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Saturday's student rally in Tehran. Click here to see photos

From revolution to freedom
The young generation fights for what should be theirs

Written and photographed by Aria Mehandoost
May 24, 1999
The Iranian

From Revolution to Freedom. That was the name of the march from Enghelab (Revolution) Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square, organized by the pro-Khatami student group, daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (Office for Fostering Unity) on May 22. The night before I was very excited at the prospect of observing the event. But in the morning the daily Hamshahri reported that the rally had been canceled. Instead, there was to be a gathering at Laleh Park to celebrate the second anniversary of President Khatami's election on the 2nd of Khordad (May 23).

I finished some work, ate lunch, and left the office in the early afternoon. When I got to the entrance of Laleh Park, all seemed calm. A few steps in, and still, everything was quiet and ordinary. A distant sound could gradually be heard as I approached the center of the park. Then suddenly I saw a few dozen security forces, and behind them, a few thousand people, mainly young students, listening to a speech.Two hours later my respect for the youth of Iran had grown exponentially.

There is an old Persian expression: "khalaayeq raa harcheh laayeq" that roughly translates to "people get what they deserve." The expression is often used to indicate that Iranians do not deserve democracy or freedom, for they are not prepared to fight for it. My long years in exile, and even the years I spent in Iran in between, had fortified this notion in the back on my mind. I had come to accept what I was told for years that those Iranians who believe in freedom are not willing to stand up it if it meant getting beaten up.

At Laleh Park, I witnessed another image. I saw people gather and demand freedom, knowing there was a good chance that the ansar-e hizbollah, the notorious hardline group that is not ashamed to reply to slogans with fists and sticks, may pay a visit. In fact that is exactly what happened.

In the middle of a speech by Tehran City Council member Ebrahim Asqarzadeh -- who was talking about tolerance and respecting opposing views so long as they are voiced in a non-violent way and within the framework of the law -- I found myself in a rather uncomfortable situation. Some twenty to thirty members of the ansar charged the crowd in an attempt to take over the make-shift platform where Asqarzadeh was delivering his speech.

The crowd's reaction was fascinating. A group tried to get away from the conflict and rushed out. They actually made the situation dangerous, for God help you if you got caught in the stampede. This happened to me three times during the two hours I was there, all three of which scared the lights out of me. I have no idea how I escaped unscathed. (What really annoyed me was that all the pushing and shoving blurred the photos I took of the ansar. All the effort to overcame my great fear came to naught.)

When the ansar made their charge, not everyone ran. Not at all. In fact, a group would immediately form an outer ring and yell at those who fled: "Don't run! Face them! Is this how weak your beliefs are?" Moreover, a big crowd would rush from all other sides into the scene of conflict, and before long, the ansar would find themselves out-numbered and on the run. This young generation is not so quick to run. They fight. They fight for what should be theirs. They fight for the very basic rights I have enjoyed outside Iran for so many years without always appreciating just how precious they are.

Each time the ansar charged, the crowd would start one of the following chants:

- "marg bar taalebaan" ("Death to the Taliban", comparing the ansar to the Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan.)

- "faashist boro gom sho" ("Get lost you Fascists")

- "marg bar jeereh khor" ("Death to mercenaries")

- "vaay agar khaatami farmaan-e jahaadam dahad" ("Woe if Khatami commands me to wage Jihad")

You may ask what the security forces were doing as all this was happening. Nothing. Not initially anyway. They just stood back and looked on as the crowd tried to protect itself. The group's reaction to the inaction was also interesting. They started another chant: "niruy-e entezaami, tasliyyat! tasliyyat!" ("Condolences to the security forces [for being so impotent]").

The crowd would subdue the ansar and the speaker would continue. But eventually the security forces did get involved after the hardline group refused to give up. Immediately the crowd screamed: "niruy-e entezaami, tashakor! Tashakor!" ("Security forces, thank you! Thank you!). Not only did the security forces stop the ansar's attack, but also blocked the students from chasing them down as they ran off. Towards the end of the talk, the riot police was called in. And, after Asqarzadeh finished his speech and left, there was a loud whistle and the riot police charged to disperse the ansar who had once again regrouped.

The topics of the speech included a critique on nezaarat-e estesvaabi (or vetting right of the conservative-held Council of Guardians). Asqarzadeh won many cheers when he claimed that the people would take over the Majlis (parliament) in the 2000 elections, no matter what. "Just how many candidates do you intend to vet?" he yelled out. "One hundred?! One thousand?! Sixty million?!" He argued that the Council of Guardians had no legal right to vet, claiming that the only way to disqualify a candidate is through an open trial. Most of the talk was on non-violent engagement, tolerance, and the fact that freedom is a basic and undeniable right.

Some things really grabbed attention. The mood was distinctly nationalistic (melli-garaa), as opposed to religious-patriotic. Pictures of Mossadegh were held up high next to those of Khatami. In fact, quite a number of times the crowd shouted: "dorud bar khaatami! Salaam bar mossadegh" (hail to both men). Also, the organizers encouraged the crowd to sing the patriotic "ey iran" or "Oh Iran!" song.

More interesting was the reaction to the ansar when they were not attacking. A few times, as I was taking pictures someone would tell me to be careful. Once someone even grabbed and pulled me out of the way as I tried to take a shot of the ansar on the charge, telling me to get away before they come after me. After we stepped out of the immediate ring of pushing and shoving, I asked him how in the world he could tell who is who. "They are the ones wearing the black shirts," he explained. "But be careful," he warned, "not all those who wear black shirts are the ansar." He then pointed to a man standing aside and watching and said: "Take this guy for example. Look at him. His face screams 'I am an ansar'. He's not joining the chanting of slogans, he's just watching angrily."

The point is, the students could easily identify the hardliners, but would show no reaction to them until they attacked. They allowed them to participate side by side. Even after a charge, when the ansar group temporarily calmed down, the students did not mistreat them. It was during a charge that the students engaged. Even then, clearly a crowd of a few thousand could really hurt twenty or thirty fools.

I left the park after observing the riot police charge up and down the park for a while. I had no clue what was happening. The crowd would follow behind the riot police, and run out of the way upon hearing the charge whistle. By that point it seemed like a game. I decided not to stick around to see how it ends.

As I turned to leave the park, all seemed calm once again. I could barely believe what had happened, that I had been pushed and shoved, and several times I thought I was going to get the wind kicked out of me by the ansar. I passed a few ansar members on the way out, holding my breath that they won't recognize me as the guy who was taking pictures.

Just as I was reaching the park gate, three members of the ansar stepped on to the path ten meters in front of me. They were heading out in a defeated march. One of them held a cloth to the back of another's head, applying pressure to an open wound. As they limped away, the dispersed students laughed.

"They don't look so tough now," whispered a passerby.

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