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The Arab Roaming the Streets of Tehran

07 Jul 2009 18:0628 Comments

In Memoriam: Ardeshir Mohassess (1938-2008) Cartoonist: Historian of our fears and frivolities

By HAMID DABASHI in New York | 7 July 2009

It was in late February 2004. Quite tired after a long day, I was hanging out with a number of Palestinian filmmaker friends in front of Khalil Sakkakini Cultural Center in Ramallah. I was waiting for Annemarie Jacir to finish her chores introducing the films we were screening that night. Our friends from Yabous Productions, an East Jerusalem based Palestinian art organization that was hosting us, were expecting us for a late night dinner.

Annemarie and I were in Ramallah for the Palestinian wing of the film festival, "Dreams of a Nation," which we had earlier organized in New York in January 2003. In Palestine, we were screening films in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Nablus, and Gaza City. We were elated, quietly happy.

The weather was cool, the air crisp, and the breeze across the West Bank quite pleasant. It reminded me of the summer nights of Ahvaz, though this was still in February in Palestine. Israeli military jeeps were patrolling the Sakkakini Foundation neighborhood in an inconspicuous way. The soldiers looked like GI Joe figurines--their quiet plasticity visibly robotic. The jeeps cruised quietly around us like they were driving themselves, or else guided by some sort of remote control, a playful child maneuvering them from behind an olive tree nearby for our amusement. A powerful floodlight lit the terrace in front of the Sakkakini Foundation.

"You are Iranian, right?" the young Palestinian filmmaker standing next to me asked. Raed was his name, a soft smile that looked like it had been carved at birth on his youthful face. I told him I was. "What are you doing here," he wondered, with a certain metaphysical tone in his voice; 'Of all places, what are you doing in this particular place,' it's as if he were saying. There was a pleasing sense of wonderment in Raed's voice, punctuated by a knowing smile. He was not expecting an answer; but it was as if knowing the answer, the expression gave him a certain playful satisfaction.

Nothing, I said, answering his metaphysical ponder with the only negative dialectic I know.

The films we were showing--a couple of Elia Suleiman shorts, if I remember correctly--had ended. People were beginning to walk out of the small theater. "You have come all the way here," Raed continued with his merriment at the heel of my disarming casuistry, "to show us films?"

He was a master of emotive dissonance. His face betrayed his frivolity. When I said, yes, because you have not seen these films, he just widened his face with a bigger, warmer, more reassuring smile. I thought I had been an object of curiosity to him; but he acted as if he was directing me in a Fellini film--tongue in cheek--despite myself.

Annemarie finally came down and was busy chatting with some of the people in the audience. I spotted Adania Shibli behind her--a young Palestinian poet I had come to know and admire during that trip. Behind Adania Shibli was Miguel Littin, the Chilean-Palestinian filmmaker who had come all the way from Santiago to be with us during the festival.

"Here," Raed said, as he turned to me as he reached deep inside the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out his keychain. He carefully took his keys out of the ring and handed me the keychain, from which was hanging a small statuette. "Here is your Oscar!"

Keys are very powerful objects for Palestinians. They symbolize and represent their lost, confiscated, stolen, and occupied homes. What was holding Raed's keys together was no less powerful a symbol.

I took the keychain and looked at the small statuette. Initially I could not tell what it was. It took me a few seconds to figure out it was Hanzala. "Do you know who he is?" Raed wondered.

Yes, I do, I said. Thanks.

"He is a witness," he said, "just like you!"

Not many non-Palestinians know of Hanzala, the legendary creation of Naji Salim al-Ali (1938-1987), a Palestinian cartoonist, known, loved, and celebrated for a sustained body of work that has survived him with astounding power and tenacity. It is estimated that he sketched nearly 50,000 cartoons, in which he documented various phases of the Palestinian national liberation struggle. He was as much, if not more, critical of spineless Arab leaders as he was of the Israeli occupation of his homeland. Born in Palestine, raised in Ain Al-Helwa refugee Camp in Southern Lebanon, he eventually emerged as the visual conscience of his people. Before he was assassinated on 22 July 1987 (he died a few weeks later in London), Naji al-Ali had immortalized the figure of Hanzala: solitary, serious, single-mindedly determined to bear witness to his people's history.


Hanzala is by far the most famous persona in Palestinian visual and emotive vocabulary--a curious and persistent figurine who stands witness to the suffering and struggles of his people. He is, above all, a witness, an eyewitness, to be exact, a muse of conscience, commanding us to act, with his back turned to us, as if he is leading us forward, towards the scene, where history is happening. He just stands there, with his back towards us, the spectators, and facing the scene of the crime, or the struggle, or the atrocity, or the defiance. His turned back to us is also accusatory--what are you doing, just standing there watching, it is as if he is saying--what is there to watch? Why don't you join us, come in, into the picture, into history, where the action is, the injustice, the struggle, where we, where he, where what he witnesses, needs your help, at least your testimony.

