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Letter from Iran 1: Monday’s Protest

iran 6The name and other information of the author has been removed to protect his/her identity.

Dear all,

Following the flood of emails I received after my first brief (I never felt this popular!), here is a follow-up on yesterday’s extraordinary march.

I’ve never been good at math but it’s my guess that more than a million people showed up at yesterday’s (Monday 15 June) peaceful demonstration. Sunday night on the streets, people were passing around the info of the gathering to each other. Everyone was on their cell phones. But Monday morning, alarming messages started coming in: security forces have closed off the parameters of the demo and aren’t allowing anyone in, security forces have been given the go-ahead to fire on the crowd, Mousavi has denied responsibility for the event, etc. A lot of us felt that even if this march happens, it’ll be small and unsuccessful.

We waited for live news from downtown and when a friend called one hour before the official start of the march to say that everything looked calm, we headed down to Enghelab. On the way down, the streets were deserted, no riot police anywhere. Shops and businesses were shutting down early. Friends working an an international company got permission to leave at mid day to take part in the march (I’m sure a lot of Iranian employers did the same). A cabbie took us as close as possible to the start of the march, and while walking toward the venue, the crowd started getting thicker.

It just sort of happened: us suddenly reaching Enghelab street and becoming part of a marching group on the sidewalk. It didn’t feel big or historical at first. Just kids like us walking in the same direction. Slowly however, with the feed of people from incoming streets, the space around us started getting tighter and the way ahead less visible. By the time we reached Enghelab Square, we were already amazed by the numbers. We thought: if this stops here, we’ve already accomplished our goal. Initially, the sidewalks on both sides of the street were overtaken, then the entire street. Cars stuck in traffic turned their engines off — the mass of people made it impossible for them to move.

All throughout, we were instructed by volunteers not to shout slogans, not to clap hands, not to make any noise. “Sokout behtarin e’teraz ast” (Silence is the best criticism), depriving security forces with an excuse to use violence. Remarkably, people accepted the injunction. For the first half of the four hours we marched, people marched in silence, raising only their hands in the V for victory sign and waiving green banners and ribbons. Here and there, people held posters of Mousavi or hand-made placards in english or farsi reading “Where is my vote?” or “Am I the trash?” (a reference to a speech Ahmadinejad gave Sunday to his supporters where he dismissed the protest/violence of the previous days as the work of a few “homosexuals and trash”).

The overcast weather turned into sun and the crowd became so compact that you could feel the body warmth of the people around you. Our pace was very slow, sometimes halted. The opposite traffic lane of Enghelab became occupied as well. As far behind and as far ahead as the eye could see, there were people. I couldn’t believe it, given the bad omens of the morning that had probably kept a good number of people at home.

Riot police were present around Enghelab Square but once we passed that, not a single one was seen until and including the final destination, Azadi square. A small number of traffic policemen dotted the way, smiling at the crowd and raising their hands in the V-sign. Chadori women were in the crowd, a green band tied around their forehands in the palestinian street fighter style. People around us were sharing shreds of their green ribbon. Volunteers reminded us to stay quiet, just raise our hands. The discipline of the crowd was amazing. At one point, the halts in the movement due to the sheer numbers of people became difficult to bear. Claustrophobia set in with each forced pause. On balconies and rooftops of the buildings lining the avenue, people came out, either observing or raising their hands in support of the marchers. Others dumped out shredded newspapers in the old-fashion american election campaign tactic. Others sprayed cool water on the overheated crowd below. Government employees watched silently behind lowered iron curtains (Enghelab is lined with various government offices). Overhead passes became clogged with people. Still no violence, no sloganeering.

