From a friend via Monica Narula and the Sarai Reader List, with thanks.
June 13, 2009
The satellite signal for BBC Farsi just turned off. I had spoken a few minutes earlier with my father and forgot where I was and that probably my phone call was being monitored. In fact, about 5 minutes into my phone conversation, I heard a faint click on the phone and my father‟s voice all of a sudden sounded very far away, muffled, as if he were on conference call. I was reminded by my friends in the other room that I should be a bit more prudent about what I say and how I say it – maybe it wasn‟t such a good idea to start off my conversation with “There‟s been a revolution”. We‟ve been camping out at home for the past 48 hours. Last night we were awake, in front of the television until 6AM. Slept in until noon and since then, we‟ve been on high alert, full of testosterone, exchanging our disappointment, confusion, worries, nervousness interspersed with information, hear say, opinions and the occasional, very necessary, joke. The house has turned into a news room, all of our computers open and
connected to the internet.
A few of us are writing about the previous day‟s events as they develop; one of us is uploading video footage from today and posting it online; another is sifting through the continuous updates on Facebook profiles, delivering news-from-the-ground to us as it takes place through picture albums and wall posts. I‟ve been looking through a variety of newspapers‟ online versions: New York Times, LA Times, Guardian, Al-Jazeera, Washington Post. I‟m trying to see how what has been so unreal today on the streets here is being covered by the international media, and, as if it should be a surprise, it is quite disappointing for me. All reports cover basic facts, speculate about the future of Iran, and provide a selection of photographs from the demonstrations today. All reports maintain their professional distance, attempting to mediate between the passionate debates that have been taking place here not only today, but in the past two weeks as these elections drew nearer. I don‟t believe these opinions can be mediated, though. That‟s where the confusion lies.
I find my oral fixation to have become quite extreme in the past day: I am popping small bites of anything any chance I get into my mouth: dates, nuts, fruit, cold pizza, leftover rice. I am drinking tea non-stop, smoking through a pack of cigarettes in a matter of a few hours. It doesn‟t help that all of us are tense in our own idiosyncratic ways – Reza paces from room to room,making phone calls and reporting on the alternative hear-say media that has developed into a complex system of analysis, rumor and melodrama in a period of twelve hours; Bani photographs, video records, smokes; Natascha is silent, smacking her mouth in bewilderment, writing in the corner with a clear, focused fire. We‟ve somehow become a family focused on “sticking through it together”. I started writing much later than everyone else because I forgot to bring my computer with me last night. I also resisted it, semi-consciously, because I thought that to merely write about the details of each moment (the only thing I could possibly imagine doing, given my inability to even understand what these details mean individually, let alone as part of the greater picture) would be too banal, potentially trite. After talking to Natascha, who has been my voice of reason and inspiration since the day I arrived in Tehran, I decided to get over myself and to just let go. No one is reading this but me. This is an exercise of focus. And focus is very important in such a circumstance in which no one knows what is going on: the dangers of ignorance. I need to focus to get rid of the passionate waves of anger, anxiety and sadness that come over me. If I do not focus, I will become violent, giving in to that particular form of interaction and display that those in control here want: a pandemic, psychological violence that replicates itself amidst a society, to distract and divide.
Because I started so late, much has happened, making it a difficult task to recount from the beginning. But I think the context is important. The basic course of events is this: we voted yesterday, we sat and waited for the results around midnight, at that point it was announced that Ahmadinejad had won approximately 67% of 5 millions votes that had been counted, with Moussavi taking around 21% of the votes (the others, Karroubi and Rezai, trailed unrealistically far behind with 0.9% and 2% respectively). As the night progressed, the votes kept coming in – 5 million, 10 million, 15 million – and still the percentage of votes per candidate remained almost exactly the same. To me, this seemed a mathematical impossibility! Furthermore, BBC Farsi reported that the original 5 million votes, counted less than 2 hours after the polls closed, were those of nomadic tribes and military personnel. Supposing that the nomads are illiterate and their vote was hand-written for them and that the military unabashedly supports Ahmadinejad, the original percentile was almost believable. Yet, by 15 million, the numbers still hadn‟t budged. What about Tehran – in this campaign an oppositional breeding ground, especially in the northern neighborhoods of the city? What about Moussavi‟s home region of Azerbaijan, his wife’s home in Luristan? And is it possible that not one person from Karroubi‟s home, also in Luristan, voted for him?