Hanzala is testimonial.


Disregarding us, Hanzala is watching. Nothing escapes his attention. We don't see his face or his eyes, because his face is turned away from us and towards the scene of the crime, and his eyes are fixated on what he is watching, what needs watching, what the criminals don't want anyone to see. The Palestinian history of invisibility, of denial, is at the heart of Hanzala's visual fixation. But even beyond Palestine, Hanzala is the moral mind's eyes watching that which is made invisible. Our eyes wide shut, his are wide open--and yet, and there is the rub: we cannot see his eyes, for he is in our eyes, he is our eyes, mediated through the distanced space that holds us back from where he stands, right in front of the event, where history is happening. Single-handedly, Hanzala sees our hesitant bets and raises it by his courage.

Hanzala does not just watch and bear testimony. He also acts. He picks up a pen and draws a stone and throws. He lights a candle. He defies submission. Hanzala persists. He never gives up.


Hanzala has survived the death of his creator Naji al-Ali and continues to lead a thriving, engaged, and committed life where he is most needed--not just in Palestine. I have an anti-globalization T-shirt someone once gave me with a picture of Hanzala! When during the summer of 2004, I was traveling through the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, I saw the power of the living memory of Naji al-Ali in the figure of his Hanzala adorning the walls and banners of Palestinians in their direst moments and most defiant aspirations. Walking through these camps, you will see many replicas of Hanzala informing, assuring, warning, admonishing, leading on, or encouraging the residents to do one thing or another. He grew up in refugee camps. He knows them inside out, and deeply cares for their inhabitants. I remember once in Badawi Refugee Camp up in northern Lebanon near Tripoli, we screened Rashid Mashharawi's "A Ticket to Jerusalem" (2002) from the rooftop of a UNERWA building and onto a wall upon which stood Hanzala, his back turned to us as he was writing on the white wall, al-Qods Lana/Jerusalem is ours. On another occasion, in Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut, I had seen Hanzala signing his signature under a statement over a pile of garbage that had not been collected yet: Hafezu ala Nezafat al-Mokhayyim/Look after the Sanitation of the Camp.

Born in Palestine, raised in a refugee camp in Lebanon, Naji al-Ali and Hanzala, the creator and the character, traveled deep and wide into the world, made of Intifada, of uprising against tyranny, of a transnational metaphor. Hanzala is and remains Palestinian, but he is also metamorphosed into a global metaphor, a visual trope, a witness everywhere, just like John Steinbeck's Tom Joad: "Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry ... ."

That visual universality remains rooted in the Palestinian predicament and defiant spirit, but then it goes global in its powerful implications.

A racist rumor is now roaming through the streets of Tehran (exacerbated by even more racist instigation by monarchists from abroad)--that among the security forces beating up on the demonstrators are people who do not speak Persian, that they speak Arabic, that they are dark skin and thus not Iranian--from Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq.

The whitewash imagination of those who make up these stories has habitually dismissed Iranians from the southern climes of their homeland as "Arabs," as if being Arab was a misdemeanor. This idea of fictive foreigners beating up and killing Iranians used to be Afghan when millions of Afghan refugees fled their homeland and sought refuge in Iran in the 1980's; now they have become Arabs. The same racist imagination in and out of Iran now seeks to fish from this muddy water. They have no clue that the only Arab that I know for a fact now roaming the streets of Iran is Hanzala, watching over his Iranian brothers and sisters, a witness to their courage and imagination--blessing their Intifada, teaching them a trick or two.

Once in a Palestinian refugee camp I met an Iranian warrior fighting for Palestinians. His nom de guerre was Abu Said, for he had named himself after our martyred poet Said Soltanpour (1940-1981). He spoke his Arabic with an enduring Persian accent, and his Persian with Arabic intonations. So does Hanzala, if he were to speak. But he only watches, witnesses, and keeps a record. He holds the key to my home too--a colored southern boy, born and Iranian bred, an honorary Arab, a Palestinian at heart.


Beyond borders and across linguistic divides, Hanzala lives, breathes, thrives, warns, watches, witnesses, and keeps a record, for the whole world to see. He is everywhere: From the forgotten fury of young and old men and women suffering the indignity of exile in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, to the bruised bodies of defenseless mothers and children in Gaza, to the wounded soul of widows and orphans in Iraq, to the broken bones of humanity in Afghanistan, and then down to the murdered youth and the beaten and broken bodies of young and beautiful protesters in the streets of Iran, assuring them all that he is watching, witnessing, keeping a record, his accusatory back turned to our shame, writing on the walls of Tehran "Thawra hatta al-Nasr/Qiyam ta Piruzi/Uprising until Victory!"

Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted." He is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His Web site is: http://www.hamiddabashi.com/

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau (excluding images)

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timely and relevant

patricia / July 7, 2009 5:37 PM


I agree that it is racist to call killers in Tehran arabs. They are Iranians, more fanatical, perhaps, but Iranians nonetheless.

However I thought that it is only Iranians who watch over Palestinian Hanzala giving them support, money and weapons. Because if Hanzala is watching over Iranians and over Palestinians, and Hanzala is an arab and a palestinian and an Iranian, I do not see Hanzala in Iranian struggle.

Where are arabs fighting for Iran?

Where is the support of arab brothers and sisters of Iranian people?

Where are the demonstration and the shouting for free Iran, free of Ahmadinejad and for Mousavi.?

Where are honorary Iranians?

Where are they?

Where is Hanzala?!!

ella / July 7, 2009 8:02 PM

The Internet is now Hanzala.

Jeff Barea / July 7, 2009 9:43 PM

This piece is outrageous. Anyone following the bloggers out of Iran closely knows that there is no doubt that fighters from Hezbollah and probably Hamas have been terrorizing protestors in Iran. I don't understand why the Tehran Bureau (yes, I know it is done by one person out of your parent's living room in Newton - but most of what you've printed has been wonderful) would feature this piece. This piece is not based on observed facts but on a pre-conceived idea, as if Arabs could not conceivably be on the wrong side of any issue. I suspect that Hamid Dabashi does not mean to lie, but his mind is closed and so outrageous statements have come out of his mouth. Luckily, as seen in their blogs, the Iranian people know better as they have seen the truth with their own eyes. The protests in Iran are the beginning of the opening up of minds in the Middle East.

Jim / July 7, 2009 10:58 PM

May Hanzala someday write Freedom for you, and may it be so.

Peg / July 7, 2009 11:40 PM

The piece does not say Arabs cannot be on the wrong side of an issue. It merely confronts racism - including the myth that the Basijis are Palestinians - and expressed the universality of opposition to oppression.

What is wrong in occupied Palestine is also wrong in Iran.

This is a matter of human rights - not of racist theories that there are "good" races and "bad" races.

Nazih Musa / July 8, 2009 2:42 AM

Truth, fallacy and ignorance reverberate through this piece in an almost eerie harmony. Hamid has cleverly touched on a very sensitive, seldom discussed topic in Iranian society. We are a proud people with a proud history of tolerance and respect for human rights. For us, it is extremely difficult to admit any kind of wrong, but particularly racism. Yet, denying the existence of racism is precisely the root of the problem. Any one who has ever lived in Iran knows the Afghan tag line as well as the arab one. Its true, to say that as a society we have been unkind to the Afghan refugees who have sought sanctuary in our country would be an understatement. It is also true that we strongly dissociate ourselves from anything Arab. However, this latter sentiment is not the same as dismissing our compatriots for their ethnicity. If anything, in Iran, being arab, kurd, turk, baluch or whatever else is secondary to the Iranian identity. It is only in the west that people highlight and cling to these ethnic differences. Hamid vehemently dismisses the truth and validity of these allegations, siting lack of evidence. Yet, he presents no evidence of his own to the contrary other than a counter allegation of racism. This is just disappointing. As Jim has pointed out, there have been volumes of reports out of Tehran consistently attesting to the active presence of Arabs in the security forces. The reports have actually been far more specific than Hamid portrays. People in Iran are not simply saying their attackers are arab, meaning they could be ethnic arab; they are specifically saying among their attackers are Hamas and Hezbollah fighters. I understand Hamid's urge to condemn and dismiss these statements as rumors and a product of the Iranian inability to admit that Iranians are capable of committing atrocities. However, that is simply not the case here. People are not denying that Basijis are Iranians. They're simply saying that in order to impose an iron grip, the regime has not only brought people to Tehran from the rural areas in Iran, but has resorted to hiring mercenaries from Hamas and Lebanon. There are two major points: (a) they are willing to go to any limits to violently crush the people and, most importantly, (b) they do not have enough manpower to do so on their own.

