Tehran: glimpses of freedom

Iranians in 2009 led the kind of street-protest that was in 2011 to inspire their Arab neighbours. Now, repression rules in Tehran. But in the textures of everyday life as much as in political or cultural currents the gulf between people and regime is evident, finds R Tousi.
R Tousi
6 October 2011

“They’ve hacked into our accounts. Why don't they just take the trouble of responding to all my unopened emails too?” Samira’s reaction to news of a major cyberattack operation on Iranian netizens is typical of the psychic tension, even paranoia - but also acid scorn - provoked in them by living under the shadow of permanent surveillance.

The number of internet-users whose emails were intercepted in this incident may have been around 300,000 (most of them Iranian), but the insinuating power of its invasiveness was to make everyone feel watched. The new instruments of control are physical as well as virtual. The new term at Tehran University faced students with having to negotiate a labyrinth of barriers and electronic turnstiles on the various campuses, watched over by a network of surveillance cameras.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president - and former mayor of Tehran - may have turned the famous old university into a fortress. But his authority over it is fragile. For one who has never been shy to mount a podium, it is notable that for the last two years he has broken with routine presidential practice and avoided attending the opening ceremony of the new academic year.

The crowds that filled the streets before the presidential election of June 2009 and expanded in the tumultuous protests that followed it have departed. The young, educated generation at the forefront of defiance, however, is still at odds with its rulers, even if it may be biding its time and speaking more circumspectly.

The generational tensions also go beyond the more liberal colleges and networks. The clerical elite's esoteric worry about its own inheritance is expressed by a warning of the powerful Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi in September 2011 that a “wave of infestation” has reached religious circles, embodied in “seminarians who pass the night in front of the internet”.

Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi regrets that "most young seminarians around the country do not wear their clerical robes”, instancing Isfahan as an institution where only a thousand out of nine thousand clerics wear theirs, including turbans.

A country where the religious rule is one that grants numerous everyday privileges and benefits to those adorned with the signs of faith. The reluctance of a clear majority of young clerics to display their atttire is a telling if indirect sign of underlying tensions, exemplified in several recent attacks (highlighted in the state media) against some of these religious trainees.

In October, for example, a cleric called Abbas Rosmeh was violently attacked by a crowd following a minor traffic-accident in one of south Tehran's poorest areas. He told reporters that he found the “curses to the sacred, the revolution and the state" more unbearable than the beatings. The media accompanies its coverage of such cases with calls for better security to “protect the people against thugs”. There are nightly checkpoints at the main city thoroughfares, while the "morality police" continue their important work of roaming around the shopping-centres and parks.

The zigzag of dogma

Outside Tehran, security acquires its own flavour. The entrance to the town of Tafresh (some 200 kilometres southwest of Tehran) is a maze of policed and cordoned roads at every turn. I fasten my Islamic hejab, making sure any unruly strands of forbidden hair remain firmly hidden. This is a region, only an hour away from the holy city of Qom, often described as Iran’s conservative rural heartland.

There is soon a reminder that this is one of the most important days in the Islamic republic's calendar: the last Friday of Ramadan where the state-sponsored “Quds day” rallies of solidarity with the Palestinian people are underway. Beside the mosque near Fam square we wait behind a barricade alongside a handful of cars and twice as many dilapidated mopeds.

The imam's voluble sermon resounds through the otherwise peaceful streets. I can’t help but smile with bemusement as the speaker defends Palestine and compares the United States president, Barack Obama to a doomed Egyptian pharaoh. The Quds-day rallies are rooted in historic Shi’a tenets of the oppressor and the oppressed. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution, had said: “We are on the side of the oppressed whichever pole they may be in. Palestinians are oppressed by the Israelis, therefore we side with them.”

Yet the combined winds blowing from Iran’s green movement and the Arab spring are rendering a great deal topsy-turvy around here. The region's shifting political landscape sees Iran rejecting Palestinian calls for full state membership at the United Nations, and thus in effect siding with Israel. Iran also supports Bashar al-Assad’s murderous Syrian regime.

The authorities in Tehran have lost whatever credibility they had in the largely Sunni Arab street. It is hard for ordinary Iranians to keep up with a rotating ideology that seeks to justify so much that looks indefensible.

Behind the cordons in Tafresh, I look on as the tightly packed Quds-day marchers - no more than 200 - finally come through. It feels strangely like a film set. The small relaxed crowd of locals, many with weathered features, squint in the midday sun and chat gently away. A grey-haired man is teasingly congratulated by his fellows for finally replacing his donkey with a moped.

A couple of young uniformed policemen walk past, respectfully greeting the bystanders. “What would those Palestinians do without Tafresh’s million-man march?”, someone says. In reality the inhabitants of this town of 50,000 seem largely uninterested, and as puzzled as we visitors about why it has all to be shut down for the rally. They stand as casual spectators of an authoritarian state's theatrical display, which in Tafresh to be marginalised even in its conservative would-be bastions.