The numbers for Rezai‟s 2% of the circa 25-27 million votes cast on Friday (a number that is also mathematically implausible, given the statistic of 84% of the voting-age population participating in these elections, making the total number of votes more around 35-40 million) totaled around 230,000. Given Rezai’s position as former head of the Revolutionary Guard, an organization numbering up to 2 million, is it possible that so few supported him in this election?
All of this made no sense. By 3AM, the newspaper Kayhan, itself semi-officially backed by the Supreme Leader, reported that Ahmadinejad had won the election. IRNA, the official Islamic Republic of Iran‟s news agency, announced Ahmadinejad’s victory around the same time, even though the votes had not all been count. Hope clung on Tehran‟s votes as potentially turning the race towards a different direction. These hopes, what we were waiting for until 6 AM, quickly collapsed as soon as it became clear that something much bigger, much more serious had happened: a coup d’etat.
Even at this moment, almost 24 hours after the polls closed last night, no statistics have been presented on the regional makeup of the votes. It is unknown what percentage of the votes for or against Ahmadinejad comes from the Capital, from cities all around Iran, from villages, from the countryside, from wandering tribes and from expatriates living, working, and/or studying abroad. In this situation, there is no finger-pointing: there‟s no Florida to blame. According to BBC Farsi, never before in the 30 years of Iran’s presidential elections have the votes been so unusually tallied, with no indication of where they come from. Last night, a friend of ours came by for a late dinner and told us that he had been driving by a polling station in Qeitarieh, an affluent neighborhood of northern Tehran, and had witnessed a physical fight between supporters of Moussavi and plain-clothes “Basiji” – self-appointed Islamic militiamen who have gained more and more authority under Ahmadinejad‟s presidency in the past four years. Supposedly, the Basiji had beaten up a few individuals and quickly left the scene. The polls were still open at the time of the fight. Most likely this was not a solitary case; it just happened that our friend had witnessed this particular incident. When I heard this story, I thought it was just a moment of unnecessary yet to-be-expected fanaticism from some punks, pumped up with testosterone and election fever. Now, in retrospect, I see something much more sinister in this story.
It‟s especially cruel how, for the past week, there had been no attempt to stop supporters for each of the candidates from spilling out on the streets every night from sundown to sunrise. What we saw here over the course of a week was unbelievable: a surreal display of carnival, an excitement in anticipation of a much hoped for change that showed itself in crowds of men and women singing, dancing and chanting clever slogans, gathered from that day‟s political flops, in the middle of the street, stopping traffic and blocking turnabouts. Some of the things we heard on the street, such as “Death to this Violent Government”, “No More Lies”, “The Police have to dance”, “Death to Dictatorship”, as well as the slew of accusations thrown daily by the candidates at one another, exposing the perceived corruption, lies, money laundering and infringement of human rights (including naming specific individuals) that has infested the Islamic Republic‟s thirty years, all combined to form a political landscape so-far unimaginable here.
How is this possible, we asked ourselves, in a country infamous for crackdowns on any form of organized public gatherings as much as for indirectness and secrecy from the side of its politicians as to its inner workings? The sweet smell of a strange, very Iranian form of post-revolutionary, homegrown “democracy” filled our days and nights with energy and curiosity.
For the first few nights, only a handful of police officers and information agents could be seen, weaving through the crowds gathered on Valiasr Street, seeming as if they were more there to prevent a stampede or a fight breaking loose between overenthusiastic gangs of young men, seizing the political climate to break loose, show off, and have some long overdue fun. As the elections approached nearer, the police became less and less present, almost invisible. Alright, we thought, we proved to them that we are not a threat, we are not violent, we simply have something legitimate to say and we want to have fun saying it. I thought to myself that one should not underestimate the political potential of a good party. I thought to myself, this is beautiful, the Summer of Love 1969 sees its second manifestation in Iran of 2009. I thought there will be no need for a revolution, this is a social revolution of love, desire and bodies flowing through the streets, playing, experimenting, laughing, intensely experiencing their environment.
Indeed, I thought, it is almost as if the people on the street are metamorphosizing into nature itself: strapping maple branches onto their arms, making crowns of oleander, waving palm fronds, throwing flowers at one another. It‟s so pancosmic – catastrophic transubstantiation in the face of an imminent disaster. If only we had perceived the imminent disaster and turned ourselves into trees or bushes or flowers! Now, in retrospect, this one week of freedom seems to have been a very Roman moment of grandiose distraction from the plans that were being hatched while people were too busy having fun to notice. This delirious week of Bacchanalia drew to an official close at 3 AM on Thursday, June 11th. The Election Oversight Committee announced that by this time, all demonstrations of support for any candidate were to be banned and all campaign material (flyers, posters, billboards, etc) were to be cleaned up. Thursday came and went, completely calm, the night was quiet and the streets were empty. No sign of the elections was to be seen – it was amazing to me how fast the cleaning crews had done their job, erasing all signs of a week-long party in less than six hours. No one wore green, very few held up the ubiquitous victory-sign as I walked through the streets.
Friday, the day of the elections, was similarly calm. In fact, other than the half- kilometer line stretching out of the Zafaraniye School that I passed at 8 AM on my way to Tochal for an early morning hike, I wouldn‟t have known there was anything particularly unique about this election. Something uncanny: the weather! Every night for the past week, ominous clouds would gather at sunset, colored dark brown. The wind would begin to blow, spreading dust into the air, causing an immediate sneeze-attack followed by an itchy throat. Then, as it grew darker, the sky would turn brilliantly purple, lightning would strike followed by shattering thunder. I may be using very dramatic language to describe the weather, but for me it was a very intense impression to see that even the sky was as unpredictable and tempestuous as the streets. In fact, the night before the election, after a day of calm and quiet, the most intense of these storms occurred: I was sitting on the balcony with Natascha and a wind broke loose that blew everything off the table, roaring through the street, bending tree branches, echoing from the corner. A flash of lightning struck the empty pool in our neighbor‟s yard, followed by the loudest thunder I have ever heard.
Natascha ran back into the house and I followed. It began raining hard for about thirty minutes and then, all of a sudden, it cleared, the air became cool, and the silence of the evening returned. This is most unusual weather for this time of the year in Tehran. Every time I have visited Tehran, it has always been during the period of May through August, and I have never seen such regular, tempestuous weather. Tehran rarely rains during the summer – it is usually dry, hot, dusty and scorching. Why this year, all of a sudden? Global warming? Friends from Berlin say the weather there is autumnally cool, also unusual for the season – maybe strange weather has become a phenomenon everywhere, but the coincidence of the weather‟s alignment with the political “climate” here is, for me, very interesting. Maybe the weather should have been more of a sign that things were not to pass so smoothly, that the quiet of Thursday and Friday was the “eye of the storm”.
The first half of the storm was the thirst-quenching, drought-curing water of carnival; the second half of the storm began today: the violent hurricane that rips the city apart, leaves destruction in its path, kills as it rolls through with an unexpected force. And now, in retrospect, the Basiji bullies who our friend saw assaulting Moussavi supporters at the polls in Qeitarieh Friday evening were not bored punks, they were the shots-fired-too-soon, the miscalculated early gusts, the premature signs of the storm that a major intervention had been taken, potentially while the people celebrated in the streets and observed the Sabbath of calm before casting their votes. Manipulating distraction and the illusional appetizer of “freedom” to their benefit, these Basiji were the preliminary harbingers of a hijacked future for this country. Moreover, their gangster-like assault on voters foreshadowed the maneuvers that the police would take that night while people slept – or stayed awake glued in confusion to satellite TV. Absent physically for one week, the police were hiding, well-trained. An hour after the polls closed Friday, the police were unleashed en masse to the Interior Ministry, where the ballots from the nation had been collected to be counted. Simultaneously, the mayor of Tehran announced that from midnight, Saturday June 13th on, any demonstrations for or against the candidates will be illegal and will be strictly disciplined. A clash occurred as the situation unfolded – once the first percentages were announced, demonstrators gathered near the Interior Ministry, to be quickly broken up by the police.
From this point, one dream ended and another began, both unreal. The military state. After our late breakfast, we decided to head out to the street. This was around 3 PM. Up till then, we had heard rumors that Moussavi was going to give a speech somewhere in Tehran and lead a demonstration to TV/Radio Central Headquarters. This was quickly confirmed as a false lead. We waited, waited to see if he would say anything, going into news room mode: Facebook videos and updates on organized demonstrations at Vanak Square, 7th Tir Square, Fatemi Square, Valiasr Square paired with BBC Farsi‟s call-ins from Moussavi supporters on the streets. The highlight of all this, right before we left the house, was a phone call from Moussavi‟s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, to BBC Farsi. Answering questions about Moussavi‟s position regarding the situation, Rahnavard directly addressed the “Iranian people”: They have played with your vote and are playing with your integrity! Stand strong! Do not give up! We became curious, or maybe we just couldn‟t stand being in the house, repeating the same news, speculating, worrying, and wondering anymore.
