Over the summer break of 1978, my wife and I went back to Tehran to visit our families, to show off our newly born, and to work and earn some needed money, unknowing it would turn into our nation’s summer of discontent. My family lived near the Old Shemiran road. So, when the floodgates of Hosseinieh Ershad were opened to let the black-clad human wave of Shari’ati disciples roll southward, I was among the thousands of spectators who filled the sidewalk, outnumbering the marchers.
Then, residents of the northern part of Tehran were accustomed to the separation of church and street - and to the separation of street and state, as well. They would either completely ignore the seasonal religious festivities, or practice their religion in private. Religiosity was a rainbow. However, hardly ever a rain was expected, let alone a thunderstorm and ensuing flood. For many on the sideline, the march was an extravaganza – a rebuttal of the 2500-year jubilee. For a few, it was reminiscent of a scene in The Seventh Seal.
As the marches endured and grew into an openly anti-government demonstration, engulfing larger and larger sections of the city, and spreading into other towns, the sideline shrank. Many trickled into the main stream, while others went home – to seek other forms of entertainment, or to pack their luggage. Government crackdowns started, and demonstrations turned violent; Black Friday happened. However, the rest was anything but history – more likely, a traffic congestion in our long and arduous evolutionary road.
That summer turned me into an accidental reporter - a curious witness to history in the making. A veteran of earlier student protests, I had bruises and scars to vouch for me, and quite a few friends dead or jailed. However, what I saw happening in front of me was not what three generations of my family had fought for – and lost. I could not be overcome by that moment’s exuberance; and neither fence sitting nor indignation was an option - Pasternak’s Zhivago I was not. The momentous events of those days had to be seen, registered, and learned from. And, I came, I saw, and I….
Upon return to school, I took a short film of the demonstrations, taken with my 8-mm camera, to the Iran House near my campus, where I had been a casual visitor. In those days the events in Iran were the exclusive topic of discussion, debate and examination in the House. I was told my film would be shown and discussed the following week. In the next meeting, after a lengthy and tiring analysis of the news from Iran – all pointing to the uprising of masses, and promising people’s revolution – a film was shown. The lone scene in the film was an empty and desolate square, with a dry fountain in the middle, around which a motorcycle was hastily encircling. Faces of the driver and the rider sitting behind him holding a flag could not be recognized. The flag was red and emblazed by a shining crossed sickle and hammer. Standing ovation and the singing of a Persian rendition of Ode to Joy accompanied the short movie, for the most part.
The movie ended momentarily showing several helicopters circling overhead, with the sound of machine gun fires in the background, which was treated by the audience with fist-waving and shouts of “x is a U.S. puppet, down with the x.” That helicopters sequence – without the sound effect – was my only contribution to that meeting. Those were press helicopters covering the real demonstrations we were not shown that night. As the events in Iran turned bloodier, the crowd in the Iran House became larger and louder. More films were shown, and more speeches and promises were made. Sometime in early March, all of a sudden the lights in the House were turned off; banners, flags and posters were pulled down. The building was deserted. And, the student activists disappeared.
Within weeks we heard about new pedestals and podiums being erected outside of the University of Tehran, and of a legion of Ciceronian orators setting up shops at once to mesmerize the newly freed masses. Iran House had moved to Iran. Not long after however, the provisional larva shed its cocoon and metamorphosed into a menacing absolute; conformity was demanded; and dissidents were attacked, arrested, or forced to underground. There was a news blackout about our student activists. They had disappeared again, and no one knew their whereabouts. Until several months later, when we learned the revolutionary guards and regular soldiers had ambushed a group of Marxist guerrilla fighters hiding in Mazandaran jungles. None had survived, we were told.
* * *
Some thirty years later, once again the front page of newspapers and the headline news on TV screens were embellished with the images of yet another series of mass demonstrations in Iran. This time however, the protesters were questioning the outcome of the latest presidential election, and were demanding a warranted recount, yet it was seen by many as a light at the end of the tunnel. Know-it-all experts and pundits-for-hire on this side of the world were called upon by the media conglomerates to draw parallels with that unforeseen upheaval of its time, namely the events leading to the 1979 revolution. The similarity – and even identity – of the leaders, tactics, and trajectory of events, with those of the last uprising was emphasized, while the discrepancies were overlooked. The 9/11-licenced clairvoyants looked into their crystal balls and intuited regime change. “Happy Days Are Here Again”, they sang.
As demonstrations were repeated, violence erupted, innocent blood was shed, and activists and bystanders were shot or arrested, jailed, tortured and murdered. Show trials and forced confessions feigned legality. However, neither Zhaleh Square was repeated nor any official left the country. Instead, unarmed policemen were sent to face angry protesters, to be surrounded and beaten, for the regime to portray itself as the victim of a foreigners-instigated rebellion. As it turned out, not only presumed leaders of the protestors, but also their principle opponents had participated in the 1979 revolution and its aftermath, and were quite experienced in the crafty arts of politics, crowd control and Ta’ziyeh.
Inside the country, another generation of middle class Iranians reached its checkpoint; while outside, a new genre of Iran House mushroomed in front of the federal buildings and the White House to offer its own news analysis, wave its own flag, sing its own songs, dance to its own tunes, and to demand redress from ‘the international community’. Fortunate for us, this time no one rushed back to Iran to establish a beachhead. Instead, while most activists eventually returned to the mundane, some jumped into cyberspace trenches to wage a virtual war against the enemy within. The ghosts of thousands-of-years dead heroes –real or mythical – were resurrected to expel those ‘Arabs’ who had ‘occupied’ the ‘Ahura’i' land for the second time, and to bring back that long-gone era of glory and empiredom.
A whole-vocabulary-worth of words – from profound, to profane, to prosaic – were coined or recycled to explain the rules of this new game. Manichean worldview was embraced, and populism and demagoguery were utilized. Carrying the Y-chromosome of Cyrus the Great was declared as the prerequisite for leadership positions. However, purebreds of Sassanid origin were also allowed to play. While ethnic cleansing was not openly encouraged – for political correctness – affinity to a certain dominant religion in the ME was found undesirable, and damned. Those believing in diversity, tolerance and pluralism were disqualified.
* * *
A child born in Orumieh today – a new traveler - will soon learn about the ordeal of a woman condemned for adultery, and mindless of the road bumps ahead will ask, “Are we home yet?”
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