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.
The 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.
Kadivar , 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 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 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 it.
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 with Iraq.
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 without hope?”