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Dispatch from Tehran

Iranian.com, Commentary, Bani Posted: Jun 10, 2009

Night is falling again on Tehran, and like each night for the last week, hundreds of people are gathering in the streets of the city in a sort of election fervor. Presidential elections are to take place in a week, with the first round of voting set for next Friday, June 12. From my apartment, I can hear the crowd forming in my neighborhood; we are located just one block away from the national television headquarters, which has become a sort of symbolic hub for these growing demonstrations. Sitting here right now and trying to write is almost surreal, as I can hear the chanting, yelling and sirens below while I try to concentrate and gather my thoughts. I can't help but imagine how tonight's action might build on last night's energy and move further away from these elections and towards something else, something bigger... but what?

I think that the social movement that I am hoping for is far from existing right now, and trying to understand what is happening out there is not so easy. Revolt is inherent to these demonstrations, but to what ends...that is the foggy, or should I say smoggy, part of it all.

For the last four nights we have been roaming the streets around here, up and down the city's longest avenue, Vali Asr Street (formerly Pahlavi Street) where much of the action has been based, not least of all because the television HQ is located here. Starting around 7 p.m., people begin to cruise up and down the street in their cars, moving at a turtle's pace, honking, and waving photos of candidates out their windows. Along the sides of the avenue, youth (95 % of whom are men) chant slogans, sing, and pass out campaign materials. In this part of the city, most people support the reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Moussavi, a sort of populist counterpart to the current traditionalist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moussavi has been in the shadows of politics for some time now and is neither a very charismatic figure nor an eloquent speaker, but for some reason, the youth have chosen him as the one who will bring them what they want. This is where I remain confused in light of the contradictions that all of this conjures. The youth in the streets are mostly demanding social liberties and less oppression, and I'm not sure why they believe that Moussavi actually defends these wishes. It may be because he has the official support of ex-president, Mohammad Khatami, who is still a strong symbol of reform for people, but I sense a more complex ideological game that is proving successful, despite the loopholes.

The fact is that these young supporters of Moussavi are not in a state of revolt. The chanting, the slogans, and the antagonism are not directed at the state, but towards their adversaries, the supporters of Ahmadinejad who have gathered across the street to counter their joyous campaign enthusiasm. As the Moussavi supporters laugh, sing and cheer together, Ahmadinejad's followers stand transfixed and speechless, holding Iranian flags and photos of the current president kissing the Supreme Leader's hand, hoping to intimidate the reformist crowd with their grim appearance. They also use intimidation techniques like riding their motorbikes through the joyous crowd or making faces. Here and there, they are joined by older Bassijis (Islamic militia) who are dressed in plain clothes, or by agents of the secret service whose Iranian-made polyester suits and earpieces make them hard to miss. The Bassijis walk around monitoring the situation, as the secret service systematically photographs each and every demonstrator, surely saving these images for a rainy day.

Representing the most traditional and conservative line of thought in the country, this pro-Ahmadinejad crowd has become completely frustrated and angry these last few nights. They are far outnumbered by the Moussavi crowd and ride their motorbikes to the North of the city in an attempt to maintain their stronghold. Separated from each other by a line of police (however, not so many) and by the cars that cruise between them, the two groups launch slogans back and forth, more like a heated soccer match than political protest. On this side, Moussavi supporters (men and women mixed), wearing green bandanas and armbands, clap and sing while the traditionalist men grind their teeth across the street. The green people chant: "Ahmadi, bye bye!" or "On our side it's a wedding, on your side there is frustration!" When the crowd grows bigger and the energy escalates, people break out in more political chants: "Death to dictatorship!" - "We don't need the Bassiji anymore" or "Pee, pee, the Bassiji has to pee!" Then the Ahmadinejad crowd gets irritated and begins to approach or come close to the Moussavi crowd, making the police intervene to contain what would definitely turn to violence.

But this is what is fascinating. Within this fascist country, where the police and army are an extension of the absolute power, these days police are cheered and thanked by the Moussavi crowd as they buffer and "protect" their joyful gathering from the angry mob across the street. Besides a couple of shots of gas (not tear gas, but some milder irritant) into the crowd, the riot police are mostly just bystanders. This is where things become perplexing. This fascist regime has found a way to purge itself of its authoritarianism and allow the steam to escape from this social pressure cooker: people are allowed to gather within the contained setting of the election context as long as they stroll back to their homes in the wee hours of the night. Which is exactly what has been happening. Around 4 in the morning, everyone makes their way home, and tomorrow is another normal day. In the morning, the streets have been swept clean of protest residue, and people calming go about their daily activities (work, school, etc.), knowing that again at 7 p.m. they will gather in the streets to yell out once again. This will continue each and every night, and most likely will cease to exist once the new president, whoever he may be, is elected.