We started to walk down Valiasr Street, the 21 kilometer North-South thoroughfare that is Tehran‟s quintessential “main street”, running from Tajrish Square at its northernmost point to its terminus at Meydan-e-Rah-Ahan in the southern part of the city. Traffic had come to a standstill on both sides of the street, cars and buses packed like tin cans and moving mere inches forward. The side walks were filled on both sides of the street with people, some standing outside of their shops or houses observing the street, others carrying on their usual daily business, and others walking, like us, fervently south, towards Vanak Square where the riots were supposed to be taking place. Soon we heard police sirens and saw a stretch of black police vans drive through the traffic, ordering cars and motorcyclists out of their way. The vans were filled with Robo-Cop clad police officers, other vans had cages attached to them, and the entire procession was followed by a chain of motorcycles, mounted two-by-two with police offers wielding batons.
For me it was extremely unsettling that every time we stopped on the sidewalk to take a look at the show of military force, the police offers would turn their heads simultaneously and look at us directly in the eyes. It felt that they had an extra sense, able to perceive individuals from the crowd who posed any danger or criticism towards them. Their glare sent shivers down my back, as if they were memorizing my features in order to remember to come after melater. We decided it would be best to split up as a group, to not take pictures, to stop as little as possible, and to try and calm down – we were surely emitting a very tense energy. My face was contorted into a permanent scowl – I had to try and lighten it, to smile, to walk with a relaxed pace, to pretend that I was simply out for an ice cream. We walked alongside the stretch of police vans and motorcycles for around twenty minutes, when, at a major traffic intersection, the entire chain of police turned off of Valiasrstreet and drove onto the Niyayesh Highway. Natascha mentioned that their strategy must be a divide-and-conquer method – maybe some were going to other parts of town where demonstrations were also occurring, while others were trying to come up to Vanak from the side, in an attempt to take the demonstrators gathered there by surprise.
As soon as we passed this intersection, we could see a crowd gathered up ahead, and then all of a sudden people began running, screaming “Go! Go! Go! They‟re coming”. From behind the crowd we saw a group of police officers marching forward into the street, a man ran past me yelling “They‟re hitting everyone, go!” We ran. Natascha disappeared from sight. I ran, following Reza and Bani into a side street where we could peep our heads from a parking garage and take a look at what was happening. Crowds ran past and the group of police officers made it to the street where we were hiding. They were about to come down this street when all the cars parked on Valiasr began honking vigorously, turning the police‟s attention to this unapproved display of solidarity. The police quickly jumped into the street and began climbing over cars, kicking car doors, waving their batons, and telling the drivers to stop honking. We walked back up to Valiasr and saw that the police were now weaving through the traffic, walking back further down. The cars kept honking at them, men and women holding up victory signs from their windows. Reza and Bani decided to walk down to Mirdamad Street, where the Vanak protest had managed to spread.
I told them I would find Natascha first and then slowly trail them. We parted ways and I walked up two blocks to find Natascha. We deliberated what to do and decided that we were already too far away from home to go back. Should we pretend to not know how to speak Farsi if they catch us? How far down should we go? We decided that at this point, being caught is not even an option, nor is being beaten. Being so removed from this context, I had to admit to myself that I had never been in such a situation and therefore, do not know how to act. Not knowing what to do is extremely dangerous. We walked slowly towards Mirdamad, cautiously gauging the mood, tensing our bodies to begin running as soon as a signal was given from up ahead. We passed by a pedestrian bridge and decided we should go onto it in order to overlook the street. The bridge seemed like a safe place, at least for the moment it was removed from the traffic of the side walk, but of course it could potentially turn into a trap if it were to be used as an escape route and stampeded by fleeing demonstrators. From above, we could see the impressive line of cars stretching as far back and as far forward as we could see; we could see the crowds waving their hands in protest at Mirdamad and further ahead, a mass of bodies at Vanak which were, from our vantage point, indiscernible.
I think we were on the bridge for more than an hour and this whole time we could see the back and forth clashes between the demonstrators and the police. There would be moments of pause, then the demonstrators would gather and wave their arms, chanting “Death to Dictatorship”. They would be allowed to assemble for a few minutes and then the police would swoop down and begin hitting, dispersing the crowd like a forest fire. The demonstrators would run up the street towards our bridge but then slow their pace, regroup, and inch their way forward, only to re-assemble where they had been before. This whole time, cars, seeing that traffic was no longer moving, began honking ferociously, men and women opened their car doors and came out on the street, held up their hands in victory-signs or waved green banners, and began cheering.
We started to cheer to – I screamed my lungs out – from the bridge, the unification of voices and car honks cascaded into a rumbling wave of support and solidarity, seeming as if it were the cause of the lightning and thunder on the horizon. During my time on the bridge, I was amused by an Azeri Turkish family – mom, dad, three children and grandmother – sitting next to us on the bridge, leaning their backs against the railing and passing out snacks of crackers and nuts and candies amongst one another. The dad was pointing out where to look, trying to describe what was happening to the children. The grandmother had her hands over her mouth and would begin waving and panting as soon as she saw the crowds clashing with the police. The children seemed so very excited, as if they had not an inkling of an idea that what they were witnessing was, from a number of possible adjectives, serious, historical, severe, etc. As the family tensed and relaxed and ate their snacks, their actions gave me the impression that for them, this was serious entertainment, as though they were watching a Hollywood action movie in the cinema.
It was a beautiful moment to observe them, to see their ability to remove themselves from the immediate situation while sensing that they were eagerly anticipating this moment for ages. This was for them, maybe I am assuming here, the chance of a lifetime for a movie-turned-into-reality that could, if all went well, alter their lives. Eventually the clashes became heavy. A major crowd had gathered at Mirdamad and this time the police unleashed stronger force onto them. As the crowd began running away, the cars started honking and the police became enraged, following the crowd further up the street, towards our bridge. We sensed that at any moment up to a hundred people could try and escape onto the bridge, only to be followed by the police, effectively trapping us where we sat, so Natascha and I decided to take the split-second opportunity and run. We stormed down from the bridge and began running up Valiasr, taking a look behind us only to see that the police were still in pursuit. I didn‟t look long enough to see if they were hitting people, I just saw metal and helmets and raised batons and decided to run as fast as I could. We ran past a truck that had been left parked onto the side of the road, filled with bricks.
I later found out that the driver of this truck had been arrested with the suspicion that he was delivering bricks to the demonstrators, so that they could use them against the police. I imagined picking up a brick and throwing it blindly into the crowd, but this fantasy faded fast as I continued forward, knowing that the only power I had at that moment was to try andavoid getting hurt. Slowly we calmed down, realizing that we were no longer being pursued, and as Natascha and I caught our breath, we decided it would be best to go home. We had seen enough for the day to know how serious the situation was. It was important to experience the streets as they unfolded, as bodies collided and cars honked and news spread from mouth to mouth, a major difference from sitting at home watching TV and trying to piece together information from various internet sources. We still hadn‟t heard anything from Reza and Bani, who had been much further ahead than us, and we hoped that they were alright. In fact, a minibus was parked at Mirdamad, and while we were on the bridge we saw that the police were trying, in their efforts to break up the demonstrators, to grab anyone that failed to run away fast enough and throw them into the mini bus. Hopefully Reza and Bani hadn‟t been arrested, especially since both of them were trying to video record what was happening down there. Natascha called Bani but Bani hung up on her call.
I told Natascha not to worry for now, just to breathe and to drink some water, have a quick energy-booster snack, and to try and get home. Natascha bought some chocolate and I quickly grabbed a pistachio milkshake from a street-side stall and we walked up Valiasr, stopping at regular intervals to eavesdrop on conversations – some people were recounting what they had witnessed from being in the demonstrations, others were spreading rumors, while others were talking about the 1979 Revolution, exchanging advice on what can be done today. A crowd was gathered around a street-side vendor selling books written by Sadeq Hedayet, an Iranian intellectual from the „40s and „50s who had written extensive, anti-authoritarian allegorical stories during the time of the Shah. As we approached our street, we saw a motorcade of police officers drive by: twelve motorcycles in total, the officers holding up their palms in a Fascist gesture of power, the head of the motorcade holding a baton of red flashing light. They drove past us and then back down, metaphorically flexing their muscles, confirming the militarization of authority taking place before our eyes. Finally they turned around and speeded towards TV/Radio Central Headquarters, where they most likely would either receive intelligence reports and/or station themselves to prevent a public attack.