At this point, I must express my resounding disappointment in Tehran Bureau, which started out brilliantly but has fizzled terribly. Recently, every time I open an article, I cannot help but wonder if this is really NIAC in disguise or just another vehicle pushing the agenda of the Islamic Republic. Lately, every article seems aimed at muddling issues, downplaying the strength of the opposition, portraying an absolute crush down of dissenters, and worst yet, fermenting and highlighting division. At a time when all ethnic and party lines seem to have vanished, a small but determined group seem hell bent of reminding everyone of their divisions, dismissing political groups, putting down yet others, flying accusations of division, racism and prejudice and in general hacking at the fragile cohesiveness that has finally settled over the Iranian community. The question is why?

Where Is My Vote / July 8, 2009 4:29 AM

I read peoples' comments on blogs more than I read the blogs. Unfortunately , there is a big wave of sympathy among East Asian and Arabs for Ahmadinejad. Just go look at Ahmadinejad fans on facebook.

@Dr.hamid / July 8, 2009 6:11 AM

Where is the hard evidence that Hamas people are involved in putting down demonstrations? I have seen none.

There is discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. This is testified by Arabs, Baluchis, Kurds and others.

The point is to apply universal standards for human rights and political liberties.

Generalisations about "good Persians" and "bad Arabs" or "Persians like the Jews but not the Arabs" (as if there were no Arab Jews) are just racism.

Iran needs to respect the rights of its ethnic minorities.

The reason there is sympathy for Ahmadinejad is that people think he stands up to Israel. If course, what he does is all talk, but even so they like it.

Human rights campaigners must speak up for rights everywhere, including the rights of the Palestinians. Ahmadinejad exploits a certain silence about the Palestinians and of course he has exploited the double standards of the US, which goes along with Israeli suppression and supports dictatorships in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Human rights are for all.

Nazih Musa.

Nazih Musa / July 8, 2009 6:47 AM

Dabashi has written about Arab meddling in Iranian affairs and has sharply criticized Nasrallah in Lebanon:

"Before I close, I must also say that a major loser is Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon. Nasrallah must know that the deep and variegated roots of Iranians' commitment to the Palestinian cause and the fate of the Shias in Lebanon are in the vast ocean of their hearts and minds, fed to them with their mother's milk and not in the dirty pool of Ali Khomeini's pocket. Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, ought to know that Iranians are watching them closely, and wish to hear their voices. This is the Iranian Intifada. A leading slogan in the streets of Tehran is Mardom chera neshestin, Iran shodeh Felestin (People why are you sitting idly by, Iran has become Palestine). Arab and Muslims, their leading public intellectuals, must come out and take the side of this grassroots, inborn, and peaceful demand for a healthy and robust democracy."

This is a literary piece! It is working on a different level...

Dabashi can't put a million footnotes to his previous writings, or can he?

Read this:


And this:


Dabashi has a deeper knowledge about the region than most others...here he is tackling racism!

Max / July 8, 2009 10:17 AM

I have great doubt that Khamenie and Ahmadineja are Iranian they are barbarian like their puppets Lebanon's Hezb-o-laa and Hammas. They want to complete the invasion of Arabs 1400 years ago, This why they are supported by Arabs and Lebonan's Hezb-o-laa is killing Iranian in Tehran.

More than 1400 years we are suffering from Arabs and yet we call them Religious brothers. We shouldn't forget our glory before Arab invasion. Arabs are Iran enemy more than Israel and any other nation in the world

M. Gorgin / July 8, 2009 12:00 PM

Please please, do not let such a great source of news like yourselves at Tehran Bureau be tainted by your deep rooted belief in US/European style liberal left wing politics. To deny a fact that is proven which is the existence of Arab forces to quell Iranians during times of civil unrest, only acts to greatly diminish Tehran Bureaus credibility in the eyes of Iranian freedom-seekers and foreign watchers.

The claim of the existence of these forces has absolutely nothing to do with racism. These forces were initially trained by IRGC to fight against Israel, and the US in Lebanon and Palestine. Many still live in Iran and act as a reserve force.

Yes, rumours of Iran Air flights from Beirut, and others may be untrue, but that does not mean they are not there beating people in the streets.

I say this not for any other reason than that I have met a few of them in Tehran in 2006.

My comment above about liberal left wingism stems from the fact that they would hold, and rightly so, anti-racism universally as more important than the freedom fighting of the people of just one country. That is commendable.

But, I plead with you to do more research than you have up to now about this issue and before doing so please do not harm the struggle of the Iranians by reducing so-called rumours of arab mercenaries to Iranians deflecting blame due to racism or national pride etc. Arab mercenaries are in Iran that is a fact.

Also, it is true that Iranians are killing Iranians but so are these mercenaries. It is true that there is a strong tinge of racism towards arabs in Iran but mercenaries are there in Iran. It is true that Iranians have an overly strong sense of national pride, and dependence on their ancient cultural past, but mercenaries trained by the IRGC are there in Iran beating people. Maybe, I should not call them mercenaries but rather a division of the IRGC.

Tehran Bureau, I am surprised that the issue of Arab mercenaries has not been addressed internationally as it should. I would have hoped that your investigative reporting would have been the source on shedding light on this dark kaleidescope of killing that is going on.

Behzad / July 8, 2009 12:18 PM

"I have great doubt that Khamenie and Ahmadineja are Iranian they are barbarian like their puppets Lebanon's Hezb-o-laa and Hammas. They want to complete the invasion of Arabs 1400 years ago, This why they are supported by Arabs and Lebonan's Hezb-o-laa is killing Iranian in Tehran.

"More than 1400 years we are suffering from Arabs and yet we call them Religious brothers. We shouldn't forget our glory before Arab invasion. Arabs are Iran enemy more than Israel and any other nation in the world."

All this racist nonsense, distorting the past and causing conflict between Iranians and Arabs when all people should be working together for human rights in Iran and in Palestine.

I say again, where is the hard evidence that Hamas has been in Tehran putting down demonstrators?

Nazih Musa / July 8, 2009 1:10 PM

Nazih Musa

I address this specifically to you. When I read your comments, I don't know whether I should be angry or laugh. Of all of the commentary available to you, you select the most inflammatory to bolster your point, ignoring everything else. Your strategy is interesting, as is an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

Your statements regarding universal human rights and fight against racism are both commendable and righteous. What you seem to miss is that we agree with you! However, we are simply pointing out that in the case of the current conflict in Iran, you are wrong.

I don't know what news source you utilize to receive your news about the events that have been taking place in Iran since June 12th. If you rely on English coverage, your ignorance of the evidence is understandable, but if you are able to read and understand Farsi, then it's simply baffling. Reiterating what has already been exhaustively set out above by me, Behzad and Jim (not touching the excellent points made by Ella and Max), the people in Iran are not denying that Basijis are Iranian, nor are they saying that Iranian Basijis are not the ones attacking them. They are simply reporting that in addition to the domestic mercenaries, the regime has resorted to importing/utilizing foreign mercenaries, who are Arab and members of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unfortunately, I am unable to post the relevant links for you from my tweets as they are from two weeks ago. But, as Jim points out above, there have been numerous reports of Arab mercenaries among the plain clothes militias including eye witness accounts. There is even an account of an interview by Iranian journalist Javad Keyhan Manesh with a plain clothes domestic mercenary where the mercenary discloses that the Hamas and Hezbollah fighters are (i) paid more than the mercenaries hired domestically (domestic hires received around $200/day), (ii) are separated from domestic forces, and (iii) kept in nice hotels while the domestic hires stay at a sanitarium. Furthermore, there are pictures identifying Hossein Manif Al-Ashmar (sp?), a member of the Hezbollah of Lebanon, and showing him at the raid on the Mousavi's campaign headquarters on June 26th.

Again, I would like to point out, we are not denying the existence of racism in Iran, like every where else in the world. We are simply pointing out that the analysis offered in the article is wrong, plain and simple. I urge you to please look at what has been posted in previous comments by me, Behzad and Jim again and actually read them.

Of course, you can insist on waving your banner while plugging your ears and closing your eyes, but that's a dangerous strategy as you will probably fall and, most importantly, you may injure an innocent bystander in the process.

Where Is My Vote / July 8, 2009 3:54 PM

@ Nazih Musa

In my opinion Iranians respect ethnic and religious minorities more than these minorities, in their own countries, respect their own minorities.

Reading what you and the author said reminds me of the saying: Why do you see the speck in your brother's eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?

As for the claim that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are arab - well, the constitution of Iran do state that the leader can only by a person who descended from the family of Muhammad, so here you are - he is partially an arab.

as for the evidence of Hamas - how can there be an evidence now, with what is happening? In a month or a year evidence may (or may not )appear. I also notice that you did not say anything about Lebanese Hezbollah being on the streets of Iran - hmm - do you also think that they may be helping their leader?


I thought tehranbureau is better, I liked tehranbureau but reading such an articles I am slowly changing my mind.

ella / July 8, 2009 4:17 PM

Only the ideology of the forces who are beating the demonstrators is important, not their race.

persian / July 8, 2009 5:09 PM

The old canard about foreigners being used by Iran's security forces to quell unrest is nothing new. In the year leading up to the Islamic Revolution (1978), there were numerous reports/rumors being spread by the opposition (Islamists, communists, secularists, nationalists) purporting that the Shah was employing foreign fighters (Israeli Mossad Agents as well as Palestinian Commandos) to help suppress the spiraling cyle of street protests.

This tactic was used by politically savvy rabble-rousers who understood Iranian culture and the Iranian people's mistrust of foreigners meddling in their politics. During the revolution against the Shah, it made sense to say that the security forces had Israeli Mossad Agents in their ranks, due to the Shah being perceived as almost deferring to Israel, as well as Palestinian Commandos, due to the age-old friction between Persians and Arabs. Today, the same rumor of Arabs attacking Iranians is going around again and is being used for the exact same effect.

The Iranian people have every right to strive for freedom and anything that ultimately may motivate the average person to fight for what he/she believes in is okay in the short-term. But it is absolutely foolish for anyone with even average intelligence and education to take something being spread on message boards and Twitter and claim it to be fact. There is no hard evidence. And don't suddenly say, "Well all the pictures from the protests came from Twitter, idiot!" because those are PICTURES and VIDEOS whereas these are just words.

And if any one you wants to make this claim again and ramble on about websites, interviews etc where this was proved: please post a link proving it or else we can consider this case closed. Please spare us your vitriolic posts that have a general undercurrent of intolerance of other viewpoints/facts and instead depend wholeheartedly on conspiracies. You might be mistaken for monarchists!

Mirza Kuchak / July 9, 2009 5:09 AM

"And if any one you wants to make this claim again and ramble on about websites, interviews etc where this was proved: please post a link proving it or else we can consider this case closed. Please spare us your vitriolic posts that have a general undercurrent of intolerance of other viewpoints/facts and instead depend wholeheartedly on conspiracies. You might be mistaken for monarchists!"

Oh boy, where to start with this one, and I considered carefully whether I should reply or not. I reply only because I want to make clear that this case is NOT closed.

Let me make something crystal clear. There is no undercurrent of intolerance in my posts; there is a flat out rejection of the viewpoints expressed in the article and the comments I have responded to. I am absolutely intolerant of the accusations hurled in this article and said comments, where the writers have sat judge, juror and executioner; accusing the people of Iran of racism and of lying without ONE SHRED of evidence on their side while conveniently ignoring the mountain of evidence on the other side. The process of fact gathering and evidence collection is composed of, surprise, surprise, obtaining eye witness accounts and interviews as well as videos and photographs. The latter are not the sole source of facts! But is there any use in pointing out such facts to you Mirza Kuchak? You, who have used one of the most sacred names in Iranian history to spread such hateful propaganda against the people of Iran.

It is actually hilarious to have someone who so self-righteously accuses others of racism use the phrase "you might be mistaken for a monarchist" as an insult. I am not a monarchist, but what if I was? Would my views and any facts I present be worthless then? Should we dismiss the scores of Iranians who do support the monarchy? And after them? Who's next?

What does your statement mean any way? Isn't it counter-intuitive? Why would the monarchists say this when this was the accusation hurled at their king during the '79 revolution? And are you implying that all of the people in Iran who have provided accounts of Arab forces amongst the militia are monarchists? Doesn't that just parrot what the regime says? And isn't the regime the only party best served by denying/hiding any evidence of Arab mercenaries amongst its forces?

I will not respond to the comments to this article any more. The topic has been exhausted already and the case has been clearly set out. Any further response at this point would be as fruitful as providing logical explanations to a slab of concrete.

Where Is My Vote / July 9, 2009 9:30 AM

Greetings everyone. This is Hamid Dabashi. I am the author of "The Arab Roaming the Streets of Tehran" (Tehran Bureau, 7 July 2009). I have been reading your comments on my essay and am grateful to all of you, whether you agree or disagree with me, for taking time to read my essay. I am delighted to see that my essay has generated such lively debates among you.

I would like to take this opportunity to make a couple of points. I have no way of categorically discounting or reason to dismiss any eyewitness account that foreign forces, including "Arabs," may indeed be among Iranian security forces. Let me just move to the side of those who believe there are "Arab" elements within the Iranian security forces and push the argument forward.

It is perfectly plausible that the repressive apparatus of the Islamic Republic has indeed recruited "Arabs" from neighboring countries. They may in fact have also recruited Afghans, or Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis, or people from Central Asia. For all we know, the Islamic Republic may indeed have its own version of Blackwater mercenary army. I have my reasons to doubt the necessity of such an operation, given the large population of young Iranians who are not absorbed either into the university system or the job market (please see my essay on this matter that "Max" has kindly brought to your attention), but for the sake of argument let's suppose that there is such a mercenary army. My argument still remains that the categorical identification of this army as "Arab" is predicated on an enduring streak of Iranian racism, added to a legitimate anger against the Islamic Republic for having abused the Palestinian cause to repress its own population, added to an equally legitimate anger against an Islamic Republic, which has degenerated into an illegitimate anger against Islam and Muslims in general, all come together to generate a xenophobic anti-Arab condition.

