The rumor mill
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 5
November 18, 2005
Word of mouth still plays an important role in Tehran. People rely on it for many things -- from finding the best doctors or schools or the way to get something done, to receiving and passing on news that does not make it to the media. A taxi driver, for instance, will carry a first-hand account of the vigil in front of Tehran University for student Mohammadi who is on hunger strike at Evin. The next day you can learn of a women’s demonstration in front of the university. If you ask, you will be informed.
Rumors are the natural offspring of word-of-mouth. They can be piercingly true or disappointingly false. Driving through the town, friends and drivers identify mega tower after mega tower belonging to Rafsanjani’s family members or other high-ranking mullahs. The rumor is that it is the ruling clergy that have most heavily invested in the construction boom and it is the construction industry that is keeping the economy somewhat afloat. There is probably something to that.
Other rumors, while indicative of something that is hard to articulate, are merely amusing. I heard from a few different cab drivers that the reason Condoleeza Rice is fixated on Iran -- be Iran gir dadeh -- is because an Iranian man with whom she had been involved had jilted her. “It’s all over the foreign presses,” I was told.
The rumors against Ahmadinejad seemed to merit particular attention, however. Did this guy really execute people in the prisons? Is it possible to verify these kinds of charges? I put these questions to many people. One gentleman whose social and professional background made him a plausible source thought it was possible to find out the truth. He said that while the gates of Evin are impenetrably shut to outsiders, there are insiders in possession of all kinds of documents and evidence.
“You’d be surprised how much video footage exists of what has gone on inside,” he said. He mentioned the trials that were held inside the prisons and the information that was exchanged during them. I had seen an early BBC documentary about two gay men who were subsequently executed. As this gentleman said, there was considerable trial footage. It is reassuring to think that someday the truth will be known.
A couple of times I played devil’s advocate with Ahmadinejad supporters who despised Rafsanjani. I said that if the charge against Ahmadinejad is just a malicious rumor, then so is Rafsanjani’s legendary wealth. After all, I reminded them, the Shah’s wealth was also greatly exaggerated. The bottom line response was that the rumors against Rafsanjani, by virtue of having been in circulation longer, were more true than the ones against the new president.
Just for the fun of it, I conducted an informal poll on the reliability of word-of-mouth. I asked a number of cab drivers -- from very different backgrounds, remember -- about where to find the best traditional ice cream and faloudeh in town. In the end the field narrowed down to two stores, corresponding to the choices of my friends and passing my own taste test. The same thing happened with the best pastry shops. Applying the same poll-taking to the rumors against Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, problematic as it was, did also yield something of a consensus. Setting aside bitterly partisan responses, it was generally agreed that there was something to the rumors against both of them, the exact truth of which cannot yet be determined.
But there was one case in which I could not reach any conclusions from the rumors. The fate and condition of Akbar Ganji, the most high profile political prisoner at Evin, remained unknowable. Everyday there was a new rumor: “He broke his hunger strike.” “He didn’t, but he’s dying.” “He is put on IV.” “He is dead.” “He is at Milad Hospital.” “He was taken back to Evin.”
There was a rumor that Shirin Ebadi had tried to see him by sneaking inside the hospital from the roof. It was said that Judge Mortazavi, the independently operating head of the judiciary, had set up office at the hospital to personally monitor Ganji’s every breath and every word. “His hunger strike has made it easier for us,” Mortazavi had allegedly said. “It is better for him to die in the hospital than in prison.” He was probably referring to various human rights groups making a nuisance of themselves if Ganji died in prison.
From the balcony of a friend’s house we had a good view of Milad, one of the best-equipped hospitals in the city. This is a new and attractive white building with green-tinted windows. One maximum security top floor is entirely devoted to victims of Evin and other prisons. The crushed body of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was beaten into a coma when caught photographing and interviewing families of prisoners outside Evin, was brought to this hospital two years ago. She died there. We tried to imagine what was going on inside as we looked.
A close relative of Amir Entezam, another high profile and longstanding political prisoner, said that Amir Entezam says Ganji was brought to Milad for knee surgery. The menisci in the knees apparently disintegrate after long periods of hunger strike and inactivity. (Amir Entezam should know.) Meanwhile Ganji was to have released a new statement: “Khamenei must go” -- a pointed echo of Khomeini’s famous “The Shah must go.” Why would Mortazavi worry about Ganji’s knees, we wondered.
As of this writing the fate of Ganji -- whether he’s dead or alive -- is not known. On this one, the rumor mill has both spun out of control and come to a stop >>> Part 6
Smoldering in Tehran: Index