Day demonstration when they were confronted by crowds of green-clad people chanting, "Down with the dictator." It's quite possible that our provincial guests were completely unaware that an opposition movement existed.
We Won't Be Going Out
Each day I witness how fear governs the actions of those around me. Fear has very effectively kept them silent, and made it easy for the regime to ignore their dissatisfaction. As for why my colleagues are seemingly less involved than those I see beyond the office, on a good day I imagine that things are just not intolerable enough for them yet. On a bad day, the phrase "You get the government you deserve" springs to mind.
Originally published on Feb. 14.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau