Hosseiniyeh Ershad, Tehran.
Am I dreaming, or is this the new Iran?
Written and photographed by Siamak Namazi
March 2, 2000
I've made it a habit not to comment on the photographs that I submit
to The Iranian. But today's event at Tehran's Hosseiniyeh Ershad,
the famous setting where Dr. Ali Shariati once delivered his lectures,
were too moving not to write something about the photographs.
gathering was one of the now regular meetings organized by teh reform
movement. This particular one was supposed to discuss the role of the press
in the recent Majles elections. The star-studded
cast included: Ahmad
Bourghani Farahani (the newly-elected MP, formerly deputy minister
of culture in charge of the press); Akbar
Ganji (the now famous journalist whose columns played an instrumental
role in discrediting Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani); Mohammad Atrianfar (editor
of Hamshahri daily); Hamidreza Jalaipour (editor of Asr-e Azadegan daily);
and Alireza Alavi-Tabar (new editor of the daily, Sobh-e Emrooz). Conservative
figures, including Morteza Nabavi, Taha Hashemi and Mohammad Reza Bahonar
were also invited to share the panel, but did not attend.
What I loved about this meeting was just how approachable the panellists
were. Minutes before the start of the session, these figure entered one
by one and took a seat in the front row's left aisle, while anyone could
approach them for a chat. Ganji's entrance was greeted with a loud applause.
Soon, the panel began, with Ganji as the moderator.
Bourghani was the first speaker. But only seconds after he started,
his talk was interrupted. No, it was not the notorious Ansar-e Hizbollah
hardliners bursting in to disrupt the meeting. Hojjatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar,
the dissident cleric who is spending time in Evin prison on political charges
entered the auditorium. Ganji welcomed Kadivar, who is currently spending
a few days on leave from jail (yes, prisoners here get to go home for a
few days every so often). The crowd rose to its feet and broke into a loud
applause. Kadivar quietly took an aisle seat at the front.
tense, at the beginning. A stoic stare was all one could see. I could
not figure out where his stare ended and what it meant. But I figured with
all the photographers sticking their lenses literally inches
away from his face, one could hardly expect anything else. Gradually,
more and more photographers discovered that they have a zoom lens and took
a few steps back, and Kadivar appeared increasingly at ease.
I spotted Kadivar's first real
smile when Ganji was talking about Rafsanjani's political record, and
to be fair, the man was funny. Young men, mostly under 18, began approaching
Kadivar one by one, quietly chatting for a few seconds and asking him for
an autograph. By the end of the talk, the jailed cleric was smiling shyly
at the warm reception the crowd was giving him. "You are embarrassing
me," he said as sheets of paper were put in his hand one after another
by a grinning young man.
Meanwhile, I could not believe what I was hearing from the panelists.
This was a truly open forum. The audience could not possibly pose tougher
questions. Everything you can imagine was being asked: from the chain killings,
Rafsanjani's personal wealth and corruption accusations, Iran-US relations,
prospects for the reformists winding up in factional in-fighting, prospects
of a coup attempt, the source of power of the Supreme Leadership, you name
And all this in an incredibly tolerant atmosphere.
You could only imagine how a large
crowd of mostly young, reform-minded individuals would feel about Atrianfar's
defence of Rafsanjani's character. There were a few angry shouts from the
crowd. But calm was restored when Ganji asked the audience not to breach
the speaker's right to hold an opinion. Still, you could feel the tension.
Actually, the tensest moment came when Jalaipour was answering a question
about his own past record. A young Kurdish woman angrily accusaed him of
involvement in ordering the execution of a number of Kurds during the war
It was amazing to see that the youth are not blindly following the new
"reformist" figures. They want answers. Equally encouraging was
seeing Jalaipour trying to respond. Perhaps not everyone was satisfied,
but he was explaining himself, and that, in and of itself, is an amazing
achievement. Anyone remember Iran in the early 80s? Could you imagine such
a scenario taking place then?
Try to take in the wide shot: a group of reform-minded figures in Iranian
politics, with varying ideologies, are talking completely candidly with
thousands of people. Nothing is off limits. NOTHING. Not even the past
failures of the panalists. In the front corner, a political prisoner is
being approached by admiring people who want to shake his hand and to chat
with him. I thought, Am I dreaming, or is this the new Iran? If it is the
new Iran, how long will it last?
I could not help myself. I walked
over to talk to Kadivar. I stood right across from him for three hours;
watching him, watching the stage, watching the people who had gathered
around him. The line had died out. I stepped up.
"Was it worth it?" I asked about his imprisonment.
"Oh yes, it was more than worth it," Kadivar said breaking
into a smile, as if he had read my glances earlier.
"When you look at all that has been happening, are you optimistic
for the future of Iran?" was my quick second question.
"If I wasn't optimistic, it wouldn't be worth it," he said
with a big, warm grin while looking dead into my eyes.
I then quickly made my way to the door. Within minutes the crowd would
start leaving and it would become impossible to get a taxi. I could hear
Alavi-Tabar telling the audience that one could accept or reject the concept
of Velayat-e Faqih, and that is within civic rights; though the institution
is part of the constitution, and one must be obidient to the law ... The
powers of the Supreme Leadership ultimately come from the people ... the
people have the authority to change this figure if they disapprove of him.
As I get closer to my office, I wonder about the optimism I feel following
the meeting. This could all just be a short spell. A post-election calm.
I should not allow my youthful heart to get carried away. Reality is too
complicated. I shoud slap myself out of daring to have genuine hope. After
all, I am now a political analyst. I can see hundreds of things that could
go wrong. For God's sake, I know it won't be a smooth sail ahead. There
is an overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done. Who could take
care of all these long lists of problems on the way towards the Iran we
all dream of? No one. At least definately not a motley crew of newly-made
reformists, who speak really well, but have piles of skeletons in their
closets, and who after all these years can't get their act together and
unify their stance.
I try to escape the chaos in my mind and break the silence in the taxi.
"What do you think about all the changes taking place?" I ask
the driver. "Should we be hopeful that these new guys in the Majles
are actually going to amount to something, and bring us some real change,
or will it be the same song with a new title?"
"Be hopeful," said the husky-voiced cabbie, "what's life
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