On our street corner, two women in their mid-to-late thirties stood, watching the procession of police officers, conversing in disbelief. I stood next to them to listen to their conversation. They began to cry, all the while holding up their hands in a victory-sign, waving at the honking cars that drove by. One of the women said to the other: “Just let them kill us now, watch, tomorrow they will put cyanide in the city’s main water reservoir.” I tapped her on the shoulder and gently rubbed her back, telling her to calm down, wait, and hope for the best. I wished her good health and walked back with Natascha to our house. Natascha had just gotten off the phone with Bani, who had confirmed that they were alright – they had found a perfect spot at Mirdamad, on the balcony of a shopping center, from which they could safely observe and film the demonstrations. They were on their way home as well. And they were bringing pizza back!
The police just drove by our house, 8 motorcycles, two officers clad in black riot armor waiving their batons in the air. Natascha broke into the living room from the kitchen and said “They’re on our street! They’re driving by!” We ran to the front balcony to take a look and caught the last motorcycles speeding past – Natascha said she saw a group of women and their children, what seemed to be a family, chased by the police into our street and up the hill. Shortly after we had collected onto the balcony, the police drove back, calm, seemingly satisfied. Whether these women were innocently caught up in the situation, or whether they had provoked the police, this I do not know.
At this point, we saw our neighbors collected onto their roof – they had a much better view so we asked them what is going on. They told us that a group of protestors set a trash can on fire at the entrance to our street.
We began to smell the burning rubber. Our neighbors asked us if our satellite TV, internet and mobile phone networks have also been shut down – we confirmed all three with a resounding yes.
Going to the roof now to try and see better – no TV, no internet, it’s something to do, at least.
Just got back from the outside, after the observing from our rooftop Bani and I walked up to the intersection of our street and Valiasr. The trash can was no longer burning, but the air was filled with an orange haze. The weather itself has decided to revolt once again, continuing its unusual trend, this time even more appropriate: lightning and thunder fill the overcast sky. It truly feels apocalyptic.
A friend came over and is trying to fix our satellite signal. He is on the roof with a roll of aluminum foil, and the others are sitting in the living room while Reza is yelling out the bathroom window. It worked! We have a terrible connection to BBC Farsi, but it is some contact nevertheless. Reza just read a report (I still haven’t managed to figure out where he gets his news from) from employees of the Interior Ministry who quit their jobs today, announcing that they personally know there was a fraud and that the actual hand-counted number of reports is as follows: 16 million for Moussavi, 13 million for Karroubi, 5 million for Ahmadinejad and 2 million for Rezai. Who knows if this is true or not?
The mood has become what I imagine what a revolutionary or pre-civil war situation must feel like: all communication networks other than the official state-run media shut down (which, by the way, is only airing religious programs, flooding the airways with prayers); communiqués delivered by the Opposition without any physical appearance or any idea of their whereabouts; semi-official documents circulating via unknown sources amongst the population, delivering conflicting news; the only way to keep updated on the latest developments is by resorting to hear-say, rumor and eavesdropping on conversations in the street; talk of hangings, assassinations, mass mobilization and what could-have-been; not knowing who supports who on the street (anyone could be part of a plain-clothes militia); neighbors gathering at the entrance to their streets, acting as guardians or even, as checkpoints. There is talk of giving it more time, and yet people eventually have to sleep, when will things stop? The sounds outside seemed to have been dying down, but now the car honks have started again, more than ever. How late will things go tonight? How many have been hospitalized or even killed? The police are now using electronic sting guns. Where is Moussavi? Why has he disappeared? Maybe, one rumor goes, they’ve arrested him, or maybe he‟s left the country, delivering his communiqués from across the border in Turkey – an Opposition government in exile!!
“So this is what a coup d’etat looks like,” said a friend today.