I have many thoughts on the different candidates, the actual election, the Iranian electoral system, and the long-term ideological effects of it upon the people; but these nightly gatherings have brought another element to the mix, which has drawn all of my attention. Although far from what I would consider antagonistic to the established fascist state apparatus, there is something about these street demonstrations that is invigorating. Maybe it is just practice or a sort of testing of what it means to be together in public, or maybe a moment to be able to show each other that we can actually do just that, but it is an important moment in this country's political history. This society, always and still anchored in its traditional and often times archaic structures of family and the private sphere, has been cut off from any notion of public by these last 30 years of Islamic fascism. Of course the origins go further back, and the Shah's SAVAK definitely helped make "unsafe" the notion of public, but this regime's control through religious ideology has made its way even further into people's minds. Not only has the public sphere been made unsafe, but one must watch what one does in the privacy of one's home as well.

So what could revolt actually look like right now? This is what we are asking ourselves here...

No matter the lack of political analysis in these mass gatherings, what is happening is extremely important. This reclaiming of public space and speech in a country where oppression is systematic, and fascism is not too strong of a word to describe the state apparatus, is definitely a form of revolt however problematic that revolt seems. The unsettling and suspicious part of it all is how this claim to public space is ultimately being maneuvered or utilized by the state to reinforce its control and re-establish its ideology. Watching the developments over the next week, and after the elections is essential to seeing how this is all working within the bigger political picture.

Regardless, this election (more than others in the past) has proven an opportunity for people to take advantage of a setting in order to practice what has been taken away from them or what they have never been able to develop. Ghosts of revolutions past (whether from 1906 or 1979) are definitely amongst and within us. No matter how temporary or contained this moment may turn out to be, it is a remarkable time. Roaming the streets at 3 in the morning, this is not the Tehran that I know. Despite the fact that only a small percentage of the demonstrators are women, it feels completely safe to roam the streets as a woman at night whereas on a normal night, this would not be the case. Although some men continue to remind you that you do not have the same rights or that this is primarily their space, there is less isolation on those streets as everyone is "unified" for some common needs and desires. There is a feeling (however limited), that one can exercise free speech and movement these days, and that we are all part of something bigger that goes beyond borders of family or nation. In a country of 70 million, these demonstrations may seem like a minor smudge within a fleeting campaign mood, but the intensity that they foster and feelings that they draw forth from the depths, are far more important than who may take the polls in a week.

At the moment, people are gasping for air in an repressed society and taking every opportunity to challenge borders of thought and action, surely knowing that their time is limited. The presence of security forces, the army and riot police, are one more indication that this is nevertheless a fragile time when the loosening of the collar could possibly backfire if one is able to break free.

On the other hand, as the hours go by, and the mass of people slowly fades, I ask myself again, what just happened? What is actually happening?

No matter if the election is a pretext, it continues to dominate the scene, muffling what could potentially grow to become a social movement. Frustratingly (for me), the same people who yell "Death to Dicatorship" (echoing the "Death to the Shah" of 30 years ago), seem to have faith in this voting process; surely because there is no other choice but to believe that their voice/vote counts. The youth, bred through the Islamic system, do not have any tools to analyze the political system nor think about the ideology that they have become a part of. Despite their desire for participation in some democratic system, the actual political issues seem almost arbitrary to them. The economy is shot, infrastructure has fallen apart because of corruption, and people are hungry, but these issues are overshadowed by a populist fight over shifts in society's social freedoms. Although the two other candidates (reformist mullah, Mehdi Karoubi and conservative capitalist, Rezai) are strong political figures with agendas that could potentially be antagonistic to the regime's absolute power, popular support as seen in the streets is only reinforcing the Ahmadinejad-Moussavi dichotomy. Since neither of these men is a member of the clergy, their populism is attractive to critical youth, however much they are embedded in the traditions of this regime.

I fluctuate between feelings of empowerment and resistance, and a reminder that sublimated energy can emerge and return just as easily to where it came from. What I continue to grapple with is how much self-containment and obedience is hidden in these gatherings, and what potential lies in this space. While demonstrating social dissent in the streets, the youth are wholeheartedly supporting a reformist candidate whose adherence to the regime is unconditional, and whose clear use of Shiite imagery in his campaign goes unquestioned. His campaign has managed to decorate and clothe everyone in the iconic Shiite shade of green, signifying that Moussavi is a "Seyed", a direct descendant of the Prophet. I watch perplexed as girls with face piercings and mesmerizing groups of queer men wear green scarves and wrist bands, chanting, "Ah, Hossein - Mir Hossein!" and "You are our Seyed, dear Moussavi!"

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