To me paramount remains those who have recruited these thugs to beat up on students and others, whether they are "Arab" or not is a secondary issue. To bypass that more central issue and introduce a racist trope is where the problem lies, and where the point of my essay dwells. I have my reasons to doubt these rumors; others may have equally legitimate reasons to believe them. But we share the more immediate and fundamental condemnation of whoever has recruited and whoever has perpetrated such criminal acts.

I would also respectfully ask you to please read my article more closely. I have written it for multiple reasons, first and foremost because two of my Iranian students, and few of my colleagues from Iran, have asked me to write it. Because of my long involvement with the Palestinian cause, they believe I am in a position to do my share in robbing the Islamic Republic of its pretensions to be behind the Palestinian cause, as a subterfuge to crush our democratic movement. The purpose of the essay, as a result, is first and foremost to link the Iranian struggle for democracy with other struggles in the region; second, to claim a regional symbol of struggle against tyranny for ourselves; third, to deny the ruling elite the claim that the cause of Palestine is theirs and thus abuse it to crush our Green Movement.

I am grateful that "Max" has drawn your attention to my other essays in which I have taken the Arab world to task to come and support our cause. I also share "Where is my vote"'s concern about sticking to facts. But I respectfully disagree with her/his assertion that "this latter sentiment is not the same as dismissing our compatriots for their ethnicity. If anything, in Iran, being arab, kurd, turk, baluch or whatever else is secondary to the Iranian identity. It is only in the west that people highlight and cling to these ethnic differences"--for reasons I have discussed extensively in my Iran: A People Interrupted. I do share "Where is my vote"'s sentiment and premise, but not conclusion. She/he may also want to re-read my essay and perhaps reconsider her categorization of me as: "Hamid vehemently dismisses the truth and validity of these allegations, siting (sic) lack of evidence. Yet, he presents no evidence of his own to the contrary other than a counter allegation of racism. This is just disappointing." The burden of proof, as in the case of fraud in the presidential election, is not on me, but on those who say there are "Arabs" in the street.

Finally, I would also respectfully ask you all to read the essay with an eye on its narrative composition, its anecdotal tropes, its manner of storytelling--all geared to claim and appropriate Hanzala for us, for Iranians. Regardless of what you may think of my essay, I very much hope you will get to know Hanzala a bit more closely. You, I assure you, will love him--and love him will give more, not less, courage to our cause.

I very much hope this partially explains the reasons behind my essay.

I remain grateful to all of you for your interest in my work.

Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi / July 9, 2009 11:06 AM

There is not a single word in my previous post that could honestly be interpreted as "hateful propaganda against the people of Iran." If anything, I made it abundantly clear that, as an Iranian, I 100% support my people in their struggle for freedom and democracy. I was simply pointing out that a rumor that has been going around recently mirrors an almost identical one that was circulating during the time of the revolution against the Shah's regime. You can take that however you want but an accusation of spreading "hateful propaganda" is a far cry from simply pointing out the uncanny similarity between past and current events, especially when we consider the details.

I will admit that it is absolutely possible and not a farfetched concept for the Islamic Republic to enlist Hezbollah/Hamas fighters (Iran's proxies) in its bid to quell the unrest. But lets not forget that the same general accusations were made in 1978 to weaken the Shah's position by some of the very same revolutionary leaders/architects who are now at the head of the Reform movement in Iran.

Furthermore, there was never one sentence in my previous post in which I accused ANYONE of racism. We just need to watch what we believe, especially in such a fluid situation where the dissemination/restriction/distortion of information is what will shape the outcome. But the weak arguments and an ultra-defensive tone in the messages of aggresive posters have again exhibited an unmistakable undercurrent of intolerance. There is no doubt about this.

If we really want to support the people of Iran in their fight for freedom, then we should equally condemn all acts of violence against peaceful protesters regardless of the ethnicity of the assailants. And in regards to my half-serious quip about monarchists: it was a joke. I was simply poking fun at the manner in which monarchists (I'm related to and have known many of them!) formulate their arguments and refuse to hear anything that contradicts their beliefs. I would say that within Iranian society the two most intolerant groups in a strictly POLITICAL context have been the monarchists and the Islamists, pure and simple. And the reason is easy to see.