Then the roar started behind us. At first we thought it was just another spontaneous eruption of excitement (there were many of those, quickly put down by the crowd itself, respectful of the demand to remain silent) but the sound just became louder. The sky had turned grey again. From the middle lane, people seemed to be moving to the sides. Then the chant reached us and we understood what was happening: “Mousavi, Mousavi hemayatat mikonim!” (Mousavi, Mousavi, we stand behind you). Mousavi and his crew rolled by in front of us, the crowed on all sides leaning toward the cars to catch a glimpse of him and make sure that their support had been personally registered. Mousavi’s appearance broke the taboo on silence. From then onwards (we are now roughly halfway), the crowd chanted non-stop. “Mousavi, parcham e Iran-e mano pas begir” (Mousavi, retrieve the flag of my Iran), “Mousavi, rai e mano pas begir” (Mousavi, go get my vote back), “Hale ye nour o dide, rai e ma ro nadide” (He saw the light, he didn’t see our votes, a reference to Ahmadinejad’s claiming to having seen the light of Imam Mahdi carrying him spiritually during his first speech at the UN), “Ta Ahmadinejad e, har rouz hamin basat e” (Until Ahmadinejad is there, everyday will be like this), “In 63 dar sad ke migand kou?” (Where are the 63% — of AN’s voters that is), “Khash o khashok to i, doshman e Iran to i” (You are the trash, you are Iran’s enemy”), “Dolat-e coup d’etat, estefa’ estefa'” (asking the coup d’etat government to resign), “Dorough gou, dorough gou” (Lier, lier) and so many more. Interestingly, openly hostile slogans such as “Marg bar dictator” (Death to the dictator) which had been heard in previous days were immediately put down by the crowd.

“Allah-o Akbar” was heard frequently. As I mentioned in my previous email, this comes across as very Islamic, and therefore its use in a pro-reform march is confusing. I believe it is intended to show respect for religion and therefore the non-elected core of the regime who can still decide on the fate of these elections and show the unity of Iranians despite the turmoil. It could also mean: God is great and truth will prevail.

After Mousavi’s fleeting appearance, it was Karroubi’s turn to show up on the steps of a mosque. The crowd cheered heavily for Karroubi, the firebrand cleric who had made his dislike for Ahmadinejad well known in the pre-election debates. “Karroubi, Mousavi, etehad, etehad” (Karroubi, Mousavi, unity, unity”) was the chant. Further down,the crowd turned toward the students of Sanad’e Sharif University, clogged behind the building’s railing and perched on all rooftops, and chanted “Daneshjou, daneshjou, hemayatat mikonim” (Student, student, we support you).

The most exhilarating point of this four-hour march was when Enghelab widened on both sides and the middle of the street dipped into a small tunnel. People had crowded the overpass. For the first time, through the angle offered by the tunnel, one could get more than an emotion-based count of the crowd. Ahead of the sloping tunnel, Azadi square, the only monument built by the shah and still standing, was visible — or barely visible, engulfed in a crowd that circled for hundreds of meters around it. Behind, the roar and movement of a crowd that stretched back to where it all started, Enghelab square. On the overpass, hundreds of people cheering. Underneath, our voices became echoed in the tunnel’s void. A state helicopter flew overhead, everyone turned toward it and waved good-bye.

At Azadi, we turned around and started walking in the opposite direction just to get another sense of how far back the crowd stretched. But the real sense came when we took an overpass bridge. Some say the crowd was bigger than that which greeted Ayatollah Khomeini on his return to Iran in 1979. I don’t know, and again I’m not good at math but my take is that those newspapers that wrote about “many thousands” or even “100,000” were WAY off the mark. A journalist friend said that someone had tried calculating by multiplying the length of the march by the width of the street and had come up with 7 million. That would be half the greater Tehran’s population…I’ll leave it to staticians to decide. In my no-math mind, there were millions of people and the goal of denouncing a rigged election, showing widespread popular resistance and the triumph of peace over violence was well accomplished.

Later that night however, violence did occur, leaving one dead. The circumstances are not clear but a friend was close to the scene. She said that without any sign of a fight, random shots were fired at the crowd. State media report another 7 wounded.

Today, another gathering (the word sounds so unfit to describe the masses of yesterday!) is planned at 5pm at Vali-e Asr square. Rumors are already going around that Ahmadinejad supporters are planning their own demonstration at the same place at 3pm. Whether they will linger around enough to spark violence with the Mousavi crowd, no one can tell. Hopefully, the relative peace of yesterday will prevail.



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Letter from Iran 3: Dynamics of the Movement

iran 4As before, the name and identity of the author have been removed to protect his/her identity.

The third march – at Haft-e Tir square on  17th June. I did not attend but everyone reported massive turnout and a very peaceful, silent demonstration.  Since I have little to report on day three, some other points that appear very important to me to raise:

Away from the large crowds and the relative protection of the capital, smaller towns people in the provinces are much more exposed and vulnerable to violence by the local militias. There is virtually no media coverage of what is happening in Tabriz, Shiraz, Esfahan, Bushehr. Bandar Abbas. To the extent that we have information, it is because volunteers are putting a lot on the line to film and photograph and the very gruesome situation in these cities. It takes a lot of courage for students and demonstrators to go out on the streets of Esfahan when the prosecutor general of that province has declared that all kinds of illegal gatherings are against Islam and the law of the Islamic Republic and can be punishable by death. It takes a lot of courage and guts to protest anywhere in this country where you are not protected by your numbers (let alone the police and the justice system) and where you are vulnerable to attack (like in student dorms).

On a more positive note …the dynamics of this movement are becoming more and more creative. From the moment everybody embraced silence as the best form of criticism, supporters from their cars switched from honking their horns to using their flasher. Last night, as I drove home, I noticed the blinkers in oncoming traffic (coming actually from the direction of Haft-e Tir Square). I didn’t take long to spread the message. Soon, everyone around was switching their flasher on, an act reflective of a truth that has been firmly established now after five consecutive days of protest: silence is speaking very loudly indeed.

Fourth march – today, 18 June. As I am typing, cries of Allah-o Akbar are resonating all throughout my neighborhood, despite the stormy weather (this takes place every night between 9 and 11 in sign of protest). The fourth march started from Toup Khoune Square. Marchers took Ferdowsi Street until Ferdowsi Square where they swerved onto Enghelab Street and dispersed around Tehran University. The word given out was that this event was to be a strictly silent mourning march to commemorate and honor the people who have died in the last couple of days. Everyone was wearing black and black ribbons were being distributed to wear alongside the green ribbon, around the wrist or pinned to the chest, tied to a backpack or worn across the forehead. Little pieces of paper printed with slogans such as “Blood? Why” were passed around for people to wear.

As I mentioned in my previous email, today made it very clear that the dynamics of the movement are constantly evolving. From the first march where the only focus was on Mousavi/ people’s vote to Mousavi, today’s slogans touched on issues of freedom/justice/innocent people dying for a just cause. The posters of Mousavi of day one have given way to posters expressing deeper themes, and the deeper problems that exist in this country. “Democracy does not equal Dead Student”, “Stop Killing Us”, “We are not rioters”, “Silence is not acceptance”, “The key to victory: Calmness, Hope and Patience”.

About the march: it was entirely silent and peaceful. No riot police anywhere. Ferdowsi was entirely closed off but on Enghelab, cars were painfully trying to keep one lane open. The drivers were stuck in pretty bad traffic, but to the marchers waiving their V-signs to them, a great majority of them would smile and respond with the same. A bus driver was filming on Enghelab. When asked how far ahead and how far back the march stretched, he smiled and said: a long way. The crowd was mixed: young people mostly but a considerable number of parents with small children and elderly people, chadori women and even a mollah.

On Enghelab, where the marchers were cut off from the sidewalks by tall metal railing, shopkeepers and passer-bys volunteered to take people’s empty water bottles and refill them with fresh cool water from the watering hoses. At one point, a motorcycle stuck on the sidewalk with an overheated engine started making weird noises. The elderly woman next to me immediately panicked and rushed to her husband saying: it looks like they’re shooting. Later on, a wave of panic went over the crowd and everyone ran for cover while ducking with their hands over their heads. No one knows why, it was over in seconds.

At the end of the march, a very emotional moment. At dusk in front of Tehran University, people lit candles in remembrance of those killed in the violence of the past few days, then dispersed quietly.


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