Twenty years after
February 11, 1999
For me, a visitor and something of an outsider, Daheh-ye-Fajr (Ten Days of Dawn) celebrations have been more about commemoration of the arts, about festive streets bedecked with lights, and about more relaxed codes of behavior than any exalted retrospection or introspection on the nature of the revolution or its future. Granted, every day, every newspaper in the city prints a small blurb on the significance of this day in the hagiography of the revolution; granted, the Islamic Republic Television and Radio echo with revolutionary and patriotic hymns and slogans and reminisces around the clock; and granted that the Islamic Propganda Adminsitration has been tirelessly promoting today's demonstrations, but all in all, these last days have been a quiet time, and most people have been talking about the death of King Hussein of Jordan, and about the impachment trial of Clinton, and the upcoming increase in the price of gasoline, about the resignation of the Minister of Information, and the Fajr Film Festival. Last night, when at 7 o'clock, people were invited to their roofs to chant "Allah-o-Akbar," I opened the windows to a silent darkness.
So, today, I wanted to see whether the celebrations in Tehran matched the foreign expectations. I dragged my cousin -who at 18 years old has never attended any demonstrations- along with me towards the Azadi (Freedom) Square, the imposing background of all patriotic and revolutionary demonstrations. Both my cousin and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves today. The air was more-or-less clear (of both clouds and pollution) and the weather was fine and too-warm for winter. On all the paths leading to Azadi, a festival atmosphere ruled. Peddlers were selling everything from socks and jeans and leopard-print women's shirts to colorful balloons and bananas and pistachios and all varieties of Iranian junk food. Public buildings and private businesses are usually closed on official demonstration days, but on the way to Azadi Square, butcher shops and groceries were doing brisk business with families that were making an outing of this day. I was joyously reminded of the same bustling exuberance we experience at street markets on fine fall days in Harlem.
The crowd consisted of families, mostly traditional, women often clad in the black chadors, men with unshaven cheeks and prayer beads in hand and children waving pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and small Iranian flags. I was only wearing a raincoat and a scarf, but was not made to feel uncomfortable, specially after I saw a good number of other women similarly under-dressed. I think the conservative paper Resalat had very good sales today as the back-page carried a full-page image of Imam Khomeini, and many, standing on the grassy embankments of the road were waving the newspaper enthusiastically. Along the way, policemen and military forces were politely directing the peddlers out of the way of the crowds and keeping a modicum of peace. It was really unnecessary. The crowds had a picnic mentality and all the way to Azadi Square, all efforts at coordinating loud and vigorous sloganeering tended to drown in the drone of a crowd bargaining with the peddlers, chatting among themselves, and greeting friends and acquaintances. Helicopters flew back and forth overhead, perhaps carrying dignitaries, and several members of the military parachute corps were slowly drifting in the sky. I was a little worried about them becoming caught in helicopter propellers, but they were more professional than all that.
The official stage -and the news reporters and correspondents' stands- were set up on the northern edge of the square with the snow-capped Alborz mountains for a background, and the speakers and photographers faced the crowd gathered under and around the massive Azadi Monument. When we arrived, a certain gentleman who has been nicknamed "The Minister of Slogans" was warming up the crowds, reminding them of the accomplishments of the revolution, inciting the crowd to join in various chants, and the crowd happily obliged- when it wasn't jostling for a position with a better view of the stage. A few effigies of Uncle Sam floated around, and one effigy attracted my attention: it was of an American Naval pilot, with a sign in beautiful calligraphy on its back: "The Occupying Navy of the Tyrannical United States in the Persian Gulf." Whether these effigies were later burnt, I did not see, though towards the end of the ceremonies, I could see smoke arising from a couple of different spots. It could also have been fireworks, as many kids (and adults) seemed to be setting off fireworks in frequent intervals.
After the preliminary speeches, the Minister of Slogans invited everyone to join him in a revolutionary chant which culminated in "We will never engage with America, we will never give in to America, we will never sit at a table of dialogue with America." In Persian, the chant was, of course, far more poetic and rhythmic than this inadequate translation. Small pockets in the crowd would also burst into "Allah-o-Akbar, Khamenei is Leader, Death to Opponents of Velayat-e-Faqih." After the chant, the Minister of Slogans introduced President Khatami and before a portion of the crowd could clap in greeting (this offensive Western form of salute again!), the Minister of Slogans warned the crowd that today was the anniversary of martyrdom of the sixth Shi'a Imam, and as such, clapping was highly inappropriate and he invited all to send salavats (a form of salute to Prophet Mohammed and his descendants) instead.
Khatami's speech was generally forgettable except for the fact that exactly at the moment he began to speak, several American flags went up in flames, and the obligatory "Death to America" chants followed drowning his amplified kindly voice. A respectable gentleman standing behind me loudly complained that "all this flag-burning" was done by people who wanted to disunite the people, "why couldn't they have waited till Khatami finish his speech? We want to hear what he has to say!" The crowd also began to disperse in the middle of the Khatami speech, hoping to get a convenient seat on the buses or taxis before the bulk of the crowd would make this impossible. Khatami's speech was particularly calm and devoid of revolutionary passion. For a long time -too long- he gave endless statistics about the post-revolutionary improvements in economy, industry, and standards of living in Iran. In marked contrast to the 45 minute Khamenei declaration read over the television the night before, the Khatami speech was actually dispassionate and precise and even cold.
The demonstrations ended a little before noon, with the most crowd enthusiasm displayed in front of television cameras and foreign correspondents: a particularly attractive foreign female photographer with long legs, slippery head-scarf, and pale skin seemed to have great success in attracting a crowd and coaxing revolutionary chants out of them. What happened in the margins of the dispersing crowds was far more interesting than the demonstration itself, which lacked the fervor and frenzy I so clearly remember from 20 years ago. A very eloquent gentleman under several black and green flags embossed with Qoranic verses had gathered a small crowd around himself and was speaking of how offended he had been last night, when on the eve of the martyrdom of Imam Ja'far, "these children of Shahrak-e-Gharb, these children of Sa'adat-abad (two affluent and decidedly "un-revolutiuonary "neighborhoods in Northern Tehran), these children of capitalists" were playing music and dancing and they were clapping and doing all these things which if not short of heresy, are certainly offensive. Being as un-devoutly clad as I was, I chose to walk away quickly, but not before I heard the chant of "Whistling and clapping, and cheering are part of the conspiracy of Amr-o-As (an enemy of Imam Ali)."
That was all: less than three hours of demonstrations under a beautiful sunny sky, joyous and easy and festive as a carnival or a mass picnic. Tonight, -after the stores have all re-opened- we are going to the chic Vali-Asr street to shop for shoes, eat burgers, and people-watch along with half the population of Tehran on a weekend night.
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