Both of their political movements are based on an ultra-right wing ideology that squashes dissenting viewpoints and puts absolute authority in the hands of essentially an autocrat. One will have an infinitely easier time having a debate about the state of Iran's government/politics with someone who is of a more moderate political belief system (ie: Secularists, Moderate Nationalists, Democratic Reformers etc) than with a right-leaning supporter of a monarch/dictator or an ultra-religious Hezbollahi worshipper of the Supreme Leader.

We must truly support the pursuit of the Iranian people for a free and democratic system. This does not mean overthrowing the system that does not work now and bringing back the system that did not work before it. True democracy and real elections for the people of Iran. They deserve it.

Mirza Kuchak / July 9, 2009 4:03 PM

It's absurd to say ethnic differences matter only in the west. Ethnic minorities are subject to clear discrimination in Iran. There is serious unrest and violence in Kurdistan, Baluchistan and Ahwaz. Treating minorities as peripheral is just another expression of this discrimination.

Nazih Musa / July 10, 2009 4:22 AM

Nazih Musa

although I disagree with you on many things, it seems, I agree with your last claim. Ethnic minorities are subject to some discrimination in Iran. However I would like to add that ethnic minorities are also subject to discrimination elsewhere in the Middle East - you have to look at unrest and violence in Iraqi Kurdistan, Pakistani Baluchistan, Syrian Kurdish provinces. You have to look for rasism against Egyptian Bedouin minorities, look at Saudi treatment of people living in Saudi eastern provinces and so on and so forth.

Simply put, Iran is no different, but the situation in Iran is better than elsewhere in the middle east.

But first things first - first come real elections then everything else.

ella / July 11, 2009 10:53 PM

I guess this is to all:

I have been reading all Mr. Dabashi's comments/articles since the elections in Iran, and agreed with most and liked and looked forward to his next one, he has a great ability to mix Iranains' shia roots with most of the events, happened before and happening now. But this one, hmmm..., well, as he said it himself, was like a story, a sweet one,to put little children to sleep, but if that was the intention, then why not use hundreds of Iranian heros who are watching over Iranians and will save us one day?!!

I know the inetntion was good, but why mix Hanzala's story with the fact that there are some Arabs in Iran who are beating people up?

This is not about being racist, to me, this has a better message, that maybe(I hope)some of the Iranian basijis will not want to participate in this harsh reaction toward their own sisters and brothers?!

The Arabs in Iran working for the forces, is not something new, if anyone has lived in Iran and has been arrested in the steets can tell you that, we are all eye witnesses. Please believe it Mr Dabashi!

It does not matter where they are from, but in this case they are Arabs, and I am sorry that this is the case.....

Mr. Dabashi, please write the way you alwyas have written, and know that Iranians do sympothize with the Palestinians, we just have had too much in our own plates...

merry / July 13, 2009 6:31 AM

Even if part of the authoritarian forces oppressing the Iranian protesters are Arabs from Hamas or Hezbollah, they are puppets carrying out their Iranian masters commands

Richard Kadas / July 22, 2009 2:03 PM

Ali Zare, photographer, talks about his detention in Iran. 2 persons who arrested him were from Lebanon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lihC3oy8F0&feature=related

What is to argue over? This site writes articles that are half true.

shawn / July 28, 2009 3:21 PM

I understand that we Iranians come from an extremely racist culture, which is harsh even on its own minorities, Turks, Kurds, Arabs (from southern Iran), Gilaks (from northern Iran) and so on. I know it is unfortunate that there's been rumors around about Afghan immigrants in Iran since the 80s. but the issue that Mr. Dabashi brings up in this article about Arabs from Palestine and Lebanon in IRI police forces might not be wholly a racism issue. i also have Palestinian and Lebanese friends and we know that none of this has to do with people of different middle eastern nationalities confronting one another. however, if this is true (which most likely is) and there are Palestinians in IRI police forces today, why not look at it as a political exchange between IRI and leaders of Arab countries. we all know that IRI has sent human forces to fight in Palestine in the past 30 years...maybe they are just being paid back today...

tadeush / September 15, 2009 11:49 PM

maybe I missed the comment where somebody has asked this before. why is he called hanzala in this essay when he commonly seems to be know as handala ?

seda / September 17, 2009 4:39 PM

For the people of Iran on Quds Day, a poem by the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

Our Country is a Graveyard

Gentlemen, you have transformed

our country into a graveyard

You have planted bullets in our heads,

and organized massacres

Gentlemen, nothing passes like that

without account

All that you have done

to our people is

registered in notebooks


And from the same source, a blessing for tomorrow:

I will sing for joy

from behind the frightened


since the storm hit

my homeland

It promised me wine,

and rainbows.



lisa / September 17, 2009 7:29 PM