You go to bed and wake up the next day and see the police everywhere. The “military”
government announces its unprecedented victory, calling it a sign of “divine approval”. And any sign of unrest is immediately dealt with through a show of the police state‟s force. Is this it? Being in the middle of such events makes it difficult to try and compare it with what one knows from history, or, the image of that history that one has in one’s mind. Hashemi Rafsanjani is under house arrest. An unholy alliance (as Natascha just told me, “there is not much holiness left in this situation”) is forming between him, the Leader of the Council of Experts, former hard-liner President of the Islamic Republic, and the Reformist Opposition led by Moussavi. The Council of Experts is a body of Shi’ite Islamic clerics, appointed during the early Khomeini era for life, to regulate the activity of the velayat-e-faqih, the Guardianship of the Cleric. Under Khomeini they had no power, given Khomeini‟s extraordinary combination of roles: Leader of the Revolution, Source of Emulation (marja‟i taqlid – the highest point of religious authority a Shi‟ite cleric can attain) and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. However, since Khomeini‟s death, the Council of Experts have, legally, the right to intervene on matters of state regarding the Supreme Leader’s decisions, even to the extent that if need be, they may remove the Supreme Leader from power. Not once in the thirty years since the Revolution has this Council convened to discuss a decision the Supreme Leader has made. In fact, rumor has it that most who sit on this Council are far removed from the political climate, preferring the academic environment of the religious seminaries in Qom than the hot-seat of Islamic politics in Tehran. However, Rafsanjani, as the leader of this Council, is the only person who can legally intervene in this situation. Khamenei has issued his official approval of the election results and has even recently issued a statement telling people to “keep quiet and behave themselves”.
Until this point, many hoped that Khamenei would ask for a recount, or announce a second round of elections, but his approval of Ahmadinejad quickly put these possibilities far away from reality. With his support, no one, not even Moussavi, can legally act against the election results – otherwise, there will be severe consequences. Rafsanjani remains the only person: his expressed disapproval of Ahmadinejad and his support of the Opposition’s campaign in the past few weeks may lead him to assemble the Council of Experts to question Khamenei‟s statement of approval. As this has never been done, it is not imaginable what would happen if such a confrontation of power would occur. As this can be done, Rafsanjani, occupying the position of the so-to-speak “Homo Sacer” – he who is inside and outside of the law at the same time – has been placed under house arrest by the Supreme Leader.
Tension! What strikes me as the most strange is how Rafsanjani, a core leader of the Revolution and historically an extremely conservative hard- liner, can align himself with the Reformist Opposition? Is he simply bearing a grudge against Ahmadinejad, who unexpectedly beat him in the previous elections four years ago and who formally denounced him and his family as “criminal” in last week’s round of debates? Or, is he vying for power against Khamenei, with whom he has always had a troubled relationship and against whom he may also feel a grudge since it was Khamenei, a relatively unimportant yet extremely zealous cleric underneath Khomeini‟s leadership, who was appointed as Supreme Leader and not him? Or, could it be something else?
The Basiji arrived onto our street. They were a group of ten tall, burly, bearded men, all wearing similar outfits consisting of boxy, white dress shirts, oversized khakis and dirty, clog-like black boots, holding in both hands large pieces of wood, baseball-stick like. The Basiji were chasing a group of women and young men, slamming their make-shift “baseball bats” onto the sides of parked cars and closed doors. The women were screaming at them, something the equivalent of “fuck off”, bringing the Basiji‟s blood to a boil: they were foaming at the mouth, raising their bats to hit the women, cursing them, telling everyone standing by watching – whether out of defiance or curiosity – to go home. When a woman popped her head out of her door to tell some of the Basiji that no, indeed, THEY should be the ones to go home, one of the men hurled himself at her. She quickly slammed the door in his face, to which his response was a forceful blow of his “bat” against her door.
At this moment, one of the Basiji from further up the street yelled to his comrades to hurry up and follow him. The men ran away, charged with energy, raising their sticks in preparation for the next crowd they would encounter. I feel that there is so much hatred against these men, who have entrusted themselves (with the approval of Ahmadinejad‟s government) to control the people through intervening with their values of what they deem to be moral and “Islamic”, enforcing their will through violence and bullying. Some, melodramatically, fear that if Ahmadinejad remains for the next four years, the Basiji will develop into a neighborhood-police institution with unlimited ability to enforce what they, at the moment, believe to be true and appropriate. The recruitment and militarization of these civilians, the unofficial granting of full authority to their activities as well as the fact that many of them come from socio-economically troubled, abusive backgrounds may, at worst, create a Taliban-like situation in this country that would not be easy to solve in the future, even after Ahmadinejad‟s term is over.