The Qajar echo

For three months an entirely different show has kept audiences captive at Tehran’s Iran-Shahr theatre.The musical Khordeh Khanoum begins with the silver-screen broadcast of a famous television film of the mid-1970s depicting the assassination of Naseredin Shah of the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925). The packed audience whoop in the darkness as the king widely referred to as the “pivot-of-the-universe” is killed.

The Qajars have an abysmal standing in Iranians' collective memory. Alexander the Great (in 331 BCE) laid waste to much of Persia and burned down the grand capital, Persepolis. The Mongols are said to have raped and pillaged as they conquered Iran in the 13th century. An old Iranian saying goes: “what Alexander did not reduce to ashes and the Mongols did not demolish was sold off by the greedy Qajars.”

The Qajar-era comparisons seem powerfully to resonate in Iran these days. When a time-travel sitcom entitled Bitter Coffee - set in a corrupt, sycophantic court at the turn of the 19th century - was rejected by the state’s official Islamic broadcaster (IRIB), its renowned producer Mehran Modiri made it a straight-to-DVD product. The local press reported in January 2011 that sales quickly rose to 14 million.

In September, the Shahrvand-e-Emrooz newspaper was shut down following a frontpage image that depicted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and members of his cabinet in the robes of Qajar courtiers.

The smash-hit Qajar era play in Tehran is less direct, yet filled with political double-entendres. The audience claps wildly as Mirza, one of the main protagonists, announces: “This orchard lies barren due to our abandon”. The play ends with a rapturous standing ovation as the entire cast sings: “There is no other cure for our homeland but unity and resistance”.

I watched the play in late August, at a time when Libyan resistance fighters were celebrating the fall of Tripoli. An estimated 50,000 people have been killed in Libya since the start of the armed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi's rule. In Syria over 2,000 are said to have perished.

The sing-along resistance that I had witnessed that night was far removed from these seismic changes in the wider region. Iranians have a very different kind of fight on their hands, one that builds on their achievement a century ago, in 1905-06, when tribal leaders and their armed battalions were pivotal in wounding the Qajar dynasty and setting up the first constitutional parliament in the middle east. Today, I cannot even imagine armed combatants amongst this land’s largely educated youthful population.

The casualties at the frontline of our democratic struggle - whether the fallen, or those now in prison - are mostly students, labour activists, journalists, writers, politicians and clerics. The deadliest weapons they possess are their pens.

The boat of state

The backlash against this civil society has used real weapons, and been ruthless. Yet this can cause such inner turbulence as to present the security apparatus with difficulties.

When the student and political activist Somayeh Tohidlou was summoned  to the courthouse at the feared Evin prison to receive her punishment of fifty lashes, not a single employee - male or female - was willing to carry out the deed - forcing the sentencing judge himself to administer the vicious punishment. There have been countless such violations, which have for now curbed the street-protests.

Yet the regime protests too much: every day, some state official proclaims the death of the green movement and claims to represent the people’s hatred for the “traitorous” Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who remains under house-arrest. An unsubstantiated rumour circulated that in a recent meeting with his daughter, Moussavi told her: "If anyone wants to know about my situation in captivity, they can read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's News of a Kidnapping. Within days the book became a bestseller, sold out and could not be found anywhere.

Marquez's story is one of strength and survival in a tough time of being held hostage by the mob. For many, the Colombian author's magical-realist depiction of corrupt mob tactics and political duplicity involving huge financial sums is not so far removed from the realties on the ground here.

Today, Ahmadinejad - who came to power in 2005 with the promise of fighting corruption - is himself embroiled in a $2.6 billion fraud case described as the biggest financial scam in the country’s history. Ahmadinejad charges his opponents with even bigger corruption. In July 2011, he accused even his putative allies, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), of cigarette smuggling.

On 3 October 2011, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for restraint in public arguments over such scandals. He asked the media to “stop stringing [things] along” because of the risk that "ordinary people" would be "discouraged" by its reports.

It is hard to understand the reference to “ordinary people”. For at its core this is ultimately a story of a society at odds with its rulers. The aforementioned Ayatollah Mesabh-Yazdi, a senior clerical ally of Khamenei, professes to “feel that the danger facing us today is more threatening than the regime has ever faced”; he adds that “even some of the highest officials in the state do not believe in the supreme leader”.

Thirty-three years after the revolution of 1978-79, the Iranian establishment’s ruling sphere has narrowed to the extent that three ex-presidents - Mir-Hossein Moussavi (1981-89), Akbar-Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), as well as the large political networks connected with them - are now its internal enemies.

This last-stand revolutionary consolidation has occurred under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The same political logic means that a new “deviant current” now presses on the man whose regime stole an election, whose adherents regard senior members of his administration (such as his chief-of-staff Esfandiar-Rahim Mashaei) almost as subversive as members of the opposition.

The cleric and (real) opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, the former parliamentary speaker, puts it well: “The ship of state is today no more than a boat”. The winds of change are blowing outside and inside Iran, and it is now for this boat to weather coming